The announcement came: only essential workers, all stores closed until Tuesday. Don’t go outside without a mask.
No, not the latest Covid restrictions. Waves of volcanic ash were hitting Barbados, from La Soufrière’s eruptions on St. Vincent, 150 kilometres west of us.
My impressions of volcanos are coloured by the slow moving flows of Hawaiian volcanoes, or the geothermal energy from Iceland’s mid-Atlantic Ridge volcanoes. Despite living most of my life on the Ring of Fire around the Pacific, my only experience there was a dusting of ash from Mount St Helen’s when I was very young.
This is different.
The first day, it wasn’t real. We looked at the satellite images and it seemed that the ash cloud would only brush Barbados; we went grocery shopping out of an abundance of caution and were surprised that when we came out of the store at 4 in the afternoon, it was already dark, and there was a sprinkling of ash. The birds were nesting. We went to sleep that night not knowing what to expect.
The next morning was like waking up to an overnight snowfall, but this wasn’t snow. Scott and I walked the 5 minutes down to the shore to look and take pictures. Our footsteps made the only prints on our street. The air smelled of sulphur and by the time we got home, even wearing cloth masks, my throat was sore and my eyes burning.
We spent 4 days locked in our house, doors and windows shut tight for the first time since we arrived, 7 months before. We couldn’t use the air conditioning we had in the bedroom because the dust would damage the motor. The water pressure dropped, then stopped for half a day. That isn’t so unusual here, so we had jugs for drinking, and flushing if necessary. We improvised meals from what we had in the freezer, fridge and cupboard. When it seemed a bit clearer, I went outside, double masked, and tried to clear off the veranda. We watched the satellite images the way we used to watch the surf cams.
On the 5th day we saw a gap in the eruptions, and I went with a neighbour to the store to replenish our supplies. By the time we got home the clouds were dark with ash again, but we had water, food and wine, so all was well.
A week in, an eruption was small enough that the ash traveled west with the lower wind layers, instead of east to Barbados. We crossed our fingers and started cleaning up.
And what a clean up!
Fortunately the property manger arranged for the drive and walkways, the pool (still in progress), and the gutters. Most appreciated was the servicing of the bedroom air conditioning unit. After 4 days of no open windows and 3 days of occasionally opening them when we thought the ash was lighter and we were willing to trade inside ash for at least a semblance of fresh air, that first night sleeping with windows closed and AC on was beautiful. We normally prefer tropical breezes to air conditioning, but the layer of grit over everything in the morning (including us!) was disconcerting.
My new routine involves dusting, sweeping and mopping daily. The kitchen counters always need wiping, even if I have just done it, and the downstairs floors get an extra sweep or two each day. I clean the veranda every morning, carefully depositing the ash into a heavy duty bag by the driveway.
The skies are beautiful again and the air clear, until the wind blows a cloud of ash off trees and roads. We go out walking, although we double mask now with the KN95s we were saving for travel, and if we have been out long we shower and throw our clothes in the laundry when we get home.
I am surfing again! The water is a bit cloudy and I cough for 15 minutes after I get home, but that may be after effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine I had on the weekend. If I can’t catch a wave I’m sure it must be from not being able to wear my contacts, not that after a week out of the water I am out of shape.
Something I have noticed is that everyone I see is wearing their mask— properly. If the Covid-19 virus was as visible as this dust, I’m sure we would have all been so diligent in our precautions that we would have stopped it after the first wave!
Despite the volcano, I am happy to be in Barbados. Barbadians are a strong and resilient people and they will recover from this hardship, too.
And for me, it’s just another chapter in my brave travels.