Before the plane touched down, I was well aware that my former home of Mauritius may have changed in the past two decades. To me, it had never been the postcard-perfect paradise of the tourist brochures - the Mauritius of my memories was all about cyclone warnings, convent school, black magic, chili-slathered street food, biker boyfriends and teenage misdemeanours.
I'd missed the island, located off the southeast coast of Africa, a lot and it wasn't just nostalgia. I'd missed the people, their generosity and their humour. The islanders of my memory were the salt of the earth. But, as I'd been told by my Chinese-Mauritian relatives, things had changed. Nobody could put their finger on it. People seemed tired, more skeptical, more dissatisfied…
After a couple of days with rose-tinted specs, I couldn't help but notice changes myself. It was the little things. A taxi driver tried to charge me way over the odds - "It's nothing to you," he said sullenly. Market traders, in the past a fount of non-stop cheeky banter, seemed harder-nosed than before, more focused on making a sale. And, everywhere we went, people obsessed about crime - pickpocketing, knife attacks, bag grabs from mopeds …
If it seemed a different country - a million miles away from the blueprint for paradise alluded to in Mark Twain's late-19th-century travelogue Following the Equator, a literary reference that has sent affluent tourists in pursuit of the ultimate dream holiday.
Could it be that decades of trying to live up to this impossible image of perfection were taking their toll on the island? Taking the national pulse from newspaper headlines such as: "Deprived of our public beaches" (on the growing numbers of private beaches on the best waterfront property) and "Heartbreak Hotel" (an article on the "myopia and greed" of national tourism policy), it seemed that the country might buckle under the pressure of maintaining an image at odds with its social and environmental realities.
Local oceanographer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo has been especially vocal about the "vampirical" effect of the tourism industry. His independent studies have shown damage to the island's delicate coral reef, wrought by snorkelers, divers, water skiers, jet skiers, pollution and hotel waste. His strong views are popular among islanders.
Most locals can but look on in silent frustration as visitors jet-ski on the coral reef, unwind on ever-expanding stretches of exclusive beach and enjoy the island's choicest fish, fruit and vegetables. Many are starting to feel like trespassers in their own country. It's a phenomenon that has sparked the usually laid-back Mauritians to action, with the creation of a movement against private projects on public spaces, led by activist Georges Ah-Yan.
Fuelling that support is the fact that wealth from the tourism industry has not trickled down to the masses, while pressure on resources has increased the cost of living. At Port Louis's bustling food market, vendors say people eat more chicken now that local fish has become too expensive. "We're finding it harder to get fish like marlin and spade fish - it's all going to the hotels," Tasslim Lindor says. Bream has almost doubled in price - up from 35 rupees a pound to 60 rupees - in the space of three years. With overfishing now a recognized problem, locals and hotels are competing for dwindling stocks.
Yet the island's reliance on tourism (with the decline of the sugar cane and textile industries) is set to get bigger. This year, 915,000 visitors are expected and the question now is how the sector can be sustained.
"Many Mauritians now see the tourist as a big purse," Kauppaymuthoo says. "They still smile at the tourists, but it's no longer a genuine smile."
There's a growing realization that pressure on both the environment and society needs to be relieved. Barely five years ago, the country's Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam, said he wanted the country to welcome two million tourists a year by 2015 - an incredible figure for the densely populated island of 1.2 million inhabitants. But recently, official talk has turned to ecotourism and cultural tourism in the island's interior. A trickle of tourists is moving from the packed beaches to the island's mountains, waterfalls and forests for activities such as hiking and horseback riding. Not only are they doing less harm to the coastal environment, they are also buying from local businesses and, equally important, meeting local people.
Patrick Guimbeau was one of the first to see the potential of ecotourism on the island. A descendent of the island's original French colonizers, and director-general of Groupe Saint Aubin, Guimbeau developed a niche in artisanal products and agro-tourism. Saint Aubin's tea route, located in the Savanne district in the south of the island, walks tourists through the island's history, visiting colonial buildings, plantations and a tea factory.
