Here and there – Bermuda

There are many anomalous places in the world, but Bermuda has to be one of the more unusual.  Before I moved to North Carolina, I had no idea where this tiny country was to be found.  It is, I discovered, made up from extinct volcanoes in the Atlantic, on the western edge of the Sargasso Sea.  The Sargasso Sea exists!  I thought it was fiction.  Getting back to Bermuda, it is around 650 miles from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, its nearest land mass.  That might explain why its international telephone calling code is ‘1’, the same as the USA.  Finally, it isn’t an ‘it’, as Bermuda comprises no less than 181 islands, with a total area of just over 21 square miles.  The highest point on the largest island, Town Hill, is a mere 260 feet above sea level.  Finally, its population is around 70,000, one-sixth that of Canberra:  around half are ‘Black Bermudians’, descendants of African slaves.  Tiny, flat, heterogeneous, and in the middle of nowhere!

Most of the small islands are clustered in two groups, several in the Great Sound, an almost enclosed area bordered by Hamilton, the capital, to the east, and Somerset Village to the west.  Among these islands are Mouse, Partridge and Bird Islands; Long Island which is, well, long but tiny compared to Long Bird Island, one of the larger islands and the location of the airport; Alexi, Nelly, Darrell and Grace Islands, alongside the more formal named Hawkins, Lefroy and Bluck’s Islands, as well as few others; and, finally, evidence of naming exhaustion we have Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Zeta, Eta, and Lambda Islands.  Over on the eastern side of Bermuda there are two other groups, and several more with peoples’ names, including Smith, Peggy, Brooks and Burt, Paget and Governor’s Islands, and, finally, the improbably named Higgs and Horseshoe Islands, close together, now privately owned but once a Boer War prisoner camp, if only for the short duration from 1901 to 1902.

It’s not just the geography.  It has a rather wild history.  Its name comes from 1505 when the archipelago was discovered by a Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermúdez, and it has been occupied since 1612.  It became a British colony in 1684, well after it had first been used as a slave trade port.  When the slave trade came to an end early in the 19th Century, Bermuda became a Royal Navy port, as well as a base for merchants on the way to the Americas.  Things had been tricky during the American Revolution, but it managed to carry out trade with the US, even while the British sought to enforce stricter controls.  In many ways, its strong links with the US have remained – as with the international dialling code noted above! Change in activities continued, and by the 20th Century it was a tourist destination.  Was that enough for this tiny place?  Of course not, and as you will be aware, now it’s an important tax haven and offshore financial centre, a role it developed after the Second World War.

Bermuda is an Overseas Territory of the UK, and the UK Government is Bermuda’s sovereign government with executive authority vested in the British monarch, yes, King Charles III!  He is unlikely to do much there and his authority is exercised on his behalf by Governor of Bermuda, who is appointed by the UK sovereign on the advice of the British Government.  It is the same arrangement that is in place for Australia. The current governor is Rena Lalgie, the first governor of African-Caribbean descent, as well as the first woman governor; the deputy governor is Tom Oppenheim, a career British public servant.

The UK is responsible for Bermuda’s defence and foreign affairs.  Bermuda is Britain’s oldest overseas territory. Although the UK Parliament retains ultimate legislative authority over Bermuda, way back  in 1620 a Royal Proclamation granted Bermuda limited self-governance.  The Parliament of Bermuda is the fifth oldest legislature in the world, behind the parliament of England, The Tynwald of the Isle of Man, the Althing of Iceland and the Sejm of Poland. How about that!

Given all the interest in the recently deceased Queen of England, you might want to know Elizabeth II made her first overseas tour as queen in November 1953, and her first stop was Bermuda!  That first visit, with the Duke of Edinburgh, was for little more than 24 hours.  It was part of a 30,000-mile, six-month tour of the Commonwealth countries.  She was to go there four more times, next returning in 1975, 22 years later.  That was another brief visit, followed by a transit stop a few weeks after that.  She returned in early March 1994 when she managed to be in Bermuda for 44 hours . Finally, in November 2009, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited to commemorate Bermuda’s 400th anniversary.  Let’s face it:  it wasn’t one of her more important destinations!

