Birthdays and beyond…

As promised, here is one of the blog posts that you are owed! Long overdue – this should have been posted in April….I haven’t put many photos on this post to save bandwidth, but I’ll add some extras when I can….

So it was my birthday last week, and like most of my birthdays it made me feel slightly melancholy. I’ve never been one for birthday parties, and bar a couple of small birthday dinners, one surprise dinner thrown by an ex, and a 10th birthday spent at a water park in Trinidad with a Super Mario cake, I’ve mostly managed to avoid having parties where I have to be the centre of attention. Though many of you might not think it, I don’t really like being the centre of attention. I like being detached enough to slink away, and I prefer doing something low key.

On this one, more than most, I spent most of the actual day reflecting on life and what has happened so far, and also the situation I have found myself in. I suppose my Pitcairn trip was planned as much as a documentation of Pitcairn as it was a cathartic experience for me. It has brought many things to the surface for me, and being so cut off from everything familiar for such a prolonged period has made me realise what is important and what isn’t. It has made me look at my relationships, with friends, with family, my romantic attachments, my decision making processes. I have disassembled much of my life block by block, and I can see it all with more clarity than I thought possible. Though at times being here has been incredibly stressful, sometimes you need to take yourself so far away from your own life to see it clearly. I know that when I get home and back to civilisation, many things need to change and evolve.

me pawl

The day before my birthday, Sue and Pawl held a quiz for the April birthday roll call. It was Sue’s birthday in early April, and Pawl’s a couple of days before mine, so they organised one of their quiz afternoons. Quizzes at Sue and Pawls are always a guaranteed headache for those who aren’t sure of the answers – you can swap a correct answer for a whale’s tooth shot (almost a Pitcairn rite of passage). Pawl has a collection of carved out whale’s teeth which are the same size as a shot glass, and somehow the fanfare of drinking out of one supersedes the reality of drinking shots at 3pm and logic goes out of the window. As a result I wasn’t quite sure if we had won or not, or whether the quiz master just took pity on our team as we had more birthday boys and girls on our team than anyone else’s [edit 17/05/2015: we did win, as I just discovered from the latest issue of Pitcairn’s miscellany newsletter. Vaine tells me that in the 20 years he has lives here he has never made it into the newsletter and that me making it in is an achievement of sorts]. At one point I was presented with a birthday cupcake board, decorated with snakes and ladders sweets as vines, and sliced marshmallows as petals on the cupcake ‘flowers’.

It was an impressive effort, though it was partially (actually, forget ‘partially’) made to tease a certain male (also in attendance) who had been coming into my room and leaving flowers in my bedroom almost daily for a time. Once news gets out on this island you can never live it down. For instance I once enthusiastically declared how much I “love roast chicken” and then the whole island was in on the roast chicken joke – teasing the same aforementioned male about when he would invite me home for roast chicken. Every time he and I were within the same space, chicken recipes would be exchanged by anyone within earshot or spying distance. I’m probably going to go off roast chicken for a while!

I do remember leaving the birthday quiz feeling rather despondent (despite an ensemble Macarena dance for additional points) after a very matter of fact telling from one guest that I was now “past it” and that my “eggs were drying up” so I had better get my figuratively ‘get my skates on’. I don’t particularly dwell on any of these things myself, preferring just to live life and take it as it comes, but having everything put quite so bluntly on a day of so-called celebration did feel a little unnecessary. Naturally I went home feeling a tad melancholy which carried over into the next day and my actual birthday.

fire

On the Monday morning following my birthday I received a welcome phone call from Daphne, Pawl’s mum “How are you?” she asks enthusiastically. She lives upstairs from Pawl and Sue in a quite separate home with her husband Keane. Though they share one driveway, the two floors really are worlds apart. Daphne has been one of the few islanders who has always welcomed me with open arms. I’ve enjoyed my time with her chatting about her family, going through old pictures, or talking about Elvis and her visit to Graceland. She always has the time for me, there is always a cup of hot coffee waiting, and usually some homemade breadsticks or some other baked delicacy. She was one of the first people to agree to have her photograph taken by me, which really helped in more ways than one.

I have spent many hours watching her weave her baskets with fingers dancing between the strands with quick precision. Weaving is one of the few traditional crafts that still exist on Pitcairn, with many of the older generation producing baskets for sale on the cruise ships and for their own use. It’s a laborious process, of gathering palm fronds from both a pandanus and the common palm tree, followed by preparation – stripping spines, washing, dyeing, drying, and cutting into strips.

On the phone Daphne mentioned that she had something for me, and to “pop up” when I was passing. Later that morning I stopped by and Daphne presented me with a homemade basket, with ‘RHIANNON’ woven around the lid in navy blue and natural coloured strands. After the time I had been having, it was such a genuinely thoughtful gesture that it almost brought me to tears. I gave Daphne a big squeeze which she seemed to receive happily enough.

It’s something that I have noticed about Pitcairn…. That there is very little physical affection shown anywhere. Not between brothers and sisters, parents and their children, husbands and their wives, or between friends. In London, life is not so matter of fact, people greet each other with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. People hold hands or will casually squeeze their partner around the waist when passing. Small shows of affection, nothing ground breaking, but present all the same.

Pitcairn has to be one of the least outwardly loving places that I have ever experienced and I think it’s one of the things I have struggled with in being here. People are happy to tease, or joke, but shows of real affection are rare. The people often move with a kind of bluster and purpose that almost seems to paint affection as time wasting. It feels very loveless and that practicality and necessity have taken precedence over the small encouragements that make life seem bearable. It’s almost as if everyone has to stay busy all of the time just so that they don’t stop and think and dwell on the relationships that they have and how they operate. Perhaps behind closed doors, things are different. I hope that they are different, and that at home when I am not there, love thrives. But I have a sneaking suspicion that things are not that different in private, and that life has now become about toil and the hard graft, a constant wheel turning relentlessly that everyone can rely on in a place where relationships can be fractured and fragile.

sundown

While here I have often wondered about community and what it means. Whether community is always good, or whether community can sometimes stifle goodness. I now know that ‘small’ and ‘close knit’ do not necessarily mean “strong” when talking of community – that a community’s small size can stop the individual from flourishing and in turn create barriers, reluctance and anger. There is no outlet. Even the roast chicken joke could be included in this – an island wide joke that spread via Chinese whispers. It was mostly harmless, but I did feel that instead of giving gentle encouragement or advice, the ribbing can lead to isolation of a kind. I never thought that feeling isolated would be possible in a place of only 40 people, all of whom are around you continuously, and I’m sure I’m not the only person that feels this way. I often feel I need space here, but by that I mean mental space away from the cacophony of gossip and negativity towards me. Pitcairn can be an exceedingly lonely place despite being the most claustrophobic place I have ever experienced. It’s not so much the physical position of this island that causes loneliness, but the dynamic of the people together.

The legal turmoil of the last decade has taken its toll, with divisions arising between families and even within families. No one has been untouched by that past, and here I still feel that tension all around me. It may have abated somewhat but the rifts are visible everywhere and it is going to take mammoth efforts to reunify and change attitudes.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I have felt this more than most – I am travelling with a camera and a recorder and I have been placed into a box by many islanders. No one has independently asked me what I am here to do, though a small handful of the community – the council members – had read my application in order to approve it. However all islanders have made assumptions and drawn conclusions that have embedded themselves and spread throughout this island like a kind of deadly poison. I have never been to any small place with strangers, where people have been so disinterested in me, even personally. They don’t really want to be friends with me and hold me at arms length – as I say, it’s lonely.

I am trying desperately to make this project work, to fight against the tides, to talk to people, to show my work, to show who I am, but it seems all too often that once a decision has been made it is unshakeable, and then the negative media released from Pitcairn is itself a self fulfilling prophecy. The positivity is drowned out by the past, yet again. A quick Google search will reveal pages and pages of bad press mostly to do with the trials, but when the community doesn’t seize opportunities to divert that image towards the positive angles, then how can Pitcairn really hope to survive?

I feel perfectly comfortable about saying this here because I have had this same conversation with many islanders. If you don’t dilute the negativity with some new content all that will ever be remembered is the recent history. How can anyone move on without presenting and being proud of a different side? Despite the recent history, there are good people here, there are good stories to be told, there are things to be proud of. But the world is unlikely to ever see them, and instead the overwhelming impression is that Pitcairn seems intent on wallowing under a shroud of darkness. I feel often as if I am watching the end – an island on lockdown. Nothing in, nothing out.

