Is Mauritius a Paradise Or a Dead Dodo?

Both Charles Darwin and Mark Twain referred to Mauritius as a heaven on earth upon arriving on its shores. Both great men visited the island in the 19th century, yet they’re quoted again and again by the tourism industry over a hundred years later. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as paradise on earth, and setting the bar that high will invariably leave you disappointed. If your destination answers your basic whims, you have to accept gracefully the imperfections you’re sure to encounter.

My laundry list of things I require for a country as a place to live: nice beaches, a warm climate, a respectable amount of modern infrastructure, and a residency permit that’s fairly easy to obtain. Mauritius seemed to pass the litmus test for all my main criteria, although in retrospect the information I could gather off the Internet painted a far too rosy picture of my future home. For all I know, I might be the first person to deviate from the formula!

Just to situate ourselves, Mauritius is an independent African democratic nation in the Indian Ocean comprised of a large main island named Mauritius, several uninhabited islets and Rodrigues, a medium-sized island 350 miles (560 km) to the east. The nearest country is Madagascar, which lies 500 miles (805km) to the west of the main island. To the south lies La RΓ©union, a French island territory. Mauritius is a popular destination for Europeans, with many flights out of London and Paris in particular. It’s not so well known in the rest of the world, and your travel path will be quite a bit longer, typically connecting through a major European airport, Johannesburg, Dubai, or Kuala Lumpur. This is a rather overpopulated little country, with about 1.3 million people, almost all crammed on the main island. Port Louis, the capital and biggest city, is a dirty town, with crumbling old buildings rubbing shoulders with the gleaming bank towers (Mauritius is an offshore banking haven). The best beaches are found on the western coast, north of the capital. The island is a mix of plains and mountains, with a central plateau. The greatest number of people are concentrated on this plateau, where the climate is several degrees cooler and a lot wetter, in a series of town stretching along the main highway that leads from Port Louis to the only airport on the eastern side of the isle.

I came to Mauritius under the Board of Investment (BOI) program that grants three year residence permits to professionals, the self-employed and investors. There’s a fair bit of paperwork and you need to undergo a full medical inspection as well as put up a 50,000 rupee (one US dollar is worth about 33.8 rupees today) guarantee at a local bank (plus 10,000 per dependent). The application itself costs 10,000 rupees and isn’t refundable, but if you follow all the steps to the letter, there shouldn’t be any problem getting your resident status quickly, as your income while you live in Mauritius is more important to them than your prior history. You’ll have to meet the minimum income and/or investment requirements for your class of permit in the first year or your resident status will be rescinded. The goals they set aren’t lofty, fortunately.

Mauritius has a rather sad history. It was uninhabited until the Dutch installed themselves in the 17th century. They abandoned the colony in 1710, but not before exterminating the poor dodos, the citadel colors flightless birds that appear in effigy everywhere in present day Mauritius. It was only five years later that the French claimed the territory, bringing with them a large number of African slaves to cultivate sugar cane. In the early 19th century, Mauritius become an important pirate base used for harassing British ships in the Indian Ocean. The English put an end to the corsairs, slavery and French rule by invading Mauritius in 1810. It was the English who brought in large numbers of indentured workers from the Indian colonies and whose descendants now form the bulk of the Mauritian population and dominate local politics. French and English are both official languages today, but Creole, a French patois, is what everybody speaks. Many Indo-Mauritians also chatter away in Bhojpuri, a dialect from their ancestral country. The Indian culture is omnipresent in Mauritius, manifesting itself in the saris commonly worn by women, the numerous Hindu temples, and the Mauritian food. Afro-Mauritians represent about 35 percent of the population and are concentrated in the southern part of the main island and are the dominant race on Rodrigues. Blacks contributed many key cultural icons, such as the Creole language, cuisine and the emblematic Sega music and dance. However, blacks don’t share equally in the country’s wealth, which has the highest per capita income in Africa. Mauritius is still a poor country although extreme poverty by no means as extensive as it is in every other African country.

Wanting to live near the best beaches, I rented a furnished townhouse in Mon Choisy, an area of the Pamplemousses district adjacent to Trou aux biches in the northwest corner of the island. The beaches here are mostly of white sand and shaded by the slender filao trees. The warm sea is shallow all the way to the barrier reef that surrounds most of the island and breaks-up the big ocean swells. Sadly, almost all the coral reef is bleached, a desolate underwater spectacle which ironically gives the ocean that turquoise color that tourists so covet. Despite this, there’s still plenty of sea life in the remaining small patches of coral and in the sea grasses. I snorkeled almost daily on one of the more quiet parts of the beach at Trou aux Biches, coming across everything from a large sea turtle to an octopus. I also had close encounters with the many commercial water skiing and hang gliding boats that speed close to shore, oblivious of the many tourists bobbing in the water. Complaining to the Mauritian coast guard won’t do you any good, as they deny there’s any problem.


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