In the Land of Coco de Mer

We all have phases in life when we just crave for peace and quietude. But that often is a premium with crammed deadlines to meet. The travel bug bites me in good measure whenever I manage to squeeze some time out from my hectic academic schedule. This time I zeroed in on Seychelles. The conglomerate of coralline islands, off the East African coast, is more accessible and economical than the ones that are over-advertised or more frequented by international tourists. And what could be more fun, than to have my brother for company on the trip.

A short flight landed us in Colombo, the pit stop en route Seychelles. The taxi dropped us off at the beach hotel in Negombo. The approach to this coastal city in western Sri Lanka resembles any similar town in India with thatched huts that double up as shops and buildings turned into guest houses and serviced apartments. The local buses and auto rickshaws are brightly coloured in pink, magenta, blue and green. The classic rural ambience of Negombo is outstanding.

We left Colombo the next morning at daybreak, and a few hours later, were at the Mahe airport in Seychelles. The airport looked more like a lobby in some residential complex, magically situated along the blue-green coral coast. Our destination was the Reef Holiday Resort in Anse Aux Pins. The studio apartment was cosy, perfectly furnished, and offered an uncompromising view of the sea from the balcony.

Coco der MerAnse Lazio beach

Seychelles was a British colony until 1976, and there is ample evidence of it, particularly on the food menu. Fish and chips dominate as the most popular dish, along with an exhaustive assortment of seafood.

We had five days to explore the island. Buses were available at regular intervals and the 20-minute ride to capital Victoria passed through a winding hilly slope. It was an interesting combination of landscapes with dense canopied evergreen forests lining the low range hills overlooking the crystal blue sea dotted with small islands.

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Victoria is the world’s smallest functioning capital. The port town looks strikingly different than its coastal parts with malls, souvenir shops, markets and restaurants.  A catamaran service and private boats ferry passengers to the neighbouring islands of Praslin and La Digue. We bought groceries, fish and chicken to cook a self-made dinner in our kitchen. The Victoria beach overlooked the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, a perfect spot to soak in the sound of crashing waves. And of course thousands of sparkling stars above the coastline and into the horizon that perhaps indicated the excitement in our hearts.

Day two was reserved for a bus ride along the northern coast to Port Launay. We passed the major hospital and healthcare centre, popular hotels and shops, and brightly coloured cute little houses.

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Port Launay is a popular tourist destination. Soft waves gently kissed our feet as we sat under the shade of the palm trees. Shoals of fish were swimming effortlessly among the weeds. Snorkelling is visibly a popular activity here. Glass-lined boats are available to travel a distance into the ocean to observe the fauna. Local trucks sell burgers, and rice and salmon fish curry tanned in the sun. The experience of hanging out in Port Launay is extremely satisfying.

It was the last day of 2017, and once back in Anse Aux Pins, we cooked some beef in a butter batter with mashed potatoes and paired it with the conventional Bengali daal and rice. Seychelloid Takamaka, the local rum-vodka, was the perfect drink to user in the New Year.

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The next morning we booked tickets to Praslin on the catamaran from Victoria. The vehicle is thus name for its exclusive design to ensure greater speed. Our seats were booked on the open deck and the catamaran cut through the waters at top speed. The frothy white waves formed new patterns and the azure blue sea merged with the sky at a distance.

The flora and fauna of Praslin falls under protected forest reserves and sanctuaries. It is home to Coco de Mer, touted as the world’s largest fruit, and the giant land tortoises. The latter even roams free and are kept as pets in popular restaurants and residences. Poaching of Coco de Mer, however, has been rampant and that has led to its dwindling numbers. Stockpiling the fruit for commercial sale is prohibited. It is considered as a souvenir and is the main symbol of Seychelles. What caught our attention was that the weird immigration stamp on our passports was actually a Coco de Mer symbol.

Coco der MerLand turtle on the Anse Lazio beach

We hired a cab and went around the port. Laurant, our chauffer, gave us interesting information about the place. The Valle de Mai botanical reserve, unfortunately, was closed that day as it was a public holiday. But Laurant ensured that he would familiarise us with the other local versions of Coco de Mer, the giant palms and miniature waterfalls. He took us to Anse Lazio, widely considered to be one of the best beaches in the world. I climbed a high rock and was spellbound by the view from there. The sea appeared ultramarine blue. This was because of the algae that forged a blue colour. It was totally different from the colour of the water in other parts of Seychelles. The sea was calm and I floated on the water. Later, we had a little picnic with cold ham, cheese and bread, and local flavoured yogurts and cream that we had brought with us.

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I have always been a mountain lover and had a lesser interest in seas. But Anse Lazio was a breathtaking combination of both., something which I never expected beroe I landed in Seychelles. There is something unique about swimming in the vast blue expanse, taking a deep breath, and turning around to face the lush green mountains right ahead, looking bright and shiny in the tropical sun. We had a lovely seafood lunch and raised a toast to a beautiful start to the New Year.

The return catamaran ride from Praslin to Victoria was smooth. We carried back memories of a wonderful vacation. And yes, the sunburns, which I and my brother joked would be alive for quite some time now.

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The highlight of day three was hitch-hiking the mountainous trail in Mahe. My brother and I went trekking along the Morne Blanc trail and climbed a hilltop to grab a view of the entire Mahe coastline. We observed the endemic white long tailed birds and the flycatchers. Everything fell silent around us as we didn’t talk. The only sound was the wind against our ears and it was deafening. There is an undeniable sense of accomplishment in reaching the trail top and to experience a view like that. The tiring trek and the exhaustion were soon forgotten.

Morne Blanc is a natural trail and is a clear 2.6km climb to the summit. It took us more than half a day to climb up and back.

Coco der MerCoco De Mer, the largest variety of coconut in Valle de Mai

Day four, and we visited the local market in Maheand Beau Vallonbeach. Like all marketplaces, it was bustling with energy. People sold stuff like incense, fruits, fish, vegetables, souvenirs, colourful sarongs and skirts, and bags and shoes. It was more like a common a flea market. Lunch was at a seaside restaurant where we had pasta, beef burger, and tuna fish as well as shrimps. It marked the end of a short but well deserved vacation.

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People make places, they say, and Seychelles is perhaps one of the best examples. The cosmopolitan culture imbued the remnants of a colonial past and the pre-colonial Arab lineage is long forgotten. But its people have withstood the vicissitudes of time. The Creoles are the dominant community in Seychelles who seemed to be happy in their sheltered surroundings. They live like a self-sufficient unit in a miniature capital where community interaction is simple but all-encompassing.  They are dynamic which is reflected in the dresses they wear and in their warm ways of addressing each other.

The Seychelles people have created a world of their own and they share security and responsibility with each other. That could be the reason why these islands, albeit new in their independent status, survive better than most other tourist destinations elsewhere in the world. For us, it was a vacation well deserved, and a country well learnt.

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Saheli Chatterjee

Travelling, swimming, debating, blogging, all that and more when not pursuing academics. Dream to work on UN projects, and on the migration and refugee issues in West Asia. An explorer with wheels beneath my feet. Love to meet people and win over foes, not that I have many

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