The hotel were good at finding accommodation and reduced their rates to allow people to stay. We found ourselves in the water park of the resort most mornings discussing the latest theories of the terrorist act, the possibilities of getting home. A few of us arranged a trip to Ocho Rios in order to see the Dunns River Falls only to find them shut ( I managed a few days later to do it on my own and had a wonderful time wearing pink suckered shoes to climb up the slippery falls and wallow in the cool mountain water), and end up at a steamy restaurant on the outskirts of town. I went into Mo Bay (Montego Bay for the uninitiated) and drank and ate at its many bars and restaurants. By the end of that week I had a number of lifelong friends; we’d shared a siege mentality and a period we would never see again.
I joined the committee for organising this meeting three years later in Barbados, and we then moved on to the Bahamas and then the Cayman Islands. We have since been at Trinidad and Back to the hotel in Mo bay.
Some of the Caribbean GIS crew
I looked forward very much to the Cayman Islands conference. I didn’t meet up often with most of the delegates. This year there was a larger than usual contingent from BVI where I was based for two years. And I had not been to Cayman Islands before.
As always in the Caribbean many of the channels were US based and being on the same time zone were coming to the end of their breakfast news sessions. The news out of New York was of a fire in one of the World Trade Towers. I switched from channel to channel and thought I was watching a recording of a plane entering the tower. I was wrong, I was watching live the second plane hitting the tower. The other was already aflame.
The conference was not due to start for another hour and I was transfixed to the television watching as first one then the other tower collapsed. I headed to the conference rooms and saw the crowds watching the screens in the lobby. At the first plenary session we held a moments silence. The sessions went on as planned but no-one’s hearts were in it. The next night was the big party of the conference, and we partied as best we could – we partied very well – but it was more resistance than enjoyment.
And as the conference drew to a close there was an issue. Airspace in the US remained closed and so many of the delegates, Caribbeans included, needed to travel home via the USA. I had already planned to remain at the hotel till the Saturday and was on a British Airways flight via Kingston, but instead of some relaxed solitude I found myself with over half the delegates from the conference still hanging around.
I was not born before the “What were you doing when Kennedy died” day so have no memories of that. I was crystal clear on my memory for 9/11. I had been working with the St Vincent and Virgin Islands Governments on coastal resources for a year or two. I had secured funding to attend a conference in Jamaica and was going to present a paper with the BVI government on the work. We did the paper, I organised my travel. The BVI government then stopped the travel of my counterpart and I was left to present the paper myself.
The Conference was the first Urban and Regional Information Systems Association or URISA conference in the region. Basically they were the professional organisation for GIS people in the USA. I knew some of the delegates from working in Barbados, my old friend Vijay whom I once trained in NRI was there from Guyana, along with a bunch of people from the US, Canada and throughout the islands plus a few Europeans and the odd South American.
The location was the Wyndham Rose Hall hotel just east of Montego Bay. Heading from the airport along the coastal highway it was like being in the US itself – and apart from the Rose Hall Plantation House on the hill above the conference centre, there was a smattering of resort hotels along the run.
The first couple of days of the conference went according to plan. We had the boss of the largest GIS software company giving the plenary session, we’d had a few good events and the silly things conferences did like have luncheon meetings and meet and greet sessions had gone off without too much embarrassment.
I’d been in Barbados a month or two beforehand attending a meeting for some climate change work and knew the Bajian who convened the meeting, and the two Canadian consultants who had designed the training programme. All three were at the conference and this Tuesday morning I found myself with one of the Canadians and we had a great hour or so over the melon and frazzled bacon putting the world to rights about what GIS could do for life in general.
I returned to my room in a good mood. The conference was going well; I was telling everyone how I was to become West Indian in the next couple of months as I took up my new posting in BVI, and I went into my room to run through my presentation for the afternoon session. Absent mindedly I turned on the TV and settled at my laptop.
It was late at night and I was numb. Edsel had been my closest colleague and a fantastic friend for over ten years. In the morning I was still numb and spent the morning sending a couple of emails to his friends and colleagues. Edsel had a very split life; he was a true Kittitian and had a huge network of family and friends on the island itself, but those people barely knew a lot of his international work colleagues with whom he had shared so many memories – he still had his connections in Nashville through Vanderbilt University. That conference in Jamaica was for the GIS community in the Caribbean and both of us had served on the committee for several years. He was well known and liked by everyone he came in contact with, but now I was that link to those GISers.
Edsel in Cayman
I had to compose an email to this community – we were preparing for the conference even while in was in Haiti. I also got in contact with some of his family in St Kitts and in the UK, including his nephew in St Kitts whom he had taken under his wing. Within a couple of hours of me sending out this email, I got a dozen replies, from those who knew and respected Edsel as a colleague and sent formal condolences, to those who knew him as a friend and had to admit my message had immediately made them cry. I even got a few emails from people who knew how close we were – I’ve never come across anyone who had the same vision for how we could help GIS develop in small island nations, or have such complementary skills to see it, and also share the same wicked sense of humour. These people realised just how much I was mourning as well as going through the motions. It was tough. And here I was in the middle of a intense contract in a difficult country miles from my own support networks. When I was cheerfully greeted by Jean Luc and Chris at breakfast, they quickly saw my mood and knew I had bad news. I managed to stay composed and in fact the nature of my work – the strict modelling on the computer and the creativity of making good looking maps, helped me to keep things together for the next few days while I searched for the emotions to find a useful way to vent them.
I became a liaison between Edsel’s family in UK and St Kitts and his GIS colleagues all over the world and did what I could to relay information back and forth, and post messages about him on his Facebook page.
I can’t express everything I felt at that time; you will read elsewhere of our work, our friendship and the adventures we had in many places over the years. But he was one person I was looking forward to meeting up with when we were old and reflect on our times, and we were robbed of that, as well as to make new times and continue to explore our vision and camaraderie. I still miss him dreadfully.