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Local legend has it the archipelago acquired it’s unusual name when the seventeenth-century navigator who discovered it died in mid sentence. According to the tale you will hear in the bars and fish-shops of the central island, Signor Vasco de Perto e Longe landed in 1642, blown off course by a storm which narrowly missed his better known rival Christopher Columbus, who was trailing behind at the time. The unfortunate Vasco barely had time to ask a native the optimistic question, “Is this the New World?”, and receive the answer, “Almost”, before the cholera which had doomed his voyage carried him off.
Whatever the relative truth or untruth of this story, the islands were considered beautiful and fertile enough for the remainder of the crew to decide not to bother with the rest of their voyage and settle. Thus it was that the crew was deemed lost without a trace and the unique cultural hybrid of these islands continued undisturbed until the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century.
The more orthodox version is that Vasco, realising he was far behind Columbus, named the island, in his bitterness, after the patron saint of lost causes. Nonetheless, the saint, one of the least famous of his order and never a first team choice for the Vatican, is venerated with fierce affection on this speck in the Atlantic, and his annual festivities are a focal point for the cultural life of the entire archipelago, a showcase for their inimitable senses of style and humour.
Indeed, since the so-called Sleepy Revolution of August 23, 1955, the Saint’s Day has also been Independence Day. Travellers in the islands should be in for at least a week of sheer joy around this time. No community, no matter how small, forgoes its celebrations, whilst the largest and wildest scenes are always in the administrative capital of the archipelago, Port Almost .
Seven islands constitute greater St Almost, although fishermen navigate the shoals between an estimated total of thirty-five lesser islands, of which some ten or eleven are permanently inhabited. The largest, from which the archipelago takes its name, covers an area approximately the size of Wales and supports the bulk of the population as well as the only large town. The mountainous interior is sparsely populated, excepting the volcanic basin right at the heart of the highlands, which supports agriculture. The majority of the population farm the rich coastal plains, or fish. So far, rich forest covers the unreclaimable flanks of the mountains, although increasing foreign investment is certain to attract logging.
The remaining islands, in order of size, Vasco, Mais o Menos, Victoria, Haven, Belba and Tuesday, support their own distinctive microcultures and are each proud of their own particular identity. Practically every rock in the sea between these centres of population is inhabited in some way for at least a part of the year. In 1985, a commission was set up to count the exact number of islands, inhabited and uninhabited, but in true St Almost fashion, the survey wasn’t quite finished. Indeed, some say that the survey is still going on, long after the government lost interest in the idea, and mothers tell their children that, if they keep very quiet, they will hear in the far distance the sound of the lonely Chief Surveyor, wild, unkempt and hungry, still counting islands in the depths of night when the world is fast asleep, with the stars the only witness to his labours.
Politically, St Almost is a democracy, but seeing as no efficient census has ever been taken, it is at best a half-hearted one. Literacy is not high in the smaller islands (although exceptionally high in Belba) and the standards of current affairs reporting in the two main newspapers, The St Almost Times and The Arkypelago Informah, is notoriously poor. The attitude of the general populace to the cut and thrust of politics could be described best as apathetic – little interest is taken unless something funny happens. Consequently, power is divided amongst the surviving colonial families and the two largest unions, those of the farmers and the fishermen. For the last forty-two years, the ballots have failed to return one candidate with a sufficient share of the vote to gain the presidency, and thus the colonial administrator, Sir Edmund Mandrake, has been asked to stay on as caretaker and de facto head of state. No-one seems to know what will happen when Sir Edmund, who is now extremely old, dies, and so long as there is plenty to eat and drink, no-one seems to mind either. The fragmented nature of St Almost’s political parties also means that very little gets done from an administrative point of view, and everybody seems happy with that, too. Decisiveness, they say, is not a national affliction.
The population is a mixture of indigenous peoples, people of African descent brought to the islands during the days of slavery , Asians brought in by the British rulers to supplement the workforce and bureaucracy, and Europeans. These populations have become blended over the years, and it is only in the most isolated parts of the archipelago that you will find villages where one ethnic type predominates. Religion is a synthesis of many traditional beliefs with the colonial faith of Christianity, and has many local eccentricities. There is a definite sense amongst the inhabitants that they are part of a unified population, and political decisions are seldom made along racial lines, or, for that matter, at all. The first language is English and you will find few places where you cannot make yourself understood.