Five of us were taken on a tour of the island by Cecil, a most delightful tour guide. His experience of growing up on the island, of living through the volcano eruptions, of providing shelter to the refugees from the south to his homeland in the north, and of watching the rebuilding of the island on the north, was shared with colour and charisma.
From our starting point in St John’s we went to the new town of Lookout, where most of the people from the south were evacuated to. Cecil told us of the building programme to create homes for the hundreds of people displaced, schools, hospital etc., and its effectiveness in developing a new community.
From there we headed to Little Bay and followed the west coast down through Sweeney’s, Brades, Cudjoe Head, (part of my running route), St Peter’s, Woodlands, and Salem. We dropped into the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) and marvelled at the fantastic views, but sadly the dome of the volcano was shrouded in clouds, almost as though it was ashamed to show its face, like a small boy hiding behind his hands to hide from the mess and mayhem he had caused. Fom here we learned that our tour did not have to end at Garibaldi Hill as originally planned, but that we could continue, with permission from the police, into the newly opened unsafe zone.
Cecil was delighted, and shared the significance of this with us. The zone had been closed for the past five years, he was as excited as we were to be allowed in to see what changes had happened in that time. A police officer met us at the gate, took all our names, gave us strict warning that in the event of rain we were to head straight out, as the Belham River is prone to rapid flooding which could leave us trapped. As we drove over the now dry Belham River, it all came flooding back to me. The views, the wide expanse on uninterrupted green flowing into the turquoise of the sea, the once beautiful houses crumbling gracefully like aging balarinas. When we stopped at Springs Hotel I felt the emotion well up. This was somewhere I’d come to frequently during my visits. My friend sang in Montserrat Emerald Singers who used to perform here on Friday nights. They were occasions to dress up for, to look one’s best. Now the Prima Donna had lost all her sparkle, her feet were covered in mud, her body dusted liberally with ash, her hair filled with cobwebs.
The reception area still held the transactions of the last customers, the ledgers, the till rolls. A telehone looked as though it would still ring. The bedrooms were empty except for some scattered chairs and cushions. The ash, which has long since been dispersed by the wind and by new lush vegetation outside, was still very evident inside, like the cleaners had been on strike for five years. However, a house next to the hotel looked in pristine condition, almost as though the occupants had just popped out to do some shopping. I’d like to know the manufacturers of the paint used on that house. The starkest reminder of the effects of the volcano’s erruption were the skeleton trees,trunks and branches smooth and bleached among the new green growth.
Parking the car at the bottom of a hill, four of us made the climb to the now deserted, dank and musty Air Studios at the top. It was well worth the effort. We reminisced about the great musicians who had recorded there. I regaled the group with my claim to fame – that I kept Stevie Wonder waiting when he was at the studio recording Ebony and Ivory with Paul McCartney.
On our way out we were amazed to find a sigh pinned to the locked and chained gates. ‘Police Notice. Back in ten minutes. Please wait’ it read. we could not help but laugh. Just as well there was no threat of rain.