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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Between heaven and earth: Mauritius

So there I was, caught between heaven and earth. Though it wasn’t really that dramatic. We were in the Black River Gorges National Park in Mauritius, hiking up the island’s highest mountain, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire. Only 828 m (2,717 feet). I knew there was the usual “bit of scrambling” at the top, as well as a fixed chain. But it had been several weeks since Kilimanjaro. So unlike on Lion’s Head in South Africa, where the scrambling and chains came upon us unexpectedly, I was physically prepared for the final ascent to the summit.

Not mentally. I made the mistake of looking back down. We were scrambling up with the aid of a fixed rope; without it, it wasn’t possible to get our footing on the path. T., with all the zest she had previously shown on Lion’s Head, scrambled up ahead of me, only to look around the corner and say it was much more difficult from there.

I didn’t know how far—or rather, how close—it was from that point. All I could think about was getting back down.

Maybe it was the rope. I dislike ropes and chains as much as I do scrambling in general; it’s the reason I’m not a mountain climber, or for that matter, a scuba diver. Something about relying on equipment (on Kili, we were repeatedly told not to rely even on our trekking poles). I just think, I don’t know who fixed this rope. Why shouldn’t it snap on me?

But the real psychological question, which I had time to contemplate as T. made her way, hell-bent, to the top, is why I am making a habit of this. Black River Peak is now the third mountain I have hiked, yet failed to summit. On Kilimanjaro, saving my strength for the descent made sense; I wanted to summit, badly, but simply didn’t have enough left in my body. This was just a wobbly moment. And unlike other wobbly moments, when I’ve always been in a group of people and known that I had to force myself through whether I liked it or not, this time I just looked down, thought “No,” and turned around.

A kind friend and reader wrote to compare my turning around on Kilimanjaro to something Ed Viesturs would do. Viesturs is a U.S. mountain climber who has summited all the major peaks in the world; the only thing we have in common is that he thinks of a mountain as a round trip. Because he is always thinking about how he will get down, as well as get up, he has turned around within meters even of the top of Mount Everest, when he wasn’t sure about the descent. And unlike many of the personnel who were on Everest in the spring of 1996, Viesturs is alive.

But there was nothing wrong with the conditions on Black River Peak, and had I only known how close the summit was, I should have been able to force myself up. And back down. I didn’t. I don’t have those pictures, and I don’t have a good story as to why. 

Permission to fail is a powerful thing, when you have it for the first time in 44 years. Not that I haven’t failed before; I have, spectacularly. But earlier in my life a failure was just the most painful thing, and it took forever to get over it. Now I’m like the gambling ad: “When the fun stops, stop.” 

And this has worrying implications off mountains. I am the type of person who has to force myself to go out the door and do anything, even when I’ve done it before and know that I’m going to have a good time. If my new mantra is “Climb No Mountain,” how am I going to get out of bed in the morning?

Anyway, you all don’t read The Discreet Traveler for my solipsistic mutterings about why, having turned around at half the cruising altitude of a jet airplane, I now can’t do anything. You are probably wondering, Why Mauritius? Or even, Where? 

The Cape of Good Hope is one of the symbolic “corners” of the world. Once you round the southern tip of Africa, you leave the Atlantic Ocean, which separates the Americas from Europe, and enter the Indian Ocean. For this reason, even though we are still closest to Africa, I feel we are already pointed towards Asia. We had the good fortune to stay on this paradise island. It was made possible by a friend who is from Mauritius and her extraordinary generosity; but that’s really T’s story to tell. Few North Americans come to Mauritius, and I can now tell you why: It is just about the furthest place on the planet to get to from N. America. The true “opposite side of the world.” But if there’s one thing I did know about Mauritius, it’s that it was the home of a famous, now sadly extinct bird: the dodo.

The dodo had the misfortune of both tasting good and being unable to fly away, so Europeans promptly hunted it to extinction. T., who always sees the best in everyone, would probably want me to acknowledge that they didn’t know they were hunting it to extinction. They probably thought resources were limitless and there was no reason to modify their behavior in any way. Good thing no one thinks like that nowadays.

I still think it’s a shame about the dodo, especially since it probably didn’t look much like this in real life. But the painting by Jan Savery, in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, is what inspired Lewis Carroll to make the Dodo a character; and so it has taken on life after death. You cannot step anywhere in Mauritius now without being urged to buy tacky souvenirs of this dumpy profile. (A pink fridge magnet, if you must know.)

We flew in on a plane with tropical patterns on the seats and swimming fish painted on the walls. It was an old enough plane still to have ashtrays (they were glued shut), and there were other ways Air Mauritius and its partner, South African, reminded me of air travel in former times. Not just the metal utensils, classy as those were. No—when we got to Cape Town airport, and discovered our flight to Johannesburg was delayed, we asked the S.A.A. agent about our connecting time for our flight to Mauritius. I was bowled over to discover that the airline, on its own initiative, had already booked us on an earlier flight to Jo’burg—so we’d better hustle on through security! Imagine an airline not only caring if you missed your connection to another airline, but actually sorting out the problem before the customer had to figure it all out for herself. Further, imagine security moving quickly enough that we had time to board!

