La Chapelle

AKA “The chapel”. I suppose it is an almost religious experience hiking down to the “Chapel”, a cavern at the base of the cirque Cilaos. Walking down in the ridges, its easy to see how this volcano collapsed, forming the depressions in the Earth with uneven volcanic ridges eroded over time. This leads to some very beautiful landscapes to drive through, with tight winding roads scaling up the volcanic ridges.

The road to Cilaos

The town of Cilaos is very crowded, and its hard to imagine how so many people live so remotely in the mountains. After some navigation difficulties, we descend into the trail.

The view is already spectacular as clouds drift in, making the view more dramatic. We hike down through pine trees and large patches of agave, over and through streams down the cliffside. A short uphill hike and a lot of downhill make the descent fairly easy, taking around two hours with our stops for snacks and pictures.

Down by the river, I choose to keep my hiking shoes on and walk through the water to get past. It begins to rain and it is difficult scrambling over the slippery rocks in wet shoes, but I do my best. We shelter from the rain under a rock, grateful for the respite before continuing on to La Chapelle.

Once at the base of the the chapel, the rain is barely noticeable, protected from the ridges above. It looks like a drip painting almost, the dark lines of the cliffs highlighted by the rain. The first thing I notice is the smell; bats clearly live in the cave, as there is guano all over the rocks. I swim through the cold water to a rushing waterfall deep in the cavern, carving through the smooth cliff-face. The water is freezing, the current is strong, but I keep pushing to get a good view. Looking up, I pray that the large boulder wedged in the cavern above doesn’t decide to fall today. The chapel answered my prayers, and we had a safe, if not rushed, return hike. We made record time, and the sun even came out on the way back, creating some nice backdrops. The mountains even make an appearance behind some clouds.

On the way back, the clouds create a mystical feel through the winding roads, changing every few moments. To end the day, a vibrant rainbow makes an appearance just around sunset, where we catch up with our friends exchanging stories from the day over some food.

Sun’s out, camera’s out!

Entre Deux

Descending between two hills, I wind my way back down the beautiful ravine with the clouds swirling around the mountains.

While this is the same trail I walked before, this time I hear a tussle in the leaves. I see a small tenrec, then two! Tenrecs are insect-eating mammals from Madagascar, basically the island’s answer to the hedgehog. With no predators to eat them here, they do just fine and are quite defenseless rummaging in the leaf litter. I go to pick it up and move it out of the path, but it is spiky, and I hesitate. The much larger mother is just up the road, but she runs quickly back her hole in the ground. She sure is a noisy eater, and I hear the crunching of some kind of insect coming from her burrow.

There are many different kinds of tenrecs, native only to Madagascar, but this common tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus) was introduced to several islands near Madagascar.

Leaving the trail, my hiking partner and I walk to the “Creole Village.” This seems like some sort of strange tourist marketing because the village of Entre Deux is really just a small town. However, it does have a distinct architectural flair, with some houses sporting a diamond design, shutters, and bright pastel colors. We have some really nice “Chinese” creole food in the form of an upside down rice bowl, which allows the juices to soak into the rice when turned upside down.

The view from the village of Entre Deux

I stop for an ice cream on a crepe with the best view on the island, featuring magnificent volcanic ridges. The supermarket next store is also selling 10c red peppers, which is the best price for vegetables I’ve seen.

A much needed recharge with Black Forest ice cream and a butter crepe!

Just outside the town near a large garden, I notice a jackfruit on the ground. Deciding to rescue it rather than have it go to waste, I haul the spiky tropical fruit like a baby in my backpack, passing another tenrec and lots of small birds on the way back to the bus stop. Resting for a moment, we are decimated by ants crawling over my backpack, and I get dozens of painful stings while waiting for the bus. They continue to itch over the course of the next week- but at least this hike is accessible!

The baby jackfruit and I on our way back up the mountain. Carrying it leaves a sticky latex, so this is the most practical option. Update: When I opened it up, it wasn’t ripe. It’s possible it was cut down too soon or fell off because it wouldn’t ripen properly.

Bugs Bugs Bugs!

I suck in through the strange tube, winded through a container. Creating a vacuum, I suck up all the bugs on the square sheet, chasing them down before they fly away. I am collecting bugs for a survey, and believe it or not, this is a standardized procedure for sampling insects. I thwack a tree five times with a stick to dislodge the insects before sticking the tube in my mouth and trying to suck up anything that moves.

