It’s been a rather social week (ok, week and a bit, sorry about that!) on Pitcairn – with Len Brown’s 89th birthday, and Sambo’s (aka Dennis Christian) 60th. It’s meant I have seen almost everyone on the island this week at one point or another, which makes a change, as sometimes it feels as though you’ve only seen the same small group over and over.
I think a misconception about Pitcairn, and one that I’m sure I was guilty of making before I arrived here, is that you’d see everyone all of the time. Not so. Many people are extremely elusive! Having said that, you’re never on your own, and everyone seems to know what you are doing all of the time. I guess it’s some sort of island communication network or sixth sense one develops over time, or maybe everyone has hidden eyes on the back of their heads. Sometimes I think the Pitcairners can read minds or can tap into my subconscious, as they seem to know what I’m about to do before I know myself!
There is another cruise ship, a bigger American vessel, called Marina arriving on the 12th. So the island seems to be a hive of activity again preparing for it this time with greater fervour given the size of the vessel, and the fact that its Americans who are allegedly ‘not as tight’ as the Germans. Everywhere I look, souvenirs being sanded and lacquered, all types of carvings are underway, t-shirts are being printed and honey is being gathered. As I mentioned in an early blog, Cruiseships provide the islanders the opportunity to sell their wares and make some money from what I like to call the “tourons” – i.e. tourists that ‘tour on’, and ‘tour off’ and don’t really stop. Many sell out completely on a big ship like the Marina, so it’s worth their efforts – as a result its one of the island’s main sources of income.
Even I am already looking forward to the cruise ship coming – I’m looking forward to sampling their menus, and sitting in some air conditioning for a while, and maybe buying a myself a birthday present of some naff description. I’m thinking of it as a shopping mall arriving at the island, for by comparison to what’s here, that’s exactly what it is. But its a and a source of additional supplies that are bought from the ships stores from lists put up on the notice board, wit orders being made through the shop here.
It also means also a huge influx of new faces for the day, and those that know me know I like nothing more than photographing tourists. It’ll be nice being able to talk to some new people too – that’s the hardest thing about coming from a big city to a place like this. In the city, I get up in the morning and I never know who I might meet or what I might talk about that day – everything seems like a world of possibility.
You can be completely anonymous if you so desire, or introduce yourself to umpteen strangers. I like the not knowing. Here I find certain things a little claustrophobic and its hard to just lock myself away like I usually do. I’ve worked out that I’m quite solitary probably 80% of the time, and sociable maybe 20% of the time and I’m having to redress that balance quite quickly, and it’s probably good for me. Many who know me well know that I go into recluse mode with regularity, so maybe this experience will tip that on its head!
Anyway, this’ll be the last cruise ship of my time here, so is also my last opportunity to stock up on anything from the “outside world” and is really my final bout of major outside contact until the Claymore returns. Lets just say I’m glad that it’s here for the whole day !
Having said all of this, I am getting used to the pattern of daily life here. I’m getting used to the short shop hours, and ebb and flow of pace. It was initially hard to get in the flow of doing things here as the rhythm is quite different to my usual life – and I imagine I’ll only be fully used to it once it’s time to come home, but I’m getting there.
Len’s birthday was my first big social dinner – most of the community were there with just a few absences, and quantity of food was quite incredible. I rather gorged myself on steaks and had the excellent excuse to go back for a new plate when my plastic one ended up with a hole in the middle dripping food onto my lap. Note to self: check for cracks before loading up.
Len is the island’s oldest resident. He is Olive Christian and Dave Brown’s father, brother to Mavis and Royal, grandfather to David, and uncle to Jay, Merelda, Melva and Mike (Cookie). He lives with Brenda and Mike Lupton up at the rather derisibly named “Pommy Ridge”, a house about halfway up the hill that leads up to the centre of the island from Adamstown. He’s not in the best of health after suffering a few strokes, so he is mostly quiet and can often be spotted propped on the back of Brenda’s quad bike, slathered in sun cream and regularly sporting a wide brimmed sun hat.
Apparently Mavis, Royal and Len are rarely seen together – but as part of my role as unofficial party photographer I did manage to capture a few snaps of the sibling ensemble, and mercifully, all with their eyes open. I spent yesterday creating a few mini emulsion lifts of one of the photos to give to the three of them, as hopefully they’ll serve the dual purpose of explaining what it is I actually do, and commemorating their rare togetherness while the opportunity is still there.
