No longer paradise island?

‘Maurice n’est plus un plaisir’ may well be flung at our face, and we will be the ones who need to take the blame

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

When Thomas Henry Huxley set foot ashore in Port Louis in May 1847, in a letter to his mother he called ‘the island “a complete paradise”. The site chosen for the town was superb. It lay within a natural amphitheatre framed on one side by the spurs and peaks of two great mountains, Peter Botte and La Pouce. At their base lapped the blue waters of the Indian Ocean… he delighted in the cleanliness of the streets and the varieties of local costume: at the marketplace he saw Parisians in satins, Hindoos in muslin drapery, turbaned Mussulmen, Chinese with pigtails tucked in their caps, and uniformed black African policemen in fezzes. Even more picturesque was the nearby village of Pamplemousses…’

Thomas Huxley was 22 at the time, travelling on board ship as a surgeon’s mate as he had completed part of his medical studies. He went on to become a famous naturalist with equally famous descendants: the biologist Julian Huxley, and Aldous Huxley – author of ‘Brave New World’ — who became steeped in Hindu philosophy and Eastern mysticism.

Nearly 50 years later, in 1897, the well-known American writer Mark Twain also came visiting during his travels, and was impressed by the ‘rugged clusters of crags and peaks, green to their summits; from their bases to the sea a green plain with just tilt enough to it to make the water drain off’. He too found in Port Louis ‘the largest variety of nationalities and complexions’. And he wrote that ‘from one citizen you gather idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius’ – a line which has been cited (barring ‘from one citizen’) very often in touristic literature to attract customers to hotels.

In last week’s issue of this paper, a retired couple – Birgit A. Mehus (Norway) and Aldo De Bonis (Italy) – who visited Mauritius for the second time after 30 years in 2018 (almost a century and a quarter after Mark Twain) gave us their impressions on Mauritius which disappointed them this time round as much it would surely have shocked our two illustrious earlier visitors if they had eyes from ‘up there’ to see what’s happened since they were last here. The couple’s concluding lines are telling: ‘International travellers still have an impression of Mauritius as a paradise island. That is if they go to stay in a five star hotel with all inclusive, with a private beach and are taken around by private tour operators. Those who choose another and cheaper alternative for their stay face another reality, far from paradise’ (italics added).

They confirm what we all already know: that we are an island à deux vitesses – or perhaps more? Their candid observations must prick our collective conscience, and even more that of those who are directly responsible for this unenviable situation. Their perceptive view should shake us out of our complacency and act as a wake-up call – if only because they are sincere people who genuinely appreciate what is positive and are not critics of the type of Katherine Mayo. The latter was an American journalist known for her racialist views who wrote ‘Mother India’ in the 1930s, about which Mahatma Gandhi commented:

‘This book is cleverly and powerfully written. The carefully chosen quotations give it the false appearance of a truthful book. But the impression it leaves on my mind is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains. If Miss Mayo had confessed that she had come to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would perhaps be little to complain about her compilation. But she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: “the drains are India”.’

Our visitor couple starts by reminding us what has ‘remained the same: The sea and its colour. The temperature of the water and the air. The birds. The rain (sometimes very heavy). The general attitude of the Mauritians, kind and open to foreigners. The tasty food. The rum. The fruits: passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, litchis…’

Shouldn’t it shame us that Mauritians do not have the same general attitude to their compatriots as they do towards foreigners? It would cost nothing but would be immensely enriching, though not in terms of espèces sonnantes.

What should draw our attention therefore, especially that of policy and decision makers, and developers, are those things that have changed for the worse as the authors narrate, with an obvious underlying nostalgia and perhaps tinge of sorrow.

Only 30 years – and so much change for the worse!

They are saddened that the coasts in the North, East and West of the island were no longer in open view as during their first visit, when this allowed them to get down from their bikes and take pictures. Now, ‘private houses and mansions are blocking the view all the way, and access to the sea is difficult and discouraged by notices threatening legal action’.

They are dismayed that infrastructure upgrading did not follow with the sharp increase of buildings and population, with roads that are not wider and narrow pavements, not to speak of biking or walking tracks.

Besides, ‘in towns, no or very few parking places’ – which is our own experience on a daily basis, as well as ‘traffic jams’ and ‘never ending slow down, accidents and huge, huge loss of productivity’. But the greatest eyesore they faced was: ‘Garbage. All over’. But they did qualify by pointing to the ‘public beaches where workers employed by the public beach authorities keep beaches and toilets clean seven days a week. Highly appreciated’.

However, ‘outside those beaches, there are widespread layers and mounds of garbage, mainly plastic (of all kinds), tins, old fishing lines, diapers, and so on’. In fairness, they take care to note that ‘such behaviour is related both to the residents, for a great deal of it, and also tourists (cigarette stubs dropped on the sand)’.

On this score, their cry of heart should touch us deeply so that we may be spurned into action, which they have even suggested: ‘The general public has to be educated to respect the nature, otherwise very soon the Green Paradise Island will become the Plastic Garbage Island. Regular cleaning activities should be carried out sponsored by schools, it is very important that young children will grow up with the idea that keeping the island clean means to keep their lives safe’(italics added).

Very sound advice of course, but will we bell the cat?

They are realistic enough to accept that ‘it is perfectly understandable that the local authorities, under strong pressure, decided to lease most of the lands along the coastline and in this way allowing extensive building, it could have been done in a much better way’ (italics added). 

Tweaking regulations

Are they in the secret of the gods about ‘strong pressure’? Indicating already a nexus at so-called high levels where deals are finalized? The consequences are never imagined, let alone factored in, to the detriment of both the local population and tourists. Thus, ‘very often, the walls of the private properties are erected straight at the limit of the roads, meaning there is no room for pedestrians, parking, biking. Looking at the very different shapes of some of the houses, villas and blocks of flats make one wonder if all of them were built in accordance with the existing building regulations or they were just built taking as much land as possible’.

People in the know say that corruption is rife when it comes to tweaking regulations and bend to ‘strong pressure’, and hence the eyesores that we have to suffer. More significant for our touristic landscape is their lament that ‘it seems there has been a strategy aiming to keep regular tourists, nature lovers and those who like hiking or biking to stay away from the island. The alternative given is clearly shown in the five star hotels and golf courses located mostly on the southern tip of the island and on the eastern coast. Secluded environments where rich tourists can find everything they may need, resulting in very poor contact with Mauritian society. The economy of the island is clearly benefiting from those investments, but what about the general population? 

The wonderful nature of Mauritius has been given away and only a few very rich people can enjoy it, with limited positive effects on the Mauritian people’.

Not only tourists may be put off, but as many observers have pointed out before, we are becoming strangers in our own land as a result of flawed policies. Is that the future that we will leave the coming generations?

Plenty of serious thinking and work ahead if we want to restore our island its attractiveness. ‘Maurice n’est plus un plaisir’ may well be flung at our face, and we will be the ones who need to take the blame.

* Published in print edition on 15 March 2019

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