Red, blue, yellow, green...
The Mauritian flag is proudly floating in the winds. Four colors that perfectly summarize this island known as the Star of the Indian Ocean:
Red. For the bloodshed during the many conflicts, now considered as milestones in its history. For the wrath of the winds, which brings devastating cyclones. Yet, red is also cheerful, festive and passionate in its other shade: the Sega, which is a traditional music accompanied by rhythmic and sensual dance where bodies sway, meet, curve and brush against each other at the beat of percussion.
Blue. Indeed, blue is for the sea that reveals an infinite range of the color: from the turquoise blue lagoon to the indigo blue of the ocean depths. But, also for the azure sky where the clouds appeal our imagination by their ever changing shapes.
Yellow. For the omnipresent sun, which sets aglow the horizon at dusk. For the heat, scorching and moist. For the fine sand that adorns its beaches. And, last but not least, for the curry, the saffron or the cardamom which delight the taste buds through a local spicy cuisine.
Green. Green is for its landscape, a velvety carpet of green: the sugar cane fields that stretch out as far as the eye can see, and the lush vegetation that seems to grow with more sturdiness than anywhere else. Finally, for its sacred lake, Grand Bassin, a highly esteemed place in the Hindu culture, and which is marked with an undeniable spiritual power.
Mauritius is paradise! This leitmotif is being incessantly brought up ever since Mark Twain took the liberty of writing: “Mauritius inspired God to create the Garden of Eden”. I must admit that it’s not only a cliché! Rocked by the breeze, my hammock started a languorous sway. I looked at the many colorful birds gamboling in the filaos (Casuarina trees). I listened to the sea, to the lazy sound of waves breaking a long way off on the coral reefs and then collapsing, completely shattered, in the lagoon to finally die on the fine sand of an idyllic beach. An immense peacefulness filled my whole being...
Convinced of the beauty of the Mauritian beaches and their lagoons, it is now time to learn about the other side of this heavenly picture: inland, its people, and the real life without the contrivances of the sumptuous hotels. For that particular purpose, I will have to leave behind the main tourist attractions where the legendary Mauritian welcome, guided by the lure of money, changes and even becomes aggressive... it’s only too natural to expect this attitude as riches are being shamelessly exposed!
Consequently, I will keep clear of places such as Flic-en-Flac, Morne Brabant, Belle-Mare and the North-West region (Trou-aux-Biches, Grand Baie, Pereybere) and instead, head for the small villages, devoid of any major tourist development, that have melodious sweet names: Mamzelle Jeanne (Miss Jane), Bois Mangue (“Mango Wood”), Bois des Amourettes (“Wood of little flings”), Petit Gamin (“Little Kid”), Grande Rosalie (“Big Rosalie”), Petite Julie (“Little Julia”), Poudre d'Or (“Gold Dust“), Sans Soucis (“Carefree”), Pomponette, Bel Ombre (“Nice Shade”), Beau Champ (“Beautiful Field”), Bon Air (“Fresh Air”)...
These are small regions that are different and quite a change from the old routine. They are wonderful villages full of amazing hallmarks where you will come across a mixture of different cultures and traditions. There, you will also encounter a rebellious yet bewitching nature, strangely sculpted and enchanting mountains, cliffs that overhang stormy sea - an unusual scene in this island that has an ever present lagoon - and wild and deserted beaches that will mesmerize romantic souls. The island has disconcerting sides. I am driving on the left, the signs and markings are in English but everyone uses French while talking to me. In a particular street, a hawker is selling doughnuts and dholl puri (sort of pancakes), the fragrance of curry scents the air, women in shimmering saris are strolling about, and incense sticks are burning in a small temple of Lord Shiva, I picture myself in India... Then suddenly, the muezzin’s call pulled me out of my thoughts: a mosque, veiled women, small cluttered stalls, everything reminds me of the East. Further on, a grocer's shop is brimming over with goods; I am now “in the Chinese shop” where trade is in full swing. At the far end of an alley, hedges of corrugated iron sheets kept out of view modest-looking houses from which a booming sega could be heard. Rows of bougainvillea and flourishing flamboyants add a cheerful touch to this rather bleak Creole locality. Indeed, it is a complete change of scene to come across so many cultures and traditions in only one village!