It makes you wonder about repopulation plans – it begs the question of if the island is ready for newcomers. Whether change from within can happen fast enough to save this small lump of rock for the ‘community’ that lives here. I may be generalising here, and I know that not everyone feels this way, but there seems to be an end point that certain islanders are striding towards rapidly by their own reluctance to engage and take ownership of their image. In a sense they are reconciled to the fate that awaits and as a result they have become complacent to an extent, and are defensive of that position, preferring not to draw attention to themselves and vanish quietly.

I have heard it mentioned by a couple of people that they almost look forward to being the last person to turn the lights out. It seems to me that this foregone conclusion acts as a barrier itself, as though by admitting failure one eschews ‘defeat’. This in turn comes back to their reluctance to engage with my project – I don’t know what I will leave here with. If the islanders don’t believe in preserving their present because the future is uncertain – it’s the “I’m not going to be here so what does it matter?” sort of attitude – then my efforts are almost thwarted before I begin. What most don’t seem to realise is that by letting me in, they might have a better chance of starting to change that image, but being open, openness spreads.

As someone who is fascinated with stories and by people, I find this all very puzzling. Especially in a place which superficially trades on its history to the extent that Pitcairn does…. That famous Bounty history that is seen everywhere – on hats and t-shirts worn by the islanders as an unofficial uniform, to the replica Bounty models in homes, to the paintings of the Bounty, and bookshelves overflowing with Bounty stories and Pitcairn related titles.

There is, outwardly, an obsession with the legend, but yet history in the real sense seems to slip through my fingers at every turn. As an artist, or a photographer, you are, effectively a historian. A record keeper, an observer, looking at the present as though every moment is an opportunity to capture an underlying essence or truth about the time we live in. But when so much seems to be smoke and mirrors, when people are closed, that kernel of truth – the truth that can sing out from an honest portrait or a simple detail is hard to find.

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Looming in the distance

I apologise now for my infrequency in blogging. I’ve been having a little bit of a hard time of it recently and trying to remain upbeat and positive has been using up most of my energy! This post should have gone up a few weeks ago but limited internet has meant restrictions on the blog. There are another two posts in the publishing queue, but patience is a virtue, so they say.

Marina

The Marina came and went on the 12th. It was an American vessel carrying around 1200 passengers. As usual on the Marina, they didn’t come ashore, and virtually the whole island once more decamped to the cruise ship for the day. The radio communication started early, some time around 5:30am, and Big Fence was buzzing with the sounds of radio static, rapid footsteps, and the chatter of organisation.

On Deck of Marina

Quad bikes could be heard zooming through Adamstown’s main road and up through the valleys with purpose, as fresh produce was gathered for the ship after a last minute request. Curios were packed, boxes were labelled and loaded onto trailers and into the back of a small pickup truck and ferried to the landing. Our backpacks were packed, and shoelaces tied. The Pitcairners donned their freshest attire and fixed broad smiles on their faces. The Marina carries a profitable passenger base, and the islanders know how to turn on the charm and ham up the mutineer connections when necessary.

Around 7am Brenda was heard ringing the bell five times to indicate the cruise ship’s arrival and to give warning to the locals to start heading down to the landing. Apparently this doesn’t happen too often anymore, so I was pleased she agreed to do it again for me so I could record it! It seems to be one of the many old traditions that are gradually fading away as technology such as handheld radios have taken over.

After the activity at home had waned and the loaded bikes dispersed, I clambered onto the back of Kevin’s quad and hurtled down towards the boat shed in a convoy of vehicles. We all watched as a floating tower block seemed to grow on the horizon, sprouting from the sea, trundling forwards in menacing silence.

It’s a strange feeling, watching a lump of metal appear that carries around 30 times the number of people than on the whole of Pitcairn. All of a sudden, here they are, stopping off and revelling in the experience of brushing shoulders with the famed mutineers descendants.

Rainbow

By around 8am, all of us were loaded into a single longboat headed out to the towering hulk lurking just outside of Bounty Bay. The Marina was quite different from the Amadea for me, because by now I have lived on Pitcairn for over a month, so I too became at attraction and the focus of questioning. “How do they have power?”, “What happens in a medical emergency?”, “What are the people like?”, “Do they have fridges?”, “How do they communicate with the outside world?”. The usual stuff, for the most part.

Longboat

The most common question however, is… “how do you get there?” People are interested in Pitcairn, and want to land. Many I spoke to had read about it, and a few had chosen that particular cruise precisely because Pitcairn was on the itinerary. Few knew that cruise ships rarely land, and that the only guaranteed way to read the island is with the Claymore II. When I explained the logistical challenges of landing people on Pitcairn, they saw why it is problematic. A ship of 1200 people on an island of 40 is clearly overwhelming – even in terms of transport for the less able bodied up from the landing via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. Ferrying that number of passengers in the ships tenders is also hard, with a small and limited landing area.

The long boats require crew, which visibly depletes the stock of able bodied islanders on shore. The island is treacherous in parts, there is nowhere to buy snacks or food, and that number of people would require a greater number of public toilets and other facilities. It’s almost too great a risk, for little gain. Though the islanders love having visitors land, the bigger ships are a little problematic and it’s very easy to see why.

So, my advice – if you want to visit Pitcairn and definitely land, then the best way is to travel on the Claymore. My second choice would be to find a private yacht – possibly on Gambier, and third, travel on a smaller cruise ship or research/expedition vessel. Do your research – check their past history of landing passengers. Some ships almost have a policy not to land, so make enquiries. Don’t assume that because it’s listing on the itinerary that you can get off.

Yachties

Ok, moving on back to the cruise ship… at one point in the morning we spied a yacht approaching from the lounge area where the Pitcairn ‘marketplace’ was set up on the Marina and Brenda (who deals with the yachts, entry clearances, and landing fees as part of her island police role) had to radio the boat and say that no one was home and that they could only be dealt with after the Marina had left. It brought up some bizarre visions of what you could write on a sign at the landing… “Gone fishing” perhaps, or simply “closed”. I’ve never been anywhere where its possible for an entire country to temporarily evacuate for the day and exit via a single boat.

Cruise ship days bring home, perhaps more than at any other time, the extent to which Pitcairn is maze of contradictions. It is off the beaten track, but famous the world over. The locals live a basic life, and many have had limited access to education, but each has had opportunities few outside would ever experience. Adamstown is effectively a rural village, but its people walk with a swagger and have a rock star mentality confounded from their mutineer heritage. They even have the photographer shrug off down pat: the donning of sunglasses often followed by a quick hand shielding face from lens gesture. It’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand locals don their Pitcairn t-shirts almost daily, visually advertising their collective belonging, and on the other hand they shrug off the attention that identity brings.

Computer room, big fence

The Pitcairner’s day to day lives working in the gardens, or on government projects are completely at odds with the mysticism that surrounds the people. Though much of their image is a Hollywood construct, many of the locals tap into it, and it has become their currency and identity. It has led me to wonder on more than one occasion whether Pitcairn will be able to move on from its history fast enough to sustain new growth and immigration. It seems a protectionist society, suspicious of outsiders and of “meddling”, but the island sits on the apex of thriving or failing – without new younger blood, the island has no future. But with new blood comes a dilution of the old, a departure from history, an evaporation of identity. What would it mean to come from Pitcairn if the mutineer ancestry became the minority? Would the allure still exist, would the interest from the cruise ships still sustain the island? There are many more questions than answers.

Before I arrived here I had a very different picture of the island, some parts have proven entirely false, and I have faced daily challenges trying to overcome both my own expectations and the views of others. Past wounds have not yet healed over, and it’s incredibly easy to accidentally pick a scab without knowing it. Not only is this island’s infrastructure fragile, and it’s future uncertain, but the people are fragile too. The trails ripped this place apart – even those who were not named on any documents had their lives turned over with a fine toothcomb. Everyone here is connected so every action has a ripple effect and some actions in the past have amplified beyond control.

Monopoly

Anyone visiting with a camera, and particularly those who are here for a long time are likely to feel the brunt of the past weighing heavy on their shoulders at some point. These last couple of weeks have been my turn – I know it’s not personal, though it often feels it. I am just another in a long line of outsiders. Others have told them how to live their lives, or have passed judgement. They are understandably suspicious. It was partly my reason for wanting to come here – because I felt that I could do a better job of getting to the essence of Pitcairn, that I was perhaps a little softer, a lot more open, and more respectful, that I could identify with much of the life here.

