By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
The arrival hall at SSR Airport bustled with disembarking passengers from several international flights. No airport attendant or airport officer was around to explain the long wait to collect luggage; everybody seemed busy handling the continuous flow of passengers pouring out into the luggage delivery hall. Families, couples and individual passengers clustered around the conveyor belt waiting patiently for the first sign of any luggage dropping onto it.
Waiting next to me, she leant on the upper bar of the trolley, resting her chin on her hand, she confided more. « It is terrible to have to travel to London for an operation which might fail and you can die in an unknown place away from home. » The doctor’s diagnosis in Mauritius left little hope for a tumour which grew to the size of an apple within a week. Her eyes sparkled with joy and the smile which she greeted me with at St Denis Airport in Reunion never seems to leave her face. A black scarf covered her head and was tied under her chin; a light black veil on her head hung backward. She was wearing a long navy blue blouse with long sleeves and baggy black sarouel pants with white flowers.
Earlier, a board in the hall at Gillot airport apologizes to passengers for inconvenience caused by ongoing construction works in a mixture of English, Creole and French: We are working pou zot confort. Sounds amusing to any observer of language development and policies in the region. A will to open up and diversify the use of languages, no doubt. Unlike Air Mauritius, Creole is not used on French airline companies, Air France, Corsair and French Bee. Since the International Creole Festival in November 2017, Air Mauritius decided to welcome passengers in Creole first, Bonzour tou dimoune and bids goodbye with Nou tia kontan retrouv zot… Another board displays a colourful array of ‘Good Morning’ translated in multiple languages. The hall was packed with passengers and accompanying relatives. Lest we forget, it took airport authorities in Mauritius years to admit relatives of passengers into the hall of the airport. They were more attuned to the idea of separation of people and controlling the public. Their priority was the comfort of foreigners, an idea dictated to them by the lobby of the hotel and tourism industry.
At one point of the development of SSR airport, it had two different exit lanes, one for tourists and one for Mauritian citizens. Reunion benefits from the regulations and laws of a developed country which prioritizes the welfare and rights of citizens. It is much more a matter of common sense to allow relatives into the airport. At SSR airport, policemen even controlled air tickets and passports at the entrance of the hall and allowed entrance to passengers only. They often let white people in without arguing. Development has a lot to do with the way you think than financial means.
Otherwise, Gillot is going the Mauritian way in terms of showcasing the island’s religious festivals, which marks a change from French secular tradition. A few months ago, on the occasion of Deepavali, the hall was splendidly adorned with loads of yellow geinda and white flowers beautifully arranged in different shapes, and various decorations imported from India. The overall decoration had a distinct Tamilian touch. And more recently, Christmas colours white and red enlivened the hall with a big Christmas tree and a Santa Claus gently patting children and distributing sweets in the crowded hall.
She was pushing around a trolley with her luggage when our eyes met for a few seconds and her face relaxed into a lively smile. A slim woman with delicate features, a small fair face and alert eyes. She exchanged a few words with people around, conversed a bit with another Muslim woman who was also on her own and moved on. An outgoing pleasant personality and spontaneous contact with others.
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An acquaintance I met a couple of times at friends’ homes and in a workplace was walking by the café when I called out to him. A lover of English language and a native of Kabyl region in Algeria, Ahmed has the typical broad warm North African smile which contagiously invites a warm response and creates a convivial atmosphere. Much like the late Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel.
Eh bien alors, qu’est-ce que tu deviens? Still in love with his job of teaching English, he set in for a conversation in English. In between, French came in naturally. We ordered breakfast. And inquired about family and friends. He had come to pick up his daughter from France. What a pleasure talking about books, literature and languages! His wife is French, and like many other North Africans in the island, he has definitely cut ties with his native country especially after the civil war in Algeria, and is not interested in visiting countries in the Middle-East. Ahmed, in particular, likes to remind us that the Kabyle people were the original inhabitants in North Africa before the Arab invasion. A big part of them never gave up their identity. Most of those living over here are happy with their lives away from their homelands and make the best of what the host country of their choice gives them.
We discussed about local development, economy, politics and high airfares by Air Mauritius, taking advantage of a lack of competition in the sector. And the company still wailing about its losses. Air Austral is owned by local shareholders, much a product of the Communist Party during the Vergès time. New shareholders of Air Austral have banned the consumption of pork on its flights, which is raising a polemic in some circles. The Communist Party was largely funded by the car lobby. In return, it ensured that the bus network does not fully develop so that people spend money on cars. The same car lobby has laid their hands on Air Austral and dictating rules on the consumption of food on board. Most passengers, local and French people, are pork eaters. French people are not in a mood to be dictated by rules imposed on them from above.
In the convivial atmosphere of warm coffee, tea, croissants and customers chatting with the waiter behind the counter, we parted ways and expressed best wishes to each other.
