We were already used to contemplating endless cane fields as we roamed the island from one end to the other.
It was there, between Poste de Flacq and the vastness of the ocean, that we noticed, for the first time, the profusion of piles of volcanic stone that projected from them, their bases hidden in the green vegetation.
"Is this some ceremonial ruins?" we asked Jean-François from the depths of the sweetest ignorance and innocence. "What, that?" the native asks us back, somewhat incredulous and with a sarcastic smile.
"Not. Those are the stones that our ancestors had to remove from the field so that sugarcane could be planted. They ended up piled up like that.”
We went down a little more in that Wild side of the Flacq region.
Through country and village interior roads that, among Hindu temples, small grocery stores disputed by saris of all colors, butchers and homes also gaudy and full of life, forced us to interrupt our march again and again.
The island of Mauritius that is confused with a corner of India
We were in eastern Mauritius. Any visitor more confused by the geography of the world could be led to think he had landed on the lush coastline of Karnataka or Tamil Nadu.
We passed Palmar and arrived at the bay of Trou d'Eau Douce, a picturesque but bipolar village that separates the domain below coral reefs of the large resorts from the more genuine good to the south.
There, fishermen keep their canes at the ready with only their heads above the water, side by side with the boats and catamarans that transport tourists on the crossings to Île aux Cerfs, one of the favorite turquoise bathing refuges in those places.
A series of riverside villages ensue between the Indian Ocean and the sugarcane plantations at the foot of Lion Mountain, which overhangs the emblematic Grand Port inlet.
The Landing of Portuguese Navigators and the Dutch Inevitable
In 1598, the Dutch landed in that exact place and named the island Mauritius, in honor of their Prince Maurice van Nassau.
This does not invalidate the fact that the unavoidable Portuguese navigators were the first to land there when it was still uninhabited.
Diogo Fernandes Pereira did it ninety-one years before the Dutch. He called the place Isle of Cirne but neither he nor the Crown – more concerned with the spice trade – paid much attention to it.
The Dutch, these, fixed themselves.
Even so, their colonization attempts only lasted seventy years, until 1710, long enough to be accused of the extermination of the “dodo”, the large incapable bird that proliferated in the region before the arrival of European navigators.
The stuttering Dogson from "Alice in Wonderland."
We crossed the Grand Port. It is already in a kind of tropical oven that we reach Mahébourg.
At that time, it wouldn't be necessary, but the great cathedral Notre Dame des Anges confirms who the next settlers were.
A minority of Christian inhabitants from the south of the island frequent it and the adjacent market, with the day off as it is a national holiday, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
When the French Succeeded the Dutch
Five years after the Dutch had left for good, the French arrived, who already controlled the neighboring island of Bourbon, today Reunion Island. Shortly thereafter, they called it the Île de France.
They inaugurated a prolific sugarcane crop that would forever dictate the colony's commercial success, based on a new naval base commissioned by newly arrived Governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais, Port Louis, the nation's present capital.
Mauritius was made of these curious sequences and fusions. Oddly enough, once the colonial period had passed, the nation surrendered to a delicious multi-ethnic stagnation.
We walk down a street devastated by the heat repelled by the asphalt and the infernal traffic when, unlucky enough, one of us suffers irreparable damage from a slipper.
We went into a supermarket to find a replacement pair. When we pay, the amount of alcoholic beverages registered by the cashiers is such that the private parties that would animate little could be sacred.
From the south-eastern tip of Mauritius, we can see the Blue Bay where the Indian blue returns to its most vivid.
Bois Chéri: the Abundant Tea that the British Harnessed
From there, we cut into the high interior of Bois-Chéri, the coldest and rainiest part of the island, also its first tea plantation, introduced on a considerable scale in 1892, as might be expected, no longer by the French.
It rains harder and harder as we wind through the fields carpeted by the plant. Still, dozens of workers in plastic robes work through the endless hedges.
Already too drenched, we turn around and point to the factory that receives and processes the fruit, or rather the leaves, of their work.
We are welcomed by Sunassee Goranah, a person responsible for the company's guide. He is elegant but sober, wearing a white shirt that contrasts with the dark brown of his skin and the intense black of his hair and full mustache.
With him, we toured each production sector – from dryers to sheets, to packaging – to the astonishment of the uniformed employees who no longer had visitors at that late hour.
In farewell, Sunassee again boasted the qualities of green tea and its production in particular.
When he handed us some packets for our hands, he added very dryly so that there would be no doubts: “if you want to drink it with all its properties, don't add milk to it. That's what spoils everything!"
We moved to the restaurant on the farm. We had lunch and enjoyed an exhaustive tasting of the best Bois-Chéri labels, on a porch overlooking a lake in the mist.
The French never valued tea. Unlike the next owners and lords of the island.
The Conquest of the Island by the British and the New French Colonization
By 1810, the British had grown fed up with French corsairs' attacks on their ships in the Indian Ocean, had decided to take over their greed for the rivals' colony and seize it.
As it made no sense for them to own a territory called the Île de France, they renamed it Mauritius.
However, they allowed most French settlers to keep their properties, the use of French and the French civil and penal code. Cultural fusion would not stop there.
Until 1835, plantation owners had resorted to the labor of slaves brought in from mainland Africa and from Madagascar.
The Subcontinent Workers who Indianized Mauritius
With the abolition of slavery, most of these landowners used the funds they received as compensation to hire workers from the subcontinent. Same as they did in Fiji.
Between 1834 and 1921 about half a million Indians landed at the Aapravasi Gate of Port Louis today UNESCO World Heritage for its historical significance.
Not always treated with the dignity they deserved, the newcomers adapted to the French ways and dialect that prevailed but Indianized the island as much as they could. They reinforced the British armies in both World War I and II.
Two decades later, the Winds of Change blew in Great Britain and, in 1968, Mauritius gained independence.
As we head west, we continue to come across descendants of plantation owner families and their Indian workers.
This is what happened at the viewpoint over the mighty gorge of the River Gorges, at the waterfall and at the geological rainbow of the Terre de 7 Couleurs de Chamarel, around the verdant crater of Troux-aux-cerfs.
Or on the heights of Kovil Montagne, a temple full of deities.
And of other Hindu figures perched halfway up over the endless houses of Quatre Bornes.
Later, we had dinner with Sandrine Petit and Jean-Marie Delort, both employees of one of the most popular hotels in the west of the island. The theme of what identifies the Mauritians today encourages them.
After some consideration, Sandrine dares to theorize: “now an ad for our Phoenix beer is on TV that makes a snapshot of everything, but if I had to choose a single gesture, I would say it's the hello.
We say hello for everything and for nothing, be it good or be it bad.
Once, I was on the metro in Paris with friends from here and I said hello higher. Immediately, four or five people were standing there looking at me. At that very moment, we were sure that they could only be Mauritian!”
It was too undisguised to leave us in doubt about the enormous pride with which Sandrine ended her story.