Hiking in a nice garden, I move on to the forest to compare how the bugs differ between protected and more urbanized forest. I collaborate with bug expert Jacques Rochat to sort through and identify all the bugs. Spending most of the days bent over a microscope, I take breaks in the fresh air to watch the magical cloud formations create dramatic landscapes, reminiscent of Jurassic Park.

I am surprised how much life lives on the leaves of these trees! I collect over 50 different creatures, which we sort into different categories based on if we think it is the same species or not. Some tiny spiders are surprisingly beautiful, and I go through a collection of beetles with the most striking patterns unnoticeable at first glance.

One of the most common spider genus we saw. Photo credit Lou Charpentier (featured below)

At night, we take a sheet and a UV light to attract all kinds of moths in the forest. Jaques identifies each moth as we take pictures of the diversity. One has a white and gold-like pattern that inspired a dress of the same style, another is the same genus as the moth from Silence of the Lambs. Another looks a bit like Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The final day is spent examining their predators–the birds. A lot of tiny fluff balls live on this island–and only on this island. There are several birds that are endemic to Reunion and I learn to recognize their calls and spot them for surveys. The green and grey white-eye, a native bulbul, and the tek-tek are some of the most common along with the harrier from my previous post. There are only 150-200 breeding pairs, making the Harrier highly endangered, but I see one at least every day. Perhaps it’s always the same male soaring through the clouds.

Tek tek, also known as the Reunion stonechat

Botany Tropical

Like seeing an old friend, I am gushing as I am back in the cloud forest. The humidity has all but healed my dry skin from winter in Brussels, unique bugs are everywhere, and clouds embrace the mountainside, highlighting its curves.
The first hike through the forest gives insight into so many new endemic plants only found here, such as this ironwood, which is one of only 50 left. In the lower forest, there are lots of invasive plants and flowers, which are just as beautiful, but damaging to the ecosystem.


I see a native bulbul that has the strangest calls, from a cat’s meow to an intense burbling. I also see the ever-present tektek and flycatcher.  There is a lot of love in the air post-valentine’s day; I see slugs mating, flies, and even snails mating.

Up I hike through the clouds into the cloud forest up to 2000m. Here, the canopy gets lower and there are less and less invasive plants. Lichens hang from trees covered in green and flycatchers buzz around. I watch the clouds roll in, rising from below on warm air currents, as I collect plant specimens for an herbarium collection for the Reunion Botanical Gardens. The rain makes the steep path a bit slippery, but it is worth it to reach the hill top. I am rewarded with the best view of the cirque, the term for the amphitheater shaped erosion features formed by the collapsed volcano.

The next day, we go up to the same point but this time hike down onto the dryer side of the mountain. The day is even more beautiful and I can see Piton Niege, the peak of the old eroded volcano. I have lots of close encounters with many native birds and even an orchid.

The trails near the research center are nice too, with dangling strangler figs growing over the trunks of their hosts and beautiful blue wasps finding a way to live with the invasive plants. On the way to the trail, we come across some abandoned kittens that my classmates decide to find homes for.

After a long week in the cloud forest, I spent the day decompressing on the beach, floating around the corals of St. Pierre and watching the fish from above. I even saw a beautiful eel and leaping blennies, jumping across the rocks. I got some gelato in the shape of a flower, which was beautiful but not very practical.

But then, because we are biologists, some friends and I continue to explore the cloud forest, this time on the other side of Piton Neige. On this hike in Notre Dame de la Pax, I see lots of beautiful flowers, some delicious smelling orchids, and more beautiful views marked by clouds. I love watching them form and dissipate in the rising air currents, swirling around over the green volcanic ridges and Reunion harriers gliding by.

Valentine’s Day

Another weekend, another beach (or four). I start off at the beach of St Pierre, enjoying a fresh coconut water from the market, but the waves and wind are too strong. I go off with my companion Alvise’s family friends to Les Salines along the west coast. I go snorkeling for the first time in years.

One of the many beaches near Les étings salé

There are many branching Acropora patches covered with algae gardens, tended to by wary damselfish. I spy some baby cardinalfish and lots of black sea cucumbers. However, it’s mostly a coral graveyard with a lot of rubble. I continue to search for beautiful fish, including large puffers and Moorish idols (remember Scar from Finding Nemo?). Colorful angelfish, round and disk-shaped, and rainbow wrasse ride the strong currents.