I hadn’t actually been inside Brenda and Mike’s before so I was rather taken aback by Brenda’s vast omnipresent dolphin collection – plates, textiles, ornaments of every shape and size, and every other item in between. I’ve known a few people in my time who have collected dolphins or turtles or such like, but her collection tops them all I think. I would never have put Brenda down as a dolphin fan, she seems far too practical for ornaments, but it just goes to show that people are much more than what meets the eye, and new facets are revealed over time. I think this is probably the best part about doing a long project like this – you have the luxury of sitting back and observing without having the pressure to produce continuously. It means you can get to know people in their own time. Sometimes when photographing a stranger, I feel a little like I am stealing their soul and walking away, whereas this project approaches from the opposite direction. This allows me far greater freedom in some ways, and provides a challenge too, as sometimes it is easier to photograph those you don’t have a relationship with.
Sambo’s birthday was a different sort of event altogether. Sambo turned 60 and had obviously tried to keep it on the quiet, but somewhere along the line got rumbled and an announcement went out purporting that he has requested a fish fry at the landing. Sambo obviously knew nothing of it, but then willingly went alone with it, so the longboat went out at 11am with a few people to go fishing. I went down with Andy (RSPB), and met the boat that carried around 11 of us out to fish, including Len who was sat on his very own park bench in the middle of the deck.
We weren’t doing very well initially, so kept moving around to find new spots – eventually a few people ended up on a bit of a roll – namely Andy and Brenda, and a couple of others who were on our boat decamped and headed out spear fishing. By normal standards I think even our boat trip would have seemed like a successful one, but by Pitcairn standards our catch was abysmal, and for the number of people feasting it was probably just as well the spearfishing took place.
I mostly concentrated on taking pictures, as it’s the first time I’ve been out on a boat that has been static enough to shoot from and to get a different view of the island and the surrounding rock formations. Though when other people are fishing, I just wish I had a line in my hand. We went around the whole periphery of the island which really helped my geography – when you’re travelling by road and everything is up and down and you’re travelling through leafy areas, it’s very difficult to get your bearings without a frame of reference. Things can seen disproportionately far away. For instance I had no idea how physically close Tedside is to The Landing. I know logically that everything is very close together but by road everything is elongated and changes in altitude are accentuated.
The fish fry itself was great – everyone gathered at the landing in a circle made of plastic chairs with long tables laden with the day’s catch and supplementary dishes (including chips!) placed at the centre. I watched plate after plate revisit the tables and yet the food never seemed to diminish. I counted only 5 notable absences, so it was an excellent turnout, and I had a chance to see some people who up until now had remained rather enigmatic. Sambo seemed cheerful, and I had a nice chat with him around plateful number three.
I wish there were more public events – I thought before I arrived here that there would be many more public dinners, or a more full social calendar. Now that church numbers are in decline, I suppose many of the church events have been culled from the programme, and now everyone seems to get on with their own lives or is too busy for large scale socialising. As a result of that, and the fact that everyone has such a long list of jobs, there seems little time for fun. If I were here for far longer, I think I’d make it my personal mission to engage the community and to get some sort of entertainment programme organised that would please the ‘masses’. I suppose though, it’s a bit like hosting a private view – out of 50 friends you invite probably only 5 show up, so if we’re making a statistical comparison, a similar number probably show up for social events here, and therefore most are doomed. But still, the fish fry was enjoyable, and it would be nice to see more of that sort of thing – it felt like a community rather than a series of disparate yet interconnected households for those few hours.
Friday night was spent with Andy, Paul, Sue, John and Linda (NZ policeman and his wife) and a very large pot of chilli con carne with breadfruit chips. I never used to be a huge fan of breadfruit, but I’ve warmed to it since I’ve been here. I don’t know whether it’s my taste buds have changed or whether I just like the fact it has to be gunned down from the tree, but either way, I’m a convert. After dinner John and I got rather thrashed at darts, and eventually had to admit defeat after losing at pretty much every game we attempted. It turns out that my cousin Josh and I having a dartboard at home as teenagers didn’t pay off for me. I’m hoping it wasn’t so wasted on Josh.
In the early hours of Saturday morning a full lunar eclipse was to take place and I was keen to take pictures of the Milky Way while the sky was at its darkest. I was struggling to stay awake with my full chilli con carne stomach inducing a food coma, but somehow managed to last until around 2am when the eclipse began to take shape. Andy and I headed to the landing and watched it till around 4am or so, armed with cups of tea and Malteaser chocolate for motivation.
I don’t think I’ll have many chances to see a full lunar eclipse, and to see it so clearly with no light pollution. I took a few shots on my Hasselblad, but for once actually used a…wait for it…. digital camera (I know, I know) because I could change the ISO to be able to pick up the Milky Way without any star trails. I have never attempted to photograph the Milky Way before, so I was quite pleased at the results. There is a bit of digital noise because of the ridiculously high ISO, but other than that it came out reasonably well. The Hasselblad stuff will be a mystery till I get home at the other end of this trip, but hopefully something will come out of it, though I’m pretty sure the Milky Way will escape me on such slow film. Andy had his telescope rigged up, so we could see every ridge and crater on the moon’s surface and watch as it slowly darkened into shadow, and I had flashes of watching Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, only in real life.
