Thursday, October 28 continued…
Dinner ends with the ship’s doctor, who either speaks to nobody all day long and must get his social fix in the evening, or is studying for a psychiatrist license on the side and using passengers as subjects, asking the two Germans, “so does Germany want Hitler back?” Dead silence, then a Teutonic “NO!” from the lead German, and slack jaws from the rest of us as the doctor goes on a 10 minute speech about Hitler and Napoleon being master human manipulators and very smart men (fair enough) and equal to Abraham Lincoln (huh?). Everybody retreats from the table before the cheese course.
Claude the Purser corrals almost everyone to play another quiz game, this one involving throwing darts before answering the question, and getting points based on the dart throw and your answer. Our thrown together team did OK, but we better get our fighting edge back for tomorrow, which is the final of the Pub Quiz. We’ve been evil-eyeing the team we’re tied with and have tried to trip them in the stairs.
We’ve noticed that although the Saints play all the active games, they hang out permanently around the edge of the Sun Lounge talking quietly amongst themselves. They are there from 8AM to 8PM dinner. Andy the pocket-size archaeologist (and apparently, social anthropologist) notes that they are found in highest abundance during food service times, and don’t hope to beat them to the first pass on salad or sandwiches, since those get hoovered up immediately. I’ve actually taken to going out on the deck to get to the stern, since I feel like my every passage through the sun room is getting tallied, Madame Dufarge-like. At least no one is knitting.
Friday, October 28 – on board the RMS, 220 miles to go
Finally! We’re signed up for a tour of the bridge at 2:30. After breakfast we all go to the Main Lounge (the ship’s only 340 feet long and half of that is cargo area, so you use the stairs a lot and see everyone repeatedly) to hear Chris the Napoleonic Professor chat for an hour about Napoleon’s 6 year stint in exile on the island. Chris is a very good lecturer, is at least 6’3″, so does not have the eponymous complex, and compresses Napoleon’s stay on the island to a handy one hour review ( he pretended he wasn’t in exile, he was charming to the point of creating a cult of personality, he was really fat and developing stomach cancer, which eventually killed him). Towards the end of his talk, the ship took a pronounced turn to starboard and slowed down, which had everybody peering out the windows for whatever we’d dropped overboard, not looking at Chris. Turns out they just shut off the starboard engine and prop because we were going too fast and there is no point arriving at 3 AM at a port you can’t access until daylight.
Lots of information about what to do to disembark is handed out:
- Pay your bar tab;
- Fill out your customs form;
- Fill out your immigration form, which demands an explanation about how you will support yourself while on the island (!);
- Prepare your proof of health insurance because the British public health system is not interested in free treatment, thank you very much;
- Produce 18 British pounds (pro-rated for length of stay);
- Pack your luggage and put it outside your stateroom/broom closet before 4:30 for loading to cargo area;
- Be prepared to carry nothing in your hands when you disembark, as a launch will be carrying us to port from the anchorage.
Tour of the bridge finally lets us see the entire ship. The front half is loaded with refrigerated and unrefrigerated containers, crates of stuff, and a lot of telephone poles. As the island produces pork, broken rock for road building, fresh water, a few vegetables and NOTHING ELSE, absolutely everything must be brought in on this ship. The only reason the island is supported is that it would be useful in event of a really big war, and somebody else might grab it if the Brits left. The actual running of the ship is pretty boring, since after we clear Cape Town we are out of the shipping channels and there is nothing out here. There have been no ships sighted in the last 4 days, and we’re in over 15,000 feet of water, so we’re not about to run aground. The officer of the watch doing the tour tells us that they’ll all be running around like headless chickens when we get to port, which I believe. The staff is ferociously hard working and they do multiple tasks. The waiter whisking your tea cup away at breakfast is likely to be vacuuming the hallway, refilling the sandwiches and salad after the initial lunchtime incursion and loading the luggage later. Nobody sits down unless they are an officer, it seems.
