December 30, 2020
Merry Christmas everyone, and happy New Year. As I write, we are well into summer break, which feels like a strange time to celebrate the holidays. While I miss those cold, cozy winter days, the rest of the family is quite contented that they can go to the beach which, to be honest, is a pretty solid trade.
Over the past two months we have learned a lot about our new home, its norms, and its social makeup, and we have been thinking a lot about the topic of belonging. Anyone who has ever changed schools as a kid is familiar with the question, where do I belong here? It’s a question that many of the students at Lighthouse have had to wrestle with. One engaging young man explained that by the time he was fourteen, he and his younger brother had lived in three different (and very distant) countries. He has found belonging by doing what the new kid in any good teen drama does, engaging with and becoming part of the community. Of course, this requires some vulnerability and invites a bit of awkwardness, but the payoff is that you get a seat at the table and, maybe, you expand your world view to encompass new people and ways of being.
New kids that we are, we are also engaging with our community, including the town where we live, Fond du Sac. Fond du Sac (literally “Bottom of the Bag”) is a small town in the north of the island made up of painted cement houses and shops grown around with palm and mango trees. It is home to Mauritians of all walks of life, and as far as we can tell our family and the retired French man across the street are the only expatriates within its borders. One way we engage with this community is simply by being present as much as our introverted natures will allow. For instance, early one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, we decided to venture out to Fond du Sac’s weekly market.
It was our first trip to the market, which is held in the center of town. Vendors were set up along the sidewalks and in stalls off the main road with an array of bright vegetables, fruit, and other goods. Sellers called out prices and varieties, and people crowded through in a businesslike manner, asking prices and buying. Traffic weaved around the parked cars and crossing pedestrians with the occasional beeping of horns. And in the middle of it all there we were herding our kids through the throng. Clearly, we were the only people foolhardy enough to bring their entire family to the market. We didn’t know what we wanted, and we didn’t know what prices were fair and when or if to haggle. (As an aside, I have found that people are pretty fair. On a recent trip to a local hardware shop, the guy haggled his own prices down for me as I was attempting to pay his original asking price which was written on the tool. And honestly, most transaction don’t require negotiations.)
A good number of eyes noticed us as we moved through, conspicuous as a group of rodeo clowns blithely attending a Japanese business lunch. But people just went about their business, as did we. We got some vegetables and bread; no one was run over; it was a success.
These experiences of being out of place and stumbling through something new are part and parcel of being in a new culture. They can be exciting, illuminating, frustrating, and embarrassing, and they are more often than not at least a little uncomfortable. Yet these are also the experiences that help us grow as people. They are opportunities to learn a language or dialect, become culturally competent, practice patience and humility, and learn new and amazing things about the world and the people in it. Most importantly, though, these experiences help us expand our sense of community, to shift the us/them divide so that people who were once “them” are now “us.”
That old enemy, comfort
In the wise, unattributed words of Pinterest, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” The option to expand our community of belonging is available to us all. And while the opportunity to connect with new and different people and cultures, to earn a place at new tables, is always there, the lure of the familiar and the option to opt out of the discomfort of the unfamiliar is a current that pulls us away from such opportunities and back to the safety and comfort of the things and experiences we are used to.
One of the reasons we chose overseas service was to break away from the current of the familiar, but it flows here too. You see, it is quite easy to be comfortable as an expatriate in Mauritius, which makes sense seeing as this is a nation whose primary economic pillar is tourism. The siren call of the comfortable, the familiar, is almost everywhere. While there are countless local shops and restaurants, there are also places that feel much more familiar: large grocery stores, malls, KFC, Mc Donald’s (of course), and Pizza Hut, all with parking lots, clearly displayed prices, and signs in French and English. English and French speakers can also be spared the discomfort of stumbling through a new language because, though Mauritian Creole is the primary language spoken over the entire island, most people also speak fluent French and at least comprehensible English. It’s not uncommon for expatriate English or French speakers to live in Mauritius for years or decades without speaking anything other than their native languages. This isn’t a moral failing, of course, but it does represent a missed opportunity.
We are trying to be intentional about pushing back against the lure of the familiar, especially when it comes to community. Being on a small island, we have found that the different pieces of our social quilt (work, school, church) which – in the States – might only touch on the edges greatly overlap here. This overlapped quilt of people can feel cozy, especially because so many people in this ready-made community – and this is key – are a lot like us. Many are expatriates who primarily speak English and who are accustomed to western cultural norms. To make sure our social circle remains expansive, we try to be present in our local community, and we rely on our Mauritian friends to help root us here and connect us with people and places that are unfamiliar to us. The friends we rely on the most are Ashley and Prishma, a couple who work at Lighthouse and also live in Fond du Sac.
Ashley and Prishma have two boys close in age to our children, and they take an active role in Fond du Sac, especially with their neighbors. Ashley is a well of positive energy. He is known by everybody and always has visions of what is possible. Prishma is kind and discerning. Ashley has said that if he is the head of the family, then Prishma is the neck. They live not far from us and have regularly helped us be a part of things through the events and get-togethers that they hold. We have attended church at their home, been a part of the annual Christmas block party that they organize for the neighborhood kids and families, and helped Ashley deliver food to residents in need. (See photos and details below.) When you are new in a place, you can do a lot by just getting out there, but man does it help to know somebody on the inside.
