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Is Mauritius a Paradise Or a Dead Dodo?
Both Charles Darwin and Mark Twain referred to Mauritius as a heaven on earth upon arriving on its shores. Both great men visited the island in the 19th century, yet they’re quoted again and again by the tourism industry over a hundred years later. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as paradise on earth, and setting the bar that high will invariably leave you disappointed. If your destination answers your basic whims, you have to accept gracefully the imperfections you’re sure to encounter.
My laundry list of things I require for a country as a place to live: nice beaches, a warm climate, a respectable amount of modern infrastructure, and a residency permit that’s fairly easy to obtain. Mauritius seemed to pass the litmus test for all my main criteria, although in retrospect the information I could gather off the Internet painted a far too rosy picture of my future home. For all I know, I might be the first person to deviate from the formula!
Just to situate ourselves, Mauritius is an independent African democratic nation in the Indian Ocean comprised of a large main island named Mauritius, several uninhabited islets and Rodrigues, a medium-sized island 350 miles (560 km) to the east. The nearest country is Madagascar, which lies 500 miles (805km) to the west of the main island. To the south lies La Réunion, a French island territory. Mauritius is a popular destination for Europeans, with many flights out of London and Paris in particular. It’s not so well known in the rest of the world, and your travel path will be quite a bit longer, typically connecting through a major European airport, Johannesburg, Dubai, or Kuala Lumpur. This is a rather overpopulated little country, with about 1.3 million people, almost all crammed on the main island. Port Louis, the capital and biggest city, is a dirty town, with crumbling old buildings rubbing shoulders with the gleaming bank towers (Mauritius is an offshore banking haven). The best beaches are found on the western coast, north of the capital. The island is a mix of plains and mountains, with a central plateau. The greatest number of people are concentrated on this plateau, where the climate is several degrees cooler and a lot wetter, in a series of town stretching along the main highway that leads from Port Louis to the only airport on the eastern side of the isle.
I came to Mauritius under the Board of Investment (BOI) program that grants three year residence permits to professionals, the self-employed and investors. There’s a fair bit of paperwork and you need to undergo a full medical inspection as well as put up a 50,000 rupee (one US dollar is worth about 33.8 rupees today) guarantee at a local bank (plus 10,000 per dependent). The application itself costs 10,000 rupees and isn’t refundable, but if you follow all the steps to the letter, there shouldn’t be any problem getting your resident status quickly, as your income while you live in Mauritius is more important to them than your prior history. You’ll have to meet the minimum income and/or investment requirements for your class of permit in the first year or your resident status will be rescinded. The goals they set aren’t lofty, fortunately.
Mauritius has a rather sad history. It was uninhabited until the Dutch installed themselves in the 17th century. They abandoned the colony in 1710, but not before exterminating the poor dodos, the flightless birds that appear in effigy everywhere in present day Mauritius. It was only five years later that the French claimed the territory, bringing with them a large number of African slaves to cultivate sugar cane. In the early 19th century, Mauritius become an important pirate base used for harassing British ships in the Indian Ocean. The English put an end to the corsairs, slavery and French rule by invading Mauritius in 1810. It was the English who brought in large numbers of indentured workers from the Indian colonies and whose descendants now form the bulk of the Mauritian population and dominate local politics. French and English are both official languages today, but Creole, a French patois, is what everybody speaks. Many Indo-Mauritians also chatter away in Bhojpuri, a dialect from their ancestral country. The Indian culture is omnipresent in Mauritius, manifesting itself in the saris commonly worn by women, the numerous Hindu temples, and the Mauritian food. Afro-Mauritians represent about 35 percent of the population and are concentrated in the southern part of the main island and are the dominant race on Rodrigues. Blacks contributed many key cultural icons, such as the Creole language, cuisine and the emblematic Sega music and dance. However, blacks don’t share equally in the country’s wealth, which has the highest per capita income in Africa. Mauritius is still a poor country although extreme poverty by no means as extensive as it is in every other African country.
