Monday, March 01, 2010

February 28, 2010 - Jamestown, St. Helena

Even the Dutch Baby was happy to be in St. Helena this morning

We couldn't have timed our arrival at this rock in the middle of the South Atlantic any better if we'd planned it. A few hours before we arrived the wind died. We had to motor for the last few hours, but that's a far sight better than the yachts that arrived last week who all had to run their engines for three of four days to get here. The latest weather reports show that there isn't going to be any wind until later this week. So unless we want to burn a lot of fuel to get to Ascension, we'll be here for a few days at least. Good thing we like it here.

This daunting pier is the only way to get on or off St. Helena

The welcome we have received here in St. Helena is the warmest we've experienced anywhere in the world. Within a few minutes of stepping ashore (off a ferry boat, onto a wet quay, grabbing onto a rope hanging from a bar overhead to steady ourselves), we met a South African family stationed on this remote outpost of the British Empire on a two year work contract. After talking for a few minutes, they invited us back to their home. Driving up into the hills we were amazed to watch the barren, arid landscape of the coast give way to a lush, green semi-tropical interior, aptly described as a bronze ring with a emerald center. Over a cup of locally grown coffee we learned a little bit about what it is like to live on a isolated island.

The RMS St. Helena, the local fishing fleet and a dozen yachts anchored in James Bay - the swell is often so fierce that huge rollers slam into the waterfront. That's why we are all anchored way, way out.
On our way back to town, I asked that we be dropped off at the top of Jacob's Ladder, which the local tourism board claims is the world's longest straight staircase. The steep flight of 699 steps is a silent challenge to anyone who finds themselves on this rock. I knew that Sten would insist on climbing the thing, and I figured that if we went down it together I'd be able to graciously opt out when he decides to ascend it. Looking down from the top was intimidating. Looking back up at the top from half way down was vertigo inducing. Three-quarters of the way down, my knees started to wobble. At the bottom, my legs were a little weak; but, it wasn't until about 10 minutes later when we climbed up a short flight of steps to a restaurant that I felt the full measure of their discontent. Mounting those steps took considerably more effort than it should have.

The view from the top

There is no ATM on the island. It being Sunday, the bank was closed. We had no local currency and no way of getting any (really, we should have exchanged some Rand for Pounds Sterling in Cape Town, hindsight being 20/20 and all that; not that Pounds Sterling are the local currency, to actually buy anything on the island you need the thinly traded St. Helena Pound). But after two weeks of cooking onboard Mata'irea, a lack of local currency was not going to keep us from eating food that someone else made, off of plates that someone else had cleaned, even if we had to invite ourselves into someone's home to do it.

Jamestown is nestled in an ancient volcanic valley

The first restaurant we tried (Ann's Place) didn't take credit cards or dollars. Neither did the second (the Consulate Hotel). We were about to look for another option when the cashier called over the manager. When we explained that we were off a yacht and would be here for a week or so, she didn't hesitate to instruct the cashier to let us purchase our lunch on credit - the old fashioned kind where they keep your signed receipt as an IOU until you show up and pay it off (you know, like Mrs Ingles did at the Olsen's general store when she wanted to buy a bolt of calico for some dresses for Laura and Mary, which is, I believe, the last time anyone was extended store credit in the US). How kind. And what an insight into how things work in a small community where everyone knows everyone else, and where even transient yachties are still trusted to pay their debts before hauling up anchor and sailing away.

10 hours after we arrived, the RMS St. Helena nosed into the anchorage. The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) is this isolated island's lifeline to the outside world. It arrives every three weeks, loaded down with all the goods the islanders need to survive. There is no airstrip here, and although Britain promised the funds to build one years ago, they have recently reneged on their promise, so the only way to get goods to the island is via the RMS.

There are passengers on board as well, a mix of tourists coming to spend a few days away from the distractions of the modern world (approximately 1,200 tourists, including yachties but excluding the 8hr stops made by the odd repositioning cruise ship, visit the island each year, making it one of the most lightly traveled places in the world) and Saints (as the islanders call themselves) returning from jobs oversees. Wages on the island are so depressed that many Saints find it more financially advantageous to work off island, typically in the UK, Ascension Island or the Falklands. This is beginning to have a serious effect on the island's population. It is said that each time the RMS leaves the island, a family goes with it. Talk about brain drain.


From a purely selfish point of view, we are excited that the ship is in. Not only has it been fascinating to see how they unload the containers (by ships crane onto a variety of self propelled barges and old landing craft and then from their heaving decks to terra ferma via a seriously hazardous looking operation involving a shore crane), but by Tuesday the shelves at the half dozen stores on the island should be fully stocked and the fridges full of fresh(ish) produce from Cape Town. And hopefully we can stock up on some more of those sweet South African cherry tomatoes that we love so much.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Lovey place Saint Helena! My wife is a Saint, we were home for 6 months last year visiting family. How long will you be staying? I can get you a nice cup a tea! Guy and Doreen.