I arrive in Mauritius at noon, still drowsy from the 12-hour flight and the two diazepams I took to help me sleep through it.
Just outside the arrivals, about a dozen Taxi drivers are gathered holding placards with European-sounding names on them. Mr. Schmidt, Dr. van Veen, Mrs. Cielé. Behind them are about three dozen more, no placards, just shouting ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ I walk through the scrum, looking determined so they won’t come after me, then realize I do need a taxi and turn around.
I have a feeling, based on no evidence, that the older the taxi driver, the less likely he is to scam me. I find one who looks in his 50s and tell him ‘yes, taxi’. He tells me its 40 euros, I say 30, and so on until we agree on 36.
Now that that’s done, he can be my friend. As he drives, he asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here. That takes about 15 minutes, then we’re both silent for the rest of the 2-hour drive.
I look out the window at the sugarcane fields going by. The mountains on the horizon look like a seismograph.
Mauritius is a tiny dot of an island in the Indian Ocean, 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar. It was discovered uninhabited in the early 1500s, then settled by the Dutch in 1638. They discovered huge crops of ebony on the island, and started importing African slaves to harvest them.
They could never make the island economically viable, and abandoned it in 1710. The French, like a new manager taking over an existing business, took their turn in 1715. They switched from ebony to sugarcane, imported more slaves, and made the economy profitable.
Eventually the British came, defeated the French (think of it as a hostile takeover) and imported their own labourers, mostly from India. Mauritius declared independence in 1968, and now Africans, Indians and whites live in (relative) harmony.
Most people on Mauritius still speak Creole. Creole traditionally had no written language, so it’s basically a phonetic version of French. my taxi driver tells me, by way of example, that in Creole ‘moi’ is spelled ‘mwa’. I love this.
We arrive in Grand Bay, where I’m staying. It’s at the northwest shoulder of Mauritius, a beach-rimmed inlet the size of a few football fields. The water is full of boats and swimmers, the land around it full of tourists and the shops, restaurants and guides catering to them.
My hotel is three stories of peach stucco, right on the beach. It’s cheap and simple, and has wifi and airconditioning, the only two things I actually care about on vacation. I drop off my luggage and walk up and down the beach until it gets dark, then eat octopus curry at a beachside café, fork in my left hand, scrolling through an Instapaper article with my right.
After dinner, it’s been dark for two hours but it’s still 30 degrees C. I go back to my room and sit on my balcony, reading and Instapapering until 10.00, when I can’t stay awake anymore.
I wake up to my alarm at 6.30am, take a shower and go down to breakfast. My waiter is a male-to-female transsexual who wears lots of makeup and wants to know where I’m from and what I think of Mauritius so far.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I say. I always say this to locals, no matter what country I’m in, and I usually mean it. She brings me an omelette, bacon and beans, and is utterly baffled when I tell her I don’t want bread.
‘I’m allergic,’ I say.
‘You don’t like bread?’ she says. English is the official language of Mauritius, it’s on all the signs, but it’s not widely spoken.
‘Allergic. I cannot eat.’
‘OK,’ she says. She takes the bread away but leaves me the plate of butter and jam. I put some on my omelette.
First things first: Bicycle. The tour company next to my hotel rents them, serious-looking Treks with Shimano derailers and front shocks. I say I want one for the whole six days I’m here, and the guy behind the counter, who can’t be any more than 16, brings a bike around from the back.
‘Last one,’ he says.
‘Anything else?’ I say.
‘We give you lock.’
He makes a phone call, and two minutes later another teenager arrives on a scooter. He takes the money the first teenager gives him and drives away.
‘Five minutes,’ he says.
Thirty minutes later, the guy on the scooter returns with a lock. He’s just bought it from the hypermarket up the street, it still has the packaging on it. He gives it to me and I take the cardboard off.
‘You good to go,’ he says.
The pedals rattle and only three of the gears work, but the brakes are fine. It makes creaking noises as I set off through Grand Bay. Pedestrians hear me coming and step aside.
The capital of Mauritius is Port Louis, about 25 km south. I decide to bike there the long way, along the coast, and it takes me all morning. I end up stopping every few hundred meters to take pictures. They all look the same: Emerald water, sharp rocks, a cloud of coral under the water about 50 meters out.
I pass through a few small towns on the way They consist primarily of fruit stands, pharmacies and warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts. I notice that most of the people I bike past are wearing these polos.
I arrive in Port Louis around 1 pm. It’s a small city, just 135,000 people, but it has the traffic and bustle of a city ten times that size. The streets are narrow with street vendors selling clothes, shoes, household items like shampoo and hardware. None of the prices are marked, and I can see customers, their hands full, haggling with the shopkeepers in creole.