But in a place so embedded with history, Pitcairners are like elephants: they never forget. I’m slowly learning what not to touch, that some stones are best left covered in moss, undisturbed.

It has not been an easy road, and I’ve learnt a lot in the process. Though this may well be the most difficult thing that I have ever done, it’s an experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry!

Feeding Frigates

The dust never settles…

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It’s been another eventful week on Pitcairn. Most people probably think Pitcairn is a sleepy place, but far from it. With so few people and so many jobs to do, everyone juggles a number of responsibilities so there is never a shortage of action. One could say the dust never settles…

For me personally, time has zoomed in parts and at other times has seemed endless. As I write this, it’s my first rainy day on the island. I ventured out earlier, using my miniscule umbrella for the first time (whoever told me opening umbrellas indoors was bad luck now has to answer for the fact I’ve bought an umbrella that would suit a 7 year old better) and managed to end up rather soggy and muddy in the two minute walk to and from the Post Office. I’ve completed a stint of postcard writing – and have now got a case of severe hand cramp. It’s at times like this I wonder why no one really forced me into holding a pen properly as a kid, as I’m sure the way I hold a pen will land me with carpal tunnel or something later on in life!

I’m sitting at the front of Steve and Olive’s home, Big Fence, looking out onto the white horses that are dancing across the surrounding Pacific Ocean and nursing a cup of Yorkshire tea and a treasured McVitie’s chocolate digestive. The skies are a flat grey, and almost resemble that milky colour of London skies, only I’m thousands of miles away and there are oceans between us. The tint of Steve and Olive’s windows gives the outside world a lightly lilac hue

I can hear the wind and constant rumble of the waters breaking onto the rocks a couple of hundred metres below me, and as far as the eye can see is water. Water, water, everywhere. When I look at the sea like this it brings home quite how far away Pitcairn is, and it also makes me think we were crazy to cross oceans in a boat. The waves are so relentless and unforgiving, and we were so small. I can almost smell our boat’s interior right now, and that salty dampness that never seems to go away.

I was meant to be having my quad bike test today, but it got rained off. Kevin very kindly (see previous post!) took me on an island ride and got me reversing around a makeshift course up at the radio station. Managing the quad wasn’t too difficult, but every time I sit on one I think of all the accidents I’ve heard of, and how being in a car with airbags is bad enough! Still, it would be nice to have a little more independence and be able to get places a little easier. In the sweltering heat of midday, a quad would be very welcome. The thing about Pitcairn is that it’s naturally all hills, so for every nice downward slope you have a steep incline to climb minutes later. There is very little that is flat! I am glad of some respite from the heat though, and even though the roads have turned to mudslides from the downpour, at least it has meant to dust has been patted down for a bit!

The day before yesterday two yachts arrived and landed on the island – a French boat and an American boat. The Americans had been to Pitcairn previously, and so decided to come in on their own tender. They weren’t quite as skilled as the locals in negotiating the landing entry though, and they timed it rather badly, shooting in on a big wave with their small 15hp outboard with the kids screaming in unison. Jay Warren picked up the others on the French yacht with his small boat, and as usual entered with speed and panache and made the whole journey look easy. I think they key is to be decisive, quick, and have some proper power behind you. I can see how it’d be nerve wracking doing it by yourself though, so all power to them for giving it a go! I’d be petrified of leaving my boat at anchor here though, there’s no real shelter and you have to be pretty damn sure of your anchor technique. I’ve heard that a few boats have come quite literally unstuck, so I’d be wary. I’ve watched how rapidly the weather here can change.

yachts

Each one of the yachts had a few kids on board, which was great for the little girl here. A few of them spent the day with her at the school, and then later on they were all swimming at the landing and egging each other on to jump in. It was nice to see her have some company.

Sometimes I look at her and see a little of small me – precocious, surrounded by adults, and craving some contact from her own age group. So it was nice to see her with the other kids and also for the boat kids, some of whom had just sailed from Easter Island and were headed to Gambier, and some had just come from New Zealand and were stopping off en route to Panama. They were all pretty glad of a stop off, a walk, and a swim.

The group who had come from New Zealand were originally from the Chesapeake bay (pretty close to where my Mum and her ex husband had had their boat and settled), and their two crew members were from Kinsale in Ireland (where we’d bought our boat), and from Barcelona (where my Dad lives). Sometimes the coincidences are quite remarkable.

The two crew guys (the Irish guy and the Spanish guy) and I decided to take a wander off to Christian’s Cave. I did the walk in flip flops – and then went barefoot on the rock as we climbed up. The walk was pretty easy really – I had been expecting it to be really difficult given the number of blog posts that I’d read before coming here from people who had given up halfway, or had never made it in time. It doesn’t take long and there’s a nice view of Adamstown as a reward at the other end.

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I would have loved it as a kid – it would have been a great place for sleepovers. Particularly because of the number of goat sculls and bones we encountered on the way up, it would have been the prefect goulish place to freak each other out. Almost as good as the derelict leper colony at Chacachacare, Trinidad.

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christian's cave

The only objectionable thing about the walk was what the locals call “grabaleg”– these small spiky seed pods that bury their way into your skin. They were everywhere, it’s an invasive plant that has taken over the whole area surrounding Christian’s cave, so be warned. When I got back home, I spent a good 40 minutes with the tweezers gently and gingerly easing out multiple spines that had worked their way all across my body, and into horribly sensitive places like the arches of my feet.

I was a little disappointed with the eco trail leading up to the cave though – many of the native plants that had been marked out were actually dead. I’m no horticulturalist (in fact my record with plants probably puts me at serial killer level), but it seems its an area of interest that has been a little neglected, and I’m not sure that the blank CDs attached with fishing line and used as markers and tied around the plants can be that good for them. But anyway, my plant record means I probably shouldn’t comment!

Over the last couple of days we’ve also celebrated two birthdays – the doctor’s and Kevin Young’s. Kevin’s was great – a whole ton of food and what seemed to be half the island turned up at Big Fence – mostly family by one way or another. Most people who know me, know I love food, so this was a rather welcome event! I tried some new things I’ve never had before which is always good too.

This week also included witnessing a couple of public events in the hall – the first one an island council meeting and the second a hearing in an on-going court case. Both of which were interesting because they both involved live video links with the outside world and it was a good thing to see while I’m here as it put some things in context for me. These will probably be the only live public links to the outside while I’m on island (depending on the results of the election in the UK), so I’m glad I attended. The court hearing wasn’t very well attended and I was a bit reticent about going as I didn’t want anyone to read anything into my attendance (i.e. thinking I’m a journalist) but I have never had the opportunity to attend anything of the sort before so for curiosity’s sake I went along. I would have gone the previous day but got rather confused about the New Zealand time zone thing – not quite realising it was a whole day different! Seeing the way the video links work today in 2015, makes you wonder how it would have looked back when Operation Unique was in full swing.

The council meeting was a little different – it was a link with the governor and less formal so was done over Skype. The idea was that members of the public could pass comments on and ask questions, not that anyone did! It felt a little surreal sitting in Pitcairn with everyone in t-shirts and shorts and flip flops and watching this suited official on screen sitting thousands of miles away. The meeting talked over a couple of points that are clearly apparent when you’re here – mostly centring around repopulation and tourism. I was a little surprised that two points that seemed quite obviously connected weren’t mentioned…

council meeting

Namely – the Marine Conservation Area, and the new proposal to amend Pitcairn’s ordinances in favour of the inclusion of same sex marriage. It seems to me that the Marine Conservation Area would be huge in terms of eco tourism, the increased access to various development grants, and potentially would bring longer term visitors and researchers to the island who would help to change the demographic. I can’t see how this would be negative for Pitcairn. The welcoming of same sex marriage would bring Pitcairn in line with the UK and would also stop those who are in same sex marriages and civil unions being put off settlement. So it seems as though that just opens the doors a little wider and takes down another negative barrier. I would have mentioned both of these points myself in the meeting, but felt as an off islander I don’t have the right to pass comment nor whoop in appreciation of both developments.

Here’s an apt product that I found in a cupboard in the store:

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I know in the UK that the marine area is big news, and is being celebrated across the conservation communities, and really did think there would be more excitement here about the whole thing, but then I read the governor’s letter to the island which was pinned to the public noticeboard and the tone of it was very withdrawn, downbeat, and sceptical, so perhaps that has something to do with it. Or perhaps it has something to do with the general and vague animosity towards NGO involvement and initiatives on Pitcairn. Certain actions such as the cat eradication, and goat eradication have put a few noses out of joint along the way. It did seem to me though that you couldn’t possibly talk about the future of tourism and repopulation on this island without mentioning the marine announcement though, whatever one’s opinion on it. I didn’t feel I could say anything in the meeting, but I’m saying it here instead.

