Part two of a two-column series on a visit to Sri Lanka is up on 3QuarksDaily now. Read it there now, and I’ll post it here to CS&W next week.
Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
In this column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, we start a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999:
There are certain things a guidebook ought to level with you about right up front, before gushing about the exotic culture, pristine sandy beaches and friendly people. Number one, page one, straight flat out:
YOU ARE FLYING INTO A COUNTRY THAT CAN’T KEEP THE ROAD TO ITS ONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PAVED, AND LINES THE ROAD IN AND OUT WITH BOYS WITH NO FACIAL HAIR HOLDING MACHINE GUNS.
Lurching into and out of potholes on the road from the airport to the beach, dim yellow headlights illuminated scrawny street dogs sneering from the road, teeth in road kill. Mirja and I took the diplomatic approach and decided, let’s see what it looks like in the morning.
The fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore in the gray before dawn. The last tardy catamaran, sail full-billowed, flew out to join the rest.
Sheldon had already been out and back. A slight fellow, just chest high, with a broad smile under a tight-clipped mustache, Sheldon showed me his catch, in a crate, a few gross of five or six inch mackerels.
He took me to meet all the other guys and see their catches, too, stepping over nets they were busy untangling and setting right for the afternoon. He led me to his house, just alongside and between a couple of beach hotels, shoreside from the road, among a sprawl of a dozen thatch huts.
Sheldon built it himself. It was before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and I don’t know if it, or Sheldon and his family, are there anymore. He took me inside, immensely proud, to show me how he had arranged two hundred woven palm-frond panels on top of one another to build the roof. He told me “two hundred” over and over.
A thatch wall divided Sheldon’s house into two rooms. The only furniture was a rough wooden bed with no linens.
Sheldon’s wife, a very young woman dressed in a long blue and white smock with her hair pulled back, rose with a smile to greet me, and their precocious four and six year old daughters danced around us all. Sheldon took his son, just one year old, into his lap as we talked.
We sat together near a crack in the wall where sunlight came through so they could look at postcards of where I was from. They served sweet tea. I drank it fearing I’d pay for drinking the water later that day.
Sheldon walked me back toward Hotel Royal Oceanic, two hundred meters and several worlds apart. On the way, he explained to me that he was 31, his brother was “41, 42 sometimes. Lives nearby, Mama too. Papa no.”
I’d plotted a Sri Lanka itinerary twice too ambitious. The roads were fine, really. There were just too many people trying to use them. The two lanes couldn’t cope with the mass of people and machines vying for them.
If you weren’t on a highway, or were at a sharp bend in one, you’d have to stop to let bigger vehicles squeeze by. And since there were no bypass roads for heavy trucks, and since most folks didn’t have private cars but instead rode big, fat inter-city buses, you were forever stopping and starting and squeezing between milk trucks and cement mixers and buses, and in Sri Lanka there were also tuk-tuks, those three-wheeled two-stroke vehicles used from Bombay to Bangkok to Borneo.
So we stopped for every bus. Our driver Tyrone joked about having to stop for women drivers, too. Our air conditioner “work very good, sir.” That was a damn good thing on the coastal plain where, as we passed a cricket match at 10:15 in the morning, I thought them all positively fools, running around in long pants.
Provincial elections were to be held the next day. Election posters covered the buildings. Tyrone claimed 99% literacy in Sri Lanka (other sources suggested 90 per cent), but even so they used a system like in much less literate Nepal. Each party was represented by a symbol, so that the illiterate could recognize their party and vote, in this case, for “chair” or “elephant” or “table” or “bell.”
The main parties were the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in power for the last five years and advertised by posters of the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, holding her hand high in the air, and the opposition United National Party, which had held power the prior seventeen years.
Plastic flags flew over the road like over a used car lot. Blue marked the incumbent party’s territory, green the challengers’. By the plastic flag test, it would be the Freedom Party in a romp.
In a tradition of pre-election violence, a couple of weeks ago a woman blew herself up in Colombo. And a few years ago, days before a visit by Prince Charles, eight were killed near the Buddha’s tooth shrine in Kandy, the second city and seat of power under the ancient kings.
Tyrone offered that, “I will be gathering information,” about potential trouble. This morning’s news was that a candidate in the east had been shot overnight. Yesterday was the last day of electioneering, with no rallies allowed from then.
