In the Summer our island succumbs to the heat. Our little nation holds the dubious record for having the most expensive electricity in the world, or so I’ve heard. Where other islands resist the heat… More
It’s that time of year again, but I hadn’t noticed. I blame the fact that most days on the island feel like a vacation (once you obscure the realities of trying to source food and workmen from your mind… both limited resources at various times throughout the year). Anyway, back to my point that life on an island in the Caribbean steals your concept of time and place.
Where the island takes away a sense of preconceived ‘time’, dates stamped in arbitrary calendars and diaries, it gives in return an undeniable spirit of cheer all year long. Every day here is an occasion. If you manage to put on something other than a bikini in the morning you feel you deserve a reward. Anytime is drinking time for the newer expats among us, which can be a slippery slope indeed… so I’ve been told. I think my resolve will be tested this year though, as our local beach bar has just got cider in! Merry Christmas to me!
But it’s not just the expats who embrace the cheer of island life, it’s the island itself. Montserrat blooms all year long. Her gorgeous lushly serrated mountains green as emeralds against the bright blue backdrop of the sea. It would be easy to forget the volcano sleeping in our midst, but not one of us here does. It’s the remembering that keeps us grateful for what we have. It’s what makes each moment precious. Each day a celebration of sorts. Montserrat’s curse is also her blessing. And I am grateful.
So now that the holiday season is bursting with wreaths and bells and choirs aplenty in cooler climes I scroll through instagram lusting after the log fires and hot chocolates of Christmas yore. Such a magical time of year. But here we have it too, and you don’t need to go online to see it. You need to feel it. The embrace of warm air and friendly smiles. Music timbering it’s way through the valleys from various events. Fishermen dotted along the otherwise empty beach, following the lead of the pelicans who know best. BBQs scenting the air, and a cool cider at the ready.
I don’t believe Christmas comes once a year. Not if you look for it. If you’ve found the spirit, share it. Don’t wait for a date to tell you when. Give flowers, bake cookies, decorate and sing your heart out anytime you want. And if you can’t find the spirit, come here to Montserrat where the vibrancy of the place and the people will surely convert you… like it or not!
I’ve put off the inevitable for some time, believing myself to be unflappable in the face of island life. But the time has come for me to write a post about ‘creepy crawlies’.
I won’t list them all, most having had their impact on my island life over the decades since I first inhabited the Caribbean as a youngster. No. This rant is dedicated solely to the creatures who have stolen hours of my life in cleaning, who have frustrated me no end, who have terrorized our guests.
Picture a still moonlit evening. The waves crash in a murmur afar, the tree frogs barely chirping, the stars waltz soundlessly. You sip your wine. Ah, the life. Hours before the roosters awake, the world is yours. Something hits your eye, something small and black and alive. Then something crawls along your neck, you swat at it. The other diners take note. The night pauses for a few querulous seconds…. you look to the light. There they are, hundred of them swarming. You call out, the two words that make anyone in the Caribbean move: Flying Ants!
The lights are cut. Your breathing heavy. No one moves. Those who were thinking of staying for another drink disappear. Those who wait for dinner, swat themselves mercilessly. We are transported to the days of the bombings over London, the Blitzkrieg. We head off in our cars, to the safety of home, where we will swelter in darkness. The light a beacon to the flying menaces.
As we approach our house, I gasp. Our guests have ALL their lights on. The house is a crawling, living, thing. Each window covered in tiny black bodies squeezing through any gap to get to the light. I race out of the car, my face on the other side of the sliding door. “Turn off the lights!” I yell, but it’s too late.
The next day I spend hours scooping up bodies. So many winged ants, birthed into the night only to die. Why? For love. Well, for mating purposes anyway. Certain land ants develop wings and take to the night sky like clockwork in certain conditions. When you have days of sunlight, low wind, high humidity following several days of rain this often encourages the flying ants to take to the skies. The ‘reproductive ants’ set out on a ‘nuptial flight’ to find their mate. Believing that they are in danger of being eaten by predators, they move in a swarm. They gather on large objects, this is called ‘hilltopping’. In some areas this mating ritual occurs only once a year. Here… it feels more frequent. Once the ‘reproductives’ have done their job, the male dies… thus the carcasses scattered to the wind. But the successful ladies head home in hopes of becoming the next queen of their colony.
