Friday, July 27, 2007

Mauritius

Is this a Babel-ish dream? All around me, people who look Indian are chattering away in French. The sky is so blue and the clouds so white it looks like I'm in a Disney animation. The trash cans are bright blue and look more like letterboxes! And I'm sitting in the middle of it all and blogging.




Seen from the plane, Mauritius is a green island in the middle of green ocean. But what shades of green those are! There's vegetation green, then turquoise, then sea-green. Waves break in white on the rocks 25-50 metres off the shores, resulting in a white, foamy necklace encircling the island and separating the two separate shades of green. The drive from the airport was down smooth black roads stretching through sugarcane fields and eventually we saw Port Louis spread out before us as we descended from a slight elevation, driving to this capital town with the ocean glittering beyond it.




I've tagged along with Anando on a subsidised holiday and the discovery that there was a wi-fi hotspot in the middle of it all meant of course I had to sit in it and blog! Our hotel is on one side of the water and the Caudan Waterfront on another. So every morning, Anando puts on a suit and tie, takes his papers and his laptop and gets on a boat to go to work! (Of course, that might even happen in Bombay someday if it rains hard enough!) Today, I took the boat as well and came here to access the world wide web as I sit in the southern hemisphere of our planet for the first time in my life.

The Caudan (pronounced as co-dawn) Waterfront is a popular commercial area of Port Louis, set by the business district of Mauritius. While the words 'Business District' may conjure up images of skyscrapers and fast cars and men in suits I must specify that the Port Louis business disrict is an exception. The tallest building here is 16 storeys high and its neighbours mostly 6 to 8 floors tall. The busy street has 2 lanes and most people are dressed in casuals. There are more restaurants than offices and more people seem to be outdoors than in.

As everyone probably knows, Mauritius is inhabited by a large community of people of East Indian ethnicity. They look like us, but they've been here for generations and no longer know exactly where they came from. So the driver who met us at the airport is called Das, but has no way of knowing whether he is Bengali or not. Most people speak either Bhojpuri or French. I went through an elaborate act of charades to ask the Housekeeping lady when the laundry would be back. Her name was Poonam, she looked like a neighbour of mine back in Bombay and had a parting full of sindoor, wore a bindi but did not understand a word of what I said in English or Hindi. It was strange to think that I would only have been able to communicate with her in French!

The names of local 'Indians' (though they do not consider themselves at all Indian) are generally strange, oddly-spelt variations of common Indian names. So you have their venerated former President, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (Shivasagar Ramgulam?), who smiles benignly from all government surfaces---coins, statues, stamps etc. I wonder if these people have ever considered that they have distant relatives who are possibly eking out a living pulling rickshaws in small-town India. Most of them, I think, really don't care.


Even as I type this, a group of 3 Indians is sharing the bench with me and chatting in French. In what I can only call an RSS nightmare, Hindu youngsters who have known no other country cuddle up in public displays of affection and in completely 'inappropriate' attire. This all looks so strange. The faces are familiar but the setting and the sounds are not!


The little kiosk called Mystic Masala sells Indian fast food, suitably (if inaccurately) explained for the foreign sensibilities. So one could eat Uttapam if one was interested in 'thin Indian pizza'. Or pharatas (sic). Or Fish Goa curry.


All of the Caudan Waterfront is designed as a popular area for tourists to come, shop and eat. Lots of souvenir shops that sell a curious mix of souvenirs with Indian and African influences on the design. Other than dodo miniatures made of every material possible, there's nothing that I wouldn't find in Dilli Haat, though it's 3 times more expensive and being hawked, again, by women with whom I share an appearance but not a language.


The foodcourt has options to eat Indian, French, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexican. The halls have a running exhibition on what I guess are popular print ads, almost all in French. The exception is in English: a picture of a little boy and girl ('Indians', both) and it asks, on behalf of an insurance company, 'have you thought about his future?'

I looked around at the 3 variations of the ad and none of them asked about her future. I wonder if this has stayed with the Indians even as time stripped them of their original language.



The lamp-posts around me are bright blue, there is a casino with a giant stone lion guarding the entrance. The cobblestone streets are for pedestrians only. A loudspeaker blares an unmistakably black voice saying things in French. A carousel plays temporary home to a bunch of happy kids and momentarily-reprieved parents. Its music is typical and annoyingly repetitive. I feel like I am in a Disneylandish world. Away from reality.


And in a way, I am. For next week I will leave this to walk the streets of Bombay, dodging puddles and people, listening to Hindi and Marathi, eating roti-sabzi instead of French-style seafood cooked by once-Indian chefs and served by black women. And it will all seem like a dream. I'm glad I set this down before I woke up.




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11 comments:

Diligent Candy said...

very nice, enjoy your trip in the land of the dodos

OrangeJammies said...

a question: has anybody tried speaking to *you* in Creole, assuming you're Mauritian? Have fun.. and make sure to get back a little slice of the Southern Hemisphere with you. Unless you head Down Under or to Cape Town, you probably won't be southward bound for a while...no?

