New Internationalist

A yellow flag in the sunset

Issue 387

Setting out to get her boat made sea-worthy again, Lindsey Collen reflects on the ripples of change lapping at Mauritius’s shores.

Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

The fishing pirogue Ram and I bought old in 1983 started taking in a bit of water recently, and right now is when we need it. It’s the season when the sea is beautiful way out beyond the reef, for fishing, playing with dolphins or watching whales.

‘I’ll get her out on my trailer for you,’ offered Patrice last week. He moors his pirogue in the same cove as us in Flic-en-Flac, which isn’t far from the village we live in. This way Ram could quickly redo some of the plank joints with new wick and sealant and get the boat back in the water. For a living, Patrice dives down and hand-nets exquisite teeny-weeny deep-sea fish, which he has to carry from the dark depths up, in delicate stages, to different pressure levels over about 24 hours, until they’re ready to hand over to an intermediary for export.

As well as being a diver, Patrice is one of the 5,000 ‘fisherfolk’ who are skippers of boats now defined by the Government as ‘pleasure crafts’, so he’s got exams coming up. He’s got to get a licence now, in order to make him WTO-compatible. Mauritius has offered up ‘tourism services’ to the World Trade Organization, for companies worldwide to be able to ‘invest’ in without hindrance. But for that to come about, and to ensure there’s no ‘unfair competition’ from local people who happen to live there, there are rules, rules, rules.

But rules or no rules, pirogue fisherfolk haven’t got much choice. Catches have decreased so dramatically that the only income they can come by these days is from taking tourists out trailing, diving or on a picnic to a little island somewhere. Now they find there are exams to pass just to stay in the new niche they’ve found.

But anyway… When we went to take the pirogue out, we saw this amazing sight.

Two young men were standing calf-deep in the middle of the turquoise lagoon near where the boats were moored and, in their arms, they were holding a reddish-maroon, three-seater, fully upholstered, beautiful couch. A settee. They stood there, looking ashore, waiting. Then they proceeded, after a lot of instructions yelled at them from the beach, to place it carefully in the water. Meanwhile someone had tied a different-coloured flag on to the top of the mast of each pirogue in the cove. Ours got a yellow one. And a huge four-foot-high stage had popped up on the beach, between the pirogues and where Patrice and Ram intended to pull ours up. A lone dancing girl was standing up there on it in scanty attire while a film crew from Bollywood, busy as a Bruegel painting and surrounded by gawkers, prepared a song-and-dance sequence. That’s another niche – the Government encouraging filmmakers to come and film scenes in Mauritius, hoping this creates a few jobs here and there.

The wooden pirogue, old as it is, looks beautiful out of the water, too. Hand-crafted by lone master marine carpenters, Mauritian pirogues are unusual in that they’ve got a mast that isn’t upright. It slopes quite markedly towards the back of the boat. The front sail works from the top of the mast to the bowsprit, and then there’s a second mast – the vergue – which is a very long bamboo on to which you tie your mainsail before hoisting it up through pulleys and lashing it to the top third of the mast. The members are cut from mature jackfruit trees – dug up root and all – from the angle incorporating the trunk and the root; this way they are strong because the curve runs against the grain of the wood throughout. But jackfruit trees are becoming rare now. And anyway there’s quite a sizeable industry producing fibreglass boats that replace the old pirogues. When we bought ours from a retired fisher in Le Morne Village in 1983, everyone predicted that it was already too old. But it’s back afloat after its repairs now.

So, watch out for the one with the yellow flag, if you come across a Bollywood film with a song-and-dance sequence that has pirogues in the background. And take care not to miss the upholstered-settee-in-the-sea scene.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on A yellow flag in the sunset

Leave your comment