The project is slow going, which is rather what I expected – I’m still trying to find my place here and work out some of the tangled web of connections and who is who, and all of that. I want to create something that accurately captures a sense of place. Perhaps not literally but metaphorically – and in order to do that I need to absorb and understand the place a little better, and for people to be open and relaxed in my presence.

I’m not interested in creating a purely documentary project. Many people will want to see the logistical aspect of Pitcairn – how the internet is received, how the power works, where water comes from, the postal service, the store, the school, the church, the council. So yes, an element of that will be included in this project.

But I want to capture something other – the entanglement, this mixture of old and new, the history and how that has filtered down to the present, the family groupings which may at first seem black and white but are really shades of grey, the small details of everyday life that the Pitcairners themselves wouldn’t notice or take for granted. Many of the old ways of doing things have not been recorded, so I want to show how the old has melded into the new, and to show this community in a state of change. I want to create a thorough and lasting legacy project that shows the intersection Pitcairn now sits at – between the past and the future – drawing out the fragility of the place through the film.

I haven’t shot much as yet but have been testing a few things along the way and taking a few snaps here and there. Here’s a picture of Steve and the black eye he sustained from a bit of an accident. It’s a digital shot I’m afraid as I haven’t got my scanner rigged up as yet, but you get the gist….

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Pitcairn is a difficult place to fit into in some ways, but I hope it’ll get easier. I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes as it’s not in my nature to do so, but inevitably my very presence will cause suspicion amongst some, and I understand why.

This project is planned to stand apart from the work that has been done on Pitcairn in the past. I came to Pitcairn to find something missing from my past, or to tie up a loose end that has always sat with me. I’m not going to go into exhaustive detail, but much about Pitcairn’s situation mirrors my own, and the more time I spend here the more that becomes both more apparent and also highlights the changes I’ve gone through…. I have to find a way to express this in the project subtly and I may not have found the way yet, but I’m working on it.

Also just before I go, and on a vaguely related note – I’d like to make a quick comment on WordPress and this blog. I’ve encountered some confusion over whether this blog is affiliated with any sort of press organisation, or is filtered through some kind of press directory. I think this comes from the name on the bottom of this site, “Wordpress”. If you go onto http://www.wordpress.com, you’ll see what wordpress is – a hosting site for blogs and websites from people all around the world about everything from knitting to rubber duck collectors to business websites and all those in between. My blog just happens to be about Pitcairn, because that’s where I am and that’s my current focus.

I’d like to say that everything posted on this blog is my own opinion and contains anecdotes purely there for amusement purposes, its a kind of diary for people who have backed my project, and friends and family that would like to follow the progress of the project and read something that contains a bit of my personality, and my own experiences of being here. The content of this blog is my own and cannot be used without my consent. I own the content – it may be in the public domain but it isn’t a free for all. Any details about the workings of Pitcairn that I refer to on this blog are all available publicly elsewhere (e.g. job titles, minimum wage amounts, laws or ordinances, etc).

WordPress is simply the name of a blogging platform, like blogger or even Tumblr. I just prefer the layout of it – it has nothing to do with “the press”. I am not a journalist, for anyone with any doubts, feel free to Google me, it’s all there – you won’t find anything about me being a journalist, and instead you’ll find a whole load of pictures of lighthouses and waterfalls that I’ve taken – I am an artist making a project, and that’s all.

I am not working for a newspaper or the press and am not being paid by any organisation for this project – it is without prejudice or agenda.

There will always be a number of people who may not believe me on this, and I accept that will always happen. This is essentially a crowd funded creative project, and I wouldn’t be being true to my backers if the project deviated from its origins.

I just don’t want there to be any grey area as to why I’m keeping this blog or what it is for, or from what position it is written.

I’ll leave you now with a little snap of last night’s sunset…  adieu!

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The first week on Pitcairn

It’s been a week since I landed on Pitcairn and it feels like so much longer. As a result this post is rather longer than I intended too. I’ve already lots track of days and times. The red dust seems to ooze from my every pore, and my legs are on fire from mosquito bites, but I am in good spirits.

My hosts Steve and Olive have been fantastic, including me in everything that they do, and are making me feel less of an outsider. They’ve both got a great sense of humour and have no qualms about making fun of me!

There isn’t much that feels British about this place, particularly because the New Zealand connection is felt so acutely, but sometimes the prevailing sense of humour, irony, and ability to make fun bears much similarity to the Brits, though I’m sure most Pitcairners would rush to deny it! There isn’t much love lost on Britain here, for some obvious reasons, and some not so obvious reasons. Andy (RSPB) and I were in the shop yesterday and he was buying baked beans, and I ended up with some chocolate digestives and the first thing Olive had said to both of us was how we “must be British” – apparently McVities are in stock purely for the British contingent. Though I don’t feel terribly British most of the time, and consider myself more of a mongrel, there are some things I can’t escape – cups of tea and biscuits are seemingly one!

Much has happened since I arrived at Big Fence. My first day passed quickly, with my first evening spent on the landing fishing with Steve and Olive. I caught a few, which was a few more than what I was expecting – I’ve never experienced such easy fishing. One of the types of fish I caught was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen in (or out) of the water – turquoise blues and pinks. I felt bad eating it!

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Our next fishing trip took us to Tedside, down the other side of the island. It’s a steep dirt road down, and meets a new concrete area as part of the new harbour. Steve, Olive and I went out further, wandering around the cliff, clambering over rocks, and ducking under overhangs, and edging our way towards Rat’s Hole, a good fishing spot. Olive and Steve wanted to catch some fish to be frozen and taken on the Claymore, for Claris, Olive’s sister in New Zealand who loves the local Nanwi. We caught a load. Each time we dropped the line, we were hauling them in. Steve was catching two at a time of his double hooked rod. Olive gutted them then and there in amongst the rock pools and the water ran red like the killing fields. She and Steve hand fed the circling frigate birds, some of whom were islanders’ pets, brought back from Oeno years before and hand reared. I loved every minute of it.

For the first couple of days, the island was a hive of fervent activity in preparation for the arrival of a German cruise ship, Amadea. At home with Steve and Olive, I watched as they churned out fridge magnets bearing Pitcairn stamps on small pieces of sanded wood, signed by Steve on the back with lacquering and magnet attachment by Olive. Steve was also selling wooden shark carvings, whittled down from a gorgeous red hued wood and set with real sharks teeth caught from Pitcairn’s waters. It was a production line in full swing. In every home I passed, everyone was making something. For that first day the island had a frenetic energy and sense of excitement.

magnets

Soon after my arrival I met Kevin Young, older brother of Kerry, and brother in law to Heather the tourism coordinator. Kevin is the only one of the Young brothers to be born on Pitcairn, but has been living in New Zealand most of his life forging a career and having a family. Kevin is in the process of moving back to Pitcairn, and hopes to set up a business that he can run from here. He is taking over Cari and Brian Young’s home Up Tibi which sits just up the hill from Steve and Olive’s. Not that ‘up the hill” is terribly descriptive when everything on Pitcairn is either “up the hill” or “down the hill”, depending on which spot you’re standing in. Kevin gave me a bit of an “orientation” of Adamstown and took me to meet Mavis and Merelda, a mother and daughter who also live in Adamstown. Mavis has an infectious smile and wicked laugh, and Merelda is Pitcairn’s unofficial cultural hub. When we walked in she was grinding a coconut, and welcomed us in, despite being busy preparing for cruise ship time.

Cari, the previous owner of Kevin’s house (originally from Norway), has now left the island permanently, and has moved to New Zealand to be with Brian, a diabetic, who had been medically evacuated because of gangrene and lost a toe in the process.

Adrian, a PhD student in the history of Science at Princeton also left with the last Claymore, as did the government rep and his wife, albeit for a short holiday as they are aiming to hitch a ride back on the next visiting cruise ship. Adrian was a lovely guy, who, from what I understood, was examining the way the island has been taken advantage of and used as an experimentation ground, and how that has impacted on the attitude towards outsiders from the locals. Quite an interesting facet as this is certainly something that I’ve been experiencing from a few select individuals! I think the island has been understandably burned by reporters, but also from decades of Bounty interest with people coming ashore and pilfering artefacts, as well as misrepresentation on the silver screen, and a few photographers who have “borrowed” family photographs, promising to restore them, which have never been returned. I feel as though the islanders want to grasp their own culture back, and feel it has perhaps become hijacked by the outside world, and that their own strong identity has been consumed. It must be a little like living in Disneyland at times – “come ashore and meet the mutineers”. I can see how it would become tiresome.

