Sunday, 19 June 2016

Arriving in Dodo-Land: Initial Impressions

As I sit here, winter in the tropics means a warm day without humidity. Leaves sing noisily in a strong breeze. I'm sitting in Dodo-Land - aka Mauritius - after a very long absence of some double-digit years.

I'm older, everyone I know is older, and the island has changed much in that time.

I want to jot down my initial impressions now, before the memories fade and disjointed sensations of newness fall into a temporary familiar.

The way on the first night I arrived, the air was warm, and scented with jasmine. The way the house carries the mix of smells of flowers and incense. There are food smells too – spices, chillis, oils and pickles which combine just enough to make the air different. Wooden cupboards hold their own smells - of absorbed moisture (but not unpleasant or bad), of stored spaces. The thick sweetness of the mosquito repellents.

The tap water, I can't help feeling, has the slightest hint of brine to it. I might be imagining this, because I know the sea isn't too far away, but I don't think I am. I also know I will stop noticing it soon. The tap water and shower runs unevenly, alternating between staid and energetic flows of water; I'm told this is because of the pump. I imagine I'll stop noticing this soon too.

The aesthetic of furniture and decor is different and more what I think of as "Indian-y". Wardrobes, fitted or otherwise, kitchen cabinetry, floor and wall tiles are all background things which are different and remind me relentlessly that I'm in an old-but-new place, until I get used to it.

The different textures of the chairs and bed/mattress. The landline which has a different dialling tone when you ring someone. In spite of mobiles, there is still a practice of “miss-calls” to communicate departure and arrival times.

I've heard the odd mosquito whining (touch wood, not too many yet. At the back of my mind, I wonder if I should worry about chikungunya, but I'm still too jetlagged). I've also heard the lizards laughing at night. I welcome the lizards with delight. It's been a really long time since I've heard them. They have different laughs - chuckles, cackles and belly-laughs. They always sound as though they’re laughing at something you should know about, but don’t. I've heard frogs too - singing cheerfully by the river during the day. I miss hearing frogs and lizards every day that I don’t hear them.
A baby lizard posed obligingly for me.

Visually, there are many, many houses being built. I'm sure this is the norm everywhere in the island, not just because I'm in a beach-side village. Big houses, in raw, grey concrete, go up 3 and 4 storeys. They may be houses, they may be apartments (to serve the budget tourist market) - it's a bit hard to tell the difference. The buildings have a very blunt aesthetic, characteristic of the island: grey blocks of concrete spilling very close to the street. Unpainted, lived-in, work-in-progress houses rubbing shoulders with houses painted in fresh light colours and contrasting trims, and with houses with tired, older paints. Blocks of spare land are usually overgrown. It's a safe bet that empty blocks won't stay empty and overgrown for long.

There are many stray dogs and cats. I was bracing myself for this. Sure enough, I saw them even at the airport. They seem to get around casually, minding their own business. Someone said that, for strays, they don't tend to be very skinny. I hope this is because they either know where to find food, or, that there are people who feed them - as is the case with one of my relatives.

I've had one walk to the supermarket so far. It is bookended by watering holes. At 4pm, one was playing determinedly-loud steel drum music, the other had some sort of loud reggae beat. On first listen, it feels very clichéd. Two types of "island" music, on tap. I think of it as locals playing the types of music that they think tourists think is "island" music. I might be overthinking it.

Of hearing Creole - words, intonations and conversations filling the air.

The supermarket shelves are all filled with unfamiliar brands. Some I might remember from my childhood, and many others, I don't know at all. They come from all over the place - Europe, India, Australia... There are lots of dairy brands from Australia, that I've never heard of in Australia. Butter choices include Australia, Norway, France and Ireland. I choose a butter from Normandy. Loose fruit and veggies get carried over to the fruit-and-veggie attendant who bags them in special biodegradable plastic bags and barcodes them.

There are souvenirs. Lots of postcards. I will need to buy some. Lots of dodo souvenirs. I think I will do at least one blog post focused on dodos. It is rather close to the blog's heart, after all.

There is a ban on supermarket plastic bags, although product packaging in plastic is still ok. There is apparently a ban on using plastic bags at all in public. You may get fined if you're caught with one. I travelled here with plastic bags; I will have to keep any plastic bags inside other non-plastic bags.

The supermarkets have the sulkiest, most sullen check-out attendants in the world. I think their essential selection criteria must include “unfriendliness bordering on downright hostility with a side serving of condescension” and “make-up. lots of it”. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed over the past (double-digit) years.

