The guidebooks I read before my departure repeatedly described Mauritius as an island paradise, but no amount of reading could actually have prepared me for what I first saw out the airplane window and we descended below the clouds in the Southern Hemisphere. The ground below me exploded with color as the mist of the atmosphere dispersed. It was a kind of vibrancy I am unaccustomed to on Long Island, where the hues vary from the dull of concrete to the unnatural saturation of artificial grass. Below me, the jewel tones glittered in the afternoon sun. I was struck by the vitality that seemed to radiate from the egg yellow sun and lush terrain faceted like an intricately cut diamond.
Things, however, became very real as soon as we touched down. The immigrations officers were surprisingly strict and suspicious of our reasons for travelling to Mauritius. I managed to use my rudimentary French to smooth talk the officers into allowing our entry with less than the required documents, silently thanking every language teacher I have ever had as I passed through the airport exit. Vedant Seeam, the founder of Eli Africa, later told us that many Mauritian officials struggle to understand the concept of volunteering. It was a welcome reminder that, though we had just arrived in paradise, we were here to help people.
We soon reached Triolet, the largest village in Mauritius and an important village in the northeastern Pamplemousses district. The twilight, poorly lit streets, and nagging jetlag made it difficult to organize the labyrinth of buildings we weaved through in pursuit of our summer home. Our rented house is tucked away in a back road, bordering an agricultural field and other residences. The building is stunning with its tropical colors, wraparound balcony, and expansive interior. But the real jewel is the door to the roof, where the stars, uninhibited by the unnatural lights of an urban center, burn pinpricks in the fabric of the night sky.
Triolet is no less confusing in the daylight. Most of the shops are planted on a single straight road running through the middle of the village, while the back road tributaries host the living spaces. The buildings are every color and lean haphazardly on each other. There seems to be no real concept of personal space, yet this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The community seems to be more connected than anything I’ve ever seen as a result of living on top of each other. I walked through town on my first morning, taking in the flavor of Triolet and searching for bread. The atmosphere is both unpretentious and unpredictable; it boasts a vibrancy that I am not yet used to. Most striking is the ubiquitous feeling of complete liberation from judgment, expectations, and norms so present in my home life. I feel invisible as I weave through the crowds on their way to the work or markets. This is a “no-rules” place, in the best way possible. I am learning the ropes by befriending the shopkeepers I purchase rice, beans, and vegetables from. They tell me not to feed the absurd amount of stray dogs that roam the streets, a lesson I will probably never learn.
My first attempt at cooking dinner was a mild success. I worked on the rice and beans all day, although the latter took too long to cook and ended up slightly burned. Like all things about transitioning to life in Mauritius, my cooking skills are a work in progress. I am just grateful that the other Eli Fellows will let me try to prepare food for them again.
After two days of rest, we, the Eli Fellows, set off for our first real beach excursion with the rest of the Eli Africa core team. We drove to the east coast of the island, where emerald mountains fold into the rippling Indian Ocean. It took time to convince me to go parasailing, but the Eli guys and girls eventually succeeded. I again remembered the promise to my father that I would confront fear and suited up for flight. Half panic, half wonder stopped my breath as I ballooned into the air. The water was clear enough to see the coral, sand, and small creatures dotting the floor of the lagoon. In the horizon, waves boiled rhythmically as the ocean’s current collided with the coral reef that kept the sea underneath me so undisturbed. When I landed, giggling and panting from the exhilaration, the rest of my Eli family either cheered or laughed hysterically at my frantic screams of excitement while in the air. I began to feel like I really belonged in this ragtag group of driven and passionate young idealists.
My experiences here so far have been amazing, but that’s not to say I haven’t suffered some emotional snags. I still feel like a stranger and long for the familiarity of home. The lack of a cell phone and a consistent Internet connection has separated me from the people at home I care about; no doubt access to their reassurances and advice would make this transition easier for me. I have had to deal with the loneliness of living in a new place without their support. On the other hand, however, the involuntary isolation has freed me from the anxieties of being constantly “wired in.” When I start to feel homesick, it helps me to remember that I am here for a meaningful reason: to make a difference in the lives of children and convince them that their creativity, passion, and curiosity is worth something in this world.
I am looking forward to creating a student-run newspaper here in Pamplemousses. I see it as an outlet for my students to express the opinions that many adults here disregard, but that I feel they deserve. At its core, my project with Eli Africa represents my belief that every child is entitled to a voice. I have my former speech and debate coach, Mrs. Lydia Esslinger, and another mentor, Dr. Ivor Parsons, to thank for that. It was under their guidance that I truly began to value what it means not just to speak, but to speak meaningfully.
Mauritius is an incredible place. As I predicted, I arrived wholly unprepared to be here. But, little by little, I am learning to appreciate this new kind of control I have over my life, imaginable only due to the spontaneity and malleability of life in this country. Never in my life has so much been possible. Lauren, an Eli Africa Fellow who just graduated from Yale, reminds me of this whenever I see her tattoo: “I am the master of my destiny, I am the captain of my soul.”