I am in the mood to write a long, long post. It must be the contentment that comes from devouring a cheese burst pizza and washing it down (if one can call it that) with a bar of dark hazelnut chocolate. In short, the sins of gluttony that I have not indulged in some time.
Life this month has been nothing short of a dream. It has made me believe in a fairytale all over again. Now before you rush off thinking in terms of a prince charming and all, I must pull you back and beckon elsewhere. Some place where there can only be happiness.
Travelling does always tend to make one so beatifically happy.
This time I found romance. In a teardrop shaped island we all know as Mauritius.
I found it high up in the mountains while literally flying up and down rocky and flat terrains on that fat four wheeler called the quad bike; on the beach watching ice cream trucks playing tinkling music pull up; on the bed of the ocean walking in between coral reefs; through the portholes of a submarine watching marine life pass me by while staring at a ship wreck.
Let me confess though that the romance was dented a little when I was informed on surfacing that it was not some wreck lost decades ago – merely the skeleton of a ship sunk specially for the submarine tours.
My first impression when I landed in the Mauritius airport after a seven-and-a-half hour flight was that I was in a little India. There were Indians all around. I even heard a Bengali twosome chattering away. Since I was a guest of the Mauritian Tourism Board along with three of my co-travellers, we were taken care of by the tourism authority. So right from being escorted through immigration to waiting in the premium lounge while our luggage was being collected, it was a smooth sail.
Before I had started for Mauritius, a friend of mine who had come back black but ecstatic from her time spent there had ranted on and on about it. But I was still not prepared for the beauty of the island to intoxicate me so.
Firstly, sun bathing and swimming is not all that you can do here though you could easily spend hours taking in the postcard quality of the blue waters. The hues change. From turquoise they turn pale blue and aquamarine and further into the horizon it becomes a brilliant sapphire.
The point in the horizon where the waves break happen to be where the coral reefs are. The reefs that protect the island from deadly storms like the Tsunami. Here the waves don't crash on the beach. They make love to it, lapping it gently. You realise you wouldn't dread slipping into it even at night for a quick dip.
I was staying at the Le Pearl Beach Hotel (not a high-end option, but at 110 Euros for a night it is well recommended) on Flic en Flac beach. It is one of the most popular beaches in town boasting a lengthy coastline.
The view from my room was gorgeous. It opened onto the pool and a cabana that is right on the sands a few metres away from the sea. Lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves, I could only think of all that lay ahead.
My rendezvous with adventure began on Belle Mare Beach. It was where we donned our swimming gear and was spirited off by a speed boat to a platform in the middle of the sea for an underwater walk in the sea. So there we were putting on rubber slippers while being briefed on how to indicate whether we were comfortable underwater or not (you cannot hear the next person down there). And just as we entered the waters while climbing down a ladder that led down into the bed of the sea, lantern-box like helmets were lowered down on our heads. The water never rose above the shoulders.
Now I have done it already once in Goa on Vasco beach. The waters there were murky because of the silt from the river muddying up the sea bed and therefore all I remember of it is a scary translucence. So as the first few seconds of panic was replaced by awe when I found my feet on the bed of the sea, I told myself, 'At last, the real deal'!
The best part about going for an underwater walk is that you don't have to be a swimmer. Take a cue from me. I can barely swim to save my life. But there I was, walking around attempting to touch the reefs and being thwarted by the safety diver. He did however deign to let us feel a straw coloured, pink rimmed sea urchin that he plucked off the reefs.
In the mean time, another diver gave us bread crumbs to hold out to the zebra fish that swarmed in by the dozen and nibbled at the crumbs with gusto. Let me warn you, those little things can give nifty little nips. I eventually surfaced with a fish bite or two.
The rest of our day was spent at a lagoon island, Cerfs, near the town of Trou d'Eau Douce. A speed boat put us on the Ile Aux Cerfs beach that surrounds this island off the east coast of Mauritius and therein began a surreal experience of paddling in the warm waters of the lagoon and at times pawing through the sand not unlike a crocodile. In fact, in some time the lagoon almost resembled a communal bathtub of sorts.
After that we speed boated our way to the gushing waterfalls of Grande Riviere Sud Est. How beautiful it was, flanked by emerald green carpetted towering cliffs. And the occasional sighting of the white-tailed tropicbird (you see it on the tail of Air Mauritius).
