Monday, March 15, 2010

March 12, 2010 - St. Helena

This afternoon we cleared out of St. Helena and departed for Ascension Island. We are expecting to have an easy run and hope to be there in five days.

St. Helena has been a good, if pricey, place for us to wait for some wind for the 700 mile run to Ascension. Last week, a friend of ours sailed into the anchorage, snapped a few pictures, and kept going. His budget is really tight and after hearing from us what things cost on the island, he decided not to stop despite having been on passage for 18 days from Cape Town.

After three months of living in South Africa, where the dollar goes a long, long, long way, and the good life can be had for short, short money, it was a shock to our system to switch to the pound. When we exchanged money last week the rate was $1.62 USD to the St. Helena Pound (not the pound sterling mind you, though the two are exchanged at par value).

It cost us 55 pounds (28 pounds to immigration for a 10 day visa for each of us and 27 pounds to the Harbor Master for the boat), or a total of $90 to clear in here. That's one of the more expensive clearances we've done. If we hadn't had some proof of health insurance (our boat insurance provides us with some limited coverage), it would have cost us an additional few pounds per day to stay here. In addition, because there is no place to land a dinghy, we spent 20 pounds on the harbor taxi during our stay here.

One of our big expenses was internet access. Cable and Wireless has a monopoly on communications to and from the island. They provide satellite based broadband internet, but at a steep price. In St. Helena internet access costs 6 pounds an hour, or almost $10 an hour. Having fast wifi in the anchorage was too big of a temptation for us to resist. We would log on, open up a few pages, then quickly log off to read them. Even so, I'm actually too embarrassed to publicize much money we spent on internet here. But we did get our taxes filed and enjoyed reading the NYTimes over our morning coffee each day.

Other than veggies, fish and meat, we haven't done any provisioning here. Actually, despite the relatively cheap food prices, we didn't do all that much provisioning in South Africa either (other than replenishing our Diet Coke, wine and junk food supplies). We are still eating off of our dry goods and canned goods from our pre-Chagos, Malaysian/Thai provisioning, Shady Lady's 10 gallon bucket of flour, and the cases of tinned veggies we inherited from Muneera in the Seychelles. Before we left Cape Town Sten kept asking me if I was sure we didn't need to buy "___________" (insert whatever here) and I kept insisting that we had enough on board. So I was pretty embarrassed to find that we were running low on dish soap on the run here. And then a few days ago I realized that we only had two tins of diced tomatoes left and that we are completely out of Thai curry paste. I have a feeling we're going to be eating some pretty creative dishes on the run from Ascension to Barbados. The prices for everything in St. Helena (except fresh, locally-caught seafood) are roughly a third higher than in South Africa, so we've only been topping up our fresh stores here. And, um, buying two bottles of dish soap.

Where did the rest of our St. Helena Pounds go? The island tour that we did with Kieth was 15 pounds a person. We sent out 20kilos of laundry to Annie's Laundry at a cost of 20pounds. And we managed to eat at most of the dining spots in Jamestown - The Consulate Hotel, Ann's Place, Sally's Sandwich Bar, The Orange Tree, and the Coffee Shop, but none of those meals cost more than a few pounds. It must have been all those milkshakes from Sally's DVD Shop.

We didn't have to refuel, but other yachts who did found it cheaper and easier to buy diesel from Kieth, one of the water taxi drivers, than at the pump. He is able to procure it at the commercial rate of 170 pounds for 200 liters. He charges a 5 pound delivery fee for delivering it to your yacht and pumping it directly into your tanks. The fuel is reported to be very clean.

Continuing our tradition of traveling around the world, one grocery store at a time, here is a wrap up of the provisioning available in Jamestown:

Star, which stocks Spar (a South African grocery chain) products, carries some local veggies, but also carries imported fruit and veg. There is also a branch of Star on Ascension Island and we can only assume that is why we found some US brands like Ocean Spray and Charleston Chew (the world's greatest candy bar; seriously, try them frozen) at the Star on St. Helena. Star has its own bakery and we found the sandwich bread loaves at Star to be better than those at the Tea Shop and Bakery next door to Star.

