Friday, October 23, 2009

Mauritius, Tropical Paradise

Anticipation was high coming in to Mauritius. The crossing from South Africa was long (6 days) and it was mid-terms for the students, so many were looking forward to a real break, and what better place? The first view didn't disappoint - classic volcanic island dramatic landscape, protected harbor with new, nicely developed waterfront shopping area (modeled after the port we just left behind in Cape Town!) We were ready for island paradise!

I started right off with a bang by going with the SAS City Orientation tour to the Botanical Garden in Pamplemousse. Alley's idea of heaven, you know. On disembarking from the bus, birds sang out an enthusiatic welcome, and our guides got started immediately introducing us to strange and wonderful tropical species of trees, many of which I've never seen before - Jackfruit, Sausage trees, the Talipot Palm with leaves easily up to 3 meters across(!), which only blooms dramatically once after 60 years, upon which it heads into a slow decline and death. What a drama queen!

I was just as delighted with the amazonian water lilies (also gigantic, with long wicked thorns on the underside to discourage nippy fishies) and the lotus water garden, sniffing crushed leaves from the camphor trees and admiring the yellow fruits of the nutmeg trees along the way. This was on the Dutch East Indies Spice trading route after all! Rubber trees I've seen before, but the wax palm, though diminutive, was new, and I never get tired of huge banyan and baobab trees - Lovely!
The rest of the city tour was unremarkable, and I won't bore you with that. That evening, a Dutch friend, Carola, was celebrating her birthday, so a small group of us went out to a fine dinner (octopus curry - yum!) on the waterfront, singing both Happy Birthday AND Lang zal ze leven for good measure. Sure have enjoyed the regular opportunity to speak Dutch on this voyage - who would have thought? The day was rounded off by a festive water taxi ride back to the ship, with an entertaining side-trip to one of the numerous Chinese fishing boats in the harbor to drop off a number of Indonesian workers. They were clearly struck by some of the lovely long-legged blond students in our SAS group. Cute!

Day 2

Île des Deux Cocos trip

After a quick (1 1/2 hour) drive down the well-maintained (in stark contrast to Ghana) highway running right through the center of the island, the forty of us participating in this trip were loaded on to a couple of glass-bottomed boats for the 5-minute ride out to the tiny Île des Deux Cocos. I was trip leader (which, by the way, entitles me to a refund of 1/2 the cost of the trip!), so I had lots of gear to carry. On the boat dock, I got so excited by the crystal clear waters and the tropical fish we could already spot, that I fumbled for my camera, lost my balance for a minute and then, plop! dropped my towel in the drink! It sank immediately, a bright blue mass clearly visible 4 feet down, eventually rescued by one of the boat chauffeurs. Did I feel stupid!!
However, the rest of the day was idyllic - beautiful white sand and black volcanic rock, welcoming drinks, snorkeling in the nearby Marine Reserve among the coral reef which circles the island. Lots of fish - zebra, parrot, angel, trumpet and more. The coral was beautifully shaped, some spreading like fungus in the forest, others a mass of delicate branches where the fish seemed to be playing hide and seek. Sadly, the coral was uniformly colorless, grey or white, indicating that it's dead or dying. Very sobering!
Quick side-note: one of the young children on the bus taught me a new verse to "The Drunken Sailor" (we're trying to think of appropriate punishments for some of the students who get drunk to the point of alcohol-poisoning in port). It goes like this:

Now, THAT would be a punishment!

Once back at the ship, Kathleen (fellow staff) and I went back out with two goals - find Wifi and check out the local Hindu celebration of Divali (Mauritius is predominantly Hindu), the festival of lights. It looked grim at first for internet - the only internet cafe was PACKED with students and no more Wifi connects were available (this was a first for the poor little cafe). So we wandered through the waterfront, which was full of locals, live music, dancing (Indian) and lights. Fun! There was free Wifi at a spot on the sidewalk in front of a cafe, but it just felt wrong to be sitting in that row of SAS folks staring intently at a glimmering screen with such a rich cultural experience happening all around us, so I quickly packed up the computer and watched the singing and dancing instead. Much better!

Once that was over, we made our way to the nearby 5 star hotel, where free Wifi was available in the lobby. Over drinks, I was able to ichat with David AND Skype Dustin and Courtney - hooray!

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