April 27, 2016

St Helena Out of Exile




St Helena is a place of robust friendliness—where sharing a boat ride turns into being included in a local named Patsy’s 60th birthday celebration and then a contact for our next stop in Ascension. Though it has your standard social problems, it also has an old-world virtuousness that we’ve taken an almost comic delight in. The biggest crime we’ve heard of since being here was the theft of a mirror from a hairpin turn. We also heard of some ‘rough boys’ who offended local sensibility when they didn’t wave at passing cars while they were driving down Ladder Hill (waving while passing other cars is more than good manners here—it’s an inborn reflex).

It takes a while to adjust to the level of friendly openness here. It’s a bit like watching a movie, waiting for the sinister plot twist, only to have the bad guys invite the good guys to a party where they supply music, fish cakes and juicy gossip.


And the gossip is juicy. Currently the swirling rumours are about the new airport: it was built wrong; it’s too dangerous; a full plane load of passengers will be too heavy for the cross-wind… Happily, the rumour about ticket prices being set at more than a thousand pounds (out of range of your typical Saint) was unfounded. A return trip to Jo’berg is 583 pounds—about the same as a one-way ticket on the RMS. But the rumour that the airport won’t open as planned? Sadly, that’s true

We’re lucky to be here at such a significant time. After watching the first ever commercial flight land at the airport, we watched the RMS St Helena pull into harbour on one of her last voyages. Aboard was the first female Governor, who will also be the last Governor to arrive by sea.


Governor Lisa Phillips’ inauguration was a quirky mash-up of colonial charm and modern politicking. She openly acknowledged the raw deal Saints get; they are paid woefully low wages to do the same jobs that expats from the UK are given cushy remuneration packages for, meanwhile their kids seek life elsewhere because of the lack of opportunity on the island. But she also seems to understand just what a strong draw an island can have over her people and is eager to help them find a way to stay home through ‘the sensible development of tourism’.


see that tall spier in the background--that's me hiking around it

Maybe only other islanders can understand what it’s like to truly love island life. People who get island fever seem to see the edges, where earth meets the sea, as a hard border. But islanders see the sea as a continuation of home—a link to every other place.

But home is still home. Every Saint and Expat we’ve met seems to love St Helena with such affectionate warmth that in only two weeks we’ve found it easy to dig below the highlights and tourist attractions and catch glimpses of the St Helena people want to both share and preserve.


our private audience with Jonathon--turns out he was telling us to tickle his thighs

This is a place of unsubtle beauty. We’ve hiked across multi-hued volcanic hills, explored ancient fortifications, discovered underwater ship wrecks in gin-clear warm water, found mystifying gravestones that will forever haunt my imagination and wandered through lush gardens. We watched kids spearfish, bringing up a prize with every dive as well as had tea in a room full of discarded and rescued antiques with one of the island’s main business owners. We’ve listened to stories, told our own, and laughed and laughed.


I am a little envious of every person who gets to find this place after I leave. It hurts my heart a bit to imagine saying goodbye. But not yet, we still have so much to do.

3 comments:

Tony Gibb said...

Soinds like you're having too much fun. We head back to Canada in a week and can't believe it's -1C in central Canafa. I think we'll stay in SA

Jonathan said...

Lyrical post, thank you. St Helena just moved to my bucket list top ten.

Ellyn Matta said...

Lovely thoughts about islanders and St. Helena. It really seems like an amazing place to visit.