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On the edge of the Worlds

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Cross the island and discover an extraordinary geography and history, just like its people, whose ancestors came, through free will or by force, from all over the world. Portrait of an “island world”.

In Mauritius, the world opens out to us in immense morning skies. The lagoon shimmers in the morning light. Beyond the reef, the Indian Ocean regains its fathomless blue. In the beginning there was nothing. A wild land sprung up from the ocean floor. The Arab sailors saw it first, the Portuguese landed on it first. In search of new routes, the Dutch, French and then English settlers opened trading posts and imported men by the thousands – slaves from Africa, then “coolies” from India – and sugar cane from Java.

Mmm mmm mmm…” – she hums the legendary song Amazing Grace. “Can you hear the sound of the slaves downs in the hold of the slave ships?” asks the Mauritian singer Linzy Bacbotte, the queen of sega music. “It’s a song that tells of suffering, of strife, of breath, and above all of life. We are all the inheritors of this story.

 … “Above all of life. This is our inheritance and our duty: celebrate the joy of being alive and the beauty of life. That’s what I do when I play sega to share with my audiences. It’s the soul of our people.”

On the sea shores

Poudre d’Or, in the north of the island. Facing the sea, a statue commemorates the victims of the shipwreck of the Saint Géran, a ship in the French West India Company. A few boats have remained in the harbour. The Creole fishermen, like the children, make the sign of the cross before setting out to sea. The bells of the parish of Saint Philomena ring out, the village bustles. A few metres away, women in saris perform their ablutions and place offerings on the altar of Shiva – apples, incense, flowers, bowls of milk and so on. The beaches all along the coast laze in the Sunday sun: Grand Baie, Mont Choisy. Little improvised altars by the water’s edge, crosses carved into the rock, sailors’ cemeteries dotted here and there, branches of bougainvillea. The weather is so clear it erases the horizon. Under the filao trees that line the beaches, families settle down for a picnic. All day there are kebabs, the Indian flatbreads, dhal puri, chilli bites. They play cards or listen to music. Little gaily coloured carts, followed by a   train of stray dogs, sell flavoured crushed ice.

Inland

We overtake the lorries loaded with sugar cane and the local buses. We cross the villages of metal and breezeblock huts. Just around a bend, the sudden appearance of a building of fuchsia pink and pistachio green that transforms the whole street into a dazzling temple. Here and there, the Creole houses with their lambrequins and faded floor plates add a touch of nostalgia to the air. The Buddhist pagodas, the mosques and minarets, chapels and Tamil temples abound in the countryside.

The old road runs inland through Les Mariannes, Nouvelle Découverte, Crève-Coeur. The Northern Plains, flat as the palm of a hand, are covered in sugar cane fields, dotted here and there with ghostly mountains: Le Pouce, Montagne du Lion, Trois Mamelles, Pieter Both – nicknamed the “meditating monk” for the mountain is topped by a stone in the shape of a head – or perhaps rather a head in the shape of a stone – looking up to the sky. All these familiar names seem to make them less forbidding and mysterious. We drive between the high mauve stalks up to the side of the mountain. The women in the hamlets, sickles in hand, finish harvesting the sugar cane. The silhouettes disappear under the bales. It’s a hard task, as bitter as the astringent taste of pure cane juice. Others dig the iron red earth then break it up into little dark crumbs that they sieve between their fingers. With infinite patience, they bury the new pineapple roots.

The spirit of the island

From north to south and from east to west, the island tells its secrets. In the fervour of the prayers and the grave faces of the children from Mahébourg at their first communion. In the offerings – simple wicks lit on mango leaves and placed on the sacred waters of the Grand Bassin. In the buzzing forest of the Black River Gorges, home of the white-tailed tropicbirds. In the constant rustle of the wind in the palm trees, the wide-open skies and the majestic cascades of the waterfalls. In the beat of the drums at the foot of the Morne Brabant, where the slaves took refuge. In the chaos of the “Rue Royale”, where all the populations come together on market days. In the ruins of the old limestone mills and the disused sugar factories, which are gradually giving way to the cyber cities. In the skyscrapers of Port Louis, symbols of the economic miracle of the young Republic, which defy Queen Adelaide’s citadel. The layers of history accumulate, lives and cultures add up, but nothing is forgotten.