The tension was in the air the day the cruise ship arrived – would they come ashore, would they not. Everyone was watching the seas. Apparently German ships usually try to come ashore, and the Americans never do. I am guessing its probably got something to do with insurance and the American penchant for suing, but whatever the reason, the Germans were true to form. Some of course, had no desire to face the long boats, or prefer to live exclusively on the water (one woman I spoke to had been at sea for 4 months and had not been ashore once), and for that reason the islanders split into two groups, one heading out to the looming white mass anchored off Bounty Bay, and another contingent remaining ashore for the more intrepid visitor.

I headed out to the ship, though was torn between watching people struggle up the Hill of Difficulty and photographing them traipsing across people’s gardens. The next ship is the Marina, an American vessel, so in all likelihood I won’t witness the cruise ship tourist ashore. Adrian had a similar internal struggle – it was his last day before the Claymore departure, and for his PhD it probably would have been more fitting, but we did orchestrate a few photos of me photographing a tourist photographing an islander which might help back up some of his PhD theory! My trouble is I can’t resist a longboat journey, so off I went to the ship. It was my first real look at my new home from the water, as the Claymore disembarkation happened so quickly. It was the first time I’d had an opportunity to really look at it in all its colourful glory, this dusty and fertile rock.

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The cruise ship experience was an interesting one. Our reduced Pitcairn contingent headed out on a loaded longboat, filled with suitcases and wooden boxes containing a variety of goods for sale. The vessel had erected a pontoon, with caged area for boarding. The cage was low, and my fellow passengers told me that they disliked the pontoon as it was actually more dangerous than the ladder – I heard one story of the swells pushing a longboat underneath the pontoon. I could see why. The pontoon hovered just below our gunnel, with no structure beneath it to protect us against the swell. The cruise ship’s weight means it doesn’t budge in the water, but we rode each movement, and as a result it’s like trying to tie an intricate knot with a severe case of Parkinson’s disease. The men managed to tie us off and we quickly moved up the gang plank into the ship, where we exchanged our Pitcairn island ID cards for ships passes and headed up to level 9. The idea of 9 levels on a boat makes me a feel a little ill, and I don’t like the fact that cruise ships have so little draught in relation to what is above the water. It feels obscene and unnatural.

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I watched the deft efficiency with which the islanders unloaded the boats, loaded the lifts, set up stalls, and (mostly) turned on the charm for the tourists. I tried to help Reynold, an ageing islander down the stairs to the lower deck with his wares (which predictably, he refused, not wanting to owe me a favour or loose pride), and watched the Germans haggle with prices. At one point I ended up manning a stall and working out currency conversation rates. The islanders will, in theory, accept most any currency, but getting your head around the standard conversion rate table in a hurry without a calculator and with a queue forming takes a bit of mental agility.

Many of the Germans seemed more interested in the cramped Jacuzzi, or miniscule pool than the legendary island which they found themselves in front of. A number did engage, buying t-shirts and small items (what’s to be expected from a German vessel, as apparently the resounding opinion is that “they’re tight”) – the postcards flew off the tables and were quickly written and returned for a Pitcairn postmark.

ignoring the island

I had a few of the passengers come up to me with great incredulity asking me where I had obtained my camera from, and whether we had those sorts of things on the island. A few asked me about my lineage, and I even ended up with several small bags of chocolates and vials of perfume before I could protest that I was merely an intruder. I also watched the throng form around Pirate Pawl, who, in my opinion, really should ‘do a Covent Garden’ and start charging for photographs. Wherever he moves, the people follow, a trick he has sometimes used to lure people away while stalls are set up. He looks every part the mutineer fantasy, and the tourists lap it up with voluble enthusiasm. The Disney character comparison doesn’t seem far from the truth, the Germans were hopping about him as 5 year olds would chase a Mickey Mouse mascot.

pirate pawl

Our exit was as rapid as our arrival, even though I was chasing up the rear trying to catch my last few moments of the outside world and record what I could of the fanfare surrounding this mystical island.

When we reached shore I tackled the Hill of Difficulty on foot for the first time, and let’s just say I can see where the name came from. It’s very steep. I paused halfway to photograph the Amadea heading off into the Pacific abyss and out of view. That afternoon the Claymore II would also depart, taking my one exit with it, and the last of the tourists. The rest of us left were here for the long haul.

I put on my swimming gear and loaded up with cameras, and wandered back down to the landing to photograph the empty longboat which was still tied to the dock. I knew that this was rare – a cruise ship and the Claymore in the same day, and an unattended long boat was not such a common sight (they usually winch them up the slip when they come in). The boats wouldn’t be used for another while so I took in the empty harbour, spending the first few moments on Pitcairn truly alone. I took a quick dip and scrambled over the rocks to get a better view of the Claymore coming back into view as it moved from the lee of the island back to Bounty Bay.

claymore at anchor

A small crowd had started to filter down the slope, with quad bikes loaded with packages, and the boat shed’s benches were suddenly taken over by Brenda stamping passports for those who were leaving. I got dressed and left my Polaroids drying in the care of the one remaining child on the island, aka my new swimming buddy, and donned a lifejacket. The longboat was loaded and I got on, taking a pew next to the police officer. We headed out over the surging seas, and trussed up alongside the Claymore, where the cargo and exiting passengers were loaded off. I tried my best to take a few pictures on my Hasselblad, but the boat’s movements were unpredictable and my fingers uncertain. I have no idea how they will come out.

packages

police

I watched Cari Young’s island departure from the long boat and could see her hazy, wistful, look and she boarded the ship carrying with her a kind of peaceful stoicism, knowing that she may never return. Her tears had passed and she looked into the distance composing herself. Though she had married into one of the island’s key families with Bounty lineage, she had been drawn to the island originally out of her own curiosity and Bounty interest many years ago. I could feel the surge of nostalgia emanating, and I could feel that this was the end of an era. One more islander to leave. One more never to return.

After the crazy busy (and sweltering) day of boat departures and arrivals and all the activity, a couple of islanders jumped in the water at the landing. I jumped in too, not needing much of an excuse. We were quickly joined by another, and then another, till the water was a sea of bodies – about half the population of the entire island. It was a sight. I wish I had been out of the water taking a picture, but then sometimes it’s the photos not taken that are the more powerful. That day marked the moment when the island transferred back to the possession of the locals – the outsiders were mostly out (apart from a couple of government post holders, Andy, and myself), and daily life could return to normal, and a new chapter could begin.

I don’t really want to talk too much about specific people on this blog, though I feel sometimes it may be called for, and in this particular aside, I’d like to mention the powerhouse that is Olive Christian. Olive is unstoppable. She’s a charming woman in her early 60s, a fan of country music, The Eagles, and a good dance, who adores her family and grandkids – she’s also an indispensible cog in the way this island functions. She’s like the Energizer bunny.

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Firstly, she manages the store – though this may seem like a small job for such a small island and tiny population, it really isn’t. She coordinates everyone’s overseas orders, deals with suppliers, works with the cruise ships with buying and selling, and prepares everyone’s bills (the shop is run on credit), stocktakes, and restocks shelves. She gets paid what would generally be considered a pittance in the outside world for all of this labour. I’ve seen the amount of effort that goes into this, and I can only describe it as a labour of love. Olive loves the island, and knows many of the older people rely on the shop, not just for its supplies but also for its social draw. Her sense of duty and dedication to everything she does is admirable. Oh and in case you were wondering about the gun pictures above – we were shooting down breadfruit for dinner tonight.

Between the shop days, and often after the shop closes, Olive can be seen dashing around the island fulfilling one of her other part time jobs, like clearing the roadsides from the encroaching vegetation with her strimmer, mower, or sprayer in full overalls and gum boots for NZ$10 an hour (the islands catch all rate for every job). She cooks every night, and is known as being one of the islands most skilled and keen fisherwomen (and fishermen for that matter).

