Another day, another island, another spanner in the works
19.08.2017 - 19.08.2017
This morning there are no bowls or spoons at breakfast, so David ends up eating his cereal out of a coffee cup with a teaspoon.
After breakfast we meet with Omar in the lobby to hear of news about today’s ferry to Anjouan. “We leave in five minutes” he declares, which is not a problem for us: we are ready and packed!
Another small car, unable to close the boot with our luggage inside, arrives to take us to the ferry ticket office to check in our bags. We are an hour early: check in starts at 09:00, with the ferry leaving at 10:00. Inshallah.
We are not the first, however, there are already a lot pf people here: families travelling together, young men arriving in taxis, sales people trying to cash in, children throwing tantrums…
Rather than hanging around here in the heat and melee, Omar suggests we go for a drive around town and come back when the office is open. Good idea.
It seems to me that all the streets of Moroni are one giant market place with everyone selling and no-one buying.
Volo Volo Market
We take a short walk through the new market, which, to be fair, doesn’t look all that different to the old market in the Medina that we saw a couple of days ago.
Clothes, household good and food are sold from a number of very similar stalls.
The Grand Marriage
On our way back to the check-in area, we come across a Grand Marriage. An age-old tradition that has been passed from generation to generation and is very much kept alive today, the Grand Marriage is so much more than a ‘mere’ wedding; it is all about a symbol of social status, being elected to the rank of a person of note, something that every self-respecting Comorian must do. A Comoran man can only wear certain elements of the national dress, take part in decision-making at the bangwe (gathering place where village elders meet to discuss important matters), or stand in the first line at the mosque if he has had a grand marriage. Apparently, the current president has not had a Grand Marriage and for this has become the scandalous subject of consternation and ridicule.
While most people here in Comoros get married in a small wedding like many other places in the world, some men will then devote the entire rest of their lives to pay for the Grand Marriage. Most men are middle aged before they can afford to pay for this important celebration, having been officially married to their spouse for years already. Sometimes the Grand Marriage involves taking a second, much younger wife; Comorian men are permitted to have up to seven.
The celebrations for this important occasion involve a major series of parties, processions and gatherings that can last up to two weeks and take over the whole village.
Check in – another spanner in the works
When we get back to the port area, lots of people are queuing with their luggage, ready to check it in. Omar takes our nags to go and get them weighed and comes back looking somewhat concerned. “There is a little bit of a delay…” he says his voice trailing off into a kind of embarrassment.
The security police are on strike and refuse to go back to work until the government has made promises that they will repair the badly potholed road leading onto the docks. Their luggage truck has been damaged several times now and they are fed up with it.
The luggage truck ready to go
”How long is it likely to be?” I ask. Omar shrugs and looks defeated: “It could be one hour, or two, one day or two days or more…”
My heart sinks. This trip started off as a three-island tour; then yesterday it became a two-island itinerary after all the flights were grounded. Now it looks like we may be stuck on this main island for the duration.
Omar suggests going to the Itsandra Hotel (the best hotel on the island) for coffee while we wait. He leaves our bags in the safe hands of the harbour master while we head for some refreshments.
Even in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, the hotel looks friendly and welcoming.
We sit and enjoy a cold drink and the view out over the bay, while Omar goes to check on availability of a room for tonight, ‘just in case’. They have two rooms left and Omar asks them to reserve one of them for us, in case that ferry never leaves.
Back to the dockside check in area
In order to reach the docks again, we have to drive right through the capital, Moroni, and as usual there is a traffic jam. At least this gives me a chance to people watch and take some photos.
Love the name of this boat: Air Force One 007
Meanwhile, back at the loading area, everyone is still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
The only people benefiting from this situation are the local tradesmen and women.
The nearby 'Old Market'
After 1½ hours of nothing much happening, Omar thinks lunch is in order, so we yet again leave our luggage in the office and head out.
New Select Salon de Thé
Today being Saturday, I decide to try the Comorian Saturday Special. It’s off. We see someone on another table with a very tasty looking baguette, so order ‘”one of those please”.
Chicken, chips and coleslaw sandwich. It was really tasty and fresh.
Suddenly the heavens open and torrential rain that within minutes has caused quite some flooding of the roads outside.
Half an hour goes by, no sign of Omar. We pay for our lunch and get ready to leave, and after 45 minutes they turn up. Africa time. There has been no change in the strike situation and Omar suggests we go down to the docks one more time, and if there is still nothing, we’ll grab the cases and go to the hotel for the night. That sounds like a plan to me.
When we get to the docks it is all go! A compromise has been reached, the luggage has left and the passengers are making their way on foot towards to docking area. Omar hands us our tickets and luggage tags and we drive the kilometre or so down to the docks.
