Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Sweater Saga

A Cautionary Tale

16 November 2017

We arrived on Mauritius on 7 November, and have been a bit busy.  We did our usual settle into the hotel, go out and walk around the neighborhood, visit the beach, find places to eat sort of thing.  The photos today are from the beach and our time walking around, and don't have much to do with the Sweater Saga.

Plus we came to Mauritius so Richard can renew his passport.  The Seychelle Islands is a small nation, and shares a US Embassy with Mauritius.  And while his passport doesn't expire for a while, many countries will not admit a visitor with a passport that will expire within six months.  So this means we have to plan to renew a passport about seven months prior to expiration, while we're overseas.  The process includes filling out a form, getting it printed, getting new photos for the application, and making an appointment at the embassy.  Anyway, it meant a trip in to Port Louis, the capital, and some time at the embassy to file the application.

In amongst all of that, we've spent time at the beach, our favorite hang out spot.  There are food stands there, with tasty items such as biryani (though spelled here breyani, but still so fragrant and tasty!), noodles, and lots of fish.  We're on another island nation, so fish is always a popular food.  The local population is descended from the European colonists who brought in workers (slaves) from Africa, India, and China - so the food reflects all of those cultures.

We've met some wonderful people, and the Mauritian people on the whole are friendly and very generous.  There was the young man who works on a cruise ship, and knows St. Thomas, who gave Richard his special cigarette lighter.  And the breyani vendor, who saved a portion of breyani for me and kept it warm, until I was ready for my lunch by the beach - plus he charged me the local price, not the posted tourist price.  Lovely, warm, friendly people.

And then there are those who make money taking advantage of innocent and unknowing tourists and travellers.  That is today's tale.  

On Tuesday, we went to the embassy.  Tiniest embassy we've ever seen, but nice helpful people.  Made arrangements with a taxi driver to get a ride to Port Louis (pronounced Port loo-EE) and then time to spend in the city, and an hour to meet and get a ride back to our hotel in Pointe aux Piments (point oh pee-MAWN, very French - piments being the chili peppers).  We do all of that, and on the ride back our driver says we should stop at one of the many cashmere factory outlet places, if we just look around he will get a voucher for the supermarket from the shop owners.  

Well, what can I say, we're always willing to help out another human.  So we say okay, we'll look.  And, well, big rookie mistake here.  Both of us should have known better, but were a bit cold and damp from having been caught in the rain.

I go in, and look around.  Cashmere is a major industry here, the raw goat wool is imported from Kashmir in northern India, and is process, spun, dyed, and knit here.  Gorgeous and soft and light, I love cashmere.  I thought it would be a nice gift for my brother who takes care of all of our paperwork and bills and such, so that we can travel.

I guess I was an easy mark.  I ended up surrounded by saleswomen who were friendly and helpful, and found what I wanted.  And of course the price is marked up to an insane level, but the one with the calculator is a speed talker and is giving me the pitch with "50% off and then another 20% off and you get the value added tax back at the airport and this is a wonderful price."  I tried to bargain, and I really should have just walked out.  But I didn't.  I succumbed to the pitch, and bought the lovely sweater for a price that we'd expect to pay for cashmere in the US at a nice store, but more than one would expect to pay at a purported factory outlet store in the country where it was manufactured.

It gets better.  When we reach our hotel, I ask our sweet concierge if this was an okay price.  He was shocked and said I paid about three times more than I should have.  He explained that there are tourism police, and they will shut down a store if the practices are as unethical and basically criminal as I described.  We had a long talk, and his suggestion was the following day, go back to the store and talk to them, ask for either a refund or the real price, not the inflated price.  And if that doesn't work, threaten to go to the tourism police.

We did, telling our hotel to not call the same driver as the first day, that we don't want to deal with him ever again.  (He most likely got a kickback on this deal.)  Went out to the shop again, and tried talking to the calculator (and calculating) woman.  Who basically was no longer friendly but quite disdainful and bordering on nasty.  

So we went to the tourism police, up north in Grande Baie (basically Grand Bay) in the regular police station (though I suppose this is a prefecture, to be more precise).  Walk into the police station and explain the situation.  They are appalled at the price I was charged, and tell me that the tourism police person will be with us in just a few minutes.

