House sweet home

After a little confusion surrounding our PCR results, all was sorted and we were formally released from quarantine to be allowed to go to our house. The rules have now changed so that you can quarantine in private accommodation but this was too late to affect us. If you’re a tourist, you don’t need to quarantine at all. I don’t know, either. Most of this is old news already, as cases are falling here, the vaccination programme has run smoothly (myself now included) and bars, cinemas etc are due to open next week. No matter, we’re out now and into our charming house.

For various reasons that very close friends and family will know about, we’ve spent successive periods of time in different states of limbo, uncertain of outcomes and waiting on progress. To be able to unpack our bags and start the familiar process of home-making in a house that is both ours and home for a confirmed amount of time is a very novel and therapeutic experience. Anyone with a toddler will know that they are particularly helpful during such a process and even more so after a week in a two-room apartment. To make things even more homely, thanks to an on-island contact that a colleague had, our shipping left Ireland after we did but arrived at our house at the same time so we’re able to truly settle in.

The houses here vary a great deal, from tourist apartments blocks to VERY fancy private mansions through to traditional Seychellois wooden homes. Part of me was hoping to be assigned a rustic, traditional house for a more authentic island experience, but the practical part of me is glad that we’ve ended up with a charming 1970s-style bungalow with a garden and air conditioning. I was amazed to find that, no matter what the rest of the decor was like (and, like all remote islands, furnishing can be basic in some places) solid granite work surfaces seemed to be standard here. Then I remembered that most of the islands are granite and it’s fairly readily available. Our house is now more of a home, we’ve figured out how to make the ceiling fans (absent from our quarantine apartment) rotate at a speed just shy of helicopter take-off and we’re well and truly settling in, coping with the heat by sitting in our self-contained gale.

The house brings with it some of those little nuances that I do want to record as I feel that they’re the kinds of things that are perfectly normal to so many here and so could easily be forgotten as mundane further down the line. For example, our house has no address. Not even on the lease. Quite a few streets have no names and no numbers are consequently put on the houses. This, as you can imagine, has caused a few problems when having to list your address on paperwork or if people ask where you live. It’s especially frustrating when you’re completely new to the area and don’t know the roads/landmarks/best ways to describe places. I don’t understand why there is no address, I don’t know how it has been allowed to continue like this and I do wish it had one. It’s not like a small area or tiny hamlet: there are over 77.000 people on this island. We’re in a popular area: 4,300 people live in this district alone. Not having a street name is something very easily remedied in a Planning Office and it’s not usually something people object to. In fact, it can be quite nice to name them after local heroes or people of note. I had thought that perhaps there’s another solution often used, like the ingenious What3Words. No. You just have no address. I can’t yet describe our location as we’ve not learnt the road system well enough so I remain quite useless. All that being said, it does make a memorable addition to the experience and I know I’ll look back on this fondly.

Other ‘household’ things that differ from the way we grew up in Western Europe include:

  1. Getting quite used to discovering that the thing rustling around or charging out from the door you’ve just opened is a sweet little gecko type lizard. I know they’re all over the world, but I like them and I like their presence in the house.
  2. There’s no bin collections here, so you have to run them to a local giant bin. They do follow the beer-bottle returns policy much loved by mainland Europe, where you get money back for returning the glass bottles. I love the system; never understood why the UK didn’t do it. Win win.
  3. There’s a gas canister under the kitchen sink for the oven as there’s no mains gas (fair enough). The only downside of this can be that, if you don’t buy a spare, you discover you’ve run out of gas to cook with by…running out of gas while cooking.
  4. We’ve had to hang mosquito nets over the bed. The Seychellois tell us they’re not really bothered by the mosquitoes after so long here, but we’re fresh meat and being taken full advantage of. There’s thankfully no malaria here but there is dengue fever. It’s still rare and not often fatal but there’s no real treatment so you have the unenviable medical options of ‘sit it out for a week’ or ‘sit it out for maybe longer than a week’.
  5. We have burglar bars on the windows. Crime against the person is very rare in the Seychelles and we feel very safe here, but the previously mentioned heroine situation does, apparently, lead to an issue with petty theft. This provokes the reaction of burglar bars. I’m not sure anyone aspires to live somewhere where bars on the windows are a social norm as, rightly or wrongly, it implies necessity and therefore insecurity. There is a stigma attached to it, too, I feel, but they’re quite discreet and, in many ways, reassuring as we’re needing to keep all of the windows open all the time and it’s nice to be able to forget about having to close up every single one all of the time.

I recognise that some of these differences aren’t that complimentary. To counter that: today I walked out of the back door, reached over and took a coconut off the tree (a coco rouge: the orange type), cracked it open and drank a whole bowl of the water it contained with the little one alongside me joyfully yelling “crack” while trying to mimic the local teens seen opening them for a drink the other day. Not a memory I’d have made ‘back home’.

