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Welcome to Mauritius

Posted by on April 27, 2015

2015-04-19 05.28.00Our adventures in Mauritius were truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. There was so much to take in and experience that it will be hard to find words to describe it all. Let me go back to the start. Don and I finished up our jobs and left Tahoe on the Monday morning after Easter, and 4 days later, we found ourselves on the other side of the planet, surrounded by friends, beautiful beaches, and wonderful island culture. My best friend, Laura, and her husband, Shyam, were finally having a wedding (over 5 years after getting married in the states), and they had decided to do it Mauritian style, complete with 4 days of Hindu traditions and ceremonies. Shyam is from Mauritius, and when Laura and her friends all met him years ago, we had never heard of the place he came from. He described his home to us, but it always felt very far away and foreign. Now that we know more, let me introduce you to this wonderful nation.

Mauritius is a small island (40 miles long and 28 miles wide) in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and south of the Seychelles. It was originally discovered by Arabs and then the Portuguese (at the time it had no inhabitants), but the Dutch were the first to colonize in the 1600’s. After they abandoned the colony, the French claimed the island in the 1700’s, but then lost out to the British in the 1800’s. Mauritius only became an independent state 2015-04-14 01.25.38in 1968. The primary language is Mauritian Creole, but most residents also speak French, English, and Bhojpuri, a simplified form of Hindi. The population is over 50% Hindu, approximately 30% Christian, and about 20% Muslim, and most Mauritians descend from India, Africa, France, and China. Shyam’s family is Hindu, his ancestors came from India, and they speak primarily Creole in their home and among one another. They are a large family, and even though they number in the hundreds, they remain very close to one another, and have kept close to their faith and their traditions. They are proud of Shyam’s success in the United States (he owns and operates a very popular Mauritian food truck in Portland) but it is obvious that they miss him dearly. I know it meant the world to them to have him and Laura back home for a whole month this year. What they couldn’t have expected or prepared for were the 26 American friends and family members that managed to all make the trip out in support of our dear friends, Laura and Shyam.

We arrived at the airport in Mauritius on Friday morning after 30 straight hours of travel. Laura, Shyam, and Shyam’s father (whom we came to call Uncle), arrived just in time to welcome us with hugs, smiles, and a significant amount of disbelief that we were all together on the other side of the planet. We were immediately driven to a beautiful beach just minutes from the airport, where we put our toes in the water, gazed out at the break (which is far offshore around most of the island because of a coral reef), and played catch-2015-04-15 23.46.05up with our dear friends whom we hadn’t spent time with in over a year. We all had a lot to look forward to. The wedding, which would be unlike anything we had ever been a part of, meeting Shyam’s family (would they all be just like our incredibly unique and loved friend Shyam?), greeting all of the other Americans that would be arriving in the days to come, and of course exploring the island of Mauritius, with all of its beaches, people groups, cities, and unique but delicious cuisine. Shyam wasted no time welcoming us in the way he knew best – by feeding us Mauritian food. The market in the central town of Curepipe (pronounced “cure-peep”) was a lot like any market in a developing country – there were vendors selling flowers, vegetables, grains, fabrics, and most likely meat, but we skipped past all of that and headed straight for the food stalls. The men all went in together, and came out loaded with bags of hot, savory snacks. The next stop was a small bakery, where Shyam non-chalantly offered us bites of both chicken and custard “feuillete” (pronounced “feh-tay”), which on any other day would have been the day’s highlight and the end of the story. But there was much more in store, and we had only just begun. We bought a few other Mauritian treats and found a picnic sight on the edge of the beautiful Valetta Reservoir close to where Shyam grew up. We enjoyed all of our culinary delights among Shyam and his father’s Creole, plants full of  blossoming “chinese guava”, which all the locals go crazy for and pick to eat at home and sell in the markets, and some enormous snails that seemed almost prehistoric and put American snails to shame.

