Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Botanical Gardens of Mauritius

25 November 2017

Last week, I went to the botanical gardens in the area of Pamplemousses (pronounced pam-pleh-MOO-sez, the French word for grapefruits).  The official name is the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, and no, I'm not sure how to pronounce his name.  I do know that he was the first Prime Minister of Mauritius, and later on became the Governor General.  

The gardens go back to the time of the French being in power in Mauritius.  In 1736, the French governor, Mahé de Labourdonnais, set up his residence in the area of the current gardens.  In 1767, the French administrator Pierre Poivre brought in plants from all over the world, predominantly fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Many of the spices that Poivre brought in are still growing in the spice garden of the current gardens.  The French continued to expand the botanical gardens, adding broad avenues lined with trees for walking, and establishing various ponds for waterlilies and lotus plants.

During the British administration, the gardens were neglected for a bit, but eventually were revived in 1849, and the collection of palm trees was initiated.

The current name, honoring Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was added on 18 September 1988, the 88th birthday of this illustrious leader.

The botanical gardens cover 33 hectares of land, or 81.5 acres.  Here is their website, if you want more information:

So, I went with a lovely young Dutch couple we met at our first hotel in Mauritius, in the Pointe aux Piments area.  (North of Port Louis, the capital, and right on the coast.)  We stopped at a café and picked up takeaway sandwiches and water, and eventually had our lunch in one of the pretty little gazebos in the gardens.

We wandered around, enjoying the lovely day - sunny but not too hot, and with a decent breeze.  It was very uncrowded in the gardens, quiet and peaceful most of the time.  And surprisingly not buggy, although when we wandered off the paths I did get a few insect bites.  (But I tend to be a mosquito magnet.)

Some favorite spots:  there were two lotus ponds, one with pink blossoms and one with white.  They were large ponds, and the lotuses seems to stretch on forever, with the gorgeous blossoms standing tall and proud.

The largest pond, though, had the giant waterlilies we had seen in the Amazon River basin, and these had been imported from there some two centuries ago.  The leaves were huge and healthy, giant green round platters with a reddish lip covered in spines.  I'm not sure if I mentioned the life cycle of these waterlilies when we were in Brazil - the flowers bloom a very pale pink, almost white but just a tinge of pink.  Overnight, they turn purple.  And on the third day, they begin to die and sink into the water, where the seeds begin a new plant to renew the life cycle of the giant waterlilies.  I find it amazing that the leaves grow so huge and last a long while, but the lovely delicate flower has a lifespan of three days.

There were many huge trees, probably at least two or three hundred years old, most likely some of the original trees in these gardens.  The kind of trees that would carry a "Notable Tree" sign in New Zealand.  The trees that could maybe be encircled by three or four adults holding hands - or maybe even bigger than that!  I do love the notable trees, they seem so peaceful and wise.  I know, most people don't find wisdom in trees.  What can I say, I do.  I see Ents, and Gandalf, and Druids, and Demeter and Persephone.  I see the homes of the Dryads, and maybe Artemis visiting her tree friends.  Daphne turned into a laurel tree.  I feel the history of humans and their relationship with trees, and Gaea, Mother Earth, and our need to name and personify and anthropomorphise everything.  All of that is embodied in ancient trees.  So yes, these centuries-old trees connect us to our combined histories, and hold wisdom in their beings.

We looked for the spice garden, but for some reason it was fenced off and locked up.  The husband of the couple I was with is a chef in Amsterdam, and he wanted to see the various spices growing.  We found a cinnamon tree with fragrant leaves, smelling lightly of cinnamon and maybe something fruity.  And a clove tree, with the cloves standing at attention like small dark spiky flowers.  There were also various fruit trees that we couldn't quite identify - maybe quince or persimmon?  Definitely various kinds of mangoes, which I quickly avoided.

I think my favorite, though, was a nameless little tree, growing next to something with a sign.  Okay, it isn't nameless, it just didn't have a sign with a name so I had to do a bit of research.  Looks like this is a Picara, also known as a Chinese Croton.  Scientific name is Excoecaria Cochinchinensis.  This gorgeous plant has bright green leaves, something like a ficus tree, but the underside of the leaves is a bright red, like a lacquer red - absolutely beautiful on a breezy day!  I have no idea what kind of climate they need, but they would be wonderful in a home garden - just loved them!

There were little architectural features scattered around the gardens - a stone bridge covered in ferns, little gazebos like the one we picnicked in, and a lower bridge crossing a stream that runs through the gardens.  There were also numerous stone-lined canals presumably draining any overflow water from the various ponds, and perhaps bringing water to plants further into the gardens.

