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)

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