The departure

Leaving Pitcairn was not easy. Three days before my departure, it hit me. I was leaving. I was returning to the outside world. I was returning to the unknown, to strangers, to mobile phones, to unlimited internet, to roads, to news and deadlines and utility bills. It was one of the few times in my life that I have felt scared.

It was not just my return to ‘real life’ – I use that term loosely, as Pitcairn has led me to question what is real on more than one occasion – but also the idea of goodbye. Goodbye is a word that rarely rings of permanence. These days, with cheap travel, Facebook, email, etc, we all live in a state of constant flux. Nothing is concrete apart from our own transience – our lives are international, spanning time zones and languages. Leaving Pitcairn is quite different. Saying goodbye had a permanence that made me feel uncomfortable – partly because it is a concept so at odds with my own experience of reality.

In the three days preceding my departure, a feeling of impending dread started to creep in. My world had shrunk to a 2 mile by 1 mile lump of rock – my patterns and behaviours dictated by the roads down to Adamstown, by shop hours, post office times, the VHF announcing the arrival of yachts. I had melted into island life, and I could no longer remember who I was before it, and nor could I imagine how I would be after it. I now know how people can get stuck there, or how certain behaviours become normalised – because if two or three people on an island of 40 behave in a certain way, that defines normal. Each person has an influence that ripples throughout the island, one word can cause a tsunami. The islanders have, however, become a kind of extended family. Some despise me, some have taken me in, some have offered refuge against the turning tides of opinion. Many have surprised me.

Youngest person on Pitcairn island

Youngest person on Pitcairn island

It is difficult to explain, but even in hostility there can be comfort. There is comfort in familiarity, and on Pitcairn, it is such a small bubble that you get to know a person’s peculiarities quickly. You get to learn that buying AA batteries in the store will provoke a vulgar joke, and you come to expect it, and perhaps even miss it when it doesn’t come. I know now what sets a person off, and how to avoid it. I know which buttons to press should I want to get a rise. I have probably spent a greater proportion of my life with some of the people on Pitcairn island than I have with many of my closest friends out there in the world. They are not all people I would choose, but necessity had thrown us together, and with some pushing and pulling, we have, for the most part, learnt to coexist.

I realise now that I had the odds stacked against me from the outset. I knew that the island hated journalists, but I somehow expected that more people would Google me, realising that I wasn’t one, and instead finding a bunch of Polaroids of lighthouses. I thought that would change things. When it didn’t, I tried talking to people, offering to show my work. That didn’t work either and the suggestion was usually met with derision – as one islander commented “I know what you do, I don’t need to see it”. Of course they had no idea, but on Pitcairn opinion can become fact in the blink of an eye. When an island and identity is so built by myth, why should my identity be any different?

I didn’t realise quite why I was so demonised until the last 10 days, when the Claymore returned, bringing with it a raft of visitors. Some were country collectors, and would have been happy to have stood on the soil, collected the passport stamp and left again, some were adventurers who just wanted a different sort of experience, and some were artists and filmmakers. It was this latter cohort that most intrigued me. I watched with interest as they fled from the landing in a convoy of quad bikes, wondering what they would take away from this craggy lump of rock. After a couple of days, it transpired their experience was quite different from my own. They were almost glowing. The islanders are ‘so friendly” they exclaimed. “Hmm” I thought to myself.

I was puzzled. The very people who had, and have continued, to avoid my lens and talking to me, seemed to be the very same people performing for others’ cameras. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became, until I had – at 3am as is so often the case – an epiphany of sorts. I was a long stay visitor, a female long stay visitor no less. I fit the profile of the island’s two least popular long stay visitors almost exactly – unfortunately for me. I followed in the footsteps of the universally despised Kathy Marks, author of Trouble in Paradise, and the equally loathed Dea Birkett, author of Serpent in Paradise, the latter of which had, according to islanders, arrived under false pretences, pretending to work for the post office while actually writing a book. This book had been cited in many of my showdowns – on one occasion Dave Brown (island nickname “Mouth”) brought it up point blank, saying over morning tea that he was sure I was “another Dea Birkett”.

