Life of the island was turned upside down, even geographically. The southern third was left as an uninhabitable exclusion zone, a further third declared an intermediate zone where no-one can live but some activity, the odd farmer’s field, can continue. The rest of the island’s activities are squeezed into the remaining third, previously the less developed end of the island. The government was located on a steep hillside at Brades near a small sheltered bay on the north western side of the island. With no functioning airport everything had to come in by sea to this bay. The population reduced to only 3000. The social and economic problems associated with this upheaval caused great tensions, exacerbated by an insensitive reaction from the UK Government, culminating in the response from Clare Short when the Montserratians asked for more help that “they will be asking for golden elephants next.”
The activity at the volcano eventually calmed, but with occasional large events and frequent clouds of sulphur, ash and material flows, Soufriere is still a dominant neighbour of the nervous Montserratians trying to re-establish their lives at the other end of the island. New estates have now been built on the hillsides and some returnees have swollen the population up to nearly 6000. The smaller villages down the west side have remained too, and a new capital at Little Bay below Brades is being formalised moving from emergency portacabins into proper buildings, for government, market, infrastructure. A new airport was built straddling the central ridge of the island in the north. It has been a slow process.
New housing to replace what was buried at the other end of the island
The team leader, Mike, had rented up a project house in Calodyne, a small village in the north east corner of the island so he could be away from the hustle and bustle of Port Louis. He was attracted to a pleasant modern 3 bedroom house in a gated community, mainly because at the coastal end of the plot was a large kidney shaped swimming pool. Mike had trouble with his knees and swimming was the only heavy duty exercise he was really capable of. I loved to walk, and it did not matter where I went as long as I got out and saw the world. I did use the pool a few times but am not a massively confident swimmer and what is more, plodding up and down the pool after work when the sun was going down and the mosquitoes were coming up, was not especially appealing.
Our modern but comfortable base
The car port where we spent most of our time
The house’s ground floor was predominantly a large open plan dining room/living room where, apart from meals on a cold evening, we did not spend much time. Mike and a couple others from the project team were smokers and had set up seats in the car port to keep the smoke out of the house, and we naturally gravitated out here to share a few beers and talk after work. The car port was open – we actually parked the car down the driveway – and during the day was pleasant shade against the tropical sun, in the evenings a bit of shelter from the onshore winds. To the left of the car port was an open space to hang washing behind which was small but well kitted kitchen, and upstairs a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms.
But it was the car port that held our attention. We all got up in dribs and drabs and made our own breakfasts. I needed plenty of bran in the morning. The Mauritian food tended towards its French influence which meant there was a lot of bread and pastries around and I needed something to offset all that stodge. Mike would have a croissant or two, the others pleased themselves. We’d brew up coffee or tea to taste then sit in the comfy chairs out front and watch the world warm up.
If we lunched in, the same would happen – it was just a shame to be indoors in such a climate but with no deck or veranda this little square of tiling was the best we could do. Conversations were varied, usually starting with the team letting off steam over what had happened on the project that day. Once that was done we could talk politics, culture, arts, occasionally sport. We were all very different with varied backgrounds and taste, but we could generally find something to pass the time away. Mike was often vociferous when he had taken a glass of wine or a beer, and this gave an excuse for the rest of us were happy to sit back and let him ramble.
But we were only heading up here for a day. Considering how small St Vincent is, I was amazed how long it took to drive up this leeward highway. Yes the road twisted and turned and had a few patches where the potholes impeded your progress, but also the detail of the countryside demanded it be examined. Each little valley, beach and headland had character, and the human footprint was a lively tapestry of smallholder life, easy liming and bustling commerce all rolled together. I knew by this stage I would not reach the top end of the island, to Richmond and the Wallilabou River where the road gave out. It had been an ambition – as it would be as close as you could get to Fancy – the most northerly point on St Vincent, which I had reached once before but only by driving up the Windward Highway. It seemed amazing that the only way to drive from Richmond to Fancy, barely five miles apart, would be to head down to Kingstown and back up the other side – over 50 miles.
Edsel on the Leeward Highway
New subdivisions for housing
Old palm plantations
Houses cling to every hillside
But we were not out to break any records, just have a nice day out, and our late lunch time spot was to be one of the most bizarre locations in the whole of the Caribbean – Wallilabou Bay. We passed through more settlements, the largest being Barrouallie. I tried not to hark back to work that day but I did notice the new estates of modest houses being built on a hillside on the approaches to the town. This was similar to Bequia, where old plantation land was being subdivided, but in this case the government were building the houses and renting them out. Partly an effort to regularise the development of the island, but also to help put life back in to the smaller towns at the northern end of the island and take pressure off Kingstown and its suburbs.