If you want to experience the way the Caribbean used to be, come visit Montserrat and talk to some of the friendliest people in the world. Hike across pastures and meet the local’s pet cattle, goat and sheep; catch sight of the indigenous mountain chicken (a frog the size of a chicken that you can hear bark like a dog at night), an agouti that looks like a cross between a rat and a rabbit and you’ll realise that when you follow the rhythm of nature’s heartbeat, life doesn’t have to be intense, complicated or make sense…all the time.
Montserrat is as simple and deep as a Maya Angelou quote – natural, authentic; effortlessly phenomenal.
The year is 2014. September. It is 19 years after Hurricane Hugo and the eruption of the Soufriere Volcano in Montserrat. The population has been reduced from 12,000 to less than half, the capital Plymouth destroyed and relocated to the countryside. The island has diversified to include Guyanese, Jamaicans and Santa Dominicans and town folk now live amongst country folk – commonly referred to as ‘people from the Naught.’ These people who were said to live ‘behind God’s back’ are now the hosts of the new capital where everybody co-exists. Adversity is slowly being transformed to opportunity, especially for those with a love of nature and entrepreneurial eyes.
I have been travelling to Montserrat since the age of five, at forty the simple wonders of Montserrat that thrilled at five haven’t lost their impact. As the ferry approached the Montserrat port terminal from Antigua, night-time wrapped the sea in a silky moonlit black cloak as the sixty minute journey came to an end. I felt my heart start to dance to the beat of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke musical intro as the ferry docked. Although I wasn’t born on the island, years of travelling there on holiday has made the island feel so familiar that I felt more like a long lost traveller coming home rather than a short stay visitor.
As I disembarked the boat, my senses tingled. I wasn’t sure if it was the power of the intoxicating fresh air or the overwhelming feeling of gratitude felt for the commitment of the people of this Caribbean Emerald Isle who stayed, refused to leave, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo and the Soufriere Volcanic eruption. As a descendant of Montserrat, I feel a debt of gratitude towards the people, in Government and private life, who over the past 20 years have made the future of Montserrat possible. It is their blood, sweat and tears that has fertilised the land, providing the foundation for a new tomorrow. It is these people, like the island’s ground doves, who know what it is to fly the nest, but took the risk to lay their eggs firmly on the ground and not be moved. Thanks to them – Montserrat is back on the rise.
Like a child at Christmas, I was excited to welcome in a new day and see what was hidden under the night-time skies.
Breakfast time, greeted me with ready to drink freshly picked coconut, sugar apples and a bag of ripe Julie mangoes. My host reminded me that, ‘mangoes make you hot, make sure you drink plenty water when eating them’. I guess he could tell from my salivating mouth that I wasn’t going to be stopping at one.
If you believe health is your wealth, and food is thy medicine, in Montserrat, money grows on trees – in mountains and gardens. If you love organic fresh foods, you will be excited to see as you drive around Montserrat, bountiful avocado, mango, breadfruit, cashew, coconut trees, herbs and edible plants. Unlike many Islands, you can forage and pick fruits from the trees on your hikes without fear of reprisal.
As part of the vision to rebuild Montserrat, the island has a new tourism slogan. It’s hard not to relax in Montserrat. Where else can you leave your car door open and come back to find it there the next day; walk hassle free through the streets switching off from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Montserrat is best expressed by the four ‘Rs’ – Relax, Revitalise, Respect and Refine. It’s the way the Caribbean used to be – not the four ‘S’ way marketers have sold the region for years – Sun, Sea, Sand and Sex.
As a self-confessed digital connectivity addict, I was surprised at how easily I was able to switch off my phone, disconnect the Wi-Fi, and quieten my need to Internet search. Maybe it was the sensory stimulation of all the colours and textures of the flower, fauna and topography that Montserrat has to offer in HD Technicolor that relinquish my need to go digital.
