Where time moves backwards

The writer explores the serene island of La Digue.

Published - June 28, 2014 04:28 pm IST

The Seychelles is a cluster of 115 pristine islands in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa; think turquoise blue waters and soft white sand beaches. The shades of blue in the capital ‘island’ of Mahe itself left me mesmerised, so I had to ask the people who lived there where they loved going for a holiday. La Digue was the unanimous answer, so two ferries later, that’s the island I alighted on. The first things you notice about La Digue are the bicycles. Old grannies and young schoolboys pedalling their way alike, to the grocery shop, school, work, restaurant, or home. For years, cars were not allowed on the island, and no one seems to remember why. But now locals choose not to use them, opting to bike, walk or use an ox cart instead, living in something of a time warp. One jolly Diguois lady told me, “We like it slow here.” And it’s true. You can see cyclists nod when they cross each other, people on foot are always ready for a chat, and time almost moves backward.

The friendly man I rented a bicycle from handed me a map that nicely labelled the four sq.km. of the island; it marked “beautiful beaches” all along the coast, vanilla plantations that were first planted by French colonists in the 1800s, a giant turtle reserve, and forest trails. I rode on the cobbled streets, stopping every now and then to let the azure waters of the Indian Ocean caress my feet and snap mental shots of the dramatic backdrop of massive rocks that changed shape as the wind and water chipped them away. Then I decided to leave the trail behind and venture into the small residential by-lanes; colourful little houses peeped out from behind coconut and banana plantations, giggling children pedalled home from school, women exchanged neighbourhood gossip, and families relaxed in their front yards, chatting, eating, drinking beer, lying on hammocks.

Once in a while, I walked up to the porch and made small talk; shy but friendly, the people seemed content with life on the island, but never held back on the challenges of living in ‘paradise’. With tourism being the prime mover of economy of the island, the authorities now offer open trucks (hardy, but not the Indian variety) to visitors who choose not to adapt to the car-free lifestyle on the island; that means during the day, when the island is abuzz with day trippers, trucks zip around the main sights on the island, often forgoing the very essence of laid-back La Digue. But that’s the demand of tourism, and it’s the only source of income besides the vanilla plantations on the island.

I ask passersby where I can find the best local food. The recommendation is unanimous — a homely place called Zerof; I seat myself in the garden courtyard, and order a vegetable curry and rice, fresh mango juice (for November is summer season in this part of the world), and vanilla tea in lieu of dessert. Unlike Mauritius, where Creole food has largely Indian influences, the cooking methods in the Seychelles have come from Africa; slow cooking is the norm, and the use of spices is limited to gentle flavours with little use of chilli. The curries, distinctly different from Indian curries, have a blend of flavours, and in La Digue, only local vegetables and fresh catch from the sea are used in cooking ; an extension of the “organic” way of life that the locals have subconsciously chosen.

I spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the forest trails of La Veuve, a nature reserve on the island, spotting pretty little Madagascar fodys flying around in bright red and orange colours, and marvelling at the ancient inter-twined roots and forest canopies.

Then I park my bicycle on the beach, lie on a hammock above the soft white sands, count the shades of blue in the ocean, and feel the serenity that the Diguois people live in every day. From the cobbled streets behind me, I can occasionally hear the roar of the tourist trucks, but the gentle waves have such a calming effect that I learn to drown it out.

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