Swirling waves, giant Aldabra tortoises in vibrant hues staring up at me with their ancient eyes, red houses with slanting roofs, and an endless stream of colours surrounding me; I was in Seychelles, but Seychelles was the soul of this art gallery.
George Camille, one of Seychelles' most prominent artists, whose gallery we were visiting on Mahé island, spent his childhood on the island of La Digue. He was telling us stories about growing up with seven siblings and how, despite the lack of an active art scene on the island, he was drawn to it.
"When I was younger, there was no art in Seychelles," said Camille. "My house in La Digue only had religious paintings and symbols. But my eldest brother was the one who inspired me to take up drawing."
Camille, 60, grew up amidst the tropical environment of Seychelles. All his work reflects life, people, and everything that makes Seychelles what it is.
"My father was a baker, and my mother was a housewife. During the 40s life here was devoid of modernity and ambition. Kids didn't go to school; they helped their parents at their jobs. But I went to a local school and managed to get a scholarship to the Seychelles College, where art was in the curriculum," he said. The college shut down after the military coup of 1977.
The French first inhabited Seychelles, after which it became an English colony until its independence in 1976. After the coup d'etat, it remained a single-party dictatorship aligned with the East for years. "The good students would be sent to China, Cuba, Russia, and East Germany on scholarships." At that time, the small nation, was largely ignored.
But ignoring the Seychelles of today is impossible. It isn't just the arresting beauty but also the way of life here that really holds you. At Mabuya, a restaurant on the Anse Lazio beach on Praslin island, I was polishing off my caramelised octopus salad and thinking of running to the sunny beach right ahead when the clouds gathered, bringing fierce rain. My heart sank, but the woman from the Seychelles Tourism Department hosting us was unfazed. "Oh, give it ten minutes," she said, smiling. "The sun will be back to bake you all."
And true to her words, about 15 minutes later, I was running along the sandy shores, going mad over the impossibly blue and absolutely clear waters. Seychelles is the sum total of its people, their optimism and how that translates directly to your experiences as a traveller.
As we got off the ferry, a buggy was waiting for us on La Digue. People here travel either on buggies or on bicycles. There were no cars in sight on the island. We passed a lively-looking police station as we progressed towards the interiors of the village of La Passe.
"That's where my father's bakery used to be," Camille told us the next day at his gallery. "I'm a pretty good baker too. Being half-Chinese, we were always taught to work hard, help out around the house and upskill. That's what's made me a good businessman. And as an artist, knowing how to market your work the correct way is an asset."
The police station now stood without any bakery to accompany it but there were many souvenir shops and boutiques selling women's clothes and swimwear around it. Sepia coloured my vision as I tried to imagine the streets of La Passe in the 50s and 60s, devoid of many commercial buildings, but with a little bakery and the smell of fresh bread wafting out on the street. Even today, most places on these islands guard that old-world charm of the eras gone by.
A sprawling vanilla plantation lined the L' union Estate as we walked towards what appeared to be a cemetery. The plaque that greeted us stated that the cemetery was the private burial place of the Mellon family, one of the first settlers on La Digue during the early 1800s. An old copra kiln was the next stop for us to see. Once upon a time, La Digue's primary industry revolved around coconut farming, with a focal point at the L'Union Estate coconut plantation south of La Passe. Today, L'Union Estate has transformed into an informal theme park encompassing the Old Plantation House, the vanilla plantations, the cemetery, and a pen of the giant Aldabra tortoises.
"You can feed them. Go on," our buggy driver, Zain, urged. The tortoises seemed to be sleeping, their unmoving forms appearing only slightly alive. We spent the day on La Digue, feeding tortoises and petting the many cats that inhabited the island. The slight big-city air of Mahé somewhat contrasted with the self-effacing aura of La Digue.
Pop colour cars in varying shades of turquoise, red, orange, and lemon green dotted the streets in the capital city of Victoria. We passed by the 120-year-old clock tower at the heart of the city, an iconic landmark.
"This clock tower was erected in memory of Queen Victoria," said Ricky, our driver on the island. "It is an exact replica of the one which was placed at the entrance of the Victoria Station on Vauxhall Bridge Road in London in 1892 to commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee."
Home to many Indians, Seychelles felt like somewhere I could see myself finding comfort in. Back at my hotel, which was in the middle of Beau Vallon Beach, the bellboy found familiarity in me. "You're from India?" Ganesh asked me, carrying my luggage. I answered yes and proceeded to tell him where exactly I was from. "Oh, you're from the North. I am from Ahmedabad," he said.
He had been working and living in Seychelles for the past 22 years. I exclaimed how beautiful the country was and that I was sure he liked it much better than India and the chaos it entailed. "It is peaceful, but it's not home," he said, trudging upstairs.
We humans attach a lot of emotional weight to our place of birth. It isn't so much the place and what it lacks, it is the place despite its shortcomings, and more than that, it's the people that make the place.
The Creole festival was underway during my time on the island. I could see people dressed up in their traditional attires and big flyers outside shops announcing cultural programmes on certain dates. The festivity unfurling about made me excited but, at the same time, reminded me of home and the many festivals that were about to kickstart come November.
It's one thing to be enchanted by the beauty of a place, but seldom does it have enough power to permanently keep you. Those who call Seychelles home are lucky enough to be a part of its immense draw.
"I have never depicted something that is not Seychelles," said Camille. "I could never leave Seychelles even though living and working on an island is hard. I could have worked in New York or Paris, where the art scene is thriving, and I could have been successful. I could've moved to England since my wife is English, but I refused. I think what Seychelles offers me is the ease of creating and the peace that it brings, being my home country. Painting is very intuitive for me, and because I chose to remain and work in Seychelles, I've never struggled with an artist's block."
It's a beautiful place to live in, he tells me as we bid goodbyes, and I'm clutching one of his prints, a gift. I nod, agreeing. "It's a happy place, always nice and hot. I paint Seychelles, and I love living here. It's home."
And even as I would dream about the warm powdery sand between my toes and the sea breeze in my hair for a long time after leaving, I knew I had to leave. So I could come back.