The shores of the 330 km of the Mauritian coastline are dotted with little improvised shrines dedicated to Hindu gods.

 

Traditional   fishing has long provided food for the inhabitants of the “African Coast”, in the southwest of the island. Privatisation and protection of marine areas since 2005 have forced the local fishing boats to go further out to sea.

Further afield

The names of the villages – Pointe du Diable, Flic en Flac, Solitude, Bois Chéri, Trou aux Biches, Gris Gris – are like a string of pearls. Poetry is part and parcel of who we are. And it is accentuated by the mythology, which, all over Mauritius, steals into reality. The mountains are living beings. The characters in novels come from real shipwrecks. Paul et Virginie, the heroes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, are buried in the Jardin de Pamplemousses. Baudelaire’s Dame Créole rests in the little cemetery by the church of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Grand Bassin is an extension of the holy Ganges. The great Mauritian author Malcolm de Chazal himself invented giants and a primeval continent, Lémurie. This rich imaginary world is made more intense by the many languages. Most Mauritians speak at least three: French, English and Creole, which is common to all. This is the mother tongue, the language of all the cultures: a mixture of African slave dialects and French, with additional words borrowed from Hindi, Tamil, and Hakka, with each wave of migrants.

“Being in this world”

This evening we will be in Sainte-Croix. The clear blue eyes of Father Laval look out from posters covering all the walls of Port Louis and the surrounding area. The annual pilgrimage commemorates the death in 1864 of the Apostle of the Poor, a Breton missionary and doctor, beatified by Pope Jean-Paul II. Families, couples, solitary walkers, all generations and faiths together, in silence, or reciting a prayer out loud, walk together towards the grave. They will try to touch the transparent case that reveals a statue of the priest and to lay a bunch of flowers before it. “This is not just a Catholic gathering. What brings us together is mainly the pleasure of being in this world”, explains Marie-Claude, a volunteer who is handing out tea and alouda (a kind of milkshake) to the pilgrims. The night draws on with the mass and the singing, then the chatting, and ends on the mats placed under the trees, a few hours before daybreak. In Mauritius, the world opens out to us and within us in its immense morning skies.

In the Chamarel region, eroded volcanic rock reveals the rainbow colours of its minerals – the only example of this in the world.

 

From North to South and East to West, the island tells its secrets.

Another mineral treasure, in the north: Pieter Both Mountain, named after the first governor general of the Dutch East Indies, who was lost at sea.

 

 

 

Hindu, Catholic and Muslim places of worship abound on the island. At Sainte-Croix, the oldest Tamil temple of Kaylasson and the grave of Father Jacques-Désiré Laval, beatified in 1979. To the south, the Tyack mosque at Dhor, the midday prayer.

 

Fervently religious, the island celebrates its gods and their followers, like the young children taking first communion in the church of Notre-Dame des Anges, in Mahebourg.

 

For many families, Sunday all year round is the day for picnics on the beach in the shade of the filao trees – as here on the magnificent beach of Anse la Raie.

 

The central market in Port Louis dates back over two hundred years. In the huge covered vegetable market, it’s an exotic festival of colours, with bunches of coriander, baskets of roselle, mountains of turmeric and chayote.

 

The layers of history accumulate, lives and cultures add up, but nothing is forgotten

 

 

The country’s economy was long based on sugarcane cultivation, but after its independence it diversified rapidly. The sugar factories are giving way to power stations, hand harvesting to mechanical methods.

 

By Virginie Luc
Photographs Pierre Perrin