This week on Instagram, Gadling is off to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.
The Indian Ocean bridges Africa in the west and Southeast Asia and Australia in the east. Much less familiar to Americans than Europeans, the region’s islands challenge the Caribbean for the attention of upscale Europeans, and can lay claim to some of the world’s dreamiest properties. Some of its countries, like the Comoros, are very poor; others, including Seychelles and Mauritius, can be found at the top of Africa’s per capita income tables.
Most popular among French-speaking tourists, Réunion is a French overseas department whose closest neighbor is Mauritius. Like Mauritius, Réunion is a true creole hodgepodge of a place, with a melting pot population; unlike Mauritius, it boasts a volcanic, mountainous interior so dramatic that it is often likened to Hawaii.
I’m here for the hiking, the mountain villages, réunionnaise cuisine, the tropical fruit and the heat. It’s been an interminable, wet, gray winter and I want to warm up. I’ll be sure to pass along some warmth to you.
Do you have any photos you’d like to share with a wider audience? If you mention @GadlingTravel in your own photo AND use the hashtag #gadling, your photo will be considered for our Photo Of The Day.
Earlier this year, I told you about several destinations you should see before they disappear. Climate change, environmental destruction and a number of other issues were all threatening to ruin these travel sites, and in some cases (such as The Maldives) wipe them right off the map.
A lot of you responded with feelings of sadness and helplessness about the travel treasures we face losing. Some of you weren’t content to sit by and let these endangered destinations die – you wanted to know what you could do to save them. So to help you do just that, I’ve put together a list of resources and organizations where you can get involved and make a difference.
Fight Climate Change
When it comes to problems that are destroying our environment, climate change is a biggie. Two examples I gave you before were the melting snowcaps at Jungfrau, Switzerland, and the rising sea levels in The Maldives, but of course there are countless other victims, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest.
One organization that has been tackling the problems caused by climate change is the Environmental Defense Fund. The charity pushes for clean energy policies and legislation that will lower carbon emissions. They also work with big companies to lessen their impact on the environment, and encourage other countries around the world to cap carbon pollution as well. If you want to support the cause, you can become a member of the organization, donate funds, sign petitions, or lobby your senator to take action.
Adopt A Polar Bear
Polar bears are dwindling in number fast as their icy home shrinks more and more every year. These creatures not only play an important role in the marine food chain but also in the culture and economy of people living in the arctic region.
The World Wildlife Fund is one of several groups working to save these animals from extinction. They do things like monitor polar bear populations, protect the animals from bears, and prevent oil and gas drilling in the local habitat. If you want to help save this animal from extinction you can get involved by writing a letter to congress or adopting a polar bear for as little as $25.
Conserve Important Art
When we think about travel sites that are disappearing, we don’t normally think of art. But many significant artworks around the world are in fact crumbling away – Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which I mentioned in my prior article, is among the more famous of them. In the Italian city of Venice, thousands of paintings are under threat. The city is home to the highest concentration of historic architecture in the world, but rising waters, sea salt and industrial pollution are pummeling the cultural treasures.
Organizations such as Save Venice have been helping to preserve the city’s landmarks and restore its artwork, and to date, they’ve tackled more than 400 projects. Those looking to get involved can become a member of the non-profit organization, make a donation, or choose a specific restoration project to adopt.
Save The Rainforests
Deforestation has been wiping out the planet’s rainforests at an alarming rate. Last time, I talked about the plight of Madagascar’s rainforest, which has shriveled to less than 20 percent of its original size.
The Wildlife Conservation Society has stepped in to try and stop further destruction of the country’s natural landscape. They’re teaching locals how to grow rice without slashing and burning the forest, creating tree nurseries and promoting ecotourism so locals have ways of earning a living without resorting to things like illegal logging. If you want to contribute, you can become a member of the WCS (which includes free access to a number of New York City’s zoos) or make a donation.
Preserve World Heritage Sites
Of the hundreds of travel sites that have been given World Heritage site status, 38 of them are considered to be in danger. Natural disasters, war and even out of control tourism have all taken a toll and threaten to obliterate these historical sites. If you have cash to contribute, the World Monument Fund is a good place to start. They’ve partnered with local communities and governments in more than 90 countries to save and restore cultural treasures.
However, if you really want to get your hands dirty and do something, then you might consider volunteering at a World Heritage center. There are volunteer projects across the globe, including diving along the Great Barrier Reef to help threatened coral, conserving the Medina of Fez in Morocco, and restoring archaeological sites in Tanzania, to name a few. If you want to take part, you need to apply well in advance and you will have to share some of the travel costs. But the good news is you don’t need any experience to get involved.