That kind of violence baffled him, Tyrone said, and anyway it doesn’t matter which party rules – they both promise the world until elected and then they don’t do anything.
Some things are the same the world over.
He was puzzled why people took it all so seriously, he told us, when the leaders themselves don’t; At the end of the day, he said, they sit down and “they have a drink together.”
The wealthier houses presented whitewashed concrete walls to the road. Those funny-looking pointy-nosed one-cylinder “rototiller” tractors like they use in rural China were here, too.
Coconut plantations dominated the road to the main Colombo-Kandy highway. Bicycle carts pedaled by, some with wooden baskets built on back and scales cradled inside. Rolling, mobile merchants. Tyrone showed us a motorcycle with a box of little fish and said the guy goes door to door. Banana trees along the road, underneath tall coconut palms.
Everything grew here, I guessed. Mangoes were in season now, and avocados. Durians were out of season but they grew here, too. Tyrone called them the fruit that tastes like heaven but smells like hell.
Tyrone had fifteen years in the business and looked for all the world like a wiry, Sri Lankan Jeff Goldblum. He was good. He wasn’t a young, adventurous boy-driver. He was comfortable in himself. He told us not too many Americans came here and we could see that.
Germans, Italians, Japanese and British came, but really it was mostly the Germans, with their big charter airline LTU discharging a crew at the hotel as we left, and copies of Bild, Bild Frau magazines and cheap German novels and crossword books lying around the lobby coffee tables.
We got the Kandy road and suddenly Tyrone got politics. He liked the Freedom party because they were pro-privatization. They one hundred percent privatized the tea plantations, for example. He couldn’t cite a lot of other differences except the opposition was more socialist.
He guided us through a tangled story of ruling families and power politics that left me way behind. Sometimes he lapsed into tour-guidism (“Excluding inland waters, area of Sri Lanka is 65,000 square kilometers.”).
The Kandy road was wide enough for two cars to pass side by side. As we began to bite off a little elevation en route to Kegalle, Tyrone returned to practical matters surrounding the elections. There would be a curfew, he thought, tomorrow night as the election results came in, and it would most likely last for 24 hours.
That suggested possible violence, I thought, but it seemed normal to Tyrone, and it came with a benefit. We could get a “special travel permit,” and with the road less busy, “we can go ninety hundred,” he laughed.
Kegalle was stifling hot and gridlocked with buses and tuk-tuks in both directions. Traffic police stood surrounded by the chaos and did no good that I could tell. It reminded me of the garrison town of Wangdi Phodrang in Bhutan, about which Barbara Crossette wrote, “welcoming, but exceptionally unappealing.”
Four kilometers past Kegalle, a road sign: “A home for domesticated, disabled and elderly elephants.” We swung left into the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala.
All these elephants had become separated from their families in the national parks or in the wild; Maybe their families were shot for their tusks, for example. One had his right front foot blown off by a land mine.
Each elephant had his own individual trainer (there being no shortage of labor) and the trainers worked with their elephants all their lives. Asian elephants are trainable (we rode elephants in southern Nepal who would pick up logs, even trash, on their mahout’s command), but that doesn’t mean a trainer isn’t occasionally killed, especially during mating season.
You could get in quite close and mingle with the elephants. Kids petted a little one. It was humane that they cared for the elephants but, scruffy and indolent as all of the herd was, the whole scene was a little downbeat.
Seamlessly, spice country turned to tea country. Looking around, you could believe that Sri Lanka supplied the whole world. Boys played cricket in the road and they had to, because there were tea bushes utterly everywhere else.
Over the front seat, Tyrone was explaining how buffalo milk mixed with honey is the local equivalent of yogurt, when up came two signs, one explaining we’d achieved an elevation of 6187 feet, the other reading “Welcome to the Salubrious Climes of Nuwara Eliya.”
Straight through the scramble, at the far side of town stood the old British Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced “Noo-relia”) is an old British hill station, full of well-tended proper English gardens and lingering British-built structures like the Grand Hotel – dark, wooden, rambling, musty and old.
It’s said that the Sinhalese preceded the Tamils to Ceylon and when the British arrived, the Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the slave wages the Brits wanted to pay. So the Brits recruited the Tamils and brought them up here to pick tea.
The good Tamils, as Tyrone called them, (not the trouble-causing Tamils agitating for independence) got housing, a stipend, a garden and a quota. After reaching quota they got a premium for the tea they picked, per kilo.
