A “culture shock” is a strong reaction to have for a place, sometimes it is a bad thing and in others it is just a case of simply being immersed in a culture that is alien to your own. I experienced this recently when we arrived in Mauritius but thankfully it was a case of never having been there before. We soon became settled and absolutely loved the island, so let me tell you a story about one particular area we encountered and how we ended up helping some of these people at a time of personal loss.
The journey from an airport to your actual destination, can often be an interesting experience. I can recall many such drives, bus rides and taxi rides through places such as Naples, another one of those locations that is a little “shocking” at first but then you soon see the dilapidated beauty slowly turn into breathtaking scenery and all is right with the world again. On the flip-side, definitely one of the highlights of that trip, was seeing Vesuvius for the very first time. Indeed each of these drives features such moments of recognition. Pisa to Sienna, spotted the Leaning Tower from a distance as you head out of the airport to the autostrada. Lisbon, we got to drive over Vasco da Gama Bridge (the longest bridge in Europe) twice, as we headed South. You begin to appreciate the world more and what human beings have achieved when building extraordinary things.
In Mauritius we were collected from the wonderfully named Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport (I had to look that up to ensure correct spelling here and named after their first Prime Minister post-independence) by a very friendly taxi driver who told us a load of facts about the island. The drive usually takes about 1 hour up towards the North Western end of the island, the area known as Pointe aux Piments (peppers).
The journey was mostly rural to begin with, as we caught glimpses of the stunning scenery, sugar cane fields, isolated properties and lots of other agricultural land with other crops being grown. The first major town we came to, as the road bypassed many others, was Port Louis, the capital city. We then headed out of Port Louis and were drawing closer to our destination, it was here that the landscape started to change, a stunning vista across a vast plain, backed by sharp craggy looking mountains, stretched out for miles. It seemed endless and there was a dramatic sky which will stick in my mind forever. I was half tempted to ask the driver to stop, so that I could take a photo but we were already hours behind schedule and conscious of getting to the hotel for showers and freshening up. I must say I was running on adrenalin because I stayed up for hours later and had been awake for 36 hours without any sleep.
It was when we reached a small neighbourhood made of pieces of corrugated iron and tin roofs, that my perceptions were truly tested. That was my culture shock moment. It was like we were in the depths of Africa (and Mauritius is technically an African island) that I found myself drawing parallels with the “Townships” of South Africa, purely based on what I had seen on documentaries. This however was nothing like that, nowhere near the scale of such places but nonetheless, these houses were built mostly out of sheet metal and some breeze blocks. I noted that there wereone or two that had been “improved” beyond the bare basics and were at least made from breeze blocks with windows added. Some even had a top floor. Outside each there were countless dogs, basking in the sun, sitting under the shade of a tree, idling the time. Washing lines erected on wooden poles that we later realised were made out of wood gathered from Banyan trees, which are abundant on the island. People were busy everywhere, harvesting food, catching their dogs, talking to each other, cycling on rickety bikes, driving old (rather dented) cars and just getting on with life. There certainly was a lot going on and I was truly fascinated by it. I would like to learn more about the people and their lives.
Minutes later we arrived at our beautiful hotel – I shall write about that in another post for fear of losing the context of this piece but I mention it because, it is at least relavent to this article.
It made me think. We had driven through a poor area and that we live in a world where we can have too many things and we can keep on “having”. A little piece of our world had been planted on this beautiful island, within barely a mile of the people who have lived here for centuries. People who don’t have a lot but have enough to live off the land that they have been born into. They perhaps need nothing more and I must add that sanitation is very good in Mauritius, so what seems ramshackle is still miles better than the way some people live in other parts of the world, casting my mind back to those townships I was referring to earlier.
A lot happened over the following weeks and we made friends with people, from all walks of life, most of whom are from our kind of background. Mauritius is a country on the rise with a huge amount being invested in FinTech businesses due to the country being a tax haven. It is also a popular country for IT outsourcing, as we met a guy who works in that field of business, as well as a lady who is Director of a financial company. We met her on our flight down and it turned out that she lived just down the road from our hotel. So we made some entrepeneural friends whilst on holiday. We all had quite a bit in common and we will visit them again when we return to Mauritius in the future.
One of our new friends Kim, had driven us over to visit some other people we had met in a town called Rose Hill. It was this evening we encountered a tragedy on our way back to the hotel. We saw for the fist time during our stay, 4 fire engines go charging down the road we needed to turn down and then we saw smoke. Kim commented that it was more than likely a deliberate Sugar Cane fire, as the farmers burn their crops around November. However that was not to be the case, as we turned the corner and caught up with the fire crew, it became rapidly evident that it was a house fire. One of the tin houses that we drove past on that first day, was ablaze, a spark inside had very quickly started a fire and the heat inside would have been extremely hot. Luckily the family had all escaped. In seconds they lost all of their belongings inside. It was horrid to see. A large group of people were standing on the other side of the road whilst the fire crew were taking control of the situation. The family naturally were distraught, with tears running down their cheeks. Kim was also very upset, because she knew the people and it was then that we got to learn more about them. That night neither my wife Tina nor I slept very well, the images of the fire were playing on our minds.
The following week we heard via Kim, that the fire had been caused by an electrical fault and that one of the sons was already beginning to rebuild the home and was trying to work harder, to earn more money to pay for a new roof. Kim and her family came up with a plan to help them out, to see if enough people could donate some cash. All they needed was equivalent to £300 to complete the work. It would need to be done before the monsoon season at the latest.
We were due to head home at this point, with just 3 more days left and we donated a fair chunk of our remaining Rupees to help them and that brings my story full-circle. I couldn’t recall which house it was now but it was one of the first I had seen on that taxi ride from the airport. I still think about them to this very day. The next time we visit Mauritius, I hope to see that this enterprising young man, may have perhaps introduced another floor to their new house, like a phoenix from the ashes.I hope that this time there will be more breeze blocks and less tin.