If you’ve been thinking about where you might want to spend your vacation this year, don’t make any plans until you’ve read this list.
There are a lot of places and sights in the world that might not be around very much longer. Climate change, rising sea levels, human destruction and even shoddy artistry are to blame for the deterioration of some of the world’s treasures. Want to see them before they’re gone? Here are five places to see in 2013 before they disappear.
1. Jungfrau, Switzerland (above)
You’ve probably heard about the receding ice-cap on Tanzania‘s Mount Kilimanjaro, which grows smaller and smaller with each passing year. But climate change is affecting glaciers worldwide, including the Aletsch Glacier, which is the largest in the Swiss Alps. Over a period of 55 years, the glacier has shrunk in volume by 60 percent and continues to retreat at a pace of about 3 percent a year. Scientists believe there’s nothing they can do to stop this UNESCO World Heritage Site from melting away.If you want to visit the region before it changes forever, consider going to Jungfrau, which is one of the main summits in the area. Jungfrau is not just for mountain climbers – you can access parts of the mountain by train and visit the observatory, the Ice Palace (a museum made of ice that’s filled with ice sculptures) as well as other attractions.
If you go, you might want to download this iphone app that teaches you about the effects of climate change in the area. The app was designed by scientists at the University of Bern and includes maps and walking trails designed to improve your understanding of the melting glaciers.
2. “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci
“The Last Supper,” as you probably know, is a famous mural by artist Leonardo Da Vinci, painted during the 15th century. However, what you might not realize is that the artwork is slowly deteriorating and flaking away.
The mural, which is located on a church wall in Milan, Italy, began to fall apart less than 20 years after Da Vinci painted it. Part of the problem was the untested application method Da Vinci used to create his mural, but attempts to restore the artwork over the years have also contributed to the damage.
If you want to see “The Last Supper,” you’ll have to book well ahead (at least four weeks in advance is a good bet), as access to the mural is restricted to a small number of visitors at a time. After passing through a humidity-controlled environment, you’ll get 15 minutes to enjoy the masterpiece before being ushered out. You can reserve your ticket through this website.
3. The Maldives
The Maldives is an island nation in the Indian Ocean that is slowly sinking into the sea. The country – which is made up of almost 1200 islands and atolls – is the lowest country in the world, with the islands averaging a height of just 4’11″ above sea level.
As climate change leads to rising sea levels, it threatens to swamp the islands. Water has already eroded 14 of the islands badly enough that they’ve had to be abandoned. Local authorities are so worried they’re even buying up land in neighboring countries so they’ll have somewhere to relocate their 300,000 citizens.
Tourism is the main source of income in the Maldives and a lot of that money is going towards the country’s relocation funds. So if you visit the Maldives, you could actually play a part in helping the inhabitants find a new home after theirs slips beneath the sea.
Madagascar is an island nation off the east coast of Africa famed for its biodiversity. Because the country split off from India more than 88 million years ago, the plants and wildlife on the island have been able to continue developing without interference. As a result, more than 80 percent of the flora and fauna is unique to the country and can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.
Unfortunately, the environment is under threat because of deforestation. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and many of its people are forced to slash and burn the forests in order to plant crops for food. A lot of the timber on the island is also highly valued and can sell for more than $2000 a ton, causing people to log even where it’s illegal. More than 80 percent of the country’s forests have already been destroyed and many species of wildlife have disappeared.
5. Polar bears near the Arctic
Polar bears were the first animals to end up on the endangered species list because of global warming. These animals can only live in areas where the ocean freezes, because they hunt the seals that live under the sheets of ice. Problem is, as global temperatures rise, arctic ice only stays frozen for short periods – which means polar bears don’t get enough time to hunt their prey. The situation gets worse and worse each year and a lot of bears die trying to swim long distances between the ice. Some even die as a result of cannibalism, since desperately hungry adult bears will eat the cubs.
There are only about 20,000-25,000 polar bears left in the wild. If you want to see them, your best bet is in Canada, which is home to about 65 percent of the world’s polar bear population.
Nearly two years after being released by Somali pirates who stormed their sailboat and held them hostage for 13 months, Paul and Rachel Chandler are finally ready to get back on their boat, the Lynn Rival. This time they won’t be going anywhere near Somalia, but they refuse to rule out a return visit if the situation there improves.