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When we got back to Shyam’s family’s home, it was still before 10am, so Don and I mustered up all our energy and prepared to fight off sleep for at least 10 more hours. The rest of the day was spent meeting more family members (they would trickle in 2 or 3 at a time, stay for a while and shyly speak English with us, and then leave with invites to come 2015-04-14 01.04.43to their home as their final parting), being served tea (a delicious black tea/cream/sugar concoction) and fabulous home-cooked meals, and helping to prepare the home and yard for the impending wedding. We even got to paint the outside of the home for a while; solidifying our pattern of painting in every country we visit. Don and I were the first American friends to arrive, so we had the privilege of staying with Shyam’s uncle (who lives next door to his parents) for our first 3 nights in the country. Not only is his uncle (whom we call Barcapapa (pronounced “bhurka-papa”) because of his status as eldest brother) an amazingly enlightened and kind man, but he is also a world renowned artist, whose primary medium is carved wooden sculptures. We spent a lot of our time resting in the room of the house that had been made into an art gallery, studying the forms and expressions of many unique sculptures.

The next two days introduced us to more of the island and gave us lots of quality time with Laura, Shyam, and Shyam’s family. We spent most of Saturday on an impromptu driving tour, starting out in the busy town of Quatre-Bornes, where we devoured the most famous of Mauritian foods: dal puri, and hung out with many more of Shyam’s cousins. We then 2015-04-17 04.04.25headed toward the beach town of Flic-en-Flac, where all of us Americans would be staying together in a hotel starting on Monday. By this time, we were 6 people in a little car, with Uncle (Shyam’s father) in the driver’s seat and Don hanging out in the trunk. We got out of the car just long enough to touch our toes in the ocean and approve of our soon-to-be-hotel before we began the drive south along the coast of the island in search of Laura and Shyam’s wedding ceremony venue. Shyam had chosen a beautiful park, “La Valee des Couleurs”, as the ceremony site, but he had never seen it in person, so that became the plan. We did end up in the right place eventually, but we had accidentally taken a much longer route than was necessary and got in a little more sight-seeing than we, or the car, had bargained for. By the time we reached the airport on the south end of the island (we were meeting up with the family to welcome home one of the youngest cousins – 17 year old Vidi who had just traveled with a school group to a neighboring island) we were all a bit hungry and tired. The road system in Mauritius is anything but direct, and we had driven around in circles a little more than the Westerners in the car were used to. A little food and the excited smiles of family at the airport helped improve the mood, but the experience made Shyam and Laura insistent that we spend the next day partaking in our very favorite activity: hiking up one of the mountains visible from Shyam’s home.

The next morning, after a tasty homemade breakfast prepared by Barcapapa, Don and I set out on our own for the first time. We caught the bus to a town less than 10 miles from the house and then walked a while down stall-filled streets until we reached the trailhead for 2015-04-19 05.40.59“Le Pus” (or “the thumb” in English), the third highest “mountain” in Mauritius. It was a fairly easy hike, but we were happy to take our time, enjoy a picnic halfway to the top, and mingle with the many local families that were out enjoying the temperate day. The view from the top takes in the whole northern half of Mauritius, and makes it a must-do for any adventurous tourist. By the time we had walked back to town and waited for a bus back to Dagotiere, the name of Shyam’s small town, it was late afternoon and we began to prepare ourselves for the following day’s transition. At least 7 other guests were coming in on Monday, and our plan was to greet them on the beach in Flic-en-Flac.

