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Open Features: Mauritius - A Model For Heaven, Or...?

“It is not unusual to be asked to dinner one night and sit down to a chicken and seafood curry accompanied by a vast selection of chutneys and achards, and the next, something very different, such as a starter of palm hearts, and an entrecote of steak with hollandaise sauce or perhaps a dish of tuna in fresh lime…’’

Mary Basham savours the food on the paradise island of Mauritius, but also experiences frustrations...and itchy ankles.

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Mark Twain wrote in his ‘Following the Equator’ account of his travels in 1897, ‘You get the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven’. If he were right, then I have just spent a month in paradise. On the other hand, I was quite pleased to have a return ticket to England, especially to such a wonderful Indian summer.

Don’t get me wrong, I like going to the island. In fact, this was my fifth visit, mainly because my partner is Mauritian and I feel guilty about living so near my roots and he lives so far away from his. That guilt tends to evaporate the moment we land at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Airport and I encounter the first of many ‘It’s no problem, ma’m’ – and you just know it will be!

Mauritian people are a wonderful mixture of Creole, Indian, Chinese and European (mostly of French extraction), the result of 400 years as a sugar cane island and one time ‘Gateway to the Indian Ocean’ before the opening of the Suez Canal. Anyone could be a Mauritian, although obviously dark hair and brown eyes have risen to the top of the gene pool.

It’s the same with religion, a complete mixture. Temples and mosques often co-habit the same district, even road, and Catholic and Anglican churches sprinkle the island. Whilst we were there Ramadan and Pooja were going strong, with Diwali and Eid following on. It seems as if religious tolerance gives everyone a constant round of celebrations, if not your own, then the spin offs from your neighbour’s feasting.

The benefits of such a multi-racial, multi-cultural society really comes into its own when food is at stake; the cuisine is truly never ending. It is not unusual to be asked to dinner one night and sit down to a chicken and seafood curry accompanied by a vast selection of chutneys and achards, and the next, something very different, such as a starter of palm hearts, and an entrecote of steak with hollandaise sauce or perhaps a dish of tuna in fresh lime. Food is definitely a plus factor and if Mark Twain is right about Mauritius as a model for heaven, then the food is certainly manna.

So where does paradise fall short for me? Certainly not in the silver beaches, warm, turquoise waters, lush vegetation and vast range of exotic fruits – straight from the tree.
It falls short in a number of the things we take for granted here.

Red tape and beaurocracy may infuriate us at home, especially those call centre monologues we have to endure, but believe me, it’s nothing like Mauritius. To renew your road tax on the island requires a visit to the capital and a very long, frustrating wait. Likewise, if you want to see any official, however minor, take the entire day off.

My partner and I have been doing a spot of research into his family tree on our last two visits. The previous year was all about ‘making the contacts’, this year we got somewhere. Not too far, you understand, petty officialdom cannot be entirely sidelined or circumnavigated in just four weeks.

Unfortunately in the confusion of French rule (1710 – 1810), British (1810 until Independence in 1968) and in the infant years of self government, systematic archiving has been rather haphazard. Whilst there are numerous primarily documents in existence, they have been randomly stored and the atmosphere and insects have not treated them kindly. Frustration sets in when you are desperate to go through the ‘A’s’ in the early census and you find some paper-boring creature has beaten you too it. It seems they work alphabetically too and never in reverse!

Frustration also takes hold on a walk through the streets of the capital, Port Louis and see the way old houses are being allowed to collapse where they stand. Given that the island has only been inhabited by humans for a short space of time in the grand scheme of world history, material heritage has not been high priority. It is true Mauritius is in the cyclone belt and it is also true that as an emerging nation other things may have seemed more important, but if some of these old dwellings are not restored soon, in the few years there will be nothing left – and that would be a pity. The tiny wooden structures are tangible evidence of those early days, when people must have endured extremely difficult conditions in order to live in the colony.

Tourists of course, are offered excursions to the great plantation houses that dot the island. Built on the sugar cane estates, they represent the wealth held by certain families during the 18th and 19th centuries and are persevered in historical ‘aspic’. Eureka for example, a colonial house near Moka, has a backdrop of mountains straight out of a child’s drawing book. It nestles in its lush setting as if it too, grew out of the earth and to take lunch on its terrace is to step back a 150 years with the ease. You can also stay the night in one of four ‘cottages’ within the grounds, lulled to sleep after dining in style, by the sound of a nearby waterfall tumbling down into the ravine.

If that all sounds not too far out of kilter with Mark Twain’s sentiments then let me add a final note of caution. Lushness and sub-tropical conditions spell insects that like humans; lots of insects. They descend out of the night and find the juiciest bits of you on which to feast. European skin is a speciality. I refer in the main to the mosquito, sometimes a silent attacker, sometime an annoying whine that seems distant but you just know it will result in an angry, itchy lump. Although malaria is not a problem for Mauritius, the new mosquito-carried worry is Chikungunya, a high fever and aching joints illness that can go on for months. Whilst most people do recover from it, there have been fatalities and warnings have gone out to travellers to use mosquito repellents and cover up, especially after dark.

And did I do any or all of this, yes I did. I went to the chemist before departure and bought the spray, the cream and the ‘stop the itch’ stuff just in case any insect managed to get through and guess what, despite everything I got bitten. They left their mark on my ankle, a favourite place so I gather and whilst the bites may not have given me Chikungunya, they certainly gave me the itch!

All of which leaves me with the distinct impression that Mark Twain may well have been right about the natural beauty of Mauritius, but it’s always the little things in life that end up ‘bugging’ you.

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