The other day my housekeeper and I went to the local fishmongers to purchase some fresh fish and other assorted seafood. I was excited because having spent many moons in the land-o-lakes, I wasn’t really in the habit of eating much fresh food that comes from the ocean. If I did happen to eat seafood, it was usually of the frozen and shaped like a stick variety. Growing up, there were lots of local lake fish, of course, but I was never a fan because the fish always tasted like lake water to me. Anyone who has ever water-skied and hit the lake face first knows exactly of what I speak.
We left the house on a lovely, sunny, blue-sky filled day and walked down our tiny lane to the main road where the bus stop is located. While waiting for the bus, I noticed an elderly woman on the other side of the road picking up and placing what looked like thin, long branches of a tree onto a pile. After placing them on the pile, she would go back into the green overgrowth near the side of the road and re-emerge with more.
After her pile was up to her waist in height, she took some twine or rope and wrapped it skillfully around the entire pile creating a loose bundle. From length-edge to length-edge the bundle was twice her height in size. Feeling confident that her bundle was secure, she then placed the entire bunch on her head and walked across the road moving out of sight. When we first arrived on the island, I had seen men on tiny motorbikes with these exact enormous bundles draped across their laps. The bundle is so wide that it completely cuts of traffic from both sides of the road. Sensing that these bundles were a common element to the island, I asked my housekeeper, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” And I believe the answer she gave to me had something to do with ‘pour le boeuf’ or something, I thought, to do with boeuf.
I now believe that this woman was cutting food for some cows that were located nearby. There are a few warning bells going off in my head that make me think that I may need to change my conclusion about the situation. There is the fact that the island does not have much available grazing land – geographically, it’s quite small. And then there’s the very obvious fact that I have never seen a cow here. But, this conclusion, as with so many other conclusions in my life at the moment, while quite possibly VERY incorrect, is all I’ve got for the moment. So, large sticks on head = food for invisible cows on secret grazing field.
Having been a fan of public transportation since my days of busing and working in downtown Minneapolis and riding the ‘L’ in Chicago, I was also curious to try out the island’s public transportation system. I had seen the buses parked downtown in Port Louis and racing down the main road near our house, but I still had not ventured onto one.
We waited and allowed two other buses to pass us by before we boarded the bus that would take us to Cap Malheureux. I couldn’t really tell how to identify the different buses apart nor did I understand the answer provided by my housekeeper. There were not any numbers or any signs that I could see on the front or side of the bus. Perhaps, the locals that live on the island know the buses simply by the schedule. Eventually, I hope to figure it out.
Some of the other French expats on the island have told me that the buses on the island were Chinese, but they really didn’t expand on this statement. And I’m not really certain why they felt the need to tell me this because if I was back in the States, I could simply walk into any house or building, hold open my arms and announce, “all of this is Chinese”. But, I had two ideas in my head. The first was that the buses were manufactured in China and the second was that the buses were old and no longer in service in China and were now being put to use here on the island. I tended to think more towards the second opinion simply because the buses that are in service here are pretty old and have seen far better days. Plumes of black smoke fill the air after a bus drives by and you can always hear them coming even from a good distance away.
As it turns out, neither one of my thoughts were correct because the buses are, in fact, not Chinese. The giant name splashed across the front of the bus, “Ashok Leyland,” should have been a definite give-away. It doesn’t sound very Chinese and that’s because it’s not Chinese. The buses are made by an Indian manufacturer. I think I’ll just keep this bit of trivial knowledge to myself. Trying to explain this to the French expats that pointed out the incorrect obvious to me would be more effort than it would be worth.
Or maybe I’ll just wait until I’ve finally mastered more of the French language and explain it as a humorous tale at a dinner party. But, by that point no one will remember and I would just sound like a raving American discussing some point about China and India. This, in turn, would probably steer the conversation inevitably towards politics and I would have to bow down due to my lack of political French vocabulary. Sigh…
The buses I have been on in Mauritius do not have money or ticket collection boxes at the front of the bus. Instead, there is a woman or a man that walks up and down the aisle collecting money from the new people that get on board. The fare is based on how far you are going to go on the bus.
We travelled from Pointe aux Cannoniers to Cap Malheureux and the fare was 20 MUR per person each way. At the current rate of exchange between the USD, that’s approximately $1.50 round trip. Not much and this may be why the buses are in such bad shape, but I doubt the transit authority could radically increase fares. If they were to increase the fare too much, many of the current riders may be unable to afford it. It’s a tricky but needed business.
While riding the bus here, I would advise to try to adhere to the following bits of learned knowledge. When getting on the bus, do not grab onto the railing attached to the door. I made this foolish mistake and the door almost squashed me into two pieces. Remain seated at all times. I do not know how the money collection agent does it. The woman that collected our fares on the way to Cap Malheureux must have had legs of steel and the strength of Zeus. The bus jerked spastically and made a loud screeching noise every time the driver shifted the gears, but she never even wobbled.
Try to sit a few rows away from the door. This is to avoid being thrown out of the bus or being hit by something that flies into the bus. At one point, the super-strong collection woman had to stand at the front of the bus on one leg with her other leg sticking firmly straight out from her body holding the door closed with her foot. As the bus careened around the quick bends in the road at rapid speed, she did not move – not one bauble.
Getting off the bus, we walked the short distance to the fishmongers called Bella Amigo. I met and was introduced to the manager and was then shown the fresh catch of the day – three giant fish. Apparently, it was the slow season for fresh fish from the Indian Ocean and due to the streak of cool, rainy weather that we had just finished having, the fish were just not biting. The season should pick up again in the spring (September). It was intimidating to be shown these three large fish and be expected to pick the one I wanted. I had no clue what any of them were, but apparently, I was not the only one to be in such a situation. The manager seemed to understand my ‘fish id stupidity’ and referred me to a large chart hanging on the wall. On it were pictures of all the different types of fish that live in the Indian Ocean near Mauritius and their names…in French. Hmmm…this helped, but not much.
I finally ended up having him pick the fish for me and ended up buying a twelve pound la capitaine fish. The fish was taken to the back of the shop to be completely gutted, filleted and packed into freezer -bags. While this was happening, I picked out six medium sized frozen prawns that were about eight inches long from head to tail which would be perfect for the grill; and a large bag of shelled and deveined regular sized prawns that would be excellent for grilled kabobs or in a curry.
La capitaine was brought out to me along with another bag which contained the head and some other parts of the fish. I was asked if I wanted it. My immediate reaction was to yell out, “Ew. No way. You keep it.” But, my housekeeper said, “Oui!” While walking back to catch the bus back home I asked her what she was going to do with the fish head. She told me she was going to make soup. I thought about this and asked her if it was good. She nodded her head excitedly. So, I’m game. Everything else she has cooked for us so far has been very good and I’ve always been a fan of soup.
Riding the bus back home, I felt very proud of myself. The manager at Bella Amigo gave me his cell phone number and told me to contact him if I needed to have him hold anything for me or if I needed a large order of anything in particular for a planned party. Thinking about this, I started to feel, in a very small way, that I was beginning to belong a bit to this community – even if only as a temporary guest.
Can’t wait to taste the fish head soup.