Back in 2015, I was travel editor with Yahoo India. In February that year I left on assignment for the Seychelles in the quest of, among other things, the rare Black Parrot. With blue oceans, green geckos, the flaming orange of the Madagascar Fody — the most common bird in the islands — that trip was colourful indeed. But what made it more beautiful, in a certain sense, was a pink slip. I lost my job while I was in the middle of that assignment. And became free again. My story, The Land Of The Black Parrot, appears in the Indian Express Eye dated May 7, 2017. Here’s a longer, fuller version that you might enjoy reading.
Islands top my bucket list. Remote ocean islands, cut away from the mainland for millennia, engender unique ecosystems with extraordinary plants and animals. Charles Darwin unwrapped the peculiar natural history of the Galapagos. Socotra, 340 km off the coast of Yemen, harbours otherworldly Dragon Trees. Australia’s egg-laying mammals are as intriguing as New Zealand’s flightless parrots. A far-flung Indonesian island produced a gigantic flesh-eating lizard — the Komodo Dragon.
The Seychelles, whose 115 islands are scattered in the Indian Ocean 1,600 km east of mainland Africa, possessed my childhood imagination after I chanced upon a clothbound LIFE photo-book in my school library. It was a reference book, not to be taken outside, but the kindly librarian let me borrow it for a night.
I read of coral atolls inhabited by elderly giant tortoises. I read enviously of explorers who snorkeled with dolphins and turtles. I read of gigantic coconuts. I read of The Widow, a mysterious black bird that sat mournfully on its nest. I read of a magical forest where one could sleep without fear. Fact and imagination made love and procreated, spawning fantasy after fantasy about the Seychelles.
It would be three decades until I could separate fable from fact. So obsessed was I with living my dream that, without second thought, I declined a coincident trip to Japan to witness the spectacular flowering of plum trees. My job as travel editor with an internet portal was under threat as the company was downsizing, but I threw caution to the winds. Drifting towards Africa aboard the Air Seychelles red-eye from Mumbai, I watched dawn break over the ocean. Soon, the jade-green hilltops of Mahe poked their sleepy crowns out of the clouds.
Victoria, the capital city, was more upscale than I had imagined. It has an international airport and tony residential neighbourhoods. There are fish markets, shops selling books and gemstones, heritage buildings and gardens, churches and mosques, and a temple to Lord Murugan. There is even a tiny clock tower that locals know as Little Ben. Behind Victoria, the hills of Morne Seychellois National Park, cloaked in verdant cloud forests interspersed with plantation villas and tea gardens, rise to 900 m. In under forty minutes, we drove from coast to coast through breathtaking scenery and descended from foggy heights to sunny, postcard-perfect beaches.
The Creole-speaking Seychellois are a cheerful people composed of so many genetic strains that a row of them sitting on a bus-stop bench can resemble a Benetton advertisement. Humans arrived on the islands only a few centuries ago. Vasco da Gama, en route to India in 1502 on his second voyage after he claimed the Spice Route for the Portuguese crown in 1498, observed a cluster of coral islands he named (after himself) as the Amirantes — the Admiral’s Islands. However, the Seychelles were not permanently settled until 1770 when the French established a colony on Mahe. Over time, freed slaves and exiled African chiefs, Chinese traders, and plantation labourers from India and neighbouring islands populated the isles. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, the Seychelles ceded to the British, who administered it until 1976 when the islands became independent.
In the 17th century, the islands were the playground of pirates. The most celebrated of them was Olivier Levasseur, nicknamed La Buse (The Buzzard) for his stealth and swiftness. A Frenchman, La Buse led a picturesque life until his luck ran out. He was captured and executed. Moments before the noose tightened, he flung into the crowd a necklace bearing a seven-line cryptogram, claiming that it held clues to the location of his hidden treasure. The cipher has never been cracked entirely, although feverish search parties have unearthed all kinds of leads including graves and relics. Governments, navies and bounty hunters are still on the hunt for La Buse’s cache, valued at over a billion dollars.
Listening to Glynn Burridge tell these tales is exhilarating. Somerset-born Burridge spent his youth in Iran as a Farsi interpreter and English tutor to the Pahlavi royal family. When the Iranian Revolution toppled the monarchy in 1979, Burridge fled to the Seychelles, became a naturalised Seychellois, and settled down as a storyteller.
