Over one third of the island of Mauritius is covered in sugarcane fields. At our local Super U supermarket, I can find numerous types of tasty sugar: special sugar cubes, demerara, light brown soft, special raw, coffee crystals and light-to-dark muscovados. At home, I have at least three different types just to mix it up. If the coffee is bad, at least it can be spiced up with some delicious gourmet sugar.
According to the Planet Ark website (http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/48864/story.htm), which has articles coming from Reuters News Service, the Mauritian government just announced that it would attempt to reach a goal of having about a third of its electricity come from sugar waste by 2015. And while I enjoy indulging in the island’s sweet agricultural products, this news made me appreciate the sugar farmers on this tiny island even more.
When sugar is processed, something known as bio-gases are left over after the sugar is crushed and manufactured. This is what the island is hoping to use as a means of electricity to decrease its need on imported coal. They are also hoping to produce ethanol. When you live on a tiny island where nearly everything is imported, you start to really feel the impact of what you use in terms of consumption and how much you use. This is extremely apparent with the water that we use at our home.
During the dry season here which is in the summer (November – March), we will need to switch on a pump during the night to bring water from the main water line into two tanks which sit on the side of our house. The reason we will need to do this is because when the rain is scarce here, the island water municipality limits the local neighborhoods use of water by shutting off the water main to the area during the day. Instead, water use priority is given to the sugar farmers and the hotel industry.
We were told that each tank will hold a week or two worth of water for normal use, but what is ‘normal’ use? I am constantly aware now of when I turn on the tap, run the dishwasher or the washing machine. How much water do these actions really use and will my tank hold out until the next big rain? To prevent massive amounts of water being used, each of our showers has a special low pressure gauge on them to limit the amount of water that comes out. We only have hot water for the shower; but many of the other houses in the neighborhood have large solar panel collectors on the tops of the homes to collect sunlight to heat the water.
Electricity use is also on my mind, now. Because the cost of electrical wire is very expensive here, many of the houses have been built in a way where the on/off switch to a light is located only a few feet from where the light is actually located. We have numerous lights on the outside of our house and in our garden. What this means is that every night when dusk starts to fall, it takes me a few minutes to walk around to each location a light is located to switch it on. But, by doing this I am reminded that each flip of the switch means another pull of electricity.
All of our larger appliances also have direct circuit switches on them to completely cut the flow of current when they are not in use. When I want to use the washing machine, I have to turn on the electricity to the switch and then open up the water line to the machine. When I’m done, I shut them both off. At first, this seemed very impractical to me and a bit of an annoyance, but now I wonder if it doesn’t serve a better purpose. Why have things on and open if they are not being used? And wouldn’t it make sense to conserve and only activate things when it is really necessary?
I’m even saving re-sealable plastic sandwich and gallon bags if they weren’t really used the first time around. I know this isn’t a radically new concept, but when I lived in the States, each time I used a bag, I threw it away. I also used to think that the people who rinsed them out and saved them were cheap or some sort of an old hippy gone a bit whack. Oh my, how my opinion has changed. Everything seems to have a feeling of rareness here. And what if the cargo vessel containing the shipment of plastic bags is late and the stores run out? It just makes sense to conserve when you are able.
When I was a study abroad student in Austria in the early-90s, I was amazed at what the local sanitation department was providing in terms of service to the local households in the town of Salzburg where I lived for six months. Each household was given a bin for garbage, a few containers for recyclables, and a tiny green container that many people kept on their kitchen counter.
This container was for vegetable and fruit scraps that were then collected and brought to the city’s compost heap each week. The heap was used to make fertilizer for parks, lawns and gardens. When I returned to the States, it always seemed like such a waste to just toss food scraps in the garbage or have them disintegrate in the garbage disposal. I now think that when and if I return to the States, simply throwing away plastic sandwich bags that could easily be re-used will seem a bit excessive. But, it’s easy to have such thoughts now. Will my island living days have a lasting impact on the way I live and consume? Time will tell.
So, while Americans struggle to come to grips with gasoline prices that nearly the rest of the world has been paying for years, and speak of going ‘green, green, green’ while continuing to load the back end of the car with the jumbo 20-pack of paper towels from Target. I’ll continue to explore my tiny new island home, reminded each day of how much I am using with every flick of the switch.
If you have never seen sugarcane fields, I think they look like practically any corn field planted in the States; however, during the last few weeks the plants in the fields have been sporting these wispy, feathery tufts on the tops of the stalks which are much taller than corn stalks. Some of the feathery tufts I have seen have been white and some have been purple. We have a broom at home that I believe is made from these sugar tufts after they have dried. It works really well for picking up dust bunnies from under the beds.