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St. Vincent & The Grenadines Part 2: Meet the Volcano

Ka Soufriere volcano on st vincent
boats at anchor on Mustique beach

This is Part 2 of my St. Vincent and the Grenadines travel story, see Part 1 to read them in order and understand how I ended up at a volcano. 

The day after hanging out with the undertaker, we took a 45 minute ferry ride across the water to the island of Bequia. As we landed at the dock I saw several small dogs running along the beach, which I was promptly told were called “Bequia poodles.” I still do not understand why all dogs on these islands were called poodles when they were more like stout corgis than anything. We had buljol for lunch, which is a combination of breadfruit and salted fish. Bequia offered even more white sand beaches and tiny thatched huts offering rum punch to tourists. I drank a lot of rum on this trip. Usually, I would end up puking it up on the boat ride back to St. Vincent, or sometimes on the side of the road on a car trip. There was so much rum, but I also have the world’s worst motion sickness. Not the best ailment for someone who loves travel, but again I digress. Calypso and reggae music was everywhere, and I can hear people singing along as I sat on the beach or ran wildly into the waves, like all tourists since the beginning of time. I meet a local who tells me, to my horror, that whale hunting is still allowed on certain holidays. I’m a highly sensitive American so I cry on the way back to St. Vincent when I see a little whale breach nearby.

Admiralty Bay and Bequia

After a few days of relaxing on the beach, eating fish and breadfruit, and watching cricket matches on a local station, we decided to venture out to more of the Grenadines’ 32 islands. We joined a pontoon boat cruise that stopped at certain islands for snorkeling and drinks. Against my better judgment, I downed a few banana daiquiris, which I promptly puked up over the side of the boat. The sights were worth my seasickness. The islands are like little gems popping up on the horizon. Dolphins jumped and played in the boat’s wake, one even showed off with an impressive full flip. Flying fish skittered across the water and a whale breached in the distance. When the boat stopped and we were sent out with our snorkels and fins, I dove to see adorable sea turtles and little sharks (I’m still unsure if they were dangerous, but I suppose not since I remain in one piece). The tour brought us to a few islands where they filmed The Pirates of the Caribbean including the island where Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly were abandoned. We stopped on the island of Mustique for more cocktails and sunbathing on the beach. The Tobago Cays are directly from the best promo images you’ve ever seen of the Caribbean, they are that perfect and the water is really that blue.

large sailboat near St Vincent

It was a perfect day if you can ignore the vomit. The next day my view of the world was shifted drastically. It was the first time I had come face to face with true poverty on a grand scale. We were heading to a small party the Senator’s family was throwing when we drove through the outskirts of a small town. Huts and lean-tos were created with plywood and tarps. Families sat outside their makeshift homes, and children kicked around a ball made out of some sort of paper and tape. One of the children was wearing a plastic bag with black marker drawn on it to make it look like a soccer jersey. Other children were playing with paper or plastic bag kites while their mothers cooked on outdoor stoves and over fires. Growing up in South Florida for the entirety of my life, I had never experienced anything like this. We continued through the town until we arrived at a small stream with a dam creating a small pool to swim in. I found it hard to enjoy the day, and silently ate my lunch of salted fish and oxtail stew. The party became more and more lively and lasted well past dinner, which consisted of callaloo soup, more salted fish, and conch.

bright blue ocean around tobago cays
sea turtle swimming underwater

I promised you a volcano story at the beginning of this tale, and it’s finally time to reckon with it. The Senator woke me up early the next day to “do a hike.” He was the king of leaving out important details and burying the lede, because he should have said, “we are going to climb an active volcano.” La Soufrière is St. Vincent’s highest point at 4049 feet, as well as being a volcano taking up a large portion of the island’s landmass. It last erupted in 1979 and is due to erupt again in the next decade or so. La Soufrière is French for “sulfur outlet” and there are many volcanoes in the Caribbean bearing the same name. I didn’t know any of this as I put on my sneakers and spaghetti-strap top for what he described as an easy walk. I had no sunscreen, no supplies, and I hadn’t brought a cell phone (this was 2008, so it wasn’t a modern smartphone anyway). 

looking out to sea from St Vincent

We drove about an hour outside of town, heading up foothills on winding roads through banana farms. We pull into a shaded area of dense forest and the guide began handing us little backpacks. Inside there was a small bottle of water, half of a ham sandwich, and a small piece of chocolate brownie. There was also a small length of rope and what looks to be a tiny pickaxe. This is the point where I started to question the Senator’s choices. It was hot and humid and I worried that I didn’t bring enough water (I hadn’t). We started to walk gently upward through a misty rainforest filled with banana and coconut trees. There were snaking vines with lizards scurrying up and down them and creatures rustling through bushes. Birds whistled loudly, and the guide told me that they are fittingly called “whistling waddles.” We crossed little streams and scurried over large black rocks. Bamboo from the area had been cut to make tall steps. There were boulders we had to more or less crawl over to stay on the path.