Whatever the reason, my busy brain appreciated the impromptu Caribbean digital detox – an opportunity to slow down, breathe and experience the magic of life, moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat – seeing, feeling and tasting life second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
Montserrat is a topographical representation of humanity – rough, rugged, calm, gentle – Yin and Yang.
After breakfast we venture on a hike to Rendezvous beach, where we pass heavily laden avocado trees with more than one hundred pears on one tree ready to drop; cashew trees, mango trees, castor oil plants, noni trees, cerrasie bush, moringa and breadfruit trees.
As we cascade down the rocky precipice and surface over the emerald green hillside to arrive at a smooth stone covered beach, we meet the sea lit up by a jaw-dropping double arch rainbow. In that moment I gained a sense of why explorers would want to claim the unclaim-able and, be prepared to fight for the right for the land to be part of his empire.
As we navigate over the pebble beach like a tight rope walker we sight the only white sand beach on the island draw closer. We arrive at the castaway beach to the sound of sea, swaying trees and the birdsongs reverberating up the hillside.
Our feet meet turtle tracks so large they can only be a leather or greenback’s nesting path from sea to shore.
We walk, talk, take pictures, drink water and eat mangoes while awaiting the arrival of the local fisherman to carry us back to Little Bay. In the meantime, we sight a boat, my guide knows them. We call out, swim out and beg some fish like the ‘mono’ birds swooping in from overhead.
As the fishing boats leave, we realise our rookie castaway mistake; no matches to light a fire to complete the hike experience – roasting freshly caught trunkfish on the beach. The fish and the cashew nut roasting will have to wait till we get home.
Our ride arrives, fresh from sea with a good catch of fresh fish. As we jump on board, I smack my lips anticipating the fish feast that will be prepared later that day.
Back onshore, we drive up towards Drummonds, my guide shouts out as we pass a retired fisherman’s house – ‘Backfoot’! The response comes back perfectly timed, like a tennis ball on a racket as we courier up the hill, ‘Alriiiight’! No matter how many times we pass the house, the roll-call is the same and the rhythmic Caribbean singy-song tone of the response evokes a smile that makes you laugh inside out.
Backfoot is just one of the nicknames you will hear. Nicknames are a rite of passage in Montserrat; you will come across names like Lamb, Miser, Teenie-rat, House-eat, Cocogrind, Blind-Door, Plantain, Pungee, Pup and Toot, Garsey, Bad Apple, and Rockstone. Nicknames are part of the island DNA and are often created due to ‘naming instances’. Joe Flung, is said to have been given his name due to him asking who ‘flung’ the stone which was hurled at him, and Backfoot because one night at a dance, he was throwing down some moves on his ‘Backfoot’ that could challenge James Brown.
Morning, noon or night you can see some of those nicknames at the ‘Cheers’ bar locally known as the rum shop. One thing is for certain, everybody knows your name there; and if they don’t they will ask you ‘who yuh be?’ ‘Who yuh belong to?’
You will find that Montserratians have such a direct way of asking you a question with such a straight face you feel compelled to answer the most personal of questions. Bust a joke or crack a smile and you’ll see the stony exterior and sometimes sharp tongue soften to a jovial smile and a playful glint in the eye.
I happened to arrive during political campaign time. In the Caribbean, election time tends to bring as much excitement as carnival. The rhetoric was no different to the campaign messages you would hear anywhere in the world. Everybody wants change. Everybody wants progress.
On the radio, in homes, churches and rum shops I heard debates about the pros and cons of the decisions that have been made over the last 19 years by the various elected parties.
Reflecting on the Montserrat I visited in 2001, it is clear that there has been progress over the last 19 years. The future of Montserratian development is not in changing what makes Montserrat naturally unique. You can’t fake what you don’t have. Mimicking the characteristics that make other destinations great by completely changing who you are is like going to see the Beatles only to realise that the line-up has been replaced with a bad karaoke style Beatles tribute band.