And we end up in a tiny office, with the head tourist police guy, another officer, and two young policemen who just want to see what's going on.  I explain once again.  They look at the receipts and say that the value added tax has been paid, the receipts are in order, and there really isn't anything they can do, it is all legal even though they agree that the place is shady and has a bad reputation.  In fact, Mr Head Tourist Police says that they have spoken to this particular shop before.  Prices are NOT controlled, and there is nothing they can do.  Richard suggests maybe I can cancel the charge to my debit card, and the police jump on this - they see this as the perfect solution.  Really, they tell me to cancel the payment as soon as I can, and then just go back to the shop and give them back the sweater - because otherwise the shop can turn around and sue me.  I mean, seriously?  The cops are saying to cancel payment?  (After an evening of calling the USVI, trying to get through with phones still not quite working, I finally did reach someone at the bank - and no, I cannot cancel debit card charges.)

We chat a bit in English and French, and our officer crew says they will be in touch.  Richard then asks about a place to get some lunch in the neighborhood, since it is still raining.  At this point ALL the officers start making suggestions, to both of us.  And we go off to lunch, which was one of the bright spots of the day.  (More on that in a moment.)

So, the downside is that I paid more than I should have, and met a group of rather nasty and unscrupulous people.

The upside is that we have a beautiful gift for my very helpful brother.  We got to meet the tourist police.  We hung out in a police station, with a batch of friendly police officers who seen to have an interesting camaraderie.  Plus the taxi driver who is in on this scamming place is now banned from being called by our hotel.

And the best part is that we discovered Zorba's Greek Restaurant, right across the street from the police station in Grande Baie.  Had a very nice Greek lunch of souvlaki (two per plate, a huge portion - so we had take-away for dinner as well!), espresso, and a taste of galaktoboureko, my favorite Greek dessert - basically custard baked in a phyllo crust, and soaked in that wonderful honey syrup with cinnamon!  OMG so good, and a perfect dessert to share since it was our 14th wedding anniversary.  So just a little romance along with our day.

If you get to Mauritius, definitely eat at Zorba's in Grande Baie - they don't have a website yet, but here's their Facebook page:

Oh, and if our day hadn't been crazy enough, it turns out that the owner of Zorba's lives part time in Athens, or at least the suburb of Kalamaki - which is where our family lived for a year while our father worked at the oceanographic institute there!  So Dimitris and I chatted a little in my barely-remembered Greek, and laughed about being neighbors.  Teeny tiny world!

And, if you are shopping for cashmere, definitely avoid the town of Arsenal, and especially the "factory outlet" shop across the street from the Shell gas station there.  Major rip off place, and I'm doing everything I can to warn people off of this place!  Yup, wrote it up in TripAdvisor, here in our blog with our 140,000 or so hits, and I'll put it on Facebook.  Buyers beware, avoid K.N.E. Ravinale Cie!!!!  Nice items and lying staff with hugely inflated prices.  Do not be like me, avoid this place!

Can you tell that I'm enjoying my underground vengeance?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bats, Bats, and More Bats

6 November 2017

We've had a quiet weekend, getting ready to fly on Tuesday.  Had to go to Anse Royale and have one last meal at my favorite café, Kafé Kreol.  If you ever get to Anse Royale, eat here - right on the beach, with an Italian chef and fresh fish.  Really delightful.  They don't have a website, but they do have a Facebook page:

On Saturday afternoon, we went on a tour of the island of Mahé, the main island of the Seychelles.  Our landlady asked one of her sons to take us around, and we had a great time.  I've marked the places on the map, at the end of the blog.  

The most gorgeous was the view from Mission Lodge, which is a former mission and school dating back to the early 1800s.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 450 meters (1350 feet) above sea level, in the central hills or mountains of Mahé.  There stone buildings are now ruins, but the road and some  of the trees that were planted are still standing.  My favorite was an amazing cinnamon tree, now dead but still perfuming the air with its delicious scent.

While up there, I met the Seychelles bulbul, though the local people call this bird a parrotbird because they're noisy like parrots.  These are funny birds, maybe the size of a robin or so, dark grey with bright yellow-orange beaks and feet, and then a sort of punk rock tufted crest in black just on the top of their heads!  They also are quite friendly, almost to the point of fearless, and come right up to people - not touching, just close enough to eye you up and down.  They reminded me of Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer for Green Day - the spiky black hair and the attitude and the insistent voice demanding change.  Yeah, definitely the punk rocker birds of the animal kingdom!

We drove past the tea plantation and factory, the hillside covered with tea leaves.  And we drove back from the east side via the route called La Misere, The Misery - an extra steep, extra winding road that probably was miserable to climb before the automotive age.  