The money is all different. I have to do conversions in my head and my maths struggles to catch up.

The street that follows the beach yields many, many changes to my memories. There is a sign saying "Bains Dangereux/Dangerous Bathing". I struggle to understand this. This is a lagoon. As a kid, I swam here ALL the time. I am told there are now rips, which have led to deaths. Rips. I try and process this. This is not an Australian-type beach with open ocean, big waves, chompy and bitey sea critturs, and rips that every single Aussie who's ever been swimming seems to have a story about getting caught in. This is a lagoon. Rips. In Mauritius lagoons. I might tell myself it’s winter and not go swimming. What a waste that would be.

On the beach sands, there are now long rows of food shops. None of these existed when I was a kid. The most there was, was the odd person on a bicycle who would sell crushed ice with coloured syrup flavours, or candy floss, or maybe gateaux piments (deep fried chilli cakes - more on these later). Now, nearly a dozen food shops/shacks all stand next to each other on the beach. Monopolising the sands, staring at the sea. From the street now (even the street wasn't there when I was a kid), there are sections where you can't see the sea for the food shops, just the shops' behinds. I was disappointed enough I didn't want to take a photo of them. But I will. Maybe.

Again, when I was a kid, I remember the beaches being thick with casuarina trees. They drop needle-thin leaves which are long - the length of your hand - in an amber-coloured carpet. They also drop their seeds - little-toe-sized things which are pointed and sharp enough to make walking on them barefoot treacherous. The sound of the wind rushing through the casuarina trees is part of being at the beach. Wherever I might be in the world, the sound of wind rushing through pine trees reminds me of being at the beach in Mauritius. There seem to be fewer casuarinas now, and it looks as though palm trees have been planted. Palm trees seem to grow prolifically well on the west coast of the island.

Palms are, I suppose, more in line with what one expects from a tropical beach. Watch out for falling coconuts though. Or maybe add a lime and drink them all up.

There are temples/places of worship tucked into everyday streets, so that you find juxtapositions like this.

The hotted-up car in flashy crimson with its pin-striping (of sorts), colour-coordinated accessories and its spoiler. 'Shakti', by the way, is Hindi for 'strength'. It gets used in prayers and blessings and such-like. The 'shakti' is written in English, but in a style that resembles Hindi text. Red is an auspicious colour in things Hindu-related. Between the colour, decorations and text, the car belongs unquestionably to a Hindu male youth. I wonder whether the car owner is making a claim to spiritual strength or the car's souped-up strength. Probably both, depending on who his audience is.

Of hearing FM radio sounding slick and laser-cool like all FM stations the world over, but with DJs laying down their smooth patter with Creole or Hindi words, and playing energetic songs in those languages. Of seeing unfamiliar television channels, different programs, ads, languages, and different ways of presenting the news. It's amusing to know that, although costumes and make-up might differ, soaps remain the same, over-the-top, melodramatic affairs the world over.

I rediscover with delight all the foods and drinks that are, for me, Mauritius-specific. 

Gateaux piments (deep-fried chilli cakes made of split-pea dhal. Ironically, chillis are optional).

Samosas (home-made, par-cooked and frozen, ready to be fried into life and inhaled),

The original English Weetabix (ironically, with its French packaging) - Australia has nothing to match this; there is nothing half as good. And for old times' sake, I have it with sugar. I tell myself that Mauritius is a sugar-producing island, after all. Sugar is part of the experience.

Pearona - a local fizzy pear-flavoured drink. Someone managed to drink the whole bottle by herself and everything. (It's the tropics. Hydration is important).

Acchar - known locally as 'zassar' - a hot pickle dish, eaten as a cold accompaniment with the meal. This is a mango one. 

The long-lost-familiarity of distinctive, bitter green scent of mustard leaves sliced to make a tasty bhaji (sautéed greens). Leaves that my mother said she never used to buy, because my grandmother always grew them.

Home and not-home, familiar and not-familiar, and the making of memories, realities and imaginaries...

More to follow soon.


Michelle Kelly said...

Mauritius - from the supermarket to the shore; from the everyday to the once-in-a-lifetime (that car!!). After reading this all I want to do is eat gateaux piments and listen to little baby lizards laugh....

ReeD with a Bee said...

A belated thank you for reading! If I ever make some decent gateaux piments, I'll be sure to post some to you!!