She tends to the family’s gardens, goats and chickens which are spread throughout the island, and still has boundless energy for her guests. She’s charming, and funny with genuine eyes and a disarming enthusiasm for everything she does, and does the work of 10 men and 10 women all together. I haven’t seen her complain once. I’ve only been here a week, but I can see why some have referred to as the unofficial island matriarch.

olive

Steve is equally unstoppable, and despite a busted up knee that probably should have been replaced years ago, is down at Tedside on the alternative harbour project working long hours as Project Manager / Engineer. There are only a handful of guys working on the project – the entire contingent of able-bodied men it seems, and Steve is a key element. Though you might think being Project Manager means sitting back and organising from afar, Steve is hands on, and came home the day before yesterday with an eye so purple it looked as though he’d been testing eye shadow. He didn’t want to talk about it particularly and brushed it off (an accident that occurred when laying piles against the wishes of the surges tide)– but the reality is these accidents happen when working in harsh conditions and with so few hands. But he does so willingly, as do the other men, all for a measly $10 an hour and no risk compensation.

steve

Just another small reminder that Pitcairn is no easy place to live, and that each day islanders lie at the mercy of mother nature.

Living with Steve and Olive has so far been great, because they really do live from the land for the most part, and know everything you need to know about growing things, or the way the island works. I haven’t even scratched the surface with Pitcairn yet, and there are still people whom I haven’t met, or have passed by all too briefly. There are things I want to see, and do, and I have a raft of content I want to produce, but at the same time I don’t want any resident to feel that they’re being violated or taken advantage of. Time here is a precious commodity, there are too few people for all of the jobs that need doing, and I’m conscious of encroaching too heavily. I also really want to capture more of an essence of what this island is all about, instead of just recording mindlessly.

Yesterday (the 19th March), the announcement about the government’s intention to proceed with the proposed marine reserve protecting “the bounty” of the Pitcairn Islands’ waters was announced by Shaun Christian (the island’s mayor and Steve and Olive’s younger son) over channel 16 on the VHF. A notice was put up outside the shop and a few locals stopped to glance at it. There’s a way to go apparently, just in terms of the practicalities of policing and budgeting, but its an historic moment for Pitcairn in many ways, and one of the most significant things to happen to the island.

Some locals have apparently been flip flopping on it, and are generally suspicious of NGO activity, as they don’t like the external intervention and being told how to run their island. Which I can understand. Animal importation including pets is restricted, and there have been culls of other invasive species, so many things relating to the environment and intervention seem to be viewed with some suspicion. It’s a small place, and one where every law and decision is felt acutely reverberating through the very fabric of the island.

I’ll leave you know with another island character…. Steve and Olive’s cat, Mitty…

mitty

mitty

The arrival!

The Claymore journey was pretty smooth, or at least to me. Good to know I haven’t lost my sea legs! I still wanted it all to be over as fast as possible as I was itching to arrive, but it was good to have the couple of days to get myself organised a little, at least in theory.

There were no big seas and it was just plain chugging along at a steady 11/12 knots. We saw some nice sunsets and the skies were beautiful at night, which was an added perk of the nothingness of the sea. I liked being back at sea for that short period… I was never much of a fan of living on a boat, but I really don’t mind boat travel when it’s not your everyday. In fact I enjoy feeling miniscule and insignificant from time to time – partly because living in London can mean you spend so much time chasing after irrelevant things, or expending disproportionate amounts of your energy on pointlessness. It’s easy to loose perspective. Somehow being at sea puts all of that back into alignment – you realise we are just specks more infinitesimal than the faintest star in the sky, and somehow that’s comforting. You could do anything you like and it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day…

Throughout the journey I didn’t see too much of my fellow passengers – Heather was holed below deck working, and Darralyn and Michelle were in their cabins playing cards, social worker Jim seemingly vanished and I spent most of my time with Andy from the RSPB. He could usually be found out on deck with his Swarovski binoculars in one hand and a notebook in the other recording sea birds. Like a more advanced and worthy “I Spy” book!

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The rest of my time was spent up in the bridge with the crew, chatting away about life events, where we had travelled on our boat, Fleetwood Mac, and their impressions of Pitcairn and its future. I could hardly believe the amount of new fangled technology that was housed up in the bridge – especially for an old boat (German I think originally, Hamish – the man in charge – said that there had been a whole load of Third Reich stuff on board when it had first been bought). These days you can pretty much press “Go” and wait till you get there it seems. Quite different to the high maintenance sail boat existence! Hanging out up in the bridge was great – looking at the charts, watching the log be filled out, it all took me back. All those sea rituals.

Jane cooked up some great food on the journey and we even had a delicious lamb roast en route, which is much more than I was expecting at sea! Mind you, I suppose the cost of the Claymore II is about akin to going on a 5* cruise! Heather told me en route that the price of the vessel would never go down, despite attempts because the government were using off-island passengers like myself to supplement and offset their running costs. Islanders themselves pay a reduced fee, but it’s still extremely steep and most can’t afford to leave.

Apparently tourism has really tried to appeal about the costs because it’s one of the (many) factors that make Pitcairn so difficult and expensive to reach. Though the service is reliable, there’s not much the islanders can do about cost as it’s under a permanent government charter. As a result tourism is very limited, and mostly comes through the cruise ships, or from special trips like the Norwegians we’d met at the airport.

The Landing

The island needs outsiders in order to survive, but with such high transport costs, only very few ever manage to land on the island’s distant shores. I had heard about the islanders’ suspicion that the government was trying to ‘shut them down’, and it seems that may originate at least in part with the unwillingness to budge on transit costs. Because so few people then book to travel, it makes the interest in Pitcairn appear minimal which means that the Claymore remains the only sustainable passenger route.

Though since I’ve arrived here, many suspect that if the costs were lower the traffic to Mangareva could double, which may in turn create a sustainable future for the island. If outsiders visit, some may settle, creating a much-needed workforce. One of the other issues seems to be the amount of cargo the Claymore can physically carry – some islanders have to wait months or even years for space on the vessel. This makes it difficult for businesses that deal with the outside to survive so most islanders have multiple jobs to support themselves and rely heavily on the souvenir trade with the cruise ships. In a sense their isolation forces a subsistence lifestyle.

I digress.

We approached Pitcairn at night, and there was an air of excitement on the boat. Both Michelle and Darralyn had been away from home for the last three months and were both itching to get ashore to their families and lives. I know how it is – no matter how much you enjoy being away, there’s nothing like your own bed. There were radio calls to the shore, and I sat up in the bridge recording what I could – “first contact” if you will. Sue was the first island voice I heard coming in over channel 16, and it sounded like they’d been having a good night! Sue is married to “pirate” Pawl, who is one of the first islanders you’d have came across in pictures if you Google Pitcairn island.

I tried to see the island as we steamed towards it, and I caught a glimpse of a dark looming hulk amidst the inky blue when I stuck my head out of the polyurethane panels surrounding our eating area. It was a shame to arrive at night so I missed seeing the island loom larger and larger, but c’est la vie.

Hamish made arrangements for the longboats to arrive at 8:30 the next morning, so we anchored up outside Bounty Bay as the weather was conducive and not too rough. We had a few celebratory drinks in the bridge – and I sampled some New Zealand Tui beer (a new one for me!) – I also got to meet Bob the engineer properly for the first time. He’s been to Pitcairn more than 50 times, and is a big collector of artefacts and motorcycles. He’s also the only crew member to go ashore these days.

I woke early to head to the bridge to record the radio communications for the BBC programme, and got myself packed and washed. I had a brief breakfast of Jane’s delicious freshly baked muffins and amazing Pitcairn passion fruit, and filled out the Pitcairn landing forms.

landing card

I’d inevitably left some of the important things (like film!) in one of the other suitcases in the cargo deck, so had to go and retrieve and as I was doing so, all of a sudden the longboat showed up. I still hadn’t finished in my cabin so I had to dash downstairs and sort that out, and run back upstairs again. There wasn’t much of a chance for recording the process as it all happened so fast. Brenda Christian (the island police officer) boarded the boat first and sorted out passport stuff and seemed to orchestrate our transfer.

luggage on claymore

longboat

Pitcairn from claymore

The longboat transfer is something that I can see would be really awkward for those unsteady on their feet. The crew are deft and efficient, and grab you to get you on the boat. But the rise and fall of the longboats is very pronounced and all of a sudden its deck can drop below the ship’s gunnel and you could have a meter to fall. It’s all about timing. Even in the calm (ish) seas we arrived in, the longboat was surging up and down, and bucking and grinding against the Claymore’s hull. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, but I can see how some of the ageing Norwegians might not have been quite so thrilled at the prospect! Once you’re on the longboat, no time is wasted getting you ashore, and before you know it the ropes are cast off and everyone is waving you off. The longboats have little to hold on to, and the gunnel is only around 6” above the deck, so I can imagine it would be quite easy to fall off if you didn’t have your wits about you and a decent dose of common sense.