Our local cab company in Cape Town, through which we booked a ride to the airport, gets points too. Sometime after we passed between the two giant townships of Langa on the north side of the highway and Gugulethu on the south, our driver braked for a foolish parent duck that was leading its ducklings across the road. The car behind us, fortunately, stopped too, so I trust the ducks were happily united on the other side of the road.
"A Duck and a Dodo" --Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The dodo made its first appearance on our landing card for the Republic of Mauritius. I paused at the question, “Which countries have you visited in the past six months?” Suffice it to say they barely fit in the space provided. But when the plane touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International, the crew announcement was, “Welcome to our island paradise.”

I can tell I’m on a paradise island, because first thing every morning (and throughout the day) there is birdsong I’ve never heard anywhere else. I’m not much of a birdwatcher, but the brilliant colors of tropical birds could make one philosophical, even if one wasn’t already. “Like a bird on the wire…”

The voluntary and involuntary movement of people around this world have created some amazing cultural mixes, and Mauritius is one of the most interesting. Because the U.K. was the last colonial power, the official language is English, and Mauritians drive on the left. The language you actually see and hear spoken everywhere, though, is French, because the island was previously Isle de France. And the religion of 50% of Mauritians is Hinduism, which makes it look like we’re closer to Asia—temples everywhere, more than churches and mosques. The currency is the Mauritian rupee. Even the original colonizers, the Dutch, who didn’t stay, left the Creole legacy on Mauritius by bringing in plantation owners and Malagasy slaves to work the sugarcane fields.

We learned some of this history thanks to T’s sister and brother-in-law, whom we were glad to have join us for part of our visit. You can’t just lie around on a beach when my sister-in-law is around. She persuaded us all onto the local bus, an experience in itself, for a day trip to Port Louis, the capital. There we negotiated the trashy alleyways of a port city (not unlike India, she said) and stumbled upon a UNESCO World Heritage site at the waterfront. This is Aapravasi Ghat.

Basically, the people from whom Creoles are descended had been working the sugarcane plantations during the years of French colonization. But after the British took over (some Napoleonic defeat thousands of miles away) and abolished slavery in 1835, they needed new people to do the work. So they started using indentured servitude, what might be called “slavery light,” bringing in immigrants from India. Aapravasi Ghat is where these indentured servants landed, and today, their descendants are 70% of the Mauritian population.

This was especially interesting to me because I, myself, am descended from an indentured servant. Henry Knowles made the trip from England to the American colonies in 1630. The Knowleses subsequently went to Nova Scotia, which is why I can truthfully sing, in the Canadian national anthem, “Terre de nos aïeux.”

History is all very well, but you know food and drink are never far from my mind. Here, too, Mauritius is a dream combination. Imagine a tropical island where everywhere you turn there is Indian food, from curries in the restaurants to samosas on the beach. But, it’s also French in that the grocery stores have warm baguettes. As for drink, the gardener offered T’s sister fresh coconut water from a coconut he just picked himself. That, and fruit juices, are so fresh here I’m finding virgin ways to make cocktails, which I don’t normally drink.

We did discover that “spicy” means something different to Mauritians, possibly because it means something different in French. When a Creole or Mauritian Indian dish is described as spicy, it’s flavorful enough, but not remotely hot. The only way I have discovered to make it hot is to put the ubiquitous chili sauce on it. On reflection, even Indian food was not always spicy in the way English speakers mean it. There were lots of flavors in India before the discovery of chili peppers, which are originally from Mexico.

Isn’t it marvelous how people and ingredients have traveled around the world? Doesn’t it make our lives richer? 

On the beach on Sunday afternoon, I saw a family come down with one person carrying a cooler and another, a tambourine. No party is complete without it! “Our” beach here is Trou aux Biches, which refers to does. Evidently there was once a watering hole for deer here. It looks a little different now, with the Indian Ocean to swim in and one of the best sunset-watching beaches in the world.

Of course, even paradise on earth is not without its flaws. We spoke to some Mauritians who don’t think their coral reef is being properly taken care of. Which is extremely shortsighted, because if the reef is blown up and beaches eroded in order to build more hotels…what are people going to come stay in the hotels for? We were also talking about swimming with dolphins, an amazing experience we had here in Tamarin Bay. We heard from another Mauritian that with more boatloads of tourists visiting the dolphins, they don’t play with divers the way they used to (in fact we weren’t permitted to dive), a possible sign of stress. Conveniently, I only learned this after we’d done it ourselves.
I’m a big believer in the positives of travel and convinced there are ways to make it sustainable. But if, for example, strict limits weren’t placed on visiting the great apes of East Africa, they too would go the infamous way of the dodo.

It’s hard to get too upset about anything in Mauritius, though. Here, even more than in most places, we’re so conscious of how blessed we are to be able to travel, to meet people all over the world and see places for ourselves. I know from my own country[ies] that the place that welcomes you can be very different from the version that appears on the news. 

When faced by any big problem, such as the environment, it’s tempting to think “What impact can I, one person, have?” But you know what? 
“Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land."*

*Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So even island paradises have their flaws, and yet they can still be wondrous places in which to relax and to learn. Furthermore, you can buy tacky-pink-Dodo fridge magnets in this one! G & P