Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Seychelles: Sex & Politics In The Garden Of Eden


Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore  (July 2003)

Vallée de Mai, Coco de Mer: Male and female seeds Victoria's market: You share the fish with the birds... Freedom!
Beach Giant Tortoise The mini Big Ben in Victoria Banknote


Seychelles: Sex & Politics In The Garden Of Eden


Praslin Island, Seychelles, Indian Ocean.  Legends say that Praslin Island is the legendary Garden of Eden, and that the famous Coco de Mer palm – endemic and unique to the island – was the fruit of knowledge of good and evil that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. 

The Coco de Mer is no ordinary palm.  There is a male and a female tree, both of which have seeds larger than coconuts.  By the magic of nature’s coincidence, the male seed looks like the male organ of sexual prowess, while the female seed resembles a girl’s pelvis aka gateway to Venus.  Scientists do not yet know how the Coco de Mer reproduces.  Local legends have their own explanations: Under the light of full moon, the male tree moves over to the female tree for a tryst of love, and any human who witness the act of passion is condemned to death by the spell of the magical trees.

For centuries, the legends of Coco de Mer had fascinated many.  Its fruits are seen as aphrodisiac for kings and valued in their weight in gold.  With the “discovery” of the Seychelles, human greed and introduced disease and creatures have wrecked havoc on this palm.  Its long maturity cycle does not help – 20 to 30 years to bear fruit, which take 7 years to mature.  Today, the Coco de Mer is protected by the Government of Seychelles.  The export of the seed is subject to strict regulations, and the minuscule Vallée de Mai, where the palm grows naturally, is a World Heritage site. 


We arrived in Seychelles on a Saturday noon.  Gentle rain dropped as we walked out of the airport terminal, gawking at the magnificent granite rock face overlooking the airport. 

Tiny little Seychelles – 115 sparks of gems – all sunny, humid tropical isles – scattered across 1.35million sq km of Indian Ocean.  The entire land surface area is only 444 sq km, smaller than Singapore, and about 2.5 times the size of Washington DC.   The largest island is Mahé, 25km long and less than 8km wide, and is where 90% of the nation’s 80,000 people live.  According to the Congress Library Handbook, the capital, Victoria, “lies approximately 1,600 kilometres east of Mombasa, Kenya; 2,800 kilometres southwest of Bombay; 1,700 kilometres north of Mauritius; and 920 kilometres northeast of Madagascar.”


A president with stiff-faced North Korean bodyguards; The US military attaché aka CIA man rubbing shoulders with his Russian counterparts in the local bar.  The Cuban ambassador teaching the final points of salsa to local babes.  Leftist revolutionaries from Latin America discussing the latest plans against the US-backed military governments, while local dissidents plotted the latest coup against the president with mercenaries and Israeli and South African agents.  Excitement in a tropical paradise?  Or script from a B-grade Cold War era movie? 

Indeed, this was the face of Seychelles in the Cold War days, when President France Albert René was flirting with high socialism, with Soviet, Cuban and North Korean advisers, even though the Americans set up a Cold War listening station guarding the strategic approaches of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean sea route to Japan.  Western and Eastern diplomats and gunrunners spied on each other, turning this tiny nation of 75,000 people into a playground of high intrigue.

Long gone were those strange days.  President René is no longer a socialist revolutionary.  In fact, he now plays host to a massive dosage of high capitalism.  Seychelles welcomes foreign visitors – not just any visitor, but tourists of the moneyed species, those who can afford to pay top bucks for a bit of isolated splendour in a beautiful tropical island.  This is not a cheap seaside resort.  You pay quite a bit to fly in here and then stay at the exclusive hotels here.  Seychelles restricts the number of tourists here to 150,000 a year (30% of the workforce are employed in tourism industry which also accounts for 70% of the GDP) through high air fares and hotel rates.  It has avoided the blight of mass tourism that has plagued the Greek and Spanish islands and instead turned the islands into the byword of paradises of isolated exclusivity for the rich and famous.


We stayed at a bungalow near the beaches at Beau Vallon, three kilometres west of Victoria. I booked the place online not knowing that the 3km bird’s eye distance on the map would involve a climb over a very tall mountain.  Perhaps it was a good thing we didn’t stay in the capital, for it was the Independence Day holiday weekend and the tiny capital city – if you call this oversized village of 20,000 people a city – was completely dead.  At least, at Beau Vallon, where a number of hotels are located, some restaurants were open and we could find food. 