This week had also seemed to have a recurrent theme running through it. “Clubbing”. Not the usual type of clubbing though – not sweaty strangers dancing haphazardly en masse clutching overpriced drinks in plastic cups – but rather the caveman variation. It all began on a shop morning when Andy innocently enquired as to where certain birds would breed on the island, and Nola, the lady who gave me a large ration of hostility on day one, piped up in her usual comedic style. In no uncertain terms she told Andy not to go to Ginger Valley (an area purportedly favoured by said birds) because he would certainly end up dead.
The conversation moved swiftly on to Nola’s younger days, when islanders would go to catch the very same birds to eat, and her eyes lit up at the memory as she excitedly regaled us with several visceral details of the islander’s murderous verve. At the mention of Henderson island, she told us how relished the opportunity to go with a club in hand and bop Noddys on the head and gather enough dead birds to salt, filling gigantic vats to take back to Pitcairn before fridges came along. According to Nola they’re delicious and very easy to club on the head when they’re not expecting it. Andy, working to protect birds, looked on with an expression somewhere between aghast and amused.
The theme continued on. At dinner one night Olive wielded her own variation on a club – a long piece of wood that she jammed into the rafters to squash lizards. One was pulverised into the ceiling and continued to quiver from its impaled position throughout our meal, while another was decapitated and left pulsing on the floor to my left. If the ten year old me had been present, I’d have set up some kind of sanctuary for them by now.
The brutality continued to shark fishing. One night Andy, Jim (the social worker) and I were fishing and kept on losing our fish or hooks to lazy sharks that waited for us to catch a fish and then promptly stole it from us as we hauled its flailing body in. Andy and I casually mentioned it to Olive and Steve, and the next night a hunting mission was deployed to the landing. With shark lines loaded with bait, it didn’t take long before the float was bobbing rapidly and the first shark was snared. This was quickly followed by another, and another, and then another. They caught 4 in total, hauling them in on hand lines, and clubbing them over the head with lumps of wood from the jetty till the blood flowed, and the landing glittered and bore its deathly sheen in the moonlight.
Sharks here are a sought after catch. Though it was only after Andy and I were abandoned with four shark corpses with jaws ripped out that we realised the locals don’t eat shark meat. Everyone I have mentioned it to wonders why you would eat it when there are so many ‘good fish’ to catch, or tells me that they don’t eat fish and chips in Australia or New Zealand because its usually shark. I’m not sure why eating shark would be bad, once you rid it from ammonia. In Trinidad I used to love shark and bake at Maracas. I never used to be a fan of fish, but I loved the taste of the shark’s white flesh and its actually quite delicious. It seemed a bit of a waste, so when we gave up fishing after catching a sea turtle which we had to free, Andy gutted them and we loaded them onto the quad – they’re mostly still sitting somewhere in Andy’s freezer.
Even Andy and I have started partaking in the Pitcairn clubbing scene. Each time we’ve gone fishing, one of us has ended up armed at some point, picking our way through the darkness in pursuit of crabs to use as bait. The violence must be contagious, because clubbing crabs over the head is almost as satisfying as actually catching fish. It’s probably a good thing that I’m only here for another couple of months. Who knows what kind of excessive bloodlust I might develop if I lived here for too long!
There have been many other moments that I could mention since my last blog, but I might just save some of them for the next one. So, I’ll leave you with an amusing image of an event that happened a wee while ago. I know other Andy (Andy Christian, not Andy RSPB – I’ll call him “Andy C”) has been waiting for when this picture might resurface, so not wanting to displease, here it is.
The other night, Andy, Kevin, David, Randy, Olive, Steve and I were gathered at dinner, and the conversation had somehow gotten onto the question of weight. Andy C was telling those assembled about going to weigh himself at the medical centre, and also about David’s more flattering digital scales. The usual teasing started somewhere along the way, aimed at Randy, who David once called “the strongest man in the world” with no hint of irony.
A few minutes after the conversation had moved on and Andy C had left the table for a moment, we all turned at the sound of a crash. Andy C was on the floor, one leg splayed, and what looked to be the other one behind him in some semi-splits move. We all assumed he’s slipped over which was amusing enough, but then we noticed his leg had actually gone through the floor right up to his groin and his leg was dangling down into the floor below. It seemed like a very Pitcairn accident.
Of course instead of helping him or asking if he was ok, everyone, myself included, dashed in fits of hysterics to grab our cameras. These pictures are the result. Sorry for being so unhelpful Andy C, but it was pretty funny. I think it was some divine karmic intervention – and if I were a religious type I might find some message about vanity within that force of coincidence! I don’t think he’ll live it down for a while anyhow… and Randy has a good comeback now since he hasn’t fallen through any floors recently.
Till the next instalment!