Last month, I was abruptly invited to go to Mauritius for a week, to research a possible project for our firm. I have many photos but the thoughts have come slowly. It's hard to write about travel without judging, reducing, summing up, closing down.
In my three weeks in India last year there was no danger of that. India is vast in so many dimensions that no description will touch it; as my guidebook warned: "whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true." In India the conscious visitor feels far too small to matter, so it's easy to just start writing without worrying much about truth.
To jet into tiny Mauritius, by contrast, is to feel too large. Mauritius has a bit over a million people on an island so small you can drive across it in a couple of hours, so it was hard to feel as infinitesimal, as much a fly on the wall, as the traveling writer needs to be.
The facts? Mauritius is the penultimate in a chain of volcanoes resulting from the drift of continental plates over a stationary column of magma rising from the earth. (A similar process on the Pacific Plate has dribbled out all the islands of Hawai'i; the magma column there is still under the Big Island, and still spewing.) The magma column that spat out Mauritius is still at work on nearby Réunion.
So here are all the classic features of the emergent volcanic island: dramatic mountains, fertile black soils, and a small palette of native plants and animals. These were limited to things that could get there oversea, and evolved only for local conditions, so of course many went extinct in the face of the human invasion. The docile, flightless dodo is only the most famous of the vanished indigenes.
So today a collection of introduced plants, mostly from Asia and Africa, dominates the scene. Parks are hymns to the European colonial vision of the tropics, with a focus on spectacular palms, strelitizias, and of course, figs:
People? None at all until the 17th century, then a Dutch visit followed by a more through French settlement and colonization. Later conquered by the British, and finally made independent late in the 20th century. Ethnically the population is about half Indian, the rest mostly African with a few Arabs and Chinese; there's just a scattering of white faces, almost all from the top end of the economic ladder. A developing world country, then, assembled by colonial powers but populated from elsewhere.
There is only one real city, Port Louis, with just a few hundred thousand people. It's on the northwest coast.
It has many of the textures of a developing-world city, but also a striking collection of very modern tall buildings, rising above the old city like an alien implant. Judging from their design, these are all quite recent, and the architectural standard is surprisingly high.
But the public street is still very developing-world. Sidewalks are intermittent, rough, and entangled with the needs of monsoonal drainage. As in India, people just walk in the street when they need to.
Mauritius manages its religious diversity well. Islam and Hinduism are prominent, Christianity a little less so.
One of the most peculiar features about Mauritius is the interplay of the three main languages. The government speaks English, business happens in French, and village life happens mostly in a French-based Mauritian Creole. The English-French dichotomy is especially striking, because as near as I could tell, everyone is functional in both.
The result is strikingly unlike any other multilingual country I've visited. In India, or eastern Canada, or parts of the US Southwest, you get used to signs whose text is repeated in two or three languages. Mauritius has none of these signs; instead, signs just seem to be in whatever language someone felt like using, and you're expected to understand it. Thus my hotel was on Rue St Georges.
But the nearest cross-street was Mere Barthelemy Street.
I've seen plenty of streets, and plenty of rues, but I'd never seen a rue and a street intersect before. This is nothing like bilingual Ottawa, in Canada, where every street is marked as both "St." and "rue":
No, in Mauritius, this is just a street, and that's just a rue, and if you're going to get around, you're just going to learn both languages.
And so it goes. The government website is strictly in English, with no mention of options for speakers of other languages, yet the sound of English is rare on the street and very rare in business. Business signs are almost all French only, and staff will greet you in French, shifting to a stiff functional English only on request.
Five of the seven days I was there, I was in and around Port Louis, enjoying it but wondering if there was anything I hadn't seen somewhere else. Finally, of course, it was the most worn textures of the city that seemed more authentic, like the image above. Even here there's nothing to tell me I'm not anywhere in the Francophone tropics, but at least I can know, intellectually, that spots of decay and weathering are as unique as snowflakes.
Weathering also suggests a return of the natural, as though each door, as it welcomes the guest, is also welcoming time.