Knowing all this now, can I pretend that they’re fine? After all, it’s nature. Picturing them at a romantic social event trying to meet a beloved may help. But I’m not fooling myself… ‘Flying Ants’ are still the two scariest words. When they come there’s no stopping them, all you can do is turn off the lights…. I mean it is best to give them some privacy at least!
When I’ve told people in the past that I live in the Caribbean, I know exactly the picture that materializes in their minds. I know, because it’s what I imagined too… azure seas, balmy breezes, tropical fruit and calypso music. The reality is… yes…. I think I do live in paradise and I’m very blessed. BUT there are some things about living on ‘the mainland’ that I do miss. Sometimes I scroll through social media (as we all do) and fall in love with an image that’s captured in time. Perhaps a friend’s child caught in laughter, or a celebration of someone’s birthday with what appears to be the most delicious cake, or a friend in a gorgeous costume on stage. All of these things make me a teensy bit envious… I can’t help it. I want to be there too! Usually, at this point my hubby rolls his eyes and reminds me of my idyllic existence and I snap out of my stupor. Aren’t we all like this? Lured to the images of perfection?
I’m not writing this post as a complaint about island life, it’s more an attempt to dispel the idea that anywhere is perfect… (although this place can come pretty close).
So, here’s a list of things that bring me back to reality on the rock of Montserrat:
- Creepy crawlies! Our island’s not too bad. We’re limited to Tarantulas as being the most poisonous. But when it comes to things paragliding from the ceiling towards you at night, you don’t worry about their names. So, each evening I scan the bedroom and pull the mosquito netting around the bed… hoping mr. spider will stay out rather than in.
- Transportation. When you’re here, you actually don’t want to leave. BUT if you do have to get here, or go there… you have a trek ahead of you. THE (read ONLY) travel agent on island is a wonderful man who every one trusts. He will help you to arrange anything your heart desires… but even he won’t book your ticket off the island. Yes, you read that correctly. The travel agent will only book you from the neighbouring island of Antigua. Why? Well… since I would like to live out the rest of my days on my current rock… it’s probably best not to say too much on this subject. I think it’s easiest to say that arranging that part of the trip is not an easy thing to accomplish.
- Nourishment. Lately I’ve been hearing about the ‘slow food’ movement… well, it’s mastered on our rock! What’s in season, is what we are eating… and a LOT of it. Because everything is shipped in, anything that’s a little different costs a fortune and may not be within the confines of the sell by/use by date on its packaging. I read recently that this is just a suggestion? So, each time I open a tin or package I take my chances. But, come mango season all the worries of food evaporate. Mangoes are everywhere and super tasty. Likewise, papaya and pineapple and soursop and jack fruit etc. There is always a supply of Carib which makes hubby happy… Cider is a long-forgotten pleasure for me.
- Shopping. Instant gratification when it comes to buying ‘stuff’ does not exist. This is a blessing in disguise. We have the same access to most online shopping, but a click of the button only means that you may see your purchase several months from that time. Each thing brought on island also carries a hefty importation tax… and has to go through several couriers with their individual fees. The joy of this, is that when that cushion I ordered three months ago does arrive… it’s like Christmas! Also, buying things becomes more about ‘need’ rather than ‘want. (I do take advantage of my trips abroad to squirrel away any shopping bargains still…. oh, the dresses out there are intoxicating when you haven’t been exposed to them for months at a time… but I take it all in my stride;).
- Urgency. Working on a cruise ship (and anywhere in the world), it’s all about getting things done. Now. Right away. Not so on island. When I first arrived it irked me. But now, I embrace it. Slowing down has forced me to see things more clearly (cliche I know). I read an article from a fellow island girl recently, she wrote that instead of asking ‘why’ (why can’t there always be power? why do we pay for a postal service that doesn’t deliver mail? why can’t that one pothole be fixed? etc.) she says instead ‘ok’. That’s where I’m at. Ok.
