“Sachet, monsieur! Sachet! Sachet, s’il vous plaît!” People—mostly children—began vomiting within an hour out from Moroni’s harbor, frantically screaming for the blue plastic bags (sachets) that a man darting around the deck was dispersing, trying to reach people before they puked onto the ship or someone next to them. Instead of just vomiting over the gunwales and into the sea, a Comorian would stick his or her head into a bag, spew, then pass the bag to anyone in the vicinity who was also ill, assuming they hadn’t expelled onto the deck already. When a bag was deemed full, the sachet man would grab it, tie it shut, and toss it overboard.
Initially since it was dark and since we couldn’t really see what was happening, Emiliano and I thought it was a game. Simon corrected us. “It’s disgusting,” he said. Rarick, who was sitting on the deck amongst several seasick locals, caught the brunt of it, narrowly avoiding random sprays of chunky white vomit.
“Looks like they all ate the same thing,” Callahan said.
“Cassava,” I said.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Cataldi said, grinning.
We’d left an hour before sunset— babies crying, strong wind, whale spouts, clearing skies—and when darkness fell, reality set in.
“Welcome to the Hell Ship,” Callahan said, lighting a cigarette. “We’re in for a long night.”
The Anjouan-registered Shissiwani-II was an old 120-foot Norwegian trawler, a sad and filthy hunk of rusted iron, topping maybe four knots at full throttle, overloaded with cargo and smelly Comorians. The ship had no toilets, no food, no lights, no shelter, nowhere to sleep, only a few dirty plastic chairs to sit on. The crossing was to consume 14 hours: 10 hours of sailing followed by four hours on the boat outside Mutsamudu’s harbor, waiting for the Anjouan customs office to open.
The lower decks were littered with garbage, bits of rope and wire, dirt, plastic bags, bald tires, goats, ratty chickens running amok. Up on the top deck, where we were crammed in with the other passengers, were lines of the crew’s drying clothes, flapping in the wind—not much else except a few crates of bottles and chunky rice sacks of dubious contents. The air smelled of shit, diesel smoke, sweat, and vomit.
Eventually the crowd fell silent. Immense darkness at sea, a sliver of moon, countless stars and the Southern Cross. Judging from the rough sea, there was plenty of swell. I tried to doze partially supine on some chunky bags, but a man soon scolded me—“Fragile!” People were jammed into corners and in the corridors, sleeping almost on top of each other. The deck was layered with spew. I put my iPod on and tried to zone out for the duration, but its battery died as we neared Anjouan, which was sighted at 1:45 a.m.
It was Independence Day on this hilly isle of green. President Bacar had just declared sovereignty from L’Union des Comores, and, theoretically, as of 3 August 2007, Anjouan was on its own. Yet alone without tourism or any real cash-generating export, Anjouan would stay adrift and terribly poor, poised for peril, an ugly reality in a very beautiful place—so beautiful, in fact, that Anjouan could easily be one of the world’s finest holiday islands.