Destination Mauritius

The rain is poring down in big thick sheets against a steel gray sky. I stand on the porch, breathe in the village’s pungent smell – humidity, and mold, and rotting food – and wonder how they can call this place paradise. It’s been raining for two days straight. You’d think the good think about cyclones would be that they’d chill the air and make sleeping without air-conditioning and only one fan for an entire apartment bearable. But the air is just as hot as it was when the sun shined briefly the other day, and if possible even stickier.

I’m bored. My legs are cramped from sitting around. My stomach is bloated from drinking too much beer and eating to many packages of curried ramen noodles, and when it rains there is absolutely nothing to do here. I stare at the roofs below me and watch the thick droplets bouncing off them, and long for the Khao Sahn Road. I miss the backpackers and the bookshops and the frenzy. In the small fishing village of Trou D’Eau Douce there is nothing to do. No shops to distract me. No bars in which to pass a few hours, not even any restaurants. There are local boys who toss stones into the road from a wall made of rocks in front of our pension, but they speak little French, and even less English, and it took me two days to figure out the reason why I didn’t understand them was the language they were speaking was Creole. There isn’t even any Internet. I’m tired of reading, but even more tired of trying to figure out what the characters are saying in the French soap-operas on the three channel, scratchy television set. There’s a plethora of Indian movies with English sub-titles to watch, but not one has captured my attention.

I head into the kitchen. It’s even steamier inside, but we have to keep the windows shut. Last night we made the mistake of throwing open the doors and windows when we made a foray into town. We were hoping to walk to the Toussarak Sun Hotel, where we assumed there would be some type of nightlife and some type of food other than dried noodles. We were willing to pay large quantities of cash for this luxury but after 10 minutes of walking under daunting skies, the rain started falling again and we were forced to seek shelter in a local woman’s home. She saw us trudging back the way we came, heads bent, shirts already soaked, and gestured us inside.

The people here are kind. Kinder than any other folks I’ve met. The house was simple, four drab concrete walls, and only one couch, no chairs. The house was already crowded with wayward villagers, but upon our entrance everyone jumped up and insisted we sit on the couch. I made small talk, in bad French, about the cyclone and why we were here and where we were trying to go, and when the rain stopped for a moment, we darted out before it started again, shouting thanks as we backed towards the road. There were no taxis in site, and the hotel was still two miles down the road, so we declared defeat and trudged back to our apartment. The boys were still on the wall, throwing their stones. A few were sipping beers. One smiled at us, invited us over to his place.

“I live with my sister,” he said in bad French. I’m not sure why he said that, perhaps he thought we would be scared to come otherwise.

We took him up on his invitation, and followed him down the road, and into a back door. It was obviously his bedroom. The walls were painted white, and a giant colored tapestry hung along one. There was a mattress on the floor and a rather sophisticated stereo in the corner and that was it.

The boy disappeared into another room, and I heard him speaking in Creole and then a girl answering him back, and then a child, not more than 14 entered the room with three wine glasses on a wicker platter. She handed us each a glass, bowed her head in introduction and poured pale yellow wine into our glasses. Then she disappeared.

“My sister,” the boy said.

“Tell her to join us,” I replied.

“No she won’t,” he said. “It wouldn’t be proper.”

I never understand why in African countries, it is perfectly acceptable for Western women to drink with the men, but if a local woman does it she’s a prostitute.

Speaking was hard. We all smiled a lot and used a lot of hand gestures. The boy spoke no English, and only a little French. If he spoke slow enough in Creole, I could grasp the basic meaning of his words, and I responded in French. Lani stared at her hands. She couldn’t understand a thing.

Outside the rain continued to pour down. After the third glass of wine the door opened and suddenly the room was alive with Mauritian youths. First there were three, then four, then five. They filed into the room, shouting hellos. Our host became animated, speaking fast, throwing his hands around. One of the newcomers spoke a little English.

“You smoke ganja?” he asked.

L shook her head.

“Why not?”

She tried to explain how she used to smoke, but then it started making her paranoid. The guy didn’t understand, instead he mixed a miniscule amount of pot in with a large amount of tobacco and shoveled the mixture into a homemade bong.

“What do you call that?” I asked.

“A bong,” the guy grinned.

The language of pot-smokers transcends continents. On an island in the middle of nowhere, where the native tongue is so very different from my own, a bong is still a bong.

