Friday, December 18, 2009

Port Louis, Mauritius

Five countries down, five more to go!

Mauritius is easily the most obscure of the nations that we're visiting. It's an island nation situated about 560 miles east of Madagascar. It's got about 1.2 million residents packed into its 780 square miles, and it gets about 800,000 tourists every year. Tourism accounts for a big portion of the nation's GDP, and it shows.

Mauritius was discovered by the Portugese and then colonized by the Dutch, French, and English. At some point, tons of Indians were brought in to work on the sugar cane plantations. Now, the result is a population that mostly looks Indian (with Africans and southeast Asians mixed in) and speaks French, French Creole, or English with a French accent. It's an interesting combination.

I started out my first day with a City Orientation of Port Louis, the nation's capital. We saw a bunch of religious buildings (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian are all well represented) and an old colonial fort. The coolest part of the tour was the city's famous botanical gardens: the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, or Pamplemousses Garden for short. There were tons of fruits, trees, and flowers that I'd never seen before. There was an aquatic plant that looked like a water lily but about ten times bigger, a tree that looked like a bunch of branches braided together into a trunk, and (most interestingly) the "penis palm", so named for its remarkably phallic appendages that stick out near the roots. We also saw some resident giant tortoises and deer (one of which came to the fence and said hi; I finally got to pet a deer!).

The city orientation ended an hour and a half earlier than expected (for which we got a partial refund), but I wasn't too upset since that just meant more time to explore the city. Colin and I hit the waterfront first and had lunch at a South African / English pub. Then we did a lot of wandering and shopping, with some time taken out to visit an internet cafe. One thing that's really nice about shopping in Mauritius is the exchange rate: 30 Mauritian Rupees (MUR) to the dollar. I felt rich! We then visited the city's central market, where they were selling fruits, vegetables, breads, clothes, fake DVDs dubbed over in French, and lots more; I bought a pair of sandals for 100MUR, which seemed really really expensive until I did the calculation. Later we had hoped to visit the museums and see the skeleton of the last dodo bird, but it turns out that the museums close surprisingly early on a weekday, so, lacking any other destinations, we called it a day.

On the second day (our only full day in Mauritius), I went on a trip to the Ile de Deux Cocos and the nearby marine park. Our classes require that we do certain trips that relate to the curriculum; for some reason, this gave credit for my Natural Disasters class, and since I had wanted to do some snorkeling anyway, I signed up. Myself and a bunch of S@S kids took a complete cross-country bus trip, which took about an hour, and then took a short boat ride to the private island. It had a beach and an open bar with unlimited free drinks, but they were instructed not to serve any alcohol to S@S students due to an "incident" on last year's trip. The day was spent snorkeling in the marine park (lots of fish, but not as good a variety as I had seen in the USVI), eating lunch, and lounging on the beach.

When I got back, I met up with Colin again and we head out on the town. There was a lot of chatter about the casino on the waterfront, and we decided that it might be fun to waste some money there. I spent 500 MUR, which got me a big bucket of 2MUR coins. The ground floor was filled with video poker and slot machines, while the upper floor had the real card tables. We weren't allowed to go up to the top level because Colin was wearing shorts and I was wearing a hat, so I didn't get the full casino experience. But slot machines are hilarious, and I had fun with them, and it was an evening of cheap entertainment (I played until I ran out). As Colin cashed out (he finished with about half of what he started), we noticed a sign that informed us that all patrons must be 21 or above. Whoops.

We heard music as we walked out of the casino, so we followed it and found a live concert in a little waterfront amphitheater. They were playing some sort of Indian music and had some girls doing a dance in front. This was the day before Diwali, the Festival of Lights, and I think it was part of the pre-celebrations (there were a bunch of people selling fireworks nearby as well). We enjoyed the music, wandered the area a bit more (they converted a telephone booth in the middle of the waterfront into an aquarium, which was pretty cool), and headed back to the ship in a freelance water taxi for the night.

Today, I woke up early for an "Adventure Park" trip. I wasn't sure about this one, but I had heard good things about it and so I decided to give it a shot. We drove to the south-western tip of the island to the park. It was essentially a massive ropes course. The first section involved a bunch of wobbly rope bridges (we had harnesses on) over chasms of various depths. The second section was the more intense ropes course stuff. You had to swing from ropes, climb on nets, swing down ziplines, etc. to get to the next platform. It wasn't a cultural experience, but it was a ton of fun.

The second part of today's trip was a visit to Flic en Flac, a major beach area with a funny name. My group didn't spend much time on the beach, instead electing to walk up and down the coast and check out the town. We stopped at a local grocery store and got some snacks, and some of the others bought a lunch at a beachside fast-food & kebab stall. We only spent about an hour and half before we had to drive back to the ship, but it was a pleasant experience.

The deans and professors made Mauritius sound more like a vacation break than a serious educational destination, and that's ultimately how it felt, though it was still very interesting in its own ways. Our next stop is Chennai, India, which everyone makes out to be a complete horror show, and so a break beforehand was very welcome. More updates then!

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