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Sailmithril: The voyages.

Mauritius
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MAURITIUS A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE.

Port Louis Graveyard
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Looking at island history

Hindu temple
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A quiet retreat

What a contrast Mauritius is from Rodrigues. It’s like going from Connemara to London. We tied up in the centre of a new waterfront hotel and shopping development for 5 per day. The only security was a guy with binoculars in a tower on the end of one of the buildings. In the evenings we were besieged by promenaders - incredulous that we’d come from Ireland in such a small boat. How many days was the favourite question as if we’d come straight from Norn Iron to Mauritius. The island is the third most densely populated place on the planet and it shows in the air pollution and the thronged streets. No long walks here but the buses were still cheap and we travelled all over - through packed cities, tea gardens, sugar cane fields and fishing villages.

When discovered Mauritius was uninhabited and the French and English colonists brought in slaves and indentured workers from India, Madagascar and China. These people all stayed long after the plantations were split up and most of the whites left. The population now is more than 50% Hindu with Muslim, Christian and Chinese following. The mix of cultures is especially visible in the religious edifices. The Hindu temples were splendidly gaudy but quiet and peaceful inside with recorded chanting and bells tinkling in the breeze. I learnt a bit about the various Gods and by the end of our visit could tell the different God worshipped in each temple by the statues on view outside. The main mosque in Port Louis is huge with wonderfully intricate carving in wood and cement. Visits by tourists weren’t allowed during Ramadan and each midday the street was crammed with men in white robes arriving on motorbikes for prayers. The mosque was right on the edge of Chinatown, which is a reflection of the ease with which the religions co-exist - at least so it appears to the outsider. Among the people though the various groups seem to remain separate. It’s easier to tell "what are ya" than in Norn Iron as each culture has its distinct dress code. Some of the Muslims are very strict with the women dressed from head to toe in black including complete veil and long black gloves.

The burial grounds too are near one another and we spent many happy hours touring the main Christian graveyard. Here we found a tall but broken marble column to one Arthur Chichester ‘filius quartus’ to the marquis of Donegall. Our Latin isn’t sufficient to say if this was fourth son or grandson. But he died en route to Mauritius in 1843 and is buried there. Many of the old French tombs were like miniature mausoleums some of which had been broken open and piles of bones lay inside. It’s fascinating to read the history of the island on the stones - administrators, soldiers and planters, cholera and hurricane victims, children and wives with the same death date. Then there are the Indian and Chinese converts with Hindu tridents on the tombstone and the Chinese have their traditional pagodas complete with incense burners at the foot. The best name we saw was that of the family Ho Fock.

With all these different religions requiring ‘parity of esteem’ the Mauritians have had to be very clever in the matter of public holidays. Apparently there is a Hindu holy day nearly every week. So each year they rotate the major festivals as public holidays between the various religions. Imagine how that would work in Norn Iron? During our 3 weeks in Mauritius we had the Blessed Pere Laval Catholic feast day where thousands visit his tomb and pray for miracles. It was Ramadan and we saw the Hindu festival of Ganesh the elephant God who is the remover of obstacles and regularly called on by students doing exams.

China town
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Quaint old shops

Sugar cane fields
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looking southwards

In Mauritius they manufacture a lot of clothing for export and you can buy major fashion label seconds from street vendors. A car will stop at a busy intersection and the driver sells piles of Nike trainers or Gap t-shirts from the boot. The municipal food market was a real experience. The meat market was a large hall with wooden tables piled high with meats - not a fridge or chill cabinet in sight. The venison section was the most gross with the haunches of meat still having their fur on!! There were some very fat and happy cats snoozing under the meat tables. The old part of the town has plenty of character with old colonial offices flanking cobbled footpaths with deep storm drains alongside the road. Everywhere there are old warehouses with shingle roofs and brightly painted wooden shutters - all ripe for renovation and trendification. We went to the natural history museum to see the reconstructed dodo, which I was disappointed to see, doesn’t have the finger like growth on its forehead that I remember from schoolbook drawings.

There were several other yachts in Port Louis with us including a Norwegian who had been caught with an undeclared handgun aboard. Apparently he filled in the customs declaration in the negative and immediately afterwards his boat was searched and the gun found. The scuttlebutt was that the customs already knew he had a gun as no other yacht reported being searched. Customs didn’t even come aboard when we checked in. Meantime he was held for a week alongside the customs berth giving him the most secure and conveniently located berth in the city - for free!

One evening dinner was interrupted by a loud speaker announcement of an impending tsunami. There had been a big earthquake in Indonesia earlier and the tsunami was expected around midnight. The harbour master gave us the option of staying in our berth or anchoring in the next basin. We opted to stay as the Indonesian government had already cancelled their warning. Tom on Doe our neighbour opted to anchor. He came back after a couple of hours saying that he was surging about all over the show and that he ran aground on the way in at high tide so wanted to exit before low tide. But more importantly he had bids on ebay and couldn’t get his wireless connection to work in the other basin! Peter sat on deck watching the water level changing and talking to passers-by; some of whom had come down specially to see the wave! We had the full tidal range (1.5 metres) in 15 minutes - twice - but otherwise nothing exciting. During the Boxing Day tsunami the car park beside us had been under water. This tsunami would hit Rodrigues before Mauritius and when news came in that there had been no visible surge there we went to bed.

We really enjoyed our stay and found the people very friendly and helpful and extremely polite in almost a comically quaint way - especially the Indians. One hangover from the British is the mass of red tape needed to do anything. Extending our visa required a letter to the immigration officer explaining why we wanted to stay longer and then 2 visits to the office and numerous forms. Getting duty free diesel was even better. Setting that up took a whole day of visiting offices and getting permits including one to say our re-fuelling didn’t constitute a fire hazard to the harbour. One thing I can’t see is why a European would come here on a package tour. We visited some of the beach resorts and you could have been in any part of Spain. We were told that many of them don’t leave the resorts. Peter was yarning with a shopkeeper in a back street in Port Louis and was told that he’d never seen a tourist in his street before and never seen one on a bus either. For anyone with curiosity though it is a great place for a holiday with a real flavour of India from briyani sandwiches! to Bollywood movies in the cinema.

copyright Geraldine Foley 2008. "sailmithril ocean sailing adventures."