You Don’t Know the Davids?

On St Helena, more so than I have encountered elsewhere, families, and, ex-pat families in particular, are referred to collectively by their surnames. We, of course, are The Tyson’s, there are the Day’s, The Durkin’s, The Grahams, The Hannah’s and so on and so forth. Couples however do not get that treatment, they are referred to by first name, but always together, Sam and Paul, Ian and Tina, and of course there are the individuals, Jon, Christine, Lisa and Heidi, and many many others.

And so it was that on Friday we headed down to the Coffee Shop, the waterfront venue for a weekly wake of sorts, where people gather to say their goodbyes to friends, families and loved ones leaving the Island. We went to say good bye to Lisa and Keith, Heidi, Christine, Felix and the Hannah’s. It is a strange affair which, for many Saints, is a very very sad moment, saying goodbye to family members as they move abroad, to Ascension, Falklands or the UK to find work, often not returning for many years. For others it is an opportunity to show respect, for a work colleague who has completed their contract, who has made a difference and a positive change to the Island, one who will be missed professionally as well as personally.

For me, the regular goodbyes at the St Helena coffee shop mark an odd passing of time. They are sad and sombre affairs that force one to reflect on the limited amount of time we have here, the finite nature of our new life, one that does not sit within the realms of reality, but instead is a precious dream, that we will wake up from all too soon. Friday’s Coffee Shop breakfast was important for a number of reasons, saying goodbye to Heidi, a nurse who was on a short-term contract and who has touched many people in her time here. Making huge changes in the Hospital in terms of staff training and moral, but also touching people with her kind nature and good heart. Heidi has a way of making you feel like part of an extended family, like we have known her for years, she will be missed.

It was also important as we said a temporary goodbye to the Hannah’s, and her Ladyship, Christine. Those of you who have stuck with me from the start will know that Christine and the Hannah’s travelled to St Helena with us, on the same voyage aboard the RMS St Helena. They are now returning to the UK for their mid-term break, something that we will be doing in just three weeks’ time. How we have reached the halfway mark already I have no idea. I look back with great fondness at our first meeting at Cape Town Airport. Other St Helena bound people were easy to spot once we had passed through customs, looking tired, bewildered, and with the same “I wonder if they are going to St Helena” look about them. The people I met then, are not the friends I have now, it’s like we were different people, tentatively approaching each other, asking who, how and why type questions and building the first bricks of friendship.

Also on the RMS with us were the David’s. They were a step ahead of us, and, along with the Day’s, were returning to the Island following their own mid-term breaks. They proved to be a fountain of knowledge and great friends, we shared our Christmas with them, and many happy memories, but alas like others before the David’s had to leave. For me, St Helena is not the same without them but for others, it is no different, for others, the David’s mean nothing, they did not have the privilege of spending time on the Island with them. The Lockley’s bought a trampoline from “someone called the David’s?”, Heidi, whom we said goodbye to this week, does not even know them. How can you not know the David’s? The Day’s leave in three weeks, we are lucky to be sharing their final journey on the RMS with them, a time will come when we return in September where we will meet people who never met the Day’s, and so it will be that the Tyson’s will also disappear from the memories, the radio shows, the newspaper pages and the world of St Helena.

St Helena has a way of making celebrities out of people. People with influential jobs, big personalities, or who involve themselves with everything, quickly become known, become talked about. But they will pass, they will become another ex-pat who came and went, that will be talked about no more. But of course, there are those who are not transient, the Saints. For Saints this is not an adventure, it is not an experience something to add to their life CV. It is not a fantastic dream that they will wake up from, it is life. We make efforts to make friends with Saints, and by all accounts, we are doing ok, but it is important to remember that they have friends, and families, they don’t need us in the way that we need them. Making friends with Saints here is part of the experience, to get to know the true nature of a place you must get to know its people. That is not to say the friendships are not genuine, we have met some lovely people whom I undoubtedly class as friends, but the Saints have seen it all before. They have seen people like me come and go, time and time again. They somehow, in the face of it all, remain friendly, and in the main their affections are genuine, their smiles and waves carry meaning. But we will never be “one of them” how can we be. All Saints know that sooner or later, we will leave. For some, the hurt of losing good friends over and over causes them to hold something back, not friendship, but perhaps love. And who can blame them, we may make friends, but we are unlikely to become loved ones.

And so as I looked around at the Coffee shop, I wondered who would be there to say good bye to the Tyson’s in twelve months. Would people think fondly of us, will we of made a difference. Will people on Saint Helena remember us when we are gone, will we leave behind friends or even loved ones, and will there be anybody left at the Coffee shop, in July 2016 as we say our goodbyes, who will even know the David’s?