So, if you’re reading this and thinking what a beautiful life you could have on an island, and if you don’t mind saying ‘ok’ instead of ‘why’, then it could be for you. Pack those suitcases and embrace paradise! My suggestions? Invest in a mosquito net, back-up power bars, and when you are back on the ‘mainland’ eat for the lean times!
We left New Zealand just over three years ago. Since that day, my heart has felt a magnetic pull from two very distinct geographical locations. My love of the island life, and most importantly family, drew me towards the tiny rock of Montserrat. But the land of the ‘long white cloud’, hanging onto the tip of the Pacific Ocean, called me. Memories lured me back to flat whites, cabbage trees, pukekos, kune kunes, and flaxes. Words that hold little meaning to those in the rest of the world, part of my everyday vocabulary once, flowed freely again as we touched down in Auckland last month. A frantic jog from the international airport, we followed the familiar green path to the domestic terminal. Along the way, we breathed in the crisp air. Statues of the extinct Moa watched as we scurried past, so too the bronzed Kiwi- larger than life. Native trees reached towards us, but it was time to rush on to the next flight.
We lifted briefly and then the Canterbury plains lay flatly below us. A canvas of farmland, the ocean to the side, and the majestic Southern Alps, their backs dusted with snow, beckoned. We were home.
All was as I remembered. And yet, something felt different. Like a dream, each place and person appeared the same but had all changed over the past three years. The foods I’d missed were still delicious, the views breathtaking, the friends welcoming… and yet…
Our trip to New Zealand was like going back to an old boyfriend. A relationship that had fizzled only because of the geographical restrictions, but now… had we both changed? I pushed these thoughts aside and met each day trying to fit in as much as possible.
Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass, Akaroa, Tekapo, and Wanaka were all filled with so much beauty…. and memories. Christchurch with her broken Cathedral, still standing tall and becoming stronger with each passing day. We visited the bustling city with friends on a winter’s day filled with sunshine and autumnal colors. The new library is magnificent, the centre of town bubbles with energy, and you can almost forget the sadness of the earthquakes… but it’s still there. We won’t forget those that were lost, they will always be with us. There’s a memorial. Cool marble insulates the silence. Words given strength against their hard surface. For a moment, as you read… you are lost in that capsule of time.
Visiting the village we lived in for seven years was the most challenging part of our trip. Daisy, the young bull mastiff we’d left with an amazing friend, was now an old lady. Our house, where we had toiled for many an arid day to plant and cultivate native flora, was densely shrouded from our view with the flourishing plant life. The local school I’d worked in had been renovated, many teachers I worked with still there and so inviting. The children I’d taught, my gorgeous gap-toothed and leggy new entrants were now maturing into teenagers ready for high-school. A cup of coffee at our local cafe made me realize that it too had grown, and with it the tiny community. New faces floated past as I sipped my latte.
Hubby and I were visitors now. We were no longer a part of the daily life. I wanted desperately to grab the snow-kissed mountains in my view… but they were no longer mine to hold. And as each day passed I missed another life. The one we had crafted from nothing again. A place with sea salt sprinkled in the air, a toss of palm fronds in my sights, the land that was now home.
I wanted to have both. I wanted to be a part of both exceptional worlds. But I can’t. It’s too greedy. To embrace one life fully should be enough for any one person… it’s all I can hold onto at any one time. But New Zealand will always be a part of me. When I close my eyes, she will always be there. Her wooded trails, exotic vocabulary, a sky bigger than an ocean… and those mountains. I will never forget.
Today I woke up in Malaga. I know this because the Cruise Director told me. This is what cruising around feels like, as any cruiser will tell you, you have no idea what day of the week it is but you know where you are in the world. If you’re cruising for a few days or a few months the feeling is the same. Stepping up the gangway and onto the ship, you leave all day-to-day concerns behind… quite literally. Out in the ‘real world’ there are worries that drift away the moment you step onboard. Here are some of my favorite things to ‘let go’ of when I’m cruising.
