Tag Archives: rum

Volcanos, James Bond, Mountain Chickens, and Montserrat

I now feel totally ignorant. Hands up those of you who thought Montserrat was somewhere in the Mediterranean? Or near Spain?
I was one of those. You smarter people can all stop sniggering now.

300px-Topographic-map-of-Montserrat-en.svgTurns out that what is left of Montserrat is in the Caribbean!!! West Indies. I feel perfectly ridiculous. I say “what is left” because there’s a huge honkin’ volcano on Montserrat that covered half of the island with ash and lava. It’s still simmering now, and the population has wisely moved to the other side of the island. The economy has been decimated, and much of the island lies in waste. Note the size of the “Exclusion zone”. Note the location of the previous capital city.

It has a mixed history. Discovered on the second of Chris Columbus’ jaunts, it became a slave state for a while, producing sugar and yes, rum…captured by the French briefly, returned to the British, eventually turned into a small holders’ lime production place. Limes go well with rum,

Caipirinha - yum!

Caipirinha – yum!

but I digress.

Then the island was decimated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and covered with ash in 1995. Life’s been a bit grim ever since.

Emontserratense_flower_crop (Main)

orchid shivering in Kew

I am concerned about the Leptodactylus fallax. Otherwise known as the Giant Ditch Frog, it’s apparently critically endangered and the Brits are trying to keep it alive, along with the orchid native to the island (Who is no doubt suffering some transition shock hanging out in Kew).

The frog used to be eaten, probably because it would make a hearty meal. Apparently it grows to 21 centimeters long. (Over 8 inches, says my trusty ruler). That is one big frog. It lives for up to twelve years, and has big and apparently delicious hind legs. According to the “Save the mountain chicken” website, it’s the largest native predator on the island.

How can all these bad things happen to a place where a frog is the biggest predator? It seems wrong, and sad. Like paradise destroyed.


Mountain Chicken (tastes like frog)

Eating it isn’t the only reason for its endangered status. A fungus is helping. The volcano killed off a lot of insects that the frog usually eats. And rats have been introduced to the island and they eat everything. Or just bite it and leave the fungus to take over.

Much like the rest of the world, where rats and their human metaphors destroy whatever paradise that may remain.


montserrat-monastery-wc-cc-gyrofrogOh, and I feel better now. There’s ANOTHER Montserrat, a mountain in Catalonia, Spain, home of the monastery where lives the famous Black Madonna. That must be the one I know from the movies.


There’s even one near Bolton, UK (shudder), which I am CERTAIN James Bond never frequented.

Ola! from Cuba

IMG_0098Ah, Cuba.

I’ve been consumed with curiosity about this island ever since I had to sit under my desk in school to protect myself from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up around Boston. If I’d known how many missiles were housed immediately around my school I would have spent the time colouring instead. ¬†We’d have been blasted in the first sortie.

As I grew older, and learned about the Cuban health care system, their healthy literacy rate and their amazingly stable economy given the embargo by the US (and the way the US told everyone that if they were nice to Cuba they couldn’t play with them). I was curious to see how the Communist nation so close to us had fared, was slightly romantic about the revolution, with its dashing figures of Che and Fidel and whoever that other guy is whose name I can never remember. It was and is the stuff of legend.

For a place slightly smaller than Pennsylvania (sneers the CIA fact book), it’s chock a bloc with history, romance, music, art, people, and, apparently, cigars.

We spent a five-day visit in Havana – old Havana – a thoroughly interesting borough that alternates in appearance with a bombed-out war zone and a decaying but still elegant deep south Spanish plantation. Totally fascinating, noisy and silent by turns, filled with people of such diverse colours and shapes you can trace the native, black and Spanish lineages through the shape of their noses.

Everyone, even the smallest child, automatically responds to the sight of we tourists with a murmuring of “cigars? you want cigars?”.

The men – handsome without exception. The women – gorgeous until about age 35, when the gruelling day-to-day life catches up with them. They must wash laundry every day – everyone is so clean and clothes hang everywhere to dry.

The streets – spotlessly clean in some places, despite feral dogs and cats everywhere. Covered with garbage where the feral people are. No windows in most buildings, but Dolce and Gabana and expensive spas have them. Banks with nothing inside, only an ATM on the outside. Shiny old 54 Fords, polished to the max, run as taxis, followed by husks of the same car with no muffler, run by locals. Shiny new Kias here and there, tripping over bicycle taxis pulling painfully through the cobblestone streets.IMG_0520

The hustlers say, as they smile broadly and try to get us to buy contraband cigars, “Cuba is very safe. 11 million people and half of them are police”. They lead us on, through darker and meaner streets, until common sense prevails and we say “No, Gracias”. Their faces crumble with such acute disappointment you almost want to take it back, say, of course you believe him that today is the only day that Fidel allows the people who make cigars to sell them privately at half price, only today…

I still feel the air, warm and almost like a human breath, the grit and diesel from the out of control refinery and the many many cars. I can shut my eyes and hear the noises, the endless honking of horns to say hello or get out-of-the-way or whatever, interspersed with sharp whistles and shouts and the roar of unmuffled diesel engines. In between you can hear bands playing salsa music.

The tourist industry in Cuba seems designed to make you pass your time there in a pleasant heat and rum fuelled haze, happily buying versions of art that are nowhere near as wonderful as the real artists produce in their tiny studios off of darkened streets. They sell rum and mohitos and Hemingway, send tourists around well-trodden paths, call to you with such desperation you feel positively terrible for saying no. Elderly women come up and circle you slowly, putting their hands to their mouths, begging for money. But when you tell them no, as with all of those trying to extract money from you (and why not? We have so much, they have so little), they look at you once, with eyes that show their heart is breaking, and shuffle off to the next person.

It is intoxicating, rude, charming, warm, friendly, hostile, old, ancient, proud, humble, utterly unexplainable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling.

I’ll never go back, for so many reasons. But everyone should go, at least once. Immerse yourself in Cuba. Don’t just go to a resort – see the place itself, meet the real people.

Vive la Cuba Libre!