MARCH 15-19, AT SEA
After our last stop in Australia, we headed mostly west and then a bit north towards the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The sea caressed us with deep undulating swells, spaced far apart. Steve doesn’t think “caress” is a fitting description, but I’m the writer, so it stays.
MARCH 20 – Port Louis, MAURITIUS (Maiden Call)
In 1598 the Dutch navy landed on the uninhabited shores of Mauritius after being blown off course by a cyclone on their way to the Spice Islands. They named it in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau. In 1638, they established the first permanent settlement with colonists from Holland’s Indonesian communities. They clear cut centuries-old ebony trees, and replaced them with sugarcane (a prolific weed) that drained the soil of nutrients and made it impossible to grow anything else. Unfortunately, there were no ecologists to warn about the irreversible environmental damage. The flightless Dodo bird became extinct a mere 60 years after the Dutch arrived. How deplorable is that! They were killed off by the animals the settlers introduced and by destruction of habitat. If only evolution hadn’t taken away their wings, they could have had a fighting chance. The small community struggled against severe weather patterns and the harshness of isolation before deciding to abandon the island in 1710.
Soon after, the French, who already had a colony established at the nearby island of Reunion, claimed Mauritius. The settlers were plagued with the same problems as their predecessors, but they persevered and the settlement grew. The British took control during the Napoleonic Wars. They brought indentured workers (glorified slaves) from India to toil in the sugarcane fields which were (and still are) harvested by hand. It took them five years of grueling labor to “work off” the fee they were charged for the boat ride from India, before making any wages.
Mauritius gained their independence in 1968 and the majority of the population is Indian, which seemed so odd, considering the island is an african nation. The population of Port Louis, where the ship docked, is about 1.2 million. We decided not to rent a car after reading that the traffic builds to a “horrendous volume” in the narrow streets by mid morning and that most drivers don’t have licenses and/or are uninsured.
I know you are tired of hearing me complain about how hot and humid some of the stops have been… but Mauritius was even worse then Singapore. We were coated in sticky sweat within seconds of leaving the ship. We walked from the shuttle stop to the expansive local markets. The main building was divided into sections. The first floor was devoted to produce, and what struck me first was all the tantalizing colors and variety of fruits and vegetables on sale; most of which were imported. Any fleeting thought of tasting something new was squelched when we witnessed the merchants splashing dark brown water on the greens to keep them from wilting in the stifling heat. The second floor was dedicated to touristy items. These merchants were overly aggressive and “in our face” whenever we dared to glance at an item. We had not seen that level of intensity since being in, well, India. There was a marked difference in attitude though. The people of India were very friendly and conversational as they haggled with us over price, enjoying the good natured game. Here, the merchants were humorless, in a “give us your money and get out” kind of way. The energy of the city was languid and apathetic. No one smiled.
Next we headed over to the meat markets where the buildings were labeled; Lamb, Beef, Goat, Poultry, and Fish. Walking into the Poultry arena nearly turned me into an instantaneous vegetarian. I walked out, but not before I saw a wire cage packed with live chickens piled 10 deep… where the ones on the bottom had to struggle for breath as they were crushed by the weight of the bodies on top of them. It was dreadful and inhumane. In the goat house, mountainous piles of bloody body parts buzzed with flies as the scowling merchants smoked cigarettes and talked on their cell phones. They couldn’t be bothered to say hello or even acknowledge us. Granted, we were clearly not potential customers, but they made an extra effort to be wholly indifferent. Nothing was refrigerated and the buildings were airless tombs.
In the fish house, there were cats roaming around scrounging for scraps. Some were shedding on the fish bodies and sporadically licking them, without being shooed away. Oh, did I mention the smell? Do I need to?
We worked our way back to the ship, having seen enough. Back on board, I only found one person who had a positive reaction to Mauritius, and he spent the day snorkeling offshore from a catamaran. Everyone else had viscerally negative feelings. I found it to be absolutely fascinating that the island’s bad mojo could contaminate so many people. We learned from the Destination Speaker that Mauritius is slowly sinking, and in a thousand years or so will disappear. Perhaps the island is suffering from a millennium melancholy that has poisoned the local people. Or, perhaps it is the vengeful spirit of the collective Dodo birds who will not forgive their transgressors.
Whatever the reason, we put an X through Mauritius as a potential vacation spot, although the mountainous backdrop was absolutely stunning.