We stopped at a dried-up lava flow from the 1979 eruption, which is incredible to see. The guide told me that no one died in that eruption, but from 1500 to 2000 people perished when it erupted in 1902. Nowadays there are advanced monitoring, early detection, and warning systems in place to ensure that human lives aren’t lost due to volcanic activity. At the time, sitting in what was once molten hot lava, I did not feel good about this. My guide points out trumpet leaves, which are boiled to make a tea used as medicine. I sit and listen and eat my small brownie, which is actually quite tasty, all things considered. At this point, the two guides tell us that we have to hurry to get to the top before the storm closes in. I was unaware of the storm until this point but decided they knew what they were doing so we continued on.

La Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent
Photo by David Stanley

There are three distinct levels to the volcano. The first is the dense rainforest we’d already tackled. A misty, dense, and slippery jungle filled with animal sounds and thick with earthy smells. The vegetation changes markedly in each zone as you climb upwards. The second section is rockier with more dried lava flows, shorter bushes, and less wildlife. As we reached this area, also called the cloud forest zone, a man sprained his ankle and had to turn back. A few minutes later a woman almost slipped down a steep cliffside and she also turned back, her face white with fear but unharmed.

small, curling fern plant

We had been walking for over an hour, and at this point, I was determined, dehydrated, and hungry. Suddenly it was the end of the treeline, and the plants take on an alien look. We’d reached the final level at the top of the volcano. The guide called it the “fairy forest” and pointed out a tiny patch of pink flowers, the only bright color on a field of black and brown pebbles and ash. This was the “soufrière” flower which can only be found on the volcano at this altitude, in this soil. The floor was sandy and black, and volcanic ash made it feel impossible to walk. For what felt like another hour we fought against the wind and sand to make our way to the crater. I saw miniature ferns, curling inwards with their tiny, mossy leaves. The guide hurried us along, pointing to the clouds which are now gathering below and around us. At that point, I could feel the heat of the volcano through the soles of my sneakers.

looking down into the volcano's crater

We arrived at the top of the volcano about two hours into the climb. I cried for a little while, overwhelmed yet proud of myself. We sat down, drank the rest of our water, and ate a mushy, hot sandwich. The wind was picking up speed. We army-crawled to the edge of the caldera and looked down inside, which was surprisingly green and relatively lush for the inside of an active volcano. You can usually descend inside the crater with ropes, but the storm had taken away the option that day. There was a large mound in the center, which will eventually burst when the volcano next erupts, but for now, it is covered in green vegetation and looks harmless. The wind was threatening to push us in at this point, so we crawled our way back to a safe spot to stand and make our way down. The two guides were passing a joint between them, and offer the Senator and I a puff. I declined, amazed that they could breathe and smoke when I could barely breathe throughout the entire hike from my utter lack of fitness. In my defense, I am Floridian and unused to elevation of any kind.

la soufiere volcano cloud forest
Photo by Arcadiuš

Now it was time to concentrate on not dying. The storm had come. We hustled down through the ashy sand and pebbles, slipping our way down the slope to the forest. We made it to the tree line just as it started to rain. The trees largely blocked the rain but the floor was slick and wet and everyone except the guides was on our asses as much as our feet. It only took us about an hour to retrace our route down. I cried again with relief. I had looked into a volcano and survived to tell the tale. The ride home was relatively uneventful. I drank about two gallons of water when we got back to Auntie’s house and fell asleep on the couch. This was a very bad idea because I woke up covered in itchy welts from dozens of mosquito bites. Don’t forget your bug spray if you venture out to St. Vincent.

looking down into a building courtyard in st vincent

The trip was eye-opening and exciting for so many reasons. I got to meet my boyfriend’s family and see parts of the world I never imagined. I saw the lives of people from the richest to the most poverty-stricken within a few miles of the same small island. I drank a lot of rum. I threw up a lot on boats. We said our goodbyes the day after the volcano, and the Senator’s aunt refilled the large suitcase with items from St. Vincent that we would bring to the American side of the family. I didn’t check the bag, for some unknown reason trusting my boyfriend’s judgment. This was the wrong choice because airport security removed: three bottles of very high proof rum; a Tupperware of saltfish; and a medium-sized knife. We boarded the tiny plane with a lighter bag, and made our way to Barbados and onward to Fort Lauderdale.

The hills and beaches of Mustique island

The Senator’s mom picked us up at the airport, and we relayed everything that had happened on our two-week sojourn. She was furious about the lost block of bomb cheese and equally upset about the illicit rum. We made it to her house and began unpacking the bags. I was checking a side pocket when I felt something small and strange deep inside of it. I took out what ended up being a small joint of real live marijuana. I had somehow gotten out of and back into the country with illegal weed shoved into my carryon. As I had a panic attack, his mom laughed and plucked it from my fingers, saying “I was wondering where that went!” This added a last piece of flair (and years of anxiety) to a very strange part of my life.

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