We visit Les étings Salés and the silky soft black sand from the volcanic rock, but we can’t swim due to the strong riptides that carry off unsuspecting tourists. The best surprise is that our hosts own an Italian restaurant and I am treated to some reheated lasagna with a French twist!

The first bite was hot but it was one of the best lasagnas I’ve had at Pasta e Basta in St Pierre.

Most of all, I am humbled by the rough waves and the power of the ocean, especially at night when I go to St Pierre and admire the clear Milky Way sky and shooting stars.

Looking towards the nearby mountain, Alvise and I hike down the mountainside to the river valley. Lush, steep cliffs are filled with agave plants and small native birds like white eyes, flycatchers, and swifts nesting in the narrows of the cliffs in small “caves,” almost like bats hanging under the cliff face.

While beautiful hiking through the cloud forest, it turns out not to be the right path. We go back down the sheer cliff-face and I notice all the shrines dedicated to those who have died on the trail, which is a bit unnerving to see. The map indicates to continue down the river, so up the river we go, wet hiking boots and all. The trail was not easy, so I continued to keep them on, which would give me plenty of blisters and sore feet later on.

After a couple hours appreciating the small caves and interesting features of erosion in the valley, we get to an impasse; do we turn back or keep going? After turning back, we decide after looking at the map again its best to preservere, and boy am I glad we did.

This was the best part of the trail by far, the grottos, pearly blue rock pools, and swift nests couldn’t compete with this view.! Almost straight out of Jurrasic park, steep volcanic valleys are shrouded with clouds. A male Reunion Harrier, black and white, soars past. I keep following the path but overshoot it, but then decide to follow some people to the correct trail to leave the valley. Up until now, we had been lucky with the weather, but the clouds continued coming towards us as we go up the trail. While steep and tiring, the incoming deluge of rain feels so good. I couldn’t ask for a better view or valentine’s day, spent with my one true love–tropical forests.  

Flying Free

I wake up and am struck with awe as I look out at the dramatic volcanic landscape. While the clouds may occasionally block the view, the cerulean blue ocean is visible to the west.

The first difference I notice is the tropical vegetation. As opposed to the plants from the greenhouse in Brussels, there are a variety of climates on the island from the dry west, to the wet east, and a mix of both in the south. 

Unfortunately, I am not allowed to explore the beautiful views I pass by on the way to my room on the campus at University of La Reunion. I use the time in my mandated week in quarantine to read and decompress, playing charades and bonding with the three other students in my program I came here with. 

After nine long days and a COVID-19 test, we are finally allowed to go to class. The classmates, almost entirely French natives, are very welcoming and friendly, and even invited us to a small get together to get to know each other. One even invited a friend and I to go birding as well that weekend.

I am amazed to explore the island now that quarantine is over; covid is not a problem here (as of February), and people only wear masks on the bus. I go shopping for some essentials in the center, passing by lots of creole houses and cheap markets.

Pitaya (dragonfruit) ice cream makes for a refreshing break from shopping!

La Reunion is named for the mix of people from all over the world, predominately French, Creole, Indian, and Chinese communities. This diversity is mirrored in the wildlife, with birds from India (like the bulbul and myna), migratory waterbirds from Europe like the plover, African weaverbirds and finches and the Madagascar dove and fody.

To go birding I got up before the sunrise at 5AM, which was good cause it was hot by 7:30AM. We hike down a short trail to a small river near the coast, flanked with birds in the marsh habitat. We march right past some of these common invasive birds and see an endangered Reunion Harrier, the only endemic bird of prey on the island. 


Moving on, we drive to a beautiful ocean overlook to see some brown noddies, jutting in and out of the cliffside-nests. The water is the perfect shade of blue with turquoise waves breaking against the rocks. The some red and yellow-billed tropic birds also pay us a visit, flying overhead. 

Following the trip, we go with my program companion Alvise’s family’s friend Melissa to Grand Anse beach. The view is straight out of a postcard, with shade provided by Pandanus trees. The rocky volcanic rocks burn my feet as I run into the warm water. It is like swimming in an aquarium. Butterflyfish, parrotfish, damselfish, and fish I have never seen before swim past my feet. Corals, surprisingly healthy given how close they are to the shore, are growing in small clusters. I identify bouldering porites, branching acropora, and fluorescent purple corals, which I unfortunately couldn’t help but trip over despite my best efforts. Lots of little fragments are scattered around, growing into new corals.