Our Pub Quiz team, “Go with your Gut” re-forms for the playoffs against the “Gin and Tonics” and the other runners-up. The ex-pat islander with the crucifix around her neck gets all the biblical questions wrong and asks us not to tell the bishop. I remember Bush defeated Kerry and Duncan the chemical engineer knows a lot about movies, and we come in second behind the team from Durban, SA, which didn’t do too well in the first round. We’re hoping the average scores have us beating them, as they announced before the second round “that they have more MENSA members than any team ever on this ship, I’m sure, bwah haa haa, don’t you know”. Oh please. If we win I’ll say we’re striking a blow for the intellectual proletariat when we claim our prize.
Dinner is served on the after-deck and is a BBQ in true South African style of meat of all sorts. The entire hindquarter of a cow is on display next to sausage, chicken, and ribs. Ben, the other archaeologist, joins us at the dinner table and downloads his knowledge of the island, which he’s visited 5 times for work. Despite the entrenched presence of at least 5 different religious faiths, there is a relatively loose attitude towards relationship bonds. On one of his trips, 5 French mountain climbers arrived to tackle the island, which they did in more ways than one. Their visit resulted in the end of 4 relationships, the creation of two unwanted pregnancies and the spreading of a host of unwelcome STDs. Bloody French.
There is a native bird, the wirebird, which is only found here and is a white and black bird with long legs and a determination not to be seen. One of the Saints, a big Rastafarian guy, is “the wirebird man” and has produced excellent pictures of them with the equivalent of an old Instamatic, to the astonishment of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and their telephoto lenses. Ben says a couple of the RSPB’ers even came out to the island to meet Wirebird Eddie and go with him to see the birds. They asked him how he got such excellent pictures. His response was, “ya pick da wahrbird up, ya take da pictchah, ya put da wahrbird back down, mohn.” Except for Wirebird Eddie, who has apparently listened to too many Bob Marley tracks, the Saint accent is a strong mix of what sounds like Australian and Irish, which is hard to understand. The women have a much lighter accent then the men, for some unknown reason.
Augh! Claude the South African ship’s Purser has announced that the South African pub quiz team has beaten us! There is corruption in the ranks, I think. Bloody South Africans.
Saturday, October 29, St Helena
At 6:30 we come topside to see the south shore of St. Helena sliding by a half mile away. The island is only 10 miles long and 6 miles wide and is a dead volcano. There are no flat surfaces anywhere and the valleys and shoreline are very steep, reddish black in color and inhospitable. Despite this, the British saw fit to bash up the volcanic rocks and build further fortifications on top of promontories to defend themselves in case somebody got testy and wanted the island. As they took the island themselves from the Portuguese by invading overland from the west side of the island, I guess they had the right to be nervous. Everybody is hanging off the port side railings taking pictures, except for the hardcore Saints, who are in the Sun Lounge, waiting for tea to be served. We pull into Jamestown harbor and drop anchor and after taking pictures for a while, I realize nobody is on deck. Wondering whether I missed an announcement, I go inside and downstairs, but the halls and main lounge are empty. I then remember that breakfast is being served early and for a limited time, so I go to the Dining Salon, where there is a near rumble going on as the entire passenger manifest (minus me) is scarfing down what you would think is going to be their last meal. I elbow a couple little old ladies aside and get my piece. I am, with the possible exclusion of the environmentalist who shuts his eyes the entire time he talks to you, the youngest of the tourist class. Ashley is probably the next youngest, so we do pretty well competing for food.
After the breakfast scrum, we stand in line for immigration, which is on the ship, then get a numbered card for getting onto the launch. The launch seats about 30, so things move rapidly and we get a good view of the ship on the way in. They have an “air taxi”, which is a cage with seats that is lowered to a barge for people who can’t manage the steps and the scramble to the launch and then the dock. Clearing customs is quick – a quick x-ray of hand baggage and a sniff by the drug spaniel (cute) and we’re done. The caretaker of the cottage we’re renting is waiting for us and she walks us around town to get our St Helena driving license (the police just record we have a US license, and that’s it), changing money at the bank and going to the garage to pick up the rental car. By garage, I mean garage, with tires and metal bits lying around. Ashley signs a piece of paper saying he’ll bring the back they way he got it, and that’s it. It is an automatic, the A/C works, the brakes are mushy, the horn works and it comes with a slightly scratchy Talking Heads tape in the player.
