26 April 2008

Muddy Skies

About 20 miles to the southwest of our outdoor dining room table (not to suggest there is also an inside one--there is not) lies the island of Saba, a Dutch protectorate. On clear days, its two-volcano profile is quite visible. On some exceptional days, one can see the sparse white pinpricks that are the houses clinging (if one can still use that word without being attacked by the Clinton spin machine) to the few gradual slopes.

But about one-third of the time, Saba is invisible to us. Why? The air quality is not noticeably different. The soft springtime breezes are delicious and full of the jasmine scent from the bushes by the shed. The cruise boats, private yachts, small sailboats, and fishing boats anchored in Corossol Bay are still brilliant in the morning sunshine.

So where's Saba? (Locals pronounce it "saybah", the metropoles' pronunciation rhymes with "papa". Me? I'm a local.) As I sit here and look out, it's as if someone took a gummy eraser and removed it from my picture.

I have heard two explanations and I am prepared to believe either or neither:

1. The atmosphere is sometimes clouded with dust from the Sahara Desert. Yes, really. There is a huge quantity of the Sahara traveling up there in some form of jet stream and sometimes some of it settles over the Carib. While the stuff is not noticeable when looking at an object but a few miles away, there are days when the horizon is not a sharp line, but a fuzzy, almost gradual interface with the sky. On those days, the blue sky just above the horizon is pale, bordering on grayish. And Saba is behind the blue-gray drapes.

2. Most of the islands that make up the Lesser Antilles (an eastward bulging convex chain of islands stretching from Puerto Rico to South America) were created by now-defunct volcanoes. ( Not St. Barths. I dunno why, or how this island came to be, but our mountains, I am informed, are not volcanic, but were formed by some other process on that single day (well, according to Mr. Huckabee, at least) the land was separated from the sea. The few nearby volcanic islands I have been able to eyeball (Saba, Nevis) have unmistakable volcanic visual profiles.

But there is a real live, i.e., active, volcano in the neighborhood: Montserrat, an island 100+ miles to the south, has been devastated over the last decade by the activity of the Antilles' only active above ground volcano. (Yup, there is an active undersea volcano farther south, off the Grenadines. Kick 'em Jenny –nobody knows where the name comes from, beyond the fact that there is a tiny island of the same name nearby —has erupted twelve times in the last 70 years, and has created an undersea mound three miles across and .8 miles high. Its crater is now only 500 feet below the surface of the water, and careless mariners ( the volcano has a 1.5 mile radius no-navigation zone) could find themselves in a boiling and smoke-emitting cauldron. That's the hard way to get the barnacles off the bottom. It is also the easy (read "only")way to pick up some ready-to-eat bouillabaisse at sea.

The projection is that the Kick 'em Jenny sea-floor volcano is likely to become yet another island in the Lesser Antilles chain in the coming century. Buy now and save.

Back to Montserrat. This very active volcano has erupted numerous times in the last decade or two. During the last several years, the eruptions were devastating. Towns and villages on that island were buried in ash and lava, the airport was destroyed, more than half the population has been forced to evacuate, and last year a mile-high pillar of smoke and dust from its crater interfered with airplane traffic in the nearby islands. While there has not been a major eruption so far this year, the volcano continues to spew smoke and dust on a regular basis, and when the wind is just right, we get a kind of dusty haze in Paradise that obscures the horizon and wipes out Saba.

Just keeping you northerners up to date. I know you are very concerned about traffic, the Second Avenue subway, and the general stress of life in Metropolis, but I wanted you to know we tropical island dwellers have our issues too.

Okay, time to get the moldy suitcases out of the leaky pump room and start packing. See y'all soon.

A bientot.

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