Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Stopover in NYC

So my job was relatively simple; to obtain a map of the lac collinaire, and to find data that could overlay clay soils, arable land and flat land; all three often being present in the same area anyway.

There was a third role I was to play, that of official cartographer for the project, which meant I had to pull together reference maps of the country, location maps of the existing facilities (like the 50 or so existing fish farms in Haiti) and any schematics to help my two francophone colleagues make their points.

The first trip was in balmy May.  The UK does not have a lot of links with Haiti and my route meant in had to overnight in New York on the way out.  I spent one of those “Wood between the Worlds” nights – arriving late in to JFK from London, hunting for the hotel courtesy bus in amongst the paraphernalia of concrete and baggage carts; a cheery US check in followed by a quick explore of my room, shower and collapse into a very comfortable bed.  Next morning an early check in meant an even earlier check out, so only a brief moment to view the Manhattan skyline from the sixth floor of my Jamaica hotel on the edge of JFK’s estate, a stodgy breakfast of pastries and tasteless coffee and then all aboard the bus back to the terminal.  Although the hotel was right next to the Belt Parkway, you had to go through several residential streets.  In the American scale of things these were probably lower middle class suburbs, generally respectable enough houses but nothing flash, no huge acreage of ground around them, a small yard.  But still detached, usually well maintained and with elements of consumerism on show everywhere from the little trinkets in the windows, the shrubs and the well maintained car ports.  Considering where I was flying to next this was a peculiar interlude of settledness and calm; a Sunday morning in Queens.

A Tale of Two Swamps – A late start

The lodge was more of a motel than a hotel – lots of room for vehicles, and close to the main long distance bus station for Monze, with an associated fast food restaurant.  The rooms were clean but with the usual African over heaviness of dark furniture.  Food was OK but nothing special, and it had to be ordered a good clear hour ahead or else the only thing being eaten into was our evening relaxation time.  The hotel did want to kick above its weight – in the reception were three clocks with time settings around the world, like the best Hilton or Four Seasons.  The problem was that one of these was London, the other two were Johannesburg and … Monze; which happened to be on exactly the same time as Jo’burg.

We had a lot of ground to cover on the south side of the Kafue River – it may have been easier for us to stay closer to the swamp but the accommodation down there was limited.  The small lodges at the Lochinvar Park Centre may have done for part of the area, but that would have made travel times to the west of the flats even longer.

The plan the next day, the Sunday, was to travel with the Fisheries people on a boat to a village on the Kafue River itself.  Unfortunately the day did not start well.  Alphart was tidying up our 4 wheel drive; he had opened up the car and left the keys on the passenger seat.  He had grabbed a cloth from the glove compartment and was cleaning the windows of the previous day’s dust.  As he was wiping the rear window, the wind blew the passenger door shut.  Alphart did not concern himself but the car automatically locked itself a few seconds later; with the keys, the only keys we had, still inside on the seat.

A very embarrassed Alphart came in to tell us – while Ian and I were just putting the last few items in our field bags.  We tried to see if we could get into the car and short of breaking the windows we could find no way in.  The only solution was to drag the rental company out of Lusaka with the spare keys.  Thank heavens we were only a couple of hours out of town and not deep in the bush.  In the meantime, our colleagues from the Fisheries Department had turned up in their vehicle.  Shame there was not enough room for all of us as they had also brought one of our project managers from the EU who were funding the whole project.

Walking the Beaches – Pressure on the coast

Field working geographers will always tell you there is no substitute for getting yourself in the thick of your subject material – the land, the soil, the rocks, the water and the air.  They scorn the armchair geographers who theorize , speculate or just read other people’s work.  They will check under the fingernails of students to ensure they are dirty – dirty with the grime of the earth if you are a physical geographer, dirty with the dust of houses and settlement and grease from industry if you are a human geographer.

There is certainly something to be said for it.  Too many times I have been involved with projects where I have been thrown a satellite image and told to “interpret that”, and then wonder why there is disappointment when you did not manage to accurately tell everything  there was to know about a piece of land instantaneously.   I far rather have at least one field trip into the place I am working on, and if possible get completely immersed in the habitat.  One of the vital parts of the process is that spending a while wandering around a location gives an impressive sense of the whole  – how the structure of the land is formed, how the soil sits, the vegetation grows, the animals inhabit; and how humans interact in this environment in terms of what they build, what they cultivate, how they mark out and claim, and how they move around in that landscape.  Without that immersion, you end up focusing just on the one thing you have to work on – a Cartesian, narrow minded, perfectly logical process, but lacking both richness and insight.

The chance to really understand a landscape has only come rarely in my career – so often it has been that one quick “look see”, pseudo-scientifically called Rapid Rural Appraisal in some circles, but more likely a jolly day trip where you look serious and ask clever questions.