Parasailing over the sea and getting our behinds thwacked at least two dozen times in a minute as we took the tube ride were the exhilarating highlights of that day. I happened to take the tube ride twice over. The second time around I was in expert company – a hot Creole guy with a diamond stud on his nose who did all kinds of feat while all I could do was busy hold onto the sides of the raft.
Lunch turned out to be a lazy island-style, barbecue affair on a deserted patch of land in Ile Aux Cerfs itself. A meal of fish, chicken and coleslaw was accompanied by glasses of the local rosé which was heady enough to make me join the black dancer and sway to the rustic tunes of the guitar and drums played by the locals. Let me observe in between that the Creole men are great flirts. But their language makes it all seem very romantic. The Creole patois is mostly derived from French you see. So when they greet you with bon jour and whisper admiring nothings into your ears, you truly feel like a goddess.
What took off the effect of the rosé like in a second was walking back to our speed boat. Somehow we stepped on all these sharp as hell stones. I have never in my life walked on such stinging stones. It seemed like I would never reach the boat that day. On top of that, the clown that I am, I actually took off my flip flops to walk barefoot thinking I could leap nimbly over them. So of course when I tried to push the flip flops back into the water under my feet, they kept floating and floating away!
We visited another island yet another day. The Île Plate or flat island, off the north coast, famous for its lighthouse built around the mid 1800's and still functioning. Apart from that it has a graveyard dating back to the 19th century when people were quarantined there by the British.
Cruising our way to the island we passed the small nature reserve of Coin de Mire (Gunner's Coin). But I remember it as the 'sexy hole' – our catamaran navigator's christening for it -- there being an opening in the side of the steep cliff.
The day on Île Plate was thereafter spent in a hot haze of sega dancing (introduced by African slaves during the French colonial period), drinking Champagne, feasting on lobsters with Xavier Luc Duval, the vice prime minister and minister for tourism. He was very good looking and a flirt at that but it is probably island living that makes even a minister cordial enough to join in dancing the sensual Sega with colourfully dressed women twirling around in their elaborate skirts.
That same day I also chanced to meet Anais who in the course of our conversation told me she had just won the Miss Mauritius 2008 crown last month. So poor thing got very embarrassed every time I introduced her to international journalists as the beautiful Miss Mauritius. At one point she even thought I was a lesbian. Yikes! I almost fell back into the water when I heard that. I had to hurriedly assure her of my straight straight heart.
Our other list of water activities took us to Mont Choisy. Here is where we went for a Blue Safari submarine tour. The submarine dove 35m under water and we stayed underwater for 40 minutes. And as I said the only thing down there -- the wreck -- that caught my fantasy was a faux one!
If you ever happen to be in Mauritius, you got to try out the Blue Safari's other innovation. It is a sub-scooter which you drive 3m underwater in a twosome. It is the brainchild of its director, Frenchman Luc Billard, who has taken out a patent for the sub-scooter. And hey, if you ever want to get married underwater, he can arrange for that -- a wedding in a submarine with Champagne and lunch.
In between these adventurous experiences, we had some cultural and heritage tours thrown in.
Anything historical has me hooked, so it was fascinating to walk through the botanical garden at Pamplemousses where the French used to grow sweet potatoes to feed the slaves with. I would recommend the giant amazon lily pool here.
Now right opposite the garden is the oldest church of Mauritius -- that of St Francois d'Assises. In its compounds, is a statue of the French Paul & Virginie. The plaque beside it was written in Creole which while it sounded so exotic on the tongue of the Mauritians, was hopeless on mine. It fell on Bimal, our driver, to come to the rescue with a translation and say that they were a pair of star-crossed lovers who were drowned in the sea.
Another must-see in Mauritius is a tiny chapel with a red roof in Cap Malheureux, the northern most point of the island where a general landed his troops when the British swooped down on the island. What charmed me was the holy water basin fashioned out of a giant clamshell.
We also got to visit L'Aventure du Sucre, a museum spread out over 5,000 sq m in the grounds of the Beau Plan sugar factory that closed shop in 1999. I had expected it to be somewhat of a bore, but the tables were turned on me. I couldn't stop clicking pictures of old barges, de-humidifiers and bagasse purifiers. It was an insight into the soul of the country – sugar that at one point was its economic mainstay. Now it has been replaced by tourism.
On the other hand was a stop at a shipping factory. The island's craft is to build model ships. You see them all around in souvenir shops but be warned that they fall apart within a short time. But if you get one from a shipping museum like the one we visited at Floréal, it lasts you a lifetime or so they say.
