Blown Away – Where were you on 9/11?

I was not born before the “What were you doing when Kennedy died” day so have no memories of that.  I was crystal clear on my memory for 9/11.  I had been working with the St Vincent and Virgin Islands Governments on coastal resources for a year or two.  I had secured funding to attend a conference in Jamaica and was going to present a paper with the BVI government on the work.  We did the paper, I organised my travel.  The BVI government then stopped the travel of my counterpart and I was left to present the paper myself.

The Conference was the first Urban and Regional Information Systems Association or URISA conference in the region.  Basically they were the professional organisation for GIS people in the USA.  I knew some of the delegates from working in Barbados, my old friend Vijay whom I once trained in NRI was there from Guyana, along with a bunch of people from the US, Canada and throughout the islands plus a few Europeans and the odd South American.

The location was the Wyndham Rose Hall hotel just east of Montego Bay.  Heading from the airport along the coastal highway it was like being in the US itself – and apart from the Rose Hall Plantation House on the hill above the conference centre, there was a smattering of resort hotels along the run.

The first couple of days of the conference went according to plan.  We had the boss of the largest GIS software company giving the plenary session, we’d had a few good events and the silly things conferences did like have luncheon meetings and meet and greet sessions had gone off without too much embarrassment.

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Rose Hall

I’d been in Barbados a month or two beforehand attending a meeting for some climate change work and knew the Bajian who convened the meeting, and the two Canadian consultants who had designed the training programme.  All three were at the conference and this Tuesday morning I found myself with one of the Canadians and we had a great hour or so over the melon and frazzled bacon putting the world to rights about what GIS could do for life in general.

I returned to my room in a good mood.  The conference was going well; I was telling everyone how I was to become West Indian in the next couple of months as I took up my new posting in BVI, and I went into my room to run through my presentation for the afternoon session.  Absent mindedly I turned on the TV and settled at my laptop.

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.

On the RMS -What it feels like to migrate

My first evening aboard was very quiet, a few drinks around the lounge chatting to guests.  Nice to get to know who was going home, who was going to be working on the island, who was just starting out on their holiday of a lifetime.  At the bar before dinner I had come across a large Scotsman who was downing a pint of draught lager and getting ready to order a second.  He looked rather nervous and at first I thought it was the ship’s motion that was concerning him.  He told me he was planning to start on St Helena as the resident dentist.  He’d left his wife and small child behind in the UK and was going to get set up and if everything went OK they would follow him over.  I could see he was not certain about his mission, and this was the first few hours of “the point of no return”.  Here we were, at the mercy of the RMS, heading slowly but remorselessly to one of the most remote inhabited places on the earth’s surface.  I could empathise with him a little.  I took the plunge to move to the BVI in the October of 2001.  There was so much to do to arrange the move, put stuff in storage, work out what I was to do with my house, my finances, as well as contractual arrangements at the other end and finding out what life was going to be like there.  Emotions ran high from time to time, from excitement to sheer terror, to chastisement at how stupid I was being for giving up home comforts and familiarity.  I remember being taken to Heathrow Airport by my good friend, Vicky, and after a tearful farewell and assuring her that if it was not for all her support and assistance I would not have been able to uproot like this, I went through to the departure lounge and felt a numbness.  I was there – my life’s belongings either stored away in a shed in Maidstone ready for transhipment, or being processed into the hold of an American Airlines flight to New York.  I’d travelled through here so often but had never felt so isolated.

As I sat on the aircraft and watched the UK grow farther away below me, I had a sense of resignation.  It was not a particularly sad moment, although there were tears in my eyes.  It was that now I was fated.  I had no choice at this point.  I just had to sit here and go through with what I had planned.  And this was the sense I saw in this dentist’s eyes.  He looked nervous, but in fact had just come to terms with his fate.

I suppose the prospect of St Helena had different affects on everyone on board ship.  For the Saints, this was a homecoming; they looked forward to being with friends whom they may not have seen for a couple of years.  For the holiday makers there was the sense of mystery.  For some, like this dentist, it was more about the fears of whether the island, its people and infrastructure would be enough to sustain them.  And there were those of us who were planning to work on the island for a short term.  For a first visit, I fell more into the holidaymaker sense of excitement.  When I returned it was more like a returning Saint.  I’d already learnt to love many of its people and wondered at its scenery and could not wait to taste it all again.  Second time around I had Edsel with me and could not contain myself at preparing him for the richness of experiences about to hit him.  I had to hold back sometimes as I wanted him to explore and get involved himself, and particularly to experience that anticipation of doing everything for the first time.