One time the right type of field work occurred was my second trip to Mauritius.  After a two month break, I was back in the Mascarenes.  I had another three month period and whereas the first trip was to set up the GIS for the whole project, this time I was to concentrate on five “Pressure Zones”.  After much deliberation, scientific analysis, political back and forth and considered reflection, some people pointed to five areas of the map and said – they are the pressure zones.  Pressured because Mauritius has a limited coastline, and its tourist product relies very much on it – the usual tropical idyll of palm trees, white sand, coral reef, and hot sun.  Trouble is the whole Mauritius coast is not like that , and what comes under that category is pretty much either developed to the highest extent, or is public beach not available to developers (fortunately).  This has meant that development of resorts have now taken a  novel angle.  About half of Mauritius’ coastline is rocky or cliff like, or lagoonal silts with mangrove and other mosquito ridden habitat. That does not stop the developers from marketing the idyll.  I was taken by the head of the Government’s beach authority to a new development north east of Port Louis city one wet afternoon.  The site was at the end of a series of cane fields (not a rarity) on a low lying rocky headland.  My knowledge of physical geography made me know that sandy beaches rarely form at this point – the area is rocky because the sea erodes any loose material away from this point.  Sand forms in more sheltered bays or lagoonal areas, not areas of hard rock pointing out into the rough seas.  This had not deterred the developers who were building a huge berm of rocks and backfilling with sand imported from elsewhere on the island.  Even while the development was being built, you could see nature fighting against the changes – the sea water going round the back of the berm and biting into the sandfill from the rear.  Also it seemed such a compromise on the part of the tourists – yes they would have the chlorine filled pool in the hotel complex, and a sandy beach to look out over the Indian Ocean, but isn’t part of the joy of these places to be able to lumber out of your room, amble slowly down the sandy beach till the warm tropical waters overtake you – without having to clamber over a bunch of large granite rocks?

Life on Mars – The Obsidian and Tasty Tucker

We were booked into the Obsidian Hotel,  the only true hotel on the whole island.  It was once an Officer’s Mess and, apart from the RAF commander’s house and the Administration Complex, the only two storey building in Georgetown still in use.  Through some misunderstanding in Conservation, we were put in the plush VIP rooms up top on my first visit – and I felt very comfortable with my views over the town and the spacious suite.  Since then most of my visits have put me in Hayes House which has much smaller rooms in a prefabricated building, still comfortable enough but not really hotel like.  The Obsidian have a series of accommodation blocks spread across the centre of town and Hayes, as Tara put it “is handy for the Conservation Office”, but was a hike to the restaurant and bar in the Obsidian.

Sometimes I felt that at the Obsidian you had to know their routines and fit in with them.  Over time I have got used to it, but I found the reception a bit frosty to start with.  Being the only hotel there gave them perhaps no drive to go out of the way to please guests, ’cause where else were you going to go?  But on the whole I enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place and their had to be the appreciation that you could not expect all the normal mod cons and comforts of a hotel on a rock 1000 miles from the next country.  In the corner of the outside restaurant was the Anchor Inn, a mixture of English pub and tropical beach bar, and it was a great place to perch on a stool and catch up with everyone coming through – the tourists and travellers or the locals popping in for an after work slurp.  The courtyard out front would occasionally be full of people at a barbecue but more often than not, all you could hear was the wind breezing through the occasional trees or the shriek of a mynah bird. There was something about the silence of Ascension, so unlike anywhere else in the world.  The only birds in Georgetown were the introduced sparrows and mynahs, maybe one of the feral donkeys or sheep would pass through.  Peak hour traffic would be three cars passing by.  Every vehicle noise could be discerned individually, there was no background hum. Every action by anyone was immediately picked up because there was nothing else distracting you – the creaking of a gate, a cough, footsteps crunching on gravel. And in between, long periods of nothing but the wind.


