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Treasure Islands

Fresh fish caught in the Seychelles. Photos: Ruti Porter

Mike Porter goes on a visit to the Seychelles (Well, someone has to do it!)

We flew from Ethiopia to the Seychelles, a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean, most of them small and uninhabited. We landed in Mahé, Seychelles' largest island and home to more than 90% of the population.

Through the right-hand windows of the plane the sea greeted us as we landed. On the left of the runway we saw a long mountain range, with the occasional peak reaching into the clouds. Trees and bush grow in dense green battalions all the way up the mountain slopes, until stopped by the bare rocky mountain tops.

The weather was hot; rain clouds were gathering. Our first impressions were of a small and friendly space into which everything had been neatly packed, and of how new and clean everything looked.

The people are mainly dark-colored: a mix of Creole (early French settlers and East Africans), with Tamils, South Indians and even Chinese. Almost everyone speaks English as well as French and Creole.

We found a room in Beau Vallon, about an hour's drive from the airport. The owner, who picked us up, is one of 30,000 Zoroastrians left in the world. To be accepted as a Zoroastrian, both one's mother and father have to be as well. He is married to a French Catholic, so his children don't qualify. This seemed to me a good reason why their numbers are dwindling. He told us that they worship fire.

Viraj was a tall, well-fed young man, full of anxieties and very vocal about life on the islands. Life is too easy, and too good, he said. Lots of youngsters don't want to work. Another problem is drugs.

However, we were impressed by the islands, the laid-back life, the cleanliness, the helpfulness and politeness of the people, and the unspoiled landscape.

It seems that the authorities are making a good job of protecting the indigenous, luxuriant tropical foliage and tree-life. There's even a law against digging out trees. If you can prove that a particular tree must be removed in order to build your home, you have to plant another three trees to replace it. All this from Viraj.

Most people have their own houses and grounds, but occasionally we came across apartments on the more uninteresting parts of the island, which the island authorities built for the "poorer" people. You can rent a flat at a reasonable price - about 200 rupees a month - until you've covered the selling price, and then the home is yours. At age 63, everybody gets a pension (minimum 2000 rupees a month) even if you've never worked.

For 40 euros a night we had a nice place – a large bedroom, well-equipped kitchen and small bathroom (all the fittings brand new). We were on the second floor at the back, away from the small road. Below our balcony were two- and three-storey buildings surrounded by lush gardens. The colored roofs were almost all we could see of the homes which peeped through the tops of the trees - mango, guava, coconut, banana and spice trees, among others - which grow in tropical abundance.

On our trips around the island we saw clusters of houses climbing up the mountain slopes. Nearly everything is built on the heavily-wooded slopes, which get steeper as they go up. A few "hideaways" are amazingly high up, in splendid isolation.

Hotels and guesthouses are generally nearer the beaches. Most of the beaches are wide and curving with dazzling white sand, and often backed by small thick groves of trees which give thankful shade on hot days. The Indian Ocean washing the shores is unspoiled and beautifully clear.

It was November, the mango season, when the trees grow all over, even along the roads. Fruit lay thick on the ground. The trick was to find a fallen mango before the birds, hens and "gogatjies" got to it. In the mornings I would go scouting around, and every day we had a great mix of mango and lettuce with our breakfast, and sometimes a salad with mango slices which we ate with the take-away supper we bought from a small shop/kitchen nearby. We ate on the balcony, to the sound of birds and a few barking dogs in the properties below us. In the right season, one can also find wonderful guavas and granadillas.

Well, I suppose a person could go hungry on this island, but he'd have to try very hard.

Our nearest beach was a curving bay, three kilometers from top to toe. On the 5-minute walk down was a great Indian restaurant where we dined, sitting on a large open terrace, with the moonlit beach and sursurring sea below us, a few meters from our table.

The next day we visited Victoria, the main town. It began to rain heavily, as usual a warm rain; fortunately the bus stop was near our lodgings. Behind the bus stop was a small stream which rushed down over small rocks and had become a rapid, even with a tiny waterfall.

I spotted a peculiar fruit behind the bus stop. It looked like an enormous grapefruit. A woman also waiting for the bus told me it is a "breadfruit" tree. She said that breadfruit makes good chips, and is also good with curry. Like mangoes, these are not sold in the shops (well, we didn't see any). Why should they bother when all you have to do is stretch out your hand and pick your own?

Victoria is a nice village, with low colorful buildings. At its center, perched on a column about 30 feet high, is a small clock known as "Big Ben".

Not far off we checked out a Hindu temple, painted inside and out in brilliant reds, blues and yellows, with a wealth of small statues of elephants, peacocks, strange-looking lions, small statues, presumably of Buddha. The Hindu monks looked young, each wearing a large cloth draped below his bulging stomach. 

Inside St Paul’s Cathedral in Victoria, where congregants swayed as they sang

We walked to St. Paul's cathedral, which was an immense hall, bare of adornments. What made the place interesting were the people: standing behind long lines of pews was a large audience of women and men, their hands held up near their shoulders, swaying from side to side as they sang. They were being led by a man playing a guitar.

We also looked into the mosque, an immense space with a carpeted floor, but with hardly anybody there.

Not far away (nothing is far away in this town) was an interesting, partly-roofed market, where we bought spices to take back home with us. A large white bird was perched on one of the empty stalls, pecking away at leftover food.

Victoria also has a botanical garden that has tremendous tortoises, as big as anything in the Galapagos. The gardens are on an uphill slope with lots of lawn, lily ponds with banana trees growing in the water, and interesting colorful birds.

