Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Stocks, and a Matter of Public Record

In the old days, if you were convicted of a crime one of the possible punishments was essentially public humiliation.  You wore your crime literally in public, locked away in a wooden crossbar with your transgressions on display.  People threw rotten eggs and produce at you.  This was the law.

Modernly if you live in British Columbia (for instance) the stocks still exist, only without wood or iron bars or any physical structure.  If you want to know someone's transgressions (at least their provincial ones) all you need to do is look them up in Court Services Online.

St Helena goes one step further.  As a part of the public service function they serve, the newspapers publish details of every criminal offence that happens on the island.  If you get into an argument with a police officer, if you're arrested for assault, if you shoplift a chocolate bar you will literally see your name in print (p22) in the next run of the newspaper along with a description of what happened.  People even go so far as to post editorial responses to the incidents to refute or argue with the crimes they're accused of, or to try to salvage their name or reputation on the island.

Besmirch your good name and absolutely everyone will know about it.  I was curious about what is culturally distinct about the island... the lack of secrets stood out almost immediately as one of the most profound differences, with far-reaching implications.

There is definitely more to learn about this place.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Saint Helena is described as an emerald cast in bronze for a reason.  The island is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge and is essentially the top of a dormant volcano.  The bulk of the volcano extends deep underwater, the highest rocky point of the island sits 850 metres above sea level.  Looking at the sheer cliffs from the water it looks brown and stony and desolate, and it would be difficult to imagine anything but more emptiness and desolation on the top of the island.

The top of the island is beautiful.  There's pasture land and great expansive plantations of New Zealand flax surrounded by un-tamed jungle.  If you look at the island from the top down it looks like a lush green space with a tiny rim of rocks around the edge.

The bronze part


The main city (and the only port) on the island is Jamestown (which you can see a bit of in that photo).  It's a crevasse where some of the volcanic cliffs give way to something that might barely be called a valley.  Within the first 100 paces of landing on the island I walked past a currently active jail that was constructed 300 years ago, walked past a church of roughly equivalent age, and walked through the gates of a city wall that once protected the military outpost on this key trading port from bombardment by cannon from the ocean.

On a cliffside to the right as you walk through the fortified gates is one of the "tourist attractions" of St Helena.  Jacob's Ladder used to be a slide where fertilizer was dumped downhill and goods were shipped uphill until the needs of the city shifted to foot traffic and someone turned it into a staircase.  699 steps climbs about 400 or 500 metres of elevation and the tourism office at the base will print you a certificate with the time that it took you to ascend and descend the steps.  I was a tourist and decided to give it a go.

... if you've been following this blog for awhile, you'll know that travel has been more complicated for me than I wanted it to be.  I've been able to distil meaning out of it but I've also got some hard feelings about getting sick everywhere I go, and about the particular flavour of experience that I've found in most every place I've been to.  I started climbing up this steep and challenging staircase...


To discover that the locals have inscribed country names on a significant number of steps on the staircase.  I found myself walking steadily uphill and feeling the burn in my calves and thighs and seeing the names of a hundred places I was curious about and didn't visit during this year off.

I made the decisions I made, and there's no un-making them.  My sabbatical is only 2 more months.   St Helena was always a symbol of this experience, it represents the pinnacle of my curiosity about how an isolated and difficult to reach place holds special interest for me.  It was meant to be one of many experiences where I walked into an emptiness that I was curious about and found something interesting - a difficult to achieve peak experience that I finally had the freedom necessary to create.

I arrived at the top of the staircase, 699 steps later, and took the 700th step.  The names of a hundred experience I didn't give to myself this past year came up the steps with me.  I have regret.  With how little this year has looked like what I originally had in mind, I believe I am human for having regret.  Watching the sun set from the emerald and verdant cliff top, looking down at a mountain of bronze, I also tasted a fragment of the experience I *did* set out to have.  I had (and have) sadness at the choices I made that took me away from this gift I was to give to myself, many times over the last year.  I looked at the profound beauty of the place that I was standing and felt deeply the curiosity I was just beginning to scratch about this incredibly isolated and tiny country.



Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes.

I went back down Jacob's Ladder.  I opted not to get a certificate from the tourism bureau.  I don't think I'll need help remembering that ascent, that descent, and everything that it meant to me.  I still had a whole island to explore.