Wanting to live near the best beaches, I rented a furnished townhouse in Mon Choisy, an area of the Pamplemousses district adjacent to Trou aux biches in the northwest corner of the island. The beaches here are mostly of white sand and shaded by the slender filao trees. The warm sea is shallow all the way to the barrier reef that surrounds most of the island and breaks-up the big ocean swells. Sadly, almost all the coral reef is bleached, a desolate underwater spectacle which ironically gives the ocean that turquoise color that tourists so covet. Despite this, there’s still plenty of sea life in the remaining small patches of coral and in the sea grasses. I snorkeled almost daily on one of the more quiet parts of the beach at Trou aux Biches, coming across everything from a large sea turtle to an octopus. I also had close encounters with the many commercial water skiing and hang gliding boats that speed close to shore, oblivious of the many tourists bobbing in the water. Complaining to the Mauritian coast guard won’t do you any good, as they deny there’s any problem.
While Mon Choisy looks idyllic thanks to the large number of gaily painted new buildings, it turns into a darkened cemetery at night, as there’s almost no street lighting and virtually no people outside of the peak period which coincides with winter in Europe. It wasn’t long before my wife and I had our first encounter with the modern pirates of Mauritius. Thieves slipped through a window into our home at night after we’d retired to our bedroom. I was alerted by a noise and made my way halfway down the steps before I came to my senses and retreated to the second floor. Apparently that was enough to scare the thieves, who slipped away into the night with my wife’s laptop computer which she had left on the dining room table. It was in the days that followed that I discovered that virtually all foreigners residing in the area had their homes violated by robbers, often four or five times, despite resorting to guard dogs, flood lights and alarm systems. Soon afterward I found myself part of a neighborhood watch, patrolling in complete darkness with a Mauritian neighbor, sometimes at two or three in the morning! It wasn’t just paranoia however, as one night someone had jumped onto our balcony, and was forced to flee when we came running, alerted by my wife’s phone call. “Stealing is also a job” commented Subash, a Mauritian cafe owner in the neighborhood, making crime sound like an institution.
Sugar cane still drives the island’s economy, and pyromania. On any given day, there’s huge columns of smoke rising from cane fields being prepared for harvest by flash burning. Ash was continuously blowing into our home, and I’ll never forget the day when Grand Baie, a touristic town, was completely obscured by dense smoke. Mauritians don’t just burn sugar cane, but also use fire to clear plots of land of trees and debris. Garbage is also a bit of a problem, as it is in many poor countries. Any given Sunday, ordinary Mauritians descend in hordes from the Port Louis or the plateau cities and camp out on the beaches, especially that of Mon Choisy. Sadly, when Monday rolls around, copious amounts of trash sully the beach and the ocean. Ordinary people aren’t the only polluters, as construction companies, some of them with European partners, do their fare share of ecological damage on this fair isle. I waged a little war with one such consortium that was constructing luxury condominiums on the Mon Choisy waterfront. Several times a day, tractors would dump heaps of refuse from the site onto a large empty lot surrounded by expensive homes and apartments, just around the corner from our own abode. It soon became a mountain chain of refuse. When I asked one of their foreman why they weren’t carting away their debris to a more appropriate location, namely a legal dump, he casually responded that they had the lot owner’s permission to store it there. I placed a few calls and eventually connected with the environmental police, who promised to intervene. They soon came around and ordered the miscreants to move their trash. They complied, but the victory was short lived, as they just piled it up along the coastal road in front of the project.
Mauritius does have a lot of good things, mind you. Of course, the sea, the world famous five star hotels, and the tropical weather are a big part of the attraction, but inland there’s a few things you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. Despite the excessively large population, there’s a sizable area of forest populated with monkeys (non-native) on the central plateau, interspersed with the water reservoirs that quench the island’s thirst. The obligatory itinerary includes a vista of the Black River Gorge which appears too immense to be found on a mere island, the Alexandra river falls and Chamarel waterfall. The latter is a picture perfect cascade that drops into a deep rounded crater. What most impressed me, however, was the Lac Sacré (Sacred Lake) which local Hindus believe contains water from the Ganges. The lake is surrounded by colorful temples and statues of the Gods and swarms of worshipers. Just over a hill is a towering golden statue of Shiva. The Hindu faith prizes visual aesthetics, and there’s many temples spread-out across the island, all worth visiting for an appreciation of the intricate detail and vivid colors of the reliefs found inside and out. There’s no problem for tourists to enter Hindu temples and snap pictures, but be more discreet if you decide to visit any Muslim places of worship, including the large green and white Jummah Mosque in Port Louis. The rocky southern tip of the island has a few attractions of its own, including the breathtaking view driving along the coastal road until you get to Le Gris gris, a high cliff where you can look down at 40 foot waves crashing against the rocks. Another interesting stop is the beach at Le Morne Brabant, an ominous rocky mount sitting in the middle of a point of land shaped like a hammerhead shark head. Fugitive slaves once hid atop that rock and leapt to their deaths to escape capture by posses.