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It was bittersweet “moving out” of Dagotiere because we knew it meant seeing less of Laura, Shyam, and the family, but it helped that our dear friends Ian and Cassie were some of the first to arrive, and that they would have their adorable 7-month-old daughter Paige in tow. I could say a ridiculous amount about the 3 days that followed, before we all got together as a group and spent the day on a catamaran with the bride and groom, but since this blog has already gotten quite long, I’ll try to be brief. Each of the next 3 days brought 2015-04-15 10.31.58bus-loads and car-loads of friends into our fully-rented-out hotel in Flic-en-Flac. Most afternoons were filled with hugs, greetings, and plenty of surprises. We spent most of Monday on the beach (where both Don and I, but mostly Don, fried our little white bodies to a crisp…I had achieved the same result the day before on our hike), most of Tuesday on a fun bus tour of the island that Laura had set up for everyone, and most of Wednesday scuba diving for the first time. The friends and family that arrived mostly all knew one another, as many of us had either grown up together in Tahoe, lived in the Portland, Oregon area, or were just mutual friends of Laura and Shyam. It was like a school reunion, family reunion, tour group, and bachelor/bachelorette party all rolled into one. We had way too much fun. The bus tour on Tuesday took us to Grand Bassin, a sacred lake and popular Hindu temple, a lookout in the Black River Gorges National Park, and everyone’s favorite, a local “rhumerie” specializing in rum made from the island’s abundant sugar cane. Wednesday held a special treat for Don and I, as we had never even considered that someday we’d try scuba diving. As far as we knew, scuba diving was too expensive a hobby to ever fit within our budget, but when Laura’s dad told us that we could do a “discovery dive” without any certifications or equipment for only $44 USD each, we couldn’t pass it up. This was our chance! The dive went really well and we certainly enjoyed ourselves, but we also know what we’ll do differently next time, and look forward to someday getting certified so that we can have a bit more freedom under water. The evenings were spent scoping out small touristy restaurants for tasty food and good deals, and were usually finished off with a couple hours of ” Cards Against Humanity”. The wedding festivities hadn’t even begun and we were all already loving our time on the island.

The next day, Thursday, was a definite highlight of the entire trip. Laura and Shyam had planned a catamaran trip for the whole group out to “Flat Island”, where we would have the chance to snorkel, play in the water, and lay out on white sandy beaches. We drove to the northern edge of the island to embark on the trip, and as we all loaded up the boat, we were2015-04-18 10.42.40 greeted with smiling crew members, perfect blue skies, chocolate croissants and coffee. We were then informed that lunch would be cooked and served on the island and the entire trip would be open bar. It was as perfect as could be. Plus, we all got to hang out with Laura and Shyam for the day! They had been busy with the family and wedding preparations, so this was a great chance for them to take a break before the wedding actually got under way. The catamaran was parked just a little off shore from the island, so we took a few trips in a dingy out to the island. We spent most of the day standing waist-deep in clear, warm salt water, watching fish swim past our feet, and sipping on delicious rum cocktails. We returned to Flic-en-Flac that evening grateful and excited. Friday would mark the start of the 4-day wedding and none of us knew what to expect.

The following four days were a blur of wedding ceremonies, dance parties, and occasional tourist activities thrown in to fill gaps of time. None of us understood much of the actual ceremonies being performed, but we loved watching Laura and Shyam get dressed and decorated like the royalty we all think they are, and we could appreciate the lengths that the family, friends, and priest were going to to ensure a successful and happy marriage. On Friday morning, while wedding preparations were still under way, I was lucky enough to join a group of ladies for some prayers at altars near the home. Although we didn’t know exactly what was going on, there was food and singing involved, and we later found out that 2015-04-18 08.39.01the prayers were to ask for a successful wedding without any problems. It is always a wonderful experience to see how other people and other cultures express and practice their beliefs. Around midday the priest showed up (he would be a prominent feature throughout the wedding) and led Laura, Shyam, and their parents in an opening ceremony. Imagine a few plates of food, sweets, flowers, and spices laid out, the priest chanting in sanskrit with the occasional participation  or agreement coming from the others, and a small fire being occasionally stoked in order to let off more or less smoke. Every word and movement was carefully timed and small details were taken quite seriously. We later came to learn that even the locals do not necessarily understand much of what the priest says or does, but they  do believe that the ceremonies should happen as they’ve always happened, and that the careful details will please their various gods. The rest of the afternoon and evening were filled with music, dancing, and the beautiful art of henna painting. Laura had her hands, lower arms, and feet completely covered in intricate henna by a professional, and the rest of the ladies had our hands painted. Henna is a red dye that comes from a leaf and although it was originally more of a Muslim tradition, it has become very popular among Hindus in Mauritius. Now seems like as good a time as any to mention that all of the ceremonies and traditions that make up a Hindu wedding in Mauritius do have titles and explanations and can be researched and studied online. I am no expert, and intentionally chose to just be present rather than find explanations for all I saw and did. I am always eager to learn more, but for now, my descriptions are not necessarily complete or accurate, they are just my observations put down in words.