1) Let go of Time. As mentioned above, days of the week and all adherence to time can be left in your wake. Who cares? If you’ve signed up for a tour, the tour escort will figure out the details of overcoming museum entries or when you need to be where. All I care about, if I’m leaving the ship on a solo foray, is what time I need to be back onboard. That’s it. And when the ship is sailing around and I’m safely on deck, the world is my oyster. Feeding times happen when they do, my body generally reminds me when it’s the next time to imbibe something. Otherwise, I’m quite content letting the hours pass me by, along with the scenery.
2) Let get of Impatience for things to happen. There’s no commute. I know I’ve been onboard for awhile, because the other day I started becoming impatient waiting for an elevator for all of two minutes. Then I calmed myself by remembering it was ‘rush hour’. That time of the day when tours are gathering, breakfasts are finished and the crew have finished their morning meetings and there’s a shift change. Imagine! I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to handle driving to work and waiting at a traffic light ever again.
3) Let go of what to wear. That’s a strange way to start a sentence… I’m not advising you to ‘let go’ of clothing completely, it’s not that kind of a ship! But what I am writing is that you’ve packed what you’ve packed and you’ll just need to make it work. There’s an amazing feeling of calm that comes over you when you realize that your wardrobe is in a comfortable rotation, and today… yes it’s time to put on the navy blouse again. Also, to all the new guests onboard… this shirt is new… glorious! (Btw… remind me to write the next blog about fashion onboard and what to pack… this is critical so you can cruise worry free and fashionably).
4) Let go of what people think. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just share the best bits of yourself without ever having to share ‘everything’. That’s the beauty of cruising conversation. Everyone is on this amazing experience together, so there’s never a lack of chit chat if you’re interested… but also you don’t have to say a word either. Anything you offer will be warmly received… and if not you won’t be running into that cold fish at your local post office or the bakery every week. No sir. At the end of the cruise you’ll go your own way. BUT there’s every possibility that you’ll engage in titillating (a bit worrying that the word titillating took me four tries to conquer… I may have ‘let go’ of my basic writing skills!) conversation.
5) Let go of Responsibility. Responsibility for yourself is quite limited onboard. Probably the most important thing to remember is your emergency route… but even during an emergency crew will help to guide you. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can abscond from as much adult responsibility as on a cruise ship. The Captain drives you around, the crew feed you, the staff entertain you… really you basically turn up in one of your pre-packed outfits and you’re all set. Imagine any other vacation where this happens… or any other point in your life… no, you can’t. (Unless you’ve checked yourself into a psychiatric ward perhaps… but even then surely there are programs one must attend and stricter dietary requirements.)
Cruising is the way to go. On a ‘normal’ vacation you have to keep track of things like keys to your room or directions around the city. You’ll spend most of your day juggling a takeaway coffee cup, your google maps, and the steering wheel. Disastrous. What I’m proposing with cruising… it’s magical! Imagine a world where you misplace your key and someone helps you. You’re thirsty and there are an assortment of included beverages instantly available. You won’t spend your days comparing restaurant reviews on yelp, or figuring out where to go based on distance in miles. No. Just book your trip, pack your suitcase, walk up that gangway and leave your worries behind. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked!
The newest Viking Cruise ship, Jupiter, is where I’ve been living for the past few months…. a place to call home. I’m so familiar with this environment now that I can well and truly write that there’s a lot to love about Viking. Of course, I am biased! A hundred percent… and keep in mind that I’ve lived on other ships in other capacities and maybe loved them just as much at the time. But romance is a fickle beast… and at the moment, my heart is with this particular Norwegian family of guests and crew. How could it not be?!
Because most luxury liners are enviable… I thought it might be helpful for me to highlight what little things make Viking special.