As I start to pontificate and share my thoughts with the locals about what should be done, and how it could be done better – I’m reminded by the words of one, “we never left – we have always been here”. They not only see what is here now, they know what has come before over the last twenty years – they have been on the ground painstakingly reconstructing not just the buildings, but rebuilding the soul of the country that suffered the emotional scars of loss and abandonment.
I’m reminded that there is heroism in the small simple humble acts of faith and commitment to serving the needs of a daily people rather than big grand gestures. This is brought to life as I experience Montserrat’s well maintained roads, well-manicured road side bushes and trees; refreshing water straight from the tap, fresh fish from the local fishmonger (a one man Billingsgate market); and the taste of freshly picked ripe mangoes.
As you settle in to your holiday in Montserrat you may find yourself skipping uncontrollably and questioning what else you really need to be the ‘happiest (wo)man alive‘.
In conversation with a new resident from Grenada who relocated to Montserrat for work, she told me that:
“There’s no place in the world, or Caribbean I know where you can leave your windows and car doors open…Montserrat is a natural beauty it could never compete with the package holidays but it shouldn’t – it has its own unique charm that should be preserved.”
As I nodded my head in agreement, I reflect on my morning hike taking the hand of a local as they opened the door to a Caribbean Narnia guiding me through the hills of Montserrat uncovering hidden treasures – the kind of magic they live, everyday – ‘the secret’.
Possibly the secret that inspired Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits to compose and record their most famous record – ‘Money for Nothing’ on a recording trip to Sir George Martin’s Air Studios where Sting was visiting on holiday and made a guest appearance on the track.
Arrived on the Caribbean Emerald Isle through many different routes of blood, sweat, tears, exploration, entrepreneurship and emancipation; speak to the older generation, visit the Montserrat cultural centre, the botanical gardens, the museum or the national trust and you will learn about the heroes, rogues, businessmen, creatives and passing travellers who have fallen in love with Montserrat. The island is rich in cultural heritage with several surprising connections to old and new world history that explain some of the idiocracies of life.
On Sunday, we dined at Little Bay’s beach restaurant hotspot. The first business to take up residence in the new town of Little Bay. As the cool breeze blew, I ask the owner how things were for a local entrepreneur, he reclined back in his chair with an ice cool drink in his hand looking out at the view of the sun glistening on the sea; he said in earnest shaking his head, ‘Life is tough, it’s tough’. He paused, with comic timing as I looked at him incredulously. We laughed recognising the humour in the mis-match of the image I could see and the words from his mouth.
The truth is, he is right, life is tough. You don’t survive the impacts of the devastation of concurrent natural disasters Hurricane Hugo and Soufriere Hill volcanic eruptions which destroyed many people’s property, livelihood, sense of identity and disenfranchised families – without realising that life can be tough. The trauma of volcanic crisis has embedded a toughness in the DNA of the Montserratian that may cause you to meet ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde characters – at their best resilient & tenacious, at their worse sad and sorrowful.
Montserrat has big plans. The vision is not the challenge, the island has plenty visionaries, entrepreneurs (some as young as 15 with global acclaim), willing investors and returnees. The challenge is not dissimilar to the challenge governments all over the world face – access to the right skills, knowledge and project management capabilities to execute on a robust plan for sustainable development. As the elections come to a close the hope of the nation rests on a cohesive non-bipartisan leadership team willing to put personal agendas aside to do what is best for the country and its people.
Montserrat still has its challenges but despite it all, in the words of Montserrat based calypso singer Pat Belonger Ryan – “Montserrat is still home, still nice.”
Come and experience the charm of the Caribbean Emerald island, drink the fresh spring water from ‘Runaway Ghaut’ to ensure you return; who knows you may be inspired to write a hit song like native Montserratian Arrow’s Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot, Dire Straits, ‘Money for Nothing’, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony & Ivory and Elton John’s aptly titled hit ‘I’m still standing’ all recorded on Montserrat.
You never know, you may find your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, uncover real gems that were waiting to be unlocked inside of you for years, and leave transformed for the better.
All photos taken in Montserrat by ©Zena Tuitt.