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?


  1. The sweet taste of revenge!👍🏻

  2. Happy happy anniversary! Chock it up to education. Remember the brick of straw that Norma bought at a saffron stall in Egypt for $50 and thought she had really found a great deal and had tested at Western U when it didn't work in her paella recipe, and the chemist announced that it was just straw that a camel had peed on!

    1. LOL - I didn't know all the details of the "saffron" - that is too funny! Ah well, this sweater has a label saying 100% cashmere, plus it truly does feel like cashmere. So I figure I paid the price that I'd have paid in a somewhat posh department store in the US. (At least it isn't posh boutique price or designer label price, right?)