Rodrigues to Mauritius

The timing of the departures of our respective boats from Rodrigues revealed the knowledge of their crews about their performance because, after an easy three day sail, we all arrived off the northern end of Mauritius within a few hours of each other, with the notable exception of Shandoo. Not that Shandoo is especially slow but Will sails her that way, double reefed mainsail and staysail only regardless of wind, so that she will remain balanced while he sleeps all night long, displaying an amazing faith in providence. Not only does he not keep a lookout but he rarely puts on any navigation lights either, an attitude to sailing I can hardly agree with. Apparently he ran aground in the Coral Sea because he slept for over four hours when he found himself becalmed 20 miles from a reef. While he slept the wind sprang up and he awoke to the horrible sound of steel crunching on coral. There are undoubtedly few things worse, except maybe the sound of wood or fibre-glass on coral.

The passage from Rodrigues to Mauritius was another lovely sail in a quartering 10-15 knot breeze. The only incident on this leg was my attempt at making some cornbread. I had bought some fresh ground maize meal in Rodrigues and found a recipe in one of Ann's cookbooks. I had made the mix up and rested the bowl on a bench allowing for the angle of heel when inexplicably Sylph rolled the other way and dumped the mix all over the cabin sole. What a mess! Such are the joys of cooking at sea. Undaunted, but not with out a sailor's curse or two, I started again. I can't say my cornbread was the greatest success. It came out a little doughy and while tasty enough gave me a mild stomach ache.

At 2 a.m. on Friday morning, 4 October, the lights of Mauritius started to twinkle on the horizon. I decided to be adventurous and continue through the group of small islands off the north end of Mauritius in the dark as I could see the islands pretty clearly from the gloaming shore lights.

Thus it was that sunrise saw me sailing ahead of Pamda Bear and Cornelia down the west coast of Mauritius to Port Louis, the lee of land providing flat seas and the fresh crisp breeze making for a brisk beam reach. The heavily eroded volcanic peaks which form the backbone of Mauritius made an awe inspiring sight, their jagged fingers the most memorable landfall thus far.

It was only 15 miles from Gunners Quoin (a very naval sounding name which I feel compelled to mention) guarding the northern end of the island to Port Louis, the official port of entry, such that at nine o'clock I was secured alongside the customs pontoon to present myself for the formalities.

Unlike customs at Rodrigues, the guys here went through my stores very thoroughly. I wondered whether my growing locks might have led them to suspect I was a druggy, but of course there was nothing to find. Mark on Cornelia apparently had no search done at all, which he attributed to Sammy, his rather large black pig dog. She apparently put the inspectors right off. I am going to have to give Emma some vitamin pills.

It took most of the day to complete all the formalities but at about 3 p.m. I went for a short stroll around the dock to find my bearings. Like most adventures this next one began with the most innocuous of beginnings.

During my stroll a young Indian woman with a little girl struck up a conversation with me. She commented on her daughter having seen me climbing my mast (I was clearing the RANSA burgee I had just hoisted, it had only just arrived in the mail and I was impatient to fly it) and she was apparently frightened for me. We talked as we strolled and she indicated an interest in boats. Sucker that I am, I invited her and her daughter to pop down sometime for a look around Sylph. Before I knew it she had arranged to come down at four that afternoon. Parting company I felt a certain discomfort in the whole situation but reassured myself that little harm could come of it, not least in my thoughts was what would my cruising neighbours say.

Well at four I was waiting in the cockpit but did not see her. I waited a short while as I enjoyed a cold beer but at five I give up and went below to make myself dinner, not a little relieved that perhaps she had thought more of her honour then of her interest in boats.

At seven I had finished dinner and was enjoying another relaxing moment in the cockpit when I heard Aldine, that was her name, calling me. "Oh bother," I thought, but being a gentleman (most of the time) I invited her on board. It transpired that she had waited timidly by the bow of the boat and apparently I had not seen her.

Well I gave her a quick tour and then offered her a cup of coffee and we had a friendly chat. It did not take long before she was telling me her life story. Her husband was a Muslim who had been charged with fraud and was now in jail. Her parents were Catholic and would have nothing to do with her after she married. She had two children and no income. She owed five months back rent and her landlord was going to throw her out that night. She was not entitled to any welfare benefits until December. She just needed to survive until then. And the tears flowed.

Obviously I could feel a bit of beggary coming on. I asked her why she was telling a complete stranger all this. She said she just didn't know what to do. I confronted her, "You want money don't you," and with stern determination added, "I'm not going to give you any you know." But she knew her craft well and said that all she wanted was for me to visit her abode so I could see how she lived and would know that she was telling the truth. And perhaps I would speak to her landlord for her, I was a man, he would respect me, and I might be able to influence him (yes, yes, pull the strings).

This is getting better than "The Sting" I thought. And I hate to say it but I was now starting to wonder whether she might be telling the truth. Was I to be witness to a young mother and her two small children being turned out onto the street? I consulted my conscience and thought of how I would feel looking at myself in the mirror tomorrow morning if I ignored her plight and threw her off my boat. My Christian conscience won and reluctantly I agreed to her request. I took only a little money thinking this way I could not be too severely had. Despite some trepidation that I was walking into a trap and almost turning back on two occasions she pleaded with me for my help, so on I pressed.

