Friday, December 8, 2017

The Temple By The Beach

8 December 2017

Life has been quiet, we're enjoying the sunny days of Mauritius, and we tend to just walk around our part of the island and explore little places, or hang out at the mall and people watch, and of course try various cuisines that are popular in this multicultural society.

There are often people fishing on the couple of small piers or docks.  I haven't seen anyone catch much of anything.  But I really liked the way this man matched his shirt to the water.

From our balcony, we can see a small peach colored temple or shrine not too far distant.  So after having lunch at my favorite neighborhood French bistro, I decided it was time to find the peach temple.

Turns out that it isn't far away at all.  Actually, it's down a side street opposite one of the shops where Richard buys his Coke Lights.  (I'm becoming addicted to Orangina Zero, but that's even harder to find.)

There were some men hanging out at the beach near this little temple, and one man spoke English quite well.  He explained that yes, this is a Hindu temple, and it is here by the sea.  I could go inside and look around, but I told him I just liked the colors of the temple against the blue sky and aqua water, and asked if it was okay to take photos.  Not a problem, he said, and he introduced me to the caretaker (who had been napping on a bench).  I said I could tell it was a Hindu temple because there was a statue of Ganesh right there.  And that I didn't see Ganesh at the Tamil temple closer in town.  He said that he attends that temple, he is Tamil, and that there's a statue of Ganesh but that it's inside, not outside.  Aah, I replied (not knowing what else one could say).  I didn't want to get into a long discussion of what the differences were between the temples, so we just had a little chat and that was it.

I should add that it was just a little unnerving to walk down this side street and see the multi-armed woman statue - from a bit of a distance, she looks very realistic.  For just a moment, I wasn't sure if she was a real person dancing (or two people), or a statue.  Just a moment of freaky.

There's a pretty beach nearby, but the water in Grande Baie is a bit murky.  Gorgeous aqua blue to turquoise, but there's a lot of boat traffic.  And I'd guess the wave action in the enclosed bay tends to kick up much of the sediment, so that the water looks cloudy all the time.  I know, we're so spoiled - we like the crystal clear water we find so often.

Anyway, today was more exciting.  Friends from the USA were on a cruise of the Indian Ocean, not realizing that we were also exploring this part of the world.  They found out from our post on Facebook that we're on Mauritius this month, and so we made arrangements via email to meet up for a lovely lunch.  Had a great time catching up, and it was wonderful to see them as well as meet their friends who were also on the cruise.  

Whatever did we do before the internet?  We must have passed friends all around the world, not knowing where everyone was travelling!!!

As I said, we've settled into our little routines here in Mauritius.  It truly is a beautiful corner of the world, and we're having fun.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Some People Call It Maurice

1 December 2017

With apologies to the Steve Miller Band.  But really, in French, Mauritius is "Île Maurice."  We see signs for Île Maurice all over the island.  And my father's name was Maurice.  So it just seems like a nice fit.

Usually when we arrive in a new country, my first blog includes an overview of the history and geography of the place, maybe some information about the people and some demographic facts and figures.  We've been pretty busy for our first several weeks, between getting a passport photo, submitting Richard's passport renewal papers to the embassy in the capital, and just getting around the island.  Plus the sweater saga, and getting to know the tourism police.  And then researching and finding a new location, because our first hotel wasn't available for extending our time.  And finding a place that was less rural.  Nor was our second place able to house us for the Christmas to New Year's period of time, so we had to find and book a third location.  Of course, add in picking up the new passport, now locked in our hotel safe.

All of that kept us very busy for our first three weeks here on Île Maurice.  With time for eating wonderful French or Indian or Mauritian food, including lovely croissants and pain au chocolat for breakfast.

So here it is, information about Mauritius, Île Maurice.

Mark Twain wrote that "Mauritius was made first and then Heaven, Heaven being copied after Mauritius."  It really is a lovely island, with a cluster of mountains in the center, wide flat plains surrounding those mountains like the brim of a top hat, white sandy beaches alternating with dramatic rocky coastlines, and the aqua blue water surrounding it all.

Mauritius is located at 20 degrees south of the equator, with a warm-to-hot tropical climate year round.  We're definitely enjoying our days hovering between 80 to 86 F during the day (25-27C), and night-time lows of maybe 75 F (22 C).  There have been occasional rainy days, but mostly it has been sunny or partly sunny.  Gorgeous weather.