We also spent time at Grande Anse, the pristine and possibly longest beach on Mahé.  This was a beautiful beach, but there are signs all over saying that there's a dangerous undertow and currents, so not to swim here.  But there was the same powdery pale sand and turquoise water, with powerful waves crashing and foaming on the shore.  This beach seemed to have fewer rocks in the water, which might have something to do with the current, I don't really know.

We also drove as far north as the Port Launay Marine Park, or at least I think that's where we went.  The road is a single lane here, though for two-way traffic, because the community didn't want to have the road building impact the marine life in this protected area.  

And we saw bats.  By late afternoon, the bats are out flying around, looking for fruit trees to eat all night long.  Except these aren't just normal little bats, these are flying foxes. 

I tried to get photos of bats flying, or eating the Java apples in the trees in our front yard.  I stood outside from late afternoon until twilight, trying to get photos of bats.  I even went out in the full moon, trying to photograph the bats in the tree, or flying around.

But my camera is small, and has a limited zoom.  The flash has a short range.  Bats move rather quickly, and so the photos are often blurry.  And the one bat who came by a few days to hang in the tree and eat the apples was a bit scared of me the second day, and sidled along his branch before flying away.  Plus I didn't want to get so close that I could reach out and touch one of them, because they really do look a bit creepy, especially when they're close enough to land on you with those little claws.

So I'm including my photos of the flying foxes.  And then I'll add photos from the internet, taken by much better photographers than I am, or at least they have much better cameras than I do.  Trust me, you can tell which are mine and which aren't.  No contest.

We leave tomorrow, heading to Mauritius!  Another French/British island, but further south.  And we'll report in with all of our new adventures!




Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Thomas, the Oldest Tortoise on Mahe Island

1 November 2017

We moved from the Bougainville area of Mahe to the area known as Anse la Mouche, or Anse a la Mouche - which translates as Beach Fly, or maybe Fly Beach.  
We're staying at a place that is owned by the woman who usually runs the villa we stayed in up that crazy hill in Bougainville - but this is about half a block from the beach, and we're the only guests here at the moment.  It's one of those long stories, but the woman's mother is taking care of this place, along with a number of young men who help out with maintenance, garden, and all that.

So we're basically in a Seychellois home, which is very interesting.  Much less anonymous and impersonal than a hotel, and we've had long chats with Mary, our hostess.  And we're very comfy here, in a separate wing with our room and bathroom, and a second bedroom we use as more of an office.

The most astonishing thing I discovered here is that this property is home to Thomas, the oldest land tortoise on this island (Mahe).  Thomas is 199 years old, and seems to be the last male of his particular species of tortoise.  There are others, but he's the last male.  The botanical gardens in Victoria has a collection of female tortoises, and Thomas has been brought over to impregnate them.  But Thomas either didn't like any of these lady tortoises, or he's decided he's too old for making babies.  At any rate, he doesn't have any sons or grandsons to carry on the family name.

Now, in the enclosure with Thomas is Melanie, a female.  Thomas also doesn't particularly like Melanie, and refuses to have anything to do with her.  Melanie was brought over to try to produce more tortoises, but, well, Thomas is picky.  And old.  And curmudgeonly. Just a grumpy old tortoise.

But he is HUGE!  Probably almost 4 feet long (1.3 m), and I have no idea how tall he stands - he could look over the cement wall of his enclosure, which is a good 3 or 4 feet (1 to 1.3 m) high.  Seriously, I've seen some big tortoises, but he's one of the biggest.  And oldest!

The third tortoise in the enclosure doesn't have a name.  And it isn't known whether this is a male or female tortoise.  It just wandered onto the property a while ago, so the family caught it and put it in the enclosure or turtle corral.  They also advertised that this tortoise was found, because the government keeps records of who is caring for which tortoise.  These are endangered species, and are protected by Seychelles laws and regulations.  I'm not sure if there's an actual register of tortoises, but some office or person keeps track of all of the tortoises.

Except on Aldabra island and the surrounding atolls - this is where the giant tortoises originated.  The Seychelle Islands are comprised of 115 scattered islands and atolls, some populated with people, even more unpopulated, and a few populated with only tortoises.  There are about 94,000 to 95,000 human residents of the Seychelles.  But on Aldabra and those couple of atolls, there are roughly 100,000 to 150,000 giant tortoises.  So yes, these huge animals outnumber the people living in the Seychelles!

