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Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles

Moved by nature

It’s no secret that the Seychelles and Cousin Island in particular hold a special place in my heart. When I first came to volunteer on Cousin three years ago, I fell in love with everything about the island (except perhaps the mosquitoes!): the multitude of birds flying over the island at dawn, breathtaking sunsets where the whole sky lights up in various shades of orange, pink and purple, skinks and geckos galore, being able to hear the push and pull of the ocean waves wherever you go on the island and of course, George the giant land tortoise. So it’s no surprise that when I was given the opportunity to return to Cousin to volunteer for a month, I jumped at it immediately. Although the magic of the island hasn’t changed much at all, my volunteer experience was quite different this time as it was sea turtle nesting season instead of endless birds.

During my first encounter with one of the great beasts herself, prehistoric and guileless under a hard, shiny shell, it made me content to know that I could be moved by nature, independent of human relations. It was a one-way relationship, but beautifully simple. My happiness in that moment was multiplied by the knowledge that the natural world could bring on this kind of pleasure and astonishment. I watched as the mama hawksbill sea turtle lumbered up to the beach to lay her eggs, programmed to reproduced against all odds. It was truly a beautiful and fascinating process as the turtle calmly and slowly considered her landscape and environment, registering everything around her as she carefully selected a suitable spot for her to lay her precious eggs.

Although over the course of my month volunteering on Cousin, I witnessed this evolutionary process over and over endless times, my astonishment never wore off. I still remember widening my eyes behind my sunglasses as though that would let me take in more. When I arrived on Cousin during the first week of December, there were 400 something nests and when I left, there were over 630 nests. But those are just numbers – the intimate experience of actually witnessing in real time the historical creatures performing their evolutionarily programmed purpose in life was priceless and will live in my memories forever.

One day as I was sitting on Anse Vacoa during my patrol, absorbing the salty air and listening to the soothing sound of the ocean waves, a skink wandered into my sphere of awareness, lazily swinging his body before coming to a complete halt at the base of my feet and slouching on my heel. He seemed to calmly consider the landscape, completely at ease in his habitat. I wondered how and if people could ever get that comfortable with themselves. Some people talk about “finding themselves” in their travels, but I thought perhaps you had to get lost first? When you are continually exposed to more than one culture as is often the case in travel and especially the case on Cousin Island, where a group of strangers from all around the world and various cultures are suddenly put into one house to live together in and share, sooner or later the anthropological question arises: How much of who I am is defined by the world around me, and how much is something more innate? Is it ten to one? Fifty-fifty? I think my experience on Cousin living with volunteers from around the world as well as working and interacting with the Seychellois wardens acted as a purifying fire, charring away all the dross and leaving some essential self of mine. In my opinion, this is the best type of travel as it facilitates the peeling away of layers of yourself to reveal your inner essence.

Even as I write this now and as I have reflected and reminisced repeatedly over the past few days since I returned to crazy Kampala from the peace and serenity of Cousin Island, I can’t help but feel sadness and loss that my experience is over. However, I know that even if I could have stopped time, it wouldn’t have the desired effect, because something essential would be missing, some sharpness of focus made possible only by the fact that life is fleeting and that time is continuously ticking. All you have is gratitude towards the present and making the most of each day, every day.

Lindsey Zhao