~

(As an aside... the jail is little more than an oubliette.  There are no interior windows.  It's a 300 year-old dungeon made of dirty broken brickwork.  Those incarcerated there literally rot in solitude without access to daylight.  St Helena is not a place where you want to be convicted of a crime)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Insurance Claims in Nigeria

I met someone on the RMS St Helena who talked about an experience that he had while living and working in Nigeria.

He and a friend were hang-gliding or ultralight enthusiasts.  I can't remember which.  The two of them were on a Nigerian hillside, all set up and ready to go.  His friend went out, got caught in a gust and fell off.  He died on impact.  All of the normal challenges of losing a friend were present, but there was also something else that immediately set in as a gigantic problem.

At the time in Nigeria, if you die, ownership of your house transferred to the government.  The government was then responsible for selling your house and giving the proceeds to your family, according to your will.  I don't know if it is still that way, but it was at the time.

The complication was that when ownership transferred to the government upon your death so that the sale could be arranged, your family was no longer allowed to live there.  In the midst of confronting the shocking loss of a friend who had fallen out of his aircraft there was the immediately present reality that his wife and child would be evicted from their home and would be destitute, without access to any family property or assets for the foreseeable future.  The government takes its time selling properties, and often sells them far below their proper sale value... and sometimes the proceeds of the sale disappear into the grift of government.

This particular friend had a life insurance policy (which was the only thing that would rescue his family from destitute poverty in Nigeria), but the specifics of the policy didn't cover accidents of this type.

I listened to his story and imagined it.  Standing in front of the dead body of my friend, watching him pale and stiffen, reflecting on how the laws of the country and the specifics of his insurance policy would leave his family in financial ruin ... in Nigeria.  As dented as the social safety network in Canada is, in Nigeria if you fall from prosperity there is a much greater distance to fall.

He collected his friend's body and put it in the trunk of his car.  He took it to a hiking trail, and left it at the base of a cliff.  The family collected an insurance payment and left Nigeria, accepting the house as a loss.

Where I come from, I'm insulated from ever needing to make decisions like that.  I had the feeling from the sage nods and understanding murmurs of the group the story was told to that those people who've experienced life in Africa have much more direct experience with dilemmas like that.  It puts my first world problems in perspective.

Monday, 15 June 2015

(Not) Sleeping on the RMS

The RMS St Helena is posh, structured, and lovely.  The people here are helpful and the ocean is gentle.  The food is good quality and the tiny little container forces people to get to know each other and become friends.

That, and I can't sleep.  At all.

It may have something to do with the fact that although it's 5:00pm and the sun is setting, my body is still reasonably sure that it's 8:00 in the morning.  I've never experienced half a world of time zones worth of jet lag before.  It could be that this is exactly that, or it could be that this is something else.

This ship is small, but it's still giving up its little mysteries.  It probably seems so mysterious because I haven't had more than 3 hours of sleep in any given 24 hour period for most of a week.  I wander corridors filled with sparkly uniformed staff and the fresh smell of cleaning chemicals, and it seems like whenever I go around a corner I find someplace new.  There's a laundry room I just discovered.  I think I remember discovering it a few days ago but I can't remember, I haven't been sleeping.  I don't think I would know.

I walked up 3 flights of outdoor stairs and found the gym.  Nothing in the gym requires balance because the ship is constantly rocking back and forth.  If you tried to run on a treadmill you'd pitch into the window or the other equipment in 20 paces or less.


A gym with a view

Later.  It's 3:00 in the morning.  No one is here.  Only 3 crew are awake, and none of the passengers.  I may as well have the ship to myself.  It's less romantic than it sounds.  I'm tired and my body is angry at me, but I have both jet lag and knots inside my chest that I had when I left home.  I haven't been successful at untangling them.  I go down the steps from the gym and discover the lifeboats.  I discovered them a few days ago, but I'm in such a fog that they feel new.  I'm surprised to see them even though I've walked past them several times.  I look at them closely and am fascinated by the diagrams that explain how to use them.  I might do this again tomorrow and it will be just as new.  The forgetful are not necessarily blessed.



