Mauritian melange

By Andrew Bock, published Travel magazine

Even the flag is a brightly coloured mélange. Bold horizontal stripes display the three primary colours above a fourth stripe of bright green. A Mauritian priest, Father Souchon, once called their combination of races “our arc-en-ciel”. The rainbow of the Mauritian people.


Mauritius was only populated by the dodo before Dutch Europeans settled the island in 1638 and even though the dodo is not only extinct, but, to its undying chagrin, a universal metaphor for poor survival skills, the story of Mauritius is nevertheless a story of survival.


Three European powers, Dutch, French and then English, successively ruled the small island east of Madagascar. But the real story of survival in Mauritius belongs to the African, Indian and Chinese slaves and labourers brought over to work on sugar, tea and spice plantations.


It is their descendants that in a democratic sense inherited the island after the British conceded independence in 1968.


The most famous early story of survival comes from Le Morne, a great sheer-walled, flat-topped mountain on the southwest coast of Mauritius, that became a refuge for escaped slaves.


From the 1700s until abolition in 1835, escaped slaves fled and hid on top of the mountain. It has a fertile plateau with fields and caves that could only be reached by a tree trunk hung over a treacherous crevice. Sometimes up to 50 families lived on the mountain.


The last community of maroons were so determined not to be recaptured they stayed on Le Morne for 25 years after slavery was abolished. In 1860, the army sent a group of soldiers to tell them slavery was over and fearing recapture, many threw themselves off the cliffs rather than return to the memory of slavery.


Creole leaders have established a world heritage fund and applied to have Le Morne listed as a world heritage site with Unesco.


Today Le Morne’s flanks slope down to four and five star resorts, golf courses, boat harbours and small paradises for international travellers. Sun-bleached bougainvillea petals waft across white sand beaches passed by casual catamarans, windsurfers and water skiers. Beautiful wood and stone architecture is surrounded by tiled swimming pools and fountains.


More than half the population are of Indian descent, mostly Hindu. Around 30 percent are Creole, five per cent Chinese or Malay, and the rest are of European descent, mostly French.


A mosaic of cultural influences becomes obvious as you travel the island.


In Mauritius, afternoon tea is taken with vanilla. White rum is steeped with fruits, herbs and spices. Markets sell tropical fruits and Aryuvedic herbs. The Air Mauritius in flight video screens a 20 minute yoga and breathing course for plane travellers. There are painted churches for the Catholic Creoles and Muslim and Hindu temples by the roadside.


In resorts, sublime health spas are sponsored by French cosmetics companies like Clarins while vanilla and sandalwood oils fill the air with elegant aromas. Incredible smorgasbord breakfasts are standard with French produce, fine cheeses, hams, granolas, yoghurts and brioches alongside tropical fruits, sauces and drinks.


Most Mauritians speak English and French, the two official languages of the country, but at home, everyone speaks Creole, a sassy hybrid of French, English and African.


At the seven day, “International Kreol Festival” in December, several sessions were devoted to the politics of Creole language and culture, which is still not taught in schools.


Near Le Morne, around Black River, I met Audrey Hardy, an amazing French Mauritian woman who has established a half way home and school for 30 Creole street kids. Ms Hardy’s volunteer team gives young street kids a meal a day, clothes, lessons, and a sense of family. Her goal is to help these and another 200 spirited creole children in the region catch up with other kids, rejoin school and buck the cycle of poverty. “We try to give them the basic things they don’t have. And a vision, and hope,” she said.


The popular music of Mauritius, Sega music, evolved from Saturday night gatherings of African slaves on the beaches. The infectious music has gentle east African rhythms infused with something like reggae and blues singing and is danced at concerts by women of all ages in flamboyant cotton skirts.


Creole food is eaten in all Creole homes but we had to drive inland to Moka’s Escale Creole, to find one of the few authentically Creole restaurants.


A typical home cooked Creole meal is a smorgasbord of six or seven lightly spiced dishes, a pulse, some salted fish, a gentle meat curry, vegetable dishes, a pickle, some rice and a bowl of chilli sauce. “At the start it’s very plain but it’s the way we mix it that makes all the difference,” said our hostess, Marie-Christine, with a winning Creole smile.


Dr Karl Mootoosamy, philosopher and tourism director, said “Créolité is the mortar for the different cultures in Mauritius because of its generosity of spirit.”


Mauritius exports tuna among other food products but local Creole fishermen still ply wooden sailing boats with bamboo masts that bend in the wind beneath bright coloured sails. They race them on weekends in colourful regattas.


Sunday is family day at public beaches, like Flic en Flac, that lay between the private resorts and homes of the international rich and famous that ring the island.


Mark Twain in his 1898 travelogue, “Following the Equator”, called the sea around Mauritius “just about the divinist color known to nature.” As a surfer, I’ve travelled a few tropical beaches but I agree with Twain. The lagoon waters that encircle Mauritius are such a brilliant aqua, they clash with the sky. The sheltered waters are blue topaz and aquamarine. At times I felt like was swimming through gemstone.


Mauritian people have an easy going grace and equanimity. Indian culture is everywhere diffused by European sensibilities. Yet underneath the equanimity and tolerance there is something stronger. Some combination of deep survival and love of life. Something Creole.


In the colours of the Mauritian flag, red stands for the struggle for independence. Blue for the Indian Ocean. Yellow for hope for a bright future. Green for nature.


© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.