(+230) 263 9602
Jardin de la Compagnie
Black River Coffee
Jules Koenig St
Nelson Mandela Square
(+230) 213 6846
by T. N. Toost
You’ve travelled for twelve hours from London, overnight, to Mauritius, three time zones away, spending £1,000 or so, only to get in a taxi and pay £30 to be driven for an hour to the opposite side of the island from the airport. You’re staying in a walled-in resort with beaches that are inaccessible to the locals, with a herd of other tourists who act as if they are allergic to the sun, and to physical activity, and to doing anything other than drinking Phoenix lager and eating fish and chips while yelling at their overweight children about not going too far into water for fear that they will be pulled under by a rip current and taken miles out and drown, ignoring the fact that their own native diet has rendered them each so plump and buoyant that the entire 1943 German Fleet would struggle to sink them. You watch them, braying and throwing litter past their distended stomachs onto the otherwise pristine white sand, complaining about how things in this damn country just don’t work, and you feel bad about judging them because to the locals you must appear so similar, but you want to distance yourself as much as possible from them whilst still maintaining somewhat cordial relations, since, you are constantly reminded, they are members of your extended family, and you have two weeks left of their shit.
You, however, are more adventurous. And you’re hungry for breakfast. You could do worse than go to the Sunset Cafe in Grand Baie, where you can get an English breakfast – not full, but close – with fresh eggs, bacon, sausage, a tomato and toast, for about £8. An espresso – or four, as I had – costs an extra £6, but you don’t have to tip in Mauritius, and you can eat the whole thing while looking over that grand, grand bay, with its teal water and clean, bobbing boats, and then you can walk around the corner to charter a catamaran to bring you to some other, smaller island.
You could take a Triolet express bus to Port Louis for about 80p, which will take 45 minutes. If you sat behind the driver, you would smell years of accumulated oil and grease coming out of the seat, and your body would vibrate with the ancient Chinese engine, making you wonder why the girls all sit in the back. The driver would swerve around moving cars, speed up, slow down, stop dramatically, almost hit bikers and pedestrians and brick walls, then finally deposit you in the back of the Port Louis bus center next to an intricately decorated Hindu temple that wouldn't be out of place in the subcontinent. You might then walk up and down narrow one-way streets past vendors selling CDs and handkerchiefs and name brand shirts, across the central mall, around and through old colonial buildings, and find yourself opposite the Natural History Museum under ancient banyan trees, their aerial roots dripping like candle wax. You might walk through the park and into the dark marketplace, through clothes hanging like curtains from the ceiling, to the far side of the building, where you would find Chez Ally. Two women would be cooking in the back, and two or three men would be standing in the front, taking orders, spooning together dhal puris
, making change and small talk and handing over food. For 60p you’d get two dhals and two samosas; if you’re still hungry, you can get back in the queue that is constantly being replenished with hungry Mauritians.
Freshly fooded, you might then walk to the Port Louis Theater – it’s only five minutes away, behind the government buildings. It has been shuttered for years, but if you’re lucky, the caretaker would see you and invite you to take a tour. Founded in 1822, it’s an old, beat up colonial building; standing on the stage, you might imagine an audience of powdered concubines and their officers, who received their first commissions from Napoleon himself. The piano on the stage would still be in tune, even if the seats are no longer bolted to the ground. Exit the theater and, to your left, you’ll see a small chalkboard proclaiming prices for Black River Coffee. You could enter and see an impossibly beautiful woman working on an Apple MacBook Air, occasionally going outside to smoke, drinking coffee, greeting customers, and talking in low tones to the men preparing fish behind the counter. Imagine ordering an espresso; the beans are all from South Africa, imported especially by her. I know, I know, in Mauritius they grow and drink tea. However, this is the first cafe on the island promoting what she calls “coffee culture,” which she might mention briefly. Ask her about it, because you don’t know what else to talk to her about, and she’s so beautiful and speaks with such a lilted accent and smouldering passion that you don’t want her to stop. Leave, for an appointment with your tailor, Mahmoud Affejee, feeling as if you made an impression, as if she’ll remember you later.
Go to Mahmoud and get fitted. Pick the fabric, tell them what you want, and negotiate the price, because everything is negotiable on this island. Set up a time for the second fitting, when they mark you up with chalk and you’ll feel like you’re in a Dunhill advertisement
, except in a tropical, windowless storefront instead of some London parlor.
Walk up the street and get tea and sweets. The locals would notice you trying to decide what you want and will help you choose, which makes you feel strangely rushed, as if you’re not supposed to feel like that on the island. Then, buy an individual cigarette from the man behind the counter, and smoke them inside, feeling rebellious. Step back out and buy some straw bags on the street, or clothes, or fabric; buy cowbone rings, pineapples, another samosa, or fresh-mixed fizzy drinks. Then try to find your bus home – the pickup point changes hourly, it seems – and ride back the same way you came. Enter the private beach compound once more, and realize that if you tell everyone where you have been and what you have seen, they will all bleat inanities about your sanity and ask if you were mugged, or raped, or murdered, because you can’t trust these people, they’re not like you, it’s just not civilized, and for the rest of your trip you should stay behind your stone walls and pretend you’re better than everyone else.