This benefit, however, came with a price – even a simple meal in a Seychellois restaurant cost a bomb.  Seychelles is the most overpriced country I have ever been to.  Even a simple plate of pasta would cost at least US$15.  Everyday in Seychelles, we felt that we were been fleeced for rather mediocre food, paying London prices for substandard stuff.  As one who had enjoyed dining in many parts of the world, I am willing to pay good prices for good food and service, but Seychelles simply didn’t meet the grade.  Unlike other Third World countries, tiny Seychelles has no street food and hardly any middle class of any reasonable size that enjoy eating out.  Restaurants are for walking cash machines of a foreign kind and they should be exploited accordingly.

Not just food is expensive and foreigners are not the only one feeling the pinch.  Indeed, the Economist says in one of its issues:

Every year some 20,000 Seychellois—almost a third of the population—turn their rupees into dollars on the black market, buy a $360 same-day return air ticket, and go shopping in Mauritius, nearly 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) to the south. No island economy can survive that sort of drain for long. That it is cheaper to shop in Mauritius is an indication of the astronomical cost of living in the Seychelles, where prices are driven up by unnecessarily expensive imports and a currency that may be overvalued by as much as 30%.”


Seychelles is Africa’s richest nation, with a GDP per capita of US$7600.  There is free schooling and healthcare, and the population is generally well educated.  Population growth rate is 0.4%, well below replacement and most untypical of other African nations.  Life expectancy is 71 years, also among the highest in Africa – in fact above the global average.  Medical care is free and easily available – perhaps the legacy of the President René’ s socialist days.  So is birth control and hence the low population growth.  Life is easy and relaxing, almost stress-free – perhaps this accounts for the rather high life expectancy here. 

It is said that 75% of the children here are born out of wedlock, the result of high cost of traditional marriages, and perhaps a certain island lifestyle thing.  Sexual relationship without marriage is common here and carries little social stigma.  According to the Congress Library Handbook, “most family units take the form of de facto unions known as living en ménage. One result of this practice is that nearly three-fourths of all children born in the islands are born out of wedlock. Most of these children are, however, legally acknowledged by their fathers.”    

Perhaps this is the effect of that fabled aphrodisiac, Coco de Mer, whose huge female seed appears everywhere in Seychelles as its tourism logo.  It’s on stamps, stickers, postcards, t-shirts, cookies, drinks, and even as passport stamps!  If you have a pelvis staring at you everywhere all the time – albeit a plant seed larger than a coconut – your thoughts turn to sex too!


Like Mauritius, Seychelles belongs to a strange breed of Commonwealth members who are more French than British.  It was the Arabs who first came across these sunny tropical isles, and the French who first settled here.  In fact, the name “Seychelles” honours a French minister of finance under King Louis XV.  These islands are small, perhaps too small for large scale cultivation, but they do have some strategic importance, and resources to exploit.  In fcat, between 1784 and 1789, an estimated 13,000 giant tortoises were shipped from Mahé, (capital and name of the largest island, named after a French admiral) presumably as ingredients for turtle soup, essential diet for the many sailors on the route to the fabulous riches of the East.

In 1814, the islands were finally awarded to the British at the Treaty of Paris, after decades of endless ownership switch with France.  It was said that prior to that, the island’s French aristocracy would lower the French tricolour and raise the Union Jack whenever the British fleet is seen in the horizons; And then raise the tricolour again when the fleet leaves harbour. 

The local French brought here African slaves to work on their farms; the Chinese, Indians and Malays came as well, mostly to run small shops and manage trivial commerce.  Because the islands were so isolated, intermarriage was common among all groups.  In fact, so few families were of pure descent that by 1911, official records no longer distinguish the population according to race.  Everybody is known as Seychellois, and they all speak Creole – the Seychellois version developed from a southern French dialect to include words from Malagasy, Bantu and Hindi - as the mother tongue, which was officially declared the first official language in 1981.  The Kreol Institute set up by the government is the official sponsor of the tongue, and plays the role of the Academie Francaise and the like in these isles.


We took a 15 minutes’ turbulent flight to the island of Praslin, burning a 100 Euro hole in our pockets.  This is the country’s second most popular destination and home to the Coco de Mer.  The streets are narrower, but clean and tidy.  The Seychellois do take pride in maintaining public cleanliness although I was to be disappointed by the state of the Vallée de Mai National Park.  The latter, where we paid a ridiculous US$15 entrance fee, which was only 2km long and 2km wide, had nothing more than a poorly maintained circle trail strewn with collapsed palm leaves and logs and faded signboards.  It makes you wonder what they do with the entrance fees, which is much greater than other more important and better-maintained World Heritage Sites round the world such as Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China.

The same goes for other attractions.  The even smaller Botanical Gardens, where we visited the giant Aldabran Tortoises – distant cousins of the Galapagos giant tortoises of the east Pacific (see my travelogues on ) - charged us a cut-throat US$5 to see its tiny confines.


