Sunday, October 18, 2009

Paradise Regained

I don't know
I don't know
I don't know
where I'm a-gonna go
when the volcano blow

Jimmy Buffet, Volcano

Linda has been really happy today. In fact she has been like a kid before Christmas, and all because she read an article in the newspaper about the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

That beautiful little island has always been very special for us. It was the first place outside the US where we went for a holiday. Even with all the travel we have done since then, the experience we had in Montserrat in 1987 remains one of those we recall most fondly.

It was my first time outside the US (if you don't count Canada, and no one in the US does). It was perhaps the first time I saw the night sky with absolutely no ambient light. It was the first time I walked on black sand, created from volcanic lava that had eroded over the centuries.

It was my first time at a resort, the Vue Pointe. It was also my first experience with a beach bar, which at the time struck me as the most sensible thing I had ever encountered. And for both of us it was just a great time to veg out and relax with one another after an amazingly stressful magazine launch in Boston. And remember, this was before mobile phones and the Internet, so when you went on vacation, you really went on vacation.

One of the highlights of our holiday was the day we took a taxi up to the Soufriere Hills to walk around the volcano. This wasn't a national park or special place. You just drove up to where it was and had a wander among the holes in the rocks that would spew smoke. I honestly don't recall if you could smell sulfur, but I have convinced myself I did. Of one thing I am sure - you had no doubt that you were standing over something forceful that was burbling away just below you.

Montserrat back then had a claim to fame. Not that we met them, but there were a lot of musicians who visited the island often. George Martin, the Beatles manager, had built a world-class recording studio there and it was used by many top stars. When Jimmy Buffett sang his bouncy song asking where you gonna go when the volcano blow, it was Montserrat's volcano he was singing about.

But in 1995 that song stopped being fun as the volcano erupted, forcing the evacuation of the capital city of Plymouth which was covered with a thick layer of ash. The next year some residents were allowed to return, but in June of 1997 there was a huge eruption that killed 19 people and covered the city to the height you can see in the picture at top. It is eerie to think that LK and I once shopped and had lunch at the places buried under the lava flows and ash.

Plymouth, which is still technically the island's capital, is permanently abandoned. Over half the island is an exclusion zone which means that it is too dangerous to redevelop there.

So why was LK so happy today after she read the newspaper? It turns out that the correct answer to "Where you gonna go?" is "The other side of the island". Although more than half the population have left the island since the catastrophe, others are busy rebuilding essential services on the northern end of the island - hopefully out of reach of the volcano. The airport has been rebuilt, and they have now started a daily ferry service to Antigua.

And with all of this has come the re-birth of tourism. LK spent the afternoon reading about the various places to stay there, and many sound lovely. The Vue Pointe closed permanently after the last big blow, but there are lots of B&Bs and apartments popping up.

When we left Montserrat in 1987, we both wanted to return some day for another holiday. Then the next year we moved here to Oz, and we never got back before the volcano erupted. With that event, we felt such a loss that we would never see this beautiful place and meet these charming people again.

Now we will. And that's why LK - and I - have been like kids at Christmas today.

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