There are fewer coconuts outside our house now. My wife had an encounter with a complete stranger who suddenly appeared holding a beer, a giant stick and a machete then proceeded to yell at her. In other circumstances, this might have been the start of a concerning crime report but, as it transpired, he was yelling that he was “just taking what God gave us”. This kind gentleman took some of the coconuts off the trees out the back, cut a few open to give to H and J and left after a brief chat, like some kind of off-season drunk tropical Santa.

Continuing the thread of beautiful memories being made here, our nearest beach is the lengthy Beau Vallon Beach, just 5 minutes’ walk from our house. With some time on our hands, we took a sweltering walk down there, had a swim and sat out on the beach (in the shade, obviously). It dawned on us that, in our haste to get to the cool-ish waters, we’d forgotten to bring a snack so I wandered down the beach, found a nice man with a machete (there seems to be a theme developing here, I might have to get one), bought some lovely papaya and passion fruit and wandered back. In my three decades (and a bit) on this planet I don’t think I’ve ever had a fresh passion fruit. As it turned out, I barely got a look in on this one: J horsed into it! By the time we got back to the house, we had 2 social callers back to back (one a very kind neighbour who happens to also be a colleague). Everyone we’ve encountered has been so helpful, friendly and welcoming and, after 9 months in strict Irish isolation, socialising is showing itself as a skill I think we need to relearn. It is, however, this kind of small-island communal joviality that serves to remind us why we took on this move and why island life can be so bonding.

Touchdown

As is almost always the case, I write this for our own posterity so I’ve gone into more detail than most modern-day (short) attention spans might survive. To aid readership, I’ve split this long ‘first island’ post into 4 parts (Paperations, Seats For Take-off Please, First Impressions and Quarantine Like No Other)  that I know jump around in tense, pronouns and narrative persona (reflecting my haphazard chronicling process). So now you can skip to anything you might be vaguely interested in. I’ve added an explanation of the Covid19 situation here at the end as people keep asking. You’re welcome:

Paperations:

Contrary to the obvious reference, I named this post after a kind email I received from a helpful former resident here. It seemed appropriate to reflect on the kindness from Seychelles folk before we even set foot on the islands. Comparisons between our remote island experiences are inevitable, but one reason we loved small island life is the camaraderie it fosters. We were somewhat forced into a return to Ireland by events beyond our control and some of those same forces held us there long beyond the few months we had anticipated. Challenges breed resilience, however, and we resolved to see out this pandemic in style. We could easily have chosen to ‘sit it out’ in the comfort of someone else’s house, waiting to continue our lives on the other side but, as time went on, it became clear that the ‘other side’ we might have hoped for would be some way off, if it ever appears at all. We will forever be indebted to certain family members (they know who they are, and I am extremely conscious that it is a debt that only ever seems to grow) for the hospitality, kindness, generosity and company that made 2020 so very much easier on us than it could have been, but 2021 needed to be the year that this family struck out on its own.

I talked previously about the stresses of moving internationally during a global pandemic and our move was not without hindrance. We were expecting to have to quarantine but we also needed a ‘Gainful Occupation’ Permit, which is actually quite a nice thing to have. It’s nice to know that your work is officially considered ‘gainful’ to the country. I can’t say that that’s always been the case in my life. These had been put on hold, but mine eventually came through, so then a negative PCR test, quarantine bookings, a letter from your employer and all the usual travel details allow you to then apply for an HTA (Health Travel Authorisation), which you require to enter the country. The wise among you will have spotted that your negative PCR test (in our case, not guaranteed as we all contracted Covid earlier in the year and it can linger for months in the system) usually has to be taken 72 hours before the flight you need to have booked. Indeed it does! This leaves only a short window to get the required documents (helpfully not all listed before you begin the application process) so you can apply for approval to travel, then wait around nervously as you have done since the moment you booked your flights. Fear not, it is far easier for those travelling as tourists (and those who haven’t had the virus in their system recently).

