Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The island of Montserrat is 37 square miles. All right, 39 square miles because of the volcano. Then again, two thirds of those 39 square miles are off limits because of said volcano.
Montserrat was a happy little island of 11,000 souls until 1995, when its previously long dormant volcano decided to erupt. And completely wiped out the main town of Plymouth, along with most other places where most of those people lived. Not to mention the airport.
We landed at the new little airstrip in the north of the island. This was the third time today David had driven over to pick me up. On the way to his place we stopped at a little East Indian run market to buy cheese and bread and stuff.
David and Clover and family are semi-ex-hippies who moved here in 1980. In 1995 when the eruptions began David fell into a career as a video chronicler of events, which he then sold to all the news organizations which showed up. That kind of morphed into them building a little guesthouse for researchers, etc., to stay in. I was booked into the ‘backpacker’ room, with bathroom, fan, fridge, and microwave.
As soon I was settled in, the first order of business was showing me the composite DVD of all the explosions and pyroclastic flows and Plymouth being covered in thirty feet of volcanic mud. It was really bittersweet (if you can use that word in the Caribbean) to see their little ingrown society all silly and content, and then watching them all turn into jobless refugees.
News accounts at the time had made Montserrat seem like a semi-barren, backward isle, but the reality it is a ’chain’ of several tall mountains clothed in dense jungle. The areas where people live are verdant and tropical, with flowers and fruit trees. And the houses are usually around 800 feet above sea level, so that you’re always looking out over the endless warm blue ocean.
Saturday morning I decided to get in the spirit of things and go barefoot. Almost immediately I slipped on wet grass and fell downhill onto the concrete driveway, badly scraping my foot. I limped back into my room.
In the afternoon I went out to the road that circles what’s left of the island, and got a ride south with an engineer from Guyana who didn’t have anything else to do. So he drove me up to the (closed) volcano observatory, where we watched the Soufriere volcano smoldering away. Unfortunately, as with most mountains in most places, the top was somewhat cloud covered, so it was difficult to separate the volcano smoke from the clouds. But there it was anyway. Off in the distance I could see the grey emptiness that had used to be the town of Plymouth.
Since the guy was from around here, he was convinced that we couldn’t drive any further south. Turned out that we could, but no matter. He took me back to Gingerbread Hill.
Sunday I lay around some more. Then I walked the two miles or so in the hot sun down to the nearest black sand beach, where I toodled in the water for a while. David was supposed to pick me up at sunset. I had just given up on him and was starting up the long, long hill when he showed up. Good.
My expedition Monday was to get to Jack Boy Hill as far on the eastern end as I could get. First I stopped at an Indian grocery for six greasy samosas; ramen in the room is readily tiring. Which I ate at a beach. Then I stuck out my thumb, and eventually got a ride with one of the gravel dump trucks going back and forth to Jack Boy Hill.
They were about the only vehicles available, since nobody lives on that side of the island, it being all hilly forest jungle. When I got there I could see the former airport runway all covered in grey ash and mud, and that was about it, the volcano being totally cloud wrapped now. I thanked the driver, and got out to walk around.
I didn’t make it far. My toe, which had been constantly sore for the last two days, now made walking impossible. I barely made it back to the guy’s truck, and he drove me back to the civilized part of Montserrat.
By now I had gotten a pretty good feel for the culture, etc. It was really kind of sad how such a close-knit, idyllic life had been shattered. And it was clear that the northern part wasn’t nearly as ‘sweet’ as the southern part had been. And that the people who remained were doing it almost solely as a stubborn rejection of their fate.
That, and Where else did they have to go? Cold, rainy Britain???
I stopped at a grocery for more supplies and made it back to my room, looking forward to the joy of lying under my whirring fan and munching on some of my microwaved popcorn. Maybe check the email. When I went to switch the fan on, it turned out that the power was off on the whole island. Which it would continue to be until around seven.
Oh well. Since my main purpose on Montserrat was to relax my aged body for a few days, sitting around at the guest house and watching the sun set over the Caribbean wasn’t a bad way of accomplishing that.
And now with my bung foot, I had every more opportunity to do that. I therefore didn’t try to go anywhere or do anything on Tuesday. Just sat around.
In the late afternoon a 68 year old lady checked in who was going to paddleboard the 25 miles over to Nevis on the horizon. I asked her if she did it for the physical challenge or for the tranquility of being alone in the ocean. She got real intense and said, ‘No! It’s because I’m the first one to do it!!’
Nothing left for me to do except hobble up the driveway and pay the bill with David and Clover, hobble back down to my room, and pack everything for tomorrow.


At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I knew this would happen. I was just going to take a quick peek and ended up reading the whole thing. Now I am a half hour further behind than I was before. I don't know what it is about your trip logs that fascinate me so. So far, you are in yet another place I can strike off my bucket list. But I love reading about YOUR exploits. Sorry about the foot; glad you got your bag back; sorry about the flight delays and heat and humidity; glad you seem to be able to relax. JHH


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