Praslin

Day 720 – 18 February, 2017

A French woman in the queue in front of me examined her Louis Vuitton luggage, about five bags in all, noticing a small scratch in the handle. Her body language and pointing indicated that she was blaming the porter who had delivered her family’s luggage to the ferry terminal. I looked around me at the families donning ridiculous cliché resort attire and the honeymooners in various stages of physical affection.

“The ferry better leave on time. I want to get to the resort before the spa closes.” We are scheduled to leave on time, ma’am.

“I hope it’s not too cramped.” The ferry will be full, sir, but I assure you that there is enough space for everyone.

“I don’t like the way they are stacking the luggage. Do you think it will stay dry there in the back of the boat?” Once the bags are secure, they will cover them with a tarp. Not to worry, miss.

Most of the ferry’s passengers were either French or Seychellois so these were only a few of the comments I could understand from English-speaking tourists. My instinct was to be embarrassed by the demands of first-world visitors, but this was a first-class destination that attracted a specific class of tiresome globetrotters and the ferry’s crew was accommodating their complaints with a degree of patience that was not deserved. I was the one that seemingly didn’t belong here.

We set out for the island of Praslin exactly on time and arrived exactly on time. The air conditioned boat was complete with a premium-stocked bar and a B-rated movie during the one hour transfer. The seas were calm. You could make out a blurry view of the neighboring islands through the condensation on the plastic windows. The whole episode was lacking drama, to the chagrin of my fellow vacationers.

A taxi deposited me outside the Palm Beach Hotel in Grand Anse. The colonial-style pale yellow hotel was adorned with white lattice in an open-air lobby. You could just see the white sand beach beyond the swimming pool on the other side of the reception desk. Hotel guests sipped champagne on their balconies, staring off into the ocean. Could this be right? I double checked the address of my AirBNB as I clumsily tramped through the lobby toward the reception desk, taking care not to let my backpack knock over an antique vase. The receptionist assured me I did indeed have a reservation, even as I felt like everyone was staring at the bedraggled backpacker with sun-bleached stringy hair and ripped jean shorts. In reality, no one cared or noticed me at all; I was as invisible as the staff. I was led up three flights of stairs, the last one being a tight narrow staircase, and into a cramped dark room with questionable air con. This was undoubtedly the maid’s quarters. I immediately felt at ease, realizing at some point I had become uncomfortable at the prospect of luxury.

It was true that I somehow had secured an undesirable room at a reasonably fancy hotel. The Palm Beach Hotel was located on the west side of Praslin in the administrative district of Grande Anse, also the longest beach on the island. In the evenings, the sunsets were almost indescribable. They would start as an ordinary sunset, becoming more vibrant and magical, taking over the horizon in every direction. It was also at this time of day that the tide was lowest and the water was too shallow for anything but wading or fishing. There was a large French family occupying at least half of the 13 rooms at the property and the young children were taking over the pool so I was effectively pushed out, but I didn’t mind to explore the rest of the island so I never saw much of Grande Anse during the day.

A buffet breakfast was included with my room and I settled in to the open-air dining room where I could enjoy the gentle sea breeze as I made a plan for my day. The server brought me pineapple juice and coffee and a plate of fruit, some of which I had never seen before. He asked how I would like my eggs as he dropped off some condiments on the table and I buried my nose in my iPad. Out of nowhere, a small vase with a single flower that was a centerpiece on my table fell over. Like dominoes, the vase then knocked over the thin water glass, soaking the white tablecloth with ice water. The whole episode startled me, but I picked up the vase to examine it and was puzzled how it could have fallen over. Meanwhile, the server returned with a cloth to mop the water and placed a small plate over a dish of butter. “You must be careful of the birds,” he told me. That’s when I noticed these tiny innocuous brown birds were dive-bombing the dining room to steal pats of butter, leaving wreckage in their wake. My relaxing breakfast was no longer. I ate my eggs hunched over in a protective posture to keep out any unwanted aggressors.

