Mauritius: The Faces, worth a trip Beyond the Beaches
This is a summary of some of the faces of a nation, the wonderful faces and personalities of the people we met in the short time we were in Mauritius, and some of the stories they shared with me, or that I gathered. All images, watermarked and not, are mine.
The Young Ones
One Sunday, on the way to the Super U shopping mall in the north of Mauritius (I was told the good pickles can be found at kiosks outside shopping malls), we got lost in Grand Baie.
We stopped to ask for directions (read: re-study Google maps and look heavenward, pleadingly). There were a number of roads closed and the GPS did sound very confused.
I got out of the car to take a picture of the temple at the water, and saw these two kids playing on the rocks. I called out to them, concerned as always about chatting to random children. Far too much trouble arises when children break the rule of not chatting to strangers and letting their guard down, and it is always front of mind when I ask for a photo or watch children play.
The chattering voices turned to smiles and in front me stood: the face of Mauritius – bubbly, warm, energetic and happy. After I showed them the pic, they skipped off back to the rocks and their rambunctious games.
The Bossiest Man after my Uncle S
We planned on walking around the Pamplemousse gardens, the national Botanical garden, located centrally in the north by ourselves, having little time to spare.
We’d barely entered the park when we were sold on the services of this gentleman in the photo (face, extreme L) and what a riot our 45 minute mini tour was.
We’ve become quite accustomed to stepping into watchful observation mode when tours or activities get ‘interesting’. This tour included pop quizzes, instructions on when to take pictures – like the obedient couple surrounded by palm fronds (I draw the line at some points), and a good few old-school scoldings thrown in for good measure.
It was sort of like a science and history lesson might have been in 1980’s South Africa. And I thought my uncle S was bossy and instructive!
Locals are really fond of the Amazon lilies – they are lovely.
The statue of Pierre Poivre, the man who smuggled nutmeg and other fruit and spice trees to Mauritius from Timor is worth a stop. Poivre means pepper in French, so it all seems like it was meant to be. He became the administrator of the French colony of Mauritius in 1765.
We departed, knowing more about the plant Latin names, origins and history of the park, and bubbling with laughter at our ‘back to school’ experience. I didn’t turn back to note the expression of the couple and a Scottish plumber and his wife who were left with the guide for the remaining hour.
This is Poonam
We drove to Gris Gris in Souillac in the south, on the second last day of our stay in Mauritius, to enjoy the views and to eat at the famous Chez Rosy- Le Gris Gris restaurant.
I met Poonam Permaygon, in her mobile food kiosk in the parking lot near the viewing point at Gris Gris. And, well, we never made it to Chez Rosy after all. Poonam fed us a lunch of some of the famous Mauritian street foods, freshly prepared, calling out “Madam! Madam!” each time she had a new batch fried or rolled up.
I won’t tell you now about the first snack she served us that kept me coming back to her food truck (I’ll tell you more in a street food post), and I won’t say you should abandon Chez Rosy next door, but I will say that her strictly vegetarian street food snacks are prepared to order, and have a wonderful home-food flair.
It’s like eating at the table of your older sister (though you are effectively hanging around a parking lot). In fact, ‘sister’ is what Poonam called me when she asked for my physical address.
“To send you a postcard, if you like,” she said.
I have her address too, I should send her these pictures.
Loyal Mr Jimmy
There is a particular feeling at the 38 year old One & Only Le Saint Geran, situated in the (upper) west of the island. It is a mix of a well worn in service philosophy (you can always tell when the staff complement are in training at an establishment or not), relaxed opulence and layers of history.
The man who checked us in, Mr Jimmy (60), revealed that he had been with the hotel for 38 years, in fact he was there while it was still a building site.
As one of the first resorts to be constructed on the island, with repeat guests every year (the staff tell me), you immediately sense that the rooms must have many, many stories to tell.
“There are 10 of us left here, who started more than 30 years ago,” Mr Jimmy said. I discovered on departure, a book published by the resort honouring some of the long serving members of staff, including Mr Jimmy and sharing their stories and tips.
I looked at this man, full name Jamoonasing Bheergoonath, proud in his position, hard work and pride a part of his uniform, and asked him about his time at the hotel. Discreet and professional (could I have expected any less?), this is what he said:
1. What have been the most dramatic changes you have noticed over the years?
New technology like communication via Skype,Facebook, Twitter, the internet basically. Everyone has a laptop, computer or mobile phone now. The big renovation in 1999. The spa and Rasoi, by Vineet Bhatia the Indian restaurant which serves excellent Michelin-style food. Prime restaurant, which serves international food is another addition that changed the profile of the hotel
2. Who would you say stays at the One & Only Saint Geran?
We get a lot of celebrities, CEOs and business people, honeymooners, wedding groups, families. Lots of wealthy people, I think.
