23.10.2008 - 30.10.2008
I will start this tale with a note that despite being aware that it might happen in a way, it is still very disconcerting to enter a new country (effectively), and before you have walked even 5metres, be accosted by some cousin who you have never even heard of before. Hello Faith! I am currently meeting/randomly bumping into cousins, often of whom I have only the vaguest idea who they are, at a rate of about 3 a day...
Your mission, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to eat variety, healthily, and cheaply.
St. Helena is an island of contradictions, and, to me at least, constant sources of amusement, bemusement or down right confusion. I am not, and never have been, a shopper (though admittedly, give me a good book or music store and I can easily lose hours). But in Jamestown at least, it is fast becoming a favourite past time. With few exceptions, shops are, erm, multi-purpose. Which leads to some brilliantly eclectic and often surreal shops. You never really know what will find next: A shelf of tinned fruit might be proceeded by spare car tires/wheels, and followed by shower curtains and weed killer. Even shops that are mostly concerned with a certain type of good, often have some extra bits for no discernible reason: One hardware store also stocks golden syrup, treacle and girls dresses, for example
Naturally, this leads to fun and games, as in addition to the vast variety of things on display, there is also a large aspect of treasure hunt-ing to most shopping. You know that you should be able to find something which fulfils your requirement somewhere even if you will end up using an item for something wildly differing from it's intended purpose. But exactly where to look first (and if you can get it on that day) remain beyond me at this point. For example, it took me a week to find anything vaguely resembling margarine, yet when i did it was almost a full fridge shelf full of Flora. It clearly was not produced on St. Helena, and as the boat hadn't arrived in that time with new supplies, it was obviously here somewhere. But where it came from/why it had been hidden until that point, I have no idea. I haven't seen a Kitchen roll since i've been here, but can buy Tesco reusable shopping bags despite the nearest Tesco being, probably, Bratislava.
I have never previously before been willing to spend a good 45minutes in the search for olive oil, just because I happened to overhear a fraction of a conversation which included news of a third party rumour that somebody had been told that a friend of somebody's brother had seen a cargo manifest which suggested that a small quantity might have just been unpacked somewhere from the last shipment. I mean, that number of people in a rumour is practically half the islands population. You also learn that bread can be got from Spar on Thursdays in vast quantities but then seemingly not again for a week; but from the bakery next door most mornings between 9.30 and 10.15 or 10.30 if you are lucky, and, allegedly on occasions (though never yet seen), in Thorpes.
As for fruit and veg, that's a whole different ball game. Certain items, such as cabbage, cabbage and cabbage seem to be constantly available. Other things such a potatoes and apples are available most days, especially if you are there early enough. Yet other fruit and veg retain a kind of elusive quality that the yeti has: Occasionally you will see something which might suggest that it was once there, but it sure a heck isn't still there now. I had that relationship with Bananas for a while - local bananas are small, absolutely delicious and grow in reasonably large amounts on the other side of the island, yet are elusive b*ggers in shops. I realised early on that the small market was a good chance and took to staking it out. Every morning I would go down and inquire, without success. Twice, I went there and was told i was too early, only to reappear 20 and 30mins later too be told I was too late. Eventually a cousin took pity and gave me a small stash from their own supply. To this day I haven't seen one for sale, despite virtually everybody seemingly having some around. I have thus far managed to acquire only a single tomato (and now wished I had taken a photograph of it as proof) which came a similar way, though I later cracked up the girl in the excellent local sandwich shop (a cousin, naturally) by spying a load chopped up and changing my order to a tomato sandwich with extra tomato.
It was not a cheap sandwich.
I harvest small yet tasty and potent chili's from both my own garden and a public garden down the road, though mushrooms and onions are now just fading memories, and as for fresh milk, that is just a sad tale of EU beaurocracy having (presumably) un-forseen circumstances.
As those more experienced readers (yes, ok, i do mean old) may remember, a good few years ago, the EU brought in rules that said that all milk that was to be sold had to be pasteurised. This was heavily fought by small farmers throughout the UK and France, at least, who argued that the cost of the required equipment was prohibitive and they would be forced to stop producing milk if it was brought in, as indeed happened. St. Helena were not able to get an exemption, and the British government declined to provide a subsidy on the grounds that it would discriminate against other British farmers who could not get such a subsidy for the equipment. The result being that all farmers on the island were forced to stop producing milk, and it is now (that I am aware of, anyway) not possible to purchase fresh milk anywhere on St. Helena.
Having said, contrary to UK law you can still smoke more or less wherever you want, and 'Best Before Dates' are almost entirely there for comedy value. In the UK (and, i'm sure, under EU law), stuff which is close to, or after it's sell by date gets increasingly heavily discounted and thrown away within a few days or week of it passing its date. Here, it's not even particularly hard to buy stuff where the best before was in 2007...
Prices are also interesting, to say the least. Obviously, the island has to either produce or import everything it needs via the single ship that serves the island. And importing stuff by boat obviously adds dramatically to the costs which have to get passed on to the consumer. Stuff coming from South Africa is generally cheaper than stuff which comes from the UK, but not always. Thus, a packet of value spaghetti which in the UK would cost about 20p, costs £1, and a pack of frozen peppers which might cost 99p or £1.50, costs over £4, and i can get two different sizes of cans of cokes, but not a bottle of any size whatsoever. I can get Duracell batteries for maybe half their price of Europe, despite the fact that they have been imported from Europe, whereas a box file that you might get in WHSmith for £1 costs almost £10, and deoderant is much cheaper than Europe. South African eggs, bizarrely, are cheaper than local ones, though I did make the mistake of asking for 8slices of local bacon to subsequently discover they cost me 53p a slice (though admittedly they are big fat juicy rashers). Alcohol is also cheap: A beer in a pub will cost you only 90p-£1.20 the same as in the supermarket, though there is no draught beer on the island (I have heard rumours of a small country bar which does, but think it is just that. A rumour) and variety is distinctly lacking - I can't even find a can of Guinness, which is unusual. A Whiskey or Gin and Tonic in the local pub, using imported British gin, is 90p. In the UK, you pay more than that just for the tonic water.
The whole pricing structure is just bizare and you really have to watch what you pick up in case it accidentally costs you a fortune. And yet despite all that, I can still amble down to the excellent Anne's place near the harbour, where the lovely proprietors, Anne's son Richard and his wife Jane (naturally, more of my cousins) can sell a huge T-bone steak, a mound of chips and a pile of salad for a fiver, and at lunchtime, the same but with 2 or 3 big chunks of Tuna, Marlin or Wahoo for only £3, and still, somehow, make a profit. That same amount fish in the local shop - when available - would cost more than that.
It all just adds to the fun