My stop here was exceptionally brief because I’d booked a less-that-24-hours stopover on my way to Mauritius. Reúnion is an “overseas department of France” which means they use euros and all the citizens have French passports. It feels distinctly different from the other places in Africa I visited. It was pretty much an empty island when the French arrived and they brought over slaves from Madagascar and later indentured workers from India and China.
Because I only had a morning, I decided to visit a factory where vanilla was made. Madagascar actually makes more vanilla than any other country in the world, but most of their production was in the north, in the area that I didn’t visit.
Vanilla was a plant of the New World, primarily in Mexico. When it was imported to Reúnion, the plants wouldn’t produce the well-known aroma without pollination. Even though the climate was great for growing vanilla, there were no natural pollinators for the plants. The original pollinator in Mexico was the tiny melipona bee. A 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius discovered a way to hand-pollinate vanilla quickly using a blade of grass to transfer pollen to the stigma of the plant. That method is still used today on vanilla plantations outside of Mexico. The work intensive nature of growing vanilla is one of the reasons that it is such an expensive commodity. Currently, the price per pound is over $250. Random fact: the vanilla grown on Reúnion is known as bourbon vanilla because Bourbon was the original name of the island.
There actually isn’t much done to the vanilla after it is picked. They boil the green pods for 3 minutes at 150°F. Afterwards they wrap them in big blankets in a chest to continue to cook them until they cool down. Once they are done cooling, they put the pods in racks to let them dry out completely. When all the moisture is gone, the vanilla is ready to sell. They sort them by length and different sizes go for correspondingly different prices.
My trip to the vanilla plantation took almost all day because I had to take a bus to and from the other side of the island. I had about an hour leftover to walk the town of St. Denis and enjoy a nice lunch and some palm trees.
I knew relatively nothing about this country before I arrived. It was founded by the Dutch, then taken over by the French, who eventually gave it to the English. Like Reúnion, there were no indigenous people living here, although the colonists did manage to completely kill off the dodo, the giant bird that was a bigger version of an ostrich.
One of Mauritius’ main exports was sugar and there were many factories that made both sugar and rum on the island. After the English took over and eventually abolished slavery in 1835, the factory owners were looking for new workers to exploit. They settled on an indentured servitude scheme in which Indian workers were recruited and imported to the island on multi-year contracts. Many could make more money in Mauritius than in their home country and technically had some levels of freedoms, but exploitation was frequent. (This is so eerily similar to employment in many Arab countries today.)
Huge numbers of Indians immigrated and about 70% of today’s population have Indian ancestors. Most people are at least trilingual (speaking Mauritian Creole, French, and English) and many speak an Indian language as well. All indentured servants passed through Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, basically the Ellis Island of Mauritius, in order to be medically cleared and have their paperwork processed before being taken to their assigned sugar plantation.
All of these workers were coming because of sugar. Some toiled in the fields, planting, weeding and cutting sugarcane. Others worked in the factories themselves. The process is highly industrialized now, but back in the day much of this work was done by hand and with some help from animals.
The first step to make sugar is to crush the sugarcanes to extract all the juice. The leftover fibers are called bagasse and are burned to supply power to the factory. The sugarcane juice is clarified using lime and which forms a precipitate with the impurities that sinks to the bottom of the container. Next, the juice is brought to a boil inside a vacuum and 80% of its volume is evaporated. That syrup is then seeded with sugar crystals with starts the crystallization process. Eventually everything is placed in a centrifuge and the crystals stay inside and molasses comes out through the holes.
Near to this old sugar factory is one of the most beautiful places in Mauritius, the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, named after the first prime minister of Mauritius. It is famous for a huge pool filled with giant water lilies, but there are so many other gorgeous plants. The gardens are a wonderland of incredible textures and colors.
LE MORNE BRABANT
I spent a whole morning climbing up this mountain at the southern tip of the island. At one time, the mountain was a refuge for runaway slaves. When the British outlawed slavery, police walked up the mountain to tell them they were free. Many of the former slaves thought the police were coming for them and jumped to their deaths instead of being enslaved again. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a tough hike to get to the top. The first part is really easy, but the second half involves hands and feet and climbing up some rocks to get to the top.
TROU AUX BICHES
I stayed in a little town in the north (translated it means the doe’s watering hole) because the snorkeling was supposed to be so incredible. All I had to do was walk in from the beach. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any snorkeling gear. Fortunately, I did have goggles and my trusty waterproof camera. 🙂
BOIS CHERI TEA FACTORY
Mauritius is home to a pretty large tea plantation and factory. From my visit, I learned that green tea and black tea are made from the exact same tea leaves. The only difference is that black tea has been left to ferment by exposing it to the air. White tea is made from the baby tea leaves at the top of the plants. The production line for the tea is pretty straightforward. After picking the leaves, they are crushed in a giant roller. The tiny bits then come up a conveyor belt and, for black tea, the bits are oxidized. Then they make their way through an oven to be dried. They are then sent to another room where the fibers are removed and the tea is sorted into different sizes. (Tea for tea bags is a different size than loose leaf tea.) Different flavors are then added and the tea is packaged and sent off to be sold in stores. This place is famous for its vanilla tea, but I thought the coconut tea and the caramel tea were way better (especially with milk).
I was a bit mesmerized watching the machine that fills and makes the tea bags.
I stayed in an apartment in Mauritius so I didn’t eat out as much as I have in other places. Nevertheless, here’s a few photos of food and drinks.