These communities live together and accept their differences without any significant clashes. Mauritians show the same tolerance with regard to the stranger that I am. They are easy to get on with and often end up telling me about their life, the customs in Mauritius, but it's also a means to know me better. A flood of questions will thus follow: where do I come from? What do I do for a living? Am I married? A natural curiosity is present in Mauritians, an urge to discover the other. I had the chance to talk to them on many occasions and each time, their availability and kindness surprised me. Whether it was for showing me the way, advising me on the visit of places of interest, inviting me to a wedding, initiating me to their culture, spontaneously helping me to push my car, which refused to start, or simply for exchanging a few words. Why do they do that? There’s no particular reason except for the pleasure of conversing for a brief moment. During those times, I realized to what extent, we, Westerners hurried and concerned only about productivity, have lost the touch of spontaneity and sharing. Proud of their island, they often ask me if I like Mauritius and are delighted to find out that I am deeply interested in their country and its multitude of traditions. Here, I learn once again how to open up to others and I get this pleasant feeling that I am the most welcome! In Mauritius, hospitality is not an empty word.
From my peregrinations, it was obvious that the rapid economic development of the island, much envied by its African neighbors, did not put an end to the existing social disparities. Life is a continuous struggle for many people residing in Mauritius. To smooth their everyday lives by any means, they will cultivate a patch of ground, rear some hens and goats, or grow fruit trees. Taking into account the meagre salaries, it is quite impossible to live alone. Undoubtedly, it is partly for this reason that Mauritians have acquired a thorough sense of living together in a family. All the members help one another faithfully and bring the remaining essentials for the smooth running of their family life. United, the clan meets on Sunday at a public beach to party. Uncles, aunts, cousins, friends... everybody is warmly welcomed and they get together in good spirits, relishing the present moment without bothering about tomorrow, which might not be all roses. In spite of all the trials that they went through, yet, I did not hear a single complaint, only their enthusiasm had the upper hand and their strong liking for life. A farmer, who is also a sega singer in his spare time, told me the following in a melodious Creole: "Ena cass, péna cass, pas faire nan-nyé! L’importance profite la vie, dansé, chanté, bien manzé, boire et amizé quand nou tou ensemble!" (Rich or poor, it does not matter; the important thing is to make the most out of life, to dance, to sing, to eat well, to drink and to enjoy when we are all together). A true and fine lesson of life!
However, if there is one place where they are in no mood to joke and have fun, it’s well behind the wheels! Even though the Mauritian has a calm and courteous nature, these qualities fade away all of a sudden when he is on the bitumen. Just like a Formula One pilot, the road is his: he vies with others in hooting, cuts the bends and corners, does not give way to others in priority, smashes blithely the speed limits, overtakes without any visibility, pulls back in at the very last moment, and of course, cuts in in front of any vehicle! As one taxi driver was rightly saying: in Mauritius, we do not drive on the left... nor on the right... but in the middle! These perpetual dangers do not seem to particularly affect the Mauritians, I have only rarely observed a driver insulting or threatening the faulty person with a furious gesture. The typical Mauritian “zen” side soon takes the upper hand and so much the better!
To soothe my emotions, there is nothing like lounging about in the magnificent botanical garden of Pamplemousses; quietness and peace are guaranteed. Generally, I dread places of interest that are much prized by tourists, but this time I admit that I was pleasantly surprised. Behind a splendid portal in wrought iron, I discovered a genuine “plant museum” of an unequalled wealth. Through the alleys of palm trees that brought me to the lake of lotus, then to that of giant waterlilies, I let a pleasant feeling of serenity engulf me. Along the different paths, I came across centuries-old trees which were totally unknown till now. All my senses alert, I caught sight of pretty dragonflies, heard the aquatic frolics of a grey heron, breathed in the rich fragrance of a cinnamon stick, touched the rough bark of a mahogany tree and tasted the sweet and refreshing flavor of a “mangue-pomme” (“apple-mango”). Strolling through this green oasis would be a sheer pleasure if the visitors respected the premises better and did not abandon the remnants of their picnics all over the garden...
It is now time to leave this tropical Eden and to go back to the fine beach that I had left for a few days. Only then, rocked in my hammock facing the sea, just like a real tourist, that I will be able to think back on the splendid treasures in which Mauritius abounds... no, I am not thinking about its idyllic littoral invaded by luxury hotels but about its lands that shelter a modest population, but so wealthy in spontaneity and kindness!
Text & photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra