Mauritius: A cultural melting pot

Mauritius: A cultural melting pot
Photo Credit: Atul Loke
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The charm of the tiny island nation of Mauritius for the casual South Asian visitor is that there is plenty of that which is familiar, and plenty that is worlds removed from home

Avtar Singh
September 09 , 2015
14 Min Read

Everybody should arrive in Mauritius as I did, on a morning flight with the sun breaking through the winter clouds, for the thing that you remember when the tiredness has faded and the clothes are back again on their hangers in your own closet is what you came for in the first place; and that thing is beauty. My first view of Mauritius is of an island dotted with the huge rocks that remind you of its volcanic past, fringed by a reef you can see from the air that separates the aquamarine of the protected water close to the beach from the deeper blue of the open sea, and everywhere, you see cane. Sugarcane ripples away in green sheets from the interior highlands of the island towards the glistening coast. These aren’t the tiny patchwork fields that we Indians are used to, either; these are big cane plantations, the size and scope of which lead your eyes inexorably towards the horizon. Up where I am, in my descending cylinder in the sky, the horizon is blue and green and broken by a reef. The sight of the giant cane fields is enough to make my Punjabi blood run quicker, but I’ve also spent the last fifteen years of my life by the sea, and I love the way the sea looks here. Which is fitting, as it is the cane and the sea that keep Mauritius alive.

I’m staying at the new Taj Exotica. This is a brand spanking new hotel, the tiles in the loos uncluttered with grime, the smiles on the staff’s faces unforced and unweary. The hotel limo carts me away towards the resort, which is in the village of Flic-en-Flac on the opposite end of the island from the airport. The roads are well-signposted and the highway is superbly quick. Even along the quiet highway—the Mauritians don’t use their horns, can you imagine—the world is circumscribed and then let loose by the tall cane. The leather and wood of the quiet car, the grey of the tarmac, and on either side, the green stalks of cane, drawing your eyes up to the blue sky. It is as if tourism and the sugar industry—the two biggest businesses here—are acting in concert, the breaks in the fields along which the farm vehicles run anticipated by eager travelers like myself, breathless for new vistas; a new mountain, a town glimpsed in the distance, a man smoking atop his tractor, a few homes in a settlement: closer to the coast, after the town of Quattres Bornes, the road crests a rise, and suddenly, behind the fields of cane that fall away as if in obedience to an unseen and imperative hand, the imminent sea.

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It is winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the sea that looks so beautiful to me is cold to the touch and though I do swim, I don’t spend as much time in the water as I normally would. The sun is up and casting its tropic glow over the island the day I arrive but decides to sulk behind huge rafts of scudding clouds the rest of my trip and the rain decides to say hello. The island is quite poor in natural resources and imports practically everything and consequently is expensive. The day I arrive the eagerly awaited results of a general election are due and the populace are, according to their views, in jubilant or fractious mood and I am warned not to go walking in the village.

Yet none of this dampens my mood, for none of it changes a simple fact about this island. It is beautiful.Beauty alone may not make you spend your money and go on a trip. But if the pursuit of beauty plays a role in your life, you’ll want to think more about Mauritius.

 The thing about Mauritius is also that it is manageable. It is small, only about 2000 sq kms. The roads are very good indeed and the traffic is courteous. The country itself is not thickly populated. Though no part of it could be called remote, you are never, aside from rush hour in Port Louis, the capital, ever actually cramped for space. Even Port Louis is not large. Villages and even smaller settlements flash by on the road, towns are gone in seconds; the space and the fact that you share your real estate with so few people is, for an urban Indian, quite surreal. I should say, of course, that I was there in the off-season; Christmas is probably an entirely different story. I wasn’t there for very long, and my impressions are just that; impressions.

But I can only speak of what I saw, and what I did see was charming. This charm, for the casual South Asian visitor, is due in part to the fact that there is plenty of that which is familiar, and plenty that is worlds removed from home. The majority of Mauritians are, of course, of South Asian extraction. The colonial history of Mauritius is much like the rest of the African and Asian continents; discovered by the Portuguese, passed along to the Dutch and the French, and finally granted independence by the British. Due to a rather adroit bit of treaty-making by a deft French governor, Mauritius retained its French character even when it became a British colony. The huge cane plantations—sugarcane was brought here, and is not an indigenous product—required labour, which came in the form of slaves, from Madagascar and continental Africa. When slavery was abolished, the European landlords went to the next best thing, indentured labour from what was then another English colony: India. It is the descendants of these original slaves and labourers who make up the dominant ethnic groups of the island, and the mixing of their religions, foods, and languages has led to the mixed culture of Mauritius today.

