Ash sells seashells on the Seychelles shore

For me, the most eagerly anticipated stretch of my seven months at sea was undoubtedly the Seychelles, an archipelago country made up of over 100 granite and coral islands.  The name of the country actually turned into a running mantra between Peter and myself as we reminded each other to eat healthy and workout (to look good in a swimsuit).  “Seychelles, Ashley!” “Shells!”  Get it?

So I did my best, completing workouts and trying to avoid second portions of lasagna in the officer’s mess.  Have I mentioned lately how amazing the pasta is on this ship?  I guess that’s what happens when Italians run a cruise line.  I don’t know how much a difference two weeks of dedication made, but I certainly felt comfortable putting on my bikini and running around the islands without a care.

I last left you, my dedicated readers, as we sailed in to the Baie Ste Anne of Praslin.  I do have a slight regret that instead of being out on the deck taking pictures, I instead sat here in the observation lounge (where I am now) writing this here account of travels.  But let’s face it; my Canon Powershot cannot do justice against the wonders of Google Image searching (and that kind of a photo is a lot quicker to upload to the blog).

The Seychelles, courtesy of Google Images

Regardless of whether or not I took enough landscape photos of the islands on that beautiful first day, the images are seared into my memory. The source of my regret comes from the fact that our first two days in the Seychelles were absolutely beautiful, but I stayed on the ship.  Our first day in Praslin, I only went off the ship for about 30 minutes (had to get back for a rehearsal and then ABBA show), and then the second day when we went to both Curieuse and La Digue, I was stuck on the ship with IPM duty.  The next day, as we sailed into Port Victoria, the capital of the country, on the island of Mahe, the rain started.  December and January are actually the two rainy months of the year in the Seychelles, so it was miraculous we had had the first two beautiful days of sun.  I don’t want to discount my entire visit, but I was pretty damn angry that I missed out on that.  Because, honestly, when am I ever coming back here again?

So anyhow, those first two days were a wash, but one the third day, in Mahe, I went out as an escort with a tour group that had a full-day tour of the island.  We started in the main marketplace of the town of Victoria, which was bustling with an unusual number of locals running around town to do their Christmas shopping.  Our guide explained that the town was not normally very busy, but it was very much a holiday tradition to come into the main market to complete holiday errands.  To put things into perspective on the size of this country’s capital – the entire city of Victoria felt like downtown Danville, California.  No joke.  I was seriously expecting to find myself lunching at Pete’s Brass Rail or running into neighbors at Trader Joe’s.  Quite a charming little city, though I much preferred the more remote areas of the islands. The island of Mahe reminded me very much of Kauai in it’s landscape and the friendly attitude of locals.  We visited the Botanical Garden; where we viewed some Coco de Mer palms (more on that later), saw tortoises, fruit bats, and dozens of beautiful plant species that populate the Seychelles.  After leaving the garden, our group of about twenty drove up into the hills of Mahe, as we learned about the very interesting history of the islands and the ethnic backgrounds of its inhabitants.  I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to learn such an in-depth history of each place I am visiting as our ship sails along on this seven-month itinerary.  I never thought I would be learning so much, and it’s absolutely fascinating to me. Our guide in Mahe explained to us that though the Seychelles were first settled by the French (and then under English rule), the population was never very much or the islands very “settled” until a ship on course from Africa to Asia was intercepted by the British Navy and found to be carrying over 100 African men, women and children who had been abducted as slaves.  As slavery had been abolished at this time, the Navy released these people to the nearest bit of land, which happened to be the Seychelles.  And as time went along on these islands, the area continued to grow with a mix of European, Asian and African settlers.  Today, the population of the Seychelles is a physically beautiful and culturally diverse mix.  The language spoken there is Kreole, basically a slang variation of French, and not at all related to the Creole language of Louisiana.  It was actually fascinating to hear our guide speaking English with us, and then turning to the driver and his intern as they spoke Kreole.  Our next stops in Mahe along our tour was the old schoolhouse that was built for the freed slave children, and then to a teahouse that brewed locals teas harvested from the tea plants growing on the lush mountains of the island.  This was all fantastic, but the highlight of this tour was undeniably our Kreole lunch buffet.  Yummmmmm.

At the top of the mountains in Mahe

Our last stop on the tour was a little craft village where local artisans make and sell little creations like carved wood tortoises, coco de mer seeds and model ships.  All in all, it was a lovely day learning about the culture of the Seychelles, and though we didn’t get any beach time, I knew I still had three days ahead of me that would offer some hopeful beach and sunning time.

