And the Rainbow touched Mauritius
To my son Kalle
It is a privilege to wake up with a person who is always happy.
Would you like to listen to some music while reading?
Mauritius, May 2000
He arrived early one morning with the Air Mauritius flight from New Delhi. He looked around as he went with a hesitant gait to get a baggage cart for his two well-worn suitcases bound in brown leather. Once outside the airport terminal he stood motionless for at least ten minutes. The seasons were changing from summer to winter and rain was streaming down. He felt a deep satisfaction. Some- one hurried up to shelter him with an umbrella, but he declined. He flagged a taxi. Even if he hadn’t had arthritis in one knee, he would have preferred to walk slowly. After thirty years in India, Laval de Marques had come home.
He told the driver to take him to Le Morne, the neighbourhood where he had built the house he had dreamed of for so many years. A little way up the mountainside, not far from there where his ancestors had chosen to leap off the cliff, in disbelief of the news that slavery had been abolished. As the taxi approached L’Escalier village, he told the driver to stop.
Laval said, «Wait for me on the far side of the bamboo grove. I want to walk.»
«But sir, it’s raining. You’ll get wet.»
«I know,» Laval replied. «That’s not important.» He had been longing for exactly this place for so many years. The bamboo grove enclosed a wide path, two hundred meters long. It was just here that as a child he had enjoyed climbing, even though it was for- bidden territory. Laval felt a surge of warmth when he thought of his mother’s words: «Everything here is so beautiful and peaceful. Children should certainly be permitted to climb trees and play their games, but not here. This is the avenue designed for enjoyment and quiet contemplation.»
Laval’s head filled with memories as he stood there in the «avenue of enjoyment.» He was pleased to see that it looked just the same as it had looked thirty years earlier. The trees had grown, he supposed, but none had been destroyed, thank heaven.
Laval got back into the taxi, dripping wet.
The taxi driver was concerned. «But sir, you might catch pneumonia.»
«If so, I’ll accept it with peace and tranquility.»
The rain had stopped. They were approaching Bel Ombre on the south side. Opposite the Beau Champs bridge they stopped again. It was an old stone construction, overgrown with vegetation and greenery, as if one were in a rain forest. But there were no venomous snakes. Laval had seen more than his share of snakes in India. It was still early in the morning and the dew was still visible on the leaves of the trees.
Laval sent the driver off to buy coffee. «I need to sit here for a while and enjoy it.» «But sir, you will certainly catch double pneumonia.» «For that, there’s penicillin. Go on now and get me a coffee.»
When Laval had his coffee, he sat on the corner of the bridge, his legs over the side. He had married twice and divorced twice, he had two children and three grandchildren. He was pleased that he had managed to maintain good contact with both of his former wives. He had been twenty-five years old when he left Mauritius – and now he had managed to reach the age of fifty-five. Dangling from the bridge, Laval’s feet touched the surface of the water. So many years had gone by. At the beginning he had managed a little hotel in Goa, and then various unforeseen opportunities had steered him into information technology. His was one of the more successful enterprises of its type in New Delhi. He had built up more than just an information technology firm. It was a whole complex, with a hospital, staff housing and a school. Many people had shrugged and laughed at his ideas. But after a few years they had stopped laughing. At an early phase Laval had a vision of the whole picture – based on the fact that individu- als work and perform best if they have easy access to services. In Laval’s enterprise almost no one was ever absent because of illness. He had created his masterpiece, and now was the right time to go back home.
That was why he had arranged to have the house built. Laval hadn’t seen it before this except in the architectural drawings, but now as he stood before it he was deeply pleased. The clean lines spoke to him. He thanked the taxi driver, who had followed him in with the bags. The man’s face was easy to read. How could such a successful man want to live in such Spartan conditions? So extremely Spartan that there were almost no furnishings relative to the extensive floor space.
«You see,» said Laval with a smile, «I have seen so much silk cloth and ‹kitsch› in my time that this is the way I wanted it to be.»
«But five computers, sir – I thought you had retired?»
Laval laughed. «I need to keep myself apprised of what’s going on in the firm. It’s in the hands of my oldest son, but I can’t resist keeping an eye on it.»
The driver left him in his isolation. Laval opened a bottle of cognac, took a seat on his huge terrace and looked out over the ocean. Home, at last. The sun shone on the mountainside and Laval suddenly felt a yearning to flood the place with light. He got up and went around the house opening the window blinds, letting the piercing rays of the sun into every nook and cranny of his house. Yes, perhaps a few curtains might be required, he reflected, but if so, they would have to be sewn of a thin, airy fabric that would let in the light.
