Mauritius appeared ambiguously, as distant islands often do. It might have been an island. It might have been the shadow of a great bank of cloud. I would have voted shadow, I think, except that there was no corresponding bank of cloud to cast it, just scattered trade wind cumuli. And then my plane was over the island.
Morning light was on the mountains, and Mauritius had color and shape. The color was unbroken green. The shapes were familiar from high volcanic islands I had known all across the tropics - rugged ranges of fast-eroding basalt, the peaks looking taller, in their ruggedness, than they really were, the walls much too sheer to be so green, the highest cusps wreathed in mist.
The mid-Indian Ocean was for me mare incognita, and Mauritius was a new island, so this familiarity surprised me. Lying off the coast of Madagascar, which in turn lies off southeastern Africa, Mauritius should somehow have been more African, perhaps, yet everything below the plane had looked just Carib-Indo-Pacific.
My first image of Mauritius, in childhood, had been a scene in an engraving: several Dutch settlers and their dogs confronting a giant, flightless, soon-to-be-extinct Mauritian pigeon called the dodo. Thus, I had expected, illogically, a landscape more flat and dull and Dutch; I had not expected these Polynesian landforms.
From the airport I drove north across the island with a Mauritian cabbie named Gervais B¿che. In Gervais's car I had the same feeling of deja vu that I had from the air. The lower slopes of the mountains were planted in sugarcane in the same irregular, spring green rectangles one would see in Hawaii, or in the Virgin Islands, or in Martinique. There was a single difference: At odd intervals in the cane fields stood dark tumuli of basalt. A few of the tumuli had been shaped into ziggurats, but most were rough piles of basalt stones and boulders.
"Our fields grow stones," Gervais told me, laughing. He explained that every five years or so, between plantings of cane, the newest crop of stones is bulldozed into piles to get them out of the way. Just exactly where the stones came from was more problematic. It could not be, we agreed, that the soil simply eroded away to expose boulders and stones. Clearly, there was some postvolcanic terrestrial dynamic, some sort of geophysical oomph, that pushed the stones to the top.
Gervais was Creole, a descendant of the African slaves who first worked the cane. The island was uninhabited when discovered in the tenth century by Arab seamen, who named it Dinarobin but never bothered to settle here. In the early 16th century it was rediscovered by the Portuguese, who made landfall repeatedly and renamed the island three or four times. They introduced pigs, cattle, monkeys, dogs, and rats but never lingered long themselves.
It was a Dutch admiral who renamed the island Mauritius in 1598, and his countrymen established the first small settlements, then the sugarcane plantations. They ushered in slaves to work the cane and ushered out the native ebony forests and the odd, overfriendly ground bird called the dodo. In 1710 after a succession of cyclones, floods, droughts, and pirate attacks, the Dutch abandoned their colony, which was soon claimed by the French - who, in turn, brought thousands of new slaves from Africa and Madagascar to work the fields.
Eventually the British took over, abolishing slavery in 1835. The freed workers, having seen more than enough of sugarcane, dropped their cane knives and headed for the coast, where they became fishermen, artisans, and farmers. To work the empty cane fields, the planters brought in contract laborers from India - both Hindus and Muslims - luring them to Mauritius with a fine assortment of promises and lies.
Independence came in 1968. Today English is the official language, although the majority of islanders are more comfortable in French, and Creole is the lingua franca of Mauritius. "Bonjour," a Creole speaker greets you (or "Bonzour," as it is pronounced most often). For farewell he says "Salaam."
Mauritius has a reputation for racial harmony, and I asked Gervais if this was deserved. He assured me that it was. And what, in his opinion, I asked, was the secret of Mauritius's success in this age of racial strife? Gervais was at a loss: Racial harmony seemed as natural to him as cane fields sprouting stones, and he had not thought much about it.
"We're peaceful people here," he said finally. "The largest group is the Hindus, and the Hindus are known to be peaceful people."
This seemed to me an unusual answer. Few of us are in the habit of crediting other races for our national success.
Mauritius passed outside the taxi window. I saw flame trees, golden-shower trees, hibiscus, papaya, ginger, plumeria, mango, breadfruit, tropical almond, taro - all of them brought here, just as they have been introduced to islands from Hawaii to Palau to St. John.
I spotted wild tamarind, the kudzu of the Pacific (and of the Caribbean as well). Wild tamarind is called koa haole in Hawaii and tangan-tangan on Guam and tan tan on St. John. Introduced as cattle feed, the scrubby shrub takes over whole islands and becomes an uneradicable pest.
I recognized lantana, the escaped ornamental that is also such a plague
in Hawaii, and strawberry guava, another Hawaiian plague. I noticed some bottle palms native to Mauritius, but mostly I saw palms that had been introduced - coconut palms, royal palms, traveler's palms.
As for animals, there was the mongoose, which had been introduced here, as it was in Hawaii and the West Indies, to control rats in the cane fields. On Mauritius, as everywhere else, it did a poor job on the rats but an excellent job on native birds.
Before the day was done, I also came across the West Indian toad, and the giant African snail, pests in every archipelago I have ever visited.