To keep their memory alive and well here is my little photo montage of our good friends, the David’s

 

The Best Yet

I pointed my torch upwards, my hand above my head as I watched the bubbles dance and flash in the beam of light. We broke the surface to the sound of gasps, a short silence was quickly broken by chattering’s of delight after what was, to all of us, an amazing experience. As I look at a solitary star breaking the cloud we head back to shore, the excited conversation fuelled by our shared experience and a degree of cold chattering.

Night diving is a unique experience, the lack of sound, tunnel vision and inability to communicate makes diving a very insular personal experience at the best of times. As you descend into complete darkness, the sound of your own breathing is all you can hear, the flash of torches around you all you can see, night diving is on a whole new level of alone in your own thoughts.

A group of eight descended together at Long Ledge, a slowly descending wall of rock running perpendicular from St Helena, and home to one of the most diverse dive sites on the Island. Only my second night dive I could feel my rapid breathing, as I keep a very close eye on my dive buddy, and for today, dive leader Ross. The advanced dive book tells me it is important to keep in close contact with your buddy on a night dive, but in reality, the light from a torch, in complete blackness can be seen from a long way away. Nevertheless I maintained eye contact as we descended slowly, the bottom of the ocean only revealed as my torch beam moved across the blackness like a search light looking into a night sky.

Once at the depth of our dive, the group re-convened before moving off. Following our pre-dive briefing and having dived the site before, I knew we were heading towards a cave. The experience is surreal; you concentrate on the small circle of light from your dive torch, black all around with the exception of the other search lights moving like a disco glitter ball all around you. Like a moth I am drawn to my own beam of light, drifting off into my own world I forget about the world around me, my breathing disappears into my sub conscious and all that exists in the world is the flash of colourful fish, or ghostly elongated worms that sway in the swell. My dream state is broken by the waving of light in front of my eyes, my buddy checking I am ok and still with the world I give the typical “ok” hand signal before we move on together into the mouth of the cave.

At the mouth of the cave the bright white light of my buddy’s torch lands upon a huge red octopus, startled by our appearance his colour and texture flash and change as he decides his next action, take off and jet propel away, or camouflage and slowly slink off into the gloom. Wracked with indecision he sits, motionless, waiting for his new and unexpected adversary to make its move.

As we move into the cave it is narrower than I remember, the spot light of my torch brings the walls and ceiling in around me. I’m very conscious of my breathing now, knowing that a deep inhale will result in my head crashing into the delicate and beautiful sun corals clinging to the roof of the cave, whilst a sudden exhale will result in my stirring up the silt and mud on the cave floor, reducing visibility to zero. Crayfish are now all around us, the bright orange back drop of coral broken only by armies of crayfish, moving backwards and sideways but always with a gaze fixed upon us.

My dive buddy has bright yellow fins, a good job as otherwise I am clueless as to which light in the dark I should be staying in contact with, but the experienced leader knows where I am, and gives reassuring checks whenever he can get my attention. We move out of the cave and along the wall of Long Ledge. I have been here before, many times, but today the wall is bigger, it grows upwards and disappears into the haze. Now at 19m my torch will not reach the top of the wall, it goes on forever into the gloom. Its crevices and cracks are populated with black feather stars, twisting turning and waving their spider like arms in the current catching particles of plankton drifting in shore. Fish, startled by our lights dash from hole to hole, the sleep disturbed by these inconsiderate light bearers.

As I look closely at the wall, I see two small lights shining right back at me. Tiny and insignificant I am drawn towards these lights, until the twinkling becomes the reflective eyes of bright red dancing shrimp. Slipper Lobster are now dashing across the sand bed at the base of the wall, and a giant crayfish feeds obliviously on a nearby rock. I approach cautiously, resting my arms on the sea bed just behind the distracted armoured soldier. His foot long antennae brushes my arm and the crayfish realises he is not alone. With a flick of his tail he shoots backwards and is gone.

Following Ross’s lead we turn back, retracing our fin strokes back along the wall, when suddenly our path is veering off, into the black, featureless sand beds nearby. I look around, and others are following, so I trust that we are going the right way and after what seems like forever, time having been lost along with the sunlight, we stop. With some confusion I find myself turning off my torch, clearly the instruction Ross is giving. As they arrive others do the same, albeit with a good degree of “what on earth” going through people’s minds. Then, with a large swish of his arm we understand in an instant what we are doing sat in the dark. As we all start to flail our limbs frantically we see bioluminescent bacteria all around us. The absolute black is broken only by the twinkling of glitter all around. I wave my arms like a small child, mesmerised and delighted with a feeling of shear exhilaration. I imagine myself in a snow globe, a black one. I know of nothing around me, I feel claustrophobic but giddy; I am in a dream world. I do not know where any of my dive group are, I do not know which way I am facing, and only the sand at my feet gives away my orientation. I know that at some point a bright blinding torch light will come on, and my snow globe will be shattered, but for now I am alone, all around me is indescribable flashes of glitter and light and time passes beyond meaning.