Seychelles became independent in 1976 and soon saw its first coup less than a month before its first anniversary of independence.  Pro-Western President Mancham was overthrown while on a visit to London, by his Prime Minister, René, who claimed the support of the plantation workers, proletariat and all the oppressed classes classical Marxists proclaimed as toilers of the land.  This was the beginning of a decade and a half of one-party rule in Seychelles and coup attempts and high intrigue between the two men, both London-educated lawyers who gave what could be largely personal political struggle an ideological coating so common in the days of the Cold War.  Even then, pragmatic Seychelles play host to a US Air Force satellite tracking station, which supplement the national budget to a tune of US$4.5 million a year.

René turned the country into a one party state and flew the flag of socialism, while accusing Mancham, now heading a government-in-exile in London, as enemy of the people.    Mancham and company launched a number of counter-coups, the most well known one being an attempt by a group of mercenaries in 1981, who tried to enter the country by disguising as South African tourists, but were exposed at the airport.  With their leader, Colonel Michael "Mad Mike" Hoare, they promptly escaped by hijacking an Air India plane to South Africa.  René quickly obtained help from his socialist allies in Tanzania, which sent troops to guard these unhappy isles of Paradise.  A national army was set up, called the Seychelles People’s Liberation Army (what does that remind you of?), in order to guard the regime from hostile groups such as the Movement for Resistance (Mouvement pour la Résistance), the Seychelles Liberation Committee, and the Seychelles Popular Anti-Marxist Front.

Seychelles only returned to multiparty politics in 1991, as the winds of democracy blew across the world.  Even then, dear old President René, sixty-seven years old master of Paradise, and socialist-turned-capitalist, won the elections in 1993 with 60% of the votes.  Life goes on.


To say the least, we were hardly impressed with Seychelles.  It was overpriced and there was little life on the streets.  Maybe its population is too small.  Maybe they all prefer to stay at home to watch TV.  Apart from a few less than impressive banners, there were hardly any signs of celebration on its Independence Day. 

Although the Seychellois people are a friendly lot and generally helpful when you ask for directions, they are not exactly the fastest people to respond to customer service.  Maybe life is just so easy and slow here.  People take a long time to serve you in restaurants and shops.  Maybe work isn’t the most exciting thing on Earth.  According to the Economist, there is massive abuse of the social security system, as “there were 526,000 visits to a health clinic in a country of under 75,000 people.” 

When we were waiting for a bus to bring us to Victoria the first working day after the Independence Day long holiday weekend, a local told us that she wasn’t sure whether the bus would come at all, for the driver might have spent the weekend drinking.  Sometimes the bus would come really late, and she would be late for work.  Sometimes it would come early and she would be on time.  Why worry since you can’t control matters, she said, and so what if you were late. 

It seems that Seychellois are hardly concerned about the pace and quality of service.  Maybe this is the essence of island life.  But because nobody complained about the standard of service, they would continue to get such poor service.  Nobody seems to be interested if tourists are concerned about poor service at high prices.

How can such economies compete in a globalised world?  Maybe Paradises don’t need to compete at all.  Or what they thought.


Seychelles has faced a currency crisis over the last two years.  The Seychelles Rupee has dropped 25% over that period.  The country’s isolated geography and limited resources meant that it is highly dependent on imports.  The Seychelles Rupee is pegged at an artificially high level which has come under immense pressure after September 11, 2001, which seriously impacted tourist numbers.  Tourism comprised 70% of the country’s GDP and tourist arrivals have declined by 27% in 2002. 

This is not helped by the fact that strict price controls instituted in the 1980’s by the Socialist-era Seychelles Marketing Board, a state monopoly chaired by the President that controls all primary produce, has accelerated the decline of decline of agriculture in Seychelles, and continue to impact negatively on non-tourism economic activities here.  The country has further defaulted on debts owed to foreign governments and international agencies such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank.

In response, the government has imposed further capital controls, which has resulted in the appearance of a black market in the Seychelles Rupee.  Everywhere there are signs warning tourists to change money with authorised banks and moneychangers.  All hotel bills, entrance fees and airfares are to be paid in US$.  My past experience is, if a country requires you to settle simple transactions like entrance fees and hotel bills not in its own currency, you know that currency is not worth its weight in toilet paper.  It’s no different from what I have encountered in Serbia or Cuba. 

What really irritated us was that, when we were leaving the country, we discovered that we could not exchange our remaining Seychelles Rupees into an international currency without paying a commission of US$10, whereas no commission was charged if you convert another currency to Seychelles Rupees.  So we decided to buy some local newspapers and overpriced postcards instead.

With that, we hopped onto an Air Seychelles plane for Moroni, capital of the Comoros, a group of islands on the Mozambique Channel between the African continent and the huge island state of Madagascar.  

Best Regards,

Wee Cheng 



Comoros: Volcano, Decay & Illusions In The Islands of The Moon


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