John Walsh: Tales from Mauritius

'We gaze fondly at the Mancunian rock star. Despite wearing his beanie hat at breakfast, he's a model of domesticity'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Did you know that Mauritius, the tiny diamond stud on the broad face of the Indian Ocean, was where the dodo breathed its last? It was, sad to report, a victim of its own hospitality. Passing mariners in the 1600s were surprised to see birds with big, curved beaks running down the beach to greet them, like a gaggle of shrieky chorus girls. The sailors, an exploitative bunch, called them "dodos" (meaning "dimwits") and proceeded to kill them, eat them and feed them to their pet pigs until there were none left. Along with its reputation for being the original Eden, Mauritius is stuck with a reputation as The Place That Did For the Dodo.

Today, the relationship between visitors and locals is more equitable. At the Prince Maurice hotel, a dream-like construction of polished wood and marble, palm trees and sparkling sea, a hotel that gives you the impression, wherever you go, that you're walking on water, the management is welcoming but marvels at the things modern visitors require. "We have guests who arrive by chartered 747 at 3am. If you ask why charter a plane to arrive at that time, they say, 'Because it's cooler.' There are guests who arrive demanding seven suites without booking. Who demand 1,000 candles in their suite for their intimate dinner. Who get married and spend $30,000 (£16,000) on fireworks." The managers shake their heads at such folly. But luckily they don't have to deal with the Russian oligarchs, who patronise the hotels on the north side. "It's the hookers they bring with them. Sometimes they take them in to dinner with nothing on. One evening, they hired 24 local dancers and paid them $500 (£270) each to dance naked on the beach. When the management had a word with them and shooed the girls away, another consignment arrived by boat..."

The manager prefers guests such as Michael Douglas and Claudia Schiffer, both of whom visited recently and were properly gracious. People do not misbehave at the Maurice. We gaze fondly at the famous Mancunian rock star at an adjacent table, having breakfast with his extended family. Despite wearing his beanie hat indoors, he is a model of decent domesticity. He has allegedly been heard telling his little boy, at the crèche, "Now play nicely with the other kids, all right? No fookin' fightin'..."

But then Mauritius is a place of strenuous compromise and harmony. It has to be. At the last count, there were 57 religions on the island, from Tamils and Catholics down to obscure groups of zealots. Walk the streets of Goodlands on the east coast, through the Saturday-afternoon market, and you'll see mini-figurines of Hindu gods cheek by jowl with grave Buddhist icons, posters of Bob Marley and flyers encouraging you to attend the inspirational words of Sri Sri Ravi Shankhar [sic].

For an island so close to Africa, it's very Indian, the women's faces an appealing hybrid of both continents; it's common to see an Indian teenager showing off her midriff and flirting with the boys like a soul sister while out shopping with her mum. For somewhere that's part of the "developing world", it has flair. Tailors will knock you up a silk suit in 24 hours, as they used to do in Hong Kong. "So delicious, so Mauritius" runs the hook-line for the local Phoenix beer at the Hurry Store (prop: Mr M Hurry). Amid the dust and traffic, trade is brisk at the Magasin Petit Profit. ("His name is Mister Profit, you see," said my guide, "and 'e makes a ver' big profit.") And both the French and British councils are trying to further the use of their own language among this trilingual, million-strong population.

English here is the language of instruction, schools and politics, French is the language of commerce, and Creole is the tongue most Mauritians speak when they're hanging out. Historically the patois of slaves trying to understand their masters' orders, Creole is a bizarre amalgam of French and English, a sort of Franglais pidgin. Ask someone how they are ("Comman sava?") and you'll be told "Mon byen, mersy", in the flat accent of a Liverpool alderman on his first visit to Paris. But ordinary Mauritians perversely refuse to give up their mangling of the French langue and the Queen's English.

And since I've mentioned the "S" word aloud, you encounter its modern application on the journey from market to hotel. You ask who works at the denim-stitching factory or tuna-processing plant and discover that they're indentured workers, brought over as sweated labour from China or India, given a dormitory bed, food and shelter, and set to work six days a week for months on end, doing menial tasks that Mauritians would consider below them, all for the minimum wage, which is somewhere between £50 and £100 a month (average wages are four times that.)

Scratch modern Mauritians and you'll find this modern, volitional slave trade is a grubby secret that they'd like to see dealt with rather than concealed. "A minimum wage is one thing," said the lady beside me at lunch, "but these people should also be offered at least the minimum level of respect, dignity and a good life." Perhaps it's just as well you don't enquire too closely where your designer denim jacket comes from. Its stitching was probably done in Paradise - but at a price. And if our consciences are pricked, we're told that the same thing goes on in Mozambique, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and we return to our piña coladas.

At teatime by the pool, in the day's declining heat, as one watches the distant lagoon turning to gold and sips one's vanilla tea, a platoon of house sparrows arrives and starts looking for crumbs. I haven't seen a common house sparrow in years. The last time was in a front garden in Dulwich, circa 1997. Then they all seemed to leave town. We wondered where they'd gone. In fact, The Independent launched an inquiry about it. Now we know. House sparrows must be smarter than we thought.