The best part is coming into the landing, where the longboat slows just outside and the cox watches the swells, timing the surge so that the boat doesn’t overshoot and plough straight in. When the waves are right, the boats moves in and before you know it you’re being tied off and offloaded and you’re standing on the concrete landing. Your luggage is hefted off onto the dock in a matter of seconds it seems, and your hosts are there to welcome you. It was all such a rush. I met a whole raft of people in the first two minutes of being ashore but probably only caught 25% of the names flying around. Melva Evans came up to me and put a necklace made from shells and seeds around my neck, and then my hosts Steve and Olive Christian made an appearance.

All of a sudden my luggage was loaded onto their quad bikes and little 4 wheel drive and we followed the procession of quads and the cloud of red dust up the steep hill from the landing as I was whisked up to Big Fence, their sprawling home at the beginning of Adamstown.…

Many of you have asked me along the way why the title “Big Fence” – well, now you know. When I was searching the crevices of my brain for a working title for this project, I remembered the name of Steve and Olive’s home. Big Fence seemed apt for several Pitcairn specific reasons, but also because I liked the parallel between the house name and the Pacific Ocean. Surely the ocean is the biggest fence, or hurdle, when attempting to reach Pitcairn.

big Fence sellotape

big Fence

I won’t be permanently based at Steve and Olive’s (as the plan has always been to move around), but because it is in the centre of ‘town’ and I’ve heard that they are excellent hosts, it seemed a perfect place to start. I hear they’ll give me a taste of the true Pitcairn lifestyle, and Big Fence is where I will call home for the next period.

But, I’m here! I’m finally here… and thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way!

Sambo

Mangareva and Beyond

Girl, French Polynesia

I’m going to skip forward a little while now, because there is so much to write, and perhaps all isn’t quite so important. I’m sure most of you are more interested in the Pitcairn leg than any of the preamble, so I’ll be quick…

I took a few days out to regroup and left Tahiti, ending up staying on a little motu (coral island). Staying there meant I didn’t have to worry about transport, or food etc, and I could just wander along and enjoy myself and figure out how to get the most out of the technology I was taking, etc.

Clearing

Sunset

The motu was great, a boat ride from the main harbour across a stunning lagoon. The water was postcard colour, and every underwater movement could be seen as the boat glided over the prominent coral heads. Guest accommodation consisted of wooden huts with thatched roofs and tiled bathrooms. It was simple, and allowed in more mosquitoes than I liked, but it felt very homely.

The guy running the place was a Frenchman, and a Hasidic jew – he no longer wore the full gear, but honoured Shabbat and many of the rituals, or had adapted them to match his current motu lifestyle. The locals called him Jesus or Robinson Crusoe (very similar to what my Dad used to get called! that and Chuck Norris, I remember!), and you could see why.

Shabbat

When I met him, he was wearing full white – an outfit he’s bought from a Hare Krishna place somewhere in Israel. Initially, he was great. All smiles and good cheer, but I rapidly felt that good hosting wasn’t the only thing on his agenda. I was the only guest at the time, and had a couple of days until the next guests arrived, and I very quickly started counting down to when he’d have a distraction. His colleague, a younger guy born and raised in French Polynesia was great, he made me feel comfortable and it was much easier when he was around. As for Robinson, he started asking me if he could give me a massage and started encroaching on my personal space too much. So much for my quiet time away from it all. Normally I’m good at handling this, but I just felt irritated by it this time… it was the opposite of what I needed.

Visiting ray

Hermit

I took to waking up early and skipping breakfast, and heading out around the motu on walks, shell hunting, and wandering through the coconut groves and attempting to avoid the mosquitos until I ran out of water. Robinson would prepare dinner in his well stocked kitchen hut, and the three of us would eat together. I did my best to avoid the innuendo, and did what I could to deflect attention. Robinson did have some nice friends, and I met a lovely Ukrainian/French couple who were great and came over to the motu for lunch (poisson cru – a kind of raw fish salad withcoconut milk), and we all went to the yacht club one night where I met a sweet lady who made up a little toy and sweets package for the little girl on Pitcairn. I also met a couple of sailor types who were all interested in my Pitcairn trip and it was refreshing to meet some people that actually knew where it was!

Polaroids

I took a kayak out on one day, exploring neighbouring motus and collecting shells. I stuck the GoPro on the front and had an explore, and as I was paddling past a beautiful island owned by an extremely wealthy cosmetics man, I encountered one of the men from the yacht club who was project managing work on the island. He allowed me to land and stop for a few minutes and have a quick chat – that island is usually off limits, with cameras everywhere and high security so I felt a bit privileged! I saw some amazing sea life, and a ray came up and paddled in the water one day, which was a rare treat.

After 3 nights I was relieved that an American father and daughter were to arrive, with his other daughter following the next day as she had missed a connecting flight. They were great – all belly laughter and joviality. It was like popping your ears and relieving the pressure. We would all eat together, have a drink together and talk about everything – the father, Rhys, was really interested in hearing about Polaroid and the trip, and his adult daughters were great – interested and in tune with the world. If only they’d been there since day 1. Rhys came with me to the airport for my departure and we had a couple of drinks waiting for the plane back – it was such a quick ride back and more convenient that the ferry. There was no airport security or scanning, so it was quite a pleasurable experience!

Once back in Tahiti I had to face the nightmare of repacking again, because I still had excess luggage – I’d had to make all sorts of deals with Air Tahiti and make a special luggage delivery flight and all sorts of complicated and convoluted arrangements. But despite it all, my bags still ended up being over what I’d booked, I think they must have put on weight with the in-flight meals or something! Anyway I got through it after a bit of reshuffling, but it swallowed the whole day of the 9th, meaning I missed out on seeing much… I had planned on visiting the Tahiti Museum seeing as it was opposite but a French minister was over and I saw the pomp and ceremony and motorcade from the road leading up to where I was staying, so it was a no-go anyway.

Skipping forward to departure day…

Leaving Tahiti

I left Tahiti on the 10th of March – the flights to Mangareva leave early – a 7:15am departure. I checked in, got myself sorted, and then tried to make a last minute phonecall before I lost all signal and internet. I spent a good 20 minutes trying to connect to one of the useless Tahitian ManaSpot hotspots. It takes yonks to go through all the menus and because the wifi was so slow, the windows needed to operate the internet weren’t popping up correctly. That meant you couldn’t disconnect either, so if you wanted more than one device to connect, you couldn’t – so I ended up having to purchase hotspot access for both phone and computer. This was a pain in the neck and ate into the time I had left to do anything.

I grabbed a quick coffee and took a seat and kept my eyes peeled for the Pitcairn contingent. They weren’t hard to spot, but I didn’t go over for a little while, just so I could make the most of my internet time while I still could. Once I’d gotten through the security check and was in the queue to board, I went and introduced myself to two women who turned out to be Darralyn and Michelle, and they pointed out Heather from tourism who I’d been in touch with, and the new island social worker Jim. Once I’d sat down on the plane, I also saw Andy, a British guy also over for the 3 months, looking at sea birds and conservation for the RSPB.

The plane ride was smooth and easy, I was sitting next to Heather who was great company and made the journey so much quicker. I was getting a bit fed up of planes by this point! We stopped off for refuelling at Hao, a coral island in the middle of nothingness, where we disembarked and took our hand luggage with us, and then moved on to Mangareva, flying over some of my most beautiful lagoon island I have ever seen.

Flight to Gambier

The total flight time was just over 6 hours, and we encountered a group of Norwegians who had just been to Pitcairn (adorned with Pitcairn t-shirts and hats) and were headed the other way at the airport after landing. I faced the dire blocked toilets (go on the plane people!), and hung around waiting for my luggage to all find its way to be collected. It took a while and my heart was in my mouth again, but finally got it all together (miracle!) and loaded it onto the waiting ferry which takes you over to Rikitea village (don’t forget your 1000 XPF for this bit!). It’s a nice ride across from the airport, which is on a separate island, and all the locals were fascinated by the Polaroid 180 camera I was wielding as we crossed.

Claymore

The Claymore II was visible just as we were pulling up to the dock, and the crew were there to greet us and load our bags off the ferry and straight onto the boat. It was all amazingly swift, efficient and seamless. We loaded them in at the cargo deck and I grabbed one suitcase that I assumed had clothes in it, and left the rest in a cargo container with the fruit.

