August 23, 2015

Arrival Africa: Anjouan, Comoros

The best part of a hard passage is the last few miles; after you sight land and, if you're lucky, the wind and seas drop to the point where you can catch your breath and clean up a bit, in preparation for arrival formalities.

Arriving in Anjouan was perfect this way. The wind decreased to ten knots and the seas settled from over three meters to one. We had a day of calm weather to tidy up, shower, wash salty clothes and towels and a salty ceiling caused by a particularly boisterous wave that broke over the boat and then bounced up through the cockpit and in through the back door. As we cleaned we danced to our traditional landfall song Supertramp's, "Land Ho".

Comoros is 99% Muslim and one of the poorest countries in the world. The population speaks some French (but mostly an Arabic dialect of Swahili). The economy is primarily agricultural—with people growing vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang. And despite a tumultuous political history the country has been coup-free the past few years (after experiencing more than 20 coups since independence from France in 1974…).

The combination of mystery, relative political peace and Anjouan's location in the lee of Madagascar halfway to Mozambique made it appealing to a few previous boats—and their reports of a friendly culture and a must-see island made it an intriguing stop. The only real negatives were reports of arrival procedures (and costs) that seem to be at the whim of the officials. Costs seemed to included visas at 30 Euros PP, Port fees at 50 Euros a boat, Police and Gendarme fees that were as much as 40 Euros each, various bribes and an agent fee that was set at, "whatever you think my services are worth."

We started calling the port from about six miles out. Eventually we reached the port police through our friends on Geramar—they arrived a couple of days before us and prepped officials and our agent Maketse for our 6pm Friday arrival. Pulling into the harbour we were directed to a rusted out tug and asked to tie up. Using every fender we owned, we nosed in carefully and a full contingent of line-handlers and officials made sure we didn't make contact with the tug's ragged hull.

Geramar told us to expect a full search. They had every cupboard and locker rummaged and they were asked repeatedly for gifts. In our case customs, gendarmes and the port police came aboard. Then Charlie the cat came out of hiding and the customs official leapt out of our cabin in fear and the other two officials made a cursory one minute search and then scooted off the boat—laughing nervously. For some reason our cat scares the heck out of some officials, which is fine with us.

Then we handed over documents and Evan headed off to see the officials. Minutes later he was back, explaining we'd need to check-in, in the morning when the banks reopened. Saturday came but the banks didn't open and the bank machines didn't work so Maketse arranged for a friend to lend us enough money for visas and a flag—then the visas (the one item we expected to have a fixed cost) ended up costing only 10,000 francs each (65 Euros total). The flag came from a man with a sewing machine in a tiny market alley and cost 5000 francs.

I won't itemize the rest of check-in. Normally, I wouldn't go into the minutiae of arrival at all—but here in Comoros it's been such a quirky process that I wanted to give a sense of it (and offer up details for boats that follow).

While Evan went through check-in Maia and I wandered through town. It's comfortable here—scented with cloves and spice. The women are wrapped in bright African fabrics—their faces often painted with a light-coloured powdered wood mixture with their eyebrows traced over in charcoal and their hair covered in scarves. They are gentle—quick to place a hand on my arm as we talked or if they needed to pass us in the crowded aisles of the market.

The men are polite—one man stopped to surreptitiously show us his bible. Assuming we were Christian he explained he was thinking of converting to Catholicism, because "it's a religion based on a personal relationship with God and not one that houses terrorists or extremists." Gently we let him know that Christians too could twist religious doctrine—that terror and extremism are not unique to Islam. But we told him our travels have shown us that it seems like good people made up the bulk of the faithful in every religion.

"What about Jehovah's Witnesses? Do they have terrorists?" he asked. "That's also an option."

The odd road-side chat about good and evil, terror, extremism and religion seems to fit with this strange friendly town. Everyone we meet knows we're from the catamaran—ours are the only white faces here.

Today Evan went out with Maketse to find wood to replace the foredeck that floated away. He found the wood but there is no electricity today—so the banks don't work. And the lumber is lovely but it can't be milled until the power comes back on. And we're still not checked in fully so we don't know what it will eventually cost. And we haven't paid back the stranger who lent us money to get visas. And we can't get the internet yet because the phone office is closed until the electricity comes back. But the vibe of the place has rubbed off on us.

Three small boys came by—paddling a mattress (made from rice sacks stuffed with plastic) using old miss-matched flipflops. We gave them a few crackers each when they asked for food—then they wished us a good day.
It really is.

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Anonymous said...

Welcome to Africa's "unique" way of doing things, where everything takes a little longer, fees payable vary by day and situation and of course the mood of those recieving them ;-) and distance is, more often than not, measured with a clock (or at least a rough guess bassed on the sun)

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

So true--thanks for the words of wisdom!

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