I took a toke off the bong. The pot was weak, but mixed with the wine it created enough of a buzz that I felt the tension caused by the rain rolling off me, like the thick droplets rolled off the tin roofs at night. I leaned back on the bed, took another hit, and become braver. I started speaking French faster. Some of the new boys knew enough French to hold a reasonable conversation. We talked about hip-hop music, Tupac and Will Smith. Everyone loves Will Smith, him and Michael Jackson are third world staples. One time, years before, I was vacationing on the Island of Zanzibar. It was my last night in town, and me and the boy I was kissing that week were sitting in a grassy patch by the sea, eating grilled calamari and steaming hot naan purchased moments before at the Stone Town market, when a young Tanzanian man approached and asked if he could eat with us. The guy wanted to talk about America and all the good things that came with that name. He loved Beverly Hills 90210 and Michael Jackson and how he taught the world to moon walk. Most of all, however, he loved Will Smith. He watched the Fresh Prince of Bel Air whenever he could, and he loved Will Smith’s hip-hop style. When we finally parted ways with him, he pressed a necklace into my boyfriend’s hand.

“For you,” he said.

My guy had just become the proud owner of a red and yellow and blue beaded necklace. The middle bead was larger than all the rest with a smooth flat surface. Glued onto the front of that bead was the smiling head of Will Smith, forever immortalized on a tacky necklace.

The hours rolled by. L was dozing with her head cupped into her hand. The rain was still pouring down. And when we made it back to the apartment, it was filled with bugs. Bugs off all shapes and sizes, big bugs, small bugs, medium sized bugs. Flying bugs, and walking bugs, bugs with little legs and bugs with long legs. They’d made their way in through the open windows, which lacked screens, taking shelter on the beds and tables and meeting violent deaths in the fast-spinning fan. It took two hours to sweep the bugs outside, and then some still remained, and crawled over us as we drifted into and out of sleep in the stifling night.

So now the windows are closed, and as I enter the kitchen I’m met with a blast of stifling air.

“What should we do tonight?” I ask L.

She shrugs.

“We could find those boys again?”

“I guess so,” she says. “Yeah, okay.”

But the boys aren’t on the wall tonight. Maybe they’re working. Who knows? We climb the winding stairs, unlock the door, and make our way, books and Phoenix beers in hand to the porch. I read 100 pages of the novel I picked up in Singapore, and then another 100, and before I know it it’s 1 a.m., my eyes are stinging, and I’m done. I crawl onto the bed, sprawling out on top of the covers. I scratch my mosquito bites and pray I’ll fall asleep soon, and the rain will stop and I’ll be able to appreciate the paradise people spend so many thousands of dollars to find.

But the rain doesn’t stop on our fourth day in Mauritius. Instead it seems to get harder. When I wake up Lani is eating her breakfast noodles. The curried noodles really are the only appetizing item in the store. The first night we tried to cook macaroni and cheese, but the cheese was tangy and wouldn’t melt properly. Since then we’ve stuck to noodles for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is bread and laughing cow cheese (a Brie like substance that the Mauritians apparently do not see the need to refrigerate). It spreads very easily because it’s usually half-melted from the heat by the time you’re ready to eat it. It comes in a wooden box, wedges of eight. Lani and I go to the store every day, at pretty much the same time, 5 p.m. There we buy one days worth of the noodles, and the bread and cheese and four beers each. We open the beers at 6 p.m., in time to watch the BBC world news, which is the only program during the entire day that is in English. I’m not exactly sure why it’s in English, since all the rest of the programs are in French or Indian, and since hardly anyone on this island actually speaks English, it seems like a pointless waste of airtime. We watch a bomb go off in a church in Pakistan, and endless footage of the deteriorating conditions in the Middle East, but on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean during a cyclone, the rest of the world seems very detached. The cyclone never makes it onto the news. In fact, no one except for us seems to think the cyclone is a very big deal.

When we arrived in Mauritius, we paid too much money to take a taxi around the island to the north coast. The north coast is supposed to be nice, and for one afternoon it was. We sat on a white sand beach and played in the turquoise water, but then the cyclone started to roll in. The water wasn’t clear anymore and it wasn’t calm, huge waves formed and we spent an afternoon racing the tide. The currant was strong in the cyclone waves, and if you weren’t careful you could have lost control. It would have been easy to drown. The Mauritians didn’t let the giant waves bother them, instead they relished them, riding one and then another to shore, screaming and shouting and splashing each other. I tried to float on my back, but the current pulled me under and I felt the big waves wash over my head and tug me first towards the sand and then out towards the open sea and the even larger waves crashing outside the reef. I fought the currant, bringing myself to the surface and gasped big gulps of air before I was pulled under again. When I made it to shore I was shaking, and I wrapped my towel – really just a big black cloth I bought on the Khao Sahn Road – around me. I didn’t play in the cyclone waves again. That night the rain started. We were staying at a moderately nice hotel with a big pool and a bar right up against it. There was no air-conditioning, but it was nice to sit out by the bar and sip over-priced fruity drinks. There were no backpackers to talk to, and all the guests were either old or couples, but we made small talk with the bartender, who spoke enough English to get by. I asked about the cyclone, and whether he was scared and if we should be and he said:

“In Mauritius we have many cyclones. We don’t worry about them. We just go about our business.”