Claymore II

We headed across the vessel to a safety briefing, going over the muster station and life jacket drill, and got the rundown on ship times for meals, etc. Jane – the ship’s cook had laid out a nice spread of welcome food and drinks – I was half starved by this point as you don’t get anything on the plane, so was delighted to see a chocolate cake set in front of me. As soon as we left dock we were to set our watches to Pitcairn time which is an hour different. It was all feeling very tangible now – just one more step on the journey!

Dog cross

Rikitea

The guys hefted our chosen bags down to our cabins and then we had a little while for a wander around the village before having a light dinner and setting off around 5pm. I headed up to Mangareva’s famous old cathedral and took a quick look inside, and then wandered back through the village.Cathedrale Saint-Michel de Rikitea

After school, Mangareva

It was just at school tip out time, and I met a group of 4 kids who wanted to know all about my Hasselblad and Polaroid cameras, and were asking me questions about London and tested me on whether I knew who the US president was. I showed them how all the cameras worked (note to self – must learn better French!), took some pictures for them to keep and some for me – it always amazes me how even with all the new fangled digital technology people who have never seen a Polaroid bond instantly with it. In the process of all this, I was rather distracted from the time so I made an unceremonious quick exit and dashed back to the boat with about 5 minutes to spare before I risked being left in Mangareva!

Mangareva kids

I didn’t have a chance to buy anything or explore the other wide of the hill, which I would have loved, but c’est la vie. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

Once back on the boat, we had another Jane spread (you’d never starve on Claymore), and I wandered to my cabin to take a look. I had a cabin alone on this rotation as a whole raft of people had cancelled their trips, so I got lucky. It was huge by comparison to what I’m used to boat wise.

First meal, Claymore II

IMG_4475_1

There were two bunks, a sink, plenty of storage space, plug sockets, and a table with padded seating. I did ‘a Rhiannon’ and managed to make the place look like chaos had hit instantly as I tried to get organised with my equipment. I went around recording the sounds of the vessel as we were pulling off, then headed up to the aft deck to wave goodbye to French Polynesia and watch the sun go down.

Most of the others vanished to their cabins and Andy and I sat on deck till the light dipped, Gambier vanished from view, and there was nothing on all sides but the vast Pacific Ocean and the endless sky…. We were well and truly on the way.

Sunset leaving Gambier

Tahiti Part 1

Ia Orana! It’s been a while since I’ve had any internet so catching up on my blog- I’ll do a batch post of all of the rest once I arrive in Pitcairn (I leave today!)… but here we go back in time for a little catch up. There is a lot to say about French Polynesia, so I’ll have a few more posts on the subject to follow…

After the events on the plane, I was feeling rather emotionally drained. But arriving in Tahiti was great – I was hit immediately by a wall of humidity and heat, and the sweet floral honeysuckle-like scent that follows you everywhere. I arrived at night, and had been wearing a jumper on the plane and almost had a panic attack from suffocation the instant I exited the plane and walked down the gangplank. I couldn’t strip fast enough – particularly because my army bag was on my shoulders and it’s nearly impossible to lift on and off without some kind of nearby seat or wall to set it on first. I survived till I reached the terminal, expecting air conditioning when there was none, and was surprised to be greeted by some Polynesian dance and their equivalent of the three amigos playing instruments. A little like arriving in Disneyland! Only instead of children I was surrounded by adults in their latter years mostly heading off to join a cruise of some description, or a few honeymooners…

And now with my 4, yes 4, suitcases, I was even less mobile then before I left Los Angeles… after collecting them in the very small arrivals hall, I was relieved that everything was in one piece, no missing wheels, etc. I ate something on the plane that didn’t agree with me very well and felt rather off, so went to try to find a toilet to splash some water over my face, and then realised that the toilets seemed to be upstairs. Not the most practical for an airport… but because I looked so pitiful and confused by myself, I cajoled the airport security man to guard the huge luggage trolley (free, incidentally – two fingers to you, USA!) and wait for my return. Then he was a gent and helped me wheel the trolley that seemed to have a mind of its own down to the taxi rank. I met a lovely female taxi driver, who overcharged me spectacularly to travel the few hundred metres up hill to the airport motel. If I had been feeling stronger and more indignant, I might have used to storage facilities and trudged my suitcases one by one up the incline, but it was too late for stubbornness, and even I sometimes need to admit defeat.

So I stayed the first night in the Tahiti Airport Motel, and after a little confusion at check in where they had thought I wanted two rooms and that I was three people, and then telling me they didn’t have space for me despite my booking, before finally realising my key was there along with a printed invoice right in front of the receptionist’s nose….I managed to leave my luggage in the lock up downstairs, forgetting clean underwear in my suitcase which meant another late night hand washing session, and settled in for the night.

The motel is a simple affair, but air conditioned (actually too cold and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off!), with a large bed, French TV, etc. I watched some Popeye in French (you don’t miss much, but they have Olive Oyl’s voice all wrong), and then watched what seemed to be dubbed CSI. Very amusing how the French insist on dubbing everything., I can’t quite understand it. We just don’t have a dubbing culture… Americans don’t dub or do subtitles, they just remake everything, and the French and Spanish love to dub… I’d find it completely unwatchable if I were French, I’m sure.

I woke up ridiculously early – all the different time zones really have started to get to me and I have no idea what day it is or what time of day it is. It’s all turned into a blur… but then somehow spent a long time on the computer trying to figure out where I was and what I was going to do now, and where I would be staying for the next while, and whether communication would now be impossible (I have no 3G now). I was getting ready to leave the room for the 11am checkout, when at 10:55 they were already calling me.

I know what they mean about the culture loving rules here and not being willing to bend them. I told the receptionist I would be down, and that maybe she should wait till 11 to start haranguing me, and then headed off rather grumpily to the luggage store to leave the rest of my backpack, and packed a daybag with some cameras. I hung out in the reception using the wifi for a while, and realised there was no bus service on a Sunday, so decided to be brave, take my bottle of water, and then walk the hour and a half into Pa’peete.

It took me rather longer with the midday sun, and it was exhausting. I quickly realised that wearing make-up in the heat isn’t a great idea, as it started to gather in my creases and I looked like a congealed sea monster. The locals looked at me with some pity and some intrigue. I don’t think many tourists walks through the Fa’aa area – mostly they whizz past in taxis, and never stop to see it. I actually didn’t take any pictures, apart from a few on my phone. I’m not quite sure why, as I’m rather regretting it now, but I think I sometimes need to get my head into a place and acclimatise before I can think about photography. I was also too exhausted to think at all…

I found myself some food at a little seafront place ¾ of the way to the “city” – and had my first Mahi Mahi (dolphin fish) of the trip. The food seems to have a very heavy Asian influence, with many Chinese and Japanese items popping up on most menus, which is then mixed with bizarre additions like steak with Roquefort, or things withy heavy cream sauces which would surely curdle in the heat. The French influence is felt everywhere – it’s actually surprising.

Of course I knew it was a colony but it has really come as a shock that it feels like a tropical France. The supermarkets are filled with brie and pate, and everyone you meet seems to be from France itself. It’s disconcerting. The British colonies I have visited hardly seem as British as this distant and alien land feels French.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a huge undercurrent of bitterness from the Polynesians themselves. It seems few of them are employed in the better professions, and many are overweight owing to poor diets because the cost of good food here is astronomical. The supermarkets are controlled by the French and prices are high, only a few staples have controlled pricing and everything else, including fish is costly. The French control the infrastructure, and own the hotels that bring rich tourists that go on French operated tours, and eat from restaurants mainly owned by the French. It’s a monopoly of sorts, and I feel that the Polynesian culture has suffered greatly because of it. You will hear the French here complain about the Polynesians, calling them lazy, and many will say that Polynesians have taken the best elements of French culture and left the rest. But when you really look, I don’t think they are better off – they may have access to join the French military, or to be educated in France, but I wonder how many of them would just prefer their country back.

In any case, it is a beautiful place. All verdant greens and dramatic skies, I wish I were here longer, and I really wish I could drive! It would give such freedom, and I’m now kicking myself a little! I really should have found a way to have taken that test again before I left… so many times on this trip I wished for my license – I definitely need to sort that out when I’m back…. Then I could have happily avoided the bus fiasco that I suffered three days in (more of that in part 2 or 3!)….though I suppose it’s all part of the adventure!