Mauritius the melting pot

By Pamela Wade

Its location is little-known but its cultural appeal is huge - Pamela Wade throws herself into the Mauritian mix.

The harvest is done by hand in Mauritius' many smaller sugarcane fields. Photo / Pamela Wade
The harvest is done by hand in Mauritius' many smaller sugarcane fields. Photo / Pamela Wade

People panic quietly when I tell them I'm going to Mauritius. Their eyes slide sideways as they think, "Where is that? Should I know? Is it in the Caribbean?" Eyes clear a little when I explain smugly, "It's an island over near Madagascar. It's where the dodos lived."

However, it's just as well I'm not in charge of navigation because, having asked Air Mauritius ("They have their own airline?") for a window seat so that I can look down at Australia on the journey from Melbourne, it turns out the route is southerly, and there's nothing to see but sea. As for "near Madagascar", try 1100km away.

I was right about the dodos, though. When the Portuguese arrived early in the 16th century, they found the island swarming with these metre-high, flightless birds which, never having seen people before, were disarmingly unafraid. They should have been: very afraid.

Some of them were eaten - the meat was apparently irredeemably tough - but it was the rats, deer and pigs introduced by the Dutch who came along later that really did for the dodo, destroying both their eggs and their habitat.

By 1688 they were all gone, the first species officially made extinct by human action, only their name living on as shorthand for something that's been lost forever.

Considering how numerous they were, it's surprising and sad how little is left of them: in the Dodo Gallery of the Natural History Museum in the capital of Port Louis, there are two reconstructed skeletons, a scattering of bones and a plaster model, fat and feathery, by the door.

Reproductions of the Savery paintings that inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland character hang on the wall, but even they are suspected of being caricatures rather than accurate depictions.

Not knowing exactly what the dodo looked like hasn't stopped the locals from turning it into an icon. Besides the one on the national coat of arms (facing, ironically, one of the deer that helped to annihilate it) there are dodos on T-shirts, bags and sarongs; there are stuffed toys and paintings; dodos made of silver and nautilus shells; and carved from wood and stone.

At a viewpoint over the spectacularly steep and jungly Black River Gorge, I buy one made of shimmering moonstone from a chatty man who's packing up his stall for the day.

"First time in Mauritius?" he asks.

"Where you from?"

When I tell him, he beams.

"Ah, kiwi! We like to eat kiwis. Very good for you!"

After a moment of horror, we establish that he means kiwifruit, and then he invites my friend and me home for dinner. This doesn't surprise me: I've already discovered that friendliness is second nature to Mauritians. It seems hardly fair that such a remarkably attractive people should be beautiful on the inside as well, but that's the way it's worked out here, despite an inauspicious start.

A history of slavery, fierce resistance to its abolition, the importation of mass indentured labour and a series of colonial masters - Dutch, French, British - could have ended badly: similar stories elsewhere have had tragic consequences.

Mauritius, though, reminds me of the Blue Mink song from the seventies about the great big melting pot turning out "coffee-coloured people by the score".

Generations of intermarriage between African, European, Indian and Chinese people have resulted in a society that's harmonious, yet not boringly homogeneous.

There'll be a mosque across the street from a church, next to a Hindu temple; people wear saris, scarves, kurtas and kufis, or skimpy, clinging modern dress that I've rarely seen look so good.

The calendar is scattered with holidays and festivals enjoyed by everyone; and the food combines elements from each culture with the tropical fruits and spices that grow so readily on the island.

Our first meal at Tamassa resort encapsulates all this: in a restaurant called La Playa, metres from a beach of soft white sand edging a turquoise lagoon that could be in Rarotonga, we meet the Hindu chef and his Muslim assistant who speak in French-accented English. They serve us tapas: little dishes of palm heart, octopus vindaye, lightly smoked marlin, a fish curry with prawn rougaille, and finally a berry bavarois with - masterstroke - a chocolate brandy-snap. Delicious fusion food prepared with passion is the norm, whether it's poached scallops with mascareigne flowers at a fancy hotel or aubergine fritters and finger-licking dhal puri bought from a street vendor.

The most important ingredient of this Creole cuisine is company: as we drive around the island, never more than an hour away from any point, we see feasts with friends and family taking place under the casuarina trees that line the beaches.

They're leisurely, all-day picnics with games, music and dancing, and as we wander past one group of elderly Indian ladies, we're drawn into their circle to shuffle self-consciously to the simple rhythms of drum, chimes and tambourine until, laughing, they let us go again.

We zip along tree-lined avenues past elegant old colonial buildings with rows of shuttered windows, and crawl through small scruffy towns where brightly painted houses line the narrow roads.

In Mahebourg we bargain for finely woven baskets at a market that's dominated by bright fruit and vegetables. In Port Louis we pause to listen to live jazz in a classy shopping centre where stylishly dressed young people pose and parade around the waterfront precinct, past window displays of luxury goods.

Out in the country again, we pass endless fields of sugar-cane dotted with pyramids of rocks piled up by slaves, where teams of women bend and straighten, bend and straighten, their machetes flashing as they cut and trim the tall canes. The landowner is leaning on a rake, watching them. We stop to watch too and he's pleased to meet us.

"First time to Mauritius?" he asks.

"You like our country?"

We tell him yes, very much, as the sun shines down on the blue mountain peaks, the white plumes of the cane flowers and the vivid green of the leaves; and the women bend and straighten, bend and straighten.

In the next river we cross, the women are simply bent. As their children play in the shallows, they stand thigh-deep in the water, skirts tucked up, scrubbing and rinsing shirts, sheets, tablecloths.

"Cheaper than a washing machine," says our driver blithely, and I wonder when he last whacked a towel against a rock in a river; but in truth the women look cheerful, chatting and laughing and taking satisfaction in a job well done in good company.

We climb up into the dramatic volcanic highlands that are cut by steep ravines. There are plunging waterfalls, swooping fruit-bats and a towering statue of Shiva shining gold across a sacred lake where a worshipper quietly chants his Hare Krishnas and cats sit reflected in the glassy water, basking in the last rays of the sun.

My friend trips on a step, grazing her knee, and the temple caretaker binds it with a red prayer banner he unties from a railing.

"First time to Mauritius?" he asks.

"Where you from?"

When we answer "New Zealand", I see quiet panic in his eyes.

"Over near Australia," I add helpfully.

"It's where the kiwifruit come from."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Mauritius is ideally placed for a stop-off on a route to Europe. It is also the most direct way to get to South Africa. Air Mauritius flies weekly from Sydney through Melbourne, with direct flights onwards to a range of destinations.

It's an early morning flight, so stay overnight in the heart of Melbourne at Causeway 353.

Where to stay: The Naiade resorts, Tamassa, Legends and Beau Rivage, offer comfort, fabulous settings and excellent restaurants. You haven't lived, if you haven't had the choice of lavender or ylang ylang soap shaved for you each evening.

Further information: Mauritius has beautiful tropical beaches, but also spectacular volcanic scenery, excellent tramping, fascinating culture and a lively history. See mauritiustourism.org for more information.

Pamela Wade's trip to Mauritius was hosted by Air Mauritius and Naiade resorts.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 25 Jul 2014 00:04:03 Processing Time: 864ms