I have been spending the past fortnight in Mauritius, it is my first visit in almost two years. It may sound strange to some, but that's rather a long time for me. I once visited three times in eight months, although it was a necessity in order to finalise my citizenship which I acquired five and a half years ago. To say I hold a great deal of affection for this place is as big an understatement as suggesting I have a slight passing interest for a certain football club from North London.
When I speak of my love for the island commonly referred to as the land of shooting stars and rainbows, people often think I am dazzled by the white sand and turquoise sea or the mountainous peaks which form such a striking backdrop of the central portion of the landscape.
However I believe that these are mere footnotes in terms of the real beauty of somewhere which truly does take your breath away. Most will realise I am a proud lefty and I find it fascinating how the political debate in Mauritius takes place on the left. I site the example of how the then opposition Labour Party had to offer free travel to schoolchildren in the 2005 general election in order to outmanoeuvre the governing Movement Militant Mauricien (MMM) Party who had already implemented extended travel concessions for the elderly. A political debate based on who can give more to the people: beauty really does goes beyond the palm trees here.
Even the most "right-wing" faction, the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM), a centre-left party, would be to the left of the ground taken by the UK Labour Party. There is no squabbling over nasty right wing values here. It's why I often remark that while I would align myself personally with the MMM, I can never spout the kind of vitriol I do in the UK where I despise voters of parties like the Tories, UKIP or the BNP etc. I believe the MMM offers the best alternative for left-wing sympathisers like myself, but the truth is that neither of the parties in Mauritius fill me with horror in terms of their views of how to run the country. If the MSM were standing in the UK they would get my vote over the UK Labour Party every single time.
I also find it fascinating how every single religion is afforded equal recognition. It is true that following the arrival of Indians after the abolition of slavery the number of Indians quickly assumed a position as the majority. But to suggest that only the Hindu culture is celebrated would be a gross misrepresentation. Every single religious festival is recognised with a public holiday. The running joke here is that it is unusual to have more than three weeks without one.
Most who know me will appreciate that I don't really regard myself as religious. I was brought up as a Catholic and attended eleven years within the framework of a Catholic schooling education, although it's been many years since I attended a church except for a funeral, christening or wedding. That being said, I probably lean more towards Catholicism than any other religion. That is to say if I was pushed to make a choice.
Some visitors to Mauritius could find the overt presence of religious symbols to be quite unsettling, but even I can recognise a unique beauty in the expressive nature of it all. I probably wouldn't feel the same if one religion had been afforded a certain status above all others, but that is simply not the case here.
The early mornings are alive with the sounds of mosques calling to prayers, the Hindus have their various processions. Christians celebrate the various sacraments with equal vigour and even the Chinese do not escape as the Spring festival (Chinese New Year) turns the island into a cacophony of lights and sounds as the symbolic dragon chases away the evil spirits. And nobody is alienated from the celebrations, there is an eagerness to celebrate one another's culture in a way that I have never experienced elsewhere in the world.
Even for a religious cynic like me, I am profoundly blown away by it all.
It hasn't always been this way though. The history of this beautiful land is littered with various race riots which dominated the first three decades following independence. The last in 1999 followed the controversial death in police custody of the Seggae artist Kaya. During the uprising that followed another singer Berger Agathe, was shot dead by police.
So much changed after 1999 and as this republic entered the 21st century there was a renewed acceptance that a threshold had been crossed and that there will never again be a return to our kaleidoscope of cultures clashing once again. And in the main things have moved on. The descendants of African slaves, Creoles (like those of my paternal heritage), for so long victims of oppression by a sizeable and powerful Hindu majority, were finally elevated to positions of authority in the national structure which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. In 2003 the first non-Hindu Prime Minister, Paul Berenger, took office and again a barrier had been broken.
Yet in 2013 elements of an archaic school of thought remain. During this visit I found myself consoling a friend, a Muslim, who was coming to terms with the end of her engagement with her Hindu finance. It wasn't because he could not accept her, he was of a generation who genuinely couldn't care less. But his parents rejected her on the basis of her faith. Her acceptance of it all as if it was somehow expected was something I found deeply troubling, not to mention so disheartening.
It is perhaps something I have chosen to ignore. I have become so used to the group of friends I have built up over the past nine years that it seemed normal to see a Chinese Mauritian in a relationship with a Creole, or a Hindu with a Muslim. To realise that it is not as universal as I thought has been something of a wake-up call.
I refuse to accept that Mauritius is as divided as the sectarian disputes which marred the first three decades following independence demonstrated. But there is still work to be done to finally stamp out the attitudes of the generations which contributed so much to the problems of this period. I will still argue that Mauritius is the Rainbow Island, a term which pays homage to its unique cultural make up. That being said we cannot afford to think that our work is done- we still need to do more to ensure that nobody should be forced to choose between the love of another person or the love of their family, purely because of a difference of religious or cultural origins.
It is still my dream that observers will one day visit Mauritius from around the world to learn how an island the size of Surrey can accommodate 1.3 million inhabitants within a harmony that the rest of the world seems light years from replicating. And make no mistake about it: Mauritius is closer to achieving that goal than anywhere else in the world. But as this visit has served to reinforce, we are not there yet.
Until everyone can love whoever they wish based on personal choice as opposed to rigid cultural prejudices, the fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will remain a fantasy from a ladybird fairytale.