Seats for Take-off Please:

Ready for take-off

We had already made four flights (two at a significant 18-hour length) with the little one before, so you might be thinking that we weren’t too concerned about the journey. There were some significant differences this time around, however, as on the previous journeys there was a) no chance of said child wanting to walk around at every opportunity and b) walking around was actually permitted. This meant we were half expecting a 13-hour flight (factoring in airport transfer and the new airport guidance: a 24 hour journey door-to-door) to be spent essentially restraining a child between hopeful naps. We did all the prep: we researched, we consulted parenting-guru-friends, we bought new toys and books, we talked to the wee one about what was coming. In the end, we needn’t have worried: after so many months confined to the same surroundings, the on-board entertainment occupied and excited beyond what we could have imagined. I don’t mean Emirates’ audio-visual entertainment system, of course. Oh no, not with a toddler! Nothing makes tray tables, window blinds, fellow passengers and meal trays as enthralling as a pandemic-child starved of novel surroundings. Never mind the fact that it was 1am, the Connections causeway in Dubai resonated to the sound of a young mischief thrillingly kicking legs in the pram and loudly exclaiming at the excitement of never-before-seen shops, ceilings, floors and people. And for the final flight? Well, no matter that it was the same model and specification of plane! Did you get a look at the action on these window blinds!?

I would have mocked at the time, but I think we were also in a similar, albeit less extreme, state of novelty-induced splendour. It seems that human beings enjoy seeing new things. Lucky that, considering what lies ahead.

First Impressions:

Love at first sight?

I’m a historian and a researcher. I don’t blindly walk into many situations and, much as I like to think I can cope with the unforeseen when I need to, I prefer to know what I’m getting myself into. Read as much as you like about a place, but the reality will never exactly match it. Coming in to land, we finally saw the tropical greenery and the strikingly impressive granite landscape that we’d read about. It really is quite a combination to behold (more on that story later). So, too, is the heat/humidity combination. After 5 years in the South Atlantic, 4 winters in a row (due to poorly-timed inter-hemispherical migration) and what can only be described as a dismal excuse for (even) an Irish summer, we thought we were ready for some sun. It’s fair to say we are not. The average temperature/humidity in the Seychelles is approximately 28 degrees/80%. This doesn’t mean much written down. We knew it would be a contrast, but H’s native Irish complexion and my sun-starved (insert skin colour description here based on your level of knowledge about my heritage) concerned us from the off. I am conscious that large swathes of the global population simply grow up with this heat as ‘the weather’ but we are so profoundly unfamiliar with it that we end up second-guessing ourselves with everything: the air-con use, clothing, what to do with this warm rain (not only for us but for little J, too). I never thought there would be a learning curve this steep for something my birth country famously discusses hourly. Scorching ambience aside, the staggering beauty of these islands is mentioned by everyone who visits (without exception from what we have read). For my part, coming from where I do, I never thought I’d even get to visit an island like this in my lifetime, yet alone live on one for a protracted period of time. Even from the short drive we’ve had, the way that all the palm trees just casually exist here is almost surreal. They’re so iconic to tropical islands, seen in every book and photo; a staple of travel brochures everywhere! Yet you soon realise that they are just ‘the trees’ here, just everywhere like a sycamore or horse-chestnut in the garden. It’s a strange thing to even consider adjusting to and I can’t help but wonder how long before we start seeing them as ‘normal’.

Outside the airport: green and granite

We were met at the small Victoria airport by a kind (and fully vaccinated) pandemic-approved local gentleman, who proceeded to make us feel quite out of place just by loading the car. Naturally, coming from Ireland, we had flown in with a child’s car-seat only to find that people only have to wear a seatbelt here if you’re sitting in the front seat of the car. If you wish to explain the logic of this to me, please do, but after the hours we’d spent on car-seat reviews and tiptoeing around baggage policies to get the thing here, we plugged it in and used it anyway. We were driven a short drive to our apartment in a place called Anse Aux Pins (which we only located on a map on arrival). Here we spent our 7-day mandatory quarantine (free PCR test on day 5 for release as soon as results are in, though that guidance changes weekly, as it did for us a few days before we flew).

Quarantine Like No Other:

Our experience so far has been reduced to a tiny fraction of what it might have been 18 months ago, as we are not supposed to leave our quarantine facility. Even still, our ignorance has been plainly highlighted. It reminds me of something that I recall noticing from watching the lovable Bruce Parry’s programme ‘Tribe’ (no, I’m not about to draw comparison: he went to live with remote, little-contacted indigenous tribes and we’ve moved to a tropical high-end tourist location with daily flights). Every time Bruce (affable, well-travelled and dynamic as he was) went somewhere new his hosts swiftly reduced him to the status of a child. Watching in my youth, this seemed like something of an insult: to plainly class an adult guest as infantile. Now, as an adult that has moved to two new continents, I completely understand it!

Any ideas?

Without having left our apartment location, I am unable to identify a single one of the birds that fly by, I can see fruits on plants that I couldn’t even guess at, there’s some kind of nest in our kitchen/living room and I can’t tell what it is for/from and, for two days in a row, we were awoken by a noise that I could only describe to friends as sounding like a fat man being loudly disappointed. On this particular gap in my knowledge, I don’t think I am much at fault: the sound of mating giant tortoises is not often heard in many places around the world, yet alone in the Home Counties.

