Mauritius is a smallish island in the Indian Ocean which is notoriously tricky to spell right first time. It’s not too far from the coast of Africa and just next door to Madagascar, the island which is now famous for being a cartoon. It’s a beautiful island, with lush inland vegetation belying its volcanic base, and spectacular coastlines – stretches of white sand beaches and lagoons of azure blue sea, created by a network of densely populated coral reef. Drive through the rural interior and you’ll discover mile upon mile of sugar plantations, once the biggest industry on the island, before tourism took its crown.
It’s also the home of the dodo, a bird famous for being extinct.
The island has had many visitors and indeed occupiers from around the world, dating back to Medieval times, from Arab nations, to a variety of Europeans such as the Portugese, the Dutch, French and, obviously, the British. A further consequence of these European intrusions was the influx of an Indian populace, first as a result of indentured workers after the abolition of the slave trade in the 1830s and then through military personnel during the height of Britain’s Empire later that century. Mauritius has also, through the ages, seen a not insignificant influence from China.
The result of such a diverse influence of nationalities is a modern Mauritius which serves a true melting pot of cultures; providing the island with a distinctly multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic identity.
My wife and I visited Mauritius in September 2000. It was our honeymoon and, after much deliberation, opted for the chance to chill out on an idyllic island, a long way from the hectic year we had just experienced. We stayed in a beautiful resort on the east coast of the island which smelled faintly of vanilla and was serviced by some of the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met in my life. On one day, midway through the holiday we joined a coach party to take us into the island’s capital, Port Louis.
Port Louis was a different experience from the exotic peacefulness of the coast; a bustling town teeming with life and traffic. Of honking horns, crowded pavements and exotic smells emanating from the food stalls of the huge market in its centre. A town of deliberately unfinished buildings (a way of paying less tax apparently) and homes, adjacent to offices and shops, restaurants and places of worship. Mosques next to Synagogues, Temples next to Churches. A vibrant city that spoke in many tongues (English, French, Creole, Chinese and a raft of Indian dialects) and worshipped in many ways, all happily integrated, comfortable in their neighbour’s culture and choices.
Our guide, a funny and friendly woman of Muslim faith who spoke English with a faintly French accent took the coach party to eat at a Chinese restaurant near the market, the entire party sitting around two large adjacent tables. As we ate from the delicious buffet our guide told us that this was, in fact, a particularly popular restaurant with the locals, especially on the weekends. A restaurant where friends and neighbours of different backgrounds and various religions would congregate to catch up and share a meal after their visits to church, or the call to prayer or weekly blessing.
My wife and I thought that was really rather cool.