Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tristan Da Cunha

I've had a longtime interest in Tristan Da Cunha, the most remote human inhabitation on the planet. It's located midway between Africa and South America (here's a Google Map), and you can only get there by taking a ship from South Africa which may or may not stop some distance from the island. If the weather's ok, the ship will drop longboats, it's a matter of rowing like hell and praying to God you're not dashed on the rocks (there is no harbor). If the weather's not so ok, you'll return to South Africa some weeks later without having visited.

The population of 275 people - all descendants of various shipwreck victims - wears thick heavy socks and speaks a dialect of English heard nowhere else. And the main dietary staples are lobster, crawfish, and potatoes. And everyone's friendly. It's heaven.

Their potatoes are reported to be the best on earth, because they're grown in penguin guano, which seems to be the optimal spuddy medium. They are so good that they can be eaten raw, like apples. Tristan da Cunha's post office even issued a potato stamp once:

The potatoes are grown in a special farm called "Patches", located a couple miles from the main inhabitation:

My interest was piqued when I caught an off-Broadway play about the island, written by the granddaughter of a minister who'd lived there for a while. I went home and learned everything about the island, eventually coming upon the news that, one year prior, Tristan da Cunha had suffered a catastrophic hurricane which had done great damage.

I knew the island had one single email account, so I wrote in, expressing my sympathy and solidarity, and asking how I could help with the relief efforts (and also asking if anyone wanted to exchange potato recipes). Nine months later, I received a letter, in very unusual handwriting with amazing-looking stamps, from Mr. Glass, who at the time was Chief Islander. He thanked me for my offer, and asked for my address so he could send me a copy of the Tristan da Cunha cookbook. He also shared some news about his family. It was very friendly and touching.

A year later, I got another letter from Mr. Glass, apologizing because he'd actually just returned from New York, where he'd attended a lobster conference, and had intended to hand-deliver my cookbook but he'd unfortunately forgotten to bring along my address. Enclosed with the letter was the cookbook. It was charming, wonderful, gratefully received...but, alas, wholly unexceptional.

I wrote back telling Mr. Glass that next time an islander visits New York, they could consider me the unofficial welcoming committee, and that I'd take folks out for potato-heavy meals and otherwise show them a good time.

Eight months later, Mr. Glass sent me a letter thanking me, informing me of the great success his son had been having in boating competitions (if you can survive getting to and from Tristan from the South African boat, you can apparently accomplish most anything nautical that comes up), and asking me if I could help with a problem. Mrs. Glass had been painting penguin eggs to sell to tourists, but had found it difficult to remove the yolks without damaging the shells. He'd heard there were kits for this, and asked if I could send one.

Egg decoration is a Ukrainian tradition, so I headed to a Ukrainian crafts store in the East Village, where I shared the entire story with the impassive proprietor. I thought I'd surely score a free kit, but she charged me the full three bucks and nearly threw me out of her store.

I sent it along some years ago, and have not since heard back, but it's possible the egg decoration kit never arrived; Mr. Glass told me the Johannesburg post office is notorious for pilfering packages. But, in the overarching sweep of our relationship, I deem a half-decade or two of non-communication to be a mere blip.

Here are some links.

Traveling to Tristan Da Cunha:
Organising Tristan da Cunha Visits

Trembly's Travels, a personal web site of a woman who loves far-flung travel which offers a terrific personal travelogue of a visit to Tristan (the whole site's worth reading; check out her Saudi Arabia visit!)

Another Trip Account

General Tristan Da Cunha Info:
The Tristan Yahoo Discussion Group (it's good to know I'm not the only one interested in Tristan!)

1 comment:

joshi said...

in the same spirit,

Blog Archive