The bathroom floor is heated… yes, that’s right… each morning the warmth radiates through my little toes and wakes me gracefully. Perfect. Also, the shower pressure is amazing!
While I’m on the subject… the public restrooms here have birdsong. Yes. All day… I imagine all night? Birds happily chirp along while you visit the facilities, as though you’re taking respite in an alpine forest. This is a wonderful idea. It makes me happy, calms me… but also there are certain positive technical aspects to creating a melodic background in the loo. Just writing…
On to other things…
Berries are always available for breakfast. No need to ask, they are right there. You can order turkey bacon as well… I don’t eat pork so this is a once in a week treat that I look forward to. Also, there’s a special Scandinavian coffee bean that is brewed and served in one of the lounges each morning with a fabulous view.
There’s sushi every night, and pizza, and stir fry, and ice cream… on top of the ever-changing array of delicacies. Sometimes it’s nice knowing there are the simple things available too.
Books are not restricted to a library. They are everywhere. Different areas offer assorted genres, so you might be on your way to breakfast when you spot your next reading adventure!
Water is flowing… drinking water. You can help yourself at various areas to a refreshing drink… still or sparkling.
A retractable dome covers the pool area. This means that no outdoor events are weather dependent! Dancing, dining, or late night movies feel daring under the stars.
There’s a special voice box headset that you wear on tour, so that even if you get stuck in the back you know what the guide is saying! Simple. Clever.
Like most beautiful ships there’s a lot of artwork, but here you can take your own art tour and hear about each piece using your voice box headset.
There are throw blankets everywhere. Ships are cold. Blankets make it feel like home… I’ve never seen so many people happily dozing off.
HGTV! This is new… as part of the live tv stream they have my favorite channel! I can not say no to a Fixer-Upper episode… or all of them… and while I’m floating around I can plan some new additions to make to our island abode… even better. (There must be space for one more pillow… hmmm). Perfect.
Maybe this list seems a bit bizarre, most certainly I’ll have forgotten things. But off the top of my head, these are the little things that make a big difference when cruising with Viking.
The crew are amazing of course (I warned you completely biased)… but most crew are amazing, right? Definitely.
All I know is that I feel so blessed each morning I wake up to experience life onboard, and can’t wait for each upcoming adventure!
Airbnb has taken over our little island of Montserrat, and I’m completely in on it. I was skeptical at first… still am a bit… but so far so good? Our island is unique, as each place is. But we don’t have any major chain hotels. And most people come to the island and rent a villa. Now, guests to the Emerald Isle can also rent a room or an apartment.
When we renovated our home, we really didn’t plan on renting out any part of it. But once our apartment was completed we realized that it just made sense to say yes to the idea. We decorated it for our friends and family, but at the end of the day I figured it was worth a try putting it online.
For those of you who haven’t gone through the steps of signing up through airbnb, it’s very easy. Each part feels manageable… and before you know it you’ve spent several hours putting together your profile etc. Once it was all set up I started getting nervous. What if no one liked it? What if I’d just put our beautiful baby (yes, still writing about an apartment) out there and no one wanted to visit? I waited and waited and just when I’d almost forgotten I’d signed us up… ‘ping’! An alert came through, Sea Dreams Boutique Apartment had its first guest!
Now when you have friends or family come to stay, you put out nice things and make sure it’s comfortable but if they need anything they just holler and it’s fixed. But hosting a guest that you’ve never met before is much more intimidating. And on an island where you can’t be guaranteed you’ll find any basics anywhere at anytime… I was in a fluster. I wanted everything to be perfect for my baby’s first date (yes, still writing about an apartment). It took all hands on deck to ensure that everything was just so, and I almost didn’t want to hand over the keys when the time came. It was perfect.
Our first guest was perfect too! Friendly, and clean and even wrote a good review and loved the place! And that review led to more bookings… and fingers crossed long may it continue. With each booking new issues arose. Things that only arise on an island…. like the power outs and providing flashlights… or trying to arrange dinner bookings when all the restaurants are closed… or flying ants that swarm the lights. You know, island life. All the things we take for granted. But when you have guests you just want it all to go smoothly. But all of our guests took it as part of the charm of island life.
