Spies, Lies, and Guys on a Tropical Island

The Comoro Islands.
The Comoro Islands. Photo: Marka/Getty Images

This week, the Cut is featuring Escapades, a series of journeys by adventurous women.

ATMs are exceedingly rare in the Comoro Islands. I learned the hard way: by turning up at the airport without the requisite $50 visa fee late one Monday last November. I knew better than to travel without cash, but after visiting a half-dozen countries in about as many weeks, I’d forgotten to go to the bank during my layover in Antananarivo. So I pleaded my case, jet-lagged and disoriented, before a buxom customs agent with distracting facial hair as a large Comorian ant crawled up my bare leg.

“How can you just show up in our country with no money?” she said. “Ca ne se fait pas” — “it isn’t done.”

“I do have the money — if I can just get to a machine, or call my hotel — ”

She cut me off, leafing slowly through my Swiss passport.

“What are you here for?”

“Vacation,” I lied.

“And you have no money?”

“I do. I just — ”

“No. There are no machines.”

The agent gestured towards the plane I had just gotten off of on the tiny runway.

“We’re going to have to send you back to Madagascar.”

There was already a stupid irony to my seemingly imminent exile: I’d come to the Comoros, an impoverished archipelago in the Indian Ocean that used to be a French colony, to report on immigration and deportation. A few years ago, thousands of stateless people in the United Arab Emirates — the “Bidoon,” many of whom had been in the region for generations, but lacked documentation — were pressured by local authorities to take Comorian citizenship, even though they’d never heard of the place and would probably never set foot there. By paying the Comoros millions of dollars for the citizenship papers, Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi could document the Bidoon without granting them the generous rights and privileges that Emirati nationals enjoy.

As strange as it may sound, the idea made some sense. The Comoros — a forgotten three-island nation that was essentially run by mercenaries after gaining independence in 1975 — was desperate for investment. The UAE had plenty of money. For most stateless people in the UAE, life didn’t change a whole lot once they were officially Comorian; they simply became classified as documented foreigners rather than legal fictions.

I’d learned that the cash-for-passports exchange had been orchestrated by a mysterious French-Syrian businessman named Bashar. He planned to use the cash infusion to help transform the impoverished Comoros into a luxury beach resort. However, his construction projects never panned out. Bashar left abruptly for the Middle East, leaving empty promises in his wake. Millions of dollars were rumored to have been stolen and stashed in offshore accounts. I’d come to the Comoros to find out what had gone wrong.

The woman in uniform led me to a small back room with a messy desk and a noisy fan. Her male colleague chewed me out some more, then began to fill out denial of entry documents in an ostentatious cursive. My head was spinning; the ant had settled mid-thigh; my dress was soaked through with sweat, but I didn’t move or take off my sweater for fear of showing too much weakness, or shoulder.

“Please let me call my hosts,” I said. “I want to pay you, more than anything. I promise I’ll get the cash if you let me call.”

More silence. More cursive. The two guards exchanged words in the local dialect.

“Fine,” the man said, looking up. “One minute.”

I punched a number into my blue travel Nokia and explained my problem to Michel, the owner of the bed and breakfast where I’d planned to stay. He sounded more agitated than I was — what the hell was wrong with me? Didn’t I know anything? — so I apologized over and over again. Michel finally promised to send help, and  a cross-eyed, pigeon-toed man who went by the name of Brookings soon turned up panting with a wad of cash in his hand. His presence, or perhaps the money, lifted the mood instantly. I would quickly learn that this was the way most things worked on the islands. “We’ve been here since five in the morning,” the male border guard grinned. “And now we can all go home.”

The officer stamped my passport and tossed rest of the papers in the trash. Relief became me. I allowed myself, at last, to swat away the ant, but it had vanished (or been a phantom all along). I shed my sodden sweater and followed Brookings out into the dark. Five other people he’d picked up along the way sat crammed into the backseat of his beat-up van.

Nothing was familiar on Ngazidja, the biggest of the islands: not the landscape, not the odors, not the sounds, not even the stilted French in which Brookings hollered over the grainy car radio. I rode shotgun, and through the jammed-open window, the biggest, brightest moon I’ve ever seen lit up the street; I understood why, in Arabic, Comoro Islands translates to “islands of the moon.” The scent of warm garbage with a hint of Chanel No. 5 drifted in; I remembered that ylang-ylang, a prominent ingredient in high-end fragrances, is one of the country’s biggest exports. We passed other cars, with some drivers on the right and others on the left — a globalized (or was it postcolonial?) clusterfuck if there ever was one. Not that any of it mattered; there weren’t any road signs or traffic lights to speak of.

After dropping off our remaining passengers, Brookings pulled up to our destination, Villa Jessica. I stumbled over one, four, six, no, ten large pet turtles in the small garden path leading up to the house, where Michel, a plump, baby-faced Frenchman of around fifty, stood waiting. He wore a Speedo, a T-shirt, and little else.

