Groovy shores

Shimmy like a Sega dancer,take a walk with lions or relive history—Mauritius keeps you on your toes

Written by Preeti Verma Lal | Published: February 1, 2009 4:15:26 pm

Shimmy like a Sega dancer,take a walk with lions or relive history—Mauritius keeps you on your toes
Stroll with the lions. Take the submarine 35 metres inside the sea. Go down a ladder for an undersea walk. Ride a scooter under water. Rev the quad bike 330 metres uphill. I looked at my Mauritius itinerary and baulked. The to-do things looked perfect for the one called Bond,James Bond. These activities could not have been penciled for me. “Was my itinerary swapped with that of James Bond?” I questioned Yasine Badourkhan,a tour operator with a mop of tidy curls.. “No,they are the simplest of chores,” Badourkhan reassured. Simple? Walk with lions? Right? Take a ladder to the seabed? Right? This was more than I had expected on my trip to Mauritius for the International Kreole Festival,the annual winter music and dance festival that showcases the native culture.

Not that the billowing Sega skirt and itsy-bitsy blouse was a jumpy thought,but grooving to some excellent music seemed cushier than being breakfast for the hungry lions. I took two steps backwards. Then I heard a loud snarl. The lions were just a barbed wire away,prancing in their enclosure in the Casela Bird Park and the trainer was already rattling off instructions. “Take the stick; don’t touch the lion when I feed him chicken…” As I took the first step amidst prickly bushes and swaying grass,Chima and Tinga leapt,their mane flying in the morning breeze. I held my breath,clung to the stick as Chima walked around me,her furry tail leaving me ticklish in the gut. The ice thawed,the scare vanished. That moment onwards Chima and I strolled like long-lost friends,she crunched chicken for breakfast,while I hummed a song. Simple,huh!

In Mauritius,my definitions got muddled. The lion walk was simple,but boy,never before had I thought of Sega as rocket science. Sega,the traditional dance,is a blend of African and European dance moves,but if you have not seen a Sega dancer move her booty,twirl her canopy of a skirt and sing at the same time,you would not know what I am talking of. I deciphered that at Le Morne,a World Heritage Site,which is rimmed by a beryl sea and beefy mountains. Thousands had gathered for Swaran Tipik,a music and dance fest — women in vibrant dresses and strings of beads,men in matted hair and Bob Marley tees,the whiff of pork chops simmering on the barbecue and colossal amplifiers prepped for the all-night gig. When the drums thumped and the International Kreole Festival reached a crescendo,I realised I had dug my heels in the wet grass and stood still. The Sega looked too daunting,not one limb in me moved!

I bumped into svelte Sega dancers again at the fairgrounds at Port Louis where more than one lakh people had gathered for the finale of the Kreole Festival. The strum of the guitar could be heard miles away but I could no more than crawl towards the stage. I huffed and jostled but found not an inch of elbow space. Breathless,when I got close,the music had me enthralled. The men were hitting the alto in their guttural tenor; the women were swaying as if they had left their bones behind and the crowd went berserk in a chorus to rapid drumbeats and pounding rhythm. That night Mauritius was beamed back to its beginnings,to the day in 1639 when the Dutch Governor stepped out of Cappel not only to conquer the island but also to introduce sugarcane. Thousands of Africans were shipped in as slaves and over generations the blend of the European with African mores gave birth to what is now known as Kreole culture.

Beyond Africa,it is Bihar that Mauritius is more acquainted with,for it was from the sleepy villages of Bihar that the first indentured labourers landed in Mauritius on November 2,1834,to toil in the sugar estates of the rich Europeans. Their salary: Rs 5 a month; their perk: a blanket and few utensils; their bane: shackled and bound by a contract that destroyed their freedom and annihilated their identity. All Bihari labourers lost their names,they became Immigrant Numbers. It is not surprising then that every Bihari I met had a one-liner for his lineage: “I am a Bihari but I do not know the name of my ancestral village.” Some are curious about their roots but most have shed that identity and for them Bihar is nothing more than the five-lettered name.

But Bihar was conspicuous in Aventure du Sucre,a sugarcane museum that chronicles the history of sugarcane on the island. And tucked in between sepia folios and framed faces are the poignant tales of Indians who undertook the eight-week journey from Calcutta to Port Louis. But their dreams were to crumble as they walked up the 14 wharf steps on Coolie Ghat in Port Louis. Now known as Apravasi Ghat and tagged as a World Heritage site,the Ghat stands bare,its stone walls broken,its waters cluttered with modern ships and on its bank not even the anchor of Atlas,the ship that brought the first Indians to Mauritius.

Yes,in the island that Mark Twain once described as heaven’s prototype,I took the ladder into the sea to walk on the sea bed with thousands of fish,I revved the engine as the quad bike groaned uphill,I also slid into a submarine to see the unending coral reef. Bahadourkhan was right. They were the simplest of chores. I brought a Sega skirt home and the next year at the Kreole Festival,I won’t stand digging my stilettos in the mud. I will just swirl my skirt and jive. In Mauritius,that is religion and I will not be an infidel!

Fast facts:
Getting there: Every Sunday Air Mauritius has a flight between Delhi and Mauritius; an economy return ticket would cost approximately Rs 40,000; there are three weekly flights between Mumbai and Mauritius.
Best time to go: September to mid-January
Where to stay: There are various options — if you are looking for luxury opt for Le Meridian or Taj; Le Pearl Beach in Flic en Flac is a good midrange option
(it has Indian food everyday; breakfast and dinner included in the USD 100 per night room tariff).
What to see/do: Walk with the Lions ($ 69),Undersea Walk ($ 35),Submarine ride ($ 125),Quad biking ($ 149 per couple),Blue Safari Subscooter ($ 161 for a couple); Aveture de Sucre (sugarcane museum),Pamplemousses Garden,Apravasi Ghat.
You can book all this through Seaside Holidays (website: http://www.seasideholidaysltd.com)
What to eat: Go to Happy Rajah in Grand Bay for Indian food,try the baigan bharta (mashed brinjals); seafood platter and traditional Mauritian food at Le Captaine at Grand Bay; go streetsy with local ice cream and raw mangoes and pineapple with chilli and tamarind chutney,puri and ghugni (black gram in gravy).

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