My favorite part about hosting is the money. No one ever says that, but it’s obvious isn’t it? I mean you’re not going to let strangers into your life for free? Well, unless you’re writing a blog that potential strangers could read I suppose…. hmmm… you know what I’m trying to convey. So the money. It’s not much but it’s enough to keep things running and cover costs (and have some change to buy new cushions or finish projects in the garden… I’m hoping).
My next favorite part is seeing the island through the eyes of people coming here for the first time. And being able to share with them the things I find special about this place, and hearing about their experiences. It really has made me fall in love with some aspects all over again. The friendliness of the islanders is always mentioned, and how quirky a place Montserrat is, and the hiking trails that lead you all the way up through jungle to mountains that offer views of the sea on all sides. A reminder to always appreciate what is right in front of you.
When we say we live in Montserrat, we encounter a variety of responses. The most common of these is confusion. Even the most worldly traveler can easily miss our little piece of paradise here. Some people say, ‘It’s French isn’t it?’, or ‘Isn’t that near Barcelona?’, or ‘Oh, yes… it’s Irish? The local people there have red hair don’t they?’. And all of these suppositions, are kinda sorta right. But even if I were to say, ‘Yes, at one point the island was owned briefly by the French but it’s British… and it was named Montserrat by Colombus because it means ‘serrated mountain’ in Spanish which is the same as the monastery near Barcelona, and Irish were left on the island… but no one I’ve met who’s from Montserrat looks Irish in the least.’ All of this still doesn’t answer the question of ‘Where the h*ll is Montserrat?’.
It’s in the Caribbean. It’s small (10 miles by 7 miles… and half of that is in the exclusion zone- I’ll get to that later). It’s part of the West Indies… the Lesser Antilles… Leeward islands and is a British Overseas Territory. You need to go through the island of Antigua to get to Montserrat… either via ferry or eight-seater plane. There are no traffic lights, no chain stores or chain restaurants, no large hotels. People wave at you as you drive along. The grocery store gets its vegetables in on a Wednesday… if the container gets in… this is entirely weather dependent. There are five thousand people… give or take.
Although we moved here (hubby, dogs and cat) only a few years ago, I’ve known the island for much longer. I first came here as a child in the 80s and even went to school here. So Montserrat is part of my story. A vibrant, lively place. I remember it before. Here, on Montserrat, there’s a before and after.
In 1995 the Soufriere Volcano became active. Some people lost their lives, and half of the island was slowly covered in ash… including the historical town of Plymouth. For the next ten years it felt as though Montserrat may be lost forever. I was here, but only as a visitor for a few months at a time. The hearts of Montserratians are strong and proud, and even though they may have been forced from their homes and blanketed with grey ash… they persevered. Some people refused to leave. Some had to. Some have returned.
During the volcanic activity, I was on the edge of it only. And even that was enough… enough to feel the frustration. When the ash fell, the world turned dark. The Caribbean air still hot, the powdery substance crept through any opening to make all surfaces dusty… it cloyed at each breath.
In 2016 I came back here. Each day, each week, month, year that the volcano is quiet… we are all grateful. And we feel so blessed to be a part of this community. This little island that refused to give up. Each person a survivor.
And now the possibilities seem endless. The island, always a wonderfully welcoming place, is entirely its own. A step back in time. Eco-tourism is slowly happening. The reef here is unique as a result of the volcano, so too the trails, and day trips into the ‘buried city’. But the thing that really sets Montserrat apart from the rest of the Caribbean is the people who reside here. The people here have the time.
Getting to and from the island can feel a bit daring. Bad weather can set a flight back hours or days. Due to the nature of working on a ship, my hubby and I often travel quite frequently, so the trip to Montserrat is not always easy. I was idly complaining about this one day to a local man. His response was perfect, “It’s not easy to get to heaven… but when you make it… why leave!”.
That’s Montserrat. Come and stay, we have the time.