Sand in the Sandwiches – Won’t do this again

If you want to read the first post in Sand in the Sandwiches, click here

After Mauritania, I did one more trip for NRI as an employee, and two further trips as a consultant for them.  Then I moved to the Virgin Islands.  During that trip to Mauritania, I snapped.  Something inside me told me that short term consultancies like this were really not the answer, that we needed a bigger gameplan both for our own sanity and to ensure we kept our clients up with the progress.  I argued it out with both Bob and Judith one night.  I lost the argument, but only because Bob really was a client and Judith reacted to clients wishes and would do anything for anybody.  My problem was that neither of us were really computer experts, we were geographers who used computers to solve our problems.  I think we did it rather well and got a reputation in NRI as fixers of GIS.  But we never thought like computer programmers, and if you are writing complex applications which involve data, tools and interfaces, you need to plan very carefully how what the client wants before the work was done.  Although we had Ould Babah over a few months before, it was really Ba we should have talked to, and when we arrived in Mauritania with what we thought was a finished product, we found that we had to constantly make revisions and updates.  Some of these were trivial, spelling changes or new colour schemes, others were far from simple, although it was often hard to explain to the clients why.  I spent long hours during the day while Judith trained updating programs, reworking the database structures, and that work spilled over into the late afternoons and evenings back at the apartments.  When the changes were made, there would be further problems.  Occasionally they would change their minds and I would go back to previous versions (one thing I had learnt was never throw away the older versions until you were sure you had finished).  At the end of the whole trip, we still had a huge wishlist from Ba of what other changes he wanted in the database, the problem being that we had now used up the money for the project and any new changes would be under goodwill, something Judith was willing to give, but myself, with work in the Caribbean and elsewhere to get ready for, I just did not have the time or energy to do things for free.

 So my argument with Bob and Judith was that the whole project was topsy turvy and we developed the system incrementally instead of planning, and I said we had to draw the line somewhere and say no to some of these changes.  Bob in particular saw that as a refusal for a computer expert to meet the needs of the client, which happens to be my biggest complaint of software writers who would rather develop something they know instead of answering the clients needs.  My work on the RAMSES, Lake Tanganyika and Caribbean CRIS had shown I took to heart making systems useful for other people.  I was quite hurt when I heard it being used against me.  I could not get them to realise that what I was complaining about was the whole process of developing such an application; we should have iterations, there should be a prototype that is fully tested by the people who have to use the software day in day out, not the bosses, we then have a full version and then a final version and at each stage we needed to interact face to face with the clients, no matter how far away they were.  I vowed there and then that I would never work in this rather enthusiastic but haphazard way again, and I never have.

Mauritania was bloody hard work.  Most of my trips were bloody hard work, but even here, where I got very little time either to myself or out of the rigid routine, I managed to have some wonderful experiences, see marvellous sights, and above all, despite the fact I seemed to be turning into a tired old traveller, there were some incredible novelty to come to grips with in this enchanting country.

Liming – Settling – The View that became mine

 If you want to see the first post on Liming – Click here.

I got driven round Tortola on my first visit, but with more time on my second,  I took to walking at weekends.  Most people felt I was mad.  Apart from the coast road the three roads that headed out of Road Town went up two mile long 1 in 4 hills.  I walked two of them; Huntums Ghut and Belle Vue.  On each occasion, I reached the top and walked along the Ridge Road.  Tortola is less than two miles wide for most of its 14 mile length, and apart from the southern coast road, the Ridge Road is the only way to get from west to east.  From the central ridge you can see both sides.  Although there are still some ups and downs it is a fantastic walk. At each bend a new vista would open up.  At one point, as the sun was beginning to set, I saw the silhouettes of two of the larger islands, Guana and Great Camanoe, and Virgin Gorda in the distance.  The composition was perfect, just enough sea, a smattering of islands of various shapes and sizes, dramatic beaches and coastlines dappled in coral reef, and an ever changing cloudscape which is enriched by the varying light of the day, bright and intense during the morning, sharp and bathed in red at sunset, purple at dusk.  I looked around at the houses and decided that I could quite easily live here.

 During that visit I discussed with the head of Conservation and Fisheries Department the possibility of working there.  It took a lot of painful toing and froing, but eventually, a year later I moved to BVI.  On arrival I checked in at a hotel in Road Town but had to start searching for a house to rent immediately.  The first place I looked at was a hundred feet below the Ridge Road looking out at the wonderful vista I had seen the year before.  No other place I looked at that week matched up to it, and from the end of 2001 to the very end of 2003,  I looked at that same group of islands every single day.

