09 December 2011

Mauritius - Mixture of Cultures

The hot, moist, earthy smelling air hits you as soon as you leave the airport building after landing in Mauritius. It smells so exotic that we could not wait to sample new delights whilst exploring this island! We came to love this earthy smell, mixed with warm air as if we were in a hot-house.

We set off with our driver to our hotel. Passing by fields of sugar cane and many small houses in poor condition, some only half completed, we discovered that this is apparently a tax dodge. It does nothing to make the place look well-kept! Tiny shops line the road with living quarters above. Some of the shops are right on the road, with nowhere to hide if a bus gets in your way. Scooters and bicycles abound and drivers all appear very courteous. The dogs all look very thin and sickly which was rather disturbing.

With a sea temperature of between 22 - 27 degrees C, the beach was a first stop for a fantastic swim on calm, beautiful water.

Our first expedition, after a restful night, was to Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens, officially named after Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. These gardens cover approx 37 ha and are truly beautiful. We were fascinated by the Talipot Palm which grows for 30 - 60 years before it bears it's flowers. Once it has flowered, it will die and will need to be cut down. Weird!  There are many other palm trees and the huge Amazon Lilies with their upturned edges are an amazing sight.The edges are thorny so that the fish won't nibble on them. Their flowers open for 2 days only, the first day they are cream and the second day they are pink. The Lotus flower was in another pond and this is a flower sacred to the Hindus. The tortoises are up to 250 years old - amazing that a tortoise lives for so long - perhaps there is a lesson in that - we all need to slow down somewhat!! Do take some mosquito repellent with you as the mosquitoes attacked us in their hundreds - whether this was because it suddenly rained I have no idea. A truly fascinating botanical garden.

A visit to the Le Cauden Waterfront in Port Louis will empty your purse but give you good mementos of Mauritius. This city is the capital of Mauritius and was first used as a port way back in 1638. The traffic congestion is a nightmare and it takes ages to get around the city. We did not visit the local market as there were hordes of people in the vicinity and after sitting in the traffic jam, we preferred to go to the Waterfront which was less busy. Do watch out for pick-pockets in any busy market. Port Louis has a large harbour and the city was built on reclaimed land.

Mauritians are very family focused and the various religions are also tolerant of each other so you will have Muslims living right next door to Hindu's or Christians with no animosity. Many of the locals are from French descent and the languages spoken are English, Creole and French. A fascinating blend!

The hotel where we stayed hosted many local families for the New Year Dinner/Dance so we were very lucky to be able to converse with locals and hear their stories and some of their history. The entertainment was good with an amazing Fire Dance where they all ended up jumping through burning hoops! Not for me, thanks.

The Sega dance came next and this was amazing. The dancers wear very brightly coloured costumes and the ladies skirts are wide and able to swirl and sway with the hip movements. This tradition was started by sad and homesick slaves in the 18th century as they drank "arrack" from sugar cane and sang and danced to their soulful songs. Today the tradition lives on although there are no longer slaves on this interesting island. The music comes from guitars, triangles and the ravanne. The dancers are extremely good and hauled us onto the floor to our huge dismay, as the hips just did not want to flow as sexily as theirs did! But we lived to tell the tale of how NOT to dance the Sega. Fabulous fireworks on the beach brought in the New Year and then we danced some more until the knees started protesting after all the exercise.

Taxi's are fairly cheap in Mauritius so we took one down to Ill de Cerfs. Our Muslim driver was a mine of information about local customs. Hindus are in the majority with Muslim, Catholics and Chinese all getting along together. It is apparently a sign of mistrust if you lock your door when going out for the day as the neighbours will always watch out for each other. On feast or holy  days they offer each other food as per their own customs and a tolerance exists that is to be envied.

The Hindus were taking food baskets to the temple for New Years day (food for the Gods) and we stopped to admire the beautiful Hindu Temple. Apparently, the caste system is disappearing from the local Hindus as they marry outside of their caste. Always beautifully dressed, the Hindus look gracious and proud. Each Hindu house has a shrine in the garden, some more ornate than others. There are also roadside shrines, with candles burning and food available. Hindu women all have dots on their foreheads. A red dot means that she is married whilst unmarried ladies may choose the colour of their dot to match the outfit of the day. More fun that I would say than a plain red dot for many, many years of married life. But less stress than keeping a myriad of colours ready to match your clothes, I suppose.

The clothing manufacturing industry, such as Ralph Lauren & Polo, the sugar cane industry and tourism are the main income producers for this small island. Many of the locals own their own small supermarket shops, others are taxi drivers or employed in the tourist industry. The French speaking Chinese appeared to be the wealthiest, judging by their cars! 