Grande Anse beach. The rocks protect swimmers from giant waves and sharks

Mudskippers, which I’d never seen before, jump across the rocks. It’s like they are afraid of the water, flailing about until they get higher up when the tide roles in. Others are covered in algae and blend in with the rocks perfectly under the waves. I admire them “breathing” for a while before leaving for a croquebowl, a delicious takeout curry in a bread bowl. 

A croquebowl, a fantastic mix of vegetables and curry.

We enjoy our food along the freezing cold Langevin river in the steep cliffs of “Mont Vert”. Looking up into the valley reminds me of King Kong or Jurrassic park (filmed in Oahu, another volcanic island). I revel in the newfound joy after a week of solitude, grateful for the chance to explore the island.


To finish the already wonderful day, we hike along the steep ocean cliffs down the same river to Josephine Falls. The double-layered waterfall flows into a lukewarm, refreshing pool. I try to get close to the base, but keep getting pushed away by the falls. I enjoy the thundering over me and the sheer force of the waterfall, surrounded by jungle and birds flying about the caves. I can’t help but smile in appreciation on the hike back. 

Paris

Ah Paris, the city of romance, history, and culture. I have been looking forward to Paris after re-reading The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires, this time in French) and seeing all the same streets mentioned in Alexandre Dumas’s legendary novel.
Even so, for a short layover trip en route to La Réunion for my next semester of graduate school, I didn’t get much of a feel for the city.

From my first impression, it seems a lot like New York with crowded streets, but much older. In terms of architecture, the houses are similar to Brussels yet feature cute balconies.



I walk up one of these cute historic alleys, Rue Mouffetard, for my first French crepe with satisfying cheese. The other students in my program and I drop our luggage at a friend’s place in the city center and continue on to the beautiful pantheon, where many promeninent French figures are buried. Opening google maps to navigate, every building seems to have some name or another. Almost every building is iconic in a city that’s been the bustling hub of France since the Middle Ages. We pass a high school that even has a plaque on it (with many crowds of teens roaming without masks).

Finally I approach the Seine. It seems a bit like the LA river in that it flows kind of dirty along a cement channel, but it seems prettier as the river opens up further on as I walk down alongside it. It’s sad to see what’s left of Notre Dame after the fire a couple years ago. But it is a nice (but bone-chilling cold) walk to the Louvre just up the Seine.While everything is closed, I could see the iconic glass pyramids of the former seat of power. In The Three Musketeers, the protagonists would rendezvous at the Louvre to meet with King Louis XIII. I would have lost my head for taking a leak in the garden maze out front—me, a mere peasant! I can’t wait to return and see the artistic treasures inside.



Across the gardens the Obelisk towers over us with its beautiful gilded head. Except for at Natural History Museums, I’ve never seen hieroglyphs like those inscribed on the Obelisk. I stop for some hot wine to keep warm for the long walk to Arc du Triomphe.

We pass the grand palace, but the museum is not so grand in my opinion. What is really impressive is the Infantiles army museum in the distance—gold rooftop standing out along the Paris skyline, matched only by the Eiffel Tower.


At long last, we begin the cold walk to the Tour Eifel. It was very cool seeing something so iconic in person. Across the lock bridge (why do people need to put locks on a bridge?), up close it starts looking more like a shabby tower with steel beams and hardy construction. But as we approach, I could better see the details and beautiful curves of steel frame that composed the base. I stare up in awe at the details, like the names on the lower ridge line and stars encrusting the bottom of the pilars.


The pastries, of course, are divine. I try a buttery croissant and some sort of apple tart. I can already tell the French here is a bit different than what I’m used to, but I get around just fine. Contrary to stereotypes, the three Parisians I speak with are helpful and friendly (although one was the Uber driver to the airport). The uber feels like a limo ride with tinted windows, and the driver wore a suit. And with that, minus a few hiccups at the airport and long negotiations with airport staff, we are off to La Reunion

Farewell Brussels

Where do you find a garden full of tropical plants from the global south? In Brussels, of course.Due to a long history of colonization of the Congo, Rwanda, Indonesia, and elsewhere, Belgium has ended up with a large collection in its Botanical Gardens, which is both beautiful and sad when you realize that this endangered cycad is sitting pretty in this greenhouse while it is critically endangered in its native Congo.


