Saturday, February 27, 2010

Island hopping

La Digue and Praslin    (Seychelles  - Part II)

For a moment let’s put the cart before the ox. Let’s imagine the world before man. The oceans waters are sparkling gemstones – turquoise, aquamarine, lapis and sapphire, while the vegetation radiates emerald, jade, rubies and corals. Giant tortoises lumber on the land marking their territory; crocodiles and turtles rule the submarine landscape; and fairy terns or tropic birds ride the air like free spirits. Everywhere, the pristine, primeval glory of the Earth lies untouched, unspoilt. This idyll still persists on many remote islands of the Seychelles archipelago that has been variously proclaimed, albeit in a clichéd manner, as “Paradise on earth” and “Another world”. After exploring Mahe, the principal island of Seychelles, I am now on an island-hopping spree to cruise back into time.

The first hop is the charming island of La Digue; with a dimension of barely five by three kilometers it is an extended coastal town!  Sitting in an ox-cart which is the main mode of mass transport here one is transported into small town India of the olden days. As the cart ambles on I take in the hustle-bustle at the jetty: locals cycling their way to their destination, administrative offices that look more like homes, an old church painted beige and traditional mud houses with thatched roofs. The somnolent island-town has a population of merely two thousand though tourism has ensured that visitors clamber on to this haven in hordes and to pander to their demands the island denizens, in turn, fall in line. Thus, as a prelude we are taken to a coconut oil factory and vanilla plantation.

Though they seem to dominate the skyline, the coconut palms are not native to Seychelles and were introduced – we are told - by the Arabs who first sailed to Seychelles serendipitously during their forays in East African waters. Coconut oil extraction, thus, has come to be a small scale industry here, but the copra (that is what they call it!) factory we visited was more like a manual mill in the backyard. The “show” hit the right notes with the Westerners who ooh-ed and ah-ed at the “exotic” display especially when a nimble-footed Seychellois climbed the palm like an agile ape. With a sense of déjà vu, of having seen these “tricks” as a matter of routine in rural India, I looked forward to my version of “exotica”.

As we headed to the beach away from the artificiality of the jetty, we hit upon deserted roads, the La Digue I was eager to see. I was intrigued by the sight of a bikini-clad young mother on a rickety scooter zipping by with her daughter as a pillion. Their appearance defied racial profiling - not African, nor Asian, nor European, perhaps an amalgamation of the three! I, subsequently, learnt that the early settlers on this virgin island were French - political rebels from Réunion - and today’s population is their direct descendants. Just as I could not put my finger on their ethnicity, I was also unable to slot them in any socio-economic class, an exercise we so idly indulge in everywhere but which seemed so futile here. Are they “rich” or do they belong to the “middle-class”? Do they live in a big mansion with a swimming pool like the filthy rich Europeans settled in Seychelles over the years? Did it really matter? The island is their home and the ocean their pool. They do not have to be dressed to go anywhere; they could afford to be in a perpetual manner of undress to get into the water not unlike a fish taking to its habitat! At La Digue, this truth stared at me crystal clear like its ocean, itself.

 We have the beach, popularly called Bacardi Beach after the advert was filmed here, but formally, Anse Source d’ Argent, all to ourselves. The silver sands contrast artistically with the turquoise waters so glassy that you can see sea weed and small marine life right to the bottom. Grey granite boulders rise out of the waters like miniature mountains, providing props for the seabirds – terns and herons, to land on. At noon, the sun is beating down, but its edge is blunted by the cool waters of the ocean, and it is, at once, soporific and rejuvenating.  In fact, our guide tells us that this beach is one of the most photographed beaches of Seychelles and I can see why! It is indeed postcard perfect. An afternoon in La Digue has a languid air about it and a sense of timelessness envelopes me.