The Tea Shop and Bakery, which is just up the hill from Star, produces several different kinds of loaves, rolls, baked goods and pizza bases. We liked the baguettes and other free-form loaves, but the sandwich loaves were really tough - almost as though they had been kneaded too long and the gluttens had been over stimulated. Sten, who is not a dainty guy, actually cut the crusts off of his sandwiches made from this bread. So come here for rolls and such, but go to Star for sandwich loaves.

Thorpes Market, which stocks Tesco (an international grocery chain) products, is the place to be on Thursday mornings for the best selection of local veggies. Be there by 8:45 or risk missing out. Actually, second only to getting to pet Jonathan the Tortoise, the Thursday morning mele at Thorpes was my favorite St. Helena experience. Saints and yachties start lining up out front of the grocery. Once the doors open, people calmly file inside, pick up a market basket, and head through the aisles to the courtyard behind the store. Everyone gathers in a ring around the edge of the courtyard, and with typical British patience, waits for crates of local produce to be unloaded, weighed and lined up in the center of the courtyard. Nobody (except one clueless yachty who quickly got told what for by an older Saint; and no, it wasn't me) touches a thing in the crates until the last one has been unloaded from the van parked out front. Both times I was there for it I missed the signal to begin. But the Saints know. All at once they dive into the crates with abandon equal to the restraint they showed before (the only time I've ever seen anything like it was the Running of the Brides at Filene's Basement). Broccoli and cauliflower go first. I've never cooked with either, but figured if everyone else was taking some, I should too. The only time I saw things get contentious was when the potatoes arrived. The Saints surged forward to get their hands on a bag (afterwards I learned that none had arrived on the RMS and that the next shipment wasn't due until late April, so there is currently a shortage of potatoes on the island). I wouldn't have had a chance at a spud if one of the shop girls hadn't passed me a torn bag with little new potatoes falling out of it. My second Thursday at Thorpes, I just stood back to watch the show for a few minutes before diving in.

Across the street from Thorpes, is Tinkers, which stocks frozen foods, imported eggs, cheese and butter, and local sausage.

The Growers Market, which is housed in a prefabricated cast-iron building shipped out to the island in 1865, has local veggies available every day, though the selection was more limited than what was available at Thorpes on Thursdays. Local eggs can be pre-ordered from the Growers Market. Don't count on them having any available otherwise.

Also in the same building as the Growers Market is the local fish shop. We found the locally caught wahoo and yellowfin to be very affordable. The local butcher is also located in the Growers Market building. It is open on Thursday mornings and Friday mornings. Best to get there by 8 on Thursdays and 9 on Fridays to be sure to get a chance at any nice cuts. We wound up buying stew meat with the bone in, which we turned into an incredibly rich beef stew, chock full of local carrots and potatoes.

There is another grocery up the hill from Thorpes, tucked down the next alley, that carries a slightly different selection of goods than the other stores. At this unnamed store (we're sure it has one, but without any sign outside, we've no idea what it is) Sten stooped to buying outdated beer. At half the price of the "fresh" beer, he couldn't turn it down. We've taken the Old Food Movement to a whole new level here folks.

Coffee has been grown on St. Helena since the 1730's. It has always been grown in small quantities, but in recent years production has fallen off steeply. In the few years since the Saints were re-awarded full British passports in 2002, the population of the island has been in freefall. Nearly half the island's citizens have moved overseas where they believe they have better prospects for employment and promotion than on the island. As a result, many of the coffee plantations on the island can no longer find people to pick beans. The St. Helena Coffee Shop, which is located on the harborside of the archway leading into town, is the only place we found to purchase shade grown, organic coffee beans that are selected and roasted on St. Helena. A 125g bag is almost as expensive as an hour of internet, but then the rarest coffee in the world should demand a premium, especially when it is this good. The Coffee Shop also does tasty pressed sandwiches and wraps and a decadent coffee frappe.

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