The cabin is a small windowless box with two bunks.  My bunkmate has relocated so I have the room to myself.  It rattles and shakes as if someone was running a gigantic diesel engine immediately underneath it.  This is because there's a gigantic diesel engine (two of them) immediately underneath it.  The screws that hold in the bolt lock are loose, because they've been shaken loose.  The screws that hold down the bunk are loose, because they've been shaken loose.  The pipes that lead to the sink rattle as if they were dice in a cup.  My room plays incessant craps all day, every day, and the rattling further frays my nerves as I lay in a bunk exhausted but unable to sleep.

All around me the ocean extends.  There's no way to reach out.  There's nothing to do, late at night.  The internet is inaccessible and even if there was such a thing as a telephone, there's no one awake on the West Coast of Canada that I can call.  All I have to do is wander and observe with surprise these things I've seen before but have forgotten, and wish for sleep.

It seems like when I go on an adventure I don't get the adventure I expected.  I didn't know what to expect, but insomnia probably wouldnt've been on my top 20 list of things.  This is a beautiful trip, the food is good, the culture is a strange mix of laid-back islanders going home in jeans and jerseys, businesspeople in collared shirts, and a tiny number of tourists who are almost as casual as the islanders.  We're all surrounded by cabin stewards and dinner service staff in naval uniforms with UK or St Helena accents.  If my cabin number wasn't printed on my key I would probably forget it, and wander the ship aimlessly.  This is a beautiful place made surreal by 21 hours of wakefulness and 3 hours of fitful sleep, each day, for days on end.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Very Posh RMS St Helena

The RMS St Helena is supposedly one of two remaining Royal Mail Ships, but in practical terms according to all of the crew and passengers that I spoke to, it's the only one that's truly accessible or truly close to the original experience of sailing on a Royal Mail Ship.  There's a second one, so I'm told, servicing a chain of small islands off a coast somewhere.  No one could tell me where.

.

Like a scaled down version of the Titanic, or some other last-century ocean liner


The smoke that comes from the central stack is diesel smoke and not coal smoke, but aside from that it could easily be a snapshot of a method of travel that's unknown in the modern era.  The crew all have Queen's English accents and wear snappy uniforms, the ship is owned more or less directly by the British Crown, and British naval terms creep into the lexicon and casual conversation of anyone wearing a white, well-pressed RMS uniform.

Saint Helena was discovered by the Portuguese and held as an incredibly important trading post by the East India Trading Company in the 17 and 1800s.  It was one of the scarce stopping points where sailing ships could restock with food and fresh water before continuing on to the far East.  It has a history steeped in the war of maritime nations, the creation and abolition of slavery, and the overseas power of the British government over the centuries.  The RMS is the only publicly available vessel that goes back and forth to the island, and has been for at least the last 70 years.  The residents of the island set their calendars by the arrival and departure of the RMS.  It's the only way to get the critically ill to a hospital, the only way to access any kind of tourism dollars, and is the origin of 90+% of the goods imported to an island that very literally has no economy of its own.

The RMS St Helena is a remnant of colonialism, and is a direct reflection of (and the lifeline to) the very isolated island of St Helena.  When we first sat down to lunch I couldn't help but notice an array of dishes and cutlery that I don't see in most fine dining restaurants.

See below for walkthrough...


The plate on the left for a bread roll, with the butter knife intended just for the bread roll.  The main plate, with the salad fork, main fork, main knife, butter knife and soup spoon.  The tablespoon, dessert spoon and dessert fork arranged above the main plate.  The upside-down water glass on the right, next to the empty wine glass.

In the era of my grandparents, knowing which fork was used for which course and being able to set a table like this was a symbol of upper class status.  You were one of the well-heeled and posh if you could set a table, or interact with a relatively dizzying array of utensils properly.  It's an obscure set of rules that exists almost exclusively as a way for people with the economic clout to own a thousand purposeless dishes (and re-wash them all after every meal) to demonstrate that they had the energy to waste on this symbol of upper class.

One of my shipmates commented "You're really impressed by this colonial etiquette," and I mentioned that impressed wasn't exactly the word that I would use.  It's a curious place to layer on so much etiquette.  The RMS is a functional vessel - most of the passengers that I'm sharing space with are employees of a construction company active on the island, businesspeople trying to find St Helena ahead of the tourism curve the new airport will undoubtedly bring, but only a dozen of the 100 people I'm sharing the ship with are going to St Helena for tourism.  None of us are on this ship exclusively for the ship itself.  There's a weird incongruence between the jeans and T-shirts and visible tattoos, the clearly visible absence of expectations of poshness and ponce from the passengers, and the very significant efforts of the crew to make the experience feel intensively "upper-class."

