A Travellerspoint blog

November 2008

Home is where the insects roam

As I sit here in pitch blackness pondering my surroundings, I make a small mental note: next time, idiot, remember where you left the torch! I had been merrily minding my own business one evening when after a couple of small spikes, the power died. After (eventually) finding the torch with nothing worse than a spilt cup of coffee, a stubbed toe and a loud squige-ing noise as I stepped on something which had previously been alive but now require a clean up operation, I decided to give in and go to the pub.

Chunks of Jamestown were blacked out, but it was very much at random. Some buildings seemed fine whilst others (and some street lights etc) were in complete darkness. Power outages are not, thankfully, a regular occurrence, but they do seem to be afflicted by events that seem trivial: It was reported that the outage had been caused by a bird flying into something it shouldn't have, and some insulation which had been attacked by an unknown animal over the course of few weeks. And with that, the Island descended to darkness.

With everything relying on small systems, slight maintenance can cause larger problems: Radio St. Helena, for example, the government owned of our two radio stations, went off air for 36hours due to 'essential maintenance', though at least we were warned in advance.

I am living in a small rented apartment, close to the centre of town, and perfect for my needs. It is traditionally arranged (for St. Helena) meaning that none of the rooms connect, so I have to go outside to go to the kitchen or bathroom. I have a patio area, and a nice bit of garden which seems a magnet for wildlife.

As well as the inevitable mosquitoes - luckily in fairly small numbers so far at least - I am plagued by surprisingly vicious hordes of ants that I have to evict every couple of days and who seem to use my outside light as their own private death machine, feasting on the moths and other creatures that are attracted to it at night. There are a number of reasonably size cockroach type things that appear in evenings, and if I suddenly turn on my outside light, I can often see (and hear) some scuttling away: One who somehow ended up on his back on my porch was at least 20cm in length, whilst i spent 2 hours one night trying to find and evict a smaller (but still decent sized) one from my bedroom after he scuttled in when I went to the toilet. Fairly large and dopey bluebottles congregate around my kitchen in early evenings, whilst less than an hour ago I went into the bathroom and discovered a large-ish lizard on the wall. I'm not sure which of us was more surprised to see the other, but neither of us was expecting the other, that much is certain. Smaller lizards are also common in the evenings, and I have also been visited by a couple of long millipede type creatures of a type that are fascinating though previously unknown to me.

There are a number of cats around, including one inquisitive kitten that enjoys playing in my garden at night and climbing up to the balcony of the upstairs apartment. I like cats, but must admit to being slightly freaked by this particular one to begin with: late in most evenings i would hear fairly substantial rustlings outside in the garden, but could never see what it was - even if I tried to surprise it by suddenly illuminating the place. I had guessed it was a small mammal, and most likely a cat, but it seemed to be making allot of rustlings and sounded significantly bigger than it was. Whilst I know there are no bears on the island, my wonderful imagination had more or less concluded that the amount of noise made must have been a bear or more likely,a pair of them - or perhaps an angry elephant, who knows? - before I (happily) finally discovered one night that it was a kitten, when he decided to be sociable and pawed on my door a bit meowing to say hello.

During the day I watch the birds come and go, including 3 who I have come to recognise (one is easy, as he has no left foot, whilst one of the other 2 is a definite bully) and are have little enough fear of humans to come within half a metre or so of me, even when I am not being perfectly still. Indeed, they will happily wander into my bedroom or kitchen if i leave the door wide open (as I often do) and are not paying allot of attention. And at dusk there is an hour or so that I have always really liked, of utter mayhem, where you hear a vast cacophony of bird noises right across town as they all retreat back to their trees and nests for the night.

Being at home here is much more interesting here than in Sweden where apart from the damned mozzies, pretty much the only wildlife that would visit were drunk friends, acquaintances and friends of acquaintances, normally between the hours of 1.30 and 4am on Saturdays and Sundays.




Posted by Gelli 07:46 Archived in St Helena Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Initial impression thing-a-me-jigs


With apologies for the sudden delays in getting updates up. I have several ready to go, but am experiencing technical issues. Hope to start getting the rest posted soon-ish.

The strangest thing about this, I have realised, is that everybody speaks English. That might sound an odd comment I accept: it even took me a few days to realise it myself and then break it down. But it does actually kind of make sense. I am British, have been living abroad for some time, and have been lucky to spend a vast chunk of my life travelling both extensively and frequently. Yet despite large chunks of the world speaking English, with the exception of assorted trips to Ireland (which as I have always been there from/via the UK, I almost subconsciously class it as not being foreign, as there is no immediate jump) I have never been to any of them. Yes i've been to places where everybody speaks English (heck, I live in Scandinavia), or there are lots of native speakers around (such as travelling through Vietnam), or it's the official language (such as Pakistan), but in all of them there is a large amount of other languages being spoken/on signs that you see to give your senses at least some regular foreign input. Basically, I seem to have discovered that to me at least, subconsciously (yoikes. second time. This is very worrying) at least, travelling anywhere - especially when you have been travelling for two weeks - equals "foreign" and at at least semi exotic, as much as Belgium can ever really be semi exotic! That is not meant to sound a bad thing: I love the generic 'foreign' that I have used here, and have absolutely no plan, desire or wish to ever live in the UK ever again. Yet, for whatever reason, I just wasn't quite ready to travel so far and for so long just to hear everybody speak English. It sounds bizarre, and I really can't explain it, but on one level it has utterly confused me.

