Toothless farmers hawking pawpaw and pipengaille in the swarming market, sons of sugar barons sipping rum in the City Club above. Smells of African earth and Indian spices, and in a sumptuous hotel called Saint Geran (after a ship that snak in 1744), suckling pig being barbecued beneath palms. Sailboats skimming glorious lagoons near Cannonjers' Point, their dolphin escorts somehow turning vermillion as they cross the bows.

What to do on this languid morning in the once Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British island of Mauritius, where pirates divided bloody loot, and the River of Cuckolds and Island of Clams are as picturesque as their names? The choice is as inviting as the coral reefs and the rainbows capping volcanic mountains; as richly exotic as the jumble of odors and colors in Port Louis, the picture of an Indian Ocean shanty town.

One might inspect the Amicale, which will be filling with (chiefly Chinese) gamblers even at tihis hour. Everything said about Chinese communities-their passion for business and gambling, their ability to coexist with everyone by giving as little offense as contact with their inner lives-seems true of this one.

One could visit a young counterman in one of a thousand poor-of-the-East shops, packed with everything from zinc buckets to goulak-jamon. His real vocation is "makin' some loot for me," and he'll display the 30 vials of heroin chloral hydrate he has just bought for doping horses.

Or one could talk geopolitics with a Western diplomat. (The Soviet ambassador will of course not be available, but in easy-going Mauritius he will decline less rudely than his colleagues in Europe and Africa. One may catch sight of him jockeying his American counterpart for position at a sugar-baron party, or even a reception to open a hotel built with South African capital.)

The big powers play their game here as blatantly as in Nasser's early years. Isolated except for potential enemies' powerful navies, Mauritius drifts with the political current, opening its ports to one and all, while Moscow, Peking, Washington, Paris and even Delhi woo for the prize of an island base from which to dominate the Indian Ocean-even the lesser one of satellite tracking stations.

"Psst!" A former fisherman has opened his jacket to beguile the visitor with contraband watches pinned like armor to the lining. "No? Then how about some Paris dresses, wonderful bargains?" A younger man elbows in to offer hash, opium and cocaine-or, as befits this French-influenced island of excellent Creole and Chinese cuisine, crushed marijuana and spices, boiled for an hour in milk. He swears it will make good on its nickname of "bang."

Politely refusing, one may also resist a dozen other temptations, from superb swimming on the Island of Stage to hiking through the thousand-year forests of Black River Gorge. More intriguing are two short-trousered policemen and a cluster of Indians squatting beside trays of pistachio nuts and beads. They flank an entryway near Government House, for today one is not going sightseeing, but to court.

One expects no violent crime. The local specialty is known as debrouiller di fil , the Creole adaptation of a French term meaning roughly to get out of a jam-in this case the predicament of having to earn a living. A prominent lawyer with a soiled tie has proudly asserted that the British immigration service fears Mauritians-"masters of finagling and forged job invitations."

"Our clients are mostly careless swindlers. Black, white, yellow, brown-what they have in common is scrambling around the law . . . Anyway, 10 rupees in a policeman's palm will get you off anything small."

"Don't lie to the man," challenges a younger lawyer.

"Then 20. But if that doesn't work, the condemned goes to his sentence with a smile. Because this is a happy island. Food grows overnight."

Is it a happy island? If one had never traveled in poor countries before, one might believe the patronizing touristrep patter that explains the crowds of able-bodied men wasting days under shady trees in terms of happy natives loafing in their island in the sun. "If a Mauritian has 200 rupees in his pocket, he feels like a king . . . Workers won't take even very generous overtime-won't even appear for days after payday . . ."

But when these tourists move out of earshot, their driver begs one to find him work in England, and the Indian boy I picked up on a lonely road had had no work whatever since leaving school seven years ago. The "nation of nurses," in V.S. Naibaul's memorable phrase, in fact teems with unemployed nurses.

Since the eradication of malaria in 1949, Mauritius has produced 10 times more babies than jobs.

The public relations pitch about racial understanding is equally spurious. Eleven years after independence, the "nation" remains a medley of almost immiscible Indian, Chinese, Creole and Franco-Mauritian (white) races. "We might live next door to one another, yet on different planets," a young banker told me. "One 'community,' in the euphemism, wants to know nothing about the others."

Race affects everything-but especially jobs, and most of all, government jobs. As the governing nationality-because they are the heavy majority and still growing in proportion to the others-Indians are most feared and resented. "Discount all the bigotry and envious ignorance," a seemingly neutral journalist has said, "and the fact is that Indian domination and Indianization are relentlessly increasing. All the real signs are of an eventual takeover, or a bloody revolt."

A beautiful Creole businesswoman interrupted a fond monologue about the island's essential friendliness to deliver a similar prediction. "As soon as I can I'll be joining my friends who have already left for Europe. "The Hindi saying koon ke koon nicely sums up our politics," said a native official of a Western embassy. "Skin is skin." "Each class interest is split into the inevitable racial one," added a journalist of the one independent newspaper. "And if you think the (governing) Labour Party represents the working people, you haven't learned the first thing about Mauritius. The Labour Party, like the government, is Indian: that's its central 'principle.'"

Many Mauritians deplore this fragmentation, and-between complaints about the other races-spill out their longing for its end. But the laments only make the estrangement more tragic.

"When I was a chold," a despondent artist sighed, "the waterman was the waterman, not an Indian. Not my potential enemy, but my friend. I didn't know that the kites were Chinese or that Pakistanis sold the market saffron. I thought these wonderful things were Mauritian, like the hills of pineapples and litchies. How wonderful life seemed wthen-and how sad now, because we have no future as a country.

"Yes, casual social contact between the races is usually relaxed; outsiders think it's just dandy. But underneath, our pulse is racing with insecurity. Because we could easily split apart tomorrow."

In short, the scourge of our age threatens to dissolve the country, and the fact that it is too small to afford the indulgence of rabid nationalism no more guarantees sanity here than in Lebanon, Cyprus, or Northern Ireland.

Mauritius has been an "island of disaster" since independence and before. But the tidal wave has never come, the population soars in numbers-and muddles on. An intellectual of mixed ancestry summed up what we'd heard from blacks, browns and whites:

"If a journalist were to write about the dreadful tensions underpinning the country, he'd be entirely right. But also wrong, because while nationalism is reinforcing the barriers between races, other forces are simultaneously undermining them. I don't know; no one does. We switch from hope to despair." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Zambia Airways photo