Sandeepa said...

Where does A work ? Can we get a job there ? How cool is it to go to work in Mauritius !!!

I had a roomie looooooong time back whose ambition was to chuck up her techie job and settle in Mauritius(her fiance was from there anyway) and open a restaurant

aunty g. said...

Hello, Sweetie!
Well-described! Felt like I was with you right there on that bench! And don't think about home -- just soak up all that atmosphere, eat all that other food and be as lovie-dovie with your hubby as those others -- he'll get a kick out of it, and so will you. End of lecture!
Love and hugs:-)

G said...

very cool. we have family pals there and the uncle is called "ladau" something - basically a variation of his petname laddoo!! hee hee hee. i want to see the whole album of pics!!! and since u can get away with it, i suggest a RSS nightmare of your own ;)

Anamika said...

G and Aunty G: Heh heh...would be fun to try and get Anando to co- star in an RSS nightmare. Specially with his colleagues around! Will let you know if I meet with success. On the other hand, I may be sent home on an earlier flight by a crimson husband!

Sandeepa: Your techie friend sure chose a good dream. This place seems to perpetually be on vacation, restuarant waiters have major attitude and everything closes at 5. So she would have had a really relaxed time of it!

OJ: No other travelling anytime soon. The next city I plan to explore (with an able guide) is Mumbai!

Candy: I think of you often while I'm here. My first associations with this country are of you, afterall, and of the photograph you had given me of the beach!

vin said...

And to think we were chatting while you were writing this! Great post in your inimitable style, AJI. And supplemented by pics. Awesome!
Love your li'l observations. About insurance for the boy (her future, her identity is so dependent on his), the over-priced souvenirs for the unknowing tourist (DH can be quite expensive too)...
One quick ques: are the locals worried about global warming? To think that such idyllic landscapes will be submerged over a period of time...

Anamika said...

Vin: I don't see any concerns about global warming, and actually I haven't been able to have a fluent conversation with any of the locals. Will ask Anando what his local colleagues have to say about it, if anything. But on the environment front, I've noticed that they are careful about plastic bags and you have to pay money to get one when you shop, which itself is a deterrent to most people. That's all I know for now.

Akshay said...

Free WIFI in foreign countries are god sent for bloggers like us. I found that out recently in Cambodia. Instead of taking notes in my moleskin - I blogged it - was excellent.

I loved your little vignettes from the place.

dyaus said...

As a Mauritian, I find your description of Port-Louis (and especially Caudan) strangely defamiliarising and very much interesting. I could almost see myself sitting on that bench or sitting there in that foodcourt, trying to figure out whether I wanted to eat Italian or Indian. I suppose it must have seemed very bewildering to see so many 'familiar' faces who persisted - language-wise, at least - to be strangers and aliens. I am not sure how long you've been in Mauritius, given that I haven't had time to peruse your blog, but there probably would have been people around with whom you could have had the sort of conversations you were looking for. Although most of us would more likely be conversing in creole or french,there would be quite a lot who would answer in English or even in Hindi. But it would require a first step from you probably for some of us who are shy. And by the way, I usually can tell when someone who looks 'Mauritian' actually isn't. It's probably the body language that communicates this difference.
Many of us do not really consider ourselves as 'Indian' but we are very much aware of our Indian origins and heritage. While many of us do not know our exact place of origin, we do categorise ourselves according to ethnicity and ancestral language: bhojpuri, tamil, telugu, gujrati, marathi, etc. It's not all a confused mass: we do know who our ancestors were and to some extent, we have retained much of the culture they hung onto when they crossed the unknown to work on this island about a hundred years back.
P.S: I, at least, am worried about global warming. When you live on an island, you can't help noticing changes in temperature and climate. When that tsunami struck South East Asia, we did have very minor rises in water level, which worried us a lot, and which sent our meteo station in a flurry of activity. So yes, it's a concern.

Anamika said...

Thanks for your long and detailed comment on my blog post about Mauritius. It was a delight to receive through my comments a response from the very place I wrote about.

I was in Mauritius for a total of 6 days. So it was a very touristy holiday, with visits to Pereybere and Grand Baie and of course Flic-en-Flac. So if I seem to have made any sweeping generalisations, I am sorry. As for knowing where you come from, in my experience the people I spoke to just about knew they were from India. These were the staff and officers at my husband's client company and some of the drivers we interacted with. We guessed from their last names where they may have originally come from. Therefore my assumption. But later, the day we drove to Flic-en-Flac, I remember we passed a small town where there were lots of people wearing Indian dresses, very dressed up, going to/ coming back from some sort of gathering!

Yeah, I think you would certainly be able to tell the difference between a Mauritian and, say, an Indian. It's something you instinctively know, right? Even if you can't explain it as such. You're also right about the island point. Of course you cannot neglect a reality like global warming. It's just that 6 days are just about enough to walk around and get a superficial sense of a place.

Maybe I will come again someday and get to talk to some people and have a real conversation! I would love to do that.