Now that I have been here a few days [OK, by the time it's gone online it is almost 4weeks, i'm sorry], and have had time to fully comprehend that, it's probably time for me to offer you some thoughts and observations of this wonderful and wacky island.

This really is an innocent place!

I really should apologise for the delay in recent updates, for which I can partly blame a small technical issue on my front and then having to do some actual w*rk for a while, but is essentially due to the fact that i've been having far too much fun doing other thing, and meeting so many new relatives that sitting and typing is one of the last things I have been inclined to do.

The first thing that has struck me is just how damned green this place is. On arrival, all you see is the foreboding rocky-ness of James Valley, and these stark valley sides are in part of my normal mental picture of the island: I knew that it was not all like this, but was still stunned by just how lush and green (of numerous different shades) that the island is. Admittedly even the locals say that it is unusually green due to it being a very wet winter, but even so. The Island is also supremely mountainous, with barely a level piece of ground anywhere at all, and again, i'm not sure that I had previously realised just how much up and down there was (as opposed to just ups).



It really is a green island

Of course getting around island means basically using a car (bicycles are banned from many roads, especially downhill roads and those into Jamestown), and the roads here are fun. Almost all are not only single lane with passing places, but also supremely winding, often virtually enclose by huge plants and trees, and involving constant hairpins and steep inclines, many of which have 15-20%+ gradients. Driving here is fun though not so great for cars: Speed limits are low and the nature of the roads mean that using 3rd is a rarity, and 4th a virtual impossibility, whilst engines face allot of revving and first and second gears and clutches get knackered much quicker than they would anywhere else. The delights of having to reverse uphill in the pitch black of night, around a blind hairpin on a 20% slope and with a sheer drop to one side, in order to try and allow a truck to pass is something I could happily do without again!


One of the three roads out of Jamestown, though the least well used. You can't really tell from this angle, but the top section - where the car is - is almost a 25% incline, and (below), one of the flatter roads on the Island, heading up out of town from lower Jamestown towards General Hospital and Ladder Hill


The people are also stunningly friendly: to the casual and short term visitors of course, but once they realise you are one of them (and I haven't come across a single islander yet who isn't friends with at least one of my cousins and knows at least a few more), they open up even more. To somebody more used to European isolation, it is both heart warming and slightly unnerving. If you went up to a stranger on a high street in Europe and just started saying hello to everybody, people would start avoiding you as a weirdo, and chances are, you would be arrested not long afterwards. Here, the opposite is true. If you don't say hello to everybody, they consider you very strange indeed.

Having said all that, despite the fact it being so safe that people routinely leave their front doors unlocked and keys dangling in car ignitions, it is also a slightly dangerous place: Alcoholism is rife, and I have witnessed more fights and scuffles (almost all alcohol related) in my first couple of weeks - in evenings - than I have done in a long time. It is also, depressingly, surprisingly litter strewn. Even half way up mountains you will find litter, including the ubiquitous Namibian beer bottles. In somewhere so small and friendly, I find the constant litter very sad.


But the Island really, really, really is green. And absolutely stunning.





Parts of the town also have such an old colonial feel as to make you think you are living in a time warp: In some respects it still kind of feels and looks like the 1950s, whilst such fading memories of half-day Wednesday and Sundays where absolutely everything save churches and a pub are closed. Indeed on Sundays, Jamestown can almost look like a ghost town. The eclectic selections of music on the two local radio stations also work to add to that feeling. Both have announcements which can resemble BBC radio from years past, and include a hugely unpredictable and very odd selection of things, which make you realise just how small and close knit the community is: Would Mrs Smith of Levelwood please photo 1234 before 3pm to arrange to collect her laundry. If anybody is in the neighbourhood, could they tell Mr Jones that one of his goats is currently walking down the road towards St. Paul's. The Chairman would like to remind all [12] members that the annual meting of the association of bee keepers will be held tonight. The Rose & Crow would like to announce that it now has mauve coloured Dulux paint, curly-wurleys and dresses for girls aged 3-7 for sale. And so on. And then there is the music - whilst a surprisingly large range of genres and artists is played, there is also a huge underlying love of country music, especially older stuff, which to many outsiders (and I include myself here) is one of the most baffling things about the St. Helenian lifestyle.