Inevitably a light is turned on, and the group follows, I take comfort that I hadn’t just been left alone in the darkness and we set off back towards Long Ledge. I have no idea which way to go, but I follow the light and yellow fins of my buddy, trusting he knows more than me. As we journey back to our start I see more octopus, twirling ghostly worms, slipper lobster and armies of crayfish. Checking my air I start to think we must be reaching our ascent point. I suddenly see the light of Ross’s torch frantically waving in my eye line. As I turn round a huge white ghost appears out of the distant gloom. Slowly, and purposefully the ghost becomes reality as I realise that a huge green turtle is swimming purposefully, determinedly, toward me. My heart stops as he swims close by, his colours lost as he appears white in our torch lights. By now the group is all around, lights all fixed on the turtle as is slowly twists and turns around us. As it passes by my, I could touch, but I don’t. I remind myself of what I learnt in my theory course. You do not touch the marine life, I think about what the rest of the group will think should I stretch out my arm, just to see, just to touch.

After several minutes he swims upwards and away, a few of us swim alongside for a while. His scale now becomes apparent as a grown man swims alongside and looks small, insignificant compared to our ghostly companion. I have seen Green Turtles before, but this was huge. The largest Green Turtle recorded was 5ft long, but I’m convinced this was longer, its huge shell carried upon his back.  As he swims we lose touch, unable to keep up, but like a petulant child attempting to make us play by his rules, he instantly misses the companionship and turns heal right back toward the group.

Before deciding to take a rest on one of the dive group’s knees, the turtle swims toward me once more. This time I have no choice, he swims right into me, his huge fin pushing down against my side as if to play with me. As I reach out my arm and stroke the length of his smooth shell I think about what the others might think, and then I think, “I just touched a Sea Turtle” who cares!!!

As quickly as he arrived our new friend has gone. Looking at our now depleted air we start our ascent. After a safety stop I point my torch upwards, my hand above my head as I watched the bubbles dance and flash in the beam of light. We broke the surface to the sound of gasps, a short silence was quickly broken by chattering’s of delight after what was to all of us an amazing experience. As I look at a solitary star breaking the cloud we head back to shore, the excited conversation fuelled by our shared experience and a degree of cold chattering.

We sip soup as we return to James Bay, grateful to be warming up. But my heart is already warm. They say that happiness is based on collecting experiences, not material goods. This was an experience, this will live with me forever, this, makes me very happy indeed.

Gravity Rush 2015

SHAPE (St Helena Active Participation in Enterprise) is a charitable organisation of St Helena who work tirelessly to provide opportunities and activities for St Helena’s disabled people. Providing work and activities cantered around crafts and business SHAPE recycle everyday materials to produce craft goods of surprising quality from soap to necklaces made of reused magazines! With the appropriate mantra “Enabled no Disabled” SHAPE receives government funding for its activities, but must make up a 30% shortfall each year and does this through sales of its products and, more recently in its annual find raising event, Gravity Rush.

For the past three years, SHAPE has invited people to hurtle themselves down a hill through Jamestown on homemade go karts with no short measure of thrills, spills and crashes the event proves to be a popular and lucrative day. Having donned my “official” high vis jacket to allow me close access without being questioned I was more than excited to take up residents near the finishing line with my new camera and “big” lens and snap away. Sadly a few spectators did get injured, although this appeared to be due to those people not standing behind the appropriate barriers, but, despite the obvious concern it did not dampen spirits as spectators cheered on the contestants as they hurtled down the hill. Thankfully no -one was seriously hurt, and the event was a huge success, with no shortage of drama, crashes, clowns, water balloons and even two front wheel falling of one kart, the thirteen teams became one winner.

My take home memory of the day is that of community. Where else would we attend a public fun day like this, and know virtually everyone involved. As I look through the crowd there is scarcely a face that I don’t at least recognise. The stewards, the contestants, the clowns, the police, the press, the commentator, and all those in between I knew by name. Gravity Rush 2015 would be a great event for anyone to attend, but when your here, and you are part of this Island, you are part of everything the Island does, and it is a true privilege to look around and see friendly faces at every turn.