The main island of the nation of Mauritius is known as Mauritius Island, and is some 700 miles east of Madagascar (1130 km).  South Africa is about 2250 miles to the southwest (3600 km), India is about 3170 miles to the northeast (5100 km).  Probably the closest spot on the African continent would be Mozambique, about 1400 miles west (2300 km).  Similar to the Seychelles, this nation is remote, somewhat isolated, and an archipelago.  Unlike the Seychelles, Mauritius has a large agricultural industry in sugar cane - we see field after field of sugar cane, which is used to produce sugar and rum.

The geology of Mauritius is actually quite fascinating.  Mauritius, and somewhat nearby Reunion and Rodriguez, are referred to as the Mascarene Islands or the Mascarenhas Archipelago, because they are linked to the volcanic action of the Mascarene Plateau, an undersea plateau.  Reunion has an active volcano as well as a lava lake, and we've heard that there were to volcanic eruptions there this year.  Mauritius has several volcanoes, most extinct at this point but at least one is considered dormant.

The area where we spent our first two weeks, Pointe Aux Piments, is part of the region of Mauritius referred to as Black Lava.  This whole section of the island, maybe the northwest eighth of the island, was created by a massive lava flow from one of those huge volcanoes.  The lava flowed all the way to the ocean, and has left black rocky beaches to this day.  We've also seen walls and buildings made of tuff, or tufa, an igneous rock that is basically compressed volcanic ash that eventually forms solid rock with a very bumpy texture.

Mauritius Island itself is considered a rather young island, geologically, because the volcanic eruptions were only some two to eight million or so years ago.  I know, it seems long ago to us - but consider that the Rocky Mountains were formed some 55 to 80 million years ago.  And they are considered to be younger than the Adirondacks and Appalachian Mountains.  So two (or eight) million year old mountains, yeah, just babies.

Actually, you can see that these are fairly young mountains based on the geology.  The mountains are very pointed, with peaks and pinnacles and that finger pointing to the heavens.  These mountains obviously haven't been eroded by rain, wind, and cyclones - they still have all of those raggedy features that tell geologists and geographers that these are young mountains.

There are other oddities about Mauritius.  This rather small island (790 square miles, or 2040 sq km) has an exceptionally strong gravitational pull.  Who knew?  Turns out gravity isn't equal all around the earth, some areas have a stronger and others have a weaker gravitational pull.  This is due to the density of the bedrock, rock, and materials of which each area is comprised.  The question, of course, is how and why Mauritius has extra-dense materials causing this strong gravitational pull, especially if this island and the surrounding islands are all volcanic, rising up from the Mascarene Plateau.

The most recent theory among geologists is that there is a subcontinent below the Mascarene Islands, a sunken chunk of the former continent Gondwanaland, stretching from the southern tip of India all the way across the ocean to Mauritius.  This theory is reinforced by findings of zircons, crystalized minerals, on Mauritius.  Apparently the zircons are millions of years older than Mauritius itself, plus these crystals are usually found in granite on continents, not in the middle of the igneous rock found all over Mauritius.  The theory is that these zircons got mixed with the lava that spewed out during the volcanic eruptions that created much of Mauritius.  So yes, this may be a two layer island - top layer being a newer, volcanic island, and the base layer underwater being part of Gondwanaland, one of the original continents.  National Geographic actually refers to this as a drowned continent!

Interesting stuff!!!

Oh, plus way out near the horizon there's an ancient volcano, or maybe half of the volcanic cone.  It's called Gunner's Quoin, and there's a large informational sign giving the name and all.  Gunner's Quoin is made of basalt, and there are all kinds of animals and sea birds that make this island their home.  It is now a nature preserve, and access to the island is restricted.

Mauritius was first discovered by Arab sailors, though they didn't settle on the island.  The Portuguese also sailed by and added the island to their maps, but they didn't stay.  The Dutch arrived in 1598, blown off course during a storm, and they named the island "Prins Mauritz van Nassaueiland," after the Dutch prince.  (Mauritius is the Latin version of Mauritz, which is equivalent to the French Maurice.)  The Dutch colonization of the island was roughly 1640 to 1710, then French from 1710 to 1810, and eventually British until independence was granted in 1968.

So, a couple of notable items - the Dutch and then the French needed workers to develop the island, so they captured people from Madagascar and from eastern and southern Africa and brought them to Mauritius as slaves.  Once the British captured the island, they brought in indentured servants from India, their major colony in the general vicinity.  Not that the indentured servants were much better off than the slaves, but they were given a slight bit of freedom.  To this day, something like 70% of the residents of Mauritius can trace their ancestry back to India, and the historic center on island, Aapravasi Ghat, where the British "processed" the people they stole before shipping them off to plantations and such.