Mauritius, May 2000
He had walked and swum almost five kilometers today. Now Laval was sitting on a park bench, stretching out his legs and carefully massaging one knee. Usually the pain would feel unbearable, but not today. It was if he had forgotten the pain, for all his consciousness was concentrated on the fact that he was back home again. He looked out over Grand Port. Imagine that almost four hundred years ago, out there on the sea in Mauritian waters he was born, the man who became the first registered creole mulatto on Mauritius…in fact the first registered birth, Simon van der Stel was his name. His grand- mother was an Indian slave from Goa, and Simon ́s father Adriaan was the second governor of the island for several years when it was a relatively small Dutch colony.
Interestingly, Simon van der Stel actually became the first Dutch governor of Cape Town some years later. He planted the first wines there and his name was given to Stellenbosch, the prime wine- growing region in South Africa. His private estate Groot Constantia, still is existence today, produced Napoleon ́s favorite port wine. Of course, during the apartheid days, the Afrikaners hid his picture as he had distinct Asian feature, and produced a lithography given him a white European look.
And from here near Grand Port the first slaves had fled into the woods. About a hundred blacks were included in the cargo from Madagascar aboard the ship ironically named SOLIDER – which is Creole and meant solidarity. His name was Pedro and he was nine- teen years old. Pedro had been the property of a wealthy, powerful man in Madagascar and was that man’s best, most reliable slave. There he had enjoyed the status of a family member. His owner had fallen on hard times and was obliged to sell Pedro. As soon as he went aboard the ship he made the vow that he would survive. The slave merchant saw the hatred in Pedro’s gaze. He put a rope around his neck and led him to the bow of the boat. The slaver took a firm grip on the loop around Pedro’s neck, forced him to bow his head and spelled out loud, «S-O-L-I-D-E-R.» He laughed mockingly, spat in Pedro’s face, and said:
«That means loyalty, mutual support and brotherly love. Solidarity – it’s written in your language, Creole. You’ll get to teach it to yourself, because that’s the language you’ll use to communicate — like the slave you are.»
The slaver’s voice became even more cynical, if that were possible. «Just think of the riff-raff that you come from and the fact that they’ve made up their own language! In any case,» he continued, «I seriously doubt whether you’ll live long enough to learn very many words of Creole.»
Pedro was shoved down into the hold where the other «black cattle» were waiting. He was fastened hand and foot to the strong chain that bound them all together. The slaver stood behind Pedro, yanked back his head and snarled, «I’m delighted to give you an extra little present, especially for you and no one else among these hundred niggers. An easy choice for me – you get to keep the rope around your neck.» He laughed harshly, then swore several times before he was able to gather the strength to jam the bar into place across the hatch. The entrance to hell was now blocked.
The infernal pit was plunged into darkness so complete that it was impossible to tell if it was day or night outside. Black flies and rats swarmed there at all hours. It was impossible to tell how many of them were leaping back and forth. During the first hours of the voyage faint shrieks were audible as one or another of the rats sank its teeth into a slave. It was impossible to try to sleep amidst the heavy panting and the clanking of chains. That was the sound of fear. Those who did sleep simply collapsed from exhaustion and never woke up again.
They docked in Grand Port one day when the sun stood at the highest point in the sky and countless mosquitoes were swarming. The seventy of them who had survived the voyage in the cargo hold were pushed up on deck, where each was doused with two buckets of water. They were released from their chains and welcomed by the overseers to their imminent paradise on earth with its promise of lifelong pleasures.
Beads of sweat ran down Pedro’s mosquito-ravaged face. He held his brow, burning with fever. The slaver removed from Pedro’s neck the rope that had been mostly chewed apart by rats. He stared into his eyes but Pedro didn’t budge, standing there sunk in indifference. The slaver saw that Pedro would fetch a high price in the market and emptied another bucket of water over him. His motives were anything but humanitarian. He slapped him quickly and hard on the left cheek, two times, with the flat of his hand. Pedro jerked in response, in a daze, his eyes still empty.
The slaver stood close before Pedro, seized him roughly by the chin and said sarcastically, «You’re not Pedro anymore.» He emptied yet another bucket over him, laughed mockingly and said, «I christen thee ‹Sans Souci›, which means ‹Without a Care›. You’re the man without a memory.»
Shortly after the ship SOLIDER had docked at Grand Port a cloud of mosquitoes descended upon it. The «black cattle» who had lived with the constant infestation of black flies were indifferent to them, but not so the slavers and overseers. For a few moments their captors were distracted and ten of the slaves fled. They ran for their lives, directly into the woods south toward Le Morne mountain. Thanks to the fact that they were superb physical specimens, they still had their strength and despite the inhuman ocean crossing were able to escape from their pursuers. Sans Souci immediately became their natural leader.