I first went to Bermuda several years ago, working for one of the hotels.  In many ways it was a tropical paradise, with ocean water warmed by the Gulf Stream, pinkish sands, and daily temperatures ranging from the mid 20s Centigrade in the winter to the mid 30’s in the summer.  There’s rain, not excessive but common on half the days of the month, which makes it rather humid.  However, it is also on the hurricane path, and in 2004 Hurricane Fabian hit the island.  At category 4 it created major damage, including to the hotel where I was working a couple of years later.  Just checking recently, I saw they have had three more major hits in recent years, in 2014, 2016 and 2020.  I had finished my series of visits before then, but I did experience one heavy storm – more than enough for a wimpy guy like me!

Despite the fact most of the hurricane-damaged main building at the top of the hill was not in use, the rest of the hotel was lovely.  I had a villa, halfway between the main building and the sea. It was a short walk down to the restaurant on the beach, slightly longer in time returning from the beach, going uphill!  As if designed for me, there were birds to spot in the gardens, and if I hadn’t been working, it would have been an ideal visit.  Most of the work was in the daytime, and I did have a day off to look around the island.  I took a taxi into Hamilton, which was much like most other towns, and wandered around a couple of open-air markets.  Then I went back to my villa and lounged.  Excellent.  A second time working at the same hotel, a year later was a little different:  there was some stormy weather, and it was on this occasion when I discovered that when it rains in Bermuda, the rain can be very heavy.

Yet another project saw me working with a government tourism group.  The brief was concerned with increasing the number of visitors to Bermuda.  It was quite obvious that there were two key problems.  First, the number of flights arriving in Bermuda limited the number of mainly American tourists coming from the US to the island.  There were ships, of course, as well as ocean going yachts, but air travel was key, and until demand increased, flights would remain limited.  That was related to the second problem:  why go all the way to Bermuda when there were far more accessible places for Americans, without a long journey and unpredictable weather?  I haven’t been back to check my notes, but I seem to remember that the other major source of tourists was the UK, with visitors often spending a week relaxing on the island before flying on to Florida, or some other destination in the US.

There is one other important category of arrivals:  finance people.  This is a tax haven, and while most users didn’t need to actually spend time in Bermuda, they had lawyers and financial experts who would visit regularly.  I didn’t ask, but I presumed they were a good steady source of visitors, together with occasional members of board holding their once-a-year meeting on the island.  It was as if Bermuda was two places, a lovely tourist destination, a little out of the way, and with a risk of bad weather, and a financial centre for which pink sand, sunshine and warm weather were just about completely irrelevant.

Working with tourism operators is not a familiar area for me, and looking back, I missed out on an obvious opportunity.  I should have made it clear I couldn’t offer advice without seeing what might attract visitors.  I could have gone to Spanish Point, to the Crystal and Fantasy Caves, St David’s Lighthouse, Fort Scaur and the National Museum of Bermuda.  I could have sample twenty of the beaches all the way from the Cambridge Beaches to Long Bay Beach and popped into the nearby Cooper’s Island Wildlife Observation Tower.  Looking at a map of Bermuda today is like surveying a panorama of missed chances.  I didn’t get to the Arboretum, nor the Hungry Bay Nature Reserve.  I never saw Hog Bay Park, nor did I visit all the ferry stops around Great Sound.  Instead, I sat with a group of executives and pored over marketing material, data on arrivals, and much more.  Sadly, it is clear that tourism consulting is not my thing, as I clearly didn’t know how to make use of the opportunities a tourism project offers!

I did find some excellent books about Bermuda in the hotel and enjoyed reading about its past.  Guess what?  I did exactly the same thing when I returned to live in Australia and found myself in Bendigo.   Once again, I had some excellent history books to read!  I am reluctant to confront what it says about me, but it seems it is books before beaches, history before Hog Bay, and novels before nature reserves.  Off I go, exaggerating, as usual.  I should confess that I did have my camera with me, and I do like to go off to photograph wildlife, especially birds, flowers, and intriguing scenes, as well as ramshackle cars and collapsing buildings.  Within the grounds of the hotel there were enough items to keep me happy for days – except I wasn’t on a photographic holiday.

Now I am in Canberra I have done some sightseeing.  Aided and abetted by my youngest daughter and her husband, I have been to the Arboretum.  I have been to the National Museum.  Both provided me with some excellent photographs.  However, every day I try to take a walk around my neighbourhood.  I don’t usually take a camera with me, but I do have the (reasonable) camera in my iPhone.  Every so often, I go through my latest photographs, and set some aside, as I might use them in the calendar for next year.

