October 23, 2007
Dispatch No. 3: She Sells Sea Shells
After such a warm welcoming in
Nairobi, I had a rude awakening upon arriving at the
Mahe International Airport in the Seychelles. I exited
the claustrophobic baggage claim area and stepped into
the humidity to find Elsey (or so I will call her).
"Thanks for picking me up!"
I offered enthusiastically.
"Yeah, well at least you decided
to show up this time," Elsey responded, not in
a particularly mean way, just in a manner suggesting
she was convinced I had bribed the airline to overbook
my original flight just to put her out.
On our ride to my new home, the
more questions and comments I uttered the more irritated
Elsey seemed to get. I eventually just shut my trap
and soaked in all the shades of green flying by. I thought
about the Swahili name Furaha, meaning joy or happiness,
that Philip's family had given me before leaving Kenya
and imagined what names Elsey might be silently calling
me at that very moment, something along the lines of
Pain-In-My-A$$ or Stupid American.
Call me presumptuous or maybe just
naive, but I thought that perhaps after traveling half-way
around the world to work for free that a "Glad
you're here" or "Thanks for coming" was
in order. Elsey offered no such thing; however, she
did offer a few handy pieces of advice:
"There are two doctors in
the Seychelles, one prescribes Paracetemol for everything,
and the other chops off limbs. In other words- don't
"Avoid puddles and other stagnant
pools of water unless you fancy getting Leptospirosis."
(Ok. Done and done!)
Later that evening I met my flat
mates. Let me introduce you to them- they are European.
There's Adelle, she's an extremely thoughtful and sincere
little munchkin from the country hamlet of Norfolk,
England. Then there's Hope, a cheerful event coordinator
from London, who quit her job to do her part to help
save the whale shark. And finally there's Suzanna from
Germany, a strong-willed and witty girl working exclusively
with the turtle monitoring project and with Elsey, walking
miles of beach each day with just one another for company
(yes- we have all commiserated with her about this unfortunate
This little family of ours is wonderful.
We make fun of each other's accents, share stories from
home, cook yummy meals together, and divulge secret
dreams and goals. We have a pet cat named Denise and
the newest addition is Pete the praying mantis, which
is technically Hope's new roommate- they have a love-hate
relationship, he loves her and she hates him ...isn't
that always the way? Our flat is perched on a hill overlooking
the Indian Ocean. I half walk, half slide down a goat
trail between a tangle of palms and ferns, cross a little
creek, and walk through town to get to work each day.
Work consists either of going out
on one of the whale sharking boats or doing data entry
at the "office" (more of an ocean front shack
with some computers inside). It has taken me a while
to fully understand the nuances of whale sharking. I'll
save the details of our highly sophisticated research
procedures for a later update.
For now I have to recount my first
experience with one of these giant spotty creatures.
After getting the signal from Katie, the head honcho
volunteer, I enthusiastically flung myself off the boat,
splashed into the topaz water, and reeled about. After
doing a complete 180 on the lookout for something big,
I saw it- a four ton mass wearing a wide toothless grin
headed straight for me. Yes the whale shark was smiling,
they are similar to dolphins in that they always appear
to be happy.
As I was instructed to stay 3 meters
(or 9 feet in American) away from the shark, I began
doing backward arm circles and pedaling in reverse as
quickly as one can underwater. I never thought to turn
around and swim away- all I could do was stare at the
behemoth with my mouth hanging open. However, it became
clear very quickly that I was going to lose our game
of Chicken, so I finally broke my gaze and turned, nearly
missing a head on collision. In fact I started swimming
away in a series of circles, but I couldn't seem to
shake my new friend or enemy (at this point, I still
didn't know which it was).
Katie had told me that some of
the more curious sharks will play these sorts of games,
and that they are merely interested in the bubbles created
by a snorkeler's fins, but I preferred to imagine that
this shark just fancied me- that we had an instant bond.
I named him Albert and saw a beautiful future ahead
of us, swimming side by side through the oceans of the
world. Abruptly Katie's muffled British accent brought
me back to reality as she called me out of the water.
I reluctantly left Bert after soaking in one last view
of the unique ridges texturing his prehistoric back
and that massive dorsal fin slowly swaying side to side.
However, before we parted company I swear I heard a
"Same time next week?" and even got a little
wink. I swear. I have been in with several sharks since
Bert, but he will always be my favorite.
Between swimming with sharks and
typing up data, I'm still puzzling together the ways
of the Seychelloise (Say-shell-wah) and their Creole
culture. I know one thing for sure- they are NOT African
or in any way affiliated with Africa. I was surprised
to discover this at first, as I had somehow attached
the two in my head. But suddenly all the confused looks
I had received from Kenyans to whom I told my next destination
made sense. "The Sea-shellies?" they would
say, accompanied by an expression of mild bewilderment.
I began to wonder if this place existed. But now I'm
finally here with one foot on cream-colored sand and
the other in crystal waters.
I have been trying to get photos up on my website, but
alas the slow internet connections have not been cooperating.
I haven't given up yet and will let you know when new
pics are posted!
It has been so great to hear from everyone, please keep
the e-mails coming, and I hope all is well wherever
this finds you!
About "Letters From Africa -
Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer
Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of
a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per
se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing
with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies
jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's
trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she
meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks
to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld
on Water, Mutiny
Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids
are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested
in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at
firstname.lastname@example.org --Chris Grant
Whale Shark Tail
All Photos ©ShannonSwitzer.com