The Chandlers have spent much of the last two years writing a book, “Hostage, A Year At Gunpoint with Somali Pirates,” and getting their boat, which was salvaged by the British Navy, ready to sail again. In a wide-ranging interview, we spoke to the Chandlers about their ordeal, how they feel about their captors, what they learned from the experience and why they want to continue living on their boat.
Where do you live now?
PAUL: We live on the Lynn Rival, our boat; we’re home at last. We don’t have a home on land in Britain at the moment. We have a flat in Kent, but we have tenants, and maybe when we finish voyaging, we’ll settle down there.
And what were you doing before you were taken hostage?
PAUL: I’m a consulting engineer; I’m now 62. Rachel is an economist; she’s 57. I had an engineering practice that I sold and Rachel was working for the government as an economist and that enabled us in 2005 to sail for half the year and work half the year.
How did you pull that off?
PAUL: If you’re good enough, they don’t want to lose you. Rachel’s superiors gave her six months off, so we traveled half the year in ’05 and ’06, and then we decided we wanted to sail year round and live on the boat.
In 2007, we set off around the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea to India, cruised the coast of India and we enjoyed it enough to make it worth doing permanently, so we rented our flat out and planned on sailing full time. We wanted to see the western part of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Madagascar. Somalia wasn’t on our list.
We planned to sail from the Seychelles to Tanzania, and if it hadn’t been for that fateful evening we would have gone down to Madagascar, but that’s where it all went a bit awry.
It sounds like you found a way to escape the rat race before it all went south?
PAUL: Absolutely we did. When I turned 45, we decided that we’d go sailing when I turned 55 because we knew a lot of people who left it until they got too old and I didn’t want that to happen to us. So we worked very hard for those ten years to make this happen.
If you say, ‘I’ll just work another year and save another $5,000,’ you’ll never get around to doing it. You’ve got to go. We figured out that if we could do without all mod cons, we could sail and live for less than we’d spend on land. We’ve had friends who have died young of cancer, so we thought we had to take the chance while we could.
Take us back to the night you were taken hostage. Where were you?
PAUL: We were halfway between this ring of islands on the outer edge of the Seychelles and the main islands, perhaps 60 miles from the main islands of the Seychelles, not far from where Prince William and Kate went for their honeymoon. We were almost 900 miles from Somalia when we were taken hostage.
Were you aware of the danger of being even that close to Somalia?
PAUL: Of course we were. We’d sailed through the Gulf of Aden two years before. We did our research pretty well. We knew we were right on the fringes. There have been attacks as far as 1,500 miles away from Somalia. Official warning distance was about 200-300 miles off the coast of Somalia.
We thought it was an acceptable risk. There are worse risks you take at sea every day. It’s absolute nonsense when people say we were warned and we shouldn’t have been there. That’s with the benefit of hindsight. We went to four authorities in our checkout procedure and they all said, ‘Have a good voyage.’
And the pirates stormed the boat in the middle of the night?
PAUL: It was 2:30 in the morning, so I was asleep until I heard the gunshots. Rachel was standing watch.
RACHEL: I heard an engine in the distance and then I saw a boat with no lights approaching us very fast. I knew that it didn’t look good, so I shined a light on them and they responded with two gunshots.
I was in disbelief – my mind was racing. I knew we couldn’t outrun them. Our little auxiliary engine can only get to about six knots and they were coming at us at about 20 knots. They slammed into the side of the boat and I could see four men with guns, they were grabbing our handrails and shouting as they climbed onto the boat. Then another boat approached from the port side and another four men clambered on board. I was in a state of absolute shock.
They were sort of struggling to get on the boat and pointing a gun at me all the while. Paul had to struggle to put in his contact lenses and come up to find out what was going on. Eventually a bigger, open boat came with two more men on it. One of them was called Buggaf; he was their leader. He was a very nasty piece of work – very threatening.
Did you know immediately that you were being taken hostage?
RACHEL: We knew we’d be robbed, but we thought they’d go away in search of a bigger ship. We never envisioned that we’d be taken hostage, especially so far from Somalia. They could see that we had a small boat and probably weren’t likely to be able to pay a big ransom but they didn’t see it like that. Buggaf told us to set a course and steer towards Somalia.
And your boat was abandoned off the coast of Somalia?
RACHEL: Yes, we were towing their boats and our engine couldn’t cope. At that point they realized that the value was in us two and not our boat, so it was abandoned.
How long did it take to reach Somalia?
RACHEL: It was six full days at sea on our boat, then another 36 hours on their boat.
