Monday, March 17, 2008

Mauritius: Indian Ocean Paradise Lost

MAURITIUS: PARADISE LOST So there I was in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis. Our motley crew band of surfers left the cyber-cafe only to find the entire island besieged by rioters! It turns out a popular Mauritian-creole reggae singer was killed in jail by police and the people revolted, essentially turning certain regions of the island into full-on war zones! If you heard about it in the news, it is, indeed, all very true. Right before we left, all the shop owners were asking us where we were staying, warning us that "it is dangerous out there. You must be careful." I thought to myself, "what do you mean 'dangerous?' Why would they care where I was staying?" But as it turned out, they wanted to know so they could warn us about the riots. Of course, we were more interested in getting some photos of the scene. So there we were, three Americans and one Mauritian local cruising home, cameras in hand when, lo and behold, we saw the road blocks and riot police keeping order. Unfortunately, they had already finished overturning burned out cars and rock throwing. Before I go on, I guess I should offer a little insight into the social and political scene there.

SOCIAL PRESSURE COOKER Mauritius is a religious and ethnic potpourri. You've got the Indians who comprise roughly 60% of the population with the remainder made up of Creole, Chinese, and Franco-Mauritians. The bulk of the government and police force is controlled by Indians in that they all elected their own into power. The Franco-Mauritians have most of the wealth, as they control most of the sugar industry and the like. The Chinese have quite a few shops and are, for the most part, very docile. The Creoles basically get the short end of the stick by all groups given their previous history as slaves, hence the root of the problem. There was a huge rally the previous weekend held in favor of legalization of marijuana. Some big reggae singer (a Creole) was jailed soon thereafter for possession and was beaten to death by police while in custody. This naturally didn't sit well with the people, so 30 years of capped tension exploded into the worst civil rioting in as many years.

GOT MILK? The riots and looting began last week with all hell breaking loss after the initial bubble burst. It mostly took place at night, but there was some regional daytime rioting in other areas. The interesting thing about it all was that, as you may or may not know, many of the Indians are practicing Hindus. This means the cow is sacred. So guess what the rioters were using as shields? You guessed it: cows. They were using cows to shield themselves from police bullets!

As the days went on, we heard of others getting killed in police custody. And to boot, one of them was another reggae singer! That sent scores of already angry mobs into even more of a frenzy, adding to yet more nights of restlessness, rioting, and looting! I heard a story from one guy who had a tear gas canister fired by police whiz by his head as he was running.

CREOLE BY ACCIDENT OF BIRTH While I don't condone rioting and looting, I am sympathetic to the Creoles. They really are a wonderful bunch of people, but seem the unfortunate and unwilling recipients of the short end of the social stick. I've only had positive experiences with them and could never understand why they were so vehemently persecuted! Maybe it's an Indian/Creole thing beyond my comprehension. It shouldn't be, but it is. Doesn't matter where you go, ignorance, racism, prejudice, and unfounded hatred are everywhere.

SOUTH AFRICA OR BUST The morning of my flight, I heard from the locals that rioting was at a fever pitch. Most said not to go anywhere, but hey, I had a flight to South Africa to catch. Cruising along the local road out of Tamarin, I could feel the tension and believe me, it was palpable. No rioting or anything, but I was legitimately concerned we weren't going to make it to the highway. Somehow we did make it to the main highway and from there it was smooth sailing. If we would have taken the back way, we would have gone through a little town called Curepipe in which, as I heard, the rioting was quite heavy.

I LIVED A CHAPTER OF MAURITIUS' HISTORY The other day I was reading the local newspaper here in Durban (South Africa) when what to my surprise should I see but a whole article on the riots. Turns out that it was the worst rioting the island has seen in over three decades (ignorance is bliss!). And 30 years ago was when the island changed ownership. So that's pretty bold, and lucky me, I was there just in time to score perfect waves at the fabled Tamarin Bay AND the worst rioting in 30 years! Somebody buy this man a lottery ticket!!

The night before I left, I sold my board to Julien, a local Tamarin Bay Mauritian. Boards are hard to come by there, and the ones they do have for sale are overpriced junk. We reached a mutually agreeable price and made the deal. It was good for both of us; he now has a good board and I didn't have to carry it to South Africa.

MAURITIAN CHEESE GRATER I thought my recent impaling on the reef with resultant torn left butt cheek and low back was bad until Julien lifted up his shirt. The poor kid looked like a cheese grater went over his back from just below his shoulder blades all the way down to his low back! He was dragged over the reef in the worst kind of way! It kept him out of the water for a few days, too. It's not difficult to get hurt at Tamarin. It is, spare none, one of the shallowest waves I've surfed. It's generally pretty shallow all over, but the thing that makes it all the more dangerous is the volume of coral heads that jut up all over the place. I was literally pulled off my board and under water when my leash wrapped around one just as a wave was approaching, quite literally pinning me underwater. I fortunately had the presence of mind to unfasten my leg-rope and swim to the surface. And to further illustrate the shallow depth, I was sitting all the way out in seemingly deep water waiting for set waves!

THE RULES If you ever come to Mauritius, there are a few things to remember: 1) RESPECT for the locals. It's their break and you are just a visitor. You take a number and work your way into the line up. No paddling straight for the peak; 2) Don't fall on the inside or the reef will filet you like a set of Ginsu knives; 3) Bring reef booties because the inside is carpeted with urchins, big and small ones. I have never seen anywhere so well covered with them; 4) A Gath Helmet (brain bucket) is a damn good investment for dead low tide Tamarin; 5) A complete first aid kit because it's only a matter of time until you donate skin to the reef or get spiked by an urchin. The place is carpeted with them. You cannot avoid it. Everybody gets spanked sometime or another....and it hurts!

William Sukala is a consumate world traveler, adventurer, and writer boasting a passport full of stamps. Instead of settling into a humdrum 9 to 5 existence like the rest of his contemporaries, he decided to pack up, sell everything off, and do a year-long 360 around the globe after graduate school. His travels have taken him to such far off exotic locales as Australia, Mauritius, Mozambique, and French Polynesia. He now lives in New Zealand and works as a self-employed clinical exercise physiologist while working on his PhD. Visit him at: or via his current travelogue found at


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