I raised an eyebrow and started telling L this story my mother told me when I was a child.

“There was a grandfather and his granddaughter who lived on an island in the Caribbean and every time the red hurricane flag flew they would lash themselves to a sturdy palm tree and ride out the storm. So we can always do that.”

L just shook her head at me, like I was crazy, but that was my favorite book when I was a child.

We left that part of the island six days ago, in search of more backpackers and ended up in the little fishing village of Trou D’Eau Douce. The good thing about being here is our apartment is dirt-cheap and we aren’t spending very much money on the noodles. Even if we wanted to, there is nowhere to really blow much cash around here. If the rain would stop, the Lonely Planet says we’re very centrally located. We walk to a boat-stop and hop on a fairy to the Isle Aux Cerfs, an island off this island, where the beaches are supposed to be superb. The problem with Mauritius is it’s an island for rich people and honeymooners. There is a whole strip of beach, supposedly the most beautiful on the island, lined with luxury hotels. Most of these places are all inclusive and you never see any more of the island than the beach front property in front of them. They also cost more for one night than I spent the entire time I was in Asia, so in other words, way out of our budget. But if you’re not staying at one of these hotels, and a cyclone happens to be in town, and you don’t speak any Creole, and you’re two straight girls, it can be a little dull. . I dedicated a great amount of time to transferring the currency of Mauritius, into U.S. dollars just to prove to myself that no indeed, we could not afford even one night of luxury on this drenched paradise.

L finishes her breakfast as I’m putting the water on to heat up mine. She turns to the guidebook, which by now is very well loved and very marked up

“We could go to Curepipe,” she says. “We just have to take two busses.”

Only two. That’s not too bad.

“So what’s up in Curepipe?” I query.

“Well according to the Lonely Planet, it’s supposed to be a big town. The book says there’s Internet.”

I’m all about Internet. And I like buses, and it appears we are not going to be able to see the beach again today through all the rain, so Curepipe sounds like a good adventure to me.

Curepipe is not exactly all it’s cracked up to be in the guidebook. After two hot bumpy buses (which I actually enjoyed – I love buses. L looked a little green though when we stumbled off the second one), we arrive in a rainstorm in a rather dreary looking town. Everything is made out of cement, and there really isn’t much to see. We spend the afternoon wandering around looking for the Internet café, which apparently does not exist anymore. It takes two hours to figure out we need to take a taxi about five miles down the road to a building next to the Mauritius telecom office where there are a few computers for hire at a very high price. They’re slow, but they do the trick, and one hour later, fully gorged on Internet we stumble out to find our bus.

The day isn’t a total bust though. Curepipe is filled with little food stalls selling the most delicious, and cheap, Indian concoctions. My all-time favorite is a cross between a pancake and a burrito shell filled with different curries and spinach and chilis. You can get four pancakes for less than a dollar. After the noodles and bread-and-cheese they are a welcome break that make two hours on the buses seem worth it.

And the next morning the weather breaks. The skies clear, humidity drops a little, temperatures rise, and the sun shines. We throw ourselves into our bikinis, grab our towels, goggles, books and sunscreen and hightail it outside before the weather Gods can change their mind.

I can honestly say all the rain and sitting around and reading was worth it, because when our boat docks at the Isle Aux Cerfs in the early morning, so early the island is still deserted and the stalls selling sarongs and bracelets are still setting up, and we walk down the gangplank and onto a white sand beach we are truly in paradise. The sun is hitting the water at such an angle that it’s positively sparkling. Emerald green and turquoise blue and every other bluish-green color that water in paradise should be. And the water is still, and warm and crystal-clear. The sand is dazzling white, and the island is lined with Causarina trees. It’s Thailand without the tourists. For a few hours we own the beach. We stretch our bodies out in the sand, and open our books. I spend hours just walking in the water, marveling at where I am, trying to comprehend the day. Cyclone Harry has finally departed, and Mauritius is looking like the paradise Lonely Planet’s authors swear it is.

A few days later, on the same beach, we meet Julio and his friend Madu, two local boys.

“The world has five oceans” Julio says and makes a dot for each one in the sand as he names them. “Indian, Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Antarctic. Five oceans for five continents.”

It’s a geography lesson on an island off an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I didn’t even know there were only five oceans in the world until a few minutes ago, but Julio, who has curly black hair and who works as an accountant at Mauritius’ most posh hotel, remembers this from grade school.

“America, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia,” Julio’s friend Madu names the continents. Madu has Indian in his blood and earns a living selling ten-minute para-sailing adventures in paradise to rich tourists.

“I thought Antarctica was a continent too,” L says.

“Yes,” I agree. “In America we count six.”

But the local boys only know five. They shake their heads.

“Five oceans for five continents,” they say.

We’re practicing our geography now, reeling off capitols for countries.

