Mauritius 6: Vikram, our guide and Bollywood

September 25, 2008

On the first day of our tour of Mauritius our driver-cum-guide Vikram lands up at our hotel sharp at 9.30 am to take us on a trip to South/South-West parts of the island.

The 20-something Vikram, hair neatly bleached and spiked, facial hair trimmed and carved into pretty unimaginable shapes, smartly clad in the global outfit of today, jeans and a T-shirt bearing his travel comany’s logo. Vikram could have been a young man from any part of the globe.

A cheery hi, a quick introduction and we were off to our first destination.

Five minutes into our drive, excited by the sight of the lush green sugarcane fields on either side of the highway, glimpses of the clear blue sea just beyond the green fields, no pot-holes, no traffic jams in the first 5 minutes, what better could a Bangalorean want at the beginning of a long-planned vacation!

Hey, Mauritius, here we come!

Lulled into the holiday mood I asked Vikram whether he could play some music for us on the car stereo.

“Of course”, he said, “I have just the right music for you!”

Vikram inserted a CD into his car stereo as I settled into my seat, eyes closed.

Strains of Sega music floating through my mind I quite looked forward to the drive. Alas, my pleasure was short-lived. As the first strains of the first number wafted through the speakers, I sat up with a jerk wondering what had hit me; it was the unmistakable nasal twang of good old Himesh Reshammiya. “Aashiq banaya, Aashiq banaya…”. I grit my teeth, too polite to ask him to change the disc, and braced my self for the HR assault. Then followed, “Aapka suroor..” and then “Shakalaka boom-boom”!

I could not bear it any longer and asked Vikram to change the CD and play something else.

“No, no, sir”, he said, “you MUST listen to this track. I have personally remixed this track on my PC with the new remix software I have downloaded”. So the HR assault continued this time via a remixed HR track, “Zara jhoom, jhoom..”.

Vikram went on and on about the Bollywood stars he has driven around Mauritius. Yes, he has driven around the great Himesh R. as well a few months earlier when HR was down to Mauritius for a concert.

Vikram then confided, he has also driven Preity Zinta around. He proudly said had promised to make him a Bollywood star should he deign to give up his driver-cum-guide job in Mauritius and visit Mumbai!

If it was not for Vikram’s earnestness and his innate likeability this piece of our chat would have been intensely funny. But I quickly realized that he was dead serious in what he was telling us. I just could not bear HR any longer and asked him to switch to any FM station which played Hindi stuff. And the good, well mannered guy Vikram is, he switched on to a popular FM station and guess which song was playing? Good old HR’s good old “Aashiq banaya!”

 

Bollywood film posters on street-side walls

Bollywood film posters on street-side walls

 

 

Bollywood is something which will never be far away when you are in Mauritius. The latest movies play in the theaters of Mauritius. While we were there we could see the posters of “Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag” and Manorama Six Feet Under” pasted all over the city walls. A visit later to the posh Caudan Waterfront and we saw a giant poster of Om Shanti Om at a multiplex announcing the movie release on 8th November (9th Nov is the official release date in India).

 

Poster display at Caudan Waterfront Theatre

Poster display at Caudan Waterfront Theatre

 

 

We were shown various locations where Bollywood movies have been shot:

“Hey, this is where this shot of “No Entry” was shot!”

“And that is where the car chase in that movie happened”.

“And that is the beach where that song was picturized.”

And they all expected us to go all ooh-aah-waah at all these juicy tidbits!!

Bollywood has this uniquely irritating habit of crawling all over you wherever there are people of Indian origin.

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Mauritius 5: Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao

September 12, 2008

Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao as it is also called is the most revered place for the Hindu Mauritians. It is said when Shiva held river Ganga in his knotted hair to prevent flooding on earth, a few drops fell on Mauritius, creating a fresh water lake. The water of Ganga Talao (lake) is as revered as the Ganges is in India. A placid lake set amidst tranquil surroundings, Ganga Talao attracts devotees from across the island especially during month-long celebration of Shivratri when nearly five lakh devotees visit the Talao and the Shiva temple next to it.