3. Which is your favourite place within the resort?
I like my front desk guest contact. I get to see a lot from here.
4. Do you remember a special stay during your time here?
Well, there have been many. I remember the ‘Look of the Year’ world beauty contest. I met some pretty participants. I also remember when former President Nelson Mandela stayed with us.
5. What will you do when you retire one day?
It would be nice to open a little business. I would like that.
Nyoman Suardi Nio, executive chef at Angsana Balaclava, on the north-west coast, showed us how to prepare the grouper (speckled rock cod, said some of my friends), that we caught in Turtle Bay, in the ‘Chinese’ style.
The fish were steamed with soy sauce, ginger, rock sugar, and hot sesame oil was poured over at the end to crisp the skin. I’d never caught any fish before, and this was a real ocean-to-plate experience for me.
I watched Chef Suardi, with his gentle manner of instruction. Sous chef Vijendra Rundun demonstrated how to make the Creole seafood vindaye, in their style – a mustard style sauce not to be confused with vindaloo of Goa.
After we cooked and ate the starter and main, pastry chefs Rika and Vishal Lutchman, a husband and wife team taught us how to make baked banana samoosas with a caramel sauce and super quick vanilla ice cream – oh, to have a pacojet in the house!
Michelin Star Struck
It was quite by luck that I came across Le Cabanon Créole: LaCaraile Exotique, a small family run gastropub, close to the apartment we rented in Black River, Tamarin.
The restaurant is along the roadside, opposite the Food Lovers market and serves simple traditional Creole cuisine as well as the food of Rodrigues island, with little elegant twists.
I was lucky to sit with the owner and chef Dimitri Evenor, a French trained chef who studied hotel management, and honed his skills at Auberge du Teillon, a Michelin 1 star restaurant, in the south of France.
“People travelled from Nice, for two hours to the restaurant, not even for lunch but just to wait outside until a table freed. It was a small village, not more than 150 people,” he shared of his experience in France.
“I wanted to take the knowledge of French plating, decoration and technique and use the Mauritian ingredients and style of cooking,” Dimitri explained of his choice to serve local and Creole food.
“For example, there is a rolled chicken thigh, stuffed with scallops served in French restaurants. This is a French technique to debone, stuff and roll. I fill the thigh with crab and smoked marlin which is popular locally, served with a curry sauce and simple greens.”
As it is a family-run business, his mother, originally from Rodrigues island, is in charge of the Creole cooking, to which Dimitri adds refinement with the condiments and sides they serve. Rodriques-themed weekends, and simple Chinese noodle lunches for busy employees who work in the area, keep the family busy.
Isabell, Dimitri’s wife is the hostess and server most days.
Additionally, guests who stay at the nearby luxury apartments, hire Dimitri to cook for them in the apartments.
When we met, Dimitri was about to leave on a cruise ship where he works for 3 month stints, serving gastronomic delights table-side to guests.
It was too late for us to hire him to cook for us, but his family continue to serve his food and to service the apartments in his absence.
+230 723 4970
Vendor, market Port Louis
She holds my arm and asks me a question when I bend down to fetch the bag of bruised herbs chopped and bagged, one of the meagre offerings placed around her feet outside the Port Louis market.
She speaks to me in Hindi, and then in Creole, I think.
I can’t understand a word. I look in her eyes, and I’m overcome by shame; I’m only buying the wilting herbs, soon to be discarded, as a means to ask to take her photo.
She wants to ask me where I am from, I can sense it. It’s the kinship of the shared features, I’ve experienced it in all over India and then in Portugal, Morocco and places where immigrant Indians and Bangladeshis find themselves.
I want to speak to her, this lady who reminds me of a grandmother, a great-aunt, a neighbour’s mother.
But we are separated by language and ships of ancestors that diverged on the seas. She smiles when I point to my camera.
I could have just taken her picture if I asked at the start.
Now, I carry a bag of herbs she must have picked and prepared early that morning, and it rasps at me with the sharp teeth of guilt. I walk away overwhelmed with a sense of many, many things.
Other Faces that Caught my Eye
These are a few more of the people I noticed and with whom I had the pleasure of interaction, some over days and others for a mere moment.
This post is affiliated to the #MyMauritius blog trip, created and managed by iambassador and AHRIM in association with the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority and Air Mauritius. Food and the Fabulous maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. For the first 5 days, I was privately chauffeured around Mauritius by ABC Car Rentals. (I know, can’t beat that!). The remainder of my stay was private. Read more on my Impressions of Mauritius here, and my story on the history of Sugar Cane here