Friends

Im often faced with trying to put a finger on just why I love it on St Helena so much. Is it the weather in this sub-tropical climate? Or perhaps the stunning beauty of its diverse landscapes, is it diving, swimming with whale sharks or Devil Rays, or is it just the friendly approach of the locals who welcome me by name as I walk into our local shops? Or is it the unique combination of all of the above.

 After well over 100 dives on St Helena I finally had chance to spend some time with the amazing Mobula Rays (locally known as Devil Rays) and had my camera with me!

Certainly the weeks that have gone by have proven to be quite extraordinary in terms of diving and snorkeling as I have enjoyed rubbing noses with giants of the sea. In that time I have also passed my PADI Dive Master a huge achievement and one which has direct relevance and importance for the rest of my life.

These things of course add into a whole package, that makes St Helena, for me, just a wonderful place to be, but what has elevated it to be one of the best times in my life, right up there with my fabulous University years? It’s been a hard one to work out until a conversation in our Friday night watering hole, the Mule yard enlightened me, what makes St Helena amazing, friends, fun, funny, fantastic, fabulous friends. Everything we do, is done with friends.

 A walk to the shop see’s friends serving us our food. Patrick, the taxi driver who takes me to Thursday night cards, or snooker, is a friend. Johnny Hearne who operates the Enchanted Isle and take us to Lemon Valley, or snorkeling trips is a friend as is Anthony, who operates Sub-Tropic adventures and has tutored me from Open water to Dive master. The list goes on and it is totally unique that your days, times and experiences from swimming with whale sharks to buying bread is shared with friends.

Friend relationships on St Helena are complicated. Ex pats band together, as a natural shared experience/something in common thing, but also as a result of the transitional nature of contracted people on the Island. When we first arrived here a Saint expressed to me her feelings on ex-pats and their relationship with Saints. “I have no problem with people coming here”, she said, “I will be friendly and supportive and help where I can, but don’t expect us to be great friends, I have been hurt too many times when good friends leave the Island that I simply can’t make that emotional investment and commitment any more”. At the time I was slightly offended by this, but having now experienced the other side of this it becomes clear. Like a holiday romance, and in the absence of family, friendship bonds become very strong, they are re-enforced by sharing experiences and you become part of a family of people whom are relied upon for everything from childcare to barbecues, a shoulder to cry on and the greatest of laughs. And then, before you now it, they, or you, are gone. Friends are simultaneously the greatest and hardest thing about life on St Helena. I understand the Saint now, I understand that, when she has other friends and family, who will stay by her side throughout, she does not need, nor want to have friends leave so regularly.

Like those I made in University, the friendships I have made on St Helena will last forever, and we will no doubt see each other regularly, but back in the real world they won’t be by my side as I go shopping, there won’t be two parties every weekend to go to, and when I go for a drink on a Friday night I’ll be lucky to know five people, certainly not fifty.

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Its taken two years and eight months but we have finally seen some water falling from the heart shaped water fall. From drought and desperately low water levels it has not stopped raining for weeks now!

Today I waved goodbye to two close friends, Dave and Wendy Tinkler as they head back to the UK on leave. Of course I have witnessed good friends go many times before, but this one was hard. I couldn’t hang around the coffee shop to watch and wave, I had to say my goodbye’s and leave as quickly as I good for fear of not holding it together. Why the drama, they are returning in two months? But by that point I will be gone,, my daily thoughts are filled with sadness right now as I contemplate my imminent departure from this place I love. All good things must come to an end they say, and my time has nearly drawn to a close. I have secured a wonderful new job back in the UK, and on the 27th of April I will board the RMS for one last, and very final time. I will do so on my own leaving Bev and the kids here to follow me a month later.  I start work as Senior Biologist at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth on the 15th May.

Of course people will tell me that I should think about the future, that I have a wonderful job to look forward to and I have genuinely missed working in an aquarium. We are moving to a lovely part of the UK and as a family will have wonderful days and times. But those days won’t be shared with, all of the time, friends. I can’t bring with me my nobbers, the affectionate term we have coined for our little band of weird and wonderful friends.

16425875_369098053449510_8511501877451201894_n “Nobbers” Camping weekend at Blue Hill, I havent laughed so much in a long time.

Oliver too is worried about leaving St Helena, fearful of making new friends back in the UK and of leaving friends behind here. His behavior has been affected and he flies from tears to tantrums, in protest at this change over which he has no control or say. He was just five when we moved here and I think had little concept of the change he was about to undertake, moving home he is much more aware and much more worried about the enormity of the upheaval in his life. Charlie does not seem phased, but I think he has no concept of the changes ahead.  At five years old, St Helena is Charlie’s overriding memory, he first went to school here and within his short memory has known little else, I wonder how he will react the first day we take him to his new school.

I should be able to tell you that we can always come back, and of course we can, but the place and its people will be different. That is the fundamental of the Island, constant change. If we were to stay longer then our friends would leave us behind, so staying is not an answer, and longevity would only make it harder.

In July 2001 I was sat in my lounge, in 23 College Road, Bangor. I sat alone as the last day of University had arrived. My flat mates had left the building and I waited for Dad to come and pick me up and take me home from Bangor one last time. As I sat on my own then I sat with sadness and fear. I couldn’t contemplate a life without having my friends with me all the time, sharing experiences with them all day, every day from shopping to parties, from walking to days out, how they could not just be there. Leaving St Helena holds those same feelings, the same fears about how life will be in the next step.

