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Keep up with the Tempo

by Katie de Klee / 18.05.2013

Waking up at 3am is never easy: it’s bang in the middle of the graveyard shift, and at 3am on Sunday morning, 5th day of the 5th month, the only life on the street outside my flat was the taxi man and a cat that hovered near the edge of his headlight’s beam.

Most of the stuff in my room was covered with dust. I’d come back to Cape Town from AfrikaBurn only hours before falling asleep and hadn’t had much chance or energy to shake the desert from matter or mind. I’d left the Karoo to fly to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean for the Leu Tempo festival of street-theatre, acrobatics, puppetry and dance. I’d retained a bit more of my sanity (I think) than others I had left there, keeping one toe on the tarmac and one toe in Tankwa and soon I’d trade a tent for a hotel bed with just the promise that I’d write about my time there.

Cape Town airport was almost empty. We took off in the dark, and as we landed in Joburg I watched the sunlight spill slowly over the rim of the world. I felt exhausted and slipped in and out of consciousness, like a buoy anchored almost out of its depth gets pulled under the waves of a rough sea.

From Joburg on to Saint Denis in Reunion, a French territory just south-west of Madagascar. In a single day I had left a desert by car, crossed a sub continent and then an ocean by plane, and touched down at sunset.

In a rented Citroën I followed a Renault (driven by a pretty lady from the tourism office who’d been at the airport to meet me) to the hotel on the edge of Saint Leu. I could tell the road followed the coast, but in the darkness I couldn’t see the cliffs we hugged and over the sound of the local radio station I couldn’t hear the sea. At the hotel I met Jean Cabaret, who is ‘in charge of ze artistic programmation of the festival’ who had come to ensure I knew where and when to be for all the best performances. After a while of nodding to his conversation, I slipped away into the clean sheets of my bed.

On Monday morning I got my first proper look at the island. The hotel was up above the town and had a view of the waves rolling in. The garden was populated with tall palm trees that shivered in the morning breeze.

But then, with the taste of coffee still on my tongue, on the black volcanic soil, I looked into the face of death. Or at least I tickled his belly.

The roads that wind up the mountain are serpentine, holding close to the contours; in half an hour you can gain 1000m in altitude and the temperature can drop by more than 10 degrees. There are little stands that sell fruit and vegetables all along the roadsides, each advertising the price of their tomatoes. A stray dog crossed at the zebra crossing.


Approaching the island’s active volcano the landscape changed and the lush green fields turned into scrubby plains. Along the side of the road there are large rocks painted white to mark where the tarmac ends. Now these rocks are about the size of an upright rugby ball, you know, how they leave them when Pat Lambie’s about to kick a penalty. Except they wouldn’t fly if you kicked them, they’d merely stub your toe.

I’d been admiring the view when I looked up and saw a tour bus coming towards me down the narrow road. There seemed no way that the broad bus and my little car could both fit, not without brushing shoulders. I flinched, and pulled the steering wheel to the right and rolled my tyre onto one of these boulders. The tyre burst with a bang and the rock scrapped along the bottom of the car, ripping at its entrails. I ground to a halt, the rim of the tyre screeching in pain along the earth and for a moment the whole world stood still.

To the non-mechanical eye, the only thing keeping the car from moving was the butchered rubber. I do know how to change a tyre, but I panicked. I had no phone and my French is limited. So I prayed. On an island where almost all the towns are named Saint-something God must be somewhere close by. And besides I was feeling quite religious, I’d been saying ‘merci, merci’ all day.

When I looked down from the heavens a minivan moving in the opposite direction stopped and four or five people got out to see what had happened. The men amongst them helped me take off the wounded tyre.
‘Parlez vous Francais?’ one asked me.
‘Non.’ I said, feeling embarrassed.
‘Did you fell asleep?’
‘No.’ I said, now feeling defensive.
‘You are a’liddle tired, non?’
‘Yes, a little.’ Feeling disarmed.
‘But you was not asleeping?’
‘No! I was just surprised. I thought the bus was going to hit me.’
As he bent down to turn the jack, he asked ‘Is you married?’ His eyes were dark and his lashes long, and – other than the safari hat he had tied up under his chin – he was quite well dressed.
‘Ah,’ he said, and looked up from under the brim of his hat. ‘This man,’ and he gestured to a friend standing next to him, wearing running shorts that must be skimpier than his swimming trunks because his tan line was clear across his thighs, ‘is looking for a pretty wife. And he is a very good driver.’

When the biscuit tyre was on the car and it had been lowered off its tiptoes back onto the road, I turned away from the volcano and made my way slowly back to Saint Leu.

That night I sat on the veranda of my room. The air was muggy and my beer bottle sweated while I pondered what the week would hold.

On Tuesday morning I swapped the car for a different one. The second was much older: the gear stick wobbled like an old cane, the wipers wheezed like an old lady going upstairs and the seats smelt of musk. From that evening until the end of the week my time would be filled with the shows of the Leu Tempo. Shows put on by artists gathered from round the world, many from France and Belgium and even one from South Africa.

Anyone who tells you that Reunion Island is like a tiny bit of Paris in the Indian Ocean is lying, though the place is very French. The main road of Saint Leu alone has three boulangeries selling fresh croissants and traditional baguettes and the hotel serves crepes for breakfast. Reunion’s economy used to be supported largely by sugar and coffee, now it is supported by tourism and financial aid from Paris, from the Metropole. The island has more of a European infrastructure than its neighbours Madagascar and Mauritius, and more of a European culture too: they are able to value the arts more on Reunion than elsewhere in the Indian Ocean because of the funding they receive.

Each evening of the festival week ended with live music in the Park. Danyel Waro, (described by my editor as the Hugh Masekela of Maloya music), was supposed to play on the first night, but Jean Cabaret told me that he was sick and frowned and rubbed his tummy. Waro’s son Sami Pageaux-Waro played in his place. For a moment we stood smiling by the bar and then I lost Jean into the crowd.

Sami Pageaux-Waro

The French teacher at my school used to wear matching outfits: beige jeans with a brown jumper, red polo neck with burgundy trousers. Funny, I have such a vivid memory of the beige jumper. It had acorns and oak leaves on it. Pity I can’t remember as much of what she taught me while she wore it. But I felt free in my isolation, and I slipped back into the shadows to listen to the music. Zan-Mari Baré shook his kayembe to the Maloya music, and to the sound of the rattling seeds inside it, the festival began.

Read part two here and part three.

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Stay tuned for part three. Coming soon…

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