No, I was heading in the opposite direction to experience life not as a tourist but more as a Mauritian for a week.
“Hop in,” The smiley Mauritian man motioned for me to climb aboard a clapped out old minibus with a dusty exterior and strange Hindu deities hanging from the rear-view mirrors. What I imagine would have been a journey of no more than 30 minutes took us two hours in the hot little clapped-out van shuffling its way slowly along amid a backdrop of sugar cane fields.
We arrived at my home for the next six days: a house with a house built on top of it (as is custom here to build upwards pending the arrival of married sons or daughters-in-law). I noticed instantly the abundance of lush vegetation; bananas and coconuts hung voluptuously from trees. Before being allowed to proceed into the house, a blessing was done and then a cool and very sweet lemonade-type drink – Eski – was served.
The house was conveniently located very close to the Botanical Gardens but somewhat shrouded away from the tourist trail. Toothy and menacing-looking stray dogs prowled the streets in the suburbs of Mauritius, owning them in large packs and challenging anyone who dares cross their path.
Dinner commenced with a few shots of whiskey and some ‘moolkoo’ – a traditional, crunchy savoury snack much-loved by the Mauritians (and very good at soaking up my already increasing alcohol levels) before moving on to a traditional ‘Cari Dholl’.
The following day after some time spent gazing at the ocean and taking in the colourful Tamil temples (a throwback from the Tamil immigrants to Mauritius) in Grand Baie, in the north of the island, a lunch of fried fish and Phoenix Beer was served on the beach. I was instantly drawn by a need to visit the colourful markets and so taking a bus trip on a very hot, sticky day – we made the half hour or so journey to Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
Entering the market was a somewhat frazzled experience in the heat of the sun and the chaos of the crowds. Not to mention the traffic and constant pressuring of shop owners peddling their wares. Despite all of this, the sheer variety of goods on sale made it a worthwhile visit – from clothing to accessories, fruit and snacks of the baked or savoury kind and some very beautiful trinkets. I was also hell-bent on finding a traditional henna artist to enshroud my hands in beautiful, mysterious designs.
After four hours spent trying to find an elusive and one-in-a million male henna artist who was reputedly the best on the island, we found him. An unpretentious, tiny man in an equally unpretentious and tiny apartment – who said nothing but seemed curious as to why a foreigner (who was not getting married) should want to have henna-stained hands. Nevertheless, the money I proffered seemed acceptable to him and he took a seat close to me in the little apartment, deftly layering my fingers with henna vines and bohemian looking flowers. In less than an hour it was done. I was sent on my way and given instructions on what to do and not do. My hands itched and burnt and I had to keep reminding myself not to rub my face. After scraping the last of the seal off the following morning, what was revealed was a dark patchwork of entangled vines and flowers on my hands and arms as if they had indeed sprouted from within my veins overnight.
The last leg of the tour was spent visiting beautiful beaches and taking in the breathtaking views of the Black River Gorges. The strong sunshiny days were broken by the crisp, cool shot of pure coconut water which is sold by vendors at the side of the road; the coconut split open and straw inserted in front of you.
There was also time to try a local delight – ‘Magic Bowl’ – in a little outdoor café in the middle of the island on a sunny Friday afternoon. This Chinese/Mauritian chop suey-type dish topped off with a fried egg was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.
The last stop was tucked away in a valley in the South West of the island – the ‘Rhumerie de Chamarel’ – the rum distillery – which offers rum tastings and tours all amid a beautiful backdrop of the ocean below.
Boarding my flight and saying goodbye to this intriguing island, I said goodbye as someone who’d come to know the island well – and the people – and I hoped I’d return whether as a local or a tourist, I didn’t mind – as long as I could return.
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