There were some nice colonial houses built of wood: one had a large and interesting outer wooden staircase and platform. Today it is a well-kept gift shop. We went inside another two-storey wooden house which had been turned into a cozy restaurant, and we had coffee and cake on the large old-style verandah on the second floor. Not far from us was Big Ben, and I noticed that the clock on top of the column was askew.

We wandered off to the harbor where, at the tourist information office, we asked about ferryboats to the next largest island, Praslin.

It was rush hour when we walked back to the bus terminal and the traffic clogged up the narrow streets. A day later I saw that this was a front-page story in the local newspaper. Headlines: What are they going to do about the traffic?

Over the following days we took long bus journeys around the island, going up twisting mountain passes and along good but narrow roads. On one curving road two buses met. One bus backed up to a wider spot, and the driver waited patiently until the other bus passed him.

Everyone drives on the left, a legacy from British rule (it's a mixture: there were also the French – the islands seem to have taken the best from both these imperialist powers). An example of good manners: people wanting to get on the bus waited patiently for everyone to get off. The driver didn't start the bus until everyone was seated!

Going by bus was a good way to tour the islands. First we would study the map to plan our route. Then we caught the appropriate bus wending its way over mountain passes and past miles of beaches. When we saw something outside that looked interesting, we got off.

This happened at Anse Royale: from the bus window we saw large crowds of men, women and children milling around. Some were picnicking on the lawn. Others flocked around scores of small stalls, and we could hear music. Obviously a festive occasion and, our curiosity aroused, we got off the bus.

We'd stumbled upon the yearly dance festival of Anse Royale. A large stage had been set up on a central lawn, and there was a band playing. On the grass below the stage were a few men, each one moving in a different direction. They performed curious jerky movements, presumably dancing.

After seeing and eating our fill we caught the next bus out, and continued our 4-hour circle of the island.

Next day we went to Praslin, our second island where we would stay overnight. On the way to Mahé port we walked past tremendous wind turbines, churning out natural energy. A short wait, then we caught the ferry and sailed fairly smoothly (a bit of wind) past tiny islands. In less than an hour we were in Praslin, a laid-back, quieter island than Mahé. Something like a middle-class "Orange Grove" to Mahé's "Lower Hougton".

At the harbor a helpful taxi driver found us a room, which was rather expensive and small. The place looked nice – a low wall separated the garden from the sea. We left our sling-bags in the room and wandered off to the nearest bus stop.

The bus service at Praslin worked on the same subsidized cheap travel system as Mahé, so we put our "round-the-island" plan into operation.

Our first stop was the Coco de Mer forest in the Vallée de Mai (you have to pay to go in). This is the only place in the world where this peculiar tree grows. They tried to grow it elsewhere but it just wouldn't cooperate, and died away. There are two types of trees – one has an "appendix" to it (a long stalk/flower with lots of pollen), and is known as the male tree, while the other bears a peculiar type of coconut with a distinctly feminine shape.

We walked for an hour in this tropical jungle on the slopes of a gentle mountain, in absolute quiet except for bird-calls and running water, and once we saw a tiny, ferret-like animal running along the narrow path. Oh yes – and some tourists from the Far East. Then we went back to the bus stop. 

The Hindu temple in Victoria . . . brilliant colors and a wealth of small statues

More bus rides, and we passed the usual island beaches – dazzling white sand, tropical trees starting a short way back from the beach, which is sometimes surrounded by steep, green, thickly-wooded hills – all good and picturesque places to relax in. After Mahé, most of this island seems fairly flat, but eventually we reached Praslin's highest mountain. The bus went halfway up and then turned back, so we got out and started walking up. Near the top of the mountain we found a fenced-off area, and a sign warning of radio-activity if you go any further. So we walked back down the steep, winding road, with tremendous views of tiny islands spread out in the sea far below us.

At the bottom we caught the bus back to our new "home", where we walked along the beach and saw fishermen bringing in their catch. A large table had been plonked down between the beach and the road, and the fish and flies were heaped on the top, waiting for the occasional customer.

In our walk around this quiet village we spotted a restaurant in an interesting building, and decided that's where we'd have dinner. It turned out to be a good choice. We had an excellent meal at a reasonable price. A short walk back, then we packed our few things, as the next morning we would return to Mahé.

Next morning, after a bumpy ferry-ride, we were back in Mahé.

We divided the day between walking and resting. That evening there was a fair under the trees of the small forest backing the beach. Nice atmosphere, lots of local youngsters, but not all that interesting. We enjoyed the walk through the forest and along the darkening beach.

The next day we were on a bus again, this time to visit a beach on the far side of the island. It's a popular place for the well-to-do, who have their yachts and boats moored in the bay.

At a restaurant near the beach I discovered that we had cash for only one cup of coffee. So I asked for milk on the side and the Indian waiter, a nice guy, brought us a small jug of hot milk. I poured some of Ruti's very strong coffee into the milk, and voilá, I had my own "jug" of coffee. (I like my coffee weak – no, really!) Eventually we caught the bus back to our own beach and went into the sea – our first swim in the Indian Ocean.

We had come to the end of our holiday, and the end of our budget. There was a lot we hadn't seen, but next day we were leaving. And how much can you do in a week!

The next morning the rain came down strongly – as usual it was a warm rain. It cleared up sufficiently for me to go out and find breakfast – some nice big mangoes among the thousands strewn over the ground after the rain. Later, for lunch, I found more – the rain did the picking for us. I even found a carambula.

Viraj's father-in-law took us back to the airport. He was a friendly guy, originally from Bordeaux and he spoke six languages. He told us how good life was on the island. On our way to the airport he made a small detour and stopped the car to pick a large leafy twig off a cinnamon tree, and gave it to Ruti. It smelt good, and we took it home with us. 

 

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Monday, 20 September 2021

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