Wednesday, April 27, 2016

St Helena

 The water surged up, carrying the small yellow boat closer to the concrete pier that was brushed by rough orange ropes that hung down. My legs were a bit wobbily after nine days at sea, but I managed to avoid getting splashed. Visitors to the island for decades had been brought ashore at this pier, and swung on the ropes, Tarzan-like, ashore. Some avoided the cool blue water with ease, but some like one Governor to the island, were dunked merrily and pulled ashore by laughing St Helenians, or Saints, as they call themselves.

This island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is wonderfully bizarre. The main town is Jamestown, and its quaintly rundown shops and houses are reminiscent of seaside town in a British soap opera. The town is situated in a deep valley, with three ways out. A winding one-lane road up either side, and Jacob’s Ladder, a 689 step staircase that climbs at an almost vertical angle up one side of the valley. Kids used to forgo the necessity of climbing down by hooking their knees over one railing, and hooking their arms over the other, and sliding all the way down.

The climate and landscape of the island changes dramatically from one end to the other. Lush rolling hills (complete with sheep, donkeys, and cows) are studded with tall trees and picture perfect farms and tiny cottages. Drive for ten more minutes, and the greenery gives way to vibrantly coloured sand stone, and dusty desert where low to the ground gum trees reside.

wine at Napoleon's House Longwood
The one thing that doesn’t change is the delightfully friendly Saints, and their absolutely incomprehensible accent. It is considered unspeakably rude, if one does not wave as they pass other cars, and people always stop and say hello on the streets. One of our new local friends told us about the ‘gang’ of boys in Jamestown, that she had heard about from an older lady. “How do you know they’re up to no good?” we asked. “Well”, she said, mock seriously, “they don’t wave when they’re coming down Ladder Hill!”

The one time that it’s considered acceptable to let go of manners, is when the vegetable shipment comes in. The grocery shop becomes a free for all, and everyone quickly snatches up whatever fresh food they can get their hands on. Once upon a time, the island was filled with farms that grew pomegranates, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and greens. Now, they rely on the ship that comes every three weeks that brings exorbitantly priced withered apples and the rare packet of broccoli.

This island is filled with simple, strange wonders, from the neatly lettered sign that points down a small track to ‘Fairyland’, to the ordinary boulder, that when struck, produces a clear, metallic ring and is known as the ‘Bellstone’.

On Saturday, we found our way to the St Helena donkey sanctuary, where I walked an unruly baby donkey past deep valleys and past dainty churches. It was a lovely walk, filled with donkey cuddles, and beautiful scenery. At the end, the fuzzy little thing butted against me in a donkey kiss.

We were taken by a guide to visit Jonathan the tortoise, the island’s oldest resident. Jonathan, we were told, had recently been given his first wish. But apparently there was a lot of controversy, as this was actually Jonathan’s second wish. I was curious as to what a tortoise might wish for. Lettuce? More lettuce? I didn’t know. Finally, after getting the guide to repeat it many times, we realized he was saying wash. The local newspaper had mentioned Jonathan getting a polish, in preparation for Prince Edward’s upcoming visit. The Prince is visiting to celebrate the opening of the airport, which is a tremendous occasion for the island. Until now, the only way to get to and from the island was by the RMS St Helena, the only Royal Mail Ship still running. Now, one flight a week will hopefully bring more tourists to this remote paradise.

I’m looking forward to the rest of our time spent here, and also the rest of the Atlantic crossing.