Bounty replica made by postmaster Dennis (aka "Sambo" Christian

Bounty replica made by postmaster Dennis (aka “Sambo” Christian)

After my epiphany, it transpired that the short stay visitors who came in with the Claymore held several distinct advantages, the first that should have been glaringly obvious was that there were males in the mix, handsome males at that. The women who had escaped me like mercury (and could be just as poisonous) fawned for the cameras and fluttered their eyelashes. By comparison, I had nothing to give.

I think I may have mentioned it before, but the island lives through different psychological phases depending on the proximity of the supply ship. When the Claymore leaves at the end of its runs, the island reverts to its working state. It battens down the hatches, closes its doors, wipes the “hypocriting” smile off its face and reveals its true colours, warts and all. There were no longer enough people to warrant the performance, the long stayers would get to know reality soon enough, so why bother to mask it? The public shows of community dry up, the polite dinners evaporate, and life returns to normal. Having now witnessed the full cycle of the Claymore, I have now experienced both versions of Pitcairn ‘reality’ – the party thrown for tourists and officials, and the other – the Pitcairn in survival mode which lets its unsightly belly flop around from beneath a too small Pitcairn Island vest.

It is a clever scheme on the one hand – by appearing generous and open to short stay visitors, the myth of Pitcairn being the idyll of community is protected. The islanders can continue to believe their own hype. The island’s fans receive their positive affirmation. The legend continues. Pitcairn remains quaint – a South Pacific pet. On the other hand the smoke and mirrors may contribute to the island’s downfall – if you can’t identify a problem how can you isolate and solve it?

It is only those rare few who ever visit for a long haul that can experience what Pitcairn is really like. I had wondered why the islanders would risk my own negative experiences escaping into the world and tarnishing their image, but then I realised that the balance is always tipped in their favour, that the mythical and romantic image that has been cultivated for the last two centuries will outlast anything I could ever say or do. That every Claymore run brings in more tourists who leave believing the hype that has been created for them. It is their voices that will be remembered, for they fall into step with the power of wishful thinking.

Having said all this, I can’t deny that the process of saying goodbye to Pitcairn was painful, and reached a crescendo on the weekend of my departure.

Steve and Olive Christian's fridge

Steve and Olive Christian’s fridge

The day before I left, the Saturday, was an uncharacteristically busy Sabbath on Pitcairn. Hosts were delivering their guests final wishes and requests, and a new pastor had arrived on the island from Moorea on the Thursday. Saturday would be his first service, and a community lunch was planned at the square to welcome him. This meant that Keane, a church elder (Pawl Warren’s father) would be stepping down and handing over, much to many islanders’ (and Keane’s) relief. I had mentioned my own departure wish to Keane, making a special request that the Sweet Bye and Bye be sung in church as the hymn, and so was committed to attending church.

I have never been a churchgoer, but on Pitcairn I have been a few times. It’s something to do, and a social occasion, and it feels nice that there is one place where you can, theoretically, leave animosity at the door. The Sweet Bye and Bye, taken from the Seventh Day Adventist hymnal is about as close as you can get to the Pitcairn national anthem. It has been sung numerous times since my arrival, usually on special days like ANZAC, or VE-Day. It is intrinsically linked with departure, and would sometimes be sung aboard cruise ships along with the hello and goodbye songs. When the community gets together to sing it, lyrics sheets are cast aside and the full force of the voices can bring a tear to your eye and cause the hairs to stand up all over your body. When the bass voices split off from the chorus and echo the refrain, something magical happens and the sound engulfs you – you can almost believe, in that fleeting moment, that there is hope. If I have ever seen a true semblance of togetherness on Pitcairn, it is within the unbridled singing of the Sweet Bye and Bye.

ANZAC decorations

ANZAC decorations

I had thought that Keane would forget. But after I had sat in the second row, sharing Daphne’s hymnal throughout a long, in fact double length, service – part taken by Keane and part by the new pastor, Keane’s parting gift took me by surprise. “By popular request” he said, as he stood down from the lectern and caught my eye, “the Sweet Bye and Bye”. It seemed fitting – for he too would now be taking a back seat. Though I had hoped it was coming, I was caught a little off guard, and Daphne turned around and flashed me a broad and comforting smile. She held out the hymnal for me, and we both clutched it tightly though we both knew the words – it was her way of holding my hand through it, because on Pitcairn that wouldn’t have been the done thing. There was a Danish film crew, who had been on the 4 day stint filming the whole service, and I did try to hold it together. But suddenly the fact that I felt that the community were behind me, despite the rocky road I had travelled, brought me to my knees. For those few minutes, the whole of my Pitcairn experience flashed in front of me, and Keane and Daphne’s kindness reverberated through me. I hadn’t realised how important they had become until that moment. They have been my island grandparents, and a major part of my own Pitcairn tapestry.