Six o’clock on election morning. Two loudspeakers chanted the call to prayer alongside a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, with birds and dew run riot.
At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a staging area for the bus station. People queued and a few stores lumbered open. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day.
Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”
END PART ONE (More in a month)
In my 3 Quarks Daily column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, my new column, published today, starts a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999. Read it now at 3QD, and I’ll post it here on CSW later in the week.
Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
In this column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, how about a little political tourism from here in Georgia, where unlikely circumstance handed our state the fate of the Senate, and we are shaky stewards.
Beware national pundits bearing wisdom. When they bring instant analysis and self-assurance about, say, Flint’s water supply, or that crazy Sturgis biker thing, be careful. Because all punditry has right now is conventional wisdom. Here on the actual battlefield the candidates compete against one another, the Republican party competes against itself, dark money scurries in the shadows, QAnon jeers from the sidelines and the truth is, nobody has any idea what’s going to happen.
Georgia Democrats’ justified pride in turning the state for Joe Biden comes with a fistful of contradictions. Consider that the Democrats’ two national MVPs this year are black southerners from neighboring states who punched way above their weight, US House Majority Whip Representative Jim Clyburn, Democrat from South Carolina, 80, and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, 46.
When the primary season began national Democrats looked destined for tag-team fratricide, Sanders and Warren and The Squad on the left, Biden and Klobuchar and Buttigieg glued to the middle. No one had any particular expectations for Joe Biden. He finished 4th in Iowa, 5th in New Hampshire and 2nd, barely, in Nevada. No one was taking charge of the Democrats and the alternative was four more years.
Clyburn took charge. He steadied the party with a ringing endorsement of Biden before his South Carolina home crowd and in a well-meant, astonishing nearly unanimous coalition against Donald Trump, Democratic centrism prevailed. While here in Georgia, Stacey Abrams rejected all that, explicitly.
Before Abrams’ day, Georgia Democrats took the gradual approach to changing red to purple and maybe one day to blue. Before Abrams centrist Democrats, like former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, showed the (eventual, theoretical) path to – one day – turning blue.
Nunn’s daughter Michelle ran for her father’s seat in 2014. Republican David Perdue, a plug-in, generic businessman who spent a career at companies selling food, household products, jeans, then shoes, then as the CEO of a textile company and a discount chain, defeated Senator Nunn’s daughter. He is standing for reelection.
Abrams, as Minority Leader of the Georgia House, was narrowly defeated in a 2018 race for Governor marked by accusations of voter suppression. She ran against the then Secretary of State, our current Governor Brian Kemp, who effectively presided over his own election.
Stung when denied the Governorship she was convinced she’d won, Abrams torched the centrist playbook and set about registering Georgia voters with unabashed appeals to the left. With help from her New Georgia Project (under investigation by the current Secretary of State), and other groups like Georgia Stand Up, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 12,670 votes. Georgia turned blue for the first time since ‘92.
Perhaps Clyburn’s centrism is the only way to victory for Democrats in South Carolina. Probably. But next door in Georgia, where Atlanta’s surging growth suddenly accounts for 57% of the state’s population, Abrams found a new way to move the party forward.
Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.
It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. The Chinese have raised hurt feelings to high art, and by this those feelings were gravely wounded.
Besides, the Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops that nearly 2500 people died fighting over in the 1960s. (The border at Nathula only reopened for trade in 2006.) So they like to keep up with where foreigners are.
The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized pulpy paper with wood chips. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things. It cautions that we must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us commit to paper what Indian intelligence probably already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp. The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.
We hurtle to a stop (driving is purposeful here) outside a building labeled Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom and present ourselves and our papers to two gentlemen inside. We wish to enter Sikkim via Rangpo town.
The presiding official wears a Millet brand down jacket with a tall, zipped-tight collar. He examines our materials for several minutes. First, there will be no small talk. This is official business, too grave a matter for that. Nor, for that matter, will there be any cordiality.
I think he’s demanding respect with his silence. TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. This is his domain and these are his number of minutes and it is not our privilege to question or expedite things in any way. Look here now: I can slow down anybody I want.
But the road to Gangtok spreads before us. He holds our progress in his hands right now and we will – if we won’t do anything else – we will note it. He pulls a ledger to his blotter and begins recording our passport and visa details both on the ledger and on our permit.