This is the last of the Royal Mail Ships for all intents and purposes.  Next year it will be decommissioned shortly after the first flights of the airport in St Helena - it will have a final sailing across the Atlantic and up the Thames and once it arrives in London it will be stripped down and sold for 4 million USD, give or take.  The vast majority of passengers here have no expectation of posh catered dinners or waiters with a white towel over their arms and yet the ship does it anyway.  This is a symbol of an empire, a colonial power that projected its stiff upper lip and class-structured mentality across the better part of the world.  The sun still never sets on the Empire that spawned this ship (currently thanks to the Pitcairn islands), and it seems at first glance like the upper-class posh naval feeling so carefully created on the RMS is more a projection of the remnants of an oceanic empire than it is for the benefit of the passengers.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Cape Town, on the first pass

Cape Town will be more than a stopover on the return trip, but for the moment it's very temporary.  Fried after 36 hours in airports, I went directly to the hotel from the airport and slept for 4 hours.  I spoke briefly with a friend and then slept for another 5 hours, just in time to get up and go to find the ship I would be sailing away on.

The first things I noticed about the Green Point area of Cape Town - everywhere has barbed wire, broken glass on the walls and electrified fences.  It's as if anything that resembles wealth is at immediate threat of violence, everywhere.  The streets have restaurants and attractions and they look busy and interesting, and two blocks away the streets are quiet and empty.  Every warning I've ever heard about keeping your eyes open in South Africa comes to mind.  One old acquaintance who grew up here assured me (and our group of friends) that South Africa would chew us all up and spit us out.  There are moments where I can't tell if I hear cicadas or electric fences in the background.

The ocean here is as salty as ever.  The smell of the place is unique.  The sunlight is beautiful, and occasional scattered rains remind me that in this hemisphere it's wintertime.  It's still as warm as summer in the Pacific Northwest.

As I clamber up into the RMS St Helena for the next leg of my trip, I look back at the city and realize there's a mountaintop directly next to where I was staying.  I was startled.  Somehow I managed not to notice the adjacent mountain during the cab ride to the hotel.  Table Mountain, it must be, the beautiful place I was told I had to hike while in Cape Town.  Literally it dominated an entire horizon and somehow I managed not to notice it at all until I was on the RMS sailing away.  36 airplane hours and many, many time zones, I can apparently miss noticing an entire mountain.

An hour later I'm well under way to one of the most remote places on the planet.  No cellphone reception, no internet, no access to the outside world.  If someone has a medical crisis the only way back to shore is to literally turn the ship around and make haste back to the mainland - nothing airborne can reach us.  The mountain I hadn't noticed is gone, and in its place is a 360 degree flat blue horizon.  I've been wondering what it's like in such a remote and difficult-to-reach place for a long time and this voyage is how I find out.  5 more days at sea, and I'll be on the island of St Helena.


Monday, 8 June 2015

The smell of South Africa

One place in the Green Point area is called Giovanni's.  They're a cafe and grocer and they make a mean espresso and chocolate croissant.  I don't know if it was mist or fog that covered the docks, but it slowly burned off as I walked towards the waterfront.  The area smelled more and more like the ocean, vaguely spoiled seaweed smells and all, only with a background note peculiar to this place.  At least I've never smelled another place like it.

If I ever smell that smell again it'll bring me back to Cape Town the way that smelling a particular creamed spinach brought me back to my week at Children's Hospital in grade 3.

I haven't really been to Cape Town yet.  I walked 100 paces along a portion of its length while trying to clarify where a particular dock and berth is located.  E Berth at Duncan dock is not East, it's on the West side of the dock (I think).  I'm about to walk there, right now.

It's 4am back home.  It's 1:00pm out here.  I'm about to board the RMS St Helena and experience isolation from the outside world.  I have to wonder if I'm going to meet a bunch of UK citizens who are lavished in finery and interested in having a gated community tour of the world.  Only one way to find out.