Spirited jaunt

Island city

Spirited jaunt

Truth be told, I am not a downtown girl. I do not like the bustle that pipes in its heart. But this is one downtown that was cosying up to me. The downtown of the world’s smallest capital. Petite. Tiny, actually. Not so crowded. No high-rises. No glass-facade corporate coops. Old world charm. The waif-thin lanes.

The downtown just about a street long. An old church on the left. A Hindu temple by the arcade. A cinema resembling a refurbished pigeonhole. And the weekly market droning with the holler of hawkers and buyers haggling animatedly over red snapper, parrot fish, sprigs of thyme and rolls of cinnamon. A few steps and the street ended in the parking lot. That’s it?

That’s the capital, I stood dismayed. That’s what the heart of Victoria, the capital of Seychelles, is. I could walk around the world’s smallest capital in 10 minutes. I needed an extra five minutes to see the Big Ben. The little Big Ben, a clock tower which is a silver replica of London’s Vauxhall Clock Tower. You might smirk at how little this Big Ben is, but do not call it Little Ben. It has a name: I’Horloge (literally, painted silver).

Carnival craze

But that day in April, Victoria was looking pretty. Happy. Vibrant. Decked with festoons. Throbbing with the oomph beat of drums. And lilting music. At the 5th edition of Seychelles Carnival, the tiny streets were cluttered with half the country’s population (at last headcount, Seychelles’s population is only 90,000)   — tourists, gawkers, countless tableaux and performers from 22 countries.

There were Samba dancers from Brazil with feathers in their hair and fishnet on their long legs, martial artistes from Korea, Masai troupe, band from Notting Hill and Sami tribeswomen. Characters stepped out of the screen — Batman, Joker and Minions. There were dancers from Ghana, an Indian contingent, Miss USA, Miss World Australia, the Princess of Swaziland and the King of Ghana. And, the Aldabra tortoise, the world’s largest tortoise, lead the pack. Aldabra tortoise is a native of Seychelles and it behooves Seychelles’s symbol to walk slowly at the head of the parade.  

In its 5th edition, the Seychelles Carnival has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Indian Ocean. Seychelles prides itself in being a melting pot of cultures. Not surprisingly, the Carnival logo includes a little black cauldron with a smiling sun popping out of it. Not just the Carnival, even the local Creole cuisine is a melting pot. It is all about influences, a million influences from immigrants who settled in the African island — Africans, Indians, French and British. Add these cuisines in a cauldron and you get what is distinctly Seychelles Creole food. Seychelles Creole is not the country cousin of Mauritian Creole cuisine. They are similar, yet different.

On the archipelago of 115 granite and coralline islands that constitute the oldest mid-Oceanic granite islands on earth, I wanted to slurp on the daube (sweet potato plus breadfruit/cassava stew), which is a lunch spread. Here, breakfast is frugal — boiled breadfruit served with a dollop of butter. Boiled breadfruit? I puckered. That’s meagre. I could roast it in the coconut husk embers. I wanted something unusual on the plate. Pwason Sale (salt fish) chutney with green mango or grilled red snapper basted with garlic and ginger, even a red lentil stew or snake gourd curry was not tempting enough on a sultry summer day. Something unique and rare (even odd!) on the plate, please. I pleaded like a famished castaway.

A bat curry. Bat curry? No. Who eats bats? Fruit bats eat fruits. No one eats bats. No. No. I vehemently shook my head in dismay. But in Seychelles, fruit bat curry is a delicacy. Often, Sunday lunch. Fruit bats are dressed, diced, marinated overnight in garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and vinegar, then sautéed and slathered in tamarind juice. I gulped my bat bewilderment and conjured the image of bats tumbling out of gunny bags that were then sautéed for a lavish dinner. Four bats are enough for three people.

The mourning me sure needed something to wash down the bat torment. Perhaps coconut water. I thought of a simple antidote. A coco de mer. An endemic coconut that takes six-seven years to mature; its seed weighs about 18 kg (the world’s largest), and the female flowers are the largest of any palm. You’d need a loader, if not a crane, to hold it for you. The largest recorded coco de mer weighed — hold your breath — 42 kg.

Island giants

Coco de mer is a true case of island gigantism. And its only natural habitat is the Vallee De Mai palm forest in Seychelles’s Praslin island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to stick a straw and quaff the coco de mer water. Alas! I could not. One costs about $800 (roughly Rs 50,000). Fifty thousand rupees for a coconut? Too pricey, this mammoth nut.
In the archipelago that has ‘paradise’ as a permanent prefix, I shunned the pricey nut and took to stories of how Marie Antoinette escaped the guillotine and shacked in a Seychelles island. Of Ian Fleming sticking his toe in the silken sand to write the Bond adventure For Your Eyes Only. Of Prince William and Kate Middleton picking a Robinson Crusoe kinda island for their honeymoon. So many stories, so many legends, so many narratives of an island that — if you believe the myth — was the Garden of Eden.

Fact File

Getting there: Air Seychelles has direct flights from Mumbai.
Other options include hopping flights with Etihad and Emirates airlines.
Where to stay: Savoy, Constance, Banyan Tree, Hilton are good options.
What to see/do: Jardin du Roi, Victoria Market, Hindu temple, Clock Tower, Eden Island, Bel Air Cemetery & National Library.
Take a ferry to La Digue and Praslin islands.
Where to eat: Bravo restaurant in Eden Island (Brad Pitt and George Clooney have dined there). Lunch at Jardin du Roi. Mahek (Indian restaurant in Savoy Resort).
Visa: Visa on arrival for Indian citizens.

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