The official and his colleague preside across battered metal desks. Facing them, we have the better view. Picture windows at their backs reveal the permanently stirred up frenzy of the street, and on the other side of it, well, Ricki’s Cocktail King.
The Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom is sort of a rambling, half open, ad hoc thing. A clock ticks and a bird causes a ruckus somewhere up in the rafters.
Ultimately our application to enter Sikkim causes no incident (or uttered syllable), and in time, out comes The Stamp. It pounds around a few places, gathers steam on ink pads and at last lands on our new Inner Line Permit. Naive as we are, we imagine we’ll be on our way.
And underway we are, not to Gangtok but under our driver Sunil’s escort, picking our way on foot across a frenzied lane and a half of pocked tarmac on the road to Sikkim, descending a hill toward a bridge and right past Ricki’s Cocktail King. Must say, I cast a longing gaze.
Chaos prevails over here. Over here, besides clerks in interior rooms, other clerks stand in windows open to the street, windows labeled Excise Tax and Forestry Department and more, pay windows for goods carriers inbound to Sikkim where men stand belligerent and flushed and point and holler. Their vehicles are what causes the frenzy.
We stand facing green pastel walls in an office lit by a swinging bulb. Two new gentlemen. The inferior clerk sits at his superior’s side on a rolling office chair that has no back, wielding sheaves of paper, fretting. The boss man sits behind a half window with space for pushing critical documents back and forth beneath the plexiglass.
Letters on his window spell out “C. O. I. Verification Officer.” The C. O. I. Verification Officer takes our papers, examines them with a practiced eye to detail and, alas, frowns. He wears a high-collared parka similar to the gentleman in the Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom, but it is Kappa brand, not Millet.
With all the joy of a cat in a cloudburst, he reaches for a sheaf of papers like his adjutant’s and begins his work. Which consists of copying our same details into his papers, performing a vital verification, no doubt, of the work of his conniving colleague up the hill.
There will be a delay now, for the inferior clerk riffs his stack of papers, shakes his head and speaks. The C. O. I. Verification Officer puts down his pen and gingerly leans back in his chair. It creaks. It is one of those chairs that at a certain point in its trajectory of recline, collapses all at once the rest of the 45 degrees backward. So the Verification Officer is careful, and when his chair settles without capsizing he and his clerk discuss matters for a time. At length, with no small amount of labor, the officer summons himself upright and hands his clerk a stapler.
Officials stride the length of the old office floors, and you can feel their footfalls through your shoes. A small, older gentlemen enters, putters here and there, then heads back and down the darkness of a hallway. His movement leads my eye to a hand-painted sign farther down, the entrance to the Forestry Department. Between us and the sign an open electrical box on the wall sticks wires out into the hallway, where there is just the faintest smell of piss.
On his own schedule, the C. O. I. Verification Officer completes his work and looks none too happy about it. The Stamp comes out and pounds around the C. O. I. desk and onto our papers. And we are free to go. Silently. Gravely.
Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire
Abidjan is thick with thieves, “beaucoups de bandits,” a driver named Simeon warned us, although in French even bandit sounds genteel (“bawn-dee”).
Normally in these arrivals I opt for studied disengagement, burnished internally with bemusement, for here is the pageant of humanity. But not this time. Just now I am not in the mood for touts who surround your car and open your door for a tip, or stand in the street and wave their arms to guide you into your parking space. Today, just run ‘em over. We’ve flown since predawn, stopping in Bamako, and I have been ill since Cape Town.
Here is a new ruse. The local boys use signs with peoples’ names to get access inside the pass control gates, then make like officials who are going to open another pass control lane for you, grab your passports and expedite you through the lines – which really works – with the acquiescence of the real pass control clerks, for tips.
They’re on you tight as a surgical glove, then the baggage cart cadres pile on just outside the pass control desk. These fellows artfully monopolize every last baggage cart and attach themselves to you. I give the pass control expediter a dollar – we have no local money – and he demands ten. “Get lost,” we explain and finally, at unending length, he does.
Been down this routine. We tell the round little man who appoints himself to help at the bag carousel (additional to the goon with the cart), “We do not want your help, we will not pay you, go away.” He smiles and laughs because that is surely a big joke, and doesn’t move. I say the same words slowly and seriously. He shakes his head, for a terrible wrong has been done him, and slowly, eventually, leaves. But he is back, outside at the curb, for one last try. His cousin is a taxi driver, see….