We took a boat across to Ile de Cerf and walked around the island, stopping every 10 minutes to have a swim. Although the water is so warm, it still cools you off for another 10 minutes or so. We found a gorgeous swimming spot just before the mangrove swamps. We had to turn back at this point and head back towards the lagoon. The water is so clear and shallow at this point that one can just wallow for ages. On the way back to the mainland it suddenly started raining so we got soaked to the skin - but warm rain! There were huge puddles of water on the roads so the driver had to be more cautious. We passed an amazing tree which had curved right across the road and then put down roots on the other side making an arch across the roadway. I loved the Flame trees with their bright red flowers. We were sorry to say good-bye to our driver who had kept us so well entertained during the drive. His recurring comment was about the "Political Mens" whom he feared would disturb the peace and bring about religious tension. We hope his fears turn out to be unfounded.

Our next exploration was to the Seven Earths. Model Ship building is renowned in Mauritius and James succumbed and bought the "Bounty"  The packing of this fragile ship was nothing short of miraculous and quite something to watch.

 We passed Phoenix, a pretty town with lots of trees and clean looking streets.
Floreal is a very posh area with ambassador's residences and houses for the rich. There are stunning views to be enjoyed from Troux aux Cerfs (Hole with Deer) crater across to the mountains. Curepipe is the 2nd largest town in Mauritius and has a population of approx 82,000. Located on the Central Plateau, the soil is fertile in this region. Mauritius produces most if it's own vegetables, fruit, tea, sugar and clothing. Most other commodities have to be imported.

Grand Bassin has been declared a holy lake by the Hindus and the lake is dotted with various temples. A strong smell of incense lingers in the air and one is allowed to visit some shrines - just remember that shoes and socks must be removed before entering.

Our next stop was the village of Chamarel where we enjoyed a great lunch in the company of a Zimbabwean honeymoon couple. We all set the world to rights over drinks and lunch but, sadly, Zimbabwe is still in turmoil despite our efforts! The Chamarel Falls are lovely. This area also has the only coffee plantation in Mauritius. The Seven Earths are an amazing sight - this is volcanic rock which has cooled are various temperatures and left different colours and hues in the rocks. Nothing will grow here as the mineral content is too high so one sees the bare rock in all it's glorious shapes, angles and colours.

Taxi or Bus to Grande Bay?
We decided to take a taxi but could not get our previous driver and this one sort of ripped us off as the ride was not very long. Grand Bay is a bustling tourist town with many shops catering for the tourists, a lovely big supermarket for those doing self-catering, loads of hotels right on the beach, watersports on offer, restaurants and a busy beach. After wandering round the stalls we decided to get back to our own beach for a leisurely swim. We took the bus back - a bone-shaking experience but it gave us a taste of "local" services! We used the bus a few times and some drivers were great, very friendly and helpful and others were diabolical and drove like maniacs! I suppose it takes all sorts.

Most of the public beaches are well frequented by local families. You will find granny playing Blind Man's Bluff or some game or other, the men are all huddled together playing their card games and the ladies organise the picnics and the caching up on family news. Very busy but also very peaceful. We did not spot any unruly behaviour despite the large crowds.

Another favourite pastime for the local men, besides their card games, is horse racing! Their famous race track is outside of Port Louis and will be 200 years old in 2012. Obviously a pleasurable pastime for many.

A large part of our time was taken up swimming, canoeing or paddle-boating. We also took a glass-bottomed boat and the coral was amazing. Depending on your taste for action, there are many water-sports available, yacht trips, dives etc. The hotels all have evening entertainment which can vary from entertaining to "what a bore" - it just depends! We ended up with a singer one night who absolutely KILLED all our favourite songs. He would not have made the first round of any talent show! Hopefully, he has changed careers by now. Rain during the evening does not deter anybody - it pours for 10 - 15 mins, the dance floor is like a shallow pool, the staff all come along with brooms as soon as the rain stops, and hey presto, the floor is swept dry and the dancing continues! Amazing stuff.

There are many beaches that can be visited - we did explore quite a few. The water is so divine I could have slept in it! You have guessed - I do like warm water!

We loved our time in Mauritius, meeting the locals, doing some sight-seeing and just enjoying the sea (take plastic sandals for swimming in some parts)
We also enjoyed the birds visiting our balcony while we enjoyed our sundowners and spotted Red Whiskered Bulbul, little Sparrows, Myna bird (more cautious) and the cheekiest of them all, the Madagascan Fody - a beautiful red bird who was always on the look-out for food.

Whilst the Seychelles may be more glamorous and much more expensive, our experience of this small island was truly wonderful. A chap sitting on the plane behind us, on our way home, was totally sold on his annual holiday to Mauritius!

© Judelle Drake


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