And the gate!  An ornate, wrought-iron, Baroque gate worthy of Versailles!  Really, an absolutely gorgeous and opulent metal gate, painted white, establishing the tone for entry to the gardens.  So totally French, and of course kept beautifully shiny and bright.  A gate that announces "This is a very special place, and you must be worthy to enter here."  Of course, these days worthy means 200 Mauritian rupees, but this aristocratic gate sniffs at the mention of money.  (And doesn't really turn away anyone.)


The photo before the gate photo shows these crazy bird nests - I have no idea what kind of bird makes these nests, I've asked and I'm always told various birds make them.  The nests are upside down.  Bell-shaped.  Totally open on the bottom.  I want to know how the eggs stay in the nests, and how the baby birds stay in there as well.  Do the birds produce some sort of glue and stick the eggs on the inner walls?  Are there shelves and the eggs rest on that?  No idea, and no one has been able to answer my questions.  And since I don't know what kind of bird, I'm having problems problems researching these crazy nests.  I'll keep asking, and looking for information, and will keep people posted.

Of course, I was chatting about this with my Dutch friends.  And we looked around, and at first thought we saw some birds on nests in the top of a couple of distant trees.  But they seemed to be moving in a funny manner.  So we looked, and looked, and realized that these are really bats!!!  Bats hanging upside down in the treetops, the blondish body and head looking like the nest and the black folded wings appearing to be birds - but really giant flying foxes of Mauritius!  WOW!  (Oh, and I learned that the word for "bat" in Dutch is "fledermaussen" - very close to the German "fledermaus."  Which of course we all know from the operetta by Strauss.)

So here are lots of bats in trees for my friends who were asking for flying fox photos from the Seychelles.

And I truly would NOT want to be in these gardens at sunset or so!  Hordes and legions and squadrons of flying foxes overhead!  We saw that in Darwin, Australia, and it truly was a very creepy sight!  Almost like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz - just frightening!

On a happier note - there were birds all over the gardens, chirping and singing and whistling in the trees.  We didn't see many of them, but we heard them.

These are my two favorite birds that we've seen in Maurititius, and it seems appropriate to feature them with the gardens.  We have the red fody, or Madagascar fody, which I wrote about while we were in the Seychelles.  This is a small bird, roughly sparrow size, with a bright red or red-orange body, and grey/black/brown wings and tail feathers.  They also have a tiny dark mark around their eyes, almost like a mask but not quite.  Very cute and friendly little birds, they come up to porches and balconies to see if people have dropped any crumbs that might be tasty.

Then there is the red-whiskered bulbul, also known as the crested bulbul.  This is related to the Seychelles bulbul, but much fancier with his pointed black crest, black facial mask, and the little red cheek patch.  Plus red under his tail feathers.  Like the Seychelles bulbul, he is friendly with attitude - they come up to the porch railing and perch there, hoping to share breakfast.  The tilt their head and look directly at us, as if to say "Yes, I'd like some croissant please."  The word "cheeky" comes to mind.  They aren't very large, bigger than the fodies and sparrows, but still smaller than a robin.  And shaped a bit sleeker, somewhat like a jay.  Very cute and friendly birds - and they seem to know it, too!

Last item for the day - sugarcane is a big industry in Mauritius, with cane fields all over the island.  We were stuck in back of a truck hauling sugarcane to be processed (into sugar as well as rum), and I thought it made an interesting photo.

I'll write a blog soon about our new home in Grande Baie, but this blog is long enough, so I'll sign off.  One more bat picture, just so you can see how eerie and vaguely ominous the look all lined up in a tree!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Sweater Saga

A Cautionary Tale

16 November 2017

We arrived on Mauritius on 7 November, and have been a bit busy.  We did our usual settle into the hotel, go out and walk around the neighborhood, visit the beach, find places to eat sort of thing.  The photos today are from the beach and our time walking around, and don't have much to do with the Sweater Saga.

Plus we came to Mauritius so Richard can renew his passport.  The Seychelle Islands is a small nation, and shares a US Embassy with Mauritius.  And while his passport doesn't expire for a while, many countries will not admit a visitor with a passport that will expire within six months.  So this means we have to plan to renew a passport about seven months prior to expiration, while we're overseas.  The process includes filling out a form, getting it printed, getting new photos for the application, and making an appointment at the embassy.  Anyway, it meant a trip in to Port Louis, the capital, and some time at the embassy to file the application.

In amongst all of that, we've spent time at the beach, our favorite hang out spot.  There are food stands there, with tasty items such as biryani (though spelled here breyani, but still so fragrant and tasty!), noodles, and lots of fish.  We're on another island nation, so fish is always a popular food.  The local population is descended from the European colonists who brought in workers (slaves) from Africa, India, and China - so the food reflects all of those cultures.