A diplomat had warned me about Michel’s sartorial habits before I checked in, but by that point, in that heat, no amount of male nudity could faze me. “You’re lucky you’re a chick. If you were a guy they’d have roughed you up. You know, African cops can get really mean,” he said. Then, over a glass of cold fruit juice, Michel held court, perched on the arm of a white wicker couch. He’d grown up on the islands back when they were still French because of his father’s business, he explained. His dad was not involved with the mercenary units that more or less ran the place until the late 1980s, but he did get around: Michel claimed he had encountered a number of lighter-skinned Comorians outside the capital who looked suspiciously like him.

Eventually, Michel’s wife Cécile — bottle-blonde, stick-insect thin, dressed head to toe in black spandex — scuttled in, complaining of a migraine. They’d met in Paris, but opted to return to the tropics; a pair of eccentric white people can live much better on a forgotten island than in mainland France. Michel, who recently became Comorian the old-fashioned way (no buying passports for him) had run several small businesses, managed a soccer team for years, and then opened Villa Jessica, which housed mainly foreigners doing humanitarian work. He’d also lived through the numerous coups d’état that won the islands the nickname “Cloud Coup-Coup Land.” During one minor uprising, a stray bullet had ricocheted off of a window frame and gone straight through his wife’s eye, lodging itself in a corner of her skull. After that, “it was miracle after miracle,” Michel marveled. The bullet didn’t hit anything critical; there was a competent doctor on the ground to treat her right away; a flight to France was taking off shortly; and their surgeon in Paris was Lebanese, “so he knew exactly how to deal with bullets to the brain.” The only visible effect of the incident was Cécile’s tendency to wear dark rectangular glasses, even at night, which gave her the aura of an extra from Blade Runner. “The French insurance is really amazing, though,” Michel said. “They give her a new eye every five years!”

It was getting late; bugs were starting to bite. Michel showed me to my room, where a mosquito net hung over the low, made-up bed. There was water, electricity, a shower, even decent Internet. A dish of cinnamon cookies and baby bananas sat on the dresser. Villa Jessica would be the cleanest, coolest space I would inhabit for several weeks: most buildings in the country, including government buildings, lack the basic amenities.

“Don’t get used to it,” said Michel. “The only reason the lights are on is because I have a friend at the power plant, and he’s in a good mood today.”

“Thanks so much for all your help,” I replied. “Good-night.”

Before I shut the door, he interjected once again.

“The border guards were obviously trying to prevent you from coming here. Do you know how controversial your story is?”

I had told Michel a little about my project, and I knew the passport affair had caused a stir; after my scuffle at the airport, I began to wonder how safe I was. Michel made his position clear. “You’re welcome to stay,” he informed me. “And we’re happy you made it over. But leave us out of this.”

Over the next two weeks, I would get to know Michel and his adopted country as well as I could as a foreigner parachuting in and living in relative luxury. I tracked down Bashar’s friends and associates, many of whom seemed so bored of living in the middle of nowhere that they’d talk to anyone, even a foreign journalist. They blamed the lack of development on lazy, unreliable locals; the Comorians blamed the businessmen for giving up before they had even tried, and repeatedly accused them of stealing money. I visited Bashar’s beach house; he had left, and, according to his janitor, it was now used only by parliamentarians and their paramours.

Michel’s wariness regarding my work proved prophetic. When false rumors began to spread that I was working for the CIA, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Local politicians stopped hitting on me (awkward but bearable) and began asking me for money (ethically impossible); calls went unanswered; promises of documents, facts, and information went unfilled.

I never got exactly to the bottom of where the passport money went, though a local court recently ordered Bashar to give back more than $15 million. The islands often seemed lost in time. Records were virtually nonexistent; calendars on politicians’ desks were usually several years old; the clocks on the walls had all stopped ticking for good a couple of hours earlier at some unspecified date. Like time, facts were up for interpretation, too; no two people had the same account of exactly how many passports were sold, how much they had cost, or where the money ended up.

All that was clear by the time I left was that the Comoros’ great citizenship-selling adventure had netted them little more than rumors, lies, and scandal. The best I could do was posit an educated mean, a composite of suggestions and recollections anchored in statistics that I’m now quite certain were arrived at in much the same way.

As the resistance to my research piled up, so had a sense of dread about my exit strategy. With the bureaucratic barriers I’d come up against, I worried I’d have more trouble getting out of the county than I had getting in. The idea of being an undercover agent was sexy and exciting, but I wasn’t one. When my job was done, so was I.

In the end, they did let me leave without any trouble. I was more than ready, not least because the climate was getting to me: when the humidity rose, crested, and broke, every cell in my body felt like it was in a pressure cooker.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting pangs of nostalgia for the feeling of being alone in such an unknown and distant place. A country with citizens who had never visited the place had touched me while I was there. Driving around the islands, dodging potholes and trying my best not to throw up from the motion sickness, I’d been struck by new feelings of possibility. I recognized it from books and songs and films: freedom. Ironically, a place with so few of them had given me that.

Spies, Lies, and Guys on a Tropical Island