I turn around and park my bike on the fringes of the crowd, and walk through the markets. It’s heaving with buyers and sellers, a cacophony of offers and refusals, and it takes me an hour to walk a kilometer.
The freeway goes through the middle of Port Louis, and to get to the waterfront I have to walk through a tunnel underneath it. I leave the din of the market, go underground, and emerge into the tourist area. Seafood restaurants, a multiplex, a few Starbuckses and, I guess inevitably, warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts.
I walk around for a few minutes, sort of missing the crowds back at the market. I sit at an outdoor café and eat an octopus salad and read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ which describes a Norway, a winter, that are the opposite of where I’m sitting.
I feel like I should do more in Port Louis, see a museum or something, but it’s beautiful and warm outside, and I don’t want to miss it. I walk back to my bike, buying some cute polo shirts on the way, and point myself northwards. I bike for a bit and realize that this isn’t the road I took into Port Louis. I can tell from the sun that I’m going north(ish), though, so I figure I’ll end up where I need to be eventually.
I’m on a two-lane road, barely wide enough for cars to pass each other, and it’s choked with traffic. Passenger cars, delivery trucks, buses, I’m obviously on the main spine of the island. I weave in and out of traffic—now on the shoulder, now in the oncoming lane, now dinging pedestrians out of my way—and feel bad for enjoying it so much.
After about an hour, I’m ready to find out where I am. I stop to ask a shopkeeper, dripping sweat on his countertop.
‘I’m trying to get to Grand Bay,’ I say.
‘That easy,’ he says. He’s wearing a polo shirt identical to the one I just bought. ‘Just take the freeway, you go straight there.’
‘The freeway?’ I say. ‘Is that safe?’
‘Safe all safe. You get fast. Direct.’
He shows me on the map and, sure enough, the freeway is the directest route back. I’ve got about two hours of sunlight left. Fuck it.
The freeway turns out to be less harrowing than I expected. It’s two lanes wide in each direction, with a generous shoulder. The cars are traveling 110 km per hour, or at least that’s the speed limit. My bike, which I’ve named Rickets, tops out at a groaning 20 km per hour. Even with the wide shoulder I can feel a punch of air every time a car passes. They don’t honk, don’t pass uncomfortably close and I never feel unsafe.
About five minutes after I get on the freeway, it starts raining. First a caress, then an assault. I look out to the sky and its thick, dark clouds all the way to the horizon. This isn’t going to let up. Meanwhile, the sun is starting to go down.
There’s no cover on the roadway, and after 10 minutes I’m as soaked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool. The water is grey on my arms where it mixes with my sunscreen, and I have a sour, hollow taste as it washes down my face and into my mouth.
Once you’re that wet, you can’t get any wetter, and a kind of calm comes over me. Ah well, it’s just water. My camera is wrapped in waterproof case, in a waterproof backpack. It, and I, will survive.
When I get back to my hotel an hour later, my shoes slosh as I walk up the stairs. I shower (To get the water off? I don’t really know why.), then sit on my balcony wearing nothing but a towel for the rest of the night, working on a freelance editing assignment and listening to the rain drop through the palm trees.
It’s Christmas day, and I wake up early to Skype with my parents and brother. My parents live in New Zealand and my brother and his wife are visiting for the first time. My dad paints watercolors, my mom writes books and my brother makes techno albums. We talk for an hour about inspiration, how we hate slash love social media, how to improve the quality of our work. I tell them I’m reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ and am considering writing a similarly uneventful travelogue, just to see I can make it interesting.
‘That sounds like a terrible idea,’ my brother says.
I’m outside at the breakfast café at my hotel, shouting over the trucks rattling past. When the call’s done it’s only 9 am, but it’s already sweltering.
I check a few gyms, but it seems none of them are open. I’m on my third try when I realize that it’s Christmas, of course they’re closed. I get an espresso at a café and ask the waiter if he knows somewhere I can go for a long swim. He suggests Cannonniere, a thin finger of land pointing northwest from the island, about 20 minutes’ bike ride away.
Yesterday I read online that all the beaches in Mauritius are, by law, open to the public. Cannnoniere has a public park with a beach, right next to a five-star hotel. I park my bike next to the road and walk along the beach onto the hotel grounds. A security guard stops me and I tell him, ‘I’m not staying here, but I’d like to use the beach. Is that alright?’ and he says ‘Of course sir.’
I drop my backpack and change into my swimming suit under a towel wrapped around my waist. I ask the security guard how far out I can swim.
