The sign at Mauritius’s airport read, “Welcome to Paradise.” I heard great things about this island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar so I was eager to explore it for my boss, Doug Cooke of JAX FAX Travel Marketing Magazine. But I was flying solo, first time ever on a press trip and it is not my style. I was confident in my friend-making skills that I would find some peeps to help make my visit feel like Paradise. But I was knocked on my ass the first hour I was in the country.
My driver, Anoop, drove from the airport to my hotel like a banshee fast, furious, jerky, passing cars dangerously, taking curves with one hand while he spoke on his cell, nauseating the hell out of me. It was going to be a very long week, especially since I discovered that the PR person from tourism had no plans to accompany me on any of my scheduled activities. It was just going to be me and Anoop and it seemed clear to be that he was not into being my new best friend. (I later discovered that he was star player on his football (soccer) team and they were losing a game while he was driving me from the airport. He made it back in time to score the winning goalies).
My first activity was to be on a catamaran day trip out to an island- snorkeling, lunch etc. Sounded like fun, but the boat was filled with Frenchy couples. No matter the age- young newlyweds to grey-haired couples celebrating their silver anniversary- they stayed attached at the hip and sat in their private little pods around the boat, talking close and quietly to only each other. Despite downing motion sickness pills, I could not move and had to lie down and brace my head and stare at the horizon. I felt alone all day.
The next day I went on a safari at an adventure park. As I was climbing up the few steps to get into the open-air wagon, the driver said out loud to me, “You look like a tough woman.”
“Oh really?” I ask. And added, “I’m not sure I should take that as a compliment.”
And he said, “Well, you can’t always tell a book by its cover.”
I wanted to say, “What the fuck does that mean?” but then I would prove him right, which wasn’t right. I wasn’t being tough. I’m not tough. I just wanna make friends.
The next day I went out to a view-point at the Black River Gorge NP with my driver, Anoop who walked far ahead of me and I had it. I yelled up to him, “Anoop, can you come back here and walk with me. I feel like your dog.”
“Not dog,” he replies in his broken English and I think, of my God, this is not working. My only friend and not only can we hardly talk but I don’t know what I am looking at, I’m not learning and no one is guiding me. Anoop is all I have and it is not feeling like Paradise here in Mauritius, despite its beauty. I have no friends.
Then, something shifted. Anoop pulled the car over and told me to wait, and got out to pull branches down to pick off ripe wild guavas for me to eat. As we drew closer to the hotel, he stopped abruptly in the intersection and demanded as he smiled, “Which way?’” I had no idea what he was doing or which direction to go as the last time we drove these roads I was half asleep , coming from the airport after two sleepless nights. WHAT is he doing? He asked me this question four different times on the way to my hotel. If I got the direction right, he raised his hand in a high 5 and laughed with glee. I had no idea what was going on but the sound of his laughter sounded like music to me.
(When I heard that at 3 pm he did not have any lunch yet, I had offered him a bag of bananas and rolls with jelly smuggled out of my buffet breakfast. Could that have something to do with this sudden shift? Or the fact that I wanted him to walk WITH me?) These last few days I felt estranged only speaking with Anoop when we had to and then very limited. It was a struggle to communicate, let alone joke and laugh.
The next day, Day 4, there was another shift. I was scheduled to go out to yet another island on a small boat which this time, was filled with an extended Indian family and one blonde woman who looked completely out of place but behaved as if she were a member of the family. As we walked over towards the speed boat that would take us to the platform where we would para sail, the manager comes up to me and asks if I would consider going tandem with this blonde woman. When I asked if she was frightened, he said no, she has done this before, but prefers company. ‘Sure” I said, I truly did not mind being strapped to a strangers’ body.
Of all nationalities, Marie was French, but unlike any other I have ever met. We became fast friends with the sweet Indian boys in the family translating for us as we badgered back and forth. She rents a bungalow from this Mauritian family and comes to stay at Mauritius for many months, every year, swimming in the ocean nearly a mile every day to stay in the fantastic shape she is in. I loved her immediately. The Indian family was equally warm and loving and suddenly, I had a family today where originally I had felt like an orphan.
It’s hard for me to believe that this shift was caused and created by my attitude change. Maybe it was the universe testing me, making me work harder for what I need here in Mauritius, making me think about what Paradise is- for me it cannot be a truly happy state if there are not accepting and loving people there. If this day was all I had for company on Mauritius, then perhaps their love would keep me buoyed for the rest of my trip.
But that was not the case. Anoop and I were fast becoming friends. He continued to try to behave like a driver- sitting in the car while I engaged in activities- sitting in the car while I ate lunch alone. I made him join me. I paid for his lunch or shared mine by asking for another plate from the buffet and scraping a share onto his. He got to try zip lining across a river canyon, unexpected in his white dress shirt and smooth soled leather dress shoes, as he screamed with pleasure. We laughed and talked and his English improved tremendously, and I learned more than I certainly would have had I been ALL alone. He stopped the car to pick huge red hibiscus flowers for me. He arranged for me to meet his wife and multiple brothers and I realized it was because I was becoming important to him and he wanted to share his new friend with his family. That completely warmed my heart.
Once the shift began, every person I met seemed to embrace me with warmth and openness. The sales reps at the hotels that I stayed at during the second half of my trip asked if they could have dinner with me. We quickly moved on from convo about hotel stats to talking about the death of a loved one, or a dream they had, or how to be a good mother. Our dinners extended into 4-5 hour events, (as opposed to the 20 minute dinners I was having alone) and we were left hugging and kissing good-bye with a promise to keep in touch. I was just amazed at how it had changed.
Okay it was me. I guess it had to be me. I learned a little more about myself on this trip to Mauritius. I already knew that when I travel, I need people in my world in order to not miss MY family & friends back home. Anoop saved me. He made me work harder to connect for he was unusually challenging. I was not used to working so hard to make friends and had even doubted if it was worth it. Consequently, he was the hardest to say goodbye to. On the day that I was to go to the airport, I was scheduled to try kite sailing, which of course sounded like big fun but the thought or rushing, getting wet then getting on an airplane rivaled a nice quite long lunch with my new friend. It was a lovely way to end a fantastic trip which truly had become to feel like Paradise, thanks to the people.