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Many of the ceremonies that would take place on Saturday only involved family, so Don and I took the opportunity to visit (by bus) the large market in the capitol city of Port Louis. The market proper occupied a 2-story building, but their were street vendors, hawkers, and food carts for miles in every direction. We didn’t buy anything besides lunch, since we don’t currently have a home and are essentially carrying everything on our backs for the next 5 2015-04-19 01.22.56months, but we loved being amid the hubbub of buyers and sellers of every item imaginable. That evening everyone returned to Shyam’s family’s home for more ceremony, more dancing, more music, and more drinking. This particular evening focused on the bride and groom individually and ended with both Laura and Shyam being covered head to toe in turmeric, a yellow spice that is believed to disperse evil spirits and cleanse the body, mind, and soul. While the rest of us partied away, Laura and her “keepers” (our friend Britt stayed by her side for much of the wedding as a married “relative”) stayed in a room, accepted visitors, and soaked in the fragrant spice. Laura and Shyam would actually have to spend the night covered in the spice, and when we came back the next morning, neither of them had showered, and they were both being covered in even more turmeric. Sometimes it seemed like getting married was more like a marathon for the engaged couple, but I can only imagine that the honor of going through such ancient traditions gave both Laura and Shyam strength to patiently handle every dictate handed their way.

Sunday was the actual wedding day, so everyone dressed in their best sarees and kurtas and we all bussed to the ceremony site about an hour from the house. Laura was more elaborately decorated than anyone I had ever seen in my entire life. Every detail from her saree to her nails to her makeup, hair, and jewelry was carefully selected and generously 2015-04-19 02.52.40applied. She wasn’t necessarily “comfortable”, but she was fit for royalty, and Shyam was decorated just enough to somehow seem worthy of his beautiful bride. The ceremony happened on a stage, and fortunately we had Shyam’s good friend, who happened to speak very good Hindi and English, there to translate for us. I was later told that the locals also appreciated the translations, because for the first time, they actually knew what was going on (usually the priest just goes about his business in sanskrit, which like latin, is understood and spoken by only a few). After the ceremony we headed back to the house and proceeded to enjoy a reception that actually felt a little bit familiar. There was a delicious dinner, generous libations, the cutting of a big, beautiful cake, and lots of music and dancing. This time Laura and Shyam could join in and we all had so much fun celebrating and dancing the night away.

Somewhat unbelievably, the wedding was still not over. The next day, before much of our American group headed the the airport for their evening flights, we all enjoyed a reception lunch. More tasty food, more good conversation, and more time getting to know our new Mauritian family. Goodbyes were hard, but Don and I still had a few days left in the 2015-04-19 09.56.15country, so some of us headed back to Flic-en-Flac, and managed to have yet another evening of fun…this time involving fireworks on the beach. Tuesday and Wednesday were mostly spent saying goodbye, decompressing, and taking in every last ounce of Mauritius that we could. We aren’t sure when we’ll ever be back, so we wanted to make sure we had done all we could to keep the island in our hearts and on our minds. In the end, Tuesday became one final beach day, and Wednesday was spent at the island’s zoo/safari and then hanging out for a few more hours with Shyam and his (now also our) family. In our final moments, we munched on some freshly chopped sugar cane, gazed out at the mountain we had climbed the week before, and contemplated the 30 hours of travel that loomed ahead of us. We weren’t returning to any “home” or “job”, but rather to a whole new and exciting adventure. The Pacific Crest Trail will likely change our lives. It will teach us, inspire us, and destroy us at least a couple times in the next 5 months. The last week has felt a lot like floating on top of a big wave. There is so much going on below us, but all we can do is ride it out and await the moment that we crash down onto the shore, stand up, and realize that we are standing on the precipice of a 2,668 mile journey.

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