Museum Blog

Cultural Antipodes

Posted 9/5/2012 12:09 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

What is life like on the other side of the world?

This is the question that led me from Colorado to a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean. The country of Mauritius is nearly Denver's antipode, where you would end up if you dug a hole in Coors Field all the way to the other side of the Earth.

Mauritius is known for its heavenly beaches and tropical wildlife. These are impressive, but like a moth lured to firelight, as an anthropologist, I am also drawn to the country's luminous cultures.

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No one knows when humans first touched their feet to the island. Perhaps it was sailors from India or Southeast Asia millennia ago. Perhaps it was Arab traders, since the geographer Al Idrissi included the island on a map he drew in the 12th century AD. For certain, the Portuguese arrived in 1507, followed in turn by the Dutch, French, and British. These nations settled this distant outpost with grand ambitions, mostly failing except in freeing the land of its natural bounty-most famously, killing off the dodo bird. These colonies were a wild assortment of people that portended the island's multicultural future: it was made up of different Europeans, but also slaves, convicts, and indentured workers taken from throughout Africa and Asia.

Today, the descendants of these groups live in an ongoing experiment in cultural co-existence. They must find a way to live together on an island smaller than Delaware, and 33 times more densely populated than the United States. Unlike the U.S., everyone here converses in French or Creole, sometimes English, and depending on their background, often Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Hakka, and/or Cantonese. Religions are as diverse. Islamic and Catholic believers abound, but Hindus are in the majority. The meaning of home when everyone here came from another homeland is the tide that pushes and pulls Mauritian society between the poles of cultural purity and cultural fusion.

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Several weeks ago, I landed in Mauritius, this anthropologist's dreamland. For the next 10 months, I'll conduct research and teaching on the island as a US Fulbright Scholar. I'll also continue to produce Culture Lab to share with you what life is like here on the other side of the world.

 

Please note: The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

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