The truth about ‘paradise’

The truth about ‘paradise’

I didn’t know what to expect from the Seychelles. The impression I had was that, though incredibly beautiful, it was a place for luxury tourism. Reading blogs and websites prior to going had addressed some of these assumptions, but I still didn’t have a clear sense of whether they would feel like manicured tourist islands or, like most places, a destination with a central, local community to which you were just a visitor.

When you live in a big city in a predominantly cold country, it’s easy to romanticise other places, landscapes and climates. It’s also easy to forget that communities exist everywhere, and spending your days inside, mostly sitting down and avoiding the cold, is only one way to experience life on planet Earth.

For most people living in the UK, beautiful places, whether at home or abroad, are reserved for holidays. For a week or two each year, you’re allowed to take a break from the chill and go somewhere warm and exciting. Amazing beaches, jungles and mountains are viewed as places to visit, not places where people actually live. Except, of course, that they do.

The Seychelles in particular is seen to be an otherworldly destination. Often visited by honeymooners, this island nation is positioned as a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, where the plan is to cut yourself off from the rest of the world. With travel and tourism accounting for 58.1% of GDP in 2016, the islands are somewhat oriented around the tourist economy and while even the most famous beaches didn’t feel remotely overcrowded, there were numerous buildings in the process of construction, suggesting that the industry is increasing.

There is a well-established luxury tourism sector in the Seychelles. There are whole islands which are just one resort, meaning that you can be in almost untouched nature without having to engage with the poor transport links and limited infrastructure than often characterise less-developed communities.

But on the inhabited islands, it’s not all infinity pools and room service. On some level the point of these resorts is to be hyper convenient and self-contained, so, being outside of them, we didn’t even notice they were there. Staying in a smaller place, it doesn’t feel like the islands are just for tourists. On La Digue, particularly, everyone knew each other and there was a clear sense of local community. When we reached the end of the jungle trek, our guide David was fist-bumping and greeting every person we saw on the beach who wasn’t a tourist. Immediately, they plied him with food and cigarettes and he walked off, waving us goodbye with a smile.

It was interesting moving from the smallest main island to the largest. Compared to La Digue, with its one road and limited vehicles, being on Mahé felt like being in the centre of London. I mean, there were multi-lane roads and traffic lights and multiple shopping centres. I also have an infamously poor sense of direction and scale, so this tiny island, with less than a tenth of London’s population, basically felt the same size to me. Maybe this is why I can feel at home anywhere.

However, visiting paradise is one thing. Living there is another. Everyone we spoke to on La Digue had grown up there, though most had travelled. David, our jungle guide, asked us if London was like Paris, and if there were a lot of Africans there. We asked if he ever thought about visiting Europe and he shrugged. He didn’t seem fussed. He then told us about his upcoming trip to Madagascar with his friends, and how, if he liked it, he might move there. He told us about what it was like going to school on La Digue, where there is one school for ages five to eighteen.

While waiting for a bus on Praslin, someone stopped their car and offered us a lift toward our accommodation, given there’s essentially one road and it was inherently on the way. He launched into his life story as we drove, telling us how he met his wife while she was working in hospitality in the Seychelles and they knew instantly they wanted to get married. Only a few months later, they moved together to Beijing, where she was from. He’d grown up on Mahé, an island of 95,000 people. Beijing’s population in 2017 was over 21 million. “That must have been quite an adjustment.”

He smiled. “You could say that.”

Across the islands, you do notice some of the markers of a smaller economy. Takeaways and the bus were extremely cheap while taxis and restaurants, used more by tourists, were more expensive even than London. My mum, an actual economist, explained that this is often a feature of smaller places where there isn’t enough demand for mid-range prices.

I obviously don’t know what it’s like to live in the Seychelles. But I do know that any perception of this country as being a touristy, manufactured island paradise is wrong. This is a country just like any other, with communities and schools and doctors, only in this place the backdrop is jungles, ocean and wildlife rather than skyscrapers or deserts or mountains or fields or whatever the natural make-up of your home is.

Walking around the islands, I didn’t get any sense of inauthenticity. La Digue is covered in spiders, lizards and ants. Colourful birds and bats fly overhead. You wake up to sounds of the jungle. The ocean is bright blue and full of awesome sea creatures, but the coral is sharp and those stingrays can hurt you. Some of the beaches have such strong currents that you are told not to swim there for fear of being dragged out to sea. The humidity was overwhelming at times. The sun will burn fair skin in minutes.

The bus on Praslin careered around hairpin bends, overstuffed and clearly in need of a new gearbox. The humidity remained cloying. Mahé had all the hustle and bustle of any major city, with a need to avoid wayward traffic and the constants sounds of car horns, music and shouting.

I’m not trying to pretend that I’ve seen anything more than a snapshot of the Seychelles or that I’m an authority on this beautiful island nation. But I arrived there curious, and my eyes were open. This is a place of almost shocking natural beauty. It is paradise, in the most classic sense of that word. But it’s also real. The spiders and sand and blazing equatorial sun make a place that you think might only exist on a postcard a living, breathing society. It is makes it a place not just to daydream about but a place to experience. And you should, if you can. If you want to see what paradise really looks like, spiders and all.

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