Two open aisles confront Citizens and Residents in the arrivals hall, Miami. We’ve just flown the 43 minutes from Havana, March, 2012, during the brief Obama era flirtation with Cuba, on one of nine flights to Florida listed at Jose Marti Airport the morning of our return. (We arrived at U.S. Passport Control with our enabling paperwork, a sort of license to travel to Cuba, at the ready, anticipating red tape. In the event, the agent didn’t bat an eye, just waved us in. “Welcome back.”)
Everyone hurries to fill the queues that snake around way behind the pass control booths. The lines back up pretty quickly. You learn to hustle off the plane because it’s like airport check-in lines in reverse, if you pick a lane where there’s some indefinable problem, or the agent’s just having a bad day, each person in front of you could mean an extra six, eight, ten minutes. (Pro tip: If there is a choice of stairs or escalator between the plane and pass control, ALWAYS hustle up the stairs. Most people don’t.)
You try to discern how many are in what-sized groups. If those two right there are sisters and they approach the clerk at the same time, it may be quicker than if they go separately.
Have you ever been about eleventh in the queue with two booths open and you see an officious agent stride in, as if to open a third? You can’t move too soon, it might be a feint, but if he means to inaugurate his own little fiefdom in booth three, you aim to jump at just the instant to lead the flow to his booth, as soon as he opens, circumventing the ten in front of you. Timing is everything.
You can see the guy now. He’s deliberate, balding enough that he went ahead and shaved his head, sanctimonious maybe a little, with a good posture (they’re all erect and upstanding), young, unhurried, air of authority, intent on Representing Our Country Correctly.
He’ll open his briefcase. He’ll shuffle and arrange his papers. You can’t quite see all the fiddling he’s doing inside the panels surrounding his booth, but you figure he’s turning on his computer. At least, he faces the screen. You’re ninth in line now. You guess his computer has to have a little time to boot up. Maybe you get to talking with the sari-clad woman in front of you. She thinks the guy’s pretty good-looking, you guess, but that’s not what you talk about. You conspire to be the first in his line when he opens.
You read his facial expressions. Is he a helpful kind of guy? Will he hurry to accommodate? Now you’re eighth to the front and you’ve already been here fifteen minutes. Your bags are spinning around on the carousel out there by now. Nah, you decide he’s not going to be your savior. He’s being very deliberate, doing things you can’t see behind the plexiglass. You can still attribute his movements behind his counter to his follow-the-procedures work ethic, if you’re being kind.
You don’t know, maybe he’s getting out his own personal-issue passport stamp and inking it. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it behind that glass so you can’t be sure. Now three people move up in a group and now you’re fifth. You’ve had this guy in your sights to save you some time for seven minutes now and you might only have seven to go, but he can still save you those seven.
Fatalistic humor now with the lady in front of you. In another person or so, you’ll have to do a kind of blocking maneuver with your body to both keep your option to go to the new guy’s aisle and keep the people behind you from edging around you. Now you’re fourth. When you’re about third it won’t really matter if he ever opens or not.
He never lifts his eyes outside his booth, like every bartender you’ve ever disdained. You and the woman joke that he’s just back there playing video games, or that his lunch break doesn’t end for four more minutes and he’s not going to go back to work a minute before that.
He turns on the light behind his little sign. He’s ready to go and here is the big crush. Everybody’s been plotting just like you and people crowd into his queue and now you’d be fourth to the front with him – if you go right now – and you’re second where you are. So you stay put. Some guy behind you saves ten minutes.
My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is live now. Read On the Road in Pandemic America at 3QD now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a couple of days.
In last month’s column we sailed from Walvis Bay, Namibia, to St. Helena Island, 1800 miles from Angola, 1200 from Brazil, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. This month we continue north to Ascension Island.
When the Brits exiled Napoleon to St. Helena in 1815 they denied the emperor newspapers, subjected him to curfew, and guarded him with 125 men during the day and 72 at night. So intent were they to avoid a second imperial escape that sailing down, they garrisoned Ascension Island on the way, better to defend St. Helena.
Napoleon died six years later. With the Suez Canal fifty years in the future, the Admiralty hung on to Ascension as a sea base and it serves now as an airbase shared with the Americans, who built the island’s Wideawake airfield to move troops in WWII.