But (ignoring the Country Music, which in such quantities is still a strange thing to me) all those things help make the Island what it is, and I truly love it. And perhaps most importantly - and I have checked this at every possible source - there is no Kiki here, and if for no other reason I will happily put up with all the country music required. So, who fancies some Conway Twitty?


Above, this is the Castle, home to the St. Helenian government, and open to anybody that wants to wander in, whilst below, Main Street and the town centre on a Sunday, when there is virtually nobody about at all

For some reason, I doubt you would see a sign similar to this on a shop on most High Streets in England any more. Oh, for more innocent times...

Posted by Gelli 09:34 Archived in St Helena Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

You say tomato, I say "where?!!!!"

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

Posted by Gelli 14:55 Archived in St Helena Tagged food Comments (1)


Those of you that have the dubious 'privilege' of knowing me personally will probably be aware that i've never been the most 'home' like of people. Home, though meaning many different things, has always been a slightly strange concept to me (as in the 'it's good to be home' or 'I've been too long now, and want to go home' type of home). I seem to have collected the nomadic/itinerant wanderer gene somewhere along the line: For years when people have asked where home is - if i've actually answered - i've always answered my rucksack: the reasoning being that it's the one constant in my life, so the most home-y thing to me. Whilst i'm comfortable in most places, i've never really felt 'at home' or as though I belong, anywhere, and normally only feel anything vaguely home-y-like when i'm on the move. DB (German Railways) night trains feel more like home to me than Kristianstad, for example, even though i've been theoretically living there for lat six years. I've never had a problem with any of that at all, though accept that as I speed through the years, in non 'core' travel circles, that actually does sound increasingly - and quit e possibly is - very sad.

So you might be surprised to hear that I have been referring to St. Helena as home. I first realised it about 4days before we arrived, when i heard myself say to somebody - i forget who, so I have no idea if they were islander or tourist - "don't worry, it's only 4 days til we're home". I remember having an almost out of body experience after where i kind of argued with myself about what I had said. "Home?!!" I kind of shrieked to myself "what the heck do you mean home?!". Eventually i put it down to whiskey, and decided to ignore it.

But I could do that no more when i said something similar a day later, except with the wording 'Only three days and then I'll be home' was much more personal. At that point, i had to stop and think. Home? St.Helena?! Me??! For all the links that i have there, i couldn't for the life of me understand how the heck I was referring to some tiny lump of rock, 3 days away, which I had never even seen before let alone visited, and didn't even really think even existed, as home. It's not even as if i even have strong current links there: True, my grandmother was born there, but she left in 1947 and has never been back. Yes, she has a brother there that i've never met, but then then again we've had very little to do with her other siblings and their families, even though they live in England (and Ireland) so it can't be that. And whilst my parents talk of it with great pleasure, they have only visited once, for 3 weeks, and over 30years ago. They also talk of Cornwall and even Merthyr Tydfil in such terms. And that sure as heck doesn't make it 'home' for me. Or perhaps it does. Who knows? Honestly, I have no idea, except that i seem to be getting old and increasingly senile, and if Kiki finds me here, i really am royally screwed. Perhaps it is home.


I suppose I have 4 months to work that out.

Posted by Gelli 14:20 Archived in St Helena Comments (1)

It exists!

Arriving at the mythical (well, to me) Island of St. Helena

semi-overcast 23 °C

I have been hearing about St. Helena for all of my life, yet for some reason, i've always kind of felt it was some kind of mythical place. Like Atlantis, Eldorado and Bognor Regis. Somewhere that you always hear of, and sometimes even look for, but never seem to find; somewhere so small and far away that it probably doesn't exist and is just there as a bit of filler for cartographers (yes, i'm a cartographer). And If i'm honest, despite always wanting to, I don't think i actually expected to ever get here. What I expected to happen on the boat, i'm not sure - perhaps the crew would announce that, sorry, they can't find it for some reason, or "it was definitely here last time" and then just continue to Cape Town. I really don't know.



It really, REALLY, does exist!

Look! Land!

It's definitely land. I think i've actually made it

The officers on the bridge guiding us into the Jamestown anchorage

In true British fashion, the rain and clouds came out to meet us (yes, it is a tropical Island in early summer...)

This sign painted on the side of a path wall near Mundens Point says it all - our arrival was the first contact/delivery from the outside world that the Island had had for almost six weeks

Who says there is no air travel on St. Helena...

The first group of passengers leave the ship

St. Helena's capital, Jamestown, from the anchorage with Jacob's ladder going up the hill on the right hand side

Look, 29 years later and I'm actually here!!!

Bye-Bye RMS St. Helena

On dry land, the mythical island of St. Helena

Yes, I'm finally home :)

Posted by Gelli 04:30 Archived in St Helena Comments (1)

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