Barbadians awoke on Monday to a “normal” sound they realised they had not heard for two days: birdsong. Over the weekend, even the wood doves of Barbados were stunned silent in a landscape less like an idyllic Caribbean island in 2021, and rather more like Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR, after the April 1986 nuclear reactor explosion.
An aspirant filmmaker scouting a free, magnificent set for a post-nuclear apocalypse movie would need only to walk through Bridgetown, Barbados’s capital. Or anywhere else in the country.
Overnight Friday, volcanic ash from the eruption of La Soufriere, St Vincent, coated the island. The famous white-sand beaches were blackened at the waterline. Green hedges turned silver. Black water tanks acquired grey lids. People who went to sleep with their windows open woke with the strong smell of sulphur in their bedrooms and everywhere else.
At 8.30am on Saturday, the sun was a ten-cent-sized circle of light grey in a sky totally black, as though hard rain might fall at any moment. The sun disappeared entirely before 9am, until 2.22pm on Sunday. The least attentive of observers would have noticed the sudden brightening of the room they were in, just as they couldn’t miss their homes darkening like nightfall an hour after an eruption of ash from the volcano, borne to Barbados on unusual high-atmosphere westerly winds. At 3.45pm on Saturday, it looked like 6.45pm. Even rooms with many windows were near night-time dark all day.
Very few people would have noticed anything outside.
The official guidance suggesting remaining indoors was correct, but really not needed. Ten minutes outside, even with an N-95 mask on, led to burning in the chest; five minutes was enough for unprotected eyes to begin tearing up.
Everyone with a car nevertheless had to come out once a day at least, to wash the highly corrosive ash off their vehicles, even if they couldn’t drive them, except in extreme emergency: volcanic ash wreaks as much havoc on internal combustion engines as it does on birdsong.
A car that had been driven any distance was easy to pick out on any street by its windshield, covered in thick ash like the rest, but smeared thoroughly in the windshield-wiper arcs. A blindfold might be a better aid to driving.
Heavy rain just before dawn on Sunday brought the hope of the ash being washed away, but it was only an illusion of relief. Before midday, a smartphone video was circulating showing how the ash turned to mud and clogged roof gutters and drains, which could lead to leaking interior walls in the home.
Householders quickly learned that turning a hose on deep drifts of the ash on galleries and in garages turned it into “Roman cement.” And it was as necessary as it seemed pointless to sweep up and dump exterior household ash accumulating on doorsteps and porches every day. Even without opening doors or windows, ash particles crept inside, bringing a faint but ineradicable sulphurous odour.
Three days of volcano-ash lockdown have been more complete and more universally enforced than a year of the covid19 version. A year ago, Barbados regulated personal access to gas stations and supermarkets, with different surname initials allotted specific days of the week.
Yesterday, Barbados was supposed to have reopened many public spaces, including schools.
Today, people are looking to stretch whatever groceries they already have to last however long it takes.
Living in a landscape formed by a near-constant fallout of ash, where the air cannot be trusted to be breathed, is eerie, unsettling and anxiety-inducing.