A Dream Voyage
— Ramesh Beeharry
After a voyage lasting a fortnight in March this year, the Italian cruise-ship Costa Romantica had docked in at the brand new Christian Decotter terminal at Les Salines in the early hours of Saturday morning. Just before dawn broke, I went up to the top deck to send a text message to Ranjit, the taxi man, to remind him to collect us at the appropriate time.
But, even before I had tapped my SMS into the cell phone, I looked landwards. Through the morning haze, I could make out the green silhouette of the Signal Mountain. The voyage had been fantastic but, all of a sudden, I heard myself saying, “it’s good to be home again.”
Having received Ranjit’s reply, I returned to join my wife and our friends in the dining room for a last breakfast aboard Romantica.
A fortnight earlier, we had come aboard with Magen and Mani, full of excitement, for a cruise of the Islands of the Indian Ocean and Mombassa. For safety reasons, we had to give this last destination a miss. It was reported that the Somalian pirates had extended their area of operation far down the east coast of Kenya.
Romanica’s first port of call was Victoria, Mahe — the main island of the 115 that make up the republic of the Seychelles. Ah, Mahe, what a joy! with its green, pollution-free, undulating countryside and pristine beaches.
We walked through the main streets of Victoria where, somehow, they have managed to keep the colonial style buildings in perfect repair. None of the “marchands ambulants” of Port Louis to spoil your stroll through the shopping centre, which is abundantly dotted with charming handicraft and souvenir shops. The botanical garden, with its “coco fesse” is a definite must. It’s so green, so clean. The attendant even picks up the dropping of the giant tortoises as soon as the latter have done their doings. And, there is a pool of fresh water for them to have a cool dip when it gets too hot under the near-equatorial sun.
We took in a coach tour of the hinterland which, for the most part, is uninhabited. Generally, islands tend to be of volcanic or coralline origin. Curiously, almost half of the islands of the Seychelles are formed of granite, we were told. Students of geology would have fun finding out about this curiosity.
Time being short, we were unable to take in any of the other famed islands like La Digue or Pralin (our friend who lives on la Digue has still not forgiven us for this!). But, there is always another day and we have the perfect excuse to return to the archipelago some other time.
The last stop was Le Port of sister island Reunion. My affair with Reunion goes back 15 years, to November 1995. Having missed our annual summer leave to the UK, my wife and I opted for the warmer climes of St Giles. St Giles, with its miles long, sandy beach and beautiful, well-kept bungalows. What impressed us most there was the sheer cleanliness of the place. We felt so welcome that we have returned to the island every couple of years or so.
Just like ours, the Reunion beaches attract a lot of people at the week-end. However, unlike us, when they leave on Sunday evening, the Reunionais leave behind a beach so clean one would be hard put to find a cigarette butt anywhere. The rubbish either finds its way in a nearby litter bin or in the boot of the car, to be discarded in the domestic bin back home.
It was nice to see that nothing had changed much. As ever, the Reunionais is as respectful of his environment as he is courteous to pedestrians when he is behind the wheel of his car. Even the small shopping centre of Le Port has enough to offer the tourist and the shop assistants are, as elsewhere on the island, polite and helpful. Everyone and everything is so pleasant that I consider Reunion as my second home and it is always with a heavy heart that I leave her shores. It was no different this time!
As Romantica prepared to leave Le Port, all the Mauritians aboard — about 40 representatives of the proverbial rainbow — were invited to the Diva disco on deck 14 for a cocktail (with a beautiful, quadricolour cake to match the occasion) to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of our Independence. Considering that he had 1500 passengers to take care of, this was a particularly magnanimous gesture from Captain Philippe Fichet Delavaut. Bravo and thank you, Captain! We sang Motherland in the perfect harmony of one people/one nation, as we tend to do only when we are away from these shores, and drank a toast to her.
In between the Seychelles and Reunion, we made three stops in Madagascar which, we were told, is larger in area than France. The stopovers were at an island on the northwest coast called Nosy Be, the northern port of Diego Suarez and, last of all, Tamatave on the east coast.
Apart from discovering that there were 13 species of lemurs (I had only seen one variety in European zoos) whilst visiting the Ivoloina Park just outside Tamatave, I must confess I did not enjoy Mada very much. In spite of the vastness of its land area and the abundance of natural resources, the place is under-developed and very poor, where a fog of moroseness prevails. The poverty aside, friends who have been there reckon there is a lack of Spirituality about the place.
The situation seemed even worse than I had seen in India, which has its fair share of poverty, beggars, hawkers and pickpockets. Growing up in the 1950s in rural Mauritius also, I was witness to a lot of poverty. But, even in the darkest days, I cannot recall seeing the desperation I saw in Mada.
There are tribes not very far from town who still lead a sort of hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Accommodation is a flimsy hut made of ravenal and there is no running water or electricity. Promiscuity is rife and it is not unusual for a child of 12 to be pregnant with her first baby. All education has to be paid for. Consequently, many children go without, for lack of money. Sometimes, a benefactor comes along and sponsors some children to attend school. As an example, we were told that The Ivoloina pays for the education of the children of the village next door.
Wherever you go, you are pestered by street-hawkers and beggars, the latter mostly children of school age. In the absence of a port in Nosy Be, Romantica had to anchor a mile off the coast. As soon as we had stopped, hawkers arrived alongside in small dinghies, trying to peddle anything from green bananas to handicraft. It was impossible to make contact in the choppy sea, but that did not deter them from paddling against the tide to reach the cruiser.
Having got back to Port Louis, all four of us agreed that it had been a fortnight of “bananey” on what can only be described as a floating five star. It is an experience that I would not have missed for anything in the world.
The Seychelles and Reunion were a joy to visit. But, I am also glad for the stopovers in Mada. It was a salutary experience that put things into perspective. In spite of all their failings, we must thank our lucky stars that our leaders have all been inspired to push the country forward towards progress. There but for the grace of God and the dedication of these men and women, we may well have remained as backward and under-developed as the Grande Ile.