The sun was starting to set – glistening on the golden dome of a large mosque on the other side of the square. So we ambled back to the hotel and observed the first of many rush hours in Male that I was to experience that week. The pavements are narrow and often obstructed by constructions, piles of waste, the odd vehicle parked up, or shop wares on display. So we had to zigzag from street to sidewalk and watch out for all the other traffic around. There were many small cars and trucks and the occasional bus, but mostly it was mopeds and motorcycles. We often walked single file , trying not to knock over the stack of bikes parked up on the roadside. As people left their places of work, they did what so many workers do – they hurry home, they pick up some last minute shopping items – either that key ingredient for the evening meal, or something for the house that will help them clean, entertain, relax, sleep. Others went to exercise before the night came on – frantic football matches on the small patches of sports fields around the southern part of the island.
While it was familiar, two things crossed my mind as we transected through the streets. One was the intensity of activity in these narrow streets. The second was that whatever the commuting was to be done, it would only be a small distance before people reached their destination, given the island was barely a mile across. I was to be proved wrong on that one later.
We ate at a small restaurant a couple of streets away. Being in an open courtyard it gave us some fresher air to sit in, but the height of the buildings around both was claustrophobic and allowed the noise of all the clients resound against the concrete. Maldives being a strictly Muslim country, alcohol was not on any menus; indeed only in secluded tourist resorts could you access as much as a beer. So I got used to teas, cordials and sharp acidic lemonades. All of which were remarkably refreshing in the humid heat in the city.
We returned to our own hotel for one last night. I was due in Mansa this weekend for more meetings and to start making my map, before I would head back alone on the Proflight (literally the only passenger on the Mansa-Ndola leg this time) and to spend most of the next week locked away in my motel room next to a large new Chinese shopping mall in central Lusaka.
All very different and modern compared to the quiet simplicity of this lakeside hotel. I soaked up the last sunset, the light reflecting purple of the lake, almost placid again after the winds of the rest of the trip. Out in the lake a few dugout canoes contained fishermen setting the night’s nets. My name was called from along the way and I ambled over to find Ian and Mainza tucking in to the tilapia that had been bought near the Luapula Bridge. Here was the resource that we were studying, making regulations about, mapping the area where it would be protected and managed for everyone. It was just a fish, simply grilled and presented, but it was a symbol of the Bangweulu Swamp
Mainza and Ian and the fish
Bigs at night
Sunrise over Bangweulu
We shared the one plate, picking the meat from the bone with our fingers; separating out the spiny exteriors and leaving behind a classic cartoonish skeleton of the fish. It was the best meal I had in Zambia that trip.
Probably because it had the best of both worlds – lots of greenery and a drier, temperate climate, many of the more salubrious properties were located here in St. Paul’s, as well as some of the island’s institutions. The district is named after the island’s cathedral, modest in size but distinctive architecturally with its tiny bell tower at the west door (which with religious perversity is of course at the east end of the building). Just around the corner is Plantation House, where the Governor of St Helena resides. St Helena has several grand edifices, often of that clean cut Georgian style, but none are as arresting as Plantation House. Not just its size but the bright yellow cream exterior with highlights picked out in white at the time, and also its long sweeping lawn looking out towards the ocean to the north west it is positioned well to be admired by all who approach from town. I once was invited to dinner at the Governor’s House. I parked my car up and walked over the gravel path to the imposing porchway. Greeted by one of the governor’s staff I was one of half a dozen he had invited that night. At the time, the Governor was Michael Clancy. I already knew him – I had been walking with him with a Sunday group and come across him a couple of times in meetings I had held on island. His wife was usually off island, having a busy career in the UK. What it must be like eating alone in this big empty house, I did not dare contemplate. While trying to look sophisticated and act all bonhomie, I could not help gawping at the eclectic collections of paintings, porcelain, furniture and curios in the residence. Most had some connection with St Helena, and I was taken aback by the number of artists who had painted scenes around the island. The old maps also fascinated me of course.
