Reunion Island wrap: A new language, homesickness, localism, and more

I’ve been traveling for 18 months now. A year and a half. Even though I’ve always been one purchased plane ticket and 24 hours away from home, actually going back still felt like this abstract, far-away idea. I’ve mostly been focused on the next destination — committed to the trip knowing that these opportunities may never come again. I have felt homesick at times, but returning home had never felt necessary in the short term. Lately that has changed.

Homesickness serious enough to actually induce thinking about … returning home… didn’t hit until my current three-month stay on Reunion Island. There are a lot of factors that play into that. Of course, I have family, friends, and a dog who await me back in California. I miss them all quite a bit. But, also, the last three months in Reunion have been quite different than the previous stops on this journey, perhaps adding to this newfound longing for home. For the first time on this trip, I went somewhere where I truly didn’t share a common language with the vast majority of people. With a language barrier in the way, simple tasks can become gargantuan, and social interactions can become mentally draining.

It was a good challenge, though. My French is not anywhere near fluent, but the other night as I was listening to conversations fly around a dinner table, and somewhat following them, it hit me how much my French has progressed in just three months. (Hopefully I can look back on this as the start of a new language learned!)

Despite the language barrier, I did manage to meet new people and make plenty of friendly acquaintances on the island. The original friends that invited me to the island are all 50-year-old high school teachers, so by coming here and meeting their social circles, I found myself funnily absorbed into a crowd of locals two decades my senior. Next thing I knew I was living with one of these 50+ friends and hosting an award show at the middle school where another one of them teaches. Others lent me a spare bicycle and took me on tours of the island in their free time.

Also, Reunion Island is not a backpacker hotspot like some of my previous destinations, such as Sri Lanka, (parts of) India, and Bali. I would say nine out of ten people visiting the island are from mainland France, either tourists on a short vacation or those who are looking to ditch the rat-race lifestyle for some island living. As a (mostly) non-French-speaking digital nomad / traveling surfer, I didn’t naturally fit in here. I was a bit of an outcast and I don’t say that in a bad way. (When you quit your 9-5 in favor of living a drifter lifestyle while sporting a single dreadlock, you condemn yourself to perpetually being an outcast of some sort.) Consequently, there weren’t many other people on the same wavelength as me. Perhaps that played into the homesickness a bit.

And on top of that, even fewer foreigners come to Reunion to surf like I have. The island’s shark crisis that I mentioned in an earlier post nixed almost all foreign surf tourism.

Throughout this journey, I’ve often used surfing as my gateway into a foreign culture. In a way, Reunion has been no different. After all, it was my new surfer friends that invited me here in the first place. But, ironically, surfing, which holds the powerful key to acceptance in a foreign land, can also have the polar opposite effect. On a small island like Reunion, where surf spots are limited by the relatively small landmass, there tends to be a stronger sense of territorialism. I often did not feel particularly welcome.

Over the course of my three months on the island I was yelled at, dropped in on, mysteriously had my bike bumped by a car in a surf spot parking lot, and (understandably) was told that it would take years to earn a spot at the top of the famous point break of Saint Leu. I could feel the tension emanating from some of the local guys who consistently surfed the wave. They weren’t used to visitors. One blatantly told me to leave. Others would avoid eye contact with me, probably afraid that it would turn into a conversation that would make them appear less cool in the eyes of their peers. As these aforementioned feelings of homesickness were surfacing, I sometimes pondered to myself, bobbing in the surf, why I was so insistent on staying somewhere where I wasn’t wanted. The world is so big. Why here?

To be fair, most of the Reunion surfers were warm and welcoming, giving fist bumps and friendly greetings as they paddled out. And the waves were on average far better than what I surf at home in California. Even with the localism, it’s going to be hard to stray away from the dreamy point of Saint Leu that was in my backyard.

Homesickness and localism aside, it’s been fun living in this French outpost. Before this stay, I had never spent more than a week or two at a time in France. I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of living in the country, such as the fresh bread and pastries sold at the boulangeries, pharmacists who are very engaged in educating you on your drug purchases, paying the same price you see on a restaurant menu without secret tips or tax, buses that accept credit cards, real farmers’ markets, and society’s commitment to maintaining a work/life balance.

The island’s own unique charm grew on me as well, starting with its international fusion that forms the base of its culture — Africans, Indians, Europeans, and Asians blended and united on a small island.

And as a nature-lover, Reunion did not disappoint. There are endless valleys, mountains, rivers, beaches, and waterfalls, plus an active volcano, to explore — all spread across a range of microclimates and elevations. I thought I might get sick of living on a small island, but Reunion’s unique geography made it feel bigger than it was. I never felt like I was trapped.

As my 90-day European Union visa nears its end, I must bid farewell to this tiny speck of rock in the Indian Ocean. It evokes a familiar emotion that I’ve felt almost every time I leave one country and embark on the next. It’s like the last-day-of-high-school feeling: Yes, I will miss this place and all the people and memories that are linked to it, but do I want to stay longer? Nope. It’s on to the next journey.

As I distance myself from Reunion, I know that its treasures and significance will become more clear, such as the people whose lives intertwined with mine, living a stone’s throw from the beach, and the delicious mini pineapples that grow on this island.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be back to Reunion, but I certainly won’t forget the memorable and formative experiences that shaped this leg of my journey. The show must go on. Next stop: Mauritius.

I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else in the world that consistently produced world-class sunsets on a nightly basis.
Chess match with surfer friend Alexis.
Rainbow in Cilaos.
Group hiking in Mafate Cirque.
Grande Anse beach on the south coast.
Langevin River has endless swimming pools with crystal clear, ice-cold water.
Solo mission to Piton des Neiges, the highest mountain on the island.
On the top of the island.
Historic cemetery in Saint Paul including a gravestone for the famous French pirate ‘La Buse’.
Reunion has lots of lagoons that are epic for calm water swimming and sports.
The inevitable result of surfing the shallow coral reef of Saint Leu every day.
Hiking to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanos in the world. It erupts on average every nine months. Fascinatingly, this hotspot can be traced back to lava flows in modern-day India 65 million years ago, the creation of the Maldives islands, and more recently, Mauritius island.
Staring into the crater of Piton de la Fournaise, which was only formed in 2007 when the volcano blew its top.

3 thoughts on “Reunion Island wrap: A new language, homesickness, localism, and more

  1. What a drop dead gorgeous place Evan. As for traveling, it feels challenging sometimes because circling the globe long term rockets us outside of our comfort zone. Yet the growth, freedom and peace of mind gained during a nomadic life liberates you from problems. The intuition definitely knows when it is time to head home, or, to keep on circling the globe. Brilliant pictures!



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