Shiva Temple at Ganga Talao

Shiva Temple at Ganga Talao

Shiva statue across the Talao

Shiva statue across the Talao

A long drive through breathtakingly beautiful ebony tree-lined highway and then a quick turn into the road leads us to the temple. Even from several hundred meters away you can see a statue of Shiva, over a hundred feet tall, which we were told has been recently installed. The temple itself has the Shivaling and statues of several deities all around. There is Hanuman, Kali, Radha and Krishna, the Nandi etc. All amidst quiet surroundings and next to the most gorgeous lake we had ever seen.

There were a mix of visitors to the temple, local Mauritians, Indian tourists and a group of European tourists. The local Mauritians consisted of a newly married couple (accompanied by a horde of their relatives) who had come prepared with the usual pooja paraphernalia to pay obeisance to Ganga Maiyya and Shivji to seek their blessings for a happy married life, we presumed. The Indian tourists was a group of cheerful Gujaratis who seemed only too happy to compensate for the loss of missing the Navratri festival back home by seeking a darshan of Shivji. The Europeans came as a group and they appeared to be from different countries going by the mix of languages they spoke (We could decipher none, but we knew that no one was speaking in English)

At the doorstep to the temple we were wondering where to leave the shoes behind before entering when a voice from inside the temple invited us to come in. “Leave the shoes right where you are and walk in”, the voice said.

The voice belonged to Mr Satish Dayal, the secretary of the Trust running the temple. He has been a minister in the Mauritius government and currently working as an independent management consultant. His brother, a former Police Commissioner of Mauritius is the officiating priest of the temple. Mr Dayal seemed happy to see fellow Indians and when we told him that our roots were in Bihar he opened up for a longer chat. “It feels really so nice to be able to chat with someone from India in Bhojpuri, our mother tongue”, he said. He beckoned us to sit next to him on a bench and settled us in for a long chat.

Dayal-ji's logic was cogent

Dayal-ji

“People complain to me as to how we allow scantily-clad foreigners into the the temple”, he said, warming to the chat. “But, tell me, if I asked them to come here only in modest garments, will they ever return? Will they ever dress up in a sari just to be able to visit this temple?” He continued with his irrefutable logic, “You and your wife have come here wearing jeans and T-shirts. If I were to tell you to visit this place only when you are clad in dhoti and sari, will the two of YOU bother to return?”

Europeans at Shiva Temple

Europeans at Shiva Temple

I must say I had to agree to him, and I nodded my assent to his assertion.

“And if they do not visit this place”, he said generally pointing in the direction of the European tourists milling around, “how will they get to know about our religion and culture?” “Absolutely true, Dayalji“, I had to agree with him.

Suddenly in the middle of our intense chat he leapt out of his seat and approached a European woman hovering around the Shivaling. He picked up a spatula, dipped it into a bowl of kumkum and anointed the woman’s forehead with a stylized version of trishul-shaped tikka, muttering something in Italian all the time he was decorating her forehead! Having finished his artistry, he held a small mirror to enable her to see this symbol of Hinduism on her visage. An appreciative nod from her, a gentle nod from him and he walked back towards me quietly waving the woman in the general direction of the donation box. The obedient recipient of the kumkum dropped some currency notes into the box. Mission complete, both for the lady and for Mr Dayal.

“What were you telling her, Dayal ji as you were decorating her forehead?”

“I was only describing the significance of this symbol to her, in her own language, Italian! You may want to know that I know eight European languages and when I gather which language the person is conversant with I describe this process and the significance of the symbol in his or her own language.

He quickly went back again, this time to a Spanish tourist (as he told us later) awaiting the kumkum treatment. This process continued for about 8-10 times through our 30 minute chat.

“Tell me something”, he posed a question, “why does USA want to attack other nations around the globe?” Without awaiting my point of view on this weighty matter, he continued, “Simple, because USA wants to hoist its flag on these nations. But here we are, in Mauritius, and the foreigners come from different parts of the globe to our temple, themselves. The kumkum symbol I apply on their foreheads is nothing but the flag of Hinduism on a foreigner. They understand the meaning when I tell them in their own language, go back pleased; some even carry kumkum back to their country and continue to apply it and even tell their friends about it. Is not that a great way to spread the message of Hinduism all over?”