We were taken in to a private dining room and sat round a large table. A waiter served the food from silver salvers and porcelain tureens, but I must say the quality, while nourishing, was more homely than haute cuisine. A vegetable soup that could have come from a Heinz tin, beef with veg, and a thick crusted apple pie with custard. Like most of these types of dinners, it was not just a courtesy invitation, Clancy was there to ask advice and gain knowledge. Being my first visit on the island I had little local experience to offer but I did try and make comparisons with Caribbean Islands. Trouble is only a couple of Caribbean islands are comparable enough in size with St Helena and none had the issues of isolation that the Governor was dealing with. Another guest that night was Nigel Kirby. I had been on the ship down with him and knew him to be the long term project manager to evaluate the needs for an airport on the island, develop the options for how to build it and tender it out to commercial concerns. At that stage the negotiations had already been going on for many years. There was a push from the British Government to give air access to St Helena as supporting the RMS was incredibly costly. In some ways the subsidy to keep people on St Helena was one of the largest of any of the UK Overseas Territories, but much of it went into getting people and cargo on and off the island. Relatively speaking the incomes and standards of living on island were very low, and there was a lack of investment in on-island infrastructure, industry or environment. The issue of changing the method of access to St Helena had so many implications on the landscape, economics and culture of the island that the debate had been a difficult one for an island who had not had such a huge issue to deal with since Napoleon had been incarcerated there.
By the time you had scrambled all over the engine room it was getting late in the afternoon so of course it was time for tea. Despite having eaten huge meals all day and done precious little exercise, many of the passengers, including me, found myself either in the main or sun lounges hanging around for that moment where pots of tea and coffee were presented. A cup of tea did no harm, of course, but they would lay out a couple of plates of sandwiches, biscuits and cake. One small cake would be OK, and it would be rude not to sample the butties. And when you go back for another top up of tea, why not accompany it with a Bourbon?
Couple of hours more to dinner time. What to do? I tried to work. It could be a bit lonely stuck in the cabin so I often would find a quiet corner of the main lounge. Trouble was that almost everyone who came in there would want to exchange a few words. Eventually I got too tired of trying to do anything. There would be time for work once we got on to St Helena.
Dinner time would roll round again and more amazing choices would come out of the galley. I did get a couple of nights on the Captain’s table, but more often than that I was on the junior officers tables. When I travelled alone they made sure I was in the company of the crew’s table; they never seemed to worry so much when Edsel was with me. The crew did their best to entertain but you could see for some of them it was awkward. The Chief Engineer was with me a couple of times; very nice chap but he managed to get through his “where do you come from and what do you do” interrogation before the soups were served and from then on unless it was something about greasing cogs or fixing pipes he did not find it easy to engage. The purser staff were of course, far more used to entertaining and the kindest was Geoff Shallcross. On my way back to Ascension Island for the first time, I was privileged to be on Geoff’s final voyage. From Ascension Island they were heading back to the UK where he would disembark at Portland for the last time and retire to his home in North Devon.
He was born to the Purser’s job – he did it with incredible but hidden efficiency and for most of the time he just looked like he was having fun and inviting you to join in. For the tourists and first timers like me, he had a huge warmth. With the Saints he loved them like they were his family. Which indeed they were. He had spent over twenty years sailing to and from the island, and had seen generations of Saints be born, grow up, marry, have kids and, I suppose, die. He knew all their back stories, their nicknames, their foibles. He would joke with them; sometimes you saw him in a corner with a little old lady and they would be quietly reminiscing, maybe even being sad together at the loss of another dear friend.
And he had the most wicked sense of humour. On my last night back to Ascension I had joined him on his table in the dining room and we were bantering back and forth like two school kids; he then invited everyone upstairs for coffee in the main lounge and the usual port and brandy. The chat went on for several hours and it felt not like you were being supervised by a crew member, but having spent the perfect evening with your best friend.