Travel – Mauritius: Paradise lost. Found. Lost.

2014-05-11 15:00

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Roger Young and photographer Leon Sadiki arrived in paradise in the pouring rain. Itching to find the ‘real’ Mauritius, they set off with a guide. But paradise was rather elusive, until they were booked into an adults-only hotel

“You want to see the real Mauritius?” With an almost undetectable eye roll, Clarel, our tour guide, turns to the driver and sighs: “The real Mauritius.”

It’s our second morning on the tropical, tourist­brochure-paradise island and the rain is torrential. ­Sadiki, the hard news photographer who has been sent with me to review a five-star resort called Long Beach, is peering through the sheets of rain that pummel the car, looking for “the real shit”.

We twist through an unending stream of double-storey buildings, a constant chain of high-road villages, gardens abundant with ­grapefruit trees, small shrines of Hindu, Tamil or Catholic iconography. We pass grim socialist concrete dotted among the perpetual sugar cane fields.

The national flag is everywhere, a reminder of the recently passed 46th celebration of the republic’s independence.

Between the villages are the resorts, public beaches, stray dogs, young people all dressed up and aimless, new malls, KFC outlets, abandoned textile factories.

We are racing to Port Louis to find the real Mauritius because Clarel wants to get us to the L’Aventure du Sucre museum in time for “a luxurious lunch”.

The resort itself is a travel writer’s dream, designed around a collection of tastefully ostentatious adjectives: luxurious, tranquil, capacious. In the triple-volume lobby, the giant wooden shutters are open to show off the long curve of the beach.

Warm towels wipe away the hour-long drive from the airport that was scattered with lights from shrines and men sitting shirtless drinking beer.

It’s 10pm. It’s beyond-Durban hot and we also want to be shirtless and drinking beer. However, we find ourselves threatened with having to dress up for an all-you-can-eat buffet. Finished by the crab curry, we head off to find our rooms.

Polished black slate floors, outstretched-arms-wide TV screen, superdeep bath, ­unending bed, a balcony looking out on to beach and stars. The kind of room you never want to leave (which kinda defeats the point). I order a beer to better enjoy my sumptuous surroundings.

A local brand, Phoenix, costs R85, plus a tray charge of R24. Buzz officially killed. Thank god for duty-free whiskey.

Since reading the brochure, I have become fixated on the “glass-bottom boat ride”. What wonders shall I see? I breakfast on a deeply comfortable bench facing the pristine sand, inviting blue ocean and palm trees delicately blowing in the breeze.

It is, I concur, a “haven of tranquility”, except for the screaming toddlers having a food fight next to me while their parents yell at the au pair to make them stop. Long Beach may be a five-star hotel, but it is a five-star family hotel. The children here are five-star brats.

“Everyone is looking at me funny. I think it’s because I’m the only black person in Mauritius,” says Sadiki as we scout the resort in search of fun or single ladies. “No, Sadiki, it’s because you’re wearing a military-style vest and carrying two giant-lensed cameras.”

You see them wandering around and you envy them, the tourists, those who have paid their hard-earned money to kick back. Parents and newlyweds laze on sun ­loungers and drink watered-down cocktails.

A honeymoon in Mauritius, I think to myself, is grounds for divorce. I watch a father walk his children down to the water’s edge, but the sea here is full of dying coral and not more than knee deep. They wander listlessly as a local man in a motorcycle helmet casts his line out.

The glass-bottomed boat leaks. We’re out at the edge of the reef and the sea life below us is just sorta there. It’s at this point that Sadiki and I decide to go find the real Mauritius.

A worker in a sugar cane field takes a break during lunch time. Sugar cane is grown on about 90% of the cultivated land area

II

“Pull the car over now!” he commands. We’re somewhere on Quartier Militaire Road. In front of us in the downpour is a giant muddy field strung with lines of plastic bag-wearing people bent over and uprooting the remnants of the last crop. Sadiki, barefoot, races off, shouting: “This is GOLD!”

It’s here I discover that Mauritians sometimes have a shaky grasp of their official language, English. When I find a man who speaks it, he takes my hand and examines it, then lets it drop and looks into my eyes.

“No ring.”

“Pardon?”

“You are not married?”

“No.”

“But you like girls?”

“Yes.”

“What hotel are you at?”

I tell him.

“I live near there, with my daughters.”

We find beer in a new strip mall, at a Shoprite-like place called Winners next to a KFC, in the village of St Pierre. A six-pack is the price of one hotel beer. We head to Port Louis.

In Cybercity, the buildings are shiny and tall. It’s a square kilometre of HSBC, ­Standard Bank and Microsoft that sprung up to service offshore banking, like a mini Sandton City in the tropical tangle. Suddenly, the driver points out a building – a giant nightclub with multicoloured walls. Here, he tells us, they play siga, hip-hop, rap and it goes all night.

Unfortunately, the tour company the driver works for does not operate after 8pm. The bus stops are full of young people, well dressed and with that dazed look of the call centre worker. They’re heading home to the Central Plateau, Clarel says with just a hint of disdain. The Central Plateau is where urban Mauritius is. “Why would anyone want to go there?”