Its Life Jim, But Not As We Know It

Ive concluded that my life on St Helena is in no way what I expected, not that I really knew what to expect, but I did not expect this.

I am, to all intense and purpose, running my own business in photography and design. How on earth has that come about? Granted there has been a lot of hard work and now, money, gone into the photography, and Ive always dabbled in producing posters and playing with adobe software, but when I left the UK I was a Marine Biologist/aquarist, since then I have become a communications manager, a business owner, and, photographer (I still find it difficult to say that as I feel very much an amateur and suspect I will be again on returning to the UK)

In recent weeks I have been somewhat overloaded with work, whilst this is obviously a good thing, the house looks like a tip as my house husband duties have been somewhat neglected and regrettably I have had to relinquish my duties at the National Trust. I simply haven’t had time to devote to Trust work and do not wish for people to be relying on me when I cannot deliver. I have much unfinished work at the Trust and who knows if my business does not continue to thrive I may be back there.

My work has been extremely interesting; a contract to photograph sites connecting to Napoleons exile on the Island has been very exciting. My work will be the sole photographic contribution to a new guide book for the Island. More recently I have been photographing sites across the Island for a development portfolio and I am in the midst of a big project for the Environment and Natural Recourses Directorate, providing a stock of images of the various activities and work that fall under their umbrella. This has been a fantastic opportunity for me, visiting sites I would not normally have access to. Watching large trees being felled has been the highlight thus far but lined up for me is a trip with the rock guards, brave men who abseil down cliffs to create controlled rock falls, trips with the Peaks conservation teams, visits to farms sites around the Island and lots more. It’s a large project but I cannot wait to get out there and stuck in.

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The other side of my business has recently taken off with a contract to Saint Travelproduce the logos for a new start-up company,Saint Travel. This local firm are hoping to take advantage of a new era of tourism for the Island when the airport opens. From what I know of the business owners it will be a huge success Im sure, and any of you thinking of travelling to St Helena when the airport opens should look out for them once they become operational.

Back to the photography and I have started a new line of products for the St Helena youth, photographing and retouching cars. Many young Saints take a huge amount of pride in their vehicles, and I hope this will prove a success. Some of my photos will soon be on sale in the local arts and crafts store, and one of my first photos on the Island is to feature in a new St Helena calendar. With another photography course under way I am indeed kept very busy at the moment.

Before photo supplied by the client.

Before photo supplied by the client.

After photo with some re-touching, replacing the sky, playing with the colour tone.

After photo with some re-touching, replacing the sky, playing with the colour tone.

Not that my time is restricted to work. I have now completed my advanced diving certification and will soon start my rescue diver course. Thursday evenings are very busy as I continue to train junior football and finally as winter sets in the new football season starts on St Helena and Oliver and his team mates will have the opportunity to compete in competitive football with three other junior teams on the Island. New Horizons, a youth development organisation on the Island are fantastic, and the team there, managed by Nicky and Tina Stevens, work tirelessly to provide opportunities for St Helena’s young people. The fact that the various ages of the Junior leagues will have 90 players competing this year, (on an Island of 4000 people remember) is incredible and just goes to show how hard the team there work. As a side note, one of my team, whilst walking down to the pitched explained to me that “some people believe that the World is God’s House”, I agreed that, although not my personal belief, yes, some people do believe that to be the case. With a short pause for thought, the young man mused, “I don’t, I think he lives in the Consulate hotel”!!  a fine recommendation for a hotel if ever there was one.

Sadly I fear my own football days are behind me. Somewhat unbelievably I am still having problems with my groin, more than five months after it last ruptured. Under pressure from Bev I finally conceded that I need to see a doctor, the appointment has been made. Unfortunately, such is the way of things here, whilst the doctors and nurses cannot be faulted, the waiting times can, and despite phoning on the 24th May, I could not get an appointment until the 12th of June. Ill let you know then if Im still available for Brenden Rogers to sign.

I am, as you can see rather busy, but I am not the only one. With the Marine Conservation Team starting their bird tagging again, Bev had a rather wet night on Egg Island. Starting at 4pm and going through till 1am the idea is to catch nesting Storm Petrels as they return from feeding trips to Tag and record their vitals before releasing. It is hoped this work will provide information on their population trends, and interestingly, whether two species, one potentially an endemic species actually exist on the Island. Bev is also now teaching Marine Biology O’level classes two evenings a week, (between the two of us we now do not have one mid-week evening where we are not out doing something in the community) preparing resources, lesson plans and materials for the new Marine Biology A’level which will start next year, carrying out her normal teaching duties and, most recently teaching science at a local primary school suffering from a major staffing crisis. I don’t mind telling you that despite claims from the government of the importance of Education on the Island, teacher wages are appalling. A Saint can currently earn more baking bread, or working the checkout, than they can educating the children of St Helena. This terrible situation has led to serious recruitment and retention problems. On an Island where unemployment is at virtually 100% it is people, not jobs that are in short supply, and if people aren’t rewarded sufficiently for what is a very difficult and highly skilled job, they simply go elsewhere and who can blame them. There are rumours abound that indeed this may change and that the teacher pay and benefits structure is being looked at and revised, I hope for the future of the Island that they get it right.