‘You see bobby?’ he says. I guess he means the buoy, bright red, about 500 meters offshore.
‘Sure,’ I say.
‘That is limit.’
‘So I should swim out to the buoy…’
‘Not swim to buoy,’ he says. ‘Bouy is limit. ‘Farther, is currents. Boats with vroom.’ He makes an engine noise.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I put on my goggles and wade into the water.
For the first 200 meters, it’s only 18 inches deep. I swim breast stroke, and occasionally push myself along the bottom, using my arms like a Venetian gondola. Then, suddenly, it’s three meters deep. I switch to crawl stroke. I can see some coral along the bottom. It looks worn out, droopy, like it’s been left in the microwave too long.
Finally I make it to the buoy. It’s bigger than it seemed from the shore. And, indeed, the swells are getting bigger out here. I touch the buoy, just to make it official, and swim back to shore, crawl stroke until my fingers touch the bottom.
Now I’m all energized from the swim, so I do handstands in the grass for five or ten minutes, getting used to the slope. There’s a cute tourist on a beachbed nearby. I think about saying hi, but we’re both only wearing speedos, and I’m afraid it will be irredeemably awkward.
I thank the security guard, get my backpack and bike back to my hotel in my speedo. I write the rest of my family Merry Christmas e-mails, eat grocery-story yogurt for dinner and I’m in bed by 11 pm.
The next morning, after breakfast I meet my nextdoor neighbour on the balcony. I never get his name. He’s German, in his late 30s, here on holiday for three weeks to escape the German winter, just like me. He has plans every single day: Scuba diving, rum distillery tour, catamaran trip. He can’t decide if skydiving is really worth 200 euros. I tell him I don’t know anyone who has gone and regretted it.
We chat for awhile, then I go back to my laptop. He sits on his balcony, hands folded in his lap. No book, no newspaper, not even a cup of coffee to occupy his hands. I marvel at this, stimulus-free sitting. After an hour, he gets up, says goodbye and heads out for his catamaran tour.
Yesterday I biked around the island counterclockwise. Today, it’s clockwise. I put on as much sunscreen as my skin can soak up and set off.
After an hour, I’m in Grand Gaube, on the northeast corner of Mauritius. I order eggplant and fish curry to go from a roadside restaurant, and bike, the meal dangling in a plastic bag from my handlebars, to the beach. I sit crosslegged on the grass, stabbing the food out of Styrofoam containers.
A man walks up to me and says something in Creole. He looks like he’s asking for money. I tell him I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. He sits on a bench near me and every once in awhile says something in Creole, whether to me or just out loud, I don’t know. I ignore him, finish eating and say ‘au revoir’ as I leave. I wonder how they spell that in Creole.
I keep biking along the coast, going south now. It’s the hottest part of the day, and sweat drips off my nose. The route is repetitive after awhile: Park, shops, beach, park, shops.
The only thing that changes is the ethnic makeup of the towns I pass through. Some appear to be mainly Indian, the signs in English and Hindi. Others seem to be primarily populated by Africans, signs in French and shops advertising ‘poulet frais’. I’ve been told there’s a significant Chinese minority on the island. I never see any majority-Chinese towns, but every town I pass through has exactly one Chinese restaurant, right on the main street.
After about 30 kilometers along the coast, I turn inland to complete my loop. I rise through endless fields of sugarcane, then descend toward Grand Bay. There are fewer towns now, but every half an hour or so I pass by a complex of newly built apartments. They have names like Sweet Paradise, and each one gets its own exit from the highway.
I arrive in Grand Bay just as it’s getting dark. I order a plate of shrimp up to my room and eat it on the balcony. The German guy tells me about his catamaran tour, still lubricated from his stop at the run distillery.
I finally find a gym nearby. It’s at a five-star hotel called Hotel Mauricia, right on the beach. They charge me 15 euros just to use the gym, so I decide to stay there all day to get the most for my money.
Most of the guests appear to be European families. Mom and Dad look tanned and patrician, and their sons and daughters look like they came straight from lacrosse camp. The French-speaking ones have the best hair, the Dutch speakers the nicest bodies.
I stay there swimming and reading almost until dark. My ear is still plugged with water from swimming on Christmas. I bash it with the heel of my hand to get the water out every few minutes, but it stays plugged. Shaking my head like a dog doesn’t work either.
When I get back to my hotel, inexplicably exhausted after a day of barely existing, I meet my other neighbour. He’s in his 80s, from South Africa, and has been coming to Mauritius every year since 1984. I ask him why he travels from one warm country to another one every summer.