Ascension provided the middle link in an airbridge for the United Kingdom’s 1982 Falkland Islands campaign. During that conflict Ascension came alive like never before or since, as the UK Ministry of Defense ran a frenetic schedule of flights between the Brize-Norton air base near Oxford, England, and the RAF’s Mount Pleasant airport near Stanley, in the Falklands.
Other than aboard your own ocean going yacht, at the time of our visit ten years ago, there were only two ways onto and off of Ascension Island: the airbridge, which ran twice weekly charters, and the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which supplied St. Helena Island with periodic trips from Cape Town, and usually continued the additional 800 miles northwest to Ascension Island.
Where much of St. Helena is graceful and green, Ascension is stark and volcanic. St. Helena’s population has ancestral roots, while Ascension’s 34 square miles are home to no permanent residents, no farmers, fishermen or private property. St. Helena exports labor via contract workers. Ascension imports most of it.
Ascension is home to various NASA satellite tracking stations and military installations. The BBC transmits its World Service broadcasts to Africa and South America from an other-worldly array of broadcast antennae on the island’s northern tip. The military airstrip was lengthened so it could serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. It remains the longest in the Atlantic, supporting the 800 working residents, comprised of a changing coterie of research scientists and a small community of contract workers, like my new friend Nick.
I met Nick on the two day run up from St. Helena. But for a trickle of tourists this was a ferry full of “Saints” like Nick, residents of St. Helena on their way back from Christmas holiday to contract work on Ascension. Nick ran a shop in the neighborhood of Two Boats.
Ascension Island from the RMS St. Helena
Nick and I sat drinking beer in the open air aboard the RMS St. Helena, out on deck behind the indoor sun lounge. We were escaping the games inside, bingo and the like, meant to entertain passengers grown weary of the monotony of no sight of land.
Nick spoke in bursts, quick half-sentences. He’d make a point and give a knowing nod and a smile, like he’d just heard himself and agreed with what he said. He had things to say about life in the middle of the South Atlantic.
“St. Helena got its problems, y’know? Some people makin’ a fortune. Guy goes off to the Falklands to work, lives almost like a slave. Livin’ in dormitories, cleanin’ up after the Brits. He gets free travel, now, but he makes what, five grand a year, comes home and a house gonna cost him twenty. No way to live.
“And a man ought not have to go away to earn a living anyway. Here I go to Ascension, been there eleven years. Now the good thing: the way you can raise kids. It really is good. I’m bringin’ my son because I have a little shop and my wife, she teaches. No lockin’ doors, keys in the car. 900 people, maybe a thousand, right? Somebody ever takes something, eventually you find it.
“Now they have these clubs, a man doesn’t need money, just sign and have a beer, pay for it on payday. He don’t pay, he can’t leave the island, they take his last paycheck or somethin’.
“Sometimes I say no at my shop. A boy come in, wants a case of beer, if he can’t pay I say no. Otherwise I end up with no beer and no money to buy more. But my father taught me never say no if a man is a couple a pounds short for his kid’s shoes.
“Grinds people down. Some people make too much money, some people really poor, best thing they want is maybe a broken down second hand car. They just never gone anywhere, never seen anything in the world.
“Now I been eleven years on Ascension. I been lucky. Time for me to go back. My father died young. Not young, 62. My mother died in her 50’s. Lucky, my Auntie keeps my business back home. Won’t say I’ll never go back to work on Ascension. You get really big fish there, you know?”
Ascension Island. Hell with the fire put out. Volcanic, 100 kilometers west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the above-water tip of a 3,200 meter high, 60 kilometer wide volcano. Most recent lava flows thought to have been in the last 1,000 years but none since at least 1501. Some eight degrees south of the equator.
Astonishingly young. Its most ancient rocks are no more than a million years old. The slopes descend to the ocean floor, a visitor wrote, like a lorry full of gravel just unloaded, with “the same steepness and regularity, something totally unlikely in a natural mountain.” In the black lava from the most recent eruption NASA tested its LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module.
In ordinary places travelers perform a trivial ritual meant to assure their return, like tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain. On the tip of Chilean South America, you will return to Punta Arenas if you kiss the toe of the Ferdinand Magellan statue.
It’s different on Ascension. The Obsidian Hotel’s island-touting brochure describes a golf course on the road east from Georgetown as the worst on the planet, where “the ‘Greens’ are called ‘browns’ and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil.” Across the road are two canoes stood on end, one third buried, planted in lava.