We've met some wonderful people, and the Mauritian people on the whole are friendly and very generous.  There was the young man who works on a cruise ship, and knows St. Thomas, who gave Richard his special cigarette lighter.  And the breyani vendor, who saved a portion of breyani for me and kept it warm, until I was ready for my lunch by the beach - plus he charged me the local price, not the posted tourist price.  Lovely, warm, friendly people.

And then there are those who make money taking advantage of innocent and unknowing tourists and travellers.  That is today's tale.  

On Tuesday, we went to the embassy.  Tiniest embassy we've ever seen, but nice helpful people.  Made arrangements with a taxi driver to get a ride to Port Louis (pronounced Port loo-EE) and then time to spend in the city, and an hour to meet and get a ride back to our hotel in Pointe aux Piments (point oh pee-MAWN, very French - piments being the chili peppers).  We do all of that, and on the ride back our driver says we should stop at one of the many cashmere factory outlet places, if we just look around he will get a voucher for the supermarket from the shop owners.  

Well, what can I say, we're always willing to help out another human.  So we say okay, we'll look.  And, well, big rookie mistake here.  Both of us should have known better, but were a bit cold and damp from having been caught in the rain.

I go in, and look around.  Cashmere is a major industry here, the raw goat wool is imported from Kashmir in northern India, and is process, spun, dyed, and knit here.  Gorgeous and soft and light, I love cashmere.  I thought it would be a nice gift for my brother who takes care of all of our paperwork and bills and such, so that we can travel.

I guess I was an easy mark.  I ended up surrounded by saleswomen who were friendly and helpful, and found what I wanted.  And of course the price is marked up to an insane level, but the one with the calculator is a speed talker and is giving me the pitch with "50% off and then another 20% off and you get the value added tax back at the airport and this is a wonderful price."  I tried to bargain, and I really should have just walked out.  But I didn't.  I succumbed to the pitch, and bought the lovely sweater for a price that we'd expect to pay for cashmere in the US at a nice store, but more than one would expect to pay at a purported factory outlet store in the country where it was manufactured.

It gets better.  When we reach our hotel, I ask our sweet concierge if this was an okay price.  He was shocked and said I paid about three times more than I should have.  He explained that there are tourism police, and they will shut down a store if the practices are as unethical and basically criminal as I described.  We had a long talk, and his suggestion was the following day, go back to the store and talk to them, ask for either a refund or the real price, not the inflated price.  And if that doesn't work, threaten to go to the tourism police.

We did, telling our hotel to not call the same driver as the first day, that we don't want to deal with him ever again.  (He most likely got a kickback on this deal.)  Went out to the shop again, and tried talking to the calculator (and calculating) woman.  Who basically was no longer friendly but quite disdainful and bordering on nasty.  

So we went to the tourism police, up north in Grande Baie (basically Grand Bay) in the regular police station (though I suppose this is a prefecture, to be more precise).  Walk into the police station and explain the situation.  They are appalled at the price I was charged, and tell me that the tourism police person will be with us in just a few minutes.

And we end up in a tiny office, with the head tourist police guy, another officer, and two young policemen who just want to see what's going on.  I explain once again.  They look at the receipts and say that the value added tax has been paid, the receipts are in order, and there really isn't anything they can do, it is all legal even though they agree that the place is shady and has a bad reputation.  In fact, Mr Head Tourist Police says that they have spoken to this particular shop before.  Prices are NOT controlled, and there is nothing they can do.  Richard suggests maybe I can cancel the charge to my debit card, and the police jump on this - they see this as the perfect solution.  Really, they tell me to cancel the payment as soon as I can, and then just go back to the shop and give them back the sweater - because otherwise the shop can turn around and sue me.  I mean, seriously?  The cops are saying to cancel payment?  (After an evening of calling the USVI, trying to get through with phones still not quite working, I finally did reach someone at the bank - and no, I cannot cancel debit card charges.)

We chat a bit in English and French, and our officer crew says they will be in touch.  Richard then asks about a place to get some lunch in the neighborhood, since it is still raining.  At this point ALL the officers start making suggestions, to both of us.  And we go off to lunch, which was one of the bright spots of the day.  (More on that in a moment.)

So, the downside is that I paid more than I should have, and met a group of rather nasty and unscrupulous people.

The upside is that we have a beautiful gift for my very helpful brother.  We got to meet the tourist police.  We hung out in a police station, with a batch of friendly police officers who seen to have an interesting camaraderie.  Plus the taxi driver who is in on this scamming place is now banned from being called by our hotel.