We leave the “timelessness” behind to enter a “before time” zone, if you know what I mean. In the heart of Praslin Island (which is our next hop) lies the Garden of Eden, literally! Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, the pearl in Praslin’s crown, is the last remnant of prehistoric forest that existed when Seychelles was still a part of Gondwanaland. The subsequent million years of isolation has helped retain its ancient and rare wealth even today. And since this fragile ecosystem has been nursed back to virginity through the commendable efforts of Seychelles government’s environmental housekeepers, the forest has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We follow the guide on a nature trail through the palm-rich forest enchanted by the symphony of bird calls and the music created by twigs of the trees brushing against one another. There are the pandanus, cycad, and the legendary coco de mer that gives the forest its heritage status.

 Coco de mer is a kind of double coconut and the heaviest palm nut anywhere, weighing anywhere between 20and 40 kg.  The most astounding part of the real-life lore of coco fesse, as it is also called (fesse is a French word which means ‘butt’), is thus: The nut or seed inside the husk is uncannily suggestive of a woman’s pelvis! And if you thought this was a mere coincidence, listen to this: the palm has distinct female and male trees and the latter bears a catkin shaped like a sausage! What do you call this consonance - Nature’s naughtiness, tomfoolery, fortuity or ingenuity? More likely, a chronicle of human reproduction foretold, as the palm predates human evolution! Like Thomas Gray’s poetic flower that blushes unseen and wastes its scent on desert air, gentle wind and green geckos weave magic to the accompaniment of black parrot’s serenade and the coco de mer is born, in utter seclusion. Fortunately, I got to see both the nut and the rare black parrot. Vallée de Mai is world’s best-kept secret that I am now privy to.

Next hop, Aldabra Island, hopefully, in this lifetime!

NOTE: All Photographs in this blog and website are the author's original  work.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Island Unto Itself


Seychelles was the sun city, the ultimate destination where beauty queens went to sport bikinis and flaunt their booty while ostensibly soaking in the sun. That was my adolescent acquaintance of this place. Later, in Kenya, Seychelles beckoned through the pages of flight magazines and through local Seychelles magazines (with excellent production value, I must say) which my better half brought back when he first went on work there. What caught my eye in these magazines, apart from the beauty of the land, was an advertisement announcing the sale of - hold your breath - an island! After these two disparate introductions through television and print media, here I was now, heading to Seychelles - an archipelago of nearly 120 islands - to see it through my own eyes and the eyes of its people.

Even before I reach Seychelles, I can feel the adrenalin rush, as I see little emerald islets floating in sparkling turquoise waters flecked by simmering sailboats, from my airplane. As we drop height, I see villas nestled in hills amidst lush greenery, a montage of über luxury. This is my first view of the Elysium. As the aircraft descends further to land, euphoria turns to consternation as there is only the inviting ocean below. The wheels touch down on unyielding ground on an airstrip that is a thin lace bordering the ocean’s edge. The weather is balmy, especially after Nairobi’s cool mornings that we left behind just few hours back. A large granite wall, its crannies fertile enough to sustain vegetation, looms behind the airport. We have arrived at Victoria airport, capital of Mahe, the ‘capital’ island of Seychelles, which is a granite island as the wall testifies. A word about granite islands: these are isles whose topography is shaped by granite rocks, hence you see fair bit of granite boulders on beaches, in water, as escarpment and as hills. As against these, other remote islands of Seychelles are coral islands.  

Whenever I go to a new place, I look for roadside flora and fauna for clues or signs of distinctive ecology. The route to the hotel is lined by coconut and almond trees that one may find in any coastal town, whether in India or Zanzibar, leaving me trifle disoriented. I am pleasantly surprised, though, to see a scarlet weaver-like bird perched on the verandah of the hotel room. The Madagascar fody, much to my surprise, is not an indigenous species. This bird endemic to Madagascar (of course) was introduced to Seychelles islands and got naturalized over the years. Another novelty, the barred ground dove, was bold enough to come right up to the table to eat biscuit crumbs out of my hands. But this species also happened to be alien. And then, there was the Indian mynah, which I so missed in Kenya!

