Vacation From My Vacation

Day 713 – 11 February, 2017

Being a savvy traveler not only involves good decision-making and knowledge of your destination, but also recognizing that when you are searching for a flight from Johannesburg to Mumbai and the cheapest flight happens to be on a little airline called Air Seychelles, which means that your flight will connect in Mahé, Seychelles and you can force a stop for any number of days, that you better take advantage of this unexpected good fortune and stay for as many days as you can well afford. This is how I ended up on a vacation from my vacation (which I say tongue in cheek because most of my travels certainly don’t resemble any kind of vacation that you would recognize). When I booked this flight with an 11 day stop in the Seychelles, I could barely skate by on my meager budget by booking an AirBNB on Mahé Island and another one on Praslin. They both averaged $100/night, which drove a stake into my careful budgeting, but I rationalized that I was due a little splurge and besides, I would be spending my days at the beach. That’s basically free, right?!

It was dark when I arrived and I had arranged for Rupert, the AirBNB owner, to collect me from the airport. Victoria is the capital of the Seychelles, but it’s barely more than a small town with city gridlock traffic so I was lucky to arrive after most of the bustle had dissipated. I found Rupert soft-spoken and really kind as we drove through winding mountain roads toward the west side of the island. Because it was dark, I couldn’t see the view, but he pointed out the local market, the bank, the bus stops and the path to the beach. This was all I needed! When we arrived in Beau Vallon and drove into the gravel driveway of RowsVilla, I was exhausted. I had rented a second floor one room apartment with a balcony and converted kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to do with so much space all for myself. The air conditioner turned the room into an icebox and I snuggled up in just a sliver of the queen-size bed with an extra blanket.

The island sun woke me up as it poked through the slats of the blinds. I wiped the condensation from the sliding glass door as I opened it up to the morning sauna outdoors. I didn’t have much of a view, but the blue sky beckoned me toward the beach and I envisioned a morning coffee at an open-air cafe. Packed a beach bag, grabbed some fruit that Rupert had left in the fridge, and wandered down the path toward Beau Vallon Beach. Some of the most famous residents of the Seychelles are the Aldabra tortoises. I thought I would have to seek them out, but was puzzled to be greeted by the colossal reptiles in a small pen on the shaded path. I couldn’t understand why there were so many in such a small space; it seemed as if they were there for the amusement of the hotel guests nearby.

Beyond the tortoise pen, I walked through the lobby of a beachside resort that opened onto a white sand beach marked by those telltale boulders of which the Seychelles is famous. Beau Vallon is one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted sand on Mahé and there were plenty of palms offering the perfect amount of private shade. The water was as calm as the sea will ever be and I collapsed on my beach towel to soak in the rays.

When I grew hungry later in the day, I quickly learned that there was very little in the way of budget-friendly dining. I tried to find an unpretentious cafe with a place to connect to wifi. My apartment didn’t have wifi, which was inconvenient but surely there would be a cafe that could become my regular spot for the week. No such luck. Many of the restaurants offered mediocre American or European food with tourist prices to match. I tried one that first day and after a disappointing meal and spotty internet, I decided I would have to go shopping for groceries and perhaps buy a SIM card. For groceries, I purchased some eggs, fruit, crackers, and a bag of frozen shrimp imported from Asia and my price tag was in the $50USD range. Hmmm… Stopping at the mobile store, I discovered that a SIM card would be about $40USD to activate and for usage. The Seychelles was indeed blowing up my budget. Ultimately, I decided that I would have to forego coffee and alcohol and internet, all painful sacrifices since I had done little in the way of planning this island visit. Instead of internet research, I would be researching things to do the old-fashioned way – by asking the locals.

From Rupert, I found that I was staying relatively close to a short hike to a private beach, Anse Mejor. Marked by a dot on my map, Rupert dropped me off at the bottom of a curvy cliff side road. A barefoot man with a dirty t-shirt was trying to get my attention. He had what appeared to be a furry bat in a cage and wanted me to take a look. I pretended not to hear him calling me as I began walking up the hill.

The path led over scalding black volcanic boulders for about 30 minutes before opening to Anse Mejor. There were a few people that had arrived before me, mostly couples that kept quietly to themselves. The walk had been sweltering so I found a little protected shallow cove of water where I could lie down and let the warm tropical water run in and out with the waves. An Italian girl, who was traveling alone, and a man in his 30s that appeared to be local, yet he spoke with an English accent, were talking nearby. His name was Jay and he was originally from the Seychelles but had moved to England as a child. He was now a chef in London and returned every year to spend a month with his family.

He had a few local snacks with him. Overcome with curiosity, I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know where and what the locals ate on this cash cow of an island. When I approached, he offered me breadfruit chips and a charred octopus kebab. The three of us easily fell into conversation together. Finally, when the shadows were beginning to grow longer and I decided it was time to go, the Italian girl retreated into the aquamarine water and Jay said he would walk with me back to town. The heat was still punishing as ever and the sweat dripped down my back in rivulets. When we exited the path back on to the road, Jay wanted to introduce me to his friend (the man with the bat). Bat Man was not a fan of mine after I had ignored him on the way up and since I’m not in the business of letting someone curse at me to my face, I casually walked away and let him curse at me to my back.

