[words and photographs © Narina Exelby]
I met Michael Adams one afternoon in the pouring rain. The kind of rain where, no matter how close to shelter you park, you’re almost always drenched by the time you reach it.
The kind of rain where huge drops hurtle through humid tropical air, whacking into jungle leaves before splattering into the earth. The kind of rain that makes your feet slip in your sandals; and that, once it stops falling, drips and drips from leaves, teasing you into thinking it’s still pouring.
That was how it was raining when I met Michael Adams. And when it eased up and the sun came out, the jungle outside the artist’s studio released steam, making the air humid again, encouraging growth. Inside the studio, Michael Adams’s own jungle world – a jumble of hundreds of watercolour canvasses meticulously painted in yellows and greens and blues – had of course escaped the downpour.
“I arrived in Seychelles 40 years ago; that’s a long time,” mused Michael who, although not Seychellois by birth, is the country’s most celebrated artist, and whose paintings hang in some of most exclusive hotels on the islands. “In those days there was just sand on the roads, and so it was either a mud bath when there was too much rain, or a dust bowl when there was too little rain.”
While the island nation is known the world over for its sublime beaches and ridiculously pretty views, the gently eccentric landscape painter does not live along the coastline. Instead, Michael’s home and studio are enveloped by dense vegetation on a hill on the southwest side of Mahé, the main island of Seychelles. It’s natural that he should be there: “I’m a forest person,” Michael explained in an accent made for BBC radio. “In that way, Seychelles satisfies me.”
Verdant; beautiful; overwhelming – jungle clambers up the granite mountains of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue with absolutely no regard for anything built by humans.
Mango trees, albizias, takamaka trees and skinny-trunked papaya trees grow in abundance, tumbling down mountains, over boulders and onto lazy beaches where palm trees can barely bring themselves to stand upright.
“There’s no better place than the botanical gardens in Victoria,” said Michael when I asked him the one place all holidaymakers should visit. “It has immaculate lawns and exotic palms of all kinds. It’s a place where you study various fantastic shapes; the form of nature in its greatness.”
I asked musician Patrick Victor the same question a few days later. We chatted in his dark recording studio – because it was air-conditioned, and because it was the sort of muggy day where your shirt clings to your back within minutes of dressing.
The average temperature in Seychelles is an agreeable 28 degrees, but the humidity is usually about 85 percent.
“There are many places I would love tourists to go,” said Patrick, who’s lived on Mahé all his life, and is one of the country’s best-known musicians. “But most of all, I’d like them to attempt to discover our culture.’”
To do that, he says, you’ve got to go into the villages and that means venturing off the main roads – of which there are very few. On Mahé there is one road that circumnavigates the island; another 10 or so roads cross over the mountains, linking east with west. Although the island is home to 90 percent of the country’s population of 87,000, there are plenty of luxurious hotels tucked into the jungle and spilling out onto beautiful beaches and bays. On Praslin, the country’s second-largest island, there is one coastal road that stretches from Seychelles’ only 18-hole golf course at the elegant Constance Lemuria resort, around the island to Anse Lazio, voted as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. There is one road that crosses Praslin, which rises to pass through the Vallee de Mai National Park at the centre of the island; drive along this road, and you will be dwarfed by the giant palms and trees of this World Heritage Site. On quiet little La Digue, where life ambles along and most people travel by bicycle, there is one road, with less than a handful of tributaries, that hugs most of the coastline.
“I know people come here to relax. But to really get to know our culture, meet the people of these islands,” said Patrick. “Talk to them. Listen to them. Share moments together.”
His Indian Ocean lilt almost turned his words into song. And if it were, he would probably have been singing the moutya, a hypnotic Creole style of music and dance with African roots.
“Maybe you will share a glass of coconut water, which is fantastically refreshing, or you will share a glass of palm wine, made from a tree outside. Or they will offer you grilled fish.”
It goes without saying that seafood is a staple in this island nation. Grilled fish is a firm favourite, and almost everyone has their own way of preparing it. Angelika Adrienne, a young woman who’d shown me around La Digue, learnt to cook from her grandmother. “Red snapper is best,” she’d said, giving me her recipe. “I will first slice it, and rub in ginger, garlic, saffron, tomato sauce, soya sauce, oil, salt and chilli – of course. Then you put it in the oven or on the barbeque and cook it 10 minutes on each side. When it’s nearly finished cooking, if you have lemon, you put lemon in it so that you have a good taste in your mouth.”
Angelika has lived her whole life on La Digue, the smallest of Seychelles’ three main islands and which measures just five by three kilometres. And she said she will never leave. “Seychelles is paradise,” she said, “and La Digue is most tranquil.”
“Where else in the world can you find places like this?” Patrick had asked when we stepped from his studio into humid sunshine. “Life is carefree. It’s not just physical. It’s emotional. Sometimes it’s even spiritual, I would say. Because you feel something. I suppose that’s why so many people who come here want to stay.”
Not wanting to ever leave – it’s a sentiment Michael had echoed when the rain stopped and the leaves no longer dripped. “The reason I haven’t left is because I found what I wanted here,” he told me. “Seychelles is a place where you can undo; a place where you can find yourself again.”
Michael Adams, at work in his studio.