Simpsons fans might recall that classic episode in which Bart substitutes Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” for the church organist’s sheet music for a hymn entitled “In the Garden of Eden.” Well, it’s a good chuckle, which captures some of the feelings I’ve had since leaving the madhouse that was Chennai. However – and I shan’t go into detail – the ship itself is a bit of a madhouse. (I mentioned Esalen in a previous post, and shades of it remain, though the principle players and the overall agenda have shifted. I’ll save it for another post).
I will stick to the garden for a moment, though, because long ago it was believed that the Seychelles was the site of the actual Garden of Eden. Having spent a day and a half there, I can attest to the fact that such a conjecture would be well founded. It’s an exquisitely beautiful place, and though I spent time only on Mahé - one of the 115 islands in the archipelago - it’s safe to say that Eve, Adam, and even the serpent are plausible past inhabitants.
We arrived on a Sunday; nearly everything was closed, giving Victoria, the nation’s capitol, a ghostly sort of veneer. Possibly, people were in the various places of worship; in relatively close proximity to each other – I would end up discovering a Catholic church, an Anglican one, a mosque, and a Hindu temple, which unlike the one I went to in India, had a sign welcoming “any and all” through its door.
It’s possible that people were at the beach or at home relaxing. As with the past couple of destinations we’ve visited, the temperature was in the upper registers, lending itself to the leisurely pace that I embraced naturally.
Immediately off the ship, we were confronted with green mountains lightly veiled in a mist penetrated by the brightest sunshine. The terrain reminded some of Panama, one of San Lucia, and another Denver of all places (the latter owing to the mountains and mist). Being tropical, it’s extremely lush and green everywhere.
The islands are home to many species that simply aren’t found anywhere else, particularly birds. Doves abound as do many I couldn’t name, never having seen them before. Seychelles is famous for the Coco de Mer, whose fruit is said to resemble “the pelvic structure of a woman” or her derrière. The double coconuts of these palm trees are considered the largest seeds in the world and can weigh as much as 50 pounds. Most Seychellois speak a French Creole patois. In addition to French, only about five percent of the people speak English even though it’s an official language of the government. I’m not sure of the “official” ethnic make up, but I saw a range of skin colors, from Caucasian to a medium dark caramel. While I wouldn’t say I stood out, I was on the darker end of the scale. I read on Go2Africa.com that “the Seychelles has no original native population and it's believed that Polynesian and Arab explorers may have been in the area as early at the third century but did not settle here…. Today there are an estimated 81,000 Seychellois. Most of them are Creoles descended from the early French settlers, and African and south-east Asian slaves. The rest are descendants of Arab and Chinese immigrants who arrived later in the 19th century.” Walking around with F., an Italian, I commented that though I didn’t sense any tension, that the island culture seemed segregated to me. He was surprised at my reading of the social climate that way and asked what prompted that opinion. I pointed out that though we saw a few different ethnicities, we didn’t see any mixed groups. He looked around and agreed with some surprise because he hadn’t noticed.
For the second time on this trip, I had some trouble with my Master Card. Visa rules in China and to a lesser extent in Seychelles. While my MC was virtually useless in mainland China, I was actually able to use it in Seychelles but it took some running around. The first ATM I approached was Visa only. The second accepted MC, but it was temporarily out of order. The next two bank machines I found would not accept my card, but fortunately later in the day I returned to the machine that had been out of order and it was able to dispense me 300 Seychelle rupees, which is a little under $40. Even that was more than I needed, but I owed DK 100 rupees because he had fronted me some monies when I couldn’t access my funds. Even though the islands are much more expensive than the other places we’ve been, I knew that modest amount would be more than enough for such a short visit, and one in which I consciously sought to spend as little as possible. Consequently, I was able to enjoy two delicious meals in the town (eating the rest back on the ship), buy and mail a few postcards, and treat R., D., and F. to a round of beers.
This was also the first place where “hard currency,” i.e. U.S. dollars and euros were preferred to the local “soft currency.” Unfortunately, I ran out of greenbacks long ago. Many proprietors on the islands give a discount if you pay in dollars or euros, and some places flat out won’t accept rupees from foreigners, which is a conundrum for people like me, who were depending on cash from the machine. We were encouraged not to get more than 800 rupees because banks (i.e. the government) won’t buy back more than that amount. F. was really angered when we went to the Botanical Gardens on the second day, and I was forced to pay for everyone with my credit card because none of us had American or European dinero. The woman told us it was a government-enforced policy, so there was little we could do to argue though F. tried.
The first day F., DK, and I walked about town and looked into hiring a boat to take us deep sea fishing. It would have been a great excursion but most of the fisherman required booking in advance, and our visit was too short for that. Instead, we tried the local Seybrew, which we all agreed was a tasty little lager. The second part of the afternoon, F. and I took the local bus to the beach. The traffic was nowhere near that of Chennai or any of the other cities we’ve visited, the bus ride was pretty wild. F. and I giggled like school children as the driver floored it from stop to stop, which was counter to the whole laid back, chill island vibe. It was basically like having paid 3 rupee a piece for an amusement park ride, especially when he took some of the mountain curves practically on two wheels. The other riders were nonplussed, but F. and I wondered if the driver had to use the rest room or something. (The two other bus rides we took, with different drivers and routes were pretty much the same. Drivers in Seychelles like to put the pedal to the metal, though there’s not much a distance to go).
A local told us which stop to use to get to Beau Vallon. I won’t say it’s the most beautiful beach I’ve seen – although there are some in the Seychelles that have been called the most beautiful in the world by photographers – but it was very nice. Unfortunately it was infested with TSS folks, so F. and I kept walking until the others were small specks. Then he swam, while I laid under a palm tree and read the wildly engrossing The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (The novel is set in post-war Barcelona, which is one of the destinations near the end of our itinerary). We found tons and tons of coral and good size sea shells on the beach; unfortunately there were also some pretty good size hunks of glass – not sure if from the locals or tourists. As the day waned, crabs popped out all around us, which made me a little nervous but they’re more scared of us and just looking at one would make it disappear back into the ground. We watched a pretty decent sunset and then found our way back to town.