The market at Port Louis is a cross between Ajmeri Arcade Shop in Durban and St Lorenzo in Florence. It has cheap yet overpriced tourist shit, and fruit and vegetables for the locals. We are never going to see the “real” Mauritius.

A man with a cat on his shoulder says to me: “You’re from Durban, aren’t you?” He’s old, sprightly and selling lottery tickets in a little box stall.

“Yes, how did you know?”

“All you Durban boys, you all like mushrooms. You all look the same. I used to be a sailor. I smuggled dagga [he pronounces it daggar with a murderous relish] from Mthatha to the islands for 20 years.”

“Can you get me some?”

“We have to go into the hills, up by the Central Plateau, where the drug barons live.” As he says this, his cat jumps off his shoulder, down on to the floor of the lottery booth.

We photograph a Tamil temple near the slums of Port Louis, where many of the Chagossians, violently displaced by the US military, now live.

L’Aventure du Sucre has a handy little section on Creole history, which begins: ­“Slavery would not have been possible had African tribal chiefs not been complicit in selling their own people.” So much for that.

The clothing centre in the capital of Port Louis is filled with trinkets for tourists and beautiful restaurants

III

At the resort, I float out into the ocean. Walking up to my cabana, I pause to watch an elderly man sweep footprints off the beach. In the Chinese restaurant, two teenage Japanese girls ignore their parents and stare relentlessly into their mobile devices. I ask Vladimir, the hotel manager, if there is any chance we can get a ride to Grand Baie to get some real dancing in. He smiles and points us to the bar. “Here, you can dance here.”

The author, Roger Young, kayaks through the blue waters of the Indian Ocean near Ambre, which caters mostly for single people

IV

We’re travelling south, past the fake pirate boats staffed by marooned backpackers taking tourists around the bay; past three women fishing, knee-deep, seemingly a mother, daughter and grandmother, all staring resolutely ahead. The men are ­returning from their trips beyond the reef.

In a graveyard of Dutch exiles, I scour for South African-sounding names while Sadiki discovers, across the road, an old body builder who calls himself Mr Africa and begins to work out with him.

“Package tours are down,” Clarel tells me. “They all go to the Caribbean now. It’s Johnny Depp’s fault.”

Laced with resorts and luxury homes whose owners dock their small yachts nearby, Blue Bay is as blue as it gets. We cruise out. Ile aux Aigrettes island is an attempt to restore indigenous flora and fauna.

It’s where the French, Dutch and Portuguese would stop to capture giant turtles for ship meat. Where for 20 years the pink pigeon has been bred back from the brink of extinction. We stop in the dense undergrowth and are asked to be quiet.

There it is, in the branches, the pink pigeon. Perhaps more pink than grey, there it sits, gazing dumbly around like any old pigeon. ­Creeping closer, I look into its stony black eyes and I wonder if this pink pigeon in particular has any idea how close it came to nonexistence.

V

I hide in my luxurious room. Maybe I just hate this resort because I think monogamy is stupid. I get on to Tinder and try to find a hook-up in a 2km radius (as far as I can get on the hotel bicycle after I’ve finished the whiskey). No one. I get on to Grindr and find a 50-something Scottish couple looking for “an island boy to have some fun with”. They are, according to the app, less than 1km away. Turns out they’re in the next row of cabanas and I end up sitting on their stoep looking at the moon and talking about sex tourism (Mauritius has disappointed them in this department).

VI

It’s the last day and we are given a day tour of another of the Sun Resorts, Ambre, a four-star just down the drag. Words cannot describe the utter chav-ness of it. ­Paradise. Every cliché in place and wonderful. The beaches are actually wide, the sea is actually deep and the drinks are universally free.

The difference, it seems, between the four- and five-star hotel are threefold: here the rooms are just places to rest, comfortable but uninteresting. There is only one payment structure: all inclusive.

And atmosphere. Ambre is an adults-only resort. There are no under-16s. It’s as if the place was designed to make chubby Brits, New Zealanders and South Africans feel immensely sexy while getting plastered and ­forgetting to put enough sunblock on. It’s like I’ve found my spiritual home.

Roving gangs of Essex girls and packs of Australians litter the shore on loungers. “I don’t think anyone is looking at me funny here,” says Sadiki.

The glass-bottomed boat at Ambre doesn’t leak. We get taken out to where the coral is not completely dead. And, finally, I am on holiday. I let the current take me. Soon I am locked in direct eye contact with a magnificently translucent, flat fish. We swim together. Something inside me shifts. I vow never to eat fish again.

We retire to the tables on the beach to eat supper. I order the fish of the day. The strains of the cover band float out over the glistening sands. At 11pm, the nightclub opens.

VII

Hours later, sitting in the departure lounge, bronzed tourists looking like ­endangered lizard birds stalk the duty-free, searching for trinkets with which to line their existence.

Somewhere out there is the real Mauritius, the non-tourist economy that we never managed to slip into, the powerboat parties of the plantation owners, the men drinking beer under fluorescent lights, the undone workers of Cybercity, the trio of women endlessly fishing against the tide, the dying coral and the pink pigeon that has no concept of its recent flirtation with extinction.

Young and Sadiki were guests of World Leisure Holidays, Air Mauritius and the Mauritius Tourism Promotions Agency

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