We found his logic irrefutable, and his adherence to his cause of spreading the Hindu philosophy to the followers of other faiths touching. As we bade him good bye, we saw him get up once again to do the honours to yet another European tourist.

And yes, my wife did receive the traditional prasad of coconut and bananas from the chief priest which we relished on the way back from Ganga Talao!

A close-up

Shiva statue: A close-up


Mauritius 4: The seven-coloured earth of Chamarel

September 11, 2008

Would you pay money and drive an hour to take a look at a cordoned piece of undulating earth? What if you were told that the earth under discussion had seven different colours? “Nonsense”, you would say, “not possible”!

Intro to Chamarel

Intro to Chamarel

 

 

We decided to keep our scepticism away and made an expedition to Chamarel, in the south-west of the island. A drive through lush-green sugarcane plantation which morphed quickly into a coffee plantation, we soon approached this major tourist attraction of Mauritius, the seven-coloured earth of Mauritius. But before we could see the seven colours, there was another attraction to be relished first, the Waterfall of Chamarel. A quick flight of steps to the railed observation post and we were watching one of the most gorgeous waterfalls we had ever seen. Three distinct stream plunging down nearly a 100 meters down into the gorge. Clean, clear and without any fuss! Just a sheer drop!

Kaskaade...the waterfall

Kaskaade...the waterfall

A fellow tourist happily accepted our camera to take our family picture against the backdrop of the waterfall. He fussed with the camera, must have zoomed in and then zoomed out and vigorously motioned us to shift to one side yelling, “kaskaade, kaskaade“. It took us a while to figure out what this friendly soul was fretting about. Kaskaade sounded like cascade and cascade approximately translates to waterfall. We were obviously hindering a clear view of the waterfall in our eagerness to huddle together for a snap. Quick nudges amidst us, a sharp click and the fellow tourist bounded towards us pointing at the LCD screen of our Sony cyber shot. There we were, a very happy family of four Ojhas and the three clean streams of the cascade (French for waterfall).

Then a short drive to view the famous Chamarel seven-colored earth. To say we were surprised at what we saw would be an understatement. There was this expanse of clay, amassed as undulating dunes, shining brightly under the sun in multiple hues! Red, yellow, purple, dark brown, black, white, dark green, light brown……..multiple colours layered over each other like so many different species of giant serpents, each of a distinct colour, sleeping cozily entwined.

Seven Colored Earth

Seven Colored Earth

 

We really could not believe our own eyes and had to take recourse to multiple slide-shows of the pics we had taken (as well as a video panning the landscape) before we came to the conclusion that we had, indeed, seen what others had done for decades before us, the magic of nature! Basalt rock weathered by years of rains and sunshine undergoing chemical reaction over the millenia presenting us a spectacle to behold.

Much arguments amidst us on which colours each one of saw, we decided to agree to disagree. After all, one man’s light brown could be another person’s yellow but we all agreed eventually that the clay did indeed have myriad distinct colors and while the color gold itself was not seen by us, we knew we had struck gold in this visit! A reverential “parikrama” around the periphery of this cordoned piece of magically colored section of earth and we were ready to leave for our next destination!

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Mauritius 3: Pamplemousses aka SSR Botanical Gardens

September 10, 2008

It is not an easy proposition to get the family to rally around you for a trip to a garden, least of all a botanical garden, especially if you have barely-in-teens children who would rather be doing something more interesting like jumping around in the clear blue sea. However, I managed to cajole them into it and off we were exploring the SSR Botanical Garden. At the end of the one hour tour of the garden even the normally skeptical kids were convinced that they had made a wise decision to agree to my proposal.

 

 

 

 

Palm Tree lined pathway

Palm Tree lined pathway

 

 

This garden is over 200 years old and has been lovingly nurtured by eminent botanists over the years. (There is a small memorial obelisk prominently displayed in the garden listing all these gentlemen who have steered the course of the garden development over the years. Nice touch, that!)