Tasty Tucker in its heyday

Through necessity, ordering meals at the Obsidian was a strict affair.  If you fell in to the habit you could just say yes at breakfast and turn up for dinner.  But there was not a massive choice on the menu and it was a bit pricy for what you got.  Fortunately an alternative was available.  Just across the way from Hayes House was an amazing little cafe called Tasty Tucker.  It had been a canteen for the AIG workers once, but a lady from Formby near Liverpool had decided to run it commercially.  It served a set of basic meals, but the options were far more than the Obsidian and you could just turn up and eat.  St Helena Fish Cakes were their speciality but there were burgers and soups, fish and chips.  In the daytime it would be busy.  They provided guys (they were mainly guys) from the single quarters with their meals on a commission basis for AIG, but others would pop in and the few tourists who were there would often visit.  Being on the main strip most of the island would pass by at some time of the day.  It was a great place to go for coffee, and Edsel and I also would get our evening meals there.  Being a cafe style it was not open late but it was OK to get in the habit at eating by 6pm each night.  Best of all they did a cracking Sunday Roast takeaway.  You had to remember to preorder it and pick it up by 5.30 but it was the kind of wholesome cooking that a single guy away from home would relish.  Through repeated custom, the Tasty Tucker staff got to know us pretty well, apart from the owner there was another middle aged  lady (she will love me for describing her that way!) , who I forget her name now, but it may have been Fran. She and I chatted a lot.  She was a Saint and was keen to hear about my travels down on her home island.  She also had children who had set up families in the south of England.  She was so good to me.  On a couple of occasions I might have forgotten to warn them I would like a meal, and she would look at me sadly and say sorry there was not much she could do, but then still do me egg and chips.  Once when I was about to leave she and I were chatting about luxuries, particularly food.  She had a craving for Marks and Spencer’s biscuits.  I often brought little gifts to people in Ascension and St Helena and quality food parcels were always appreciated. So next time I went down, I tucked a big box of chocolate biscuits from Marks and Sparks in my luggage and presented it to her on my first day there.  She was made up, asked how much she owed me, to which I just shook my head.  It was this kind of friendship you got from the Saints that made any trip to the islands something to look forward to and relish.


Main St, Georgetown – with Hayes House Compound on the right

Life on Mars – Brendan

This tale starts with a strawberry daiquiri.  Or soon gets to the strawberry daiquiri.  I had been working as the National GIS coordinator in the British Virgin Islands (or BVI) for about four months.  Apart from a quick trip to the UK for Christmas, and a few promises from people to visit when they had time, I had hardly seen a Britisher since I had arrived.  I was not particularly complaining, I was enjoying the weather, the new work, getting to know both the Tortolans and the others who worked with me, and exploring  novel new environments.  But there is something about your native psyche which is inexplicable to foreign minds, and you crave company from your own native land to share a joke, use idioms and can mention references without explaining them.

An email dropped into my inbox one day regarding a Scottish turtle expert who was visiting the BVI to see if he could start a collaboration with the department I worked in, Conservation and Fisheries.  I forwarded it to my boss but replied that I could help out if he wanted.

In the February of that year, this expert turned up at the office.  A huge sweaty Scotsman –rugby build, in a hurry, hassled in the way only any consultant on his first trip to a new country can be – entered my office.  I was lucky to have a corner office at the front of the block overlooking the busiest roundabout on Tortola.  People from the rest of the office would come to me not just to talk to me but to seek sanctuary from the craziness in the open plan office outside.

This expert, Brendan Godley was his name (he would often introduce himself as Godley, next to god,  although I doubt he ever saw himself as so), sat in my office and talked about how difficult it was to get anything organised in BVI.  Of all the people he had contacted before he set off from Swansea where he was a research fellow, I was the only one to reply positively, and he had arrived on the island for a couple of weeks and had no plan of action.  He was staying in a fairly rotten hotel in Road Town (the capital) which had no email facility.  I later learnt what an email junky he was (regularly receiving 50 – 300 emails a day), so “no email” was a total unknown.

I listened to him talk and saw how much difficultly he was experiencing to get his project ideas going.  It was troubling for me, once a fellow consultant type,  to see him floundering when time was limited.  I had spent several months making life bearable on the island (the months of trying to get a bank account, electrics set up, equipment, pay, car, understand how expensive food was), so anything I could do to ease a fellow Brit’s problems, I thought was a duty.

The hotel and lack of email were obviously the biggest bottlenecks so I said, well, I have an apartment with a spare room, and would be happy for him to stay there; it has dial up but it’s a strong connection, and as long as you pay for some food up there, I would be happy for him to crash with me.

So started a comradeship which extends to this day.  Brendan moved up to my apartment just off Tortola’s Ridge Road, and in amongst trying to make sure he could make progress, we had many a long conversation about our histories to date, our overlapping pasts, and life on small islands.  Brendan with his partner, Annette, were turtle freaks.  They studied every aspect of every species of turtle, them beaching, laying eggs, the hatchlings, their DNA, their diseases, their many-miled migrations across the Atlantic.   Tortola was of particular concern as it had a fragile population of leatherback turtles beaching there, the largest and most enigmatic of the turtle species.  I learnt so much from him and trooped the beach at Josiah’ Bay one night to wait for the leatherbacks to arrive. Alas nothing that night but one day later on I was called out from the office in Road Town to Josiah’s to watch a female who was laying eggs in the sand during the daytime; an uncommon occurrence.  She was hot and dry as she deposited fifty eggs in the sand, covered them with her huge back flippers and struggled back to the sea.  But how majestic it was when she reached the sea and this huge tank like body, so clumsy on land, became the perfect marine vessel and we watched her head out to the surf, come up once for a huge gulp of air then speed off into the Atlantic Ocean.