And the best part is that we discovered Zorba's Greek Restaurant, right across the street from the police station in Grande Baie.  Had a very nice Greek lunch of souvlaki (two per plate, a huge portion - so we had take-away for dinner as well!), espresso, and a taste of galaktoboureko, my favorite Greek dessert - basically custard baked in a phyllo crust, and soaked in that wonderful honey syrup with cinnamon!  OMG so good, and a perfect dessert to share since it was our 14th wedding anniversary.  So just a little romance along with our day.

If you get to Mauritius, definitely eat at Zorba's in Grande Baie - they don't have a website yet, but here's their Facebook page:

Oh, and if our day hadn't been crazy enough, it turns out that the owner of Zorba's lives part time in Athens, or at least the suburb of Kalamaki - which is where our family lived for a year while our father worked at the oceanographic institute there!  So Dimitris and I chatted a little in my barely-remembered Greek, and laughed about being neighbors.  Teeny tiny world!

And, if you are shopping for cashmere, definitely avoid the town of Arsenal, and especially the "factory outlet" shop across the street from the Shell gas station there.  Major rip off place, and I'm doing everything I can to warn people off of this place!  Yup, wrote it up in TripAdvisor, here in our blog with our 140,000 or so hits, and I'll put it on Facebook.  Buyers beware, avoid K.N.E. Ravinale Cie!!!!  Nice items and lying staff with hugely inflated prices.  Do not be like me, avoid this place!

Can you tell that I'm enjoying my underground vengeance?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bats, Bats, and More Bats

6 November 2017

We've had a quiet weekend, getting ready to fly on Tuesday.  Had to go to Anse Royale and have one last meal at my favorite café, Kafé Kreol.  If you ever get to Anse Royale, eat here - right on the beach, with an Italian chef and fresh fish.  Really delightful.  They don't have a website, but they do have a Facebook page:

On Saturday afternoon, we went on a tour of the island of Mahé, the main island of the Seychelles.  Our landlady asked one of her sons to take us around, and we had a great time.  I've marked the places on the map, at the end of the blog.  

The most gorgeous was the view from Mission Lodge, which is a former mission and school dating back to the early 1800s.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 450 meters (1350 feet) above sea level, in the central hills or mountains of Mahé.  There stone buildings are now ruins, but the road and some  of the trees that were planted are still standing.  My favorite was an amazing cinnamon tree, now dead but still perfuming the air with its delicious scent.

While up there, I met the Seychelles bulbul, though the local people call this bird a parrotbird because they're noisy like parrots.  These are funny birds, maybe the size of a robin or so, dark grey with bright yellow-orange beaks and feet, and then a sort of punk rock tufted crest in black just on the top of their heads!  They also are quite friendly, almost to the point of fearless, and come right up to people - not touching, just close enough to eye you up and down.  They reminded me of Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer for Green Day - the spiky black hair and the attitude and the insistent voice demanding change.  Yeah, definitely the punk rocker birds of the animal kingdom!

We drove past the tea plantation and factory, the hillside covered with tea leaves.  And we drove back from the east side via the route called La Misere, The Misery - an extra steep, extra winding road that probably was miserable to climb before the automotive age.  

We also spent time at Grande Anse, the pristine and possibly longest beach on Mahé.  This was a beautiful beach, but there are signs all over saying that there's a dangerous undertow and currents, so not to swim here.  But there was the same powdery pale sand and turquoise water, with powerful waves crashing and foaming on the shore.  This beach seemed to have fewer rocks in the water, which might have something to do with the current, I don't really know.

We also drove as far north as the Port Launay Marine Park, or at least I think that's where we went.  The road is a single lane here, though for two-way traffic, because the community didn't want to have the road building impact the marine life in this protected area.  

And we saw bats.  By late afternoon, the bats are out flying around, looking for fruit trees to eat all night long.  Except these aren't just normal little bats, these are flying foxes. 

I tried to get photos of bats flying, or eating the Java apples in the trees in our front yard.  I stood outside from late afternoon until twilight, trying to get photos of bats.  I even went out in the full moon, trying to photograph the bats in the tree, or flying around.

But my camera is small, and has a limited zoom.  The flash has a short range.  Bats move rather quickly, and so the photos are often blurry.  And the one bat who came by a few days to hang in the tree and eat the apples was a bit scared of me the second day, and sidled along his branch before flying away.  Plus I didn't want to get so close that I could reach out and touch one of them, because they really do look a bit creepy, especially when they're close enough to land on you with those little claws.

So I'm including my photos of the flying foxes.  And then I'll add photos from the internet, taken by much better photographers than I am, or at least they have much better cameras than I do.  Trust me, you can tell which are mine and which aren't.  No contest.

We leave tomorrow, heading to Mauritius!  Another French/British island, but further south.  And we'll report in with all of our new adventures!