The view from 26F as we descended towards St John’s International was great, not particularly dissimilar to what one might see at a similar stage of the journey towards Aberdeen, the West Coast of Scotland or Ireland; which must now be a travel objective for me over the next few years.
Once safely parked and disembarked – to 19°C weather – my first impressions of the airport were of how hastily put together it all seemed, with construction continuing in various parts. That lent a rustic, uncomplicated – perhaps even idyllic – air to everything, the sort of chilled, back water one might go to escape the lures of technology. Before travelling I had searched extensively for a duty free shop at YYT, walking the short distance to the arrivals terminal made the reasons for my futile googling apparent.
As my flight was only an A319, and a barely half full one at that, the line in to the immigration and customs desk was not particularly long. With no distinction between Canadian passport holders, permanent residents and international visa arrivals like myself, things moved fairly quickly and it soon became my turn to approach the desks and have my passports looked at. Upon presenting my passport the officer at the desk asked a few questions; why I was in town (to see my brother), what did he do (studied previously but now works), where he studied and what I did myself. The atmosphere was one of civil discourse, a far cry from the tense, emotionally charged one around passport control at Heathrow. How much of that was due to the much talked about mild temperament of Newfoundlanders or the smaller volume of passengers the airport handles remains to be seen, but what I realised – and made a mental note of for next time – is that sticking with the simple ‘Engineer’ answer when asked what I did was far more sensible than going for the full fat, tongue twister – Corrosion and Materials Engineer which is usually my standard answer.
St John’s appeared to be a city in bloom – at least to my first time visitor eyes. In addition to work on the airport, whole new blocks of housing have sprung up over the past few years, with a lot more construction ongoing. That much was visible as we sped away from the airport towards the corner of the city in which my brother lives. The similarities with Aberdeen bear repeating – in many senses both are historical fishing outposts that have grown and diversified off the back of offshore oil and gas. For St John’s the future looks even brighter, if the noises coming out of an independent review of the offshore acreage is to be believed. In addition to the flagship developments of Hibernia, White Rose and Terra Nova, recent estimates indicate volumes in the region of a further 12 billion barrels of oil to be extracted, certainly one to keep an eye on for my next move if I decide I have had enough of treading water in the North Sea.
The next day, belonged to the water front. After a few frantic google searches to find the lowest priced boat tour, we finally settled on Iceberg tours and booked a ride for two. It was too late in the tour season to be guaranteed a whale or puffin sighting or an iceberg for that matter but we decided to do it anyway for the sights of the city we would get from the sea. At the front desk, whilst chatting with the chap in the booth, I asked about getting screeched – from which it transpired he was/is originally from England. He promised to ask before we board if an official ceremony could be organised whilst we are out at sea. As we boarded, the Captain, gave his spiel – with great wit and sarcasm – about the safety features and what to expect. Having boarded and as final preparations progressed, I cast my eye across the motley crew of people assembled – all largely in good spirits and up for the adventure, save for a young woman who appeared unwell. It turned out much later that she had had too much fun on George Street the night before, her apparent unease the remains of a most monumental hangover.
The weather was great, blue skies a rarity for this time of the year, the Captain mentioned as he rambled on with his narrative piece, the complement to the visuals we were taking in. Much like Aberdeen, St John’s is a supply base for the offshore industry, which was why as we pulled out of the harbour, we passed a number of supply boats bearing the Maersk imprint in various stages of loading and unloading. Just before we slipped out finally, we got a good wave from Mr Pearcy as we passed his place on the outer battery. Over the course of the next two hours we passed a number of other landmarks; Signal Hill (where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal), Cape Spear, Dead Man’s Cove to name a few. I did get screeched, an ‘official’ certificate welcoming me from the Royal Order of Newfoundland Screechers proof of the pudding.
On Sunday we popped into P.’s church, a small but rapidly expanding one on Peet Street. Largely African, the enthusiasm and joy were obvious as always, as was their commitment to engaging their local community. Being the anniversary of their first service added to the atmosphere of gaiety and celebration. After church I got to meet a slew of P.’s friends which reassured me he was in safe, good hands, and that his existence was not as banal as mine on the other side of the Atlantic.
Over the course of the next few days we took in visits to the University’s Botanical Gardens, the Geo Centre with its models of Hibernia and the Titanic story, walked (a short section of) the Signal Hill trail where we got to pretend to fire the cannons and wrapped up everything by attending a small reception in honour of J and C’s marriage.
All told, it was a great time to be in St John’s with good weather on most of the days – dry and sunny with temperatures between 5°C and 10°C degrees but with a number of days with temperatures in the high ‘teens and even a 24°C day. The people I met seemed chilled, and friendly enough, as evidenced by the number of people who nodded as we passed them or who came over and said hi as we passed each other in parking lots.
The facts are what they are – my ten day sojourn in this corner of the world is over, gone with only the memories to hold on to. I never got to see Bell Island, but given what I have heard, it will probably make a lot more sense as part of a larger group. George Street, and the prospect of a proper Irish pub – I hear Shamrock Cafe is a must do – are delights I didn’t get to explore this time out. Between the missing bits of the experience I need to fill and the bright future for oil and gas, I suspect I will be here again many times over the next few years. Who knows, maybe even semi permanently, if the stars (and the opportunities) align.