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Queuing up in the departure hall after purchasing a few magazines, my eyes fell on the woman with the friendly smile. She was sitting there in the first row along the queue of passengers. Looking up at me, and almost in a whisper, asked: To Morisien? And asked if she could come with me. Mo vine avek twa. As usual, I am taken aback by the tu toi approach, but this woman had a most disarming smile and I went along with the unexpected form of familiarity. She is from Plaine Verte and had been at a relative’s place in Reunion for a week. When I saw you downstairs, I knew I could talk to you, she said. Nou en akorité, an equivalent expression in Reunion is nou disan en akorité which was grandly declared to me once by a man I asked to do construction work. To my delight, he said he could not refuse because we were on the same wavelength, his blood told him, and he did come to do the work!
My luck today, meeting nice people! I said to myself. Walking up to the bus outside, we complained about the heat. I asked her if she did not feel too hot with the black veil and scarf.
“I am wearing it because I went to Mecca.” Her eyes were lined with kohl; I complimented her on the light pink lipstick she wore. She was tired and had a bad night. Moi, mo dan pop kot moi. An expression I have not heard for years. At home and at the seaside she wears shorts below her navel, enba mo nombril. She is a slim and energetic, it must suit her well. A flow of words poured out smoothly from her. Her occupation is selling stuff twice a week on the pavement at her place, her office located upstairs. Her children, her daughter’s wedding this year, her travel to India in August to attend the wedding of her Indian tenants’ relative. Come and see me at Plaine Verte, she suggested. At one moment, she helped a young couple with a baby to handle a child running everywhere, took the hand of the child and walked with him.
When the plane landed, she came up to the front with the eagerness of a child, eyes smiling. I was given the Business Class, which is quite a rare happening to be glad about. My luck! The generosity always comes from Reunion airport staff, rarely from SSR land crew despite your being a regular traveller.
Again she helped with the child. At the immigration counter I chose the short way out at the Premium card holders. She made her way out from the long resident queue she got stuck in as I made a sign to her to come over and join me.
The long wait at the conveyor belt for luggage delivery left plenty of room for conversation. It was hot. Owing to health problems, she has to eat at regular times and was hungry right then and did not have time to take anything along.
“Sorry, usually I take sandwiches in my bag, but nothing today,” I apologized.
Brigitte, a Reunionese woman she talked to had nothing to offer, either. She apologized. Nothing to drink. What about the fruit juice on the plane, I asked.
“I gave it to the child next to me. I felt he wanted more.” Oh!
A doctor operated on her in Port-Louis, an operation which cost her and her husband Rs 220 000, and afterwards a cancerous tumour was found out. She was devastated by the news that it was a very serious operation which she should do urgently in London.
She refused to go even after her cousin came over from London to accompany her there. Her Indian tenants in Plaine Verte offered to do the trip and stay with her. She was dead scared about dying in a foreign place away from home. You were lucky to have friendly people supporting you, though, I remarked.
After a week, the tumour simply disappeared. The doctor was at a loss to explain the phenomenon. A miracle, he concluded. I pray a lot, I believe in God, do you believe in God? she asked.
Indeed, a rare phenomenon. But there are cases of sudden disappearance of tumour. An air pilot stopped working after news of cancer in his body, returned to his homeland in Corsica where his parents owned vast agricultural fields. He spent his whole days working on the lands, and the tumour strangely disappeared. More recently, a woman who is very good at massaging in Grand Bay tried to heal a woman from Reunion who was desperate about a tumour she had. She did not promise to succeed but she did. The Reunionese woman was very grateful and offered her a free ticket accommodation in Reunion.
That is why she went to Mecca to express her gratitude for being alive. Life is so precious, I try to do good things every day, she said. Today she helped an elderly Chinese man with his bags at the airport, took care of the child to relieve his parents, and gave away her fruit juice.
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Are you coming to see me at Plaine Verte? You are welcome if you happen to be in the north.
She was happy to have done the trip to England to visit around and then, hopped in a plane to France to prolong the good time.
Her daughter’s future husband is coming to meet her at the airport. “Keep an eye on my bag, I’ll go and buy things for the kids coming along with him. They must be hungry.”
At long last, the conveyor belt started moving with our luggage. She expressed her best wishes to Brigitte and her husband and said good-bye, gave me a hug and a kiss. Pa bliye to vine guet moi Plaine Verte. When it is less hot, okay.
One of the two pieces of luggage I had was a very nice small pink luggage covered with roses which I bought in England. There was a code to open it but customs officers have a pass key to open any luggage they find suspicious. Upon arrival at home, I noticed the lovely suitcase was scotch taped. It was fully packed, and to my surprise I found it half-full. Several items have disappeared from it: cream, swimming trunks, calcium pills, clothes, papers. Just my luck!
* Published in print edition on 1 February 2019