Logically enough, these boats mark the road to the gaggle of housing called Two Boats, where Nick has his shop. The Ascension travelers’ legend centers on an elaborately painted stone beside the boats. When you are due to leave Ascension you cast paint upon this stone, to assure you need never return.
The waters off Ascension are home to spotted and bottlenose dolphins, humpback and Gervais’ beaked whales and the big attraction, the green turtle. The green turtles were laying when we arrived, in December. They would then swim across the Atlantic to Brazil, and return in three or four years to these very same beaches to once again mate and lay their eggs, a behavior scientists call ‘natal homing.’
We joined three conservation officers and four or five others one night for a walk down Long Beach in search of nesting turtles. Ten minutes from the middle of town, an all-enveloping darkness. A very hushed affair broken only by the chest-thumping impact of Atlantic rollers, waves that gather unimpeded for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
The lead conservation person slipped away then back, summoning us to shuffle through the sand toward a massive green turtle nesting on the beach. It’s a rare and fascinating sight, common to no one, even a researcher.
Turtles favor Ascension for the absence of predators. No dogs, no monkeys. The Ascension green turtles are the largest in the world, a meter and a half long, weighing as much as 300 kilos. Green Turtles are between 20 and 40 years old when they make the journey for the first time, males and females swimming together to mate.
A turtle will nest as many as ten times at intervals of 10-17 days. Once she has dug a large pit with all of her flippers the turtle digs a chamber with her hind flippers into which she lays around 120 ping-pong sized eggs.
Nesting Turtle and eggs
Both laying and hatching happen at night. One hatchling after another pops out on to the sand and races for the sea. They are born all at once. Only by working in numbers can they generate sufficient strength to burrow up through the sand. Once out in the air, their numbers increase the chances some will survive the headlong dash into the surf.
Everything about these turtles is remarkable, but the poet Amit Majmudar reminds us that all animals are “routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”
Perhaps because we live our lives in conscious thought, we discount the astonishing ways our fellow beings, seemingly unconsciously, navigate the world. Green turtles appear to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
Ants’ ocelli, light-sensitve organs on their heads, can read the sky even when the sun is obscured by cloud, using patterns of polarized light to orient themselves. The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
Other ants seemingly do trigonometry, taking circuitous routes outbound then the most direct route back to their nests, figuring out spatial relationships between the various places they’ve been each day.
Honeybees use polarized light to find the most direct way back to the hive – a beeline. This with brains of fewer than one million neurons and with 20/2000 vision. Also shown to use polarized light: Monarch butterflies, lizards, shrimp, lobsters, cuttlefish, crickets, and rainbow trout as well as numerous migratory birds. And maybe, so did the Norse.
Human navigation away from Ascension Island in 2010 meant either sailing back to St. Helena Island aboard the RMS St. Helena, which has since been retired, or flying via the airbridge to the United Kingdom or the Falkland Islands. Since 2017 maintenance at the Wideawake airbase has precluded landing of larger aircraft, and the Falklands airbridge is for now rerouted via Cape Verde. Current options for getting to and from Ascension are even fewer than those ten years ago.
We took the airbridge. A testudinologist (studies turtles and tortoises) named Sergio Ghione wrote that at the time of his work on Ascension, the Airbridge was a grim military affair, with the first row or two of seats removed in order to accommodate stretchers. By the time of our visit, at a non-military time, flights staged to and from RAF Brize Norton using charter contractors, like the Scottish company Flyglobespan, which had the contract until it filed for bankruptcy a month before our scheduled flight.
Unsure who might fly in to pick us up, we assembled to leave Ascension in a little chain link holding pen just off the Wideawake Field tarmac, and a brightly-colored Air Tahiti Nui widebody arrived to pick us up, which later set up a jarring visual as the airliner, in its merry Polynesian livery, glided in to touch down at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, in the snow.
On Ascension Island: Turtle Island by Sergio Ghione, and Island Base: Ascension Island in the Falklands War by Captain Bob McQueen.
On animal navigation, By the Light of the Moon, the Poles of the Earth, The remarkable ways animals get around by Sally Davies. For a tour of the odd capabilities of some really strange living things try Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes.
On human navigation try Wayfinding by M. R. O’Connor, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis and The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.