Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” After his 1896 visit, political wit Mark Twain tickled his own funny bone and wrote this famous one-liner. Often, I pay heed to the funny man Twain’s advise but that day in the tiny island, I wasn’t ready to stare at heaven’s blueprint. I have an idea where Twain picked the Mauritius-heaven approximation — scarlet flame trees, emerald sugar plantation, silver sand, turquoise water… Mauritius, a blob in the Indian Ocean, that could pass off as god’s homestay.
There’s more to Mauritius than its silken beaches. So, I happily tiptoed from the blue of the ocean in search of a blue stamp. A stamp so precious that one could barter it for a squat town. Not pricey because Queen Victoria’s tiara-ed head is engraved on it. Housed in the Blue Penny Museum (Caudan Waterfront), the 1847 Blue Penny and Red Penny stamps are one of the rarest in the world. In the dark first-floor room, I dawdled around looking for the blue and red stamps. Alas, all I saw was replicas — the originals are stashed in a vault.
A case of bad luck
Bad luck! I sighed at the first step out. That afternoon, I did not leave bad luck behind. I stalked it and found it miles away in the Cape of Bad Luck (Cap Malheureux). I had imagined shipwrecks and teary tombstones in the Cape. Instead, there was a pretty red roofed-church hoisting its spires into the cloudy sky. Men were playing pétanque, an outdoor game in which opposing teams throw boules (metallic spheres the size of an orange) as close as possible to a but (little wooden sphere called cochonnet, meaning piglet), and children were squealing on green grass. There was nary grief nor misfortune at the Cape that borrows its name from countless ships that wrecked in the area.
Another few miles and I took to history in Apravasi Ghat in Port Louis. As I walked down the steps of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, I thought of hundreds of Indian indentured labourers who disembarked from a ship called Atlas, walked up the 14 wharf steps to sign their work contracts. It was on November 2, 1834 that the first batch of labourers landed in Port Louis. Their job: coolies in sugar estates. Their monthly salary: Rs 5 for men, Rs 4 for women. Today, the Ghat is lined with modern ships, and indentured labour seems a curse of the past; the depots where immigrants were huddled for 48 hours before being carted to estates with a blanket and utensils; you can no longer hear a brusque European hollering at the coolies. The eerie silence of the Ghat is only broken by the hooting ships and the unheard screams of the 4.5 lakh Indian immigrants who shipped into Mauritius between 1834 and 1910.
The story of the immigrants gnawed at my heart again as I walked through Aventure du Sucre, a sugarcane museum that chronicles the history of sugar plantation and the harrowing tales of Indian immigrants. Registration sheets, sepia with time, are framed on walls and a typical immigrant hearth has been recreated in a corner. In the shop, one can sip rum made of molasses and taste 12 different varieties of sugar — from chaste white to ebony brown.
Carrying the burden of poignant tales, I drove around and saw temples at every bend — red triangular flags fluttering piously outside homes and incense sticks clouding the temples built in traditional Dravidian style. The stone churches were invariably grey and in the Pamplemousses Garden, I saw the talipot that flowers once in 100 years. I almost rowed away in the humungous water lily leaves that could even put a raft to shame. I huffed up a hill to see the largest waterfall and then huffed back to a patch of land where the earth wears seven colours — one mound looks purple, another maroon, one dune wears beige while another flaunts its russet tinge.
That week in Mauritius, I did not sink my toe in the ocean. Not a grain of sand was caught in the hem of my dress. Not a hint of salt in my long hair even though the sea-breeze flirted with it. On the island, I paid heed to Mark Twain’s funny bones. If heaven looks even a little like Mauritius, I am ready to book a villa in the neighbourhood of the gods.