Were you more or less fearful when you reached land?
RACHEL: I was more fearful because they were taking us into a lawless country and I felt there was no hope of getting out of there. Some of the gang was saying we’d fetch $4 million, no problem. I wanted them to realize they’d got a pair of lemons who were a waste of their time. That kind of kept me going.
How were your living conditions in Somalia?
RACHEL: They bought us a thin mattress and a blanket and fed us. We were taken to a one-room mud village hut with a tin roof. They were always threatening us that other Islamist militias or al-Shabab would take us from them. They gave us water from a reservoir to wash with and bought us bottled water and fed us bread and rice and we started to get used to eating goat stew for breakfast.
When you live on board a sailboat, you’re used to living very basic, so I think that helped us deal with life in the bush. They knew they had to keep us alive if they were to make any money out of us.
And I understand they separated you. After that, how did you pass the time?
PAUL: During all my time in Somalia, I only slept badly a few times. So that was half the day. You wash up, and then read. We had five books and we divided them between us when we were split up. I took to reading them aloud because it takes more time. You get more out of books if you read them several times. We listened to the BBC and the VOA.
Rachel had cards; I spent time compiling crosswords. We were split up the first time and were kept apart for ten days, that’s when they put pressure on me to come up with money, so I was commanded to start making begging phone calls to my friends and relatives.
Later they separated us again and Rachel was beaten and whipped and we were kept apart for three months. They dragged us apart kicking and screaming. I had a choice, I said, ‘I can either sink into a well of despair or I can survive.’
The gang leader was a criminal and the rest of them were all along looking for a free lunch. None of them had seen white people or been out of Somalia. The eight gangsters guarding me eventually became relaxed and to some extent there was a bit of, sort of, friendship. They couldn’t understand why I was so depressed to be separated from Rachel – they had no idea how close we were. We’ve been married 31 years now.
And finally, after being in captivity for more than a year, a Somali man living in London secured your release?
PAUL: That’s Dahir. A wonderful man and a honorary member of our family. One morning, we had a long drive across the country and we hoped we were going to be released. Our hopes had been dashed before though, so we didn’t want to get our hopes up too high. We had to sleep overnight in the car out in the bush and we woke up the next morning and a man walked towards us holding what looked like a British passport.
He said, “I’m Dahir, I come from East London. I’ve come to take you home.” It was quite amazing – brings tears to my eyes even now. We found out that eight months before, his 12-year-old son came home and told his father ‘I’m ashamed to be Somali, can’t you do something to help?’ (to help the people who were taken hostage.)
He’s from the area we were being held in. He had the contacts to help us and he moved to Mogadishu and got to work using his contacts to help us. It took him eight months to arrange our release and our families knew nothing about it until a few days before he arrived to get us.
How much was paid for your release?
PAUL: Our family raised $440,000, which they dropped to the gang by plane in June 2010. And then we weren’t released.
They just kept the money?
PAUL: They decided to keep us and the money and we heard nothing for months, meanwhile, this chap Dahir was working for our release in the background and we had no clue.
How did your family raise the money?
PAUL: They wouldn’t tell us the source of the money. They were so supportive; they just wanted us to get our lives back. They said, ‘Don’t worry about the money.’ But we have paid back all the expenses they incurred. Their expenses in paying the $440,000 ransom were about $150,000 as well.
And did Dahir or someone else pay additional money to secure your release?
PAUL: We don’t know. He told us he didn’t raise any money. Whether that’s true, we don’t know. We’ve met him several times since and I don’t see why he’d lie to us, but he must have had considerable expenses in securing our release. There have been suggestions that the Somali government paid some money, but we don’t know. I think it would be very unlikely if no more money changed hands.
What have you been doing since you were released?
PAUL: Settling back in, coping with my father’s death – he died at 99 while we were in Somalia. The Royal Navy salvaged our boat and we had it taken to Dartmouth, so we could work on her. Now she’s in ship shape again. Our families said ‘You ought to be write a book,’ so we did. We’ve been working hard on the boat and last week we finally moved back on board.
What are your plans now?
PAUL: We’re going to head south and resume traveling to exciting places, meeting different people. We’re going down the coast of Western Europe, taking in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the North African coast, Cape Verde, and then head down to Brazil. We’ll keep going as long as we’re fit. Who knows where we’ll end up?
Will you ever go anywhere near Somalia again?
