Happiness for one

Newly single Neil McQuillian braves Mauritius, world HQ of the newlywed. Beyond the romantic resorts, he finds the island’s real heart

Vats cloudy formaldehyde. Sickly blue strip lighting. A certain musty tang to the air. Mauritius’ king of the dead had a creepy lair, all right. But where was the little rascal? Padding around chamber after chamber in vain, I peered this way and that, Indiana Jones-style, as I pursued my fevered mission through the diminutive Natural History Museum, a custard-coloured colonial villa amid palms in the thrumming island capital, Port Louis.

I passed displays of stuffed fish and shells. I paused by wooden cabinets of tortoises and butterflies. And I was about ready to chuck in the towel when I turned a corner and finally, there it was, as promised in my guidebook, with its unmistakable beaky silhouette. In full morbid majesty, for one eternity only: a dodo! A real-life, dead-as-a-dodo dodo. OK, this dumpy dark lord hadn’t actually snuffed it. Nor was it real-life; the exhibit was man-made. But at this moment, a lonely museum geek on holiday in Mauritius, I wasn’t about to be picky. As I pressed my forehead against the glass cabinet, a museum attendant shuffling nervously, I gazed longingly into the feathery lump’s beady eye and felt a warm connection.

As I said, I was lonely. But how had it come to this? Me, having a moment with extinction’s poster bird in the tumbledown capital rather than lounging on a paradise shore, scampering into the blue Indian Ocean and drying off over coconut drinks like a normal person, ie with my other half, the two of us blissfully just married.

Thing is, I’d had a better half. At least until the month before the big Mauritius trip when, abruptly, for our anniversary, she’d dumped me, a calamity that triggered a spiral of regression: days off work watching Eighties snooker championships on YouTube. Dinners of Findus Crispy Pancakes. Bon Jovi. Such was my state after a couple of weeks, I realised that solo or not, for survival’s sake, I’d better go – even if I only ended up rueful under a parasol, the days disappearing groggily out to sea, the setting sun calling time on my woes.

Residence terrace in Mauritius
Residence terrace in Mauritius

The last place I wanted to be was in a bright, buzzy nightclub-with-rooms kind of hotel, but luckily mine turned out to be The Residence, a slender-silhouetted, tropical temple of peaceful luxury on the soft-and-sandy east coast. Modelled on Mauritian plantation houses, it was all airy open-sidedness, the ocean breeze breathing in and out of its teak, taupe and white interiors, caressing the louvred shutters, eddying around the tropical hardwood easy chairs. Palms on the beach bowed to me. The glistening pool winked at me. I like to think one or two of the staff did, too. It was all colonial nostalgic and pleasingly un-now. I so didn’t need ‘now’ right now.

Settling in amid the rattan and ceiling fans, I crumpled into a snooze, lulled by the soft static of the distant Indian Ocean. That evening passed in blissful solitude, with lots of room service and channel-surfing. And next morning, the view from my room was promising: pale sand, turquoise waters and little else. But no sooner had I broken cover than they were upon me… The Honeymooners. Three Spanish couples I’d spotted coming off my flight – blatant newlyweds, all hips bumping, arms floppily coiling. Before long these six sultry figures were everywhere, blocking the spa reception in angelic white robes, or hogging the stools in the bar and giggling conspiratorially. Tucked in a discreet corner of the lounge, I quickly learned to converse with the barman by way of John McCririck-esque gesturing. The Spaniards and I had an understanding, too. We ignored each other.

Still, after 72 hours, I was desperate for a day away, beyond these loved-up shores. The barman read my mind. There’s plenty more outside, he said. Start at the capital, Port Louis, 40 minutes’ drive away: it’s the real Mauritius. And please bring me back some of those tasty dhal fritters: gâteaux piments. Next morning, I met my new-best-friend driver, fiftysomething Sunil, and was out of there before the honeymooners had even woken.

Coconut trader selling on his bike
Coconut trader selling on his bike

The Mauritian capital fizzed with life. In the streets around Central Market, where Sunil set me down, traders and shoppers swarmed like worker bees. The very fabric of the city – the masonry, hoardings, rusting drainpipes – seemed on the cusp of collapse, just about holding it together, but defiant with it. It sounded like me, and I liked to think I’d found an urban ally: partners in grime! True, I was pining for my ex, but at the same time – for the first time in a month – I felt invigorated.

She wouldn’t have left her lounger for this excursion in a million years. And she’d have frowned at the Natural History Museum, thus depriving me of my great geeky session with the dodo. Nor, had we been together, would we have found the dinky nearby Blue Penny Museum, where I got to gaze longingly upon the 19th-century Two Penny Blue stamp – one of the rarest in world.