Even filthy Port Louis has a few worthy attractions. One of them is the intact French citadel overlooking the city. Another is the Caudan, a waterfront revitalization project that includes a shopping concourse, casino, and a luxury hotel. Just across the road from the Caudan is the Place d’Armes, with its rows of high palm trees and monuments, ending at the statue of Queen Victoria and a grand old civic building. Then there’s the previously mentioned Jummah Mosque and a variety of Hindu temples. If you decide to visit the bustling market, also near the Caudan, mind the pickpockets. Also, anywhere on the island, be weary of two lads on a motorcycle, as the fellow at the back may very well be the one that grabs your shoulder bag as they speed by. As Subash pointed-out, larceny is a living!
Taxis tend to be expensive in Mauritius, so many travelers and expatriates opt for the grimy but cheap buses that crisscross the island. Word to the wise: wait till the bus comes to a full stop before getting up from your seat, because Mauritian transit drivers like to slam on the brakes and send you sprawling! There’s also a wide variety of tour companies offering day long excursions by mini van, many of which leave from Grand Baie. The rates seem like a bargain, but know that the operators are paid by local businesses to bring them captive customers. One tour we took dragged us to a half dozen shops in the plateau towns before arriving just before closing time at Casela, a zoo and the main attraction. The list of stops was quite creative, calling a high priced jewelry store a “precious gem museum”. The visit to the miniature boat factory and shop in Floreal, however, was very interesting. Mauritius has a lot of spectacular sites to offer, yet the tourism industry insists on pushing some of the lamest so-called attractions. For example, a mandatory stop is the small volcano crater Trou aux Cerfs in Curepipe, which looks nothing like a volcano crater thanks to the heavy vegetation growing in it. Another is the Colored Earths, a half of a football field sized mound of volcanic sand in different shades of red and purple surrounded by a wooden walkway. Then there’s the heavily touted Ile aux Cerfs, a small island that offers a golf course, a few water sports, and a small tourist trap market. It’s nice, but the beaches and the activities at your hotel are likely better and probably cheaper or even free. One highlight of the typical Ile aux Cerfs tour is a lunch and Sega show on an isolated beach only be reached by boat. It was actually fun, however guests are expected to use the wild mangroves at the back of the dining area as toilets. Not exactly sanitary nor ecological! If you want the deserted beaches, you should head to Rodrigues, which so far has escaped the ravages of mass tourism that took its toll on the main Mauritian island.
Hotels tend to be of the all-inclusive five star kind, some of which, such as La Plantation, are world famous. Economic lodging is hard to find, unless it’s in a hostel or a hovel. One notable exception is Villa Jorico, a big beautiful bed and breakfast in Pointe Aux Sables, just south of Port Louis, where you can get a huge room with private bath for under 45 US dollars a night. There’s nothing to do in Pointe Aux Sables and the beaches are bad, so this is a location that might only serve your purposes if you have business to do in Port Louis. Buses run along the coastal road right in front of the inn. Note that if you just stayed at a luxury hotel rather than trying to live here, you might indeed come away with the impression that it’s paradise. The real Mauritius, however, isn’t a luxury hotel with beaches that are manicured to postcard perfection.
What finally killed our residency in Mauritius wasn’t the insecurity we felt after the invasion of our home. It was the water, or rather the lack of. I now realize how stupid it was before signing a lease to not have observed that all the private homes had immense water tanks (and bars on all the windows). Then again the prestigious South African real estate agency that represented the owner and charged me over 700 USD in commissions didn’t tell me that water was a rare commodity, flowing for only one hour a day during the dry season in order to provide the numerous hotels with an adequate supply. At first we suspected the reckless young pair of Australian doctors in the townhouse attached to ours were sucking the shared well dry. When the well went completely dry for two consecutive weeks and I was resorting to drawing filthy water from the pool just to flush the toilets, and we were using damp cloths to bathe ourselves, we decided this experiment could go no further. I had already invested quite a bit of money into this adventure in exotic living, and I wasn’t confident that things would get better if we stuck it out. We returned the keys to the agency, who agreed this was an exceptional situation (and kept their fees), sold the few things we had acquired, packed our bags, and left paradise!
Mauritius may be paradise, depending on which Mauritius you find yourself in!
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