In other goings on it turns out I am allergic to Sea Water!!! Not a great situation for a Marine Biologist (if indeed I am still one of them) nor for someone with ambitions of achieving a Dive Master status. It dawned on Bev and I that I had had sinus problems for weeks and months, indeed, when we thought carefully, those problems have persisted since I started to dive. If I miss a couple of weeks of diving  its starts to clear up. I have now taken to Anti-histamines before a dive, which seems to be helping alleviate the problem. Diving over the past two weeks has taken a considerable turn to the cold side, with seawater temperatures dropping to around 22C, enough to make a difference. What makes more difference however is the turn in the weather making the return journey a chilly one as winds have swept in and what feels like a continuous blanket of cloud has shrouded the Island for two or three weeks now.

A long dry summer has given way to winter, and I do not like it. A few weeks ago Connect, our local, and only utility provider issued stark warnings over the levels of water supply on the Island, insisting that if people did not severely limit their use then we could run out of water by July. It seems the weather gods heard their plea and promptly switched on the rain, and it has not stopped since. Despite the huge amount of rainfall we have had, water restrictions have been legally imposed on the Island this week, much to the bemusement of everyone concerned. The problem it seems lies not with the amount of rainfall, but with capturing and retaining that rainfall (see Ceri Samson’s blog for a great write up on how works to the natural environment can help this situation). Broken pipes and reservoirs empty for repairs don’t help, but in all honestly the situation is ridiculous and Connect frankly need to get a grip of things. I believe problems of aging reservoirs and leaks have been inherited by the current directors but being told we may run out of water as rain lashes down around us is bemusing at best and downright incompetent at worst.

The strange goings on do not stop there, after the announcement of the final voyages of the RMS ST Helena, and a string of “special” voyages were announced and tickets went on sale on a first come first served basis to those living on the Island. Such is the regard that this ship is held in that people queued outside the Solomon’s shipping offices from 4am, with even those at the front of the queue not being served until 9.30am. They say the British like to form an orderly queue and it seems that has rubbed of on Saint Helenians. Im am convinced however that waiting five hours before the offices even opened was not the sensible approach, and turning up at 9am most likely would of seen you getting your tickets an hour or two later.

IMG_0608-Edit-2 IMG_0608-EditMy final story of this strange world we call home is that of the Prince Andrew School Annual Dinner Dance, a very posh black tie affair………or so we were told. After getting ready in our best attire (I don’t have much other than shorts and T-shirt on St Helena), my wife looked quite simply incredible and was sure to be turning heads. We turned up at the dubiously named Godfarther’s Rockclub which had been turned over to the school for a night of glitz and glamor. Sure enough as we arrived the ladies were dressed in their best gowns and the men looked suitably smart in black ties. The venue looked superb and the elegant table cloths suitably hid the plastic garden furniture underneath. However, this is where the façade fell down as we were called to collect our food from the buffet. A Buffet! I thought this was a posh dinner dance, I was expecting table service at least. Once at the buffet table the menu was bizarre to say the least, Beef Curry, Chips, cold ham and pork slices, breaded chicken pieces, and salad leaves. A weird combination at the best of times (Bev’s Mum and Dad would of loved this strange mix) and even stranger when being served as a buffet at a black tie event. Still, I went back for a second plate, and enjoyed the jelly and ice cream desert too! Despite the comical nature of it all we had a fantastic night with good company, music and dancing to my favourite band of all time, the Big Easy.

When I look back to our first two months on the Island I recall a time of confusion and feeling lost. Climbing Jacobs Ladder provided my goals for the week, and my blog was everything to me at that time. I was lost, not knowing why I had come to St Helena and what it was I was supposed to do here. It turns out I am still lost, still unsure of what I am supposed to do here, and it’s wonderful. I could not be busier and still have no idea what I will be doing next. Somehow I am running a business, which even saying still sounds bizarre, and even more bizarre is that I am a photographer. In a few weeks’ time we will be moving house, what will come my way then I have no idea but I cant wait to find out.