Bleeding Tree

Bleeding Tree

Bottle Palm Tree

Bottle Palm Tree

 

 

Hundreds of varieties of flora from various parts of the world find place in this garden. You thought a plam was a palm was a palm? Well how about bottle palm, elephant leg palm, talipot palm,fan palm, the sealing wax palm etc etc. And did you know that trees can shed blood? Well, there is the “Bleeding tree” which actually bleeds red sap, a sinister dark red.

Sausage Tree

Sausage Tree

 

 

Ever seen sausages growing on a tree? There they are huge sausages hanging high up on the sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata, if you are a stickler for botanical names). And how many kinds of bamboos do you think there are? There are palms which look like bamboos and bamboos which look like palms, you get them all here. In India (especially in the North) we associate bamboos with snakes. If there is something I am really terrified of is, that is a snake, even a meek garden snake is enough make me run and climb the nearest available raised surface! I gingerly asked our guide whether there were snakes around the area. I was reassured that Mauritius maybe known for many things but not for snakes, snakes apparently do not exist in Mauritius. A smile returned on my face and the rest of the garden tour was taken in peace.

I must admit the tour around the garden would not have been half as interesting had it not been for our cheerful guide, Yogesh, whose encyclopedic knowledge about things horticultural is truly impressive. Not only he would reel out the botanical names of the trees we saw, he would often give the Indian (Hindi) equivalents as well. Particularly useful when he was showing us the spice trees around the garden. Hindi equivalents made it easy to distinguish between cloves and nutmegs! Also trivia such as a bamboo can grow as much as a meter in one day (or is it overnight?).

Ten minutes into the tour Yogesh added a Danish couple in addition to the four of us. I am sure he wanted to maximize his earnings from the one hour of stroll through the gardens in addition to the hundred rupees he was charging us. Which actually turned out to be a pretty good thing afterall. For one, we (Danes and us) would take turns in photographing each other amidst the trees and shrubs. And I became a kind of a sub-guide to Yogesh for the Danes. Yogesh would introduce a tree, say the peepul tree, saying that it was an import from India and then look to me to fill in the Indian/Hindu story around it. There was peepul tree, the banyan tree, the lotus etc etc. So yours truly took the Danes on a tour of Hindu mythology and the stories around each of India flora on display. (Cloves as dental treatment freaked the Danes out completely!) Maybe I should have asked Yogesh for a cut of the money he would have made from the Danes! And a share of the future revenues he would make retelling my little stories.

 

 

 

The piece d’ resistance (please pardon my use of French, after all I have just returned from Ile Maurice!!) of the tour was the Giant Water Lilies. This is the chief attraction in the Garden. We had seen the pictures earlier but were not prepared for the gigantic leaves of the water lilies. Large green circular leaves floating majestically in water. Fully grown ones can be up to two meters in diameter. This has been imported from Brazil (we were told this is a native of the Amazon, hence the name Victoria amazonica). They looked sturdy enough for me to contemplate a quick stroll across the lily pond stepping over those giant leaves! The flower themselves are surprisingly short-lived, just twenty four hours or so! They blossom with white petals, turn purple after a few hours and turn red towards the life’s end before they wilt away.

 

 

 

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Mauritius 2: The Indian Diaspora

September 9, 2008

Nearly two-thirds of the population of Mauritius is of Indian origin, all descendants of indentured labourers shipped out by the British colonists to work in the sugarcane fields in the early decades of the 19th century. And a bulk of these labourers came from Bihar and Eastern parts of UP. Through sheer grit they dropped anchor, got rid of their colonial masters and now they rule the country!

 

Sir Seeoosagur Ramgoolam's Statue at Caudan Waterfront, Port Louis

Sir Seeoosagur Ramgoolam

 

 

Mauritius got independence from the British rule in 1968 under the leadership of Sir Seeoosagur Ramgoolam. (His son, Dr Naveen Ramgoolam is now the Prime Minister of the country) But all through the difficult decades they have preserved the language and culture and religion.

 

Mandir at Belle Mare

Mandir at Belle Mare

 

 

The Hindu Indo-Mauritians are deeply religious. Every village has a Shiva temple (called “shivala” in Hindi). Each house has a Hanuman idol installed at the entrance to protect the residents of the house. The tourist car we travelled in had stickers of Shiva, Durga and Hanuman prominently displayed.