PAUL: I wouldn’t go north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. I’d want to be at least 2,000 miles away. But who knows, maybe by the time we get around to that part of the world again, the situation in Somalia will have changed. Maybe it will be safe to go there again.
Has it taken a long time to build up the courage to get back on your boat?
PAUL: No, not at all. I lost upper body strength and you need that in sailing. But mentally we have no problems at all.
What lessons did you learn from this ordeal?
PAUL: It strengthened our relationship, which was already strong. It reinforced the values we both hold. It made us far more appreciative to have been born in the small faction of the world that is safe and secure.
Do you feel hatred, forgiveness or some other emotion toward your captors?
RACHEL: I never felt hatred toward them. I felt sad that they are in the position they’re in, that they’ve stooped so low. A lot of people are very poor but don’t stoop to kidnapping. But I can see how they were drawn into it. People like Buggaf who make a living from piracy and direct others to do it, I despise them. They haven’t asked for forgiveness, so I don’t think I need to forgive them. I just hope that the law might catch up with them someday.
Do you think that the same pirates who took you hostage are still out attacking boats right now?
RACEHL: I’m sure they’re trying to do the same thing right now. But it’s become more difficult because ships are really increasing their security. Seven of the gang members who attacked us left after five days at sea to attack a French fishing trawler. They were apprehended and have been in jail in Mombasa for the last three years. They were just found guilty and were sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Did you have a hard time adapting to life at home after being released?
RACHEL: It was very strange. There was a lot of media attention. Our muscles had degenerated. Mentally, it was a process of getting used to normality. When you live with so little for so long, it’s a shock coming back to our complex world. Some people were wary of us because they assumed we must have been really scarred.
Did you get tired of people asking you why you strayed too close to Somalia?
RACHEL: People in the sailing community knew the situation. Lots of people stood up for us. Those who criticize don’t know anything about sailing or the situation at the time. On the Internet, people hide behind their computers and say nasty things.
Does the British Foreign Office now recommend against sailing in the area you were in?
RACHEL: Now they recommend boats don’t stray more than six miles off the main islands in the Seychelles but they still don’t tell people not to go there or charter yachts. If we’d left an hour earlier or an hour later, they would have missed us – it was very bad luck. You’re taking a chance sailing anywhere in the Seychelles.
Has your experience diminished your love of sailing?
RACHEL: Not at all. Cruisers tend to be very resilient people. If you’re adventurous, that doesn’t change. We don’t want to wrap ourselves up and stay home. We want to get back to the life we imagined, so it’s important for us to get back on our boat.
The Seychelles is a beautiful country of 115 granite and coral islands, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Located 932 miles east of Africa and 1135 miles northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, getting there takes some work. A transit point for trade between Africa and Asia, the Seychelles islands are known for their pristine beaches and untouched nature reserves that make a visit worthwhile.
The main attraction- No trip to the Seychelles is complete without a visit to the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on Praslin Island (pictured), this is the only place in the world to find the rare coco de mer palm and home to rare birds such as the Seychelles bulbul, fruit pigeon and the black parrot.What to do- Pristine and uncrowded beaches, some framed by age-old granite boulders, offer powder-soft sands, turquoise waters and good opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing or pure relaxation. Artists’ studios, national reserves, marine parks, water sports, golf, horse-riding and guided nature tours show travelers some of the rarest species of flora and fauna on earth.
Getting there- Air Seychelles is the national carrier, operating non-stop scheduled flights from Mauritius and South Africa (Johannesburg) into Mahé International Airport. Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates also provide flights to various destinations through their hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.
Language- Languages spoken in the Seychelles are Seychellois Creole, English and French, all of which share the title of being the official language of government and business. Tourist areas are most commonly English-speaking.
Local currency- The GB Pound Sterling (£), the US Dollar (US$) and the Euro (€) are all accepted, as well as some other major international currencies. Exchanging foreign currency into Seychelles Rupees can only be done at banks, authorized money dealers at the Seychelles International Airport, or with a hotel cashier.
Staying there- A wide range of new and refurbished hotels, Creole guesthouses and exclusive island retreats are currently on 16 of Seychelles 115 islands. Other islands are expected to develop hotel facilities in the near future, which could be good or bad, depending on how one views tourism and all it brings.
Seychelles, with an estimated population of 86,000, has the smallest population of any African state but this week celebrated its 100,000th visitor to arrive in the islands for 2012. Also this week, Air Seychelles celebrated the arrival of its first Airbus A330-200 aircraft, named Aldabra in honor of Aldabra island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Seychelles’ most remote and pristine islands.