A place that captured my heart
There are many places that have captured my heart, including New Zealand, Scotland, Japan, Iceland, the Channel Islands, and the Faroe Islands. I am sure that there will be more places in the future, God willing. However, I’ve never been anywhere that impacted me the way that Montserrat did. I wasn’t expecting it. The first time that I had ever heard of the island was during my PhD studies, when I just stumbled across the name in one of the long lists of countries in the Caribbean. I wasn’t familiar, so as I am want to do, I looked it up. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that most of the island was an “exclusion zone” due to a volcano.
In my mind’s eye, this was a place like Washington state, where Mt. Saint Helens had ravaged the land and caused tragedy, but could now be observed and climbed like a relic of the past (not to say that it is). I imagined travelling through the lush rainforests of Montserrat to view and yes, even climb the volcano. Sadly, I was so naive that even leading up to my trip there, I was looking up how to hike the volcano. I didn’t realize that Montserrat didn’t just suffer from one explosion but nearly two decades worth of destructive, pyroclastic activity that has literally left about 2/3 of the island off-limits.
I can at least say that I learned enough leading up to my expedition that I purchased a tour of Plymouth, the former capital of the island. I had read that you couldn’t go alone. My guide, a man by the name of Sunny, grew up in stretches of Montserrat that are abandoned and lost for now. And he, like many other Montserratians, had explored a beautiful world that has ceased to exist as it once did. Plymouth was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean. The mountains surrounding what’s now an active volcano were living and lush. There were only little hints of what was beneath it all in the form of hot springs, not unlike those that I’ve hiked to see in Dominica.
In 1995, when the mountain came alive again, no one thought that the Montserrat that they knew was about to be lost. Activity on the mountain grew, and scientists became more apprehensive, until they alerted the government to the fact that they could not provide 6 hours notice that the volcano might explode. At this point, people were forced to flee the city, many leaving their belongings behind, perhaps believing that they would be able to return soon permanently… and that life would go back to normal. It was not to be, however. The explosion that came in 1996 was so violent and persistent that by 1997 Plymouth was engulfed and destroyed. Nearly 2/3 of the island’s population left Montserrat permanently. Making the damage both physical and cultural.
Unlike Mt Saint Helens, the volcano didn’t explode once. It’s dome expanded and blasted out the island again and again. Destroying Plymouth, destroying the small villages in the countryside to the south, blasting away the roads and the countrysides that once allowed people to play in and explore, and eventually destroying the island’s airport. The last powerful explosion was in 2010, and the years leading up to that were filled with destructive activity. More than a decade of loss.
Strong people surviving loss
I can’t know what those people went through and still feel to this day, but the stories I was told and reading about the event afterwards can give a one a sense. I feel loss even, for the people who lost their homes and their way of life, and for an island that I will never get to see. I’ve been to Montserrat now, but it’s a new Montserrat- something different from what it was before, unique yes, but a reminder of how brutal nature can be. Creation is violent, because volcanoes create. But what it takes to get there is tragic, painful, and oftentimes beyond human comprehension.
It isn’t just the tragedy of Montserrat that makes this island special, and it shouldn’t be. While I wanted to ask the people that I spoke with there if they ever got tired of talking about the volcano, it’s something that has shaped many things on the island. Despite everything, however, people are still there. Not folks who are trapped, but people that want to be there.
Some are Montserratians, although many community members left the island when the eruptions made life too difficult. With no space for people to live in, no jobs, no school, and no rest, it makes sense. They went to the UK, other Caribbean countries, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, since the volcano has comparably simmered down and settlements have established to the north of the island where it is safe, new folks have come to live there. Many are people from around the Caribbean, with some European and US expats as well.
Montserrat now and then, but still alive
They are rebuilding and keeping the island alive, and while most of them might not remember the Montserrat of “before,” they have taken the special spirit of that place to heart. Montserrat is a remainder of a Caribbean of yester-years. Safe, helpful, and friendly when you offer a smile or kind word. People wave at eachother as they drive down the road, and honk at friends as they pass. It’s not the only island left like this, but that doesn’t make it any less special to experience it- especially when you come from a big city.
Even though I never knew what Montserrat was like before the volcano, even though I didn’t live through the eruptions, or even get to thoroughly explore it, there is something haunting about this place. In some ways, it is that fascination that all people have for other’s tragedy (dark tourism is a thing for a reason!). It’s also the beauty of a place where the nature we love and the nature we fear exist together, and the kindness of a community that has survived that calls you back.
They say that if you drink from the Runaway Ghaut spring you will come back to the island. I couldn’t drink because of my chronic illness, but nonetheless, I hope the spirit of that promise will live in me. I want to come back, and I hope that when I do, I will get to see the dawning of a new day there. I hope that nature sees fit to let this little island heal.
Inspiration for times of trouble
It’s been less than a month since I drafted this post… but it feels like a lifetime ago. The day that I plan on publishing this post will mark the beginning of our third week working from home due to coronavirus. With uncertainty being the name of the game everyday, and health/financial ruin weighing heavy on everyone’s minds… I often think back to Montserrat.
This is because I believe that the little nation of Montserrat faced disaster more bravely than I have in the past couple weeks. While the situation there and the situation now are not the same, the people of this island have survived years of uncertainty, destruction, and disruption of their lives. Yet, they found ways to adapt and survive, both on their home island and elsewhere. In this difficult days ahead, I will keep thinking about the strength of the Montserrat people. I will look for kindness in my community and try to provide kindness to those around me, and I will keep picking up the pieces until better times come again.
Thank you to Montserrat for hosting me for a few days before the whole world changed. That experience will live in my heart forever, and strengthen me in this insane reality that we are all living in now.