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.

April 18, 2016

St Helena--first Comair flight

The urge to point and yell 'da plane! da plane!' was huge.

Today we had the very cool opportunity to see history made—when the first passenger plane arrived in St Helena. Of course it was a bit late. After several test flights into St Helena by a smaller jet, the Comair 737 operated by British Airways made its first landing in advance of the official airport opening on May 21st

The plane took two passes before wheels down. When it taxied to the terminal it flew South African and St Helena flags from the cockpit windows.

April 17, 2016

50 years on St Helena

This is one way to spend a 50th birthday

 “Are you broken down?”
The question wasn’t referring to Evan’s new, more mature, age. But was directed to me—when a local asked how long we’d be staying in St Helena my answer of another couple of weeks was met with surprise. Most sailors come to St Helena, hit the highlights, and hightail it to the next port. We arrived, and thanks to an introduction from our friend Bill on Solstice, met some great people who are living here, and settled in.

Evan has lucked out with significant birthdays: His 30th was spent sailing off of Acapulco on our way to Central America; his 45th was spent sailing across the South Pacific; and his 50th birthday weekend is being spent immersed in life on St. Helena and will be capped off with VIP viewing of the first commercial flight to land on St Helena.

We started the weekend by volunteering at the donkey sanctuary. Up until 15-20 years ago most rural families had a donkey or two. When the island was producing a lot of flax they were used for transport—but even after the flax industry collapsed, families used donkeys as the family car. When cars took over from the donkeys (who can live up to 50 years) the island ended up with a surplus of unwanted donkeys.
Maia and Sophie walk Greedy and Dominic
Currently there are only about 50 donkeys in St Helena and 11 of them are in the donkey home. We headed there for the weekly donkey walk. Beyond getting to stroll through the breathtaking landscape at Bluehill (with a donkey!)—we learned all sorts of donkey lore. It turns out donkeys are social and each one has a bestie—so if one donkey needs medical treatment the bestie goes with him for comfort. Donkeys are also super affectionate; I received the donkey cuddles and kisses to prove it.

Donkeys gave way to dinner and Evan got to supper on a five-star feast of fresh fish, lobster, salads and wines with our new friends. From there we headed back to Bluehill for a traditional music night at the community centre.
band members ranged in age from 15 to 80 and included both Saints and Expats

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Traditional music on St Helena turns out, rather inexplicably, to be country/bluegrass. And America is to blame. Many Saints end up working on Ascension Island—which has a big US military presence, and, it seems, a thriving country music scene.
Joe demonstrates Skittles form
We did get a moment of even older St Helenian tradition when were taught how to play Skittles, the game that predates bowling. The island has a robust Skittles league and the competition is apparently pretty fierce. I managed a foul and a duck—which means I won’t be on demand by any team.

Our days here are full and fascinating and if you asked Evan, I think he’d tell you it’s a pretty amazing place to turn 50.

April 13, 2016

St Helena and a Tortoise's wish

About 20 miles out from St Helena I started scanning with binoculars. The sky was overcast—but suddenly, there it was: harsh lines breaking up the lofty grey clouds. As Charles Darwin put it, “St Helena rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.” Closer to the coast, when we saw the ancient naval fortifications built into the cliff faces, the impression we were approaching a mid-ocean fortress was reinforced.

For over 500 years, the only way to reach St Helena has been by the sea. Traveling here, we’ve followed in the wakes of Darwin, Cook, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinzulu and more recently, Prince Andrew. This month that changed, when the first plane landed at the brand-new airport. For the first time tourists won’t risk being doused in the Atlantic swell; the way both governors and commoners alike have famously been baptised when they’ve reached for the swinging ropes at the Jamestown landing and tried to time their first step ashore.

For a place I’ve looked so forward to visiting, I have to admit knowing very little about St Helena. I expected the ropes at the landing—and even the strong arms of the Saints (as locals are called) as they pulled me safely ashore after our nine day passage. I knew that the capital of Jamestown is a traditional English village wedged improbably into a volcanic cleft on a tropical island. I knew Napoleon Bonaparte was the island’s most famous resident. But beyond that…

Of all the places we’ve visited, this is the most wonderful and strange. Caught somewhere between today, and a time that may never have existed, St Helena has a retirement home for the donkeys who have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service, has an 18-hole golf course mowed by goat (you play holes 1-9 twice to equal 18) and has a 180-200 year old giant tortoise called Jonathon who, apparently, was just given his first wish.

“What do you think a tortoise wishes for?” Maia asked me, after our guide Robert told us that Jonathon had been given a wish. “People argued,” Robert said, “they said he already had a wish, so this is really his second wish.”

We met Jonathon (and his friends David and Emma) at the Governor’s mansion. Found in the island’s surprisingly bucolic interior (which appears transplanted in its entirety, complete with charming parish churches, from the English countryside) Jonathon is just one of the island’s eclectic highlights which include cows, donkeys, Napoleon’s house and tomb, Halley’s observatory, hills of flax, a former Boer concentration camp and a smidgen of native jungle which was once catalogued by Charles Darwin.

We had heard Jonathon had been given a scrub and polish in advance of a visit from Prince Edward—who is coming for the official opening of the airport. Maybe he had wished for his wash Maia speculated, though she said if she were tortoise she’d aim for more.

We asked Robert to explain Jonathon’s wish. Much of our day with Robert was spent deciphering the Saint’s dialect (Did he say wish? Or fish? Do tortoises eat fish?). Thought to be a linguistic mash-up based on a Cockney accent (thanks to a wave of immigration after the great fire of London in 1666) it took us several tries to understand that Jonathon’s first wish was actually Jonathon’s wash—of which he may have actually had two.

I felt strangely let down to discover that St Helena’s oldest resident hadn’t made a wish about his future, but had instead had a bath, which we already knew. But if he had made a wish I’d like to think he’d ask people from around the world to come visit the Saints as they endeavour to join us in our modern world of airports, mobile phones and two-lane roads. I believe Jonathon might also hope that the islanders retain what ever it is that makes them so remarkably unique as they continue their lives on their castle in the middle of the sea.
somewhere down that ladder is Maia and a friend from a South African kid boat