And so what? The dodo went extinct more than 300 years ago, and it is senseless, probably, to hold a grudge against its replacements. Continuing to lament the dodo's demise is a curious and suspect kind of nostalgia. It is hard, though, for a student of the natural history of islands not to hold grudges and lament, and I had written articles, and even books, about the decline of island ecosystems.
Now, as I saw the familiar alien plants and animals in a third ocean, some sort of final piece fell into place. I was ready to formulate a law: Oceanic islands, once remarkable for their uniqueness - the Gal¿pagos for its finches and tortoises, Australia for its marsupials, Hawaii for its honeycreepers, New Zealand for its moas, Komodo for its dragons, Mauritius for its dodoes - are remarkable now, across vast stretches of the planet's waters, for their sameness.
Halfway across mauritius i began to notice the scattered groups of pilgrims marching alongside the road. The pilgrims were Hindus. In woven baskets or plastic bags they carried offerings, alongside teams of men holding kanwar - airy, foot-powered floats of bamboo, paper, and mirrors.
I had arrived, I learned from Gervais, on the last day of Maha Sivaratri, a festival in honor of the god Siva. For the week of the festival, Hindus walk from homes all over Mauritius to Grand Bassin, a crater lake in the south, where they perform ablutions and make offerings. Grand Bassin means "Great Pond" in French, but in the Hindu view, the lake is bottomless and has subterranean connections with the Ganges.
This was something new. There are no artesian upwellings of the Ganges in Hawaii, so far as I know, nor in Polynesia, nor Melanesia, nor Micronesia, nor the Caribbean.
I had read about the festival, and was happy not to have missed it. Checking into my hotel, I dumped my things, shrugged off jet lag, and, with Gervais driving, doubled back to Grand Bassin on a pilgrimage of my own.
Traditionally, Hindu pilgrims dress in pure white, but this Maha Sivaratri was polychromatic. The women we passed wore saris of every color - red, saffron, silver, gold - with gold studs in their pierced noses. Married women wore their hair parted down the middle, the scalp of the part dyed red or orange.
It was raining intermittently, and many of the women marched under umbrellas. Hiking up their saris slightly, they waded flooded sections of the road. The Mauritian rain was warm, and most of the men and boys ignored it, striding along with shirts plastered to their flesh.
At the shore of Grand Bassin, a throng of supplicants crowded a shoreline temple. A second temple perched atop a hill above the crater, and a colorful river of barefoot pilgrims, descending the steep temple path, passed a river of pilgrims ascending. The crater was a babble of Hindi and Creole as loudspeakers cranked out recorded religious songs, tinny and nasal. The air was fragrant with incense and jasmine and camphor.
There was a nice informality to the ritual. Few of the pilgrims seemed exalted or transported. Some, standing knee-deep offshore, with their fingertips pressed together in prayer, appeared to find private, introspective moments in the crush of humanity. Some seemed to find those moments by splashing Ganges water on their foreheads. But there was no great show of gravity. Instead, there was laughter and the occasional joke.
The sacred water was scooped up in silver pots most often, but sometimes it was carried away in cheap tin teapots, or in ribbed plastic bottles that originally held eau de source - springwater of a more mundane and secular nature. And once I saw the waters of this remote tributary of the Ganges go burbling into a vodka bottle.
The Maha Sivaratri is a strange marriage of elegance and squalor. Hindu women in shimmering saris, bangled and braceleted, their hair braided meticulously, their golden nose studs exquisite, the red dots of their tikas just so on their foreheads, wade out into a greenish slop of previous offerings to spill milk into the lake. Or they smear the shoreline stones with white, guanolike paste. Some smash coconuts, light candles of camphor inside the husks, then send them out onto the water on banana-leaf rafts. Others spear bananas with sticks of incense until they are like pincushions and commit wreathes and leis of yellow flowers to the lake. When they are done, they walk away, leaving it all to Siva.
Cleanup crews collect great mounds and windrows of bruised fruit and faded flowers and coconut fragments. The sacred monkeys of the crater - iris macaques - wait in the wings for their biggest feast of the year. But neither man nor monkey can keep up. A greenish sludge of leaves and harpooned bananas and plastic bags and empty Popsicle sleeves spread out over large areas of the lake leaving me to ponder the considerable puzzlement it would cause in Mother India if this stuff ever resurfaced on the Ganges.
Hindi-speaking Hindus are the most numerous of the religious groups on Mauritius - about 300,000 of them annually make the pilgrimage to the lake - but there are many thousands of Tamils, too, on the island, and Indian Muslims, Catholic Creoles, and Chinese Buddhists.
Mauritius is an island of religious festivals. In mid-January the Tamils hold their largest cavadee processions, the penitents walking on shoes of nails, their tongues and cheeks skewered. Catholics make a less masochistic pilgrimage in honor of their Mauritian saint, P¿re Laval. Then there is the Chinese Spring Festival, the Muslim Id al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, the Hindu Divali, or Festival of Lights, and countless others.