Now, like many other isolated islands, there weren't many native animals.  On Mauritius, there were predominantly birds, and sea animals.  And among the birds were the dodo birds, those huge birds that were slow moving, and that didn't fly.  Yes, dodos were real birds.  Not having any natural predators, the dodos didn't know what to do when humans settled on the islands.  The humans, not having farms yet, easily caught the dodos and ate them.  And their eggs.  Until the dodos became extinct, and the rest of us know the dodo birds only as a legend.  A true legend, but they are difficult to picture nevertheless.  So the dodos are on the national seal of Mauritius, and are used all over tourist items - tee shirts, knickknacks, etc.  I'm not sure having the dodo bird as a national emblem is the best symbol for the country, but since Mauritius is the only place the dodos ever lived, it makes sense.

There are still plenty of birds, and I finally found some of the upside down nests that weren't in a tall tall tree.  So, I can sort of understand how the birds keep their eggs and their babies in there - one kind of nest is more round, with the opening on one end of the bottom.  Much of the nest bulges out to the side, and if you look up into the opening, it looks like there's a little barrier, like a partial wall, to keep the eggs and the hatchlings from falling out of the opening.  The other next, which looks more like a lightbulb shape, is more confusing.  It really looks like the eggs and the babies would just fall out.  I have no idea how the parent birds prevent this.  All I know is that they build out of instinct, these nests must prevent predators from getting in, and somehow the species all survive.  So the eggs and hatchlings are somehow staying in these upside nests.

Mauritius today.  This is a lively and fairly well developed nation, with a booming tourist industry, tons of sugar cane farming, and of course the somewhat out-of-place cashmere industry.  There's also the seafood industry, and various oil refineries.  Off-shore banking is an up-and-coming industry as well.  Compared to many of the nearby nations, Mauritius is quite well off.

The people of Mauritius are definitely a mix.  Many people look like they are of Indian ancestry, although I really can't differentiate between people from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, nor the various parts of India.  But many people are relatively small-boned, not very tall, with darker skin tones than people of European descent - yet with straighter black hair than people of African descent.  There are also people who are predominantly African.  And we see people who are east Asian, most likely from China or possibly Korea, rather than SE Asian.  Plus Europeans, whose ancestry may go back to the original Dutch, French, or British settlers.  Most people seem to be some mix of all of those various groups who settled or were brought to these islands.

The official languages are English and French, though Kreol is widely used.  And this is a different version of Creole than that of the Caribbean, or Louisiana.  Plus many people of Indian descent speak Hindi, or Tamil.  

Our current place (a residence, which is more like a studio apartment) is near a Tamil temple.  On the surface, it looks like a Hindu temple, although usually I can recognize Ganesh, the elephant-headed god on many Hindu temples.  I was told that this is a Tamil temple, and I'm not really sure of the difference.  I'm guessing that the difference might be along the lines of the various Christian groups in North America, and that while an outsider like me wouldn't really recognize much difference between the groups, those who are members would see more differences than similarities.  

Tonight there was some event at the temple, or maybe a regular evening service.  Shoes were lined up at the entrance, bells were ringing, and there was incense burning.  Other than that, we couldn't see much, and we weren't quite dressed to enter.  (The people we saw had shoulders and knees covered, so shorts and a sundress just wouldn't be appropriate.)

There is also a mosque farther down the street, with a minaret and a few towers.  It's too far down for us to hear the call to worship, though, nor can we see how often people go there.

Most Mauritians dress in what we think of as modern Western clothing - slacks, jeans, shorts, shirts, skirts, dresses.  But there are also many men in robes over slacks, with small skullcaps.  Or women in full black robes and hijabs, with only their eyes showing.  And women in colorful saris, or long tunics over fitted slacks and flowing scarves, from the various regions of India.  It's a bright and colorful mix of people and clothing.

I've learned to look at foreheads.  Hindu or Tamil women have the small red dot on their forehead, sometimes a red smear high up on their hairline.  Muslim men often have a slightly dark spot on their upper forehead when they touch their prayer rug while praying.  Just a small clue about the person.

Our neighborhood is mostly residential, with a few restaurants and residences like ours for tourists.  None of the big hotels are nearby, so we really are in a local neighborhood.  And of course, with the French influence, we are eating well.  Yes, we found a man who delivers croissants and pain au chocolat on his motor scooter.  Isn't that fabulous???  Can you imagine having him come by your office for your morning break???  Love it!

