Wednesday, March 9, 2016

#Montserrat: Life On The Edge / My #Adventures in a Volcanic Land / #flippedlearning

It was 1996 when Dad, in his mid-60’s, began running the Montserrat Springs Hotel and Spa. The hotel-resort sat on a hill jutting against the black sandy beaches of the small island of Montserrat. An English-colony that is sister to a string of islands that begins with Cuba and makes its way across La Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and a host of smaller ones, like St.Kitts, Nevis and Antigua in the eastern-most part of the Carribean sea.

Dad would spend weeks at a time in Montserrat away from home in Puerto Rico during my adolescence doing what he did best professionally…turning around defunct and dilapidated hotel/ resort properties and making them profitable again. He always moved quickly to build relationships with everyone from the Chef to the maids, the preachers in town and just about everyone in the community. He did this well by literally running across the capital of Plymouth every morning shirtless. He was always the ‘resident gringo’ and was known for going out of his way to make people feel comfortable and welcomed. This ingratiated him quickly into Montserrat’s community and opened doors for him at unexpected places. 

Dad had me over a few times without the family and then with the gang until things began to literally get hot and steamy. I always marveled at how nice and incredibly warm the water was beachside. Bubbles of air would rise up from the ocean floor in the crystal-clear waters making it quite enjoyable. Little did we all know what was in store just a few months away. 

On one trip with the family, we went to visit the ruins of old plantation structures, including windmills hundreds of years old and stone dwellings long abandoned from the slave-trade era. Our guide would explain what daily life use to be like long before cars and planes came on to the scene. There was always something new to see in Montserrat and its far cry from western culture made everything exotic and novel. On one outing to the foothills of the volcano, I recall the rancid smell of methane being everywhere as mom, dad, my sisters and I would hike into various V-shaped crevices at the foot of the what was believed to be a dormant volcano. Steam would come out of colorful rocks everywhere… of course, our guide would tell us not to worry and that this was simply nature. That is all I needed to here as a teenager as I stepped deeper into ‘no man’s land’ with my family.

There was no end to exploring the natural wonders of the island. An avid SCUBA diver at the time, I did a night dive and a few day time dives off the shores of the island in virtually untouched and unspoiled reefs. Who know’s what I was thinking (or my Dad for letting me do it) in being okay with jumping into pitch black waters miles off shore with a small flashlight that shined on in the enveloping darkness like a big banner being waved to all curious sea life big and small saying, “Hi all! I am here!” Thankfully, no sharks bit me and I made it back on-shore in one functioning piece, albeit pumped with adrenaline. 

On the return trip back to dock from another dive, this one during the day-time, the most incredible ‘boom’ I have ever heard was released across the island. It was the sound of the no longer dormant volcano roaring swiftly back to life. Incredibly tall plumes of fine ash and rock rocketed straight up into the atmosphere without end bringing all kinds of questions to my mind about the safety of my family and the people of the town of Plymouth which sat directly below the Soufriere Hills volcano. Pyroclastic flows of grey molten rock of what use to be a section of the mountain descended like an avalanche down towards the shore, yet somehow sparing Plymouth that time. Back on land, the scene was eerily calm, quiet and focused. I was taken back to the Monserrat Springs Hotel and preparations were being made to fly us out back to Puerto Rico. Having had my SCUBA training I knew that I could not fly within twenty-four hours of diving unless I wanted to risk incurring an ‘air embolism’ that could spell my death from what is known by divers as ‘the bends.’ This happens from a rise in compressed air in the body after a diver descends into the water breathing oxygen-rich air. Bubbles of air can be trapped in one's arteries and expand with the change in altitude. With my mom and sisters on the tarmac I had to resist my mother’s will from boarding the airplane. Dad had stayed behind in town working. After much consternation and my mom’s sheer will, I boarded the plane. It had been about sixteen hours from my last dive in thirty feet of water. You can see be sure it was the most harrowing flight I had ever taken in my life.

A following trip happened to occur while yet another eruption began under way, this time turning the day into night and grey ‘snow’ blanketing everything and everybody. There was at least six inches of fine ash on the roads mimicking what a ‘Noreaster’ snow storm is like up here in the Tri-State area on the U.S. east coast. The death of tourism and the hotel Dad was in the process of turning around had become a fact. The situation on the ground had become most dire. Plymouth was no longer the bustling town, but had become a ghost town. No longer where cricket players holding their matches, or one of the local bar/ dance clubs, ‘La Cave,’ busting out reggae-dance hall beats. My eldest sister and I would frequent it to get away after eating frog legs for dinner at the hotel restaurant (taste almost like chicken). We were so young.

Being in Montserrat’s environment was something else. You just felt like you were in a far-away world unconnected from Planet Earth. On my last visit to the emerald island, Dad got a helicopter to fly my sisters and I up right over the mouth of the volcano. Just right over it. What I saw was breathtaking. A land of ash pillars that would crumble here and there, steam rising up through cracks in the fragile caked lid that had temporarily formed over the mouth and the uncertainty that it could blow at any time. The sense of adventure was ever-present as was our adrenaline.

As I reflect back to all that transpired melancholy hits me because this was all due to my Dad working in this enchanted island. He passed away at the stroke of midnight on new years day 2015, but his colorful legacy of adventure, risk-taking and cavalier-way lives on in me. As a Special Educator who works privately with families in their homes and in the community, I take license from the fact that we learn best when we are in the field, rather than in the classroom. We also tone our life skills by going out and meeting the world where it is, instead of waiting to hear of it through a television screen. There is no substitute for the relationships made while out there in the world and there is no telling where we may find ourselves down the road because of it. Life is meant to be lived on our feet, always moving forward, not sitting on a sofa and watching the parade go by.

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