As the MV Explorer sailed into the sparkling blue harbor waters at 7am, my friends and I were a bit perplexed as to why Semester at Sea had chosen this port of call. “Are they encouraging us to party?” my one friend asked. All we had heard about Mauritius for the past several days were the crystal clear beaches with the five star resorts in the background. What could this country possibly offer our stew of knowledge that we had already cooked up from the first four ports? Little did we know that a failed translation of a word as simple as hiking would provide an incalculable change in our minds and hearts that will surely last a lifetime.
The first thing we did as soon as we stepped onto dry land was hop in a cab and head to the southern coast of the island to see the majestic Chamarel Falls. At first, the conversation with our driver was on a very get-to-know-you basis as we sped down the highway, dodging private vehicles that failed to move quickly enough. He was giving us the facts so that we could get our bearings. For example, the island has a population of 1,300,000 people, its main export is sugar cane, and the locals speak the languages of Mauritian Creole, French, and English. As soon as we started taking back roads through the mountains, the conversation changed and so did what we all observed.
We had asked our driver to take us hiking and as we continued to drive through the green part of the island, we assumed that that’s where we were going. After forty-five minutes of driving, however, we had yet to arrive at our destination, which was only supposed to take us around fifteen to twenty minutes. At first it was scary and when I glanced in the back seat my friend mouthed, “Where is he taking us?” to me with a worried look on her face. The truth is I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Our driver clearly did not understand the concept of hiking. At one point he stopped the car in front of an empty field, turned to me and said, “No hiking here.” The next thing I knew we were at an upper class ranch that teaches tourists how to tromp sugarcane.
By that time, however, I had no interest in our destination anymore. As I gazed out the window, I saw a part of Mauritius that I never expected to see. We began to pass through areas of Mauritius to which tourists never usually venture and were fortunate enough to observe daily life: the farmer harvesting sugar cane, the children playing in the school yard, or the street vendors anxiously offering goods to anyone that walked by just to make a few rupees.
The thing that struck me the most was the variety of different people all living side by side with what appeared to be little to no conflict. The religious places of worship almost seemed symbolic of the way Mauritians live their lives with one another. On one side of the road we would pass an Islamic mosque while directly across the street would sit a multicolor Hindu temple, and a couple blocks down there would be a Christian church with the cross proudly situated on the roof. Despite all of the different beliefs that were intermixed into the same area, everyone seemed to get along. When we asked our driver about the negative news in Mauritius while he was reading the newspaper, the only thing he said was that the President was currently in Iran, and they were having conflicts. He had no complaints about the local news.
It was soon clear that tolerance was a major part of the Mauritian society. Watching all of these different religions openly exist on the same street made the religious conflicts in America crystal clear to me. No one I talked to while on the island said that one religion was greater than the next. They simply stated that they believe what they believe while the next person may believe something different. Why can’t America do this? Why can’t people of other beliefs accept Muslims for who they are just as they accept other religions? The United States was created by people seeking religious freedoms, yet there is such an incredible amount of religious intolerance that exists in present day America. The more I thought about it, the more it didn’t make sense to me.
From the moment we left the bustling city, the tall buildings disappeared and were replaced by lush green trees and plants. The houses were replaced with makeshift shacks made of metal and cardboard. Others appeared to have a foundation of cement, but it was crumbling. The tiny grocery stores turned into open air markets that were selling coconuts and pineapples on the side of the road. The change was drastic, and for the first time we were witnessing what made Mauritius a third world country.
Despite all of these conditions, the peoples’ morale appeared to remain high. The street vendors offered us free samples as we walked by while the old woman sitting in the chair was happy to help us with directions. For a second, I looked at seven young school children walking down the street laughing and singing together and thought to myself, “Maybe if we stripped everyone in America of half of their belongings we would all finally find the true meaning in life as well. We would find peace not only with ourselves, but with each other.”
— Chris Toone