That being said, the botanical garden also has beautiful plants from temperate regions, including Japanese maples and a rose garden.


Nearby is the musee de bande dessiné, or cartoon museum, feauturing exhibits on Belgium’s long history of cartoons. Favorites include the smurfs and adventures of Tin Tin, which I have been watching on Netflix to improve my French. Thanks to practice listening (and maybe even my fantastic French course), I can understand what people are saying to me more and more.


It’s been Pretty cool living near parliament too; everyone I meet seems to work there and it’s nice to be close to a place so important. But on the weekends, it has pretty much turned into a skatepark. There is a nice exhibit that shows a history of how the EU formed and how parliament goes about creating legislation.


My time in Brussels hasn’t been all travels and fun; most of the time I stay in my room watching lectures and studying for the extremely challenging oral exams (spoiler alert: I passed). I took breaks cooking family style dinners in my pod group, playing basketball at an outdoor arena, or just taking a stroll around the cemetery and park.


Brussels has lots of beautiful buildings too. In addition to the ones already featured, I recently visited St Katherine’s place for a Covid Test and found some other key Brussels figures. This city sure loves its peeing statues.


Goodbye Brussels; I will miss the enriching history and accessible nature. But most of all I will miss the warm wafels, affordable kebabs, and, of course, the delicious variety of beers, cheeses and chocolates. 

Beguinages

I step through the ancient archway and am transported back in time. Narrow cobblestone paths, old houses covered in ivy, and small bridges connecting the streets mark the characteristic Beguinage

Beguins were a religious group of exclusively women who lived in self-sustaining communities called Beguinhofs (Flemish), or Beguinages (French). Similar to monks in a monastery, the Beguins lived around a central cathedral but took no vows.


The atmosphere is tranquil, and few people are walking around except for the students and staff of the university that live here. The last Beguin died recently, but the village was in use from 13th to early 20th century.The small neighborhood of 100 or so houses feels like it’s completely separate from the city of Leuven. No streetlights like the paths, so at night it is quite spooky I hear.


In contrast, Leuven has a bustling but small city center and main shopping street with a small markt, consisting of the town hall and cathedral.


I try what is the best waffle I’ve had at the corner shop, who’s line is at least a dozen long when I return in the evening to the train station. The gooey, melt in your mouth center makes me think there is some sort of filling, but it’s just fresh from the iron and still taking shape as it cools.

I visit another Beguinage, this time back in Ghent. I return for Christmas and appreciate the lights around the canal and even a Graffiti street I missed this time.


This Beguinage of Our Lady Ter Hooyen is painted with ox blood, so all the houses are red. They sit in a square surrounding the original cathedral, dating back to the 17th century.


Now, families occupy the once children-free space with nuns only sitting in the windows. We speculate as to if the Beguins coupled off on their own, for anything could happen behind these high walls.

Abbaye de Villers

This place deserves its own post because it is just that special.

The abbey of the small town of Villers-la-Ville in Wallonia is an old monastery constructed in 1146 for the monks of the region.

A long timeline stretches the entrance, covering the history of the abbey charted alongside major world events, such as the bubonic plague and colonization of North America. The timeline extends until the building was abandoned in 1796. While the Abbaye shifted ownership, civilizations rose and fell, empires crumbled, but still the ruins of the abbey remain.

The view at the top of the hill is breathtaking. I can see how massive the complex is, which parts have fallen and which strongholds remain. I walk through the medicinal gardens for a closer look. I take my time exploring the central courtyard, lounging on the balconies and inspecting the small side rooms. Here I find the remains of the kitchen, in another the sleeping quarters.

I discover a flight of stairs up to the 2nd floor, marked with “danger” signs warning not to get too close to the edge. I admire the circular windows and columns up close and examine the support beams. Below, I notice an entrance to an underground tunnel. I sneak through the dark to the other side of the abbey, where I find my way along the path to the central chapel.

Here is where the abbey truly shines. The large towering hall gives a mystical feel, and the collapsed roof and columns show the true age of the structure. After multiple selfies, I notice the art sculptures displayed on the collapsed columns.

I go outside to the “new” part of the complex (built in the 18th century) and climb up a small hill for a picnic. Though the sun is quickly setting at 3pm, I admire from above the old vines and vegetation growing over the walls. With time, nature reclaims all.