When I first arrive in a new country, my brain works on overtime trying to figure everything out. It takes unfamiliar villages, streets, apartments, situations and compares them to any and all other places that I have lived and experiences that I have had, trying to make things familiar in a place where nothing is.
I started my time in Mauritius living in Péreybère, a tourist haven for Mauritians and Europeans. Everything felt new and exciting. Mangoes were falling from the sky. Buying produce was a thrilling practice of language skills. I struggled to determine street and development patterns and if there were village centers or just endless circles of coastal roads.
It was peaceful, quiet, and confusing in Péreybère. When I first arrived, the apartment building of 16 units had three occupied. I knew little to nothing about how Mauritians live. I did not know if it was normal to have concrete palaces surrounded by overgrown forests and electric razor wire, apartments decorated with 3D artwork and fake (but somehow wilted) flowers, mongooses, packs of wandering dogs and cows, streets that abruptly devolve into dirt pathways, trees full of yellow weaver birds and their intricate basket-like nests, walls covered in gecko poop, a turquoise ocean that seemed as calm as a bathtub.
Alex compared a recent meeting to a Wes Anderson movie and this seemed to put everything in perspective. Mauritius feels vivid, distinctive, slightly absurd and full of capers, characters and staged scenery. It is never really explained why we are meeting at a cave, or in the basement of a parking garage. The Chairman of the District Council did not answer any of my questions but served delicious tea and spoke at length about his time in China. It took six employees to help with the purchase of a bicycle. Our stoic security guard in Péreybère always responded to the question “how are you?” with “I am still alive.” Cell phone towers are poorly disguised as the tallest and most awkward looking palm trees on the island.
These first few months of my grant period were challenging. I felt very isolated. I wanted to give up a few times, after starting on countless ideas and plans that I just could not get rolling. I have never done community organizing around a topic as nebulous as climate change, and in a place that I know so little about with so little support. I get overwhelmed.
The hardest part is the moments when there is nothing I can do. When the holidays have gone on for a month and I have read all of the articles that I can read and reached out to everyone who will respond during the celebrations. These were the times when the apartment in the empty vacation land of Péreybère felt particularly remote.
Things are changing now. Alex and I moved to Triolet, a place where people live and not just vacation. There is a resident rooster, or what sounds like 50 of them, that make their presence known at all hours. We can walk onto the balcony and pick mangoes. Groups of people occupy a few logs at the street intersection, in front of the football field, to talk, pass the time, observe passersby and yell jovially to neighbors. We live with the best family in the country who teaches us about shortcuts to the store and fruit vendors and how to cook incredible Mauritian food. There is a two year old who teaches us Creole, French and the importance of bonbons. It feels more like a home.
I am also beginning to like the the challenge and realize how much I believe in the research. Learning about the perceptions of people experiencing the localized burden of climate change is important. Puzzling through the cultural barriers and tools that can be used to engage people in this discussion is humbling and enlightening.
Plus, I have met some great people during the challenge of getting the project going. People who not only met with me to discuss my research, but have spent their whole day showing Alex and I around their villages and favorite places. Most recently, we explored some caves with someone who had grown up playing hide and seek in the extensive network. We went snorkeling in mangroves, with a fisherman to catch octopi, to a beach at night to look for over-hunted crabs. Others have invited us into their homes to meet their families and share meals. I have met some amazing young people who are creating inspiring projects in Mauritius. They are filling gaps in green building, conservation and recycling with sheer willpower and most without payment.
Sometimes my critical eye goes too far and fails to recognize the beauty of this ‘beginners mind’ aspect of being a foreigner in a new place. There is a lot of beauty and relief that comes with admitting you know nothing. Simply allowing yourself to absorb and learn without all of the judgements that come with trying to fit observations into familiar compartments. It feels important to be okay with not knowing for awhile and being open to the possibilities of how this opportunity can unfold.