Three Little Words: Hot Hot Hot

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Clover Lea bursts through the open door of my villa at Gingerbread Hill, the inn she owns on the west coast of Montserrat. She doesn't knock, but that's fine by me. She has a machete in one hand, home-grown citrus in the other.

For $125 a night, I've been renting her two-bedroom, two-bath hideaway, which I've had to pry myself away from each morning. There's an open-air living area complete with a porch swing, an expansive view of the Caribbean, a hummingbird feeder with more traffic than the Capital Beltway and a mama dove and her chick roosting in an alcove near the dining table. Victorian flourishes frame the roofline, and a vine with large yellow flowers has wrapped its tendrils around the rails of a fence and is reaching into the home.

From the kitchen I can see mountains dipping into the sea, but the Soufriere Hills Volcano, the intolerable stepchild that's been reigning over this speck in the British West Indies for more than a decade, is far to the south. Out of sight, but never out of mind.

Clover, a self-described hippie and American expat who has been my island muse for the past few days, places the oranges and grapefruit on the kitchen counter and, as she has each morning, starts questioning me. Did I watch the documentary on the volcano made by her husband, David? Have I tried the fish dinners from the stand up the street? Did I visit the new cultural center?

This time, I have some questions of my own. For two days, I've had the island to myself, and during the peak winter season at that. Montserrat, though, seems poised for a comeback, and during my visit locals have spoken of little else. I look at the Caribbean, devoid of pleasure craft, and strain to hear traffic on the nearby road.

Do you really want more people on this island, Clover? Won't that spoil what you have?

"Oh, we want all the tourists we can get," she says, staring wistfully to sea. "We just want to be sure they're the right ones."

* * *

It began on July 18, 1995, when steam and ash starting belching from an ancient crater in the Soufriere Hills. All at once, the scene was set for a decade-long assault on the island, which had just recovered from a direct hit in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo.

About a month later, another eruption blanketed the capital, Plymouth, in ash, initiating the first evacuation of southern Montserrat. And so it went for years, an unrelenting barrage of evacuations, dome collapses, ash clouds, pyroclastic flows (fast-moving walls of superheated gas and rock that destroy everything in their path), mudflows -- and bad press. For weeks, sometimes months at a time, the population was wedged into the northern chunk of the island before the all-clear was given for the Montserratans to return.

If they could. By November 1997, Plymouth lay buried in ash, and the airport terminal had been destroyed.

Today, about two-thirds of the island has been declared an Exclusion Zone and is off-limits to most locals and visitors. And while the last major outburst was almost a year ago, the volcano is by no means dormant. According to the latest report by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which keeps close tabs on the beast, the news -- for now, at least -- is good: "The pause in activity continues."

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