Traveling around the island, seeing tower of mosque, steeple of church, white onion dome of Hindu temple, polychromatic facade of Buddhist temple in nearly every town - and watching the colorful, heterogenous crowds on the village streets - I developed another theory of Mauritius. My theory ran counter to old biases. The human richness and diversity on the new Mauritius, I began to think, must be nearly as interesting as the unspoiled natural diversity that greeted the Dutch.
There is plenty of nature still on Mauritius. More than a million people inhabit the island, but civilization is clustered, leaving great areas open and green. The mountains are pristine, from the small matterhorn of Montagne du Rempart that rises on the west coast of the island, to the green, conical spires of Trois Mamelles, the Three Breasts (with contours as exaggerated as Madonna in one of her pointy bras and half again as numerous), to the sheer face of the coastal peak called Le Morne Brabant, off which escaped slaves are said to have thrown themselves to avoid recapture. On a windy day you can hear the ghosts of the slaves moaning and keening around that cliff.
The most remarkable peak of all is Mount Pieter Both, which has a balancing stone atop its summit spire. In a sandstone desert a great boulder balanced so delicately might seem less strange and miraculous, but in country carved of basalt I have never seen anything like it. There are any number of stories to explain the stone. It is a petrified milkman, according to one account. (The milkman went back on his word to some fairies he met crossing the surrounding mountains of the Moka Range.) It will fall off the spire at the end of the world, according to a second account. It was supposed to have fallen at the end of British rule, according to a third.
Nearly continuous white-sand beaches run around the island. It is this sandy margin, more than anything, that draws the tourists - Germans, French, South Africans, some Brits and Australians, the rare American - and tourism is now the island's third biggest industry, after sugar and textiles.
Beyond the sand Mauritius is bordered by 90 miles of fringing reef. The reef is the worse for wear - overharvesting, fish dynamiting, and sedimentation have taken their toll - but it is famous still for its mollusks and healthy enough to support dive tours and fisheries.
Remnants of Mauritius's original vegetation survive in the gorges of the Grande Rivi¿re Noire and in the low, lovely cyclone forest at Macchab¿e Nature Reserve. In both places an enlightened captive breeding program seeks to restore rare endemic birds - the Mauritius kestrel, the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet - to healthy numbers in the wild.
Meanwhile, the introduced vegetation of Mauritius forms a kind of climax forest in the botanical gardens at Pamplemousses. Old tropical botanical gardens are the best kind, and Pamplemousses, with its huge baobabs, figs, raffia palms, and giant Amazonian water lilies, has been around for centuries.
But the longer I stayed on Mauritius, the more it seemed to me that it is not the natural world of the island but its people, in all their cultural variety, that are the distinction of the place.
One night at my hotel a troupe of Creole women danced the s¿ga, an old African dance that has been commercialized into a Mauritian version of the hotel show hula. The young women were wasp-waisted, without an ounce of fat. Indeed, if the dancers had anything on them that quivered or shook, the s¿ga would be a very raunchy dance, unsuitable for family entertainment.
Another night four young Tamil men performed yoga on broken glass, to music.
On a third night a band entertained us. The lead female singer was Indo-Mauritian, the lead male Creole. They sang a Michael Jackson song, then Belafonte's "Island in the Sun," and then Toto's "Africa." The music was all derivative, like the new Mauritian ecosystem. Now and then, one singer or the other would stroll to the lectern and flip through the music to select the next borrowed song.
There was a break between sets. The speakers fell silent, and the night filled with a chorus of West Indian and Malagasy toads. I had to smile. There must have been 20 or 30 of the alien toads in the hotel's artificial pond, all singing lustily under the stimulus of recent rains. The exotic amphibian love songs were fine counterpoint to the exotic human love songs just now finished.
The set of the toads ended; rather, the toads were drowned out, as the humans returned to the microphones, launching into Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Occasionally the night breeze thumbed through the music on the lectern, flipping five pages at a time, or a dozen. The Creole singer would stroll over, singing, and flip back to the right spot. But in truth neither he nor his partner needed to read the notes. A whole library of other people's songs was filed away in their heads.
The wind gusted again and, watching it race through pages of music from other lands, I found myself suddenly doubtful about my Mauritius Theory. How could all this derivativeness replace the biological originality that had been Mauritius?
The next evening a group called the Beach Boy Band entertained at dinner. The four dark-skinned Creole and Hindu musicians moved among the tables serenading the guests. One of the Creoles had his hair in dreadlocks and played a very good flamenco guitar. After his flamenco riff, the group did a Beatles' number, and then The Drifters' "Stand by Me."
The Beach Boys passed by my table, and I saw with surprise that the guitarist in dreadlocks was not Creole, but Hindu. Hindu dreadlocks! I marveled. It seemed to me that this man summarized perfectly the new, post-dodo polyculture of Mauritius.
The derivativeness was not lamentable, I realized. The derivativeness was wonderful. In the new Mauritius it is so rich and layered and unexpected that it amounts to originality.
And this, of course, is nothing new on islands. This is exactly how things were in all remote oceanic ecosystems before the coming of man. In their floras and faunas, the islands of the Gal¿pagos, Hawaii, New Zealand, Seychelles were each one a triumph of derivation.
Mauritius has come full circle and is now a special place again.