Our hotel was on Beau Vallon beach, one of the most spectacular beaches in Mahe, I am told. An afternoon stroll on the beach revealed its colourful character. City-line fronted its flanks and the beach, itself, was buzzing with activity. I saw a man sculpting sand oblivious to beach bummers, and the latter, likewise, oblivious to him, lost as they were in their swimming, snoozing or sunbathing. I found the beach artist with his dreadlocks, shell ear-plug and arm-band, exotic, and I stood transfixed watching him work.

We had hired a taxi to go around Victoria town. At 10 in the morning, a young, strapping, dark, goggled and pony-tailed entity, the first of the local people I was to meet, presented himself. Steve’s opening line was: “Twelve o’ clock is my lunch time”! Before I could gather my wits, I had gathered that Steve was not very voluble, nor eager. All I learnt from him was that he called it a day at four as he needed to rest after a “hard day’s work of driving round the city”. The city of Victoria can be done on foot, if you please. And the drive out of town to other beaches or places of interest in Mahe entails spectacular, deserted roads. I soon realized he meant no offence or disrespect; he simply represented the laid-back, languid nature of the place and its people. Seychelles is the land of R&R. Here, weekends start, not on Friday evenings, but on Wednesday when the “Happy Hour” sets the pace and lingers on as hangover over the next few days.

This is a nation where the Government provides the not-so-well-heeled low-cost housing with priceless view by the ocean. In a matriarchal society, where marriage is dispensable, or at best a mere formality and children are mother’s responsibility, the Government provides women with social security even as the men swoon over their (lager) Seybrew.

While Seychelles is surely about sun and sands, it is predominantly about Seychellois (pronounced Seselwa) – the people, and their Creole culture.  Local people, like Steve - their features - defy racial profiling. The generations-moulded putty they are made from may have traces of African (freed slaves were brought here by the British on abolition of slavery), Asian – Indian and Chinese (who migrated here), and even, European (French and British colonists) blood. This makes them truly international or global citizens and the only identity that binds them together is their geographical boundary and the bounty within that they mutually share.

The Seychelles Government, again to its credit, has long recognized the USP of its land, both as tourism potential and as a showcase, to the world, of living natural history, and put nearly half of it under special environmental protection. It is one of the rare nations that have tried to balance high-end tourism with eco-preservation and sustainable development. And that culture is innate in every Seychellois who cherishes the natural wealth and co-exists with fellow Seychellois, irrespective of his or her religion or appearance.

After the customary tour of the botanical garden, of acquainting myself with the endemic palms and lilies, I let Steve go for his lunch while I decide to take a walk in the heart of the town. The roads, shops and buildings seem scaled down as in a film studio township. In testimony to the British dominance, a small clock-tower, replica of London’s Big Ben, stands at the crossroads. I nearly mistake the Supreme Court building  for a large colonial bungalow, but for the signage. Within driving distance of the city centre lies the mountainous forest of Morne Seychellois National Park and it is here that I see my first indigenous bird, the Seychelles bulbul. From the top, the view of misty hills yonder is simply astounding. From the hilly roads, the view of the township by the harbour, with corrugated iron, red-roofed houses akin to Mangalorean abodes poses an endearing contrast. It was on my trip to the town that I finally saw a truly native tree, the bread fruit tree. This tree bears fruit that attracts fruit bats, both of which are consumed as great delicacy by the locals!

 After Beau Vallon, we went to Takamaka Bay. Aren’t all beaches the same, why another one? Beaches have their individual personalities and functions. Beau Vallon may be great for sunset viewing, but some, like Takamaka are particularly safe for swimming, a family beach; some are good for snorkeling or surfing; and yet others are too dangerous for any activity. Takamaka Bay, named after the laurel tree, turned out to be truly a tranquil piece of ocean, welcome and inviting, and largely, private. Takamaka neighbourhood held another tourist attraction in the form of Seychellois artist of international repute, Michael Adams. Like our own Mario Miranda, his renditions of oceans, houses, vegetation, flora and fauna, are an artistic documentation of life in Seychelles and are much sought after. The vibrant blues (any surprises here?) and greens he dispatches to his drawings brought to mind another tropical island painter, Senaka Senanayake from Sri Lanka. Here was yet another slice of Seychelles, this time from the brush of Seychellois of British descendancy.  