Another striking feature was that all married women wore their sindoor very prominently. Many also wore a mangalsutra in addition. Saree and Salwar-Kameez are the most common dresses there. Women there are active in jobs and businesses but their adherence to the dress and sindoor is nearly complete. Much to the embarrassment to my wife whose chosen symbol of denoting her matrimonial status is the mangalsutra with the sindoor being reserved for ceremonial occasions!

 

While the common language in Mauritius is Creole (derived from French) and the official language is French, they have kept their mother tongue, Bhojpuri alive all these years. Initially it was pretty amusing for us to hear an Indo-Mauritian toggle between Creole/ French and Bhojpuri, but later we got used to it. And their Bhojpuri is pure, untainted by Creole or French.

 

The food too has been retained from the old days, right till the combination of spices. (Please see an earlier post “Bhajiyas in Mauritius”)

 

The hobbyist fisherman Sant ji

The hobbyist fisherman Sant ji

 

We found them to be very warm and cordial to us and they took time to chat with us total strangers. The language used was, of course, Bhojpuri. The grocer at Belle Mare who chatted happily with my wife, calling her beti. He even introduced us to his rather large family. The few rupees extra he charged us for the mineral water bottle still rankles my wife, though! One has to pay a price for staying at a Belle Mare hotel, I kept telling her. The hobbyist fisherman Mr Nityanand Sant at the beach who regretted having met us a little too late to call us home for a meal. He did share with me his recipe for mixing a Mauritian “rhum” (add lots of coke and ice!). And the ever-cheerful and nattily dressed young guide of ours, Vikram. More about Vikram in a later post.

 

Familiar hoarding, but at Mauritius

Familiar hoarding, but at Mauritius

 

It is a great feeling to see the 19th century Bhojpuri culture thriving in this beautiful island!

Mauritius 1: Colors of Heaven

September 8, 2008

We had a family vacation at Mauritius last October. I had written a detailed account of our trip. A piece of the story appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, last month which you will find under the heading “Bhajiyas in Mauritius” in my blog. I will post over the next few days some of the pieces in instalments with some pictures where ever possible. I hope you enjoy this mini series.

 

“You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius” said good old Mark Twain towards the end of the 19th century. This sentence was on my mind as I closed my eyes to catch a few winks on board Air Mauritius flight to the Green Island, Isle Maurice!

 

A cheery “Enjoy-your-vacation” from the immigration officer at the Sir Seeoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport as he stamped our passports and we were out of the terminal building into the car awaiting us. We commence on an hour’s drive northwards towards our hotel at Belle Mare located on the east coast.

 

My first impressions of Mauritius, which only got reinforced as our sojourn progressed was a succession of three colours, green, black and blue. The green of the lush sprawling sugarcane fields all across the island. Acres-and-acres of green fields. (Sugarcane farms occupy one-thirds the total land area of the island and two-thirds its cultivated area.) If not the sugarcane green then the varied shades of the green of the fields growing cauliflowers, potatoes, tomatoes, brinjals, pineapples and so many other varieties.

 

 

 

And the green of the majestic tropical forests. Tall trees (Ebony is my favourite), dense shrubs, and dozens of varieties of palms).

 

Mauritius is the peak of an enormous sunken volcanic chain stretching for hundreds of kilometers close to the South East coast of Africa, East of Madagascar. While there is no volcanic activity now, the volcanoes have left behind million and millions of black lava boulders.

 

 

Black patches standing out starkly in the green fields or jutting deep into the blue seas.

 

The description blue somehow does not do justice to the waters around Mauritius. The sea waters are anything but a mono-chromatic blue, right from the Sailway blue, to the Piece–of-sky blue to the deeper Prussian blue. Sometimes magically transforming the blue into myriad shades of green. And never is it a continuum of blues, right in the middle of a lighter shade you suddenly find the darkest shade of blue. Sometimes it felt that the sea was a expansive, liquid version of a paint company’s catalogue!