‘Well, as you know, South Africa has problems,’ he says. I brace myself. ‘We had a white government before—Apartheid—and it wasn’t perfect, but things worked pretty well. Now we’ve got a black one. They’re still learning the ropes, you see.’
I want to just get up without saying anything, just go inside and close my door, a kind of personal boycott of the statement he’s just made. But it’s warm, with a nice breeze out here, and I’m planning on having some more Skype calls. I don’t want to go inside for the rest of the night.
Instead, I resolve to simply ignore him. I go back to my laptop and resume typing and scrolling like he isn’t there.
He keeps talking. Maybe my symbolic gesture was too subtle. In the next 10 minutes he tells me how much he loves Mauritius, how all the races living together should be an inspiration to the world. He says racism among white Mauritians is a real problem, then adds that it’s the Muslim population’s fault for being incapable of living non-violently.
He keeps talking like this, defaming a demographic group, then lamenting the racism against them. It’s like he’s trying to set some sort of discrimination speed record. I’m completely ignoring him now, typing an e-mail to my aunt and uncle and hoping for him to stop talking. It takes him seven more minutes—I’m watching the clock in the corner of my screen, aghast—before he says ‘well, it looks like you’re busy. Good night.’ I don’t say anything in return.
Today’s my last day here, I’m flying out at 10pm. Yesterday the woman at the front desk, in French-accented English so lovely I want her to read books to me before I fall asleep every night, said I could stay in the room as long as I want today, since no one has booked it after me.
My ear is still plugged. I google around during breakfast, and it seems I have swimmer’s ear, meaning there’s a bit of water trapped behind my eardrum that’s attracted bacteria and now my ear canal is slightly inflamed. I remember getting this when I was a kid. Your ear is plugged, like it’s about to pop, then clears with a satisfying whoosh a few days later.
I don’t want to do anything ambitious today because I have to leave for the airport at 7pm, and I’m paranoid that a flat tire or a bus breakdown in some faroff city will cost me my flight home. I go for a jog, read by the pool at the fancy hotel, then bike to the brand-new mall on the outskirts of town and wander around the shops, enjoying the airconditioning. All day I’m popping and unpopping my ears, waiting for the whoosh.
I go back to my hotel around 4.30 to shower and pack. I’m hoping the pressure change on the flight will clear out my ear a bit. I Google “swimmer’s ear airplane”. The first link is a message board full of people describing the pressure change as absolute torture: ‘It was the worst travel experience of my life’ … ‘I wanted to literally shoot myself on decent’ … ‘I had permanent ear damage to my right ear’ …
I’m slightly nervous now. But it’s just random people on a message board. The second link is from eHow, and says ‘refrain from flying on an airplane until you have cleared up the infection, because flying makes swimmer’s ear pain much worse’.
That’s a little more credible. I check WebMD and find the same thing: Flying with swimmer’s ear can cause the water in the ear canal to swell, pushing against the eardrum and potentially bursting it.
I have less than three hours before I have to leave for my flight. I dash down to the reception and ask the lovely desk-lady if she knows the number of a doctor who will be working on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s. She gets a health clinic on the phone.
‘I have an ear infection,’ I tell the French-accented voice on the other end of the line. ‘Can I fly?’
‘We would have to examine you before we could say,’ the voice says.
‘Where are you?’ I ask. I don’t know why, but I add ‘I have a bike!’
The voice gives me the address and I bike there like I’m being chased by a bear. I arrive covered in sweat, my heart racing from the bike ride and the anxiety—What if I have to cancel my flight and wait a few days? How much will it cost? Will I have to wait to start work again?
The clinic receptionist hands me a form to fill out. As soon as I hand it back, the doctor comes and gets me. She’s my age and polite, but doesn’t share my sense of urgency. She walks me, slowly, down the hall to her office.
I tell her my problem and she puts on a rubber glove, tightening it so every finger fits. She pulls out a little hammer-looking instrument, fits it with a backwards-victrola tip and looks inside my ear.
‘It’s wax,’ she says, snapping the glove off. ‘You can fly.’
She stands up and leaves the room without another word. I get my bag, still sweating, and walk back down the empty hallway to the front desk. They have my paperwork out and an invoice ready. It’s 30 euros for the five-second consultation, but I’m so happy I don’t care.
It’s raining when I get back on my bike, but I feel waterproof. I arrive back to the hotel soaked. I shower and finish packing. When I come down the stairs, the taxi is already waiting.
‘Where are you going sir?’ the driver asks.
‘The airport,’ I say. ‘And then home.’