After church, I sat in the pews unravelled. Most people had cleared out, only Jacqui remained, playing the electric organ for a member of the Danish film crew. The pastor approached me and checked that I was ok. He seemed a kind man, and said I could always call on him or his family should I ever find myself in Moorea. After I pulled myself together I walked out of the church for the last time, having waited until the usual crowd had left the square and I could make a clean exit. I headed blindly to Merelda’s house which sits just behind the Public Hall for a few minutes of sanctuary. We haven’t always had the easiest relationship, but at the end things seemed ready to thaw, and I knew it was one of the last places anyone would expect to find me, not least myself. I took refuge from the rain, and soon Merelda had left taking her Japanese house guest off for a final island tour in full waterproofs, and her mother Mavis had wandered down to the pastor’s lunch. I was left alone in the rain on their porch, watching the water run from the roof in streams like a kind of pathetic fallacy, reflecting my mood. I noticed for the first time a double handled long saw hanging over the entrance way spanning its breadth. The irony didn’t escape me.

As I was gearing up to leave and reaffix my staunch mask of unflappability, Mike appeared on foot en route to the lunch. “I’m glad I’ve run into you” he said. He thrust a plastic bag towards me, which turned out to be a going away gift – some jars of honey, a map, and some chocolates for my journey as well as some tissues – “I thought you might need those tomorrow”, he added. There are some relationships on the island that have been quite unexpected, and at the end, it has been these unprovoked acts of kindness that have let me know that my presence has mattered, that I have been valued by some, and that perhaps I have done some good, even if it was just a small amount, even I just helped to fight the loneliness for one person and just for one minute. As Mike said as he walked off, there is “something about Pitcairn that gets under your skin”.

For that 24 hours, every little thing would set me off. I had the best intentions of making a goodbye tour, of going around and saying individual goodbyes to those who had mattered most. But when it came to it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had wanted to see Daphne and Keane properly, to see Irma, to see Nola and Reynold, to see Royal. The older generation that have, after ups and downs in some cases, been my salvation. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just a matter of time – of the usual chaos that descends upon departure – but rather that I couldn’t bring myself to look in their eyes and know, deep down, that I would never see them again. I couldn’t trust myself not to break down in a heap.

Goodbye. When Goodbye really means goodbye.

I know for instance, that in ten years time, most of the people I have been closest too will be dead and gone. The people in the next age tier down will have taken their place – Olive and Brenda, for example, will be the age Daphne is now. Vaine, my most recent host, will be nearing 80. Without repopulation, the island’s demise seems certain, and despite the number of settlement enquiries going through to the immigration email address, no applications have resulted in settlement.

The island I know will cease to exist. That is an inevitable truth. When each personality is felt so acutely, one loss is not just a personal loss, but a chunk taken from the island’s fragile identity. One new settler could change the dynamic drastically. There is perhaps nowhere on earth that is at once so adverse to change but so defined by the passage of time.

In every Pitcairn home there is a staunch yet subtle reminder of this – for in every home, you will find a ticking clock. Not just any ticking clock, but as if by communist issue, it is the same clock that graces their walls – bought in bulk by the warehouse, and resold to islanders. It’s a black rimmed, Chinese made, white faced Quartz clock. The type you find in pound shops. It has a loud and familiar tick that permeates your consciousness and follows you seamlessly as you move between houses, a pulse, a heartbeat. It is impossible to forget time on Pitcairn. Though the name Pitcairn conjures visions of Arcadia or Utopia, places where time stands still, it is only the myth that eschews time. There are probably more clocks on Pitcairn per capita than anywhere else in the world, and time marches on relentlessly, the only constant in an uncertain future.