When you move to another country (especially on a different continent) from the moment you step off the plane, you are infantile! Research what you will (and islands with limited connectivity won’t give up much), but on the ground things can be completely different. You won’t know a million different things that even the children might know: how real people greet each other, what is considered polite/rude, where to go to buy/get…almost anything, how you pay for everything from electricity to petrol (apparently, the pumps are usually manned here), what fashion faux pas’ exist (not that I’ve ever known anywhere else) and countless other daily norms that you wouldn’t even think about in your own country. It’s this kind of thing that makes international moves terrifying and exciting in equal measure.

We were anticipating spending quarantine in the house that my employer had lovingly arranged for us but, just before we left, the guidance changed and we were forced to spend our quarantine in an “approved quarantine facility” (read: local hospitality facility running short of tourists). Given the reliance on the tourism industry (read on for more detail), it is sensible to encourage some spending in the hospitality sector and we’re not unhappy about contributing in this way. Hastily arranged by the kind people on-island, we were EXTREMELY fortunate to be able to quarantine at a location with a private beach. Far from being cooped up worshipping the air-con like a shrine (there has been a little bit of that), we’ve been able to spend our early mornings and late afternoons (the day-time is just too much, for now) on a private beach without interacting with anyone at all. The usual yearn to explore is there, but quarantine alone threw up quite a few oddities that we simply didn’t expect: the unusual plants/animals, the pen of giant tortoises, the sight of fruit bats flying overhead, little J stopping hermit crabs on their walks before putting them back to start them off again. Children (usually) reflect their parents and the lifestyle they have: our one imitates farm animals, yes, but also adds penguin noises and tortoises into the mix now, as well as points at the sky in the evening and yells “bat”.

I didn’t grow up like that, but I’m reassured by some of our decisions when I see behaviour like that in an innocent. If you’re ever wondering if travel is good for your children, my testament is: yes. Unequivocally, yes.

Appendix: The Covid Report

Inevitably, some of you will be wondering about the Covid19 situation here. When I was recruited last year, the islands had been able to remain Covid-free so the prospect of re-joining a society functioning ‘as before’ was one of the additional appeals. Sadly, the virus crept in and the islands have now had community transmission occurring. The death tolls are thankfully nowhere near as high as some countries and the widespread use of masks even outside in the heat here would suggest that the population are taking things seriously. The islands’ small population (c.90,000) has meant that a nationwide vaccination programme could yield significant results in a very short space of time and, sure enough, the government has had donations of enough vaccines to push through a serious programme. Up to now, 60-something thousand of their target population of 70,000 have had their first dose and around half of the population have had their second dose (timing between doses seems to be the main hindrance to full community vaccination). Despite being in (what I like to think is) a lower age bracket, as I’m a frontline worker, we are both scheduled to have ours next week. It is slightly odd to know that we’ve come to Africa and will be receiving our vaccines before many of the people we know in much higher age brackets in Europe but I won’t look this gift horse in the mouth. It is this programme that has allowed the Seychelles to begin to open their borders to tourism (and migrants like us) once more. It is also for this reason that, with a bit of luck and the careful monitoring of variants, the Seychelles could be one of the first places in the world to return to a pre-Covid existence (if such a thing is ever likely for any of us ever again).

As for the measures being taken by the government here? They do seem to vary and, in some instances, I can well understand why. There seems to be a strict application of rules in one area, only for them to be more lax in others. I do not envy any government in this climate, but for the Seychelles the tightrope they have to walk is a perilous one. You see, the Seychelles is only the second African nation to make the high-income list. The Seychelles’ economy is almost utterly reliant on tourism, with 82.5% of their GDP coming from the services sector. Opposing this, they also (somewhat inexplicably for all concerned) have the highest heroine use per capita in the World. Those that have experience of the widespread physical and sociological impacts of drugs on a community (once they’ve firmly taken hold) will attest that removing such a huge proportion of the local economy alongside a devastating drug problem will almost definitely lead to far more deaths than Covid19’s >1% death rate. It’s a horrible, horrible Catch 22 for the government and the local people to be in. In some ways, it’s darkly ironic that one answer lies in needles. The vaccine programme has allowed the Seychelles to open their borders (with some obvious restrictions) to tourism once more and the outlook should be hopeful. It goes without saying but we sincerely hope the science can minimise the economic and social consequences of this virus for the people here.

Now, as we’re in self-catering and we’ve had our shopping done for us, I must go and cook up our dinner: Jobfish, whatever that is. We’ve been told that you can eat a different species of fish every day for months here and I can well believe it just from the visible sea life close to shore.