Every year, on the last Sunday of the month of July, a Mass is celebrated in the courtyard of St. Anne's Church in Chamarel, a very popular village named after Charles Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel, who lived in the region around the 1800s in Mauritius. In the Christian tradition, Saint Anne is the mother of Virgin Mary. Her statue in front of the village church built in 1876 never goes unnoticed.
Once the celebrations are over, the fair or ‘kermesse’ begins. The word ‘kermesse’ comes from the Dutch word ‘Kerkmisse’, which means 'Mass of the Church'. That is how in some European countries like Belgium, France, Luxembourg and French-speaking Switzerland, the fair marks the parish, patronal, charity or annual festival. In Mauritius, it is commonly called the 'Fancy Fair'.
The Chamarel Fancy Fair attracts quite the crowd from all corners of the island, as that is where the best deals are at. Tasting typical Mauritian dishes, such as a brown pig Salmi (wild boar), venison stew, hare or among others, a delicious free-range chicken curry is an absolute recommendation. Chamarel is a guaranteed authenticity and it reflects a multi-cultural island. Some take the opportunity on that day to also visit must-see sites: Curious Corner of Chamarel, the Seven Colored Earths, the Ebony Forest or Lavilleon Nature Reserve.
Being naturally curious, I have attended this Fancy Fair for several years, and I was always pleasantly surprised by the stalls. But the ones I systematically stop by are those held by nuns and especially one held by an old lady, whom I shall name Grandma, where for about 20 Rupees, one can find the best items for ladies, men, boys and girls.
Year after year, I have seen Grandma age, but her smile and serenity are unwavering. She tells me that she does not take a dime from her sales, she donates the money to the event planners. She is particularly devoted to Saint Anne, who she says has saved her life time and time again, as she does not enjoy good health.
She thus starts sewing little birds months ahead, from the fabric offered to her by volunteers. She then puts together placemats that she hand embroiders, bedside rugs, bags, cushions, chickens that she stuffs and places in baskets weaved with newspapers for the children’s delight. She calls patchwork sheets 'Tapis-mendiants’ which literally means the beggar’s blanket, and she needs to sew several small rectangles and match them to give her creative work a nice look.
All waste should be avoided. Anything can be recycled. That is how we can save costs and the planet.
At the Chamarel Fancy Fair, the tea shops offer a variety of pastries, each more delicious than the next. Homemade organic jam, given away by the locals and residents of the Black River region are sold for a few rupees. My favorite is a solo papaya-based pastry, scented with vanilla bean.
The local folk music is always an experience: songs and dances performed by villagers or people from the neighboring regions, a band that starts playing at around 3 p.m. under the applause of the audience. Hundreds of people gather around the podium where they are carried away by the entrancing music and festive atmosphere.
Crowds mass outside as well. Many stallholders propose clothes and various items at discounted prices. Improvised grills are prepared here and there, and those who leave the 'Fancy-Fair' late will make sure to buy their evening meal.
Be it Mauritians or visiting tourists, all those who attend the Fancy Fair enjoy most pleasant moments and this day at high altitude is one to cherish and remember. Chamarel remains a crucial address in our beautiful Mauritius. My greatest wish is that the tradition of organizing this annual July event will endure.
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