The costs of reaching Pitcairn as they currently stand are too prohibitive to contemplate revisiting. It is now, at my departure, that I also understand what isolation means. When I arrived, I was caught up in the getting here. Over the last three months I have been wrapped up in being here. But now, leaving, I wonder about the future – about whether I could ever come back, about what will happen when I leave. I know this life so well, that I can tell you what each person is likely to be doing at any given hour over the coming week, month, even year. But while time matches forward, underlying it all deep change will rip this community apart, probably while no one notices. On departing, I now know this to be true. I try to imagine all the ways that I could ever find myself back here, all the routes and possibilities, and at each one I see a dead end, and I know in my heart of hearts that my experience has been finite. Even if there were no temporal or financial restriction to my return, this island will never be the same again.

It sounds ridiculous, but I will miss the daily challenges. Wondering whether today will be a good day, or whether I’ll find myself crying in the disused Sabbath school building at the left hand corner of the square tucked in behind the church, the only place where I can be sure no one would look for me. I will miss the fact that you only have yourself to rely on, that no one stands up for you in public. Pitcairn has taught me hat I am tougher than I thought I was, and softer too, in places.

It has been extremely arduous at times. I have been viewed with such open suspicion, that I have even started to doubt myself. At times the islanders vehemence has caused me to question my own motivations and wonder if I am as they see me after all, and that maybe I am going mad. I have experienced a whole raft of negativity, and it really has, at times, felt like carrying an anvil on each shoulder. As I leave too, aside from the sense of overwhelming loss, I also feel catharsis.

It is a true tragic ending.

The weight has been lifted, and I will soon return to being myself again, whatever that means. I feel a huge sense of release, now I can put down the weight I have been carrying with me. It seems almost alien to be able to re-enter a world where I am taken at face value, where a supposition of trust is wordlessly exchanged through a handshake. I have forgotten how easy life can be.

Without visiting Pitcairn, it is very difficult to explain how insular it really is. The world could end and Pitcairn would stand, dissident, expecting to be excepted from that inescapable fate. Somehow Pitcairn exists at the centre of its own universe. Little permeates. It is slippery, as if covered by a film of oil – nothing sticks. Visitors come and go, and only the myths perpetuated by Hollywood and history retold and rewritten remain. Now that I have left, there are only the contracted professionals and islanders left – as one local remarked “now we can go back to normal”. I wonder what he meant, as there is surely nothing normal about Pitcairn.

I think at some point, everyone who visits the island for a prolonged period, hits the hump. The hump comes at different points for everyone. I think mine was probably on day one, after a showdown with Nola outside of the store who took exception to my audio recorder. That incident set the tone for my stay – I was already on the back foot, already labelled, already marked. There was little I could do to change opinion. I was always playing catch up.

After diplomatic interjections, and a few trusted souls putting in good words for me, the wall with Nola came down, and Nola is now one of the people I will miss most on the island. So to say change is impossible would be a lie – the Nola 180 is a testament to adaptability. Though the damage her initial judgement caused did flavour my entire experience on the island – another example of how one person or one comment can cause such huge and lasting effects. But perhaps by the same token, it may take only one person to change things.

I have many regrets about my time on Pitcairn – not for myself, but for Pitcairn. I felt as though there were many areas that the island could have taken advantage of my presence. But Pitcairners are not terribly good at joining dots – once you arrive for one purpose, there is no reinvention, You are there for that purpose alone in their eyes. For example, I felt as though I were a good test for their repopulation plan – could I fit in? How did the community treat me? I also felt that I was able to put forward a more full and interesting portrait of life on the island, which was thwarted at every turn. I could have been used as a record keeper, preserving their history for them. I could have used my photography skills to boost the image of the island – there have been multiple photo opportunities that have been covered by the office digital camera and sent to the media. I could have been used on the island as a worker. I offered my services multiple times, and though noises were made, nothing ever came to fruition.

But more simply – I could have been a friend.

It is this that feels the biggest missed opportunity, for in spite of all the bluster, Pitcairn is incredibly lonely. A remote lump of rock filled with isolated people. If you feel lonely on Pitcairn, you are surely one of the most lonely people on earth. I wish more people had welcomed simple friendship, we both would have had a lot to gain.