Woke up the next day to torrential downpour and lightning.  Okay, okay, it’s all right, I’m here in the Seychelles, don’t complain.  That was basically my running internal monologue for the day.  After taking on new passengers on the ship in Victoria, we had sailed back to Praslin, and my plan was to obviously lay out all day long on the Cote d’Or beach, where Prince William and Kate honeymooned earlier this year.  But the weather changed my plans, and I decided to instead head for the hills and visit the Vallée de Mai, a lush rainforest in the middle of the island that boasts the only indigenous population of the Coco de Mer palm (the largest coconut in the world!).  As almost all our ports in the Seychelles are without a harbor for the ship, we anchored off the coast of Praslin and took tender boats ashore.  On the tender, I was chatting with one of the other crew members, who told me she was meeting up with some local fishermen for a boat tour of the island.  I told her I was headed to the park, and she said she would ask the fishermen if they could give me a ride in their boat to the nearest local bus stop.  We arrived at the jetty, and sure enough, her newfound friend (actually only one fisherman) said he could drive me over to the bus stop.  So I sat there on the side of his motorboat and cruised along through the rain until we arrived at another jetty further into the village, where some other local fishermen pulled me out of the boat and next to stack of freshly caught fish.  Definitely an interesting mode of transportation, if you ask me.  The fishermen pointed me to the bus stop and I headed on my way, wishing my best luck to my friend as she cruised off with her barefoot companion in his boat.  One thing I learned in my time on the Seychelles is that the local population is extremely considerate, hospitable and generous.  Nearly everyone I passed while hiking around these islands would smile, say hello, offer samples of fruit – I first passed it off as a scheme to ask for money, as I’ve been on guard for that sort of activity since being in Asia, but the people of the Seychelles are truly kind and sincere in their actions.  I waited at the bus stop for nearly an hour, and when it finally arrived, I boarded an insanely crowded bus for the price of five rupees (less than 50 cents).  People of New York City: trust me, the MTA is nothing to complain compared to the ride I had.  The buses come about once an hour, and they are PACKED.  Standing the entire ride, I was thrown around as we swerved corners and, well… I got to know my neighbors really well.  I finally made it to the Vallée de Mai, paid the entrance fee and joined in on an organized tour of the rainforest.  It was the perfect day to be under the lush canopy of palms.  I had a fantastic time wandering through the trails, staying with the guide until the end of her tour, and then exploring on my own for another hour or so.

The Coco de Mer Palm

The Coco de Mer palms, which are only found in the Seychelles, boast an enormous and funnily shaped seed that has become the informal icon of the nation.  It was wonderful to see so many of these palms growing freely, surrounded by an impressive variety of other palm species and ferns, inhabited by birds, geckos, lizards, spiders, snails and a peculiar breed of hedgehog-type creatures.  The visit was well worth my time and money, and it also provided a much needed sense of departure from ship life and the people I’ve been living and working with for the last month and a half.  I love everyone on the ship, but sometimes you need that alone time!

A friendly snail
A feathered friend

After leaving the park, and waiting at the bus stop for 45 minutes, the city bus finally came into view, zooming around the corner, flashing it’s headlights and honking the horn, and… drove right by without stopping.  Myself and a few of the people who had all been waiting for the bus went into the shop outside the Vallée de Mai, and the shopkeeper explained that the bus was probably just full and another one would come in an hour.  Yeah, no.  So I instead decided to rough it and just walked the six kilometers back to the ship!  It was a great walk and a hilarious experience.  I was beat after my day of exploration but I felt fantastic.

Our next day, we were back in La Digue, so I was happy to be able to get off the ship.  I had originally been booked as a tour escort for a morning excursion snorkeling on Coco Island, but the ship revoked that privilege when they decided to throw in mandatory safety training at 9:30am.  Thanks guys, really.  So no snorkeling unfortunately. After the training was over, I quicklydeparted the ship on a tender boat to get to the island.  Kathleen and I left together and when we got to the jetty, decided to rent bicycles to ride around the island.  We had the most wonderful time!  The entire island is mostly transported by bike, though tourists can often be found riding the traditional transportation method of oxcarts. The only tricky thing was remembering to ride the bike on the left side of the road! We followed the road signs, as well as advice from some locals we met, and entered a more private beachside excursion area for the price of 100 Seychelles rupees (less than ten dollars).  Inside the area, we freely rode bikes between a vanilla plantation, a coconut oil producer, roadside stands selling spices and coconut products, a seaside restaurant, and, of course, a GORGEOUS beach.  According to everyone I met, both on and off the ship, La Digue boasts the most famous and most photographed beaches in the world. As a granite island, the beach is a beautiful mix of ivory white sands, lush green palms and gorgeous rocky accents along the coastline.  Simply beautiful.  Our afternoon was quite wonderful: eating freshly cracked coconut from a vendor, tasting local fruits from a man selling fruit platters on the beach, feeding massive tortoises their lunch of crunchy green leaves, wading in the shallow salt water and the inevitable afternoon nap on the sand.  To finish it off, we had fantastic grilled fish at a seaside restaurant right on the beach. It was a fantastic, much-needed, break from the reality of ship-life, and the clouds even parted for about an hour of uninterrupted sunshine.  Thanks for that, Seychelles!