 

Oh, the majestic blue sea!

Oh, the majestic blue sea!

 

 

 

 

Ile aux Cerfs

Ile aux Cerfs

 

 

 

But whatever the colour of the water maybe, one thing is constant, the seas are clear, clear, clear. Crystal clear, just like a baby’s eyes!

 

Ride in to Sunset

Ride in to Sunset

 

 

 

White, Green and Blue

White, Green and Blue

 

 

 

And yes, one more colour, white, miles and miles of clear white sandy beaches!

To be continued


Bhajiyas in Mauritius

August 23, 2008

Here is a story the edited version of which appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, today.

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Bhajiyas in Mauritius

 

Mauritius is indeed a pretty island state, that was easy to see right from day one when we had gone there for a family holiday. What came as a complete surprise was the cuisine of place, so very Indian!

 

Nearly two-thirds of the population of Mauritius is of Indian origin, all descendants of indentured labourers shipped out by the British colonists to work in the sugarcane fields around 200 years ago. Most of these labourers came from Bihar and Eastern parts of UP. Through sheer grit these labourers dropped anchor in the island, got rid of their colonial masters and now they rule the country!

 

Over the centuries, the Indo-Mauritians have preserved their religion, culture and language (official language: French). And even the cuisine, right till the combination of spices.

 

The Sunday flea market in Quatre Bornes is as good a place if any to sample the snack foods of the Indo-Mauritians. Missing home food? No worries! Make your way to the countless stalls fronted with large grubby glass cases displaying their wares. Bhajiyas anyone? Rs 2 for each, take a bite and let the spices and the aromas waft through! Bhajiyas made from brinjal slices dunked into besan batter. Or may be mirchi bhajias? Buy one for Rs 2 and taste the heavenly dish. Bhajiyas are hugely popular here and are known as “baja“. Samosa is what you will not get here, but you will certainly get their diminutive version, the “samoussa“. As greasy and as inviting as ever as you can get at your favourite chaat shop back home in India! But the real fast mover has to be the spicy pakoda, so delicately christened gateaux piment (French for chilli cakes)! Seven spicy ones for Rs 10 and no sooner you are done with one pack of the gateaux piment, you reach out for another!

 

Should you prefer to have something more filling move on to the other stall, have some biryani (called “Briyani“) or have some roti instead. But the real winner is the soft dal-powder filled poori, a foot in diameter and as thin as a sheet of paper, soft-as-silk texture and a complete melt-in-the-mouth delicacy. Those from North India would recognize it as dalpoori. (For the others, consider it is a salt-plus-spice version of puran poli). Dalpoori is elegantly spelled as dholl puri,or even d’holl puri making it sound like something from the south of France but actually has its origins in the heartland of Bihar. Here we are at this stall called Chez Navin (literal meaning, house of Navin). Navin serves us dalpoori on handkerchief sized sheets of thin white paper with a ladleful of aloo-ki-sabzi and spicy chutney. And of course, it was difficult to stop at just one serving! Rs 8 for a Dalpoori. What a bargain!

 

Eating done, now proceed to Gopal and Sons next door for some liquid nourishment. Gopal sells just three items, “Jus Limon”, “La Mousse Noire” (black jelly drink) and “Alouda”. We decide to skip the nimbu paani and the jelly drink and settle for “Alouda” which I am sure must be the national drink of Mauritius. A cold refreshing concoction of milk, water, ice and strands of semiyan-like ingredient is just what you need after the heavenly snacks. Just Rs 15 vierre (glass). A liter of this sinfully delicious stuff must surely be strongly intoxicating, but we had much business left unfinished and we decided to stay contented with just a glassful.

 

And how can you not have sugarcane juice while at Mauritius. At the Caudan Waterfront we helped ourselves to glassfuls of fresh juice, Siro Pike (sugar cane juice) as the locals call them! Choice of ginger flavour and lemon flavour!

 

Even at the European tourist oriented hotel we were staying there was was this ubiquitous paratha (called faratta by the locals) served with sabji for both breakfast and dinner buffets amidst all the European food stuff.

 

Home food, anyone? Head to Mauritius!

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