As I prepared to head to the landing to leave, I had a quick conversation with Shawn. He asked me how my stay had been, and I thought that it was very typically Pitcairn – that I was being asked when I had one foot out of the door at the most inopportune of moments, when it was too late to do anything.

Afterwards, I dashed up to Vaine and Charlene’s where my clothes were still sitting on a drying rack. Still not dry, I threw them into a bag and clambered onto my quad. I started speeding down the hill, and then remembered that this would be my last downhill trip. I slowed to a stop, and switched off the engine – I looked up to my left at Christian’s cave, this triangular shape that dominates every view on the island, and I listened to the goats, and the rustle of wind in the leaves. Though it is underwhelming when you are inside it, Christian’s cave has become a kind of talisman, and I’ve spent a lot of time gazing back at its watchful eye, wondering what Fletcher Christian would think of us all now, and wondering if he’d say it was worth it.

I started the engine and went back to Steve and Olive’s home, Big Fence, where my Pitcairn journey began. I had spent my last night there, sorting through my bags, for I had left many of my belongings in one of their many spare bedrooms. I quickly packed my bags, and the cavalry formed, whisking my bags down to the landing. Before I know what was happening, I was parking my quad for the last time alongside the boat shed, and carrying the last of my belongings through the crowd that had formed at the jetty.

I was taciturn. A rarity for me. I felt that if I opened my mouth I would fall apart. It all happened in such a blur, and I was still vainly attempting to record everything. Linda and John approached my bike and I gave Linda the present I’d found her from Henderson, one job down. Daphne was my first real hurdle. She was sitting on the green park benches in front of the boat shed, and when I saw her I gave her a big hug and had to turn away before I cracked further. John had kindly taken charge of the last of my belongings, spiriting them towards the waiting long boat, though I was still clutching my recorder hopelessly like a kind of crutch.

I began my rounds and was determined to give every person on the jetty a hug. I managed, bar one. I gave Royal a squeeze, and she said that she was sorry I was going. I headed to Nola, who was all bluster, but then I heard her voice crack and a tear formed in her eye and she too looked away. I hugged Daphne again, and buried my head in her shoulder, and she said she would really miss me and that she was also sorry I was going, and then her eyes welled up too. As I turned to leave, Linda caught my arm and said in my ear “you’ve done it”.

I eventually turned away from the group on the jetty and boarded the longboat for my one last time, unwilling to prolong my torture anymore. The inevitable was upon me and I just wanted to get it over with. As the longboat pulled away from the jetty and zoomed out from the landing, I could barely believe that this was it. I tried to photograph my parting, and the camera provided a good distraction from catching anyone’s eye. I did steal one long last look at Daphne who never stopped looking back at me and then watched through my viewfinder as Keane, Nola, Reynold, Olive, Jacqui and Betty were all stood in the rain waving feverishly. I tried to take a picture with my eyes rather than through the camera – an image marked indelibly on my brain.

The Claymore was anchored away from Bounty Bay on the lee side for the sea had become rougher, and the longboat swiftly made the journey around the island. For one last time I took in the steep cliffs, the foreboding shapes, and took a last look at Christian’s cave and a vanishing Adamstown. The island was cloaked in low lying cloud, as though it had closed up already and was hiding from me. The smoke and mirrors in tangible form, the mysticism closing in, shrouding it from view. I tried to take pictures, but my heart wasn’t in it, I was just using it as a kind of distraction. At one point Shawn, seeing the tears still streaming, leaned in from the back of the boat and said “You could always lead by example and become the first migrant” – I laughed.

When the longboat pulled up alongside the Claymore, I did my boat rounds, saying swift goodbyes. A number of the islanders boarded the boat, and I had a chance to give them a proper send off too. Once I had gathered myself, I headed astern to watch the long boat wave us off till they disappeared from view, tumbling over the seas in a wake of sea spray.

Leaving Pitcairn

Leaving Pitcairn

And then there I was. Standing on the deck of the Claymore, like I had all those months ago, looking back at the island. I suddenly felt very alone. That there were too few people in the world who had shared my experience, that no one would really ever understand what this moment felt like. I felt possessive of that experience, and for a brief moment I knew what it must be like to be from Pitcairn. My island. Mine.

