Sunday, 8 May 2011

Tales of the Caribbean

It's been quite a long time since my last post, but the main reason is that my wife and I have been on a most enjoyable cruise in the Caribbean.

A beach in Barbados
Our cruise started in Barbados, where we spent our first day cruising by catamaran along the coast near Bridgetown, snorkelling with the sea turtles and sting rays (which were harmless) and tiny jellyfish (which were not!) and exploring sunken wrecks. It was a great way to acclimatise!

The mark of the (tiny) jellyfish!
Fortunately the guys on the catamaran had an extremely effective spray which took away all the pain from the jellyfish stings – although the marks remained for almost two weeks!

After leaving Barbados that evening we worked our way northwards through the Windward Isles, stopping at St Vincent, Martinique, Guadaloupe, Montserrat and Tortola (in the British Virgin Isles).

It is sometimes said that once you've been to one Caribbean Island then you've been to them all, but believe me, that could not be further from the truth.

Barbados is, I know from a previous visit, a beautiful and lush island – as is St Vincent.  But whereas Barbados is reputedly the 3rd most developed nation in the Western hemisphere (after the USA and Canada) St Vincent is desperately poor.  Barbados has a stable democratic parliamentary system which, as one Barbadian told me, operates like the British government in that after an election there is an orderly transfer of power to the party gaining the most seats.  In St Vincent, on the other hand, the result of the recent General Election, which was narrowly won by the ruling Unity Labour Party (whose funding comes mainly from Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and Iran!), has been challenged by the opposition New Democratic Party who claim massive vote-rigging was all that enabled the ULP to cling on to power. The new government then passed a law banning such challenges, although that has not stopped the NDP from appealing to higher authority and promising, if necessary, to go all the way to the Privy Council in Britain. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out – although such problems are hardly likely to encourage the investment that the country so desperately needs.

Martinique and Guadaloupe are quite different since they are part of France. Not French colonies but overseas departments of France.  As such, bizarrely, they are part of the European Union – one obvious result of which are the excellent new roads that have been built in both countries as a result of generous EU grants! They also, of course, use the Euro as their currency. Both countries have a very French feel about them, as one might expect, and the central market in Basse-Terre could easily be mistaken for one in any large French town, apart from the slightly unusual nature of some of the fruit and vegetables and the astonishingly wide range of fish and other sea-foods.

But the most different of all the Windward Isles that we visited must surely be Montserrat. This was reputedly a tiny paradise amongst all the jewels of the Caribbean until a little over fifteen years ago when the Soufriere Hills volcano, which had been dormant for over 400 years, sprang into life again with devastating consequences.  Over the next few years there were repeated eruptions, including one in June 1997 which killed 19 people, and by the end of the century the former capital of Plymouth had been buried under almost 40 feet of mud and ash.
Plymouth in 1997
(courtesy of the United States Geological Survey)
Plymouth in 2006
(courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
The volcano has continued erupting since then, the last having been in February last year when the collapse of the lava dome sent a cloud of ash over 20,000 feet into the air. A large part of the southern part of the island is now uninhabitable and has been declared an exclusion zone because of the danger of pyroclastic activity. In 1995 the population of the island was around 13000, but 8000 of these have subsequently left the country because of the destruction of their homes and livelihoods – most of them going to Britain where they were granted full residency rights in 1997, and full citizenship five years later.

Nevertheless, the remaining 5000 or so are desperately trying to rebuild their country. The northern half of the island is largely unaffected by the volcanic debris and a new capital is being built above the small harbour at Little Bay. Although our ship was quite small, with only about 700 passengers, we were told that we were the largest ship to come to Montserrat for at least four years. As a result, even though it was a Saturday, the Volcano Observatory had remained open so that those of us who wished to could visit it and find out more about what had happened, as well as seeing the volcano at first hand, together with some of the more northern areas of devastation.

Soufriere Hills Volcano from the Observatory

Looking Southwest from the Observatory
towards the buried city of Plymouth

What was amazing to all of us was the spirit of hope that was shown by those who remain on the island. The northern part of the island is still lush with tropical vegetation and the recently established National Trust Garden (which replaces an earlier one that is now buried beneath volcanic lava) is attempting to give a picture of both the island's natural resources and its pre-Columbian past. It was a sad, and yet immensely rewarding, visit to an island whose people are trying so desperately to recapture something of what they have lost.

I will tell you some more about our Caribbean experiences in my next blog.

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