We knew we’d missed dinner on the ship but decided to try a place called the Pirate’s Arms (which I quickly dubbed the Pirate’s Arse). When we got there, we discovered that everyTSSbody had had the same idea – the place was packed with TSS folk. F. and I frantically snuck past the open air venue hoping that we hadn’t been seen. We stopped someone on the street who suggested a nearby “take away.” There we enjoyed broiled fish, possibly mackerel, with generous amounts of rice, a pickled mango salad, pili pili (hot chili pepper sauce) and two glasses of fresh strawberry juice. I bought a scone to eat with my breakfast the next day too, and paid for F.’s meal. The total was a whopping 60 rupees for both meals.
The next day, after I’d devoured that delicious scone, F. and I went for another walkabout. We’d agreed to meet with the crew member in the afternoon but once out, didn’t want to return to the ship so we decided to call the TSS duty officer and leave a message that she should meet us at the clock tower, which is the major landmark in the center of town. After several unsuccessful attempts to place the call, a local befriended F., explaining that he needed to buy a phone card. While they went to do that, I wandered down the neighborhood we were in and found a “snack shop” that sold vegetarian and fish samosas. I bought six for 20 rupees. They were delicious. Afterward, F. decided to place some oversea calls, so I took out my book and read on the street corner near the clock tower.
I hadn’t read more than a few paragraphs when I looked down and saw a little red bird, about the size of a sparrow, right next to me. The Madagascar Red Fody, as it’s called, is only red during the mating season; the rest of the time, the male is brown like the female. Apparently they’re not very afraid of people. I saw the shadow of something fluttering above me and looked up to see two stark white birds. I was mesmerized for short while, then I returned to the mystery and romance of a fictional Barcelona. Turning the page, I saw feet very close to mine. Our friend from the phone booth was back. We started chitchatting, and he proudly exclaimed that he lived in America once. I didn’t believe him, thinking that he was probably trying to set me up for something. I asked him where in the U.S., and he said Montana. I knew nobody would make that up. I asked him why he had been in Montana, and he said he had married an American woman but once he was in Montana he couldn’t stay - love couldn’t keep him warm enough in such a cold place. I asked him which he preferred – to live the rest of his days in Seychelles or to return to America, maybe some place warmer. He said that he really liked the United States, but that “the only way to get money in America is to fuck somebody [over] and if you don’t, you’ll get fucked [over]. Here [in the Seychelles] it’s hard to find work, but to get money all you have to do is show respect to others.” I nodded, knowing that he really had been to the States.
The crew member showed up, and we decided to go the Gardens. None of us had had lunch, so we found another little “take away,” where I had a mixture of salted fish and collard greens, potatoes and yellow lentils, two chapatti, a pickled mango salad, and a cup of fresh roasted French coffee with cream and sugar. I rarely drink coffee, but this was the kind that easily explained why people get hooked on the stuff. This time I treated a crew member. This meal was slightly more expensive – around 75 rupees total for two people – but well worth it.
Afterwards, back on the trail of the gardens, it began to rain. I’d call it less than a drizzle though the drops were fat. Now I’ve never been one to enjoy getting caught in the rain, but I know tropical rains don’t last. However, F. acted like he was going to melt. I told him not to worry – that tropical rains last for 30 seconds and that he should enjoy it. Five minutes later, he sarcastically announced that it had been a long 30 seconds; I corrected him – when I’d said 30 seconds I’d meant 30 seconds in island time. As we walked, we ran into A., a student from Hong Kong whom we all like; she joined our party. The gardens were small but well kept and full of botanical delights, a pen that is home to giant tortoises, and a well endowed Coco de mer tree that was planted in 1956. During our stroll through this wonderland, it began to rain again. F. groaned and went to hide under a tree. For a second time, I told him to relax – 30 seconds. About ten minutes later he asked why the 30 seconds was taking longer this time. A. told him that it’s 30 seconds from when the first drop hits your nose. It was over in no time, and the interlude gave me the opportunity to watch the fruit bats circling high in the sky.
Later in the afternoon we went our separate ways. I bumped into R. and D., who were on their way to a nearby Internet café/bar. I had enough left over to buy one round. The guys had the last two Seybrew, and I opted to try the other local beer, Eko. When we had finished with those, R. made a hilarious attempt to finagle some more Seybrew. He reminded the woman that she was charging us 22 rupees per Seybrew (24 for the Eko) – about the price of a meal - despite the fact that the supermarket directly below us was selling Seybrew by the bottle for 14 rupees, meaning that she was making 8 rupees off of each bottle. Therefore, he suggested, why not go downstairs or make a phone call and have them bring up another case of Seybrew. He explained all this much more elegantly than I just did, but it was a nice argument, and I was impressed. So was the woman who listened intently, but didn’t speak up when he was finished, prompting him to ask, “So, what do you say?” She said, “So you want three more Eko?” The look on R’s face was too precious. I had myself a good laugh for his valiant effort. While we drank our second round, I had this nagging feeling that perhaps we should have been clear that we’d take the Seybrew on tap as well as in the bottle, but I didn’t say anything. Sure enough, when it came time for the third round, D. asked what was available on tap and the first thing she said was “Seybrew.” I got to see that look on R’s face for a second time. After my third beer, I decided to go back to ship and get dinner, knowing that once I boarded the ship, that’d be it for the brief little interlude. And so ended my brief visit to the Seychelles.
Next stop: Cape Town