Our other stops: Troux aux Cerf, an extinct volcanic crater which you get to see from an elevated point (it is 85 m deep), the second biggest statue of Shiva in the world at Grand Bassin in front of which one looks like a lilliput (I have pictures to back me up on that) and the seven coloured earth at Chamarel. The last of these had us gaping. It is an astonishing phenomenon what with blue, green, red, yellow, purple and various other shades coming together on dunes. It is said to be an inheritance of the island's volcanic past.
On the evenings that we got free from the bustle of our water sports and historical excursions, we would attend the cultural evenings which were part of the ongoing International Kreol Festival 2008. It was an opportunity to witness rich multicultural performances at heritage spots. Since the Mauritian people are a mix of African, Chinese, Indian, Muslim and French descent, the dance forms reflect each of these cultures.
One of them, the 'Sware Metis', was at the Citadelle overlooking the city of Port Louis and the harbour. The fort which once was used by the British to watch out for riots in Port Louis before the abolition of slavery has now become a hub of cultural evenings. Our evening there was about downing local 'rhum' shots in flavours of coffee, vanilla and sugarcane accompanied by delicious canapés and watching a fashion show choreographed by famous Mauritian choreographers.
The other we spent at the Le Morne village to the husky sounds of the ravane, a wooden circular musical instrument, around a bonfire. Since it was difficult understanding most of what transpired at the 'Sware Tipik' show – it was entirely in Creole – I spent the evening drowning my language sorrows in bread-crumb fried chicken served up with a red hot sauce by an African mamma.
Le Morne however fascinated me with its history. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a hideaway for runaway slaves. The story goes that once when the police travelled to the rock on Le Morne to let the slaves know that they were free, the slaves misunderstood them and jumped off the gigantic rock to death.
If there was something of the old to savour, there was something new to try out. My date that night was this incredibly hot Mauritian, married sadly.
To get back to the nightlife in Mauritius, it is mostly concentrated around the Grand Baie area. My hotspot on that Friday night aptly enough was the Buddha Bar which sizzles during the weekends. The music varied between R&B and Techno and while dancing I observe that there were quite a few kids around. The other nightclub which caught my eye was Les Enfants . I didn't get to experience it though. Gotta keep something for next time, right?
One of our final adventures was walking with lions and petting cheetahs at the Casela Bird Park in the Black River district. Let's say it is an experience of a lifetime. There are very few places where you can settle down next to a lazy one-year-old cheetah and feel the joy of him purring and turning over his belly to you to be stroked. The one who charmed me was Bwana. He was too big to be brought back home or I surely would have risked it!
The encounter with the lions even though they were only 6 month old cubs – Chiara and Kimba – were less personal. We did get to walk with them over a long trail that passed through a leafy glade and a gurgling stream but we had to be on our guard. They were pretty frisky and even though small in size compared to a full grown lion, their paws would make you think twice before getting too up and close with them.
All this was topped off with quad biking in the mountains at Le Domaine de l'Etoile, one of the largest estates on the island. It has rich birdlife, lush valleys, and vanilla and coffee plantations.
After a brief session of archery and a typical Mauritian meal, I sat at the helm of a quad bike with aforementioned hot Mauritian as my pillion rider. What a ride it turned out to be. I had the thrill of flying over the mountainous and flat terrain, but overconfidence often gets the better of you. That is when you ram into the bike ahead driven by a honeymooning couple.
It took a split second for it to happen. I guess that is how accidents take place. Oh how I wished at that point as the in-charge barked at me that the red earth would just open and suck me in. It was an awful moment that lasted for the next half-an-hour. I could barely talk and when I had to, I would sob. I guess it was the shock and the fact that something could have gone terribly wrong had the couple hurt themselves bad. It made me wonder of all the times I have been quick to shoot off my mouth and spew venom at people who cause an accident.
But the hurry of returning to the hotel, packing for the flight that night while also getting ready to dress up for the evening kind of took away my troubled thoughts. And while I walked to the all-night concert near the Le Caudan Waterfront in the city of Port Louis, I could feel the tension ebbing away from my shoulders.
As I write about it, I can say that nothing gladdens the heart more than to dwell on beautiful moments.
With all the sun and the salty air, I was the girl on the beach with a golden brown tan and more. My knees are skinned, my feet are sore, I look nothing less than the smoked marlin I had the last day there.
But I wouldn't have exchanged it for any other experience – romancing the island and having it romance me back.