Interestingly, as far as I can make out, the white Franco-Mauritians, a tiny minority of the population, still own the plantations. When I asked whether this was a thorny issue, as I passed under the election day ribbons and buntings and posters, everybody politely declined to answer. As it happens, an Indo-Mauritian gentleman who has been Prime Minister before was elected again to head a Labour government, replacing a Franco-Mauritian. The only taxi-driver I had who ventured a political opinion spoke feelingly that the people who were in a majority should supply the PM.

But it is also equally obvious, to me at least, that the average Mauritian believes that the mix that he has grown up with is harmonious. My taxi-driver, with a potent collection of Ganeshes in his cab, was emphatic that his nation, for the most part, was blind to ethnicity and religion and language. We all speak Creole, he said—Creole is the polyglot language of the island, and also the old name of the group that is descended from the Africans and Malagasys and their intermarriages with other groups—and the educated ones speak French and English as well. Hindi is taught in the schools and Bhojpuri bands are popular local entities. I can vouch for this. I hear Hindi on the radio all the time. Sonu Nigam dogs my travels even here. Apparently there are two nightclubs on the island that play exclusively Indian pop music.

Of course I wonder about this rhetoric of harmony. The Creoles have their own problems, the Indians are seen as being rural and exclusivist and overly traditional and politically overpowering; the Franco-Mauritians own the land.

I see the associations that go along with the Indian diaspora; the Tamil and Telugu groups, the Masjids and Jamatkhanas. There are Bhojpuri associations and even flyers advertising a Miss India pageant in a local restaurant. I see how they are based on language and region and how caste and religious markers have made the big jump across the ocean and all those years, and I see how in Mauritius, as well, those associations are potent talismans of belongingness; to the ones that have them, to the ones that are excluded.

The young Indo-Mauritians I meet speak feelingly about how stifled they feel because of the ‘traditional’ bent of their parents, the fact that they are expected to wear salwar-kameez and headscarves when even their parents have never seen India. Mauritius has a high rate of literacy, a high per capita GDP; indeed, it outstrips its African neighbours on practically every social and economic indicator. I don’t see any signs of visible hunger; the problems people have are of improving their lives, not merely staying alive. Mauritius is being catapulted into the 21st century, and the ‘traditionals’, it would seem, at least according to their disaffected offspring, don’t like that number, preferring the 19th instead. There are tensions between the groups, sure; there are tensions within the groups. But the Mauritians believe in harmony, they are educated and don’t honk at dawdling tourists, they have a common language and a shared and stable democracy and they are making a determined effort to get on in the world and get along with each other.  

  One afternoon, we decided to go up north, to see the famous botanical gardens at Pamplemousses. These are quite beautiful, and packed with trees I recognize from north of the equator. Visiting traders and aristocratic botanists brought back trees and plants that they thought would do well in the tropical setting of Ile de Maurice; Pipals and mangoes and even Amaltas dot the grounds here. There are other local varieties, of course, huge denizens of the forests that would have been here before the settlers. There are huge water lilies from the Amazon, their pads almost a meter across. Our guide peppers us with the Indian names of the spices and trees he points out; when he is right, which is often, I smile. When he is wrong; well, two hundred years of living history and the fact that India is on the other side of the equator stop me from correcting him.

We come back through Port Louis, once a bustling center of trade and even piracy in the Napoleonic wars, now again becoming important as a transshipment point. It is also making quick steps in a new growth industry, as a relatively forgiving center of offshore funds for countries it is treaty partners with. The Chinese stores in the old Chinese quarter still exist as the town climbs the slopes away from the sea towards the old British fort that commands the heights above the port; the view from the fort is windy and inspiring.