 My diplomat husband had mentioned to a Minister about my interest in birds and being a nature-worshipping nation, the minister requested his friend, Lindsay Chong Seng, a naturalist, to oblige “our guest”. Thus, I found, ‘the’ Lindsay Chong Seng, a third generation Chinese-Seychellois, founder of Seychelles Islands Foundation, at my doorstep. In the next two hours of monologue, he held forth on his pet theme of nature conservation, his work in Aldabra – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – island, of the eponymous giant tortoise fame, and on the archipelago’s birdlife. From him, I learnt that the Madagascar fody was alien and also how introduction of rats, cats and dogs on the islands from the dhows and ships had played havoc with endemic birds such as the Seychelles Magpie robin. He held me in thrall with information on fairy terns, white-tailed tropic birds and frigate birds that fled Mahe ages ago, to be found only on remote islands, now. As we parted ways, he extended an invitation to visit Aldabra, his work-station!

A travel experience is incomplete until one has tasted local food. Instead of eating out at a restaurant, we went to the weekly Street Festival by Beau Vallon to feast on local music, local brew and Creole cuisine. And this is the fare I tasted: Red snapper, the local favourite, marinated in spices and grilled over charcoal; boiled cassava for carbohydrates; breadfruit crisps; boiled breadfruit cubes sautéed in butter and drizzled with herbs; raw mango salad garnished with chilies and sugar; and sweet potato cake flavoured with coconut milk. At the end of it all I was Seychelles-satiated, indeed.  And no, I did not taste the Millionaire's Salad! 

Also read  Seychelles - Part II

NOTE: All Photographs in this blog and website are the author's original  work.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Ode to Coco de mer

The virgin forests
of Vallée de Mai
sire a secret
in its palm

a fruit, heavy
with expectation
a primeval seed
seeking inspiration

a heart, voluptuous
erotic, sensuous
holding promise
of genesis

black parrot warbling
songs amorous
green geckos, skinks
an unseemly chorus

a catkin, daggers drawn
the male tree bears
amber inflorescence
ready to strike

a whiff
of zephyr, carries
sweet nothings, whispered
dispersed on air

unseen, unheard
Adam and Eve
Ling and Yoni
mate, untouched

A miracle zygote
Birth of man

Naughty Nature
crafts to perfection
coco de mer seduction
blueprint to human reproduction


Coco de mer is a palm nut (a kind of double-coconut), the heaviest nut anywhere, endemic to Vallee de Mai stretch at the Praslin Island of Seychelles. The Vallee de Mai is a living remnant of the prehistoric forests which existed in the erstwhile Gondwanaland and is one of the two host habitats in the world where this rarest of nuts grows wild. The most astounding part of the real-life lore of coco fesse, as it is also called (fesse is a French word which means ‘butt’!), is thus:

The palm species – Lodoicea maldivica - has separate male and female trees. The female palm bears the nut and the seed within uncannily resembles a woman’s torso. As though that were a mere coincidence, the male tree sends forth catkins which resemble... you guessed it! The male tree is taller than the female and pollination takes place by wind and perhaps, through the medium of geckos that slither on the trees.
These nuts would find their way into the ocean and ancient mariners in their wisdom imagined them to be fruits of some submarine plant species, to be fruits of the sea (hence, the name - in French - coco de mer). Being bulky to the degree of 10- 20 kg, these nuts did not/do not travel far and hence have been preserved in their mother territory.

A few botanical gardens over the world do showcase the palm, but it is a phenomenally slow-growing tree, taking nearly seven years to mature. It is also believed that some of these nuts did travel over the oceans and landed on the Indian coasts and were used as urns or water vessels (kamandalus) by the sadhus!

These ancient palms predate evolution of man!