I peeled some of the Polaroids I had taken from the longboat and they were faint and milky, I had overexposed them all in my haste to distract myself. But it seemed fitting somehow. That my lasting memory of Pitcairn should be bleak and absent. Enigmatic like the island itself.

As we hauled anchor and headed into the blue abyss, I climbed the stairwell to a picnic table on the upper level aft deck and watched as the island shrank. I photographed it rapidly, as its profile slunk into the blue pacific looking like a sleeping platypus. Smaller and smaller. And then all of a sudden it was gone in the blink of an eye. Like it had all been a mirage, and that it had never really existed, like coming out of a wardrobe of furs and leaving Narnia. I was no longer Rhiannon on Pitcairn, I was some other Rhiannon, one that I had long since forgotten about, and was about to rediscover.

Pitcairn is not for the weak. But if you were to look for an experience you’d be hard pressed to match it. It has been immersive to say the least, and now leaving I feel reborn.

Thank you Pitcairn, for testing me, for pushing me to my limits, for the hard times and the moments of joy. It’s been… an unforgettable adventure.

The vanishing island

The vanishing island

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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.

Clubbing on Pitcairn Island

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Till the next instalment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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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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…

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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On this day 225 years ago…

The mutineers had landed on Pitcairn and burnt the HMS Bounty….

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Every 23rd of January, Bounty Day is celebrated on Pitcairn island and a replica Bounty is launched onto the water and set alight…

We decided we’d have our own little ritual, Hackney style, to commemorate. I normally wouldn’t waste a Bounty bar like this, but I think its allowed, just this once. I couldn’t be in Pitcairn this January, but in 6 weeks I’ll be landing there, and it’s where I’ll call home for the next three months. I can’t quite believe it!

With your help we’ve raised more than £1500 in two days. That’s pretty incredible, though I do have a bit of a way to go still before I reach my target, so if you or anyone you know might be interested in supporting my project, please do! I’ll be making a proper fundraising video next week so keep an eye out for me embarrassing myself on film very soon!

And now for something completely different….

Some of you may know me, and some of you may not, but thank you all for visiting regardless of how you found yourself here. I hope you’ll continue to visit and follow me on the journey I’m about to embark on.

As this is my first post, I should perhaps direct you to the background page, as that goes into an amount of detail I shan’t go enter into here, but in a nutshell, my name is Rhiannon, I’m a photographer, and with the help of a grant from the BBC and Royal Geographical Society I’m about to set off to Pitcairn, a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific. I have been lucky enough to win this year’s Journey of a Lifetime Award, and will be recording a Radio 4 documentary of my experiences to be aired later in the year.

Pitcairn has no landing strip, and is only reachable by sea. It is more than 300 miles of open ocean away from the nearest inhabited island. The boat (Claymore II, pictured left) is only scheduled to visit on three month rotations, so I will be spending a full three months in the world’s least populated and most remote jurisdiction, taking only my cameras for comfort. Pitcairn is Britain’s last remaining overseas territory in the Pacific, and though home to fewer than 50 permanent residents, the islanders enjoy a rich heritage and can claim an almost uninterrupted bloodline back to the original Mutiny on the Bounty. Though the Mutiny may be famous, very few people have ever heard of their descendants’ home, let alone visited it.

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Pitcairn is roughly halfway between South America and New Zealand

 

It is difficult and costly to reach, and hard to get the necessary permissions to film and photograph. I have now got past the first hurdles, and now I am on to stage two, seeking out in-kind supporters as well as additional financial backers, to help get the most out of this unique opportunity. Because of the timeframe as dictated by the boat, I will be leaving in March. Once on Pitcairn I won’t be able to receive mail, or buy additional film and supplies, or fix equipment, so everything has to be ready by the last week of February.

This doesn’t leave me very long to gather funds, so for this reason, I am seeking extra support (both financial and in-kind) to conduct the first ever photographic project to explore the island, the islanders and their unique culture. I see this as an opportunity to create an anthropological record of the island, and to take my work in new direction. I’ll be launching a crowd funding campaign in the next week, but until then I’m using GoFundMe, so please visit this page if you’d like to donate. 

This blog will be updated regularly, and will chart (no pun) the whole journey, from my leaving preparations to my return, and all of the months on Pitcairn in between.

I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.