She’d have loved the food, though. Back out in the streets, women in voluminous robes sat like melting Buddhas, bags of nuts spread for sale around them. In the doorway of a flaking building, a girl flicked something into bags that she twisted and tied with well-versed wrists and fingers. It was like approaching a campfire at the mouth of a cave as I stepped closer to find the gâteaux piments I’d kept an eye open for: little falafel-style balls glistening with flecks of onion and chilli embedded in them like glass shards. I bought three for 20 cents and – with apologies to my man at The Residence – wolfed them all down. I followed them up, at a nearby stall, with dholl puri: a thick pancake rolled around mushy split peas and a tomato sauce not unlike spicy pizza topping. A sprinkling of dried coconut within gave it a lovely crumbly contrast, all for a slightly more expensive 30 cents. And to finish? Something very sweet indeed…

Sugar cane crops along the island's roads
Sugar cane crops along the island’s roads

In weakening sun, the late-afternoon air smelled of caramel on the drive back to the hotel across the great central plateau. It was a sea of towering sugar cane, a crop anciently tended by African slaves, later by Indian workers. At times the growth huddled so close to the road, we might have been racing along a sky-roofed, green-walled corridor. Now and then, chimneys of volcanic stone marked out processing plants, mostly disused. “They’re kept as monuments,” said Sunil, who once worked the fields with his family. Pulling over, he showed old skills, whittling to a soft nib a length of stalk wrenched from the soil. As I sucked on it like an ice lolly, its nectar was as sweet and flowing as watermelon juice.

The next day passed in a similarly sticky blur: refreshments and solitude at The Residence, watching lovers gliding across the pearly sands or playing chess in fat wicker chairs below the resort’s teak rafters. That night,

I looked up from a lone lounger on the sands, as pinprick stars shone through a milk-haze of cloud, pondering the meaning of life, love and the loneliness of existence

Eventually I came back to Earth and decided to give thanks to the sugar-cane workers by sampling some of the by-products of their harvests. Between polishing glasses, my buddy, the barman, brought me free gâteaux piments, which was nice of him given that he never got so much as a whiff of his share from town.

It was good, but I was chuffed it wasn’t a patch on the city’s version: real street food. Yep, I was ready to go local again. Destination, next morning: Aapravasi Ghat, a very special site on the western coast, which Sunil couldn’t wait to take me to. UNESCO-listed, it was no Machu Picchu – just a dry, barren, semi-derelict compound. Yet almost 70% of Mauritians proudly trace their ancestry to this place. In the warm air I explored alone, my only soundtrack the buzz of arrivals and departures drifting over from nearby Port Louis bus station. As I wandered, interpretation boards planted in the ground told the amazing story of Aapravasi. The clue’s in the translation: it means ‘immigration depot’ in Hindi.

Here, the first indentured workers from India disembarked in the mid-19th century, after the Empire phased out slaves on the Mauritian sugar plantations. Britain’s ‘Great Experiment’, the shift to ‘free’ labour, kick-started an economic revolution, as millions from the colonies took to the seas for opportunities abroad. I stood amid the ruins and closed my eyes, trying to imagine the half-million individuals who, between 1849 and 1923, clambered up the ghat’s 14 dockside steps in search of a fresh start. I felt a tingle, the ghosts of old arrivals milling around me. Beginning a new life in Mauritius once meant a lot more than having a honeymoon.

I’d have happily begun a new life here myself, I reflected, as my last days drifted into one – even if no right-minded honeymooner was ever going to want me as a BFF.

Morne Brabant is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Morne Brabant is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Whatever. The island’s enduring appeal lay beyond, in the physical beauty: the endless blonde sands, the little breeze-block homes along winding, sun-flickering ways, painted in pastel shades, festooned with Day-Glo bougainvillea. But also in the way such vivid cultural differences could cram into an island the size of Tenerife. The last day, Sunil followed the road southwest and, on a short stretch, the places of worship went: temple, church, temple, church. Near one of those churches, women in saris washed clothes in a stream. Then, round the corner, I came upon a Chinese grocer’s. When we reached Morne Brabant, the southwesternmost peninsula, I paid homage to escaped slaves who hid on its stumpy mountain. It’s still home to many Mauritians of African descent today.

Meeting the island’s most intriguing residents, though, was reserved for last, on magical Ile aux Aigrettes, an islet just off the southeastern coast

It’s managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, which is turning it into a microcosm of the island of some 400 years ago – that is, pre-man, pre-extinction, and definitely pre-honeymooners. Here, invasive species are being eliminated, endemic ones coaxed back to rude health: geckos and gnarled giant tortoises and bois de rat, a wood with the scent of putrid rodents when it rots.

Once again I was in geeky-schoolboy heaven. I jumped at slinking skinks, grimaced at enormous fruit bats wrapped in their wings like horror-movie chrysalises, and learned how the dodo was wiped from the big memory card in the sky when rats from early sailors’ ships made off with their eggs. Most of all, I was taken with Ile aux Aigrettes’ ungainly rose-tinged pigeon, a rare, distant cousin of the dodo. The one I encountered flapped around me like a prototype, as if striving to stay airborne.

I watched the bird struggle over the whoosh of the waves. I thought of what I’d left behind in England; what I’d be going back to. And something clicked. I felt the thrill of survival. A fresh start. My progress was going to be about as smooth as that pink pigeon’s, but from today, I’d be stronger: a pink phoenix from the ashes, no dodo from the dumping. And so I returned to The Residence, to meet and mingle, perhaps, for one special last night.

Neil McQuillian/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing