Waiting for a boat. Its an odd concept perhaps given we went to some fairly extreme lengths to arrive here by boat. A nice sturdy one too. The problem is that Montserrat and in particular, the Soufriere Mountains to the South have had an unpleasant habit, since 1995, of exploding willy nilly. And actually we would be happy to chance a trip around the island in the old bird but for the pyroclastic flows (great word, lava effectively) which have eked out into the ocean below sea level and about which the Admiralty charts can never really be kept up to date. So with volcanic activity and in particular those pyroclastic flows (too good just to use once…!) preventing the entry of Lista into the entire southern section of the island we busied ourselves surveying the north from Lista and waited for the local folk to supply a more nimble low draught craft for the job.
Our timing was dubious, short of sleep after 5 nights at Redonda’s whim we arrived into Montserrat in a 3m Northerly swell, the open side having lost the capital under ash, and the Harbour staff and Police were busy pulling their boats out because it was chewing up dinghies for breakfast against the barnacles on the harbour wall. But this was more from the fire into the frying pan, a slight improvement. To add to this roll, although unknown to us on arrival, it transpires Montserrat is the only place in the world which holds St Patrick’s Day as a National Holiday outside of Ireland. You even get a shamrock in your passport! And the festival village, the epi-center, was at Little Bay, our place. Peace and quiet were going to be hard fought.
In the meantime we surveyed from land and got to know Montserrat, her intriguing people, her winding spread out villages and her hills by bike, and she seemed to get to know us too! Everybody was rather impressed with Kath and Megan on the bikes grinding around the island doing publicity on radio, and the endless outreach to teach local kids. Many a time were they asked for a ride by the local chaps interrupted in their daily whereabouts by these two bird surveyors. Innocent I’m sure. After a very dry few weeks we did our best to integrate with the locals which appears to be drinking a lot and dancing til 4am in the festival village two days before the actual event had started – Emily leading festivities with some rather spirited pole dancing followed by a local chap doing the same in her pink wig. A happy night with blues to follow!
The highlight of the trip without a doubt was the start of the St Patrick’s day celebrations and the Belly race. Up at 0430 to make the triathalonic feat of dinghy/bike/run to the start of the race we somehow contrived to miss the start, but not the finish. The road was littered with Caribbean booty making the freedom walk regardless of health, age or pie-eating status – a wonderful sight enjoyed by up to 300 locals. We collated with the field of “athletes” at the local stadium where fish and coconuts and music and green garb was abundant.
The fact Montserrat shares its national holiday with the Irish has either something to do with the former Irish settlers who spent time here (and leave relicks in the language like (“I’d say” despite being present tense, or “at all, at all” appended to a sentence) after being persecuted as settlers in the US then St kitts, or more likely some canny work by the locals to coincide with their struggle for freedom with the worlds favourite ceremony. And perhaps getting some nice big floppy hats free from Diaggio. You can imagine the decision to rule out st georges was a challenging one…… Either way it should be said that the Monserratian is a welcoming people, sports a happy-go-lucky attitude, values strong family links (and genes?!) and Guinness is aflowing making the other “emerald isle” a convincing suitor for Eira.
Back to the St Patrick’s day sports parade. After some salt-fish and baby coconut juice we mingled with the folk limbering up for the track events. It started in good sports day tradition with the younger children running their hearts out, perhaps two or three in the field, and a comedy commentator awarding the prizes (which seemed to all be a mixed crate of booze, very odd) to whoever he thought may have won. The races worked their way through the under 10s, under 18s, under 30s, under forties (for which sadly there was no field because Kath and I fancied ourselves in that one) up to the crescendo, the big one, the over forties, or “Belly Race”!!! Our announcer bellowed excitedly into the microphone “cmon laydees and gentlemon, dis is da big one, Da Belly Race, you gonna see a whole lotta belly comin doen the track here….. Stand back, me not sure they gonna be able to stopping at the end there….”
“You gonna feel the earth moooove, don worry, its not the volcano, is de Belly Race!!””
“Stand back, stand back, somebody be getting the Red Cross, ders gonna be some heart attacks coming down the track here .. . . .!!
And they did – the men, bellies and all lined up, giggling and hackling, including one wily gringo that must have fancied his chances against the field. The ringer, bookies favourite. Crack – off they went! But what’s this, the ringer cannot be seen behind the mighty flesh pounding down the track, they were fast, I would have been obliterated (though lets be clear, these are no endurance machines!!). Our friend Mark the BBC photographer was in position to get a photofinish of the thunder, and was very nearly wiped out by the cavalry unable to decelerate! The sight and sound of a small rustic sportsday stadium laughing and shrieking with these gladiators had to be experienced. The ladies race was even more competitive with some large units hurtling down the runway, one falling early on but no foul play was suspected, only gravity clutching at some fairly hefty straws.
Too much to keep going, Kath and I took to the bikes into some of the hillside deemed at risk of volcanic activity according to some old signs but we needed to see what habitat existed to the South. We found rolling hillside, small scale agriculture and lovely old ladies sitting on flower shrouded porchways, admiring their creations. Montserrat had a welcoming feel the whole time we were there, slightly mad, but warm people. We passed a chap just, you know, admiring himself in one of those convex road mirrors, another Guianan accountant who looked like anything but, who erupted into a shriek of laughter at the end of every sentence (His kin make up 25% of the population here). Many more too. But they have a saying here, it is the only place in the world where a white lady in a car at night, upon meeting a black man with a machete would simply stop to give him a lift. There is NO crime. Nothing! We tried it, left a bag out near the festival village, accidentally, and returned the next day, nobody had taken it or touched it in any way. And the fact the people, the 5000 out of the 12000 that lived pre-volcano, have had to move their town and homes against a force majeure rather than human foe seems to make them slightly nonchalant, practical about it all without too much sorrow. Mad as a box of frogs, but the best people in the Caribbean so far!
The festival itself was cozy but had all the appearances of turning incomprehensibly boozy that we beat a retreat fancying that with the locals preoccupied this would be the only chance of solitude on the famous rendezvous beach. Kath and I jumped into the dingy and popped over there, carrying a small village of clobber to set up camp for the night. It was the first night spent off the boat since Morocco last year. It was a beautiful night made even more special because at around 2130 both Kath and I heard a distinct sound, a devilish cackle not recorded here for 40 years, the Audubon Shearwater. At first we couldn’t believe it, but again it cried, seeking its mate in her burrow in the cliffs, this nocturnal seabird. We needed more proof to this unrecorded visitor -the next day we returned with the sound gear and Megan to verify it all – and on the first playing we were bombarded close to the dingy by a male Audubon Shearwater – like Redonda it was magical to be getting good data which repaid our efforts in a tricky environment. Actually this was the highlight of the visit, better than the bellies!
To conclude, our boat did arrive, we toured the perimeter of the colossal flows and empty grey ashy towns and we got the counts we needed, filled out the quadrupulate forms required to leave and packed up our landing craft. We sailed out to Antigua away from a very bizarre place, Territory of the UK, multicultural, explosive, quirky and open. We had shared the island with some very funny folk indeed:
The best head mistress on the planet, a true mother hen,
The backgammon boys at Carrs Bay, playing for a ten,
The goat hunters from Trinidad screeching off in their carina,
The Belly racers and crowd in a crowded ampitheatre,
The customs lady and her “free” form and handy weather forecast, funny
(she looked wistful then peered out the window – “I tink it’ll be sunny”),
The librarian and her fully serviced office for a week,
The veg man and his christophine which resembles a puckered bottom cheek,
The Little bay bar and the selfservice barman,
The sumptuous tartan clad ladies on the annual walk/run
The finest, most elusive restaurant avec loo with a view,
only open every other Sunday from 10-2,
The hills for providing quenching coconuts and hellish heart rates,
and the shore for your shearwater and his curious nocturnal dates,
And to the man with the mirror, I hope you’ve found what you were looking for…..