As we learn and grow here, we hope to continue saying yes to the opportunities that allow us to weave the thread of our lives in with the varied threads of those all around us. And we are grateful for the opportunity to do things that might be a little out of our comfort zones.
And now, a parting anecdote.
A Fond du Sac Christmas
It was five in the afternoon, and I was in charge of corn hole. This made sense, seeing as corn hole is a quintessentially American game, and we were the only Americans around. In fact, we were the only non-Mauritians around. We were helping our friends and colleagues, Ashley and Prishma, with their annual Christmas block party for the neighborhood kids and families in their area of Fond du Sac. I was running corn hole; Emily was helping serve food and had cooked two hot-ticket items folks couldn’t get enough of: pigs in a blanket and chocolate chip cookies.
“Okay everybody, here are the rules,” I attempted to explain in French to the crowd of 12- to 14-year-olds in front of me. They smiled vaguely as I endeavored to instruct them on the finer points of the game (points I had recently researched on Google), and I found myself becoming progressively louder and more animated in an unsuccessful bid to buttress my unclear communication. Soon enough the bean bags were soaring, and it was immediately evident that despite the polite smiles and affirmations, no one had really understood me. Score keeping was a wash, we settled for taking turns tossing the bags. Then the younger kids arrived, and the process repeated. Across the way, Emily regarded the goings-on of my station with a look of pitying amusement. When a few of the younger boys made no pretense of aiming for the boards and started chucking beanbags like Nolan Ryan fastballs, I began to wonder if it was culturally appropriate to yell at other people’s kids but thought better of it since it probably wouldn’t make a good first impression. The solution was to have only one corn hole board behind which I stood, overseeing the gentle tossing and calm collection of the beanbags.
Later, having abandoned my station, I watched with a feeling of vindication as Prishma attempted to corral the same set of energetic youngsters who had, in my absence, decide to return for more corn hole. “Aren’t you supposed to be running that?” Emily asked.
Despite the lapses in communication, however, we all had a great time. Kids and adults competed in sack races, musical chairs, and balloon popping – all the classics. Ezra won a seizure-inducing fidget spinner for coming in first in her sack race. Kyler won a pen. The girls made at least one new friend. There was plenty of food, and at the end of the event, the neighborhood kids got presents.
On the way back home that evening we discussed the afternoon’s events. The kids loved the games and the sweets. Emily’s concerns about no one liking her American snacks were assuaged, and I enjoyed getting to work with the kids, though the communication was a bit difficult. “Yeah,” Ezra chimed in, “but all the kids speak English!”
“What?” said I with the air of a man who just realized he had been feverishly trying to stay afloat in waist-deep water.
*Note: Every year Lighthouse School collects shoeboxes with gifts to give to children for Christmas, but rather than doing this with an international organization, they collect and distribute the boxes to children within Mauritius. For the past 7 or 8 years, Ashley and Prishma have been hosting this event in Fond du Sac to celebrate Christmas and to share some of these gifts with the neighborhood children. It is just one small way for Ashley and his family, who are well-known as Christians in their predominantly Hindu community, to share God’s love and help bring the community together. This year there were about 40-50 children present, along with various family members, making a total gathering of about 100 people.
Summary of Other Recent Happenings:
Christmas Ornaments…Bringing Neighbors Together
As many of you know from Facebook, our children have made friends with the 7-year old Mauritian boy next door. It all started when they began climbing on the trash bin and looking over the fence where our neighbors have their Hindu shrine despite us telling them not to. They discovered Laknish, a friendly, bright-eyed boy who speaks English and was eager to play. They developed all kinds of over-the-fence games like passing the ball and hide-and-seek. Then one Friday evening Laknish found a ladder. As you can imagine, this took the play to another level. They played until dinnertime, and after dinner, we went outside to paint some salt dough Christmas ornaments we had baked earlier. We were just getting started when Laknish’s head popped up over the fence. He looked longingly at our painting, so I asked if he wanted to join us. He initially said no and that his parents wouldn’t let him. The kids insisted that he could “just go ask.” He disappeared for few minutes. Then the children started exclaiming, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” We looked over and sure enough Laknish and his father, Sanjay, were walking over to our gate. We welcomed them in, and as I helped Laknish get setup with a paintbrush and ornaments, Aaron began a conversation with Sanjay. After the ornaments were painted the kids played together until well after dark while Aaron and Sanjay talked, both in broken French. Aaron said later that he doubted either of them understood more than half of the conversation. Nonetheless, we enjoyed being able to share together and visit with our new neighbors. When I asked Laknish if his family had a Christmas tree, he said they didn’t but he was still excited to be able to take his ornaments home to celebrate la fête de noël.
