Tristan observations

I have now been on Tristan da Cunha for seven days and have made numerous observations how our environments are the same, and also how they differ. How does life in the city compare to that of a community of 259 people on the most isolated island on the planet?

These observations are in no particular order, and I am just going down a list that I have made in my travel diary.

I consider myself well-read about Tristan and its creature comforts. It may be a tiny isolated community, but I already knew that they had 24-hour electricity, flush toilets and hot water. I had to ask my host family, the Greens, though, if there was a limit to their hot water tank. I have watched enough episodes of “Coronation Street” to know that some characters on the show get mighty steamed when someone has used up all of the hot water so that they can’t take a bath. I take long showers and wanted to be sure that I didn’t find myself in their shower stall standing under a stream of ice water, nor did I want to leave barely enough hot water in their tank for a quick handwash. The Greens assured me that there was no problem of hot water running out. I could take a hot shower as long as I liked. In order to heat it one has to set the geyser to the maximum. The geyser is a little fire that burns inside a metal box like a medicine cabinet. One does have to wait a good three minutes for the water to run hot.

All house doors are split into an upper and lower half. There are often two sets of these split doors. The Greens keep both top doors open all the time, closing them only at night. The weather in Tristan changes by the hour, so the door design makes it easy to have a quick look outside. During my walk today to the Patches, the farming plots where potatoes and other vegetables are grown, it started out cloudy, then it rained, then my bare face got pelted painfully with hail. I was left immobile as the powerful wind prevented me from walking face-forward. Finally my walk back to the settlement was under a sunny clear blue sky. It rains every day, even when the forecast doesn’t call for it. The Greens keep the website for hourly weather updates for Edinburgh as a bookmark. Only the website uses the name Edinburgh, the locals never call it anything but the settlement.

The volcano that erupted in 1961 forced the evacuation of the entire island to Great Britain for eighteen months. The lava flowed perilously close to the settlement and it’s a miracle that only one house was lost. The lobster canning factory, however, was buried under twenty metres. I climbed the volcano last Sunday and took some bird’s-eye photos of the settlement. Some lava formations resemble stalagmites and they seem to defy gravity how they can remain standing for more than half a century.

Tristan now has two TV channels, ITV and BBC One. Before I left on vacation, I got caught up on “Coronation Street” up until the most recent episode aired in Britain. I watched the episodes at home on YouTube instead of the CBC website, where the latter is two weeks behind the UK. In Tristan, “Coronation Street” is up to date, and since it is only one of two channels some episodes have revealed spoilers, since the last episode I had seen at home was the one originally aired on 1 September. So I try to daydream if the Greens are watching it while we are gathered together for supper or visiting other homes where it is invariably on.

Dogs in Tristan are all outside animals, and they run up and down the streets and only a handful of them might bark at you. They absolutely love attention, as they are regarded as working animals with the sheep, and do not get petted or scratched like our dogs. So whenever I pause in the street to scratch a dog’s head or rub its coat, it jumps on me, pawing my legs, unwilling to let me carry on. The Greens have two dogs, an old sheep dog named Sadie and a little one named Susie. They have never been inside the house, and make no move for the door when it is opened. Roads here are mostly concrete although some are paved in asphalt. The concrete roads all have dog prints and some cow hoof prints in them. You can’t keep a dog off a slab of freshly-poured concrete. No one writes his initials in wet concrete here; in Tristan that’s left to the dogs.

Licence plates are all TDC plus a number up to three digits. There are official plates that are white on black, but many plates simply have the TDC and number drawn on the bumper by hand. As long as the vehicle is officially registered and is exhibiting its number, I suppose, it doesn’t need a fancy plate.

Houses are not heated. I am writing this after midnight while everyone is sleeping and my hands have icicles for fingers. When I spent my first night here a week ago I wondered how I would stand the cold. It doesn’t take long to get warm if you cover yourself completely and keep your socks on, yet you have to bundle up when walking around the house.

Tristan has taken a lot of heat with derogatory remarks about inbreeding. The island has seven surnames, those of its original founding families, and with a population of only 259 it can mean slim pickings for expanding the gene pool. The point I wish to make is that whenever I mention a name of an islander to a Tristanian, I hear, and I mean I hear this every single time, “Marion? She’s my cousin.” or “Gary? He’s my second cousin.” Everyone is related to someone in some way, and we’re not talking about seventh-cousins-twice-removed which allegedly was the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Diana, Princess of Wales. Tristanian women all change their names upon marrying. I asked if it would be unheard-of for a man to take his wife’s surname in order to continue the family name on the woman’s side. The Greens did not think that this would be a strange idea, and it might happen within the current generation. The smallest Tristanian family is the Hagans (pronounced hay-gən), where there are only four households and only one has an unmarried child: a girl. Will this young Hagan be the last with her family name? Or will her future partner adopt her surname and continue the Tristanian tradition?

There is a small hospital, Camogli Hospital, which is staffed by a visiting doctor who only stays for around six months. The doctor can perform some surgeries like appendectomies. Doctors used to be assigned to Tristan for at least a year. A dentist arrived on the previous ship and on the Agulhas II an eye doctor and a dental technician are visiting until the Agulhas II returns to Cape Town.

The supermarket, or “canteen”, is open for about five hours a day. It is like a small-town general store. Some shelves have signs saying that certain products are out of stock. Prices are not high, and are similar to those in Cape Town. There is no real selection of clothing in the canteen, aside from shoes and track suits and track pants. Tristanians usually order their clothes from Cape Town. The notice board in the canteen, as well as in the Internet café (which by the way serves no coffee) has three or four Internet pen-pal requests, including one from an American prisoner who is looking for a relationship.

When I return to Cape Town I will be sure to add photos to all my Tristan posts, that is if I can’t figure out a way to do so while here. I can send photos as E-mail attachments but earlier today it took me a long time just to add two to a mail.

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