Yay, I have a ticket! I am a little concerned that the date of departure shows tomorrow's date, but Omar tells me "not to worry, it is correct".
The entrance to the docks is locked. It seems the ferry company decided to tell passengers to go, before any agreement had been sorted with the security, so now we are left standing, in the full sun, on the pavement outside the dock gates. Women on the right, men on the left. After 20 minutes or so of communal baking, we are let through the gate (tickets checked) into a waiting room, where we are asked to take a seat.
An official walks around the room, collecting tickets (and in our case also our passports, which he has to check in with the ‘big boss’) and puts them in a large pile on a desk. After collecting all the tickets, he then picks them up again, and walks around the room, shouting out the names on the tickets, the corresponding passenger must show ID in exchange for a boarding card (which he carries under his arm in a cardboard box, wrapped in glittery red Christmas paper).
Once we have our boarding card, we are free to leave the waiting room and walk the ¼ km or so to the boat.
The free-standing aluminium steps are steep and wobbly, without a hand rail, and there is a one foot gap between the steps and the ship. One man each side holds my arms, and they helpfully (and thankfully) take my bags off me as I board. Then I watch the local women carry a child in one arm, a large bag in the other and a bundle of stuff on their head, all while wearing flip flops, negotiate the steps as if they were a smooth marble floor. I suddenly feel very ungainly and awkward.
Having already been told off twice for taking photos, I daren’t scratch my itchy shutter finger any more, despite being ‘desperate’ to document every part of this whole day’s shenanigans.
We take our seats, and as soon as all the passenger have boarded, we cast off. Just then they remember that a motorcycle must come off. The gap between the ship and the step is getting bigger and bigger as four men try to haul the heavy bike across. I am fully expecting it to end up in the water, but it seems they have done this sort of thing before. I risk a photo when I think no-one is looking.
We finally leave at 14:45, nearly five hours late. At least we are on our way.
You know it is going to be a rough crossing when the first thing the crew do, is to routinely hand out sick bags to every single passenger.
I really cannot find anything good to say about this crossing, much as I would like to. The temperature is sweat-drippingly hot, and the TV is showing a bloodthirsty film full of violence, gore, and carnage (not just one, but three savage films, back to back). There is lots of screaming going on, by unwell kids, and each time a child screeches, a mentally disabled youngster near the front of the ship wants to imitate, shrieking his lungs out, jumping up and down in his seat and frantically flailing his arms about.
In addition to crying children, there are a number of adults shouting into mobile phones, holding the top part of the phone up to their ear for listening (as normal), then removing the phone from their ear and shouting into the ear-piece when talking. I have never seen that anywhere else on all my travels, but it seems quite common over here.
We follow the shore for some time, and the waves are reasonably calm. Once we round the tip of the island, however, huge swells make the ship bounce around in a most unpleasant way. All around us people are throwing up (I am sure watching the awful films does not help one bit!), and shouts of “sachet” (bag) can he heard almost constantly. The crew are very attentive; collecting used sick bags and handing over fresh ones.
Omar told us the journey should take 3½ - 4 hours from Moroni to Anjouan. After four hours its starts to get dark, and land is still nowhere to be seen. 5½ hours: I see land!
There is another big step to negotiate off the boat at this end, with the added disadvantage that it is almost pitch black. As soon as we step on land, Patrice, the local guide, greets us warmly. I guess, as the only white passengers, we are easy to spot.
Although I was not actually sick on the journey, my stomach does feel a little unsettled, and it feels good to be on dry land again. I can’t wait to get to the hotel for a shower and change out of these clothes that are soaked through with sweat. So, where do we collect our luggage? “Tomorrow” is the answer. The crew are not taking any luggage off the ship this evening; we will have to come back at 07:00 tomorrow morning. Groan. No toiletries. No nightwear. No sandals. Thankfully I always carry a change of clothes in my hand luggage, so at least I do have some dry clothes.
As it turns out, by the time we reach the hotel, it is so late that we go straight to dinner.
The good news is that they have beer! The bad news is that they only have one.
We both opt for chicken pizza tonight. There is a cute old guy (he looks about 80, but I am guessing he has just had a hard life) who speaks excellent English waiting on the tables tonight. Table. We are the only two diners this evening.
As we leave the restaurant at around 22:00, we notice some pretty impressive speakers being installed in the restaurant. We soon find out that Saturday night is party night in Al Amal Hotel, with loud music (our room is two floors directly above the restaurant), singing, dancing and shouting. I am too exhausted to take any notice and despite the ruckus below, quickly drift into sleep.
This trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.