Our latest finds are a wonderful little French bistro, L'horizon - and a really good Italian restaurant Mamma Mia - 

So, that's pretty much the facts and figures, the history, the geology of Mauritius.  Interesting island, interesting people.  Friendly, helpful, and just about everyone is willing to put up with my trying to speak French, and Richard speaking only English.

We're having fun, and we always seem to find something new and interesting.

And we've been able to stay out of trouble thus far.

No idea what Christmas and New Year's will bring, but we're looking forward to seeing what happens here.

I've added a map - stars next to the names of where we've stayed or have been, pink dots to mark the spot.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Botanical Gardens of Mauritius

25 November 2017

Last week, I went to the botanical gardens in the area of Pamplemousses (pronounced pam-pleh-MOO-sez, the French word for grapefruits).  The official name is the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, and no, I'm not sure how to pronounce his name.  I do know that he was the first Prime Minister of Mauritius, and later on became the Governor General.  

The gardens go back to the time of the French being in power in Mauritius.  In 1736, the French governor, Mahé de Labourdonnais, set up his residence in the area of the current gardens.  In 1767, the French administrator Pierre Poivre brought in plants from all over the world, predominantly fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Many of the spices that Poivre brought in are still growing in the spice garden of the current gardens.  The French continued to expand the botanical gardens, adding broad avenues lined with trees for walking, and establishing various ponds for waterlilies and lotus plants.

During the British administration, the gardens were neglected for a bit, but eventually were revived in 1849, and the collection of palm trees was initiated.

The current name, honoring Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was added on 18 September 1988, the 88th birthday of this illustrious leader.

The botanical gardens cover 33 hectares of land, or 81.5 acres.  Here is their website, if you want more information:

So, I went with a lovely young Dutch couple we met at our first hotel in Mauritius, in the Pointe aux Piments area.  (North of Port Louis, the capital, and right on the coast.)  We stopped at a café and picked up takeaway sandwiches and water, and eventually had our lunch in one of the pretty little gazebos in the gardens.

We wandered around, enjoying the lovely day - sunny but not too hot, and with a decent breeze.  It was very uncrowded in the gardens, quiet and peaceful most of the time.  And surprisingly not buggy, although when we wandered off the paths I did get a few insect bites.  (But I tend to be a mosquito magnet.)

Some favorite spots:  there were two lotus ponds, one with pink blossoms and one with white.  They were large ponds, and the lotuses seems to stretch on forever, with the gorgeous blossoms standing tall and proud.

The largest pond, though, had the giant waterlilies we had seen in the Amazon River basin, and these had been imported from there some two centuries ago.  The leaves were huge and healthy, giant green round platters with a reddish lip covered in spines.  I'm not sure if I mentioned the life cycle of these waterlilies when we were in Brazil - the flowers bloom a very pale pink, almost white but just a tinge of pink.  Overnight, they turn purple.  And on the third day, they begin to die and sink into the water, where the seeds begin a new plant to renew the life cycle of the giant waterlilies.  I find it amazing that the leaves grow so huge and last a long while, but the lovely delicate flower has a lifespan of three days.

There were many huge trees, probably at least two or three hundred years old, most likely some of the original trees in these gardens.  The kind of trees that would carry a "Notable Tree" sign in New Zealand.  The trees that could maybe be encircled by three or four adults holding hands - or maybe even bigger than that!  I do love the notable trees, they seem so peaceful and wise.  I know, most people don't find wisdom in trees.  What can I say, I do.  I see Ents, and Gandalf, and Druids, and Demeter and Persephone.  I see the homes of the Dryads, and maybe Artemis visiting her tree friends.  Daphne turned into a laurel tree.  I feel the history of humans and their relationship with trees, and Gaea, Mother Earth, and our need to name and personify and anthropomorphise everything.  All of that is embodied in ancient trees.  So yes, these centuries-old trees connect us to our combined histories, and hold wisdom in their beings.

We looked for the spice garden, but for some reason it was fenced off and locked up.  The husband of the couple I was with is a chef in Amsterdam, and he wanted to see the various spices growing.  We found a cinnamon tree with fragrant leaves, smelling lightly of cinnamon and maybe something fruity.  And a clove tree, with the cloves standing at attention like small dark spiky flowers.  There were also various fruit trees that we couldn't quite identify - maybe quince or persimmon?  Definitely various kinds of mangoes, which I quickly avoided.