Praslin arguably has some of the best beaches of anywhere in the world, one of which, Anse Lazio, is consistently labeled as such. There was a bus stop directly in front of the hotel and unlike Mahé, the buses just continued back and forth on the island rather than commencing from a central bus terminal. It was a relatively straight shot to get there and the traffic was much lighter than on the capital island. The road tapered off to a narrow dirt path almost a mile from the coast and the bus was unable to continue so the passengers disembarked. Passing rows of coconut palms with big sweeping fronds shading the walk, the fine white sand beach opened up to the turquoise sea and smooth boulders framing the landscape. It was idyllic.

After a couple of hours beaching it, as you do, I started a slow stroll toward a viewpoint I had noticed on my map. I reached the edge of the beach, which was obstructed by boulders, but I climbed over them, regretting my bare feet and lack of pockets for my camera. On the other side, a rocky hiking trail led up the side of a hill. Obviously, it made perfect sense to keep going wearing nothing more than a bikini as the mosquitoes swarmed hungrily overhead. The smooth rocks gave way to sharper edges, yet I pushed on, ignoring the armies of ants that marched over my toes. The viewpoint was obstructed by trees and only a glimpse of the beach was visible. My bloodied feet prevented me from climbing further, but I sat for quite awhile soaking in the isolation and staring off into the ocean. No one else seemed to have found this path. The primal nature of my almost bare body so connected to nature was restorative and empowering.

The next day I visited the UNESCO site, Vallée de Mai, an inland nature park that conserves the island’s endemic palms, coco de mer, and the Seychelles black parrot. The seeds of coco de mer are the largest in the world and even an empty seed pod that was available to touch was quite heavy. A fresh seed that might fall out of a tree would be enough to kill a grown man if it were to land on his head. A few hiking paths meandered through the small park, but the lack of breeze for being away from the coast, turned the area into a sauna. It was a feast for mosquitoes that sent me running back toward the beach.

Luckily, I had arranged for an afternoon at Anse Georgette. This was a private beach affiliated with Constance Lémuria Resort, a five star slice of luxury on the northern part of the island. In order to utilize their beach, you just needed to make a reservation. The resort wanted to keep the beach as private as possible so that it wouldn’t become overrun with tourists. I took the bus to the resort’s entrance, checked in with the security guard and walked down a well-manicured service road, past the golf course, around a lake, through a thick swath of palms, and finally arrived at a quiet beach. I admit it was nice and less crowded than Anse Lazio, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble, especially when a large tourist boat pulled up just off shore and all of the passengers just swam to the beach. So much for the privacy!

Praslin was much more captivating than Mahé. It was relaxed like an island paradise should be and I was beginning to feel like a tried and true beach bum, which is why I spent my last day on a day trip to La Digue. La Digue was only a 20 minute ferry from Praslin and was unique in that motorized traffic was prohibited. Tourists and locals alike would commute on bicycle. La Digue was much smaller than Praslin so with wind in my hair, I cycled from one end to the other, admiring the interior landscape as well as the coastline.

I parked at a secluded beach on the southern side of the island, keen for a dip in the ocean. The waves were intense, too intense for my liking. I knew from the map that this beach connected to two others via a steep walking path up and over some mountainous terrain. This time I had shoes, but I willfully chose not to wear them. There was something about bare feet that made the walk more purposeful, every step required presence of mind, akin to a meditative state. Both of the adjoining beaches, Petite Anse and Anse Cocos, had equally roiling waves that kept me only knee deep, but it didn’t matter. I closed my eyes and let the warm water crash into me over and over again.

On the morning that I was due to leave the Seychelles, I ferried back across the channel to Mahé. Still on board the ferry, I watched dark clouds sweep over the interior mountains and unleash a monsoon of epic proportions. Timid passengers stood in the doorway, waiting for a slight lull before they would dart across the 10 meters to the cover of the terminal. Almost comically, the luggage was set in the open under a flimsy tarp and every time someone would search for their bag, the tarp would lift and expose all of the luggage to the downpour. The woman with her Louis Vuitton bags was yelling at porters as she tried to shield herself from getting wet. The entire crowd pushed and shoved under the terminal awning, angling for position, until I just gave up. I stood in the rain, directly next to the hull, until I spotted my backpack. It was soaked. I, for one, was thankful for nature’s shower to give her a good bath before the next leg of my journey.

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.