The View that became mine

The View that became mine

Liming – Settling – Time for the Baths

 We drove back over the island, but instead of heading back to the ferry port, our friend had one more delight to show us on this amazing island.  We parked in amongst the huge granite boulders on the top of a dry sandy hill.  He guided us along a path through a gully to the most incredible sandy beach, set in amongst larger cousins of these batholiths.  We wanted to have another swim, but instead he took us through a narrow gap between two of these boulders leaning together.  It was very tight but it opened up to a labyrinth of caves.  Some were dry with a sandy bottom, in others the tide invaded and made small paddling pools, filled with ghostly white fry.  The light penetrated through the occasional gap magically lighting the rocks and the water.  A footpath guided us through, in some places we had to climb wooden stairs, in others we tugged at ropes belayed into the rock.  Every twist and turn of that pathway revealed more delights.  The rocks had formed under intense heat and formed their rounded shapes, and were blasted day and night by the hot sun to form a sort of onion skin peeling.  In some places, the curious mixture of the makeup of the rocks and the bashing from waves had cut out huge gouges on their undersides.  The whole environment synthesised into a natural spectacle of beauty.  This was The Baths.  I was never sure whether they were called the baths because they resembled Turkish Baths or whether it was just short for Batholiths, but that mattered not.  What was important was that these were a national park and people were being encouraged just to wander through, as they always say, taking nothing but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints.  Unfortunately the Baths are the jewels in the significant crown of the BVI, and tend to get overcrowded by cruise shippers and yachties.  They have to be seen to be believed, though, and although there are many other fantastic sights in Virgin Gorda, this is the most miraculous.

Liming – Settling – Trip over the fat virgin

I got further on my second trip.  I invited a number of Vincentians to the training course in Road Town and although they were placed in a different hotel, we would meet up for the occasional lime and one weekend we intrepidly set off to find a fellow Vincentian friend in Virgin Gorda, the second island of BVI.  An early morning ferry sped us past the south coast of Tortola, beyond Beef Island and out across the Sir Francis Drake Channel to the sleep little island.  At the single concrete jetty we were met by this friend and family, piled in the cab of his pickup.  We jumped in the back and swayed along the bumpy streets to his house in Spanish Town, the main settlement.  He overlooked this marvellous sweep of bay in front of the tiny airstrip.  The island is low hills at the south end, topped with remarkable granite boulders and a dry cactus scrub.  The north is similar to Tortola, old volcanoes clad in dry forest.  After a beer or two, we headed up over the largest of these, Gorda Peak.  Virgin Gorda became my favourite island that day, and still remains so, not because it is lively.  It has some of the friendliest people in the Caribbean living there, but they are not very dynamic.  No, it is the sheer variety of beauty in its nine miles by two.  As we came out of Spanish Town the road jigs either side of a narrow isthmus; the sheltered waters of the channel protect Savannah Bay, a beautifully unspoilt sandy beach with great fingers of coral reef jutting out from four or five places.  On the other side rough waves break from the Anegada Channel against a rocky shore.

 As we climbed, I looked back at the revealing panorama.  At the peak, I knew it was the most fantastic view in the Caribbean.  The bays either side of the road were directly below us, the stripes of breaking waves, reef edge, coral, seagrass, beach and coast marked Taylor Bay to my left, beyond the boulders and houses of Spanish Town, the huge sweep of protected channel that makes BVI the yachting capital it is was full of vessels, milling in all directions.  Tortola and its smaller cousins loomed to the west and on the left a series of smaller islands guarded the southern approached.  At the very end, St John, one of the US Virgin Islands, blocked the exit, its green clad hills unspoilt from development.  The ensemble was breathtaking, the colours vivid.

 We drove over the crest of a ridge dropping from Gorda Peak and stopped again – here was the second best view in the Caribbean.  The road tumbled down steeply through the village of North Sound to a wide body of calm turquoise water with the same name.  It was surrounded by islands of various shapes and sizes and was filled with yachts, speedboats and a seaplane or two.  Two vast hotel resorts sat on the eastern side, still on Virgin Gorda but one of the two peninsulas that dangled precariously into the Atlantic.  In the centre of one of the channels was another small resort sitting on the tiny Saba Rock.  On my right, on the other side of the lower peninsula was another fabulous bay; South Sound, with the now characteristic pattern of reef crest, seagrass and sand in a bright blue sea, a few mangroves and a small salt pond completing the perfect Caribbean environment at one end.

 Moving my eyes beyond the immediate view, another island sat in its own circle of coral reef.  This was Necker, bought by Richard Branson some years before as a private island resort.  And in the distance, hardly visible at all, was another large island, but because it was almost completely flat, only a thin sliver of beach followed by a green line of vegetation gave it away.  And yet, for about fifteen miles to the east waves were breaking.  The island was Anegada, the waves were breaking on Horseshoe Reef, one of the largest continuous reefs in the world, some scientist describe it as one of the largest single organisms on Earth.

 We dropped down the sleepy village of North Sound, a slightly tarted up version of any sleepy fishing village in this part of the world, and came out at Leverick Bay, another resort.  Here we loaded our ice box on a small boat and carefully guided it over to one of the resorts I had seen at the top of the hill; Bitter End.  The boat had a very shallow beam, but the water was so calm in the sound that we were able to progress quite quickly.  We dabbled in amongst the resort’s attractions then had lunch at Saba Rock.  We spent an hour or so on the beach at another island, Prickly Pear.  My St Vincent friends and I lying on our backs in the warm water, a mixed drink perched on our bellies.  Michael Bailey, one of the group, looked over at me floating there and said “you really have a shitty job”.  I couldn’t help but agree.