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The Island of Montserrat

Outside his house in Olveston, on the island of Montserrat, Jeep-rental agent B-Beep Taylor is looking at the sky. A tourist comments on a passing dark cloud: "Looks like we'll get some rain."

"Not rain," B-Beep replies in his lilting British accent. "Ash."

This craggy, 40-square-mile jewel in the British West Indies made headlines in 1995 when, against all expectations, it exploded. The volcanic Soufrière Hills woke from a centuries-long nap, and the gentle course of Montserrat's history took a hairpin turn. Two-thirds of its 10,500 citizens were evacuated to neighboring islands or to England; the rest of those in the danger zone were relocated to the island's northern half, which was declared safe. In the ensuing eruptions, the capital city of Plymouth was destroyed, and with it, most of the government buildings and the heart of the island's infrastructure. During a 1997 eruption, there were fatalities: 19 residents who chose not to evacuate were overcome by ash and poisonous gas near Montserrat's now-ruined airport.

While the Soufrière Hills continue to rumble and spit out the occasional ash cloud, there has been no threatening activity since December 1997. But only a few hundred of Montserrat's evacuees have returned, and today's population (roughly 4,500) is smaller than it was in the early 1700's, when the island was a booming Anglo-Irish sugar colony. It's just one of the many ways in which time has slipped backward here. Montserrat still has no airport (just a heliport with flights to and from Antigua), no real nightlife to speak of, and only one hotel and a few guesthouses. The residential phone book runs a mere 48 pages in large type. Perhaps because the population is so small and close-knit, there is virtually no crime. People feel safe enough to hitchhike. (When I give a pair of kids a ride to the grocery store, they rattle off the names of a dozen white residents, sure I would know them.)

Even before the disaster, this was a remarkably quiet and peaceful place: "The Way the Caribbean Used to Be," its brochures claimed, and today the irony is palpable. Montserrat never courted the splashy mass-market tourism that stokes the economies of other Caribbean islands. Most visitors were affluent Brits and North Americans who kept to themselves in private villas. (After Beatles producer George Martin built a state-of-the-art recording studio here in 1979, Montserrat became something of a playground for rock stars, but in 1989 the complex was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo.) Of course, there's nothing like a fickle fountain of brimstone to put the kibosh on an island's tourist trade, and in the years following the eruption, many of those villas and guesthouses that weren't destroyed sat boarded-up and empty. But now a small number of visitors—both veteran villa-dwellers and curious volcanophiles—have started to return.

According to industry reports, Montserrat's tourist board is making the best of the disaster by repositioning the island as an adventure destination. A Web site for one guesthouse plays up the thrills: "Guess what?We've got an active volcano. . . . Take home some pumice for the kids! Ash masks provided for those odd ashy days." But when I inquired about hiring a mountain bike at the island's tourist office, the attendant just shrugged. There used to be someone who rented bikes,she told me, but she moved to the Virgin Islands in '97. The office had no information on guided hikes or even an up-to-date trail map. In contrast to other, service-saturated Caribbean islands, with their Jet Ski rentals and helicopter tours, Montserrat is a do-it-yourself destination: those who come here are left to make their own fun.

Montserrat today is actually two islands: there is the Safe Zone, to the north, which is lush and green; and the southern Exclusion Zone, which looks like a sepia-toned photograph. If you were to spend all your time in the Safe Zone—and delude yourself that those funny black puffs in the sky are merely storm clouds—you wouldn't know anything out of the ordinary had happened on Montserrat. (Except when it rains: the high sulfur content of the ash in the soil gives off a stunning stench.) On this side of the island there are places to hike (just ask around), diving sites, several modest guesthouses, and Woodlands Bay, a tiny black-sand beach that a visitor can have all to herself.

The other side of Montserrat, of course, is changed forever. It is an awful and gorgeous thing to see such a landscape. Viewed from the hills of the Safe Zone, the island's southern portion looks as if a great giant has smudged the earth with his thumb, rubbing out entire valleys and towns. The road to the old airport is buckled and strewn with fallen rocks and lounging iguanas. On my pre-1995 tourist map, the bright red line runs all the way to Plymouth; now the road leads nowhere.

The Exclusion Zone is officially off-limits, and trespassers risk arrest and heavy fines. Still, there are other areas affected by the volcano that are deemed safe to explore. Traces of the airport-that-was are faintly visible from the hills surrounding it: a section of runway, the bent tops of floodlights. But most of the area is covered in layers of mud, sand, and ash, which spreads like a dirty fan into the ocean, forming a brand-new beach. On the hill leading to the beach, a derelict fire truck sits abandoned in haste by the side of the road. From the mudflows you can see the ruins of a sugar plantation, the top of a smokestack protruding through the mud; beyond that looms the volcano itself, swaddled in cloud. The only creatures in sight are some wandering cattle and a lone white egret.

Wolf Krebs operates the Sea Wolf Diving School in Woodlands and doubles as the island veterinarian. He runs the school out of the house that he and his wife share with a cage full of birds and several patched-up dogs. Wolf agrees to take me diving in Little Bay, despite less-than-ideal conditions (we're on the cusp of a late-season hurricane). While we gear up, he recalls the heavy-handed way the British dealt with the 1995 crisis. The danger, he feels, was exaggerated.

"The British forced people out. This is a colony, you see, they can do that. In Plymouth people weren't even allowed to gather their things—they had to sneak back in later to steal their own refrigerators!"

The dive proves unspectacular. Visibility is poor because of the coming storm, and, worse, freighters are noisily docking at the jetty directly above us. It's all quite unnerving, particularly when Wolf presses himself flat against the ocean floor, motioning me to keep my head down. (When I later comment on the frightening noise, he says, "Yes—and think how terrible it is for the fish!") Wolf assures me there are other reefs to explore, with less traffic, when conditions allow.

Those curious about the disaster can pay a visit to the Volcano Guys—friendly folk who issue weekly radio updates from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory on Mango Hill. It's a gigantic white house filled with complex equipment that monitors the volcano's heartbeat, plus a collection of artifacts—melted Coke bottles, fossilized fruit—excavated from Plymouth. Director Simon Young reports that the Soufrière Hills dome began a new phase of growth in late 1999. If the growth continues, the next year could bring pyroclastic flows and even more clouds of ash. "There may be some spectacular, if small, explosions," Young says, but these are unlikely to affect inhabited areas.

Outside the observatory, a pair of Volcano Guys are having lunch and discussing weekend plans.

"So, will you play cricket tomorrow, then?" one asks.

"I guess so," his friend replies. "Last time, you know, we got ashed out."

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