Eventually, Jay caught up to me and said he knew of a waterfall on the way to Beau Vallon if I wanted to cool off. I had about 2 km to walk on an unshaded asphalt highway so a waterfall sounded great. We turned off the highway, walking away from the coast, toward a decidedly untouristy village with children playing in the mud and a stray dog prancing ahead of us as if he was showing the way. We were only a few hundred meters from Le Meridien Resort but it was as if we had entered another world. There were a couple of teenagers swimming in the waterfall in their underwear; a sliver of soap and a nearly empty bottle of shampoo were tucked into a tree root for public use. It was wonderful.

After two days on my corner of the island, it was time to explore further afield. Port Launay was a beach that had been highly regarded with calm clear water and was only a skip south of where I was staying. I knew that bus service was regular on the island and it was easy to assume that the bus route would go around in a circle. However, after consulting with Rupert, he indicated that even though Port Launay was close in distance, there was a mountain in the way.

I would have to take the bus to Victoria, change vehicles, and continue to my destination via a clockwise route instead of the more logical counter-clockwise approach. I didn’t see much point to checking the bus schedule until I spent almost 45 minutes waiting for the first bus to take me to Victoria. It would be the first time I could see the capital city in the light of day. The trip to Victoria was only about 5 km, but it winds over a narrow mountain pass that makes walking impossible. It took close to 30 mins of bumper to bumper traffic before I saw the cluster of buildings on the eastern side of the island. There was a nice market and a few cafes, but not much else to note for a city of this size. I had planned to explore a little bit, but so far the commute had taken long enough and I headed straight for my next bus. Many of the buses were decommissioned school buses with hard plastic seats and windows that were either permanently up or permanently down. Many local commuters, a handful of tourists, and swarms of mosquitoes were finally on our way to Port Launay, which I now knew was perhaps the furthest and most taxing journey from Beau Vallon that I could have dreamed.

Door to door it took me about 3 hours to set foot on this stretch of beach. The island of Mahé is about 61 sq miles. We stopped every hundred meters or so to pick up or drop off a passenger so I was getting a good tour of the country if there might be anywhere else I should visit that week. The water of Port Launay was exceptionally shallow and with the cloudy skies, it retained a green hue. It appeared to be popular with snorkelers for the brightly colored fish that I could easily see without snorkel gear. Swimming was ideal for the calm water. I had a picnic so I settled in with a good book and willfully procrastinated on making the return trip to Beau Vallon.

After a few more days mixed with bulging rain clouds and quick trips to the beaches nearby, I was ready to take that bus trip again. This time, I left earlier and checked the bus schedule for Anse Takamaka (of which there are 3 Takamakas on Mahé so it was helpful to know which one!). It was generally in the same direction as Port Launay, but further south and facing a different direction, allowing for moderate waves to buffet the boulders that frame both ends. A small wedding was set up on one extreme of the beach, while the other was home to a bungalow resort. Very few people had discovered this little slice of heaven. I spent the day reading and swimming and when I was fully baked, I pulled my beach towel into the shade and took a nap.

Fully sun-kissed after 7 days on Mahé, I reluctantly packed to go back to Beau Vallon from Takamaka. Sans internet, I wasn’t able to check the bus schedule for the return trip. The bus stop was only about 20 meters away and I didn’t have to wait long, but away from the ocean breeze, a cloud of hungry mosquitoes made it seem like I was waiting for that bus for hours. I grabbed a window seat, while a heavyset woman was in the aisle. A girl of approximately 6 years old sat between us in her school uniform. I had assumed they were together until the heavy woman got off the bus and left the little girl behind. Not completely unusual to see a child of her age traveling alone, I had never really given it much thought. However, this time I noticed that her feet didn’t even touch the ground and she was carrying a Dora the Explorer backpack. Just when I was pondering what it must be like to grow up in a place like the Seychelles, the girl vomited into her own hands. She was so quiet and discreet about it, I hadn’t even realized what happened. It was unclear if she was ill or only car sick. Some of the liquid and larger pieces had cascaded down the front of her uniform. The new woman who was sitting on the aisle recoiled and changed seats. The little girl began brushing the chunks off of her dress on to the floor and seemed unsure what to do. I dug in my bag for tissue and water of which I had little, but it seemed to be enough to salvage the situation. I asked if she was ok, but she appeared to not understand the question. It was just beginning to rain as we went back to being strangers; I wished I could do more for her because she seemed genuinely worried about her dress. Then she whispered something to me, so quiet that I barely knew she was speaking at all. She said it again, “Can I lay on you?” My heart breaking, of course I agreed. She laid her head on my shoulder for the rest of the journey back to Victoria.