Of course I have wonderful friends in the UK, and family who love us and miss us dearly, as we do them. We have lots to look forward to and much to be grateful for. I should be telling you how grateful I am for the experience and be mature and sensible about treasuring the memories and looking forward to the next adventure, and I’m sure with time I will see that just as I did when I left university.

When leaving the UK over two and a half years ago we contemplated what it would be like leaving our family and friends in the UK but we always knew we would be back, we knew if we were unhappy we could go home. We foolishly didn’t even consider the fact that we would set up a life here and that one day we would have to leave it behind for good. There is no coming back in twelve months if we don’t like it in the UK. When we will leave friends on St Helena we know full well that some, we may never see again.  With each passing day “my last” moments increase. My last trip to Lemon Valley, my last dive, my last walk, my last party and as I sit and picture myself on the RMS, looking back to the Island as she disappears out of view for the last time I simply want to cry.

    My last trip to Lemon Valley?

Final Night Aboard the RMS

Day five and our final full day aboard the RMS St Helena. Despite the long days, time has flown by and we are now turning our thoughts to what our first days upon the Island may bring. The RMS St Helena has a reputation for leaving a lasting impression on people, and it’s easy to see why. A throw back to a bye gone era with games of dominoes and shove half penny, to sitting on deck quietly reading or conversing with fellow passengers. A place where dress codes still apply and staff take pride in the correct attire for the correct time of day.

The journey has not been without its troubles and challenges, not least of which has been trying to occupy our two boys, Oliver (6) and Charlie (3). The limit space for them to run and play has led to a build-up of unspent energy and trying to find creative ways to express this has been difficult, but we have neared the end of the journey without annoying the other passengers too much. A daily attempt to relieve the boredom has been a dip in the pool. This ritual has involved Oliver and Charlie pacing around the pool for some time, demanding that Mummy or Daddy get in. When we eventually cave in and jump into the waters, Oliver follows gingerly stepping in, before jumping right back out again and is not seen to return to the water until the following days ritual begins again. The reason for this this rapid departure is the icy temperature of the water, due to the pool being filled with Sea Water taken from the Atlantic Coast of Cape Town but Oliver certainly does not seem to mind his foolish parents getting into the freezing water on his behalf!

5.2 Charlie

The passengers and crew on board are what makes this journey truly special and interesting. And endless list of nationalities, personalities and stories. Each person with their own narrative and tale to tell.

We have met many people from the UK in the same situation as ourselves off to St Helena for new work and a new way of life, sharing stories of excitement and fear is a great collective comfort for us all. Then off course we have our first experience of the local Saints, and we have experienced a warm, friendly and fascinating people, always with time to say hello and spin a yarn. Stedson, a former St Helenan head teacher, retired some 20 years ago was returning to St Helena following a scan for Cancer, sadly his prognosis is not good, but I shall treasure the half hour spent in his company learning more of life on the Island and hearing a life time of wisdom and will pray that I may enjoy still further time in his company when reaching the Island.

As for our fellow Brits, our dining table has been shared with a wonderful couple, Paul and Jen and their beautiful young baby boy Miles, nervous and excited about their three month adventure full of questions and unknowns, our conversations covering everything from the potential for shark attack to the existence of the Loch Nes Monster.  A life changing experience for them I expect and to be taking it on with a young baby is even more impressive.

Then there is the irrepressible Christine, a true Scouser, remarkably strong, and worldly wise with a wicked sense of humour. I envisage Christine becoming something of a rock for the group of newbies and I look forward to passing the nights away in one of the local bars we have been briefed upon.

Andrew Day, his wife Lucy and lovely young boys Toby and Lawrence are returning from the UK following their first 12 months on the Island. They have all, Andy particularly proved to be both a fountain of knowledge and a pillar of support for the new adventurers on the ship and I have no doubt their help and support will continue to be invaluable as we take our first steps to a new life tomorrow.

Life on board is one of routine, based around meal times, but in between, regular entertainment is provided. Innocent but fun in its nature we have played tug o war, cricket, evening quiz’s and pub games.

Oliver takes part in the not so traditional form of Horse Racing. We had 20p on him to win but sadly he was just pipped at the post!

Oliver takes part in the not so traditional form of Horse Racing. We had 20p on him to win but sadly he was just pipped at the post!

Our eventual family tally was quite successful and reads as follows,

Tug o War, Winning team

Quiotes – Bev runner up

Quiz – Runners up, although the winning team had significantly more players and more than allowed, a point that Christine was keen to stress.

Skittles – Semi Finals.

Our final night aboard was spent enjoying a fabulous feast on the deck, with barbecued meats, fresh fruit a plenty, and significant portions of cake.

We head off to bed, with mixed emotions, excited to arrive at the Island but sad to be leaving our extended family on board the RMS St Helena. When the airport arrives on St Helena in 2016, the RMS will be de-commissioned, this will be a sad day but at least we now have our own small place in the RMS archives. Tomorrow we intend an early start to see St Helena Island arrive into view following days of endless blue and empty horizons.  Our 2200 mile trip across the Atlantic is nearly over; our journey however, has only just begun.