No one is sure if the tortoises are indigenous to all the islands, although fossils of similar animals have been found as far away as Madagascar.  But there are confirmed reports of these tortoises occasionally floating long distances across the ocean - one tortoise washed up on the shores of Tanzania, about 1400 miles away (2290 km)!!!

More information about these tortoises (and this floating tortoise) here:

We took the bus to Victoria yesterday, and were just wandering around.  We saw a tee shirt with the giant tortoise image on it, and I told the woman I had met Thomas the tortoise.  She asked if he was at the botanical gardens again, and I explained that he lives at the place where we are staying.  And I asked her if he's really the oldest tortoise on Mahe - she agreed, he definitely is!

So we're quite impressed to be staying at the home of this island celebrity!!!

I keep trying to get photos of the flying foxes, but they're pretty fast as they fly by, or too far away for a decent photo.  Same thing with the tropicbirds.  So I may just have to lift some photos from online.  I'll keep trying.

The property here has a Seychellois apple tree in the front yard - it has beautiful red fruit, but they aren't apples the way we think of apples in North America and Europe.  These are sometimes called wax apples or Java apples, and the plants originated in Indonesia.  Apparently the fruit is rather sour, although some people enjoy them.  The birds seem to really like them; I noticed that some of the fruit was partially eaten, and watched, hoping for the fruit bats to come close.  No, there were some average brown or grey birds, maybe a thrush or starling or local robin, eating the fruit very enthusiastically.

My little red fody friends have been building a nest in the wax apple tree, next to a batch of still-green apples.  I've been watching them - their nest is the kind that looks like a rather long narrow basket, almost like a sock.  Mr Fody has been doing much of the work for his lady love.  But it turns out he isn't much of an architect or contractor - we had quite a rain storm last night, complete with thunder and lightning, and I'm guessing there was quite a bit of wind as well.  I looked this morning, as we had breakfast on the front porch.  And the nest was in shambles, just a bunch of grasses and little branches, soggy and wet and hanging in the tree.  Little Mr Fody came by and just sat in the tree, looking very dejected over the demise of his nest.  I felt very bad for them, but, well, what do I know about nest building, it isn't as if I can help the family out.

This storm is an indication that rainy season is beginning.  We had initially thought we'd renew our visas and stay longer, but the length of the rain storms is increasing, as well as the intensity.  Mary told us that by December, it will be raining nearly all day every day.  So we'll head out before that, and go somewhere drier and sunnier.

Oh, and while we were talking about the rain, Mary told us about the Indian Ocean tsunami and what happened here - as I said, we're maybe half a block from the beach, it's just across the street from the end of the yard.  The family saw the sea coming up across the yard and into the house - the water was maybe a yard or meter high, and just kept coming into the house!  Everyone either ran up the hill or climbed up the water tower here, and just waited it out.  Eventually the water receded, and they were able to clean up the mess and go back to living in the house.

I've heard about the tsunami from other people here.  We met a large crowd of Seychellois at a restaurant one day, all having lunch and being very friendly.  They all seemed to have come by boats, so I asked about the waves that break so far off shore, wondering if it was a coral reef, or a rocky shelf, or what.  Turns out that yes, that's a coral reef way out there, it sort of rings at least the east side of the island.  So that's where the waves break, right where the coral comes up close to the surface of the ocean.

This one man said that in the 2004 tsunami, the water receded to about 50 meters (150 feet) beyond that reef, and it was all exposed!  And then, when the water rushed back in, it didn't really come back in a wave or a wall of water, as we all imagine from movies.  The water just started coming back in and rising about a meter or yard above the normal level, so all the buildings along the beaches and shorelines flooded.  Fortunately it wasn't bad over here on the west side of the Indian Ocean, not the way it was over near the epicenter in Indonesia.  But it is still a recent memory for those who lived though this frightening event.

Today is All Saints' Day, a national holiday in the Seychelles.  In Victoria, we saw people buying artificial flowers, and the cemetery we passed while riding the bus (in the rain) was full of decorated gravestones.  So it seems that the practice here is to visit one's deceased loved ones and put colorful bunches of flowers all around the grave.  Rather sad and morbid, but it certainly made the cemetery look cheerful.

Okay, so here's a map showing the locations of the four places we've stayed in the Seychelles.  Anse la Mouche is on the west side of the island - about 1000 miles west of us is Kenya.  That's the closest point on a continent.  India is about as far away, but to the northeast.  

And we'll see what else the week brings.