The beach on La Digue
A graveyard near the beach in La Digue
Feeding the tortoises

Creepy abandoned ship

That evening, after a quick trip back to the ship for a rehearsal, Peter and I went together back to La Digue for an evening cocktail at one of the high-end resorts on the beach.  We sat right on the deck overlooking the water, viewing our ship in its evening splendor and enjoying the wonders of a tropical lightning storm.  I tried local rum with fresh fruits from the island – so yummy!  Our evening on land was yet another reminder of our great fortune to have this opportunity.  I mean, who would expect to find oneself sipping a local cocktail on the beach of the Seychelles?  Not me.

Our last day in the Seychelles was a major disappointment.  It was Christmas Eve, we were excited for a last day of enjoyment in Eden, but… the waves were too much for our tender operations.  So the main officers on board made the controversial decision to not allow crew off the ship – just guests.  “Merry fucking Christmas!” was the first thing out of my mouth on Saturday morning.  I was seriously depressed and anxious all day.  I tried to distract myself with a trip to the gym, but couldn’t help feeling jealous and angry as I watched from my aerial post a constant stream of mostly empty tender boats making their trips from the ship to the shore all day.  Really?  REALLY?  The day was gorgeous and I should have felt great, but the stress of not being able to leave the ship, combined with the homesickness of being stuck on our mini-island for the holidays, quickly accelerated my mood from bad to worse. The entire day was a test in patience, which I basically failed.  And our last duty of the day, singing Christmas carols around the ship, was a complete personal disaster.  There were about twenty of us total, singing four (ultra happy) Christmas songs in various parts of the ship.  Our first stop was the Panorama Lounge, on the eighth deck, which (lucky for me) has terrible lighting.  For some reason, as soon as we started to sing “Jingle Bells,” the waterworks began.  Now, I am not normally a huge crier.  I think I discovered a new emotional level in myself by joining an acting studio in NYC (thanks Matt), but this was ridiculous.  As we were singing the most ridiculously cheerful lyrics ever: “laughing all the way” and “with a corncob pipe and a button nose” and “you’ll go down in history,” I could do nothing but spew a constant flow of tears from my eyes.  And so I was making that very unattractive face between crying and trying to smile.  While also trying to sing. With a Santa hat on.  And little kids looking at me.  Oh yes, did I mention that there are little kids on this particular cruise?  Who the hell would think bringing kids on this ship is a good idea?  So anyhow – yes, Christmas caroling was disastrous and not fun.  After the caroling incident, I confined myself to solitary time in the cabin and watched Pirates of the Caribbean (I was getting in the mood for yet another period of Somali pirate watch here on the ship).  My last ditch attempt at a happy Christmas Eve was by attending the midnight mass service offered on the ship.  I was happy to be there, and it honestly did lift my spirits somewhat, but being this far away from your home and your loved ones is just not sane on Christmas.  The ship luckily aided my sorrows by providing a constant stream of comfort foods on Christmas Day, and then we performed our Christmas show and gift exchange amongst the cast.  (I got spices from the Seychelles!)  So yeah, it wasn’t the best Christmas I’ve ever had, but I was able to quickly FaceTime the family in Alamo, send some Facebook messages and hang out with friends on the ship.  Next year will hopefully be a different holiday for me – that’s all I’m saying.  Regardless, the pressure of the holidays is over and now we are sitting in port in Mombasa, Kenya – I’ve been blessed with the very special duty of IPM, so I can’t leave the ship.  Hakuna Matata, there’s always tomorrow.  The next few days should be interesting: we’re in Mombasa again tomorrow, then Zanzibar the following day, followed by Madagascar, Reunion Island and Mauritius. And by that point, we’ll be in the clear away from pirates – yahoo!  So hopefully our portholes will open at that point and remain open until the end of our contract.  Our next cruise will take us down to South Africa, where we will remain cruising until mid-February.  So I need to work on my tan and my Afrikaans.  What I really would love is being placed as an escort on a safari tour group.  So cross your fingers I get that opportunity!  Would also like the chance to surf if possible, so I’m keeping my eye out for board rentals.

Yes, I’m battling homesickness, I’m tired, I miss friends and family, I miss New York, my cat, my apartment… everything.  But when am I honestly going to do this again?  Rock on, Africa!