Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Montserrat; the magnificent, the wounded, the resilient.

The volcanic island and British colony of Montserrat is probably the most incredible place we visited so far. First, the landscape is just magnificent with majestic hills and nice towns but this is a characteristic we find in most of the volcanic islands in the area. The key characteristic of Montserrat is that half of the island is in fact an active volcano and all the zones around the Soufrière Hill, this is the name of the volcano, are closed down to everyone but the scientists who monitor the activity of the volcano. We anchored in Rendez-vous Bay, just next to the new capital Little Bay. Surrounded by 200 feet cliffs the bay offers us a good shelter as well as splendid scenery. Looking at the cliffs we could see many birds nesting in that ideal environment for their safety. But the most intriguing part was to look at the goats walking in the very narrow ledges of the cliffs and just eating whatever they could find on the verge of the precipices. Their soft feet just allow them to climb the rocky sides of the hill without falling and for sure they don’t have vertigo. Finally, at night we could hear a loud hissing sound coming from the cliffs and one of the local policemen confirmed us that it was the sound of the bats living in the caves. That night we were seriously asking ourselves whether we should put the screens in the windows, not for the mosquitoes but for our flying neighbors!

Birds, bats and goats are very interesting but what we wanted to see the most was the volcano and see the lava flowing out the mouth of this Titan spitting the fires of Hell! Well it wasn’t exactly like that. You see, here at Montserrat the volcano is definitively active but its magma is very viscous and doesn’t flow per say. What happens is the magma gathers at the top of the volcano and creates the dome. Of course, at one point the dome becomes so steep that the stones can hold anymore and a sort of avalanche, they call the pyroclastic flow, starts and millions of tons of hot burning stones and ashes scramble down the hill destroying everything on its way. Some flows are small and stay at the top while others go all the way down until they reach the sea. But there is another phenomenon making almost as much damages; the mud slides. When the dome is very high and a violent rain happens, the entire dome can collapse and slides in an enormous mud slide burying everything along the way. Or, it can be more gradual and the mud slowly accumulates and buries houses and routes. On the pictures you can see a former river that is now an ongoing mud slide. Before, this was a golf course and one of the beautiful three stories houses built along the course got buried. Danielle is leaning on the roof of the balcony on the second floor. I told our guide that they could still make the place a golf course but only for the real players, not the kind of wimpy players who need a clean fairway of grass but the kind who go play in February in Canada with white balls! In the background of the third picture you can see the former city and capital Plymouth that got buried completely by the mud just a few years ago.

During our visit we didn’t only see the path of destruction of the volcano but also how resilient the people of Montserrat are. After getting the majority of their urban centers destroyed they now use the monetary help from the European Union to completely rebuild a new capital and the economical infrastructures they need to come back to a normal life. Behind me you can see the constructions fields of the new capital. Montserrat now has a population of about 5000 and with all the construction projects they have virtually no unemployment. They are proud and apparently just keep going and assuming all the burdens that Mother Nature impose on them. Talking of the N lady, she doesn’t only fry the local communities but also offers a very fertile ground for pretty much anything that can grow. Besides the incredibly good mangos we picked during our visit we also tasted something quite unusual; the fruit of a cashew tree. On the picture you can see the red fruit and on top of it you can find the nut that we all eat. But the fruit itself is incredibly good and juicy. So juicy in fact that the best way to eat it is to pull the nut out and then throw the entire fruit in your mouth and chew. All right, this is not very elegant but jeez this is good. I really don’t know why this fruit is not exported or its juice commercialized but I am sure there is a business opportunity there. If you ever come by one of them, just don’t hesitate and eat it!