“Paris, France, London, England.”

It’s easier than trying to hold a lengthy conversation. The boys speak Creole and a bit of English, French and Italian, the languages of the tourists that come to their island. They mix all four freely.

“I want to learn Russian and German next,” Julio says.

“Are there a lot of Russian tourists here?” L asks.

I can’t imagine there are.

Julio doesn’t answer. Perhaps he doesn’t understand her question.

“Russia, vodka,” he replies.

The boys know many things, but they are so different than the things I know. They can identify sea urchins and corral on the beach. When sea urchins die they are washed ashore and their spiky purple tentacles dry up and fall off, leaving only a hollowed out shell of pink or yellow or brown. The boys run around and pick them up, then explain what happened to us. They boys know about the history of their island, how it was deserted before the first explorers came. They know how their language evolved from a college of others, that Creole really just means “islander.” They tell us the Dutch hunted the Dodo bird to extinction by 1810.

“It must have tasted good,” Julio smiles. “Dodo means sleep, so it was a lazy bird.”

I knew Dodo birds were extinct, but I didn’t know they came from Mauritius until Julio told me.

Here’s what the boys don’t know: they’d never heard of Thailand. When I tried to teach then hello in Thai, they rolled the world around awkwardly in their mouths.

“Italiano?” Julio asked.

“No, Thailand, a country in Asia.”

“Ahhh, Asia.”

We left it at that.

They also couldn’t grasp Vietnam or holidays around the world.

Earlier, Julio and I went swimming. We raced each other to buoys in the deep water hundreds of feet from the shore, and had contests to see who could stay under water the longest. He won.

“I warm up to hold my breath with yoga,” Julio said, and proceeded to throw his arms around and take in big gulps of air before plunging under. I was impressed he knew yoga. I don’t.

Julio and I talked about our families as we fought the strongest current I’d ever felt. He wanted to show me some corral, but I couldn’t seem to get to it. Every time I tried to swim out the current pulled me back. Standing was useless, I’d be quickly pushed on my back, and carried away. Julio grabbed my arm and hauled me towards the corral and when we reached it I looked down threw my goggles and saw it sitting brown and dead beneath me, on the ocean floor, too many tourists for it’s fragile body.

Julio’s father is a fisherman. Every night they have fish and seafood for dinner, my stomach growled at the though, but Julio just said.

“I like lobster, but when you have it every night it’s not a luxury anymore.”

I told Julio my father is an economist, and he grinned and said “very good.” But I wondered if he had any idea what I was talking about. He was more excited about my profession, especially when I told him I used to interview rock stars for a living. We talked about music. He liked Nirvana and Sugar Ray, especially Sugar Ray, he could sing all their songs. I told him I interviewed Courtney Love once, but he didn’t understand the world “interview.”

“I met her, Kurt Cobain’s widow, and put what she told me in the newspaper.”
“Oh, I see,” he said, and I think he did. “Neat.”

I don’t tell him she wasn’t very nice.

“I like Bon Jovi, too, and Metalica and the song from Mission Impossible.”

Bon Jovi and Sugar Ray? The old and the new, I don’t ever remember Mission Impossible, it came out so long ago, but the way Julio talked about it, it was just released. Five oceans, but never heard of Thailand?

Julio and Madu show up at 9 p.m. just as Lani and I have finished our nightly meal of dried curried ramen noodles and Phoenix beer. We’re in our boxers and T-shirts ready to take our novels out onto the porch and read until bedtime. Julio and Madu are freshly showered and looking good. They want to take us to a pool bar “just down the road.” Although after a week in this town, I have yet to see anything that looks remotely like a pool bar. Lani doesn’t want to go, and I’m feeling lazy myself, although I feel like I should, Julio’s hot. But as I already believe I am the queen of missed opportunities, why not miss another one?

“We’re tired,” I apologize.

“Just one drink,” Julio says, and moves closer. Lani opens another beer and I hope they boys don’t ask for any, because we only have two left.

“Not tonight,” L says. “We have to pack. We leave tomorrow.”

“That’s why you should be going out.” Julio seems uncomfortable, and he’s switched to French. I translate.

The boys ask again, and again we give them a firm no. Finally Julio shrugs and they head to the door. He’s almost out when he turns around.

“I almost forgot. This is for you,” he says.

He opens my hand and places a beautiful beaded necklace in it.

“For me?”

“Yes, I promised, I never go back on a promise. To remember me by.”

No guy has ever given me a necklace before. I’m overwhelmed. I put it on, take town his address and feel guiltier for not going out.

I spend most of the night staring at my reflection in the mirror.

“It was just so nice of him,” I say. “We should have gone out.”

“No one was keeping you in,” L says.

I sigh. Chalk up another one to missed opportunities. I never seem to be able to just grab the bull by its horns.

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