Alert navy and coast guard vessels keep a sharp eye out for present-day pirates, with a lot of support from India’s military and naval forces. We hungered, nonetheless, to meet a pirate. Hyacinthe, the skipper of our little snorkelling skiff, was the closest we came to encountering one. He was a loud, lovable, brawling sea dog, barking orders and cussing at his crew of young men. He took great pride in slamming the boat over the big breakers as we left La Digue and approached the tiny islands of Cocos and Sister, where we snorkeled. Hyacinthe flirted gaily with the young ladies on the boat, and even made a tender proposition of marriage to one of them.
Unprepared for the snorkelling trip, I had forgotten to change into my swimwear. “What?!” bellowed our very own Captain Haddock. “You came on snorkelling trip without trunks. Aaah!” His cry of agony prompted me to tell the truth: I had brought my trunks — they were inside my bag. “Change!” He ordered. “Take the lady’s sarong and change!” I obeyed, slipping out of my underwear and into my trunks behind a borrowed sarong, on a rocking boat. His face fell when I told him I could not swim. “Everybody can snorkel!” he declared. And with that, he handed me a snorkel and instructed one of his boys to lead me into the water, clinging onto a disc-shaped rubber float. And, like that, I snorkeled. Every now and then, Hyacinthe would stop by and dunk my head in the water. “Head inside!” he yelled. “Or you won’t see anything.”
I’ll always be grateful to that pirate for showing me the riches of the reef.
An immense portrait of La Buse glares at diners at Victoria’s Marie Antoinette, a restaurant famous for Creole cuisine. I found to my delight that mangoes are always in season. Refreshing sorbets and salads are on the menu alongside curried seafood and locally grown tropical fruit.
On a walk through the cloud forests, I was shown to pygmy lime and Coco plum trees that overzealous humans had introduced. Battling invasive plants and animals that have overrun the islands, the Seychellois ruthlessly exterminate rats, feral cats, parakeets, crows and mynas that threaten native birds.
There are no terrestrial mammals native to the Seychelles but for bats. One species — the Seychelles Fruit Bat — is numerous enough for locals to eat. At La Plaine St Andre, a fine restaurant housed in a distillery that produces the sought-after Takamaka Bay rum, I ordered a delicious fruit bat ravioli. The meat was sparse, dark and bony with a flavour somewhere between tuna and beef.
Despite such creature comforts, I hungered to see the birds and trees that had enthralled my boyhood. On Mahe, I met the common Seychelles Blue Pigeon, Seychelles Sunbird and Seychelles Bulbul. To find the rare Seychelles Black Parrot and uncover the mystery of The Widow, I had to island-hop.
Travelling between islands isn’t cheap, but the high-speed catamaran ferries that link Mahe with nearby Praslin and La Digue are comfortable and convenient. One morning, I found myself skimming at 36 knots on the deep blue ocean, transfixed by schools of flying fish skeeting in the boat’s wake.
On La Digue, where ox-carts outnumber the handful of motor vehicles, I cracked the mystery of The Widow. The male Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher, resplendent in mourning black, had earned itself the unfortunate moniker of La Veuve, French for widow. Fewer than two hundred birds survive on the small island, but in a streetside forest reserve no larger than a kitchen garden I gratefully observed a family — male, female and a fledged chick. One drop in the bucket list.
On Praslin, the second-largest island, I explored an ancient pirate’s lair and venerated a giant tortoise before visiting Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bereft of creatures fanged and clawed, this benign forest shelters an endangered palm that produces the 20-kg Coco de Mer, the world’s largest fruit. Its shape, reminiscent of the female pelvis, is (pun intended) the butt of dirty jokes. The Seychellois, though, celebrate it as a symbol of fertility, adapting it to art, jewellery and immigration stamps.
Geckos bronze and green scurried on the trunk of a palm, while up in its crown a trio of sooty-grey birds alighted to feed on the flowers. “Black Parrot,” our guide exclaimed. “You’re in luck!”
Standing in that benign forest of palms, my dreams began to come true. I was looking at the national bird of the Seychelles, on its national tree, cradling in my arms for a photo-op its national symbol — the voluptuous fruit of the Coco de Mer.
Giddy with excitement, I returned to the hotel to find an urgent message from the office: I had lost my job. Wading into the comforting waves of the Indian Ocean, I relaxed. I felt unyoked, unburdened. In this tranquil Eden, I had found something else, something more precious than La Buse’s treasure.
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