In a penthouse near the Spanish Steps in Rome the former Special Agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration – DEA – baroness Francesca di Venezia stretched out in her Jacuzzi. It seemed to Francesca that she hadn’t had a bath in the last three weeks. She began to soap herself – «simply soap» the label read. I can do a bit better than this, Francesca thought, and emptied half a bottle of Gucci oil into the bathwater. She had spent five years hunting Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín Cartel, and had decided not to accept any more assignments. She wasn’t on the scene for the arrest attempt or the exchange of gunfire; that had been the job of the Colombian police. But she was there in Colombia and in Medellín when it took place. He finally got what he deserved, alone and barefoot, shot to death on the roof of a house after he had subjected so many to suffering, death and corruption.
Francesca’s sister telephoned and complained about the sad condition of their childhood home, a palace in Venice. Her sister was living there with her family. In order to keep up a certain standard of living they rented out several rooms to tourists, but that income was scarcely enough. Francesca was pleased that she had taken her part of the inheritance and paid for her own education. She had care- fully invested the remainder in well-paying securities and now at the age of forty she could stop working. Francesca had no interest in her sister’s little problems with high electricity bills, mold and creeping damp. Even if Francesca were to relate even a part of the suffering and misery that she had seen, most recently in Medellín, her sister would be incapable of understanding.
In a few days she would be traveling to Mauritius for a well- earned vacation. Francesca sat down before her computer to print her flight information and – of course – there was no paper left in the printer. Oh, well, I’ll just go down to the local police station, Francesca thought, and I’ll take the opportunity to wish them a merry Christmas.
Wearing black boots with stiletto heels, a cashmere coat and a Hermès scarf, Francesca strolled along the cobblestoned street by the Spanish Steps toward Via Condotti. On her way into the police station she came across an older woman in tears, accompanied by two policemen seeking to console her. The woman was wearing a mink fur –mink, without a doubt, but it had been drenched with red paint. Aha, thought Francesca, here’s an example of the problems we have here – such cowardly behavior!
Police Inspector Roberto gave Francesca a kiss on the cheek. «Wel- come home, baroness.»
«No, stop that. I call myself ‹baroness› only in bars and restaurants when I want to be sure I can reserve a table. We’ve talked about this before, you and I,» insisted Francesca.
Francesca sat down before a computer, printed her flight information, and scanned several Internet pages put up by Le Mauricien, the daily newspaper. Her natural police curiosity kicked in, prompting her to rummage through piles of faxes, checking for reports of crimes on Mauritius.
She called out to Roberto. «What sort of miserable little island is this that I’m going to? Listen to this. Here’s someone whose brakes are sabotaged and dies, and the perpetrator dies as well, under the influence of drugs. The investigation is closed, obviously, because the suspect is dead. That happened two weeks ago. Are they just stupid or is there some kind of corruption here? Obviously there has to be someone else behind this. Pablo Escobar’s motto was ‹Plata o Plomo› – ‹Take the bribe or die›.»
Roberto’s eyes sparkled as he looked at Francesca. «Lucky for you that you’ve quit working, so you can have a fine vacation … Or might it just be possible that you’re thinking of bringing along a little Parma ham and Parmesan cheese for a Christmas visit to the family of the recently deceased?»
Francesca looked up at Roberto, initially annoyed, but then she just had to laugh. She saw that he knew exactly how her mind worked. «Merry Christmas to you, Roberto, and my best to your wife.»
«Watch out for two-legged sharks!»
With two hat boxes in either hand Francesca stopped opposite the Fontana di Trevi. The water looked cold, without a doubt. For Mauritius they were reporting an ocean temperature of 28C. Three weeks of sun and warmth, exactly what I need, Francesca thought. She went to the shop of her pork butcher. Mario, the owner, saw Francesca and immediately hurried out to open the door for her.
«Bella Baronessa Francesca, welcome home!» he greeted her.
«Thanks, Mario. I’d like to have a kilo of Parma ham and about the same amount of Parmesan cheese, vacuum packed, if you please.»
«Ah, so the baroness will be going to visit her sister in Venice.»
«What are you saying! No, thank heavens,» Francesca murmured. «I’m traveling to Mauritius. I’ve just come from my fashion designer, after a month in Colombia, including several days in the jungle. It seemed to me that I needed to smarten myself up a bit.»
«No one in Mauritius can be as elegant as the baroness. Are there good friends on the island who will have the privilege of tasting our Italian delicacies?»
«No, Mario, years of experience have taught me how important it is to have one’s own supply.»
« But bella Baronessa, Mauritius has some of the world’s most beautiful and most comfortable resorts. I was there just last year. Their food is divine.»
«That sounds lovely, but one never knows. Where did you stay?»
«Oh, it was what they call a ‹once-in-a-lifetime experience›, the Hotel Le Saint Géran. It has the reputation of being the world’s best beach hotel and spa.»
«That’s where I’ll be staying. I hope you’re right, considering that it’s anything but free.»
«I am convinced that the baroness will be as happy as a fish in the water.»
«Thank you, Mario, and have a very merry Christmas.»