In the market next day in Quattres Bornes, the second biggest city on the island, I am accosted by a fishmonger as I gape at his exotic looking wares, the fruit of the southern seas. The only fish I recognize are the snappers, and there are beautiful blue ones that look like they belong in aquaria, not on a slab. He asks me if I’m from Punjab. Well, yes, I say. Amritsar, yes? Yes, I reply. I’m an Ahmadi, he says triumphantly. Of course, I say. From Qadian. He beams and introduces me around to his compatriots; all the fishmongers there have their spiritual roots in a village not far from my own. I politely turn down their offers of free fish as my vegetarian photographer turns green as the sea. Outside, a lady is selling idlis and a line of men sell rotis packed with dal and an incendiary chutney. A gent selling soup hails me in colloquial Punjabi. He turns out to be a modern-day Pakistani, husband to a Mauritian Ahmadi, who came here to be a software engineer at a local software park. Why the soup, I ask him. Where’s the software park, he replies, and as we laugh companionably, the undercurrent of what he has said floats like the skin on his soup. His wife’s ancestors probably came here as indentured labourers. In the 21st century, a qualified software engineer fleeing religious persecution in his own country has fetched up with a bucket of soup in the same place. Where is the software park, indeed.

But thoughts of the world won’t survive a short holiday here. I barely even read the papers. As I roam the island, or at least its cane fields, and as I sport in the haven of the Taj Exotica, right by the quiet sea, the world seems something that happens to other people. Here, in my own villa—the Exotica has no rooms, only villas—with my private plunge pool and an outside sitting room and my own view of the sea, everything is sweetness and light. The candles that are lit next to the tub in my bathroom, every night, contribute mightily to my feeling of harmony. The sight of the outside shower is heartening, though I don’t use it, as there seems to be a resident wasp. The service is impeccable and never cloying, and the people are genuinely warm and friendly. My trainer in the gym is far from obsequious, the bar-manager and waiters attentive and knowledgeable. The staff have to marry the easy informality of the island’s people to the professional demands of their job, and they pull it off without a hitch.

The environs of the resort are designed to cosset and protect from the world. The lighting is brilliantly muted throughout the resort and the design aesthetic is comfily plush. The food is good, though occasionally patchy, and I have one memorable meal where the chef pushes the boat out and serves me a brilliant, ‘authentic’ Mauritian meal. The beers on the beach are chilled and the snack list is comprehensive and even when the rain is pouring down, the spa, which is genuinely world-class, is a haven. The women here seem to be from a friendlier planet. The fact that it is the slow season gives them plenty of time to chat, and the hours slip away as they smile and smile. The spa has a resident Ayurvedic doctor and they are planning full-scale Ayurvedic retreat packages, complete with the right food. I help myself to one Olympic-class massage and wish I was here for longer. One of the boatboys on the hotel’s private jetty promises me that he’ll have me windsurfing next time I come.

Windsurfing, I tell you. I arrive in Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi in the nicely warming-up morning. Dwarka greets me outside my window. I wonder, as I have earlier, what a good time would be to fly into this city.

The information

Getting There
Air India and Air Mauritius fly to Port Louis from  New Delhi

Getting around
Taxis are expensive, but the buses are easy to use, well-marked and safe. No part of the island is more than an hour or so away from the airport.

Where to stay
Mauritius made a decision not to be a cutprice destination and hence is not the cheapest place to visit. The really glamorous set stay at the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa (+230-403-1500, www.tajhotels.com)

What to see & do
A day at the capital, Port Louis, will suffice for most non-business tourists. Gamblers will enjoy the casinos on the new waterfront, and the oldest racecourse in the Southern Hemisphere, the Champ De Mars.

Visit Quattres Bornes for its lively weekly market (Wednesday mornings), and interesting jazz clubs.

Grand Baie has a booming seafront, bars and restaurants and nightclubs.

Cap Malhereux is not far, with its beaches and fantastic views.

To take a look at old colonial buildings, visit Mahebourg, one of the last towns to display such architecture.

The quiet botanical gardens of Pamplemousses are worth a look. Exotic trees, spices and flowers, fantastic palms, Amazon water lilies, and a deer and tortoise pen.

If you like eating deer instead of petting them, Mauritius has a legal hunting season; there are farms and lodges where you can get guns and guides and hunt on the property.

The Indo-Mauritians brought the Ganga with them to a small lake in Grand Bassin. The annual Mahashivratri pilgrimage here is huge.

Most resorts will organise diving and fishing trips; the better ones will organise sailing and windsurfing expeditions.

Birders will enjoy the Ile Aux Aigrettes Nature Preserve, accessible from Mahebourg.

The Black River Gorge National Park offers good day-trekking. 


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