A few years ago, my parents decided to escape the bone chilling Canadian winter by spending a few months on the sunny Caribbean island of Montserrat. I normally visit them in the more benign month of August, but decided a visit to the Caribbean was highly warranted in mid January. So booked my ticket, packed my bags and headed to the airport.
Loaded down with yummy treats, my favourite books, planned movie list - those long haul economy flights, and I've done many, are still always a killer.
Travel itinerary - Sydney to Los Angeles - 14hrs; Los Angeles to New York – 5.5hrs; New York to Antigua – 4.25hrs. Antigua to Montserrat - 20 mins.
By the time I arrived to board the small 8-seater Fly Montserrat Airways plane for the last leg of my journey, I was sleep deprived, jet lagged, dehydrated and wishing for a swift end to what amounted to 48 hours of travel time.
However, we couldn't depart because the ground crew hadn’t sent across the weight numbers for passengers and luggage - a prerequisite to making a safe journey in the twin engine airplane, one of only two ways to reach the island; the other being the 90mins ferry ride. When the ground crew finally sauntered over, we were well behind schedule and discovered to be overweight. A well-worn solution, some of the luggage was transferred to the next scheduled flight, which by now was only an hour behind. I was lucky enough to catch a ride in the front seat beside the pilot.
Gripping my duty free bottle of Appleton rum, I had to admit, I was a tad frightened. The expansive view of the wave crested sea was very, very far below and the tiny dot of land in the distance, never seemed to get any closer.
Half way across, lulled by the heat, the sound of the propellers and the seemingly standstill motion of flight, I expected to hear the iconic sound track from the classic cult movie – South Pacific - echoing around us, as finally the towering volcanic mountain started to beckon us ever closer, surrounded by swirling clouds in a blue sky sparkling like a backdrop behind it.
Touching down on the tiny airstrip, a poor substitute for the once busy international airport, I walked across the tarmac into the arms of my family who had waited for several hours, persevering in the wilting heat. After a long winding car trip across the island and the first of many sunset rum punches to come, I felt I had finally arrived back in the region of my birth.
Montserrat is nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean because of its resemblance to not only Ireland, but because many Montserratians claim Irish ancestry. Montserrat had been a thriving plantation colony under the British and worked by slave labour. What was unusual was also the importation of indentured Irish labour, along with merchants or plantation owners exiled during the English conquest of Ireland under Cromwell. There is still a lasting legacy of Irish culture with the Island’s biggest annual celebration being St Patrick’s day.
Dominated by the volcano, local Montserratians still live under its sway. An exclusion zone cuts the island in half due to the volcanic dome and creeping flow of pyroclastic lava that continues to submerge anything in its path, including the island’s decimated Georgian era capital of Plymouth. Closely monitored by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, it’s apparently the most studied volcano in the world and like the island, the lives of Montserratians have also been split in two. Those who stayed after the volcano erupted and the 8000 refugees who left, mainly migrating to the shores of England.
Those who stayed, endured, but seemed to live in a before and after world. Their houses of old still standing, half submerged under volcanic ash and silt, empty rooms filled with broken remnants of a life that was by all accounts vibrant, thriving and above all had a celebrity status created by George Martin’s AIR studios and the world famous musicians that once visited to record there.
The AIR studios closed down in 1989, when hurricane Hugo struck and devastated 90% of the island. Six years later, the economy was on its way to recovery when the volcano erupted. That was over 25 years ago and the island since then has essentially remained at a standstill.
Due to the erosion of the soil, It’s hard to find the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables you’d normally associate with the Caribbean way of life. Everything has to be imported mainly from Antigua or Miami and in limited expensive quantities. I did luck out though, when I discovered Wednesdays to be patty days. An enterprising local had set-up shop a 45 min drive away which I was happy to make to sample the authentic taste of my childhood favourite.
There’s not a lot to do on the island, the locals are quite elusive, stick to themselves and don’t really mix with the expat community of mainly Canadians and Brits. They try to keep their culture alive through singing contests, radio competitions, art shows and the slowly growing tourist trade encouraged to see the island as a modern day Pompeii. It’s created a strange hybrid community, expats seeking refuge in the gentle unbridled life of tropical island retirement, who spend their days swimming, sunbathing, gathering in groups at the local bars and colonial type restaurants. While the locals strive to move towards a return to a more cosmopolitan era.
Unlike other Caribbean islands, the government has managed to keep crime to the bare minimum and the drug trade confined off shore, so if like me you enjoy the simple life – early morning sea bath, a visit to a very well stocked local library, a lazy afternoon lunch, sunset drinks by the pool - then Montserrat’s early morning crowing of roosters, the baying of donkeys and bleating of goats is the only music you’ll need if you decide to visit the island where time stands still.