There is a picture of acorn nuts on the ground I’ll probably use.  There is a small electricity sub-station covered in graffiti, and, in particular, the phrase ‘The Matrix was a Doco’:  going to use that, for sure.  A lovely ‘Bye, bye ScoMo’ poster.  Lots of birds – although I have found it is hard to get a really good photograph of a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo:  I can get close to them, but their shiny white feathers muddle cameras, and make definition hard to achieve.  There is a profusion of blossom as we enter Spring:  lots of images, but I still haven’t found that one shot that speaks to me.  Not a problem, as I have many more walks to complete before the blossom is gone.  Perhaps my favourite image right now is of people marching to Parliament House carrying ‘Freedom’ banners:  freedom from Covid-19 vaccination, would you believe, as if we would march people into building and force vaccinate them (although that might have been a good idea …).

Visiting Bermuda was evidence of a truth I have known for a long time:  I am not really good at tourism.  I love visiting new places, but I don’t need to see the sights.  In fact, I usually buy a book of photographs if I found a place interesting, so I can show them to friends.  My time is spent looking at far more specific things.  On my first visit to Aspen, up in the Colorado mountains, I used my free time to photograph the trunks of Aspen trees.  I also wandered the town streets taking pictures of unusual street letterboxes:  the plan was to have an image for every number from 1 to 100.  I never finished the collection, but it was fun on the way!  Driving over Independence Pass I took some photographs of collapsed stone cottages.

I don’t want to be misleading.  Some of the time I do train my camera on tourism spots.  At Aspen I took photographs of the famous Maroon Bells Amphitheatre, an astonishing ice-carved valley.  Outside Las Vegas, I took several photographs of the equally astonishing Hoover Dam, looking across from the somewhat scary Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tilman Memorial Bridge.  On travels in the UK and through Europe I must have photographed every famous view and sight, from the Lorelei on the Rhine to the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, from Loch Lomond to Mont Blanc.

However, many of those photographs were ones I didn’t need to take.  There are better images in books and souvenir brochures.  I have taken some shots of famous places, ones I really like, but those that are of more personal value are when I remembered to include a person!  I have some photographs from my Cambridge days, not many of colleges and chapels (though I do have a few of those), but I prefer those of my two young daughters, one sitting in a field of daffodils, and the other both of them out digging in the garden.  I have one photograph of my grandparents on my mother’s side (my father’s parents had died when he was very young).  I have some of my parents, some of siblings, but many, and I mean lots and lots, of lamp posts, trees and other odd items in London!  When it comes to people, children are easy to capture on film:  they seem naturally attracted to having their image recorded.  Parents and partners can be rather more resistant.

There is one further lesson I have gleaned from my visits to Bermuda.  I never thought to take a picture of myself, not at the hotel, not down by the beach, not wandering around Hamilton.  A visitor in 100 years’ time will wonder if I was a ghost, missing in action, as it were.  I could defend myself by pointing out that I was ‘behind the lens’.  However, it’s a feeble excuse.  Like many people I am averse to being on film.  Is it because the process of taking a photograph will steal my soul, as some believe?  No, of course not, but while that’s nonsense, there is something I find slightly disconcerting looking at my frozen image from years ago.  I have one picture taken on the day of my first graduation ceremony.  I am sitting in our apartment, looking serious in my gown and hood.  As I study it again, I realise part of what fascinates me is that this both is and isn’t me.  Yes, that was me back in the 1960s.  No, it’s like a front, and I can’t see the real me behind that pose:  I can’t even recollect how I felt back then.  What was I seeing as I looked at the camera?

I doubt I will ever return to Bermuda.  It is out of the way, a holiday resort for someone who likes beaches, and that certainly isn’t me.  A safe haven for someone with millions in the bank, and yes, that isn’t me either!  If I did return there for some reason, I would want to do what I failed to do before, and that would be to find out more about the place and the people.  Or would I?  That is the other puzzle about Bermuda.  I don’t need to visit to find out about it.  There are books and articles, photographs and videos on YouTube.  I can see Bermuda from my comfortable chair in my lounge area, and I won’t have to worry about storms, hay fever or insect bites.   A second-hand experience, sure, but if I get bored I can get up, make myself a cup of tea, and eat a chocolate digestive biscuit (I must cut down on those).  Then I can travel more widely, read about Detective Superintendent Grace’s latest case in Bath, or see how Duncan and Gemma are going in London, or even follow another crazy compelling stage in the saga of Chief of Police Heidi Kick in Bad Axe County, Wisconsin, all the while staying dry, avoiding storms and bites … and getting a little lazier and a little plumper!