We spent today in Mauritius touring a tea plantation, a vanilla plantation, and a museum – all owned by the same family.
The island itself was astonishing – the most fertile-looking soil I’ve ever seen. The only surfaces not covered with growing things were the paved roads and the buildings. Every verge, garden, or bit of open ground was covered with grasses, shrubs, and trees, and even those trees and shrubs were covered with more creepers. I was so proud of myself the first time I was able to keep a plant alive for more than two months, but here, a person could poke a stick into the ground and grow an entire tree in no time.
The vanilla plantation was interesting. We got to see the production cycle of vanilla, and it’s a much longer and more manual process than I realized. From initial planting to finished product takes 5 years (four of them are spent just waiting for the plant to have its first flowers). The flowers, which are both male and female have to be pollinated by hand by women (apparently it’s always done by women) who are called “wedding planners.” They can do 1500-2000 flowers in a morning (because it can only be done in the morning). And then the actual preparation of the ripe vanilla pods is mostly manual and involves blanching, drying in the sun, drying in the shade, sticking in a box for months, then sorting by size. All this is to say that I now appreciate vanilla much more than I did.
The tea plantation was…disappointing. From the moment we got off the bus and saw the tea leaves coming down a chute overhead onto the ground, where a group of men was picking up the leaves and shoving them into burlap bags, I knew this was going to just make me sad. Before we left the ship, I had visions of discovering a delicious tea I’d never had and bringing pounds of it home, but the smell in the air wasn’t lovely tea. It was alfalfa. As in horse food.
We watched the tea being processed in huge machines, and seeing the end result – tiny, cremated-looking fragments of tea leave shoved into paper teabags – didn’t do anything to give me hope.
Later, we went to a lovely restaurant where we had lunch, after which we had a tea tasting. We tried six of the eight varieties of tea they made at that factory, and every single one of them had the same flavor – as though it had been brewed inside a horse and decanted out the backside. Really, really awful.
The island itself was interesting. There was an area near the port that had a lot of high-end shops and houses, but as you got away from the city, the infrastructure diminished sharply. There’s a real dichotomy between rich and poor here. Some parts of the country looked like parts of Egypt – dirt roads, tiny shops, a lot of ad hoc building. It made sense, considering that the island’s main source of income is tourism. As we got off the boat this morning, there was a giant poster exhorting us to consider retiring to Mauritius. I don’t think that’s going to happen.