As Guimbeau explains it, when the sugar industry started going belly up, many plantation owners sold their properties, eliminating an important source of employment. The diversification into tourism has helped to maintain the local economy, he says.
Glancing around the sophisticated tea salon, situated atop a breezy plateau with breathtaking views over a lovingly tended landscape of fat vacoas trees and emerald plantations, it's clear that Saint Aubin is aimed squarely at the high end of the tourism market. Could this be described as the real Mauritius? Bristling slightly, Guimbeau says visitors to the plantation drink the same tea as Mauritians.
For the locals, eco and cultural tourism is preferable to the all-inclusive resorts that keep visitors locked in their beach bubble. In the nearby village of Grand Bois residents want more tourists to experience their a dusty capsule of Mauritian rural life, with noisy bone-rattling mopeds, women dressed in brightly coloured saris and no shortage of ban lisien marron (stray dogs).
Cooking up island specialties - gâteaux piment (fried chili snacks) and dipin frire (fried battered bread) - in a pan of hot oil, Vina Boodhun says foreigners often stop by to ask directions to the tea route, sometimes sitting down to eat, drink and chat.
Farther to the west, by the sacred waters of Grand Bassin, a Hindu prayer site, a group of tourists light incense sticks and lay offerings of food by the water. The mother offers a banana and a piece of coconut, telling the story of the divine family - Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh and Skanda - all housed in a glass display by the water. Under a cloudy sky, the water looks murky.
It's not the version of paradise that most tourists are chasing, but perhaps the time has come to let go of the clichés. Contrary to popular belief, the well-worn Twain reference: "… you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius" - wasn't even uttered by the writer. In typically pithy form, he was actually relaying the overblown views of an opinionated islander.
The real Mauritius, the one he wrote about, is a far more complex and fascinating place than any brochure could convey.
Special to The Globe and Mail
IF YOU GO
St. Aubin A romantically decorated turn-of-the-century Creole house in the south of the island, with swimming, cycling and horse-riding on offer. From $120, includes breakfast. Saint Aubin, Rivière des Anguilles; 230-626-1513; www.saintaubin.mu
Mon Choix This ecolodge, in a seven-acre protected park in the Vallée des Prêtres near Port Louis, offers tourists the chance to discover some of the island's mountainous countryside. From $94 (double occupancy), includes breakfast. La Maison de Vallée des Prêtres, Senneville; 230-760-0836; www.ecomauritius.com
The Pallagino Residence A private beach guest house at Flic en Flac beach that offers visitors a gastronomic adventure. Owner and in-house chef Sandy Daswani specializes in Mauritian cuisine. From $132, includes full breakfast and three-course meal. 130 Avenue des Oies, Morcellement de Chazal; 230-495-5448; www.feastofmauritius.com
- Many tourists tend to flock to the postcard-perfect beaches in the north of the island, but a trip inland on one of the rickety buses is thoroughly recommended as a means of getting to know the island and its people.
- Spring visitors are urged to try strawberry guava picking at Plaine Champagne, the highest point of the island's central plateau, situated in Black River Gorges National Park. The 6,574 hectare park contains much of the country's remaining indigenous forests, providing excellent opportunities for hiking and bird watching. Endangered bird species like the Mauritius Kestrel and the Pink Pigeon can be found on the reserve. Visits can be combined with a trip to Chamarel, at the heart of the Black River district, featuring dunes of volcanic ash in seven colours.
- Grand Bassin, toward the south of the island, is the sacred lake of the island's Hindu population. Every year, thousands of Hindus from all over Mauritius converge there for an annual pilgrimage prior to the Maha Shivaratri festival.
- The old fishing town of Mahébourg, in the southeastern coast of the island, is a visual feast of sun-faded colonial architecture, featuring the Historical Naval Museum which recounts the epic battles between the French and the British in the early 19th century.
Eating out in Port Louis
Lai Min is the island's oldest restaurant, established in 1946. Specialities include sea cucumber and bird's nest soup. 58 Route Royale; 230-242-0042