It is a strange undertaking to simply arrive somewhere with the intention of undertaking a project, but with limited knowledge of the place, an inability to speak the local language, and no idea of what type of project to undertake. There were the additional constraints of having only five months worth of time and quite limited financial resources. I found myself last November in just this situation. For the first few weeks I watched insects crawl on the walls, read books and papers on climate change the environment, tested if I could give myself diabetes with mangos, figured out that the local beer made my hands and feet itch, and contemplated the human condition. I could identify many things that other people should be working on like pollution, waste, energy production, food security, education, inequality, corruption, and industrial tourism. Mauritius was not very different than the majority of the world in the problems that it faces, but many were more acute due to the constraints of living on an island. None of these areas seemed appropriate for me to delve into though.
After a month I felt no further along. I could not help but think that I could not find anything to do because I had an incredibly limited skill set and simply was not up to the task I had set for myself. If you need a problem to deal with you can always create one yourself. The first project that I needed to undertake in Mauritius was to help myself as the malaise and boredom were too much. I abandoned the illusion of altruistic action and returned to just doing what I enjoyed. I set about exploring the scattered remnants of natural areas on the island. I found happiness in the quiet of the forest and the inspiration on the peaks. I breathed deeply in the open, relishing the reprieve from the oppressive concrete sprawl and sugarcane wastes. It did not take long before I had hiked all of the well-known trails and peaks. I began scouring the internet and asking around to uncover new frontiers. I began bringing my GPS with me, taking photos, and writing about the trails. I hiked during cyclones in the howling winds and rain. I baked my arms in the tropical sun and came home sliced to bits by vicious tropical plants.
Thus I found my winter project in the creation of a website called Explore Mauritius. I aimed to compile a detailed comprehensive guide that would enable Mauritians and tourists alike to experience the same joy I felt in the limited remnants of nature on the island. Additionally, I hoped to foster a stronger community around outdoor activities to protect these areas for posterity. In sharing something that I love I managed to combine many of the various skills that I already possessed and also learn a few new ones as I designed the website itself and the interactive map that became the centerpiece of it all. The map was built using Google Fusion Tables as the platform and Garmin Basecamp for editing tracks.
The number of people who use the website and are getting outside is growing every week. I stumbled into doing exactly what I intended to do at the outset.
I am no longer marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean. My departure had overtones of finality as it is unclear when I will make it back to a part of the world that is about as close as I can come to the opposite side of the world from Utah (see Map Tunneling). In my head I said goodbye to the faces of friends; the stress over my failure to learn French or like baguettes and foie gras; my disgust with the hoards of overweight, leathery tourists sunning themselves like glutted Komodo Dragons; the miasma generated by the billowing smoke of trash fires; my addiction to the fried, rolled curry deliciousness that is roti; my fragile mind addled by boredom that bristled with the shouts of the crazy lady that lived next door, the CD of Christian music that played on repeat everyday, and the kid who made noises like Moses Hightower from Police Academy. I reflected that I was orphaning my interminable project – exploremauritius.org (I wrote about the project here) – to map out the trail systems and natural areas of Mauritius. I felt proud of this child, but realized that I would no longer be there for it and could merely hope that it goes out into the world and labors arduously forevermore. I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport and kicked my feet up in anticipation of the joy I imagined that deadbeat fathers experience when they leave home into the bliss of utter irresponsibility. No more ballet recital or parent teacher conferences, just cheap beer, Pizza Bagels, and Eggo Waffles. It never came; I was not cathartically transmogrified. Mauritius still occupied my thoughts – in that moment I felt a deep connection with the place, it felt like a part of me. The foundations of my life philosophy were shaken by the thought that being a deadbeat might not be so easy as it is impossible to fully abandon anything. I furrowed my brow, deep in contemplation. I wanted to give form to Mauritius, to find a way to relate to it in a more concrete manner.
I groped for parallels with every object around me. Mauritius is not like a notebook, a smelly sandal, a bag of dried fruit, or a trashcan. The exercise felt ridiculous after a moment, but maybe I didn’t have to create a convoluted analogy, maybe the answer was right under my nose. The thought that Mauritius has no readily apparent utilitarian raison d’etre shed some light on the matter; it is bold and vain. After ruminating on this thought for a few minutes I felt the fingers of my hand gently twisting the ends of my mustache. Sacre bleu! Mauritius is most akin to the baroque mustache flourishing on my upper lip that I call ‘The Rajah.’
It is an ever-flowering wellspring of youth that brashly bursts forth with joie de vivre on a face that otherwise is a monument to functionality in a steady state of decay. It exists largely on aesthetic grounds, serving as a reminder that life in the end is a gigantic practical joke. Mustaches are not all tickles and giggles though – vanity has a cost. A mustache of any complexity requires two utilitarian hands to regularly groom it and twist it into shape – it is not capable of supporting itself. A mustache strives to look effortless, pristine, and independent, but this is only the appearance it offers from a distance. As one comes closer the heavy traffic that the mouth requires to support a variety of superfluous appendages like mustaches must pass through the baleen-like barrier of the mustache. Countless flavors and smells accumulate in profusion – the rich and the rotten. The existence of a mustache requires adaptability to changes in the dictates of style, a recognition that the upkeep grows correspondingly with time and complexity, and there is always a risk that it will simply run it course. Mustaches draw ire and accolades, but in the end both are senseless; it is just there – it need not be justified or explained.