Experiencing Our First Baptism at the Beach
We witnessed our first baptism on November 29th as two teenage girls from our local church were baptized. When I commented that I had never seen a beach baptism, I was met with a puzzled look and the response, “I’ve never not seen a beach baptism.” It was interesting to witness the small group of church members gathered on the beach while other beach goers swam and looked on curiously. I thought it must be an odd thing for people of other faiths to see this strange group of people singing and praying on the beach after someone was dunked in the water. But what a blessing it is to be in a place where different faiths can co-exist openly and (for the most part) peacefully with one another.
The Central Market and an Economy in Decline
In early December, we had to make a trip to Mauritius’ capital, Port Louis, to pick up the family’s residency permits. While there, we decided to explore the city’s Central Market. The market is divided into sections depending on what is sold. The section that sold local produce, spices, and prepared foods was bustling. Obviously many Mauritians shopped there. But the section of the market that sold tourist items was almost deserted. Many stalls were closed and the vendors that were open implored us to look in their stalls, offering to lower prices without us asking in an effort to get us to buy something—anything. Although we did not go intending to buy anything, we allowed each of the children to pick one item as an early Christmas present in order to provide some small support for these local vendors who were obviously feeling the impacts of the lack of tourism. We see and hear this same story all over Mauritius. Places that normally would be overrun with tourists are empty as an economy built largely on tourism crumbles. Families are struggling, and with strict quarantine measures still in place and no clear end to the pandemic, the situation is likely to only get worse.
Ashley’s Home Church
One Friday, December 11th, we were invited to join Ashley and Prishma (our Mauritian friends/colleagues) for the final meeting of the year of the small church group that they host in their home. We had previously expressed our desire to be more involved in the Mauritian community, so we were grateful for the invitation. We arrived “like Americans” on time around 6:30pm and then waited an hour or more while the rest of the attendees slowly arrived. The largest group arrived together on a bus from another local village. All total there were about 35 adults and children gathered for the church meeting (all Mauritian except us), which was conducted in Creole. Luckily Creole is close enough to French that we were able to follow along with most of what was happening. We sang and prayed together, after which someone shared a message. The meeting concluded with the invitation to pray with anyone who requested prayers, to which several people responded and were prayed for individually. The meeting was followed by a meal of traditional Mauritian roti (roh-tee) and desserts. Ashley and Prishma had also purchased Christmas gifts for all of the children in attendance, including our own, which is just one example of their generosity.
Holmes Annual (first in Mauritius) Christmas Cookie Decorating
It is an annual holiday tradition in our home to bake and decorate Christmas cookies, usually with extended family. We have maintained this tradition for the past 10 years or more, and we thought it would be fun this year to invite all of our new friends to join us. So, on December 18th, we hosted a Christmas cookie party, complete with homemade (very melty) icing and other holiday snacks. We had roughly 40 people join us in our home for this event, and we enjoyed being able to connect and share the joy of the season with everyone. All of the children in attendance were especially happy to eat loads and loads of sugar while running circles around the yard, and our family was glad to be able to share our tradition with our new friends!
Visiting Those in Need
After learning about my background working with mental health and homelessness, I was invited by a friend to go with her to visit a domestic violence shelter for women and children that Community Baptist Church helps support through regular donations. The goal was to deliver Christmas gifts for the children and to spend some time visiting with the women at the shelter. The language barrier made this visit challenging, but I was grateful to have the opportunity nonetheless to meet some of the women and children at the shelter. We also stopped by a children’s home to drop off some Christmas gifts. Due to the lack of an established foster care system, many children who cannot stay with their families end up in these large homes with many other children. Both places provided a glimpse into some of the needs of the community and possible ways to volunteer and serve. On another occasion, Aaron had the opportunity to go with Ashley to deliver grocery boxes to individuals in need. These boxes were made with donations collected at Lighthouse as another small way to share God’s love in the community.
Christmas Program at CBC
Our local church, Community Baptist Church, held a Christmas Carols service on the evening of Sunday, December 20th. Children had the opportunity to participate in the service by dressing as angels, wise men, or shepherds, and the story of Jesus’ birth was told through carols and scripture. The packed service concluded with the lighting of candles, and it was a wonderful way to get into the feeling of the Christmas season.
Right now it is high 80s or 90s everyday so it doesn’t feel much like Christmas, but we made the most of it anyway. On Christmas Eve, we went to our favorite local beach. We have been told that normally the beaches would be swarming with tourists this time of year; however, as you can see from the photo, we had the beach mostly to ourselves. We also visited Triolet, a nearby town, on Christmas Even night. During the Christmas season, the shops stay open late, and it was nice to just be able to walk and browse in the local shops despite being stared at most of the time. It was obvious that not many expatriates venture into the local towns, but we got a photo with “Santa” which was totally worth it! We also had fun making many of our own decorations this year and just spending time together.
Exploring Our New Home
During this time off, we have also been able to get out and explore some of our beautiful and exciting new home. See more below including our visit to Black River Gorges National Park. You will notice we finally gave up on shoes after slipping and sliding in the mud down and back up the mountain!