We eventually got to her room behind the Port Louis race course, definitely not a ritzy part of town. It was just a space under the floor of a house, what might be called a cellar, with a curtain for a doorway. The room was very dirty, housing a dresser, a double bed and a kerosene cooker and an item which, while incongruous, I thought probably added a touch of authenticity to the scene, a large colour TV.

We chatted some more and eventually I agreed to see the landlord. While I was by myself with the children, still suspicious, I pantomimed with them to ask where they slept, they indicated here on the double bed. Were they also trained accomplices? A young Indian man hobbled in, apparently he had hurt his leg rather badly playing soccer that morning. His story: he had three woman, including Aldine, renting at 1000 rupee (A$65) a month. Yes, she owed him five months back rent and yes, she would get welfare payments in December. In the meantime she had no money and he owed 2000Rp in an electricity bill. All the wiring in the flats went to one of his outlets, illegal but he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. He had to pay the bill by tomorrow (alarm bells rang in my head). He had a cousin who could move in tomorrow and pay him three months rent in advance which would enable him to pay the electricity bill. He needed his 5000Rp or out she must go. "What could he do?"

"So you want me to pay you 5000Rp?" I ask. Salim, for that was his name, says, "No, this is not your problem, it is this woman's problem," and he left the room. Aldine starts to blubber.

"Well," I thought, "this is an interesting insight into Mauritian culture and I haven't even been here 24 hours. If this is a sting it is almost worth it - most elaborate." But 5000Rp was a lot more than I was willing to part with. I am not that much of a good Samaritan and my greatest suspicion in all this was the timing, why so urgent? I asked Aldine to fetch the landlord back. I asked, "How much would you want to let Aldine stay until Tuesday?" thinking this would give me time to think, get some sleep (I had been awake now for about 36 hours) and perhaps check with someone in authority on the veracity of all this. But Salim says, "No, I owe 2000Rp I must pay tomorrow. This is not your problem. You go."

At this point Salim asks Aldine to leave the room. I repeat my question. No is the firm reply. "Alright, if I give you the 2000 for the electricity bill will you let her stay, how long?" (I've swallowed the hook.) Salim finds a calculator and a piece of paper and pen. He says he can allow her to stay for a further 15 days if I give him 2000Rp. His English is not good and he is having trouble expressing himself in his apparent anguish. I feel that he is feeling uncomfortable, I presume at the thought of throwing Aldine and her children into the street. He writes on the paper, I still have it, "That you tell her that you will give me the 2000 and I can't give her the 15 days to give me the rest. Don't tell her that I had tell you all about." I understand from this that he wants to keep the pressure on Aldine to come up with the remaining 3000Rp but would allow her to stay another 15 days.

I agree to Salim's proposal. Aldine and I find a cab, get to an autobank, I withdraw some money and give her the 2000Rp. The taxi driver I decide is the biggest crook of all, he wants 500Rp. By now I am very tired, am feeling very uncharitable and have a strong suspicion that I've been had. I tell Aldine brusquely I never want to see her again, walk the short distance back to the boat where I have a stiff Bundy and coke, think, "Well h-e-l-l-o-h Port Louis," and crash.

Was I ripped off? I can now answer this question though of course you already know. But first there is another interesting twist. The next day, Jean, a French sailor in a very fast boat arrives in town - it seems to be a French trait, they must go fast. That afternoon he runs aground in the harbour (fast equals deep draft). Another sailor, Peter, a Pom, and I help Jean out later that night. We had to wait until midnight for the very small tidal range to float him off. Afterwards we were sitting in Jean's saloon over a few drinks sharing a few yarns. My tongue loosened I share my story of the previous night. Supercilious Peter reckons I've been had. "Indians are the greatest beggars known," sums it all up for him. Jean asks me, "What did she look like, was she wearing an orange pants suit?" Apparently Aldine had approached him that day asking for 3000Rp, which he pays no questions asked. We debated the issue a little longer. I thought it interesting she had asked for 3000Rp but then Aldine and Co. would be aware that we yachties talk to one another. It was another late night.

And the answer. Well that came almost two months later when another yachtie I had met, Craig (who is yet another strange and interesting story), to whom I had related these events was later confronted by Aldine. Forewarned, he had no compunction in rejecting her. Cheekily he even told her some of her story before she could get it all out. A variation though, it seems she no longer liked boats. Wisdom(?) is clearly meant to be revealed in its own good time for the same day I was perusing an Indian Ocean cruising guide I had borrowed from another yacht and I came across the following advice,

"In some countries confidence tricksters will regale you with a hard luck story involving the loss of money, family, goods, whatever, all through absolutely no fault of their own and only because they happened to be in the wrong place when the sky fell on their head. You need to be wary over such stories which you will likely find have been repeated to most of those in the anchorage or harbour."

The trick is of course to find a balance between a sensible skepticism without becoming cold hearted and downright mean. There is still an awful lot of poverty all about and Aldine and her landlord (husband/partner?) still had to work pretty hard for their money, just not as hard as the honest workers in town. As for me, I would rather be ripped off a few times then lose my touch of humanity. And at home many would pay close to this amount for an evening's entertainment without batting an eyelid, but mine was truly an interactive adventure, beats a computer game any day.

And this was only the beginning of my adventures in Mauritius!