We drive after the caretaker up through town, which is 1 house wide on one side of the street and 3 houses wide on the other. The valley is very narrow, and the roads going out of it are steep and 1 ¼ lanes wide. Frequent honking is needed to not plow into someone coming the other direction. The view is great, though. We get to the top of the cliff above the town, which features a fort at the top of a 699 step stairway cut into the sloping cliff face. The stairs used to be part of a railway used to bring supplies up to the fort and remove donkey dung from the town below. The stairs are called Jacob’s Ladder and are a standard challenge for tourists to try. The fort is called Ladder Hill Fort, which sets the tone for the rather obvious place names here – Sandy Beach, Green Valley, Big Rock, High Hill, Deep Valley, Green Hill, etc.
2/3 of the way to the cottage I realize we’re going to get lost when we try to do this ourselves, since although the island is small and rugged and well signposted, there are little one lane roads all over the place. We end up on a one lane road that leads past the radio station and a primary school to our cottage. The cottage is palatial compared to C deck on the ship; it has 2 bedrooms, a sitting room and dining room, kitchen, bath and laundry room. It is decorated in 1980’s grandma chic, complete with Hummel figurines, but has cable. It also has a veranda overlooking the hills and the ocean, a couple of guava trees and a bunch of feral chickens.
Since we’ll be feeding ourselves this week, I go to the grocery store. A lot of the shelves are bare, since it’s been two weeks since the ship has been here and the cargo hasn’t been unloaded yet. The local bakery produces bread, but it is out. There are very few local vegetables grown, since it seems people simply don’t want to. I get some gas for the car – 7 liters for 10 pounds, which I don’t even bother to convert into gallons and dollars, because it’s not like I have a choice, but I think it’s expensive. Augh! I just did the math! It’s $8 a gallon! My first impression of the island is “Communist Caribbean” – tropical weather, relaxed people, Virgin Islands architecture, but no selection in the stores, few cars and frequent electrical outages. Ashley sniff’s that his Cornish village with half the population has ten times the carnival of St. Helena.
Tonight is the island’s carnival, which is a parade through town to the waterfront, a fair amount of food, and music and dancing.
Sunday, October 31, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean (that’s really their mailing address!)
We drive down to Jamestown to go on a round-island tour in a 1929 Chevy Charabanc, imported to the islands in the early 1930’s. The owner (not the original) claims the car has not been off-duty for parts or repairs, despite needing to get tires from the Czech Republic, and needing to top off the radiator every hour or so.
The island is covered by flax plants, which were grown for a cash crop to make cloth until nylon came in the 1960’s and destroyed the industry. Nothing destroyed the plants, because they spread easily and enjoy growing on cliffs. They are driving out the endemic plants on the island, and keeping them off the limited pasture land there is.
The final stop of the tour is at Ladder Hill Fort, overlooking the town from the top of the ladder.
We finally get motivated and walk up the ladder, Ashley making it in 12 minutes, I did it in 13 (huff huff). Neither one of us have the knees to go back down, so we hitched a ride in a pick up back down the crazy 2 way road into town and the car.
The island really is aware that the ship is their link to the world, and tonight the Anglican church together with the Salvation Army, 7th Day Adventists and Baptists, put on a thanksgiving service at the Anglican church to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launching of the RMS St Helena! The archbishop presided, each pastor read something, the combined choirs sang, incense was waved, all the accompanying music of the Salvation Army Band and the “Get it Going” orchestra. The snare drum and the tuba players were particularly noteworthy. [There’s a collection: Lynne whispers she has no money, Ashley shows all he has, Lynne helps herself and leaves Ashley with 30p to contribute! – Ashley’s Ed]**
** All facts submitted by guest contributors subject to verification. (Never leave your laptop alone…)