I think my favorite, though, was a nameless little tree, growing next to something with a sign.  Okay, it isn't nameless, it just didn't have a sign with a name so I had to do a bit of research.  Looks like this is a Picara, also known as a Chinese Croton.  Scientific name is Excoecaria Cochinchinensis.  This gorgeous plant has bright green leaves, something like a ficus tree, but the underside of the leaves is a bright red, like a lacquer red - absolutely beautiful on a breezy day!  I have no idea what kind of climate they need, but they would be wonderful in a home garden - just loved them!

There were little architectural features scattered around the gardens - a stone bridge covered in ferns, little gazebos like the one we picnicked in, and a lower bridge crossing a stream that runs through the gardens.  There were also numerous stone-lined canals presumably draining any overflow water from the various ponds, and perhaps bringing water to plants further into the gardens.

And the gate!  An ornate, wrought-iron, Baroque gate worthy of Versailles!  Really, an absolutely gorgeous and opulent metal gate, painted white, establishing the tone for entry to the gardens.  So totally French, and of course kept beautifully shiny and bright.  A gate that announces "This is a very special place, and you must be worthy to enter here."  Of course, these days worthy means 200 Mauritian rupees, but this aristocratic gate sniffs at the mention of money.  (And doesn't really turn away anyone.)


The photo before the gate photo shows these crazy bird nests - I have no idea what kind of bird makes these nests, I've asked and I'm always told various birds make them.  The nests are upside down.  Bell-shaped.  Totally open on the bottom.  I want to know how the eggs stay in the nests, and how the baby birds stay in there as well.  Do the birds produce some sort of glue and stick the eggs on the inner walls?  Are there shelves and the eggs rest on that?  No idea, and no one has been able to answer my questions.  And since I don't know what kind of bird, I'm having problems problems researching these crazy nests.  I'll keep asking, and looking for information, and will keep people posted.

Of course, I was chatting about this with my Dutch friends.  And we looked around, and at first thought we saw some birds on nests in the top of a couple of distant trees.  But they seemed to be moving in a funny manner.  So we looked, and looked, and realized that these are really bats!!!  Bats hanging upside down in the treetops, the blondish body and head looking like the nest and the black folded wings appearing to be birds - but really giant flying foxes of Mauritius!  WOW!  (Oh, and I learned that the word for "bat" in Dutch is "fledermaussen" - very close to the German "fledermaus."  Which of course we all know from the operetta by Strauss.)

So here are lots of bats in trees for my friends who were asking for flying fox photos from the Seychelles.

And I truly would NOT want to be in these gardens at sunset or so!  Hordes and legions and squadrons of flying foxes overhead!  We saw that in Darwin, Australia, and it truly was a very creepy sight!  Almost like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz - just frightening!

On a happier note - there were birds all over the gardens, chirping and singing and whistling in the trees.  We didn't see many of them, but we heard them.

These are my two favorite birds that we've seen in Maurititius, and it seems appropriate to feature them with the gardens.  We have the red fody, or Madagascar fody, which I wrote about while we were in the Seychelles.  This is a small bird, roughly sparrow size, with a bright red or red-orange body, and grey/black/brown wings and tail feathers.  They also have a tiny dark mark around their eyes, almost like a mask but not quite.  Very cute and friendly little birds, they come up to porches and balconies to see if people have dropped any crumbs that might be tasty.

Then there is the red-whiskered bulbul, also known as the crested bulbul.  This is related to the Seychelles bulbul, but much fancier with his pointed black crest, black facial mask, and the little red cheek patch.  Plus red under his tail feathers.  Like the Seychelles bulbul, he is friendly with attitude - they come up to the porch railing and perch there, hoping to share breakfast.  The tilt their head and look directly at us, as if to say "Yes, I'd like some croissant please."  The word "cheeky" comes to mind.  They aren't very large, bigger than the fodies and sparrows, but still smaller than a robin.  And shaped a bit sleeker, somewhat like a jay.  Very cute and friendly birds - and they seem to know it, too!

Last item for the day - sugarcane is a big industry in Mauritius, with cane fields all over the island.  We were stuck in back of a truck hauling sugarcane to be processed (into sugar as well as rum), and I thought it made an interesting photo.

I'll write a blog soon about our new home in Grande Baie, but this blog is long enough, so I'll sign off.  One more bat picture, just so you can see how eerie and vaguely ominous the look all lined up in a tree!