Thursday, 28 May 2015

A Marching Army

As the darkness embraces the island of Providence and the temperatures settle to a more manageable warm embrace, the people return to their front porches, swing in their hammocks, cook their dinners and crack open a beer or two. But in the forested hills of Providence’s interior something is stirring.

You hear it first, a rustling of leaves followed by the scratchy tickling of needled toes on concrete. The volume grows, more rustling more clicking until it reaches a crescendo of a thousand ticking clocks all out of sync. Like a forest of cicadas or a thousand Fonzies, this is a metronomic army on the march.

Then the smell hits you, of rotting mulch with a whiff of putrifying fish guts. But it’s not umpleasant, quite sweet, the smell of action.

And then you see them, dozens at first, then hundreds and by midnight thousands. A two way procession, mothers laden with eggs marching determinedly towards the sea and those who’s mission is complete climbing back up the banks and rock outcrops returning to the hills.

These are the infamous black mountain crabs of Providence. Every year when the first small showers arrive between April and June they leave their mountain retreats and head to the see driven by the need to reproduce. The females carry their eggs under their bodies. Males loiter attempting to fertilise the eggs during the females migration to the sea.

Their major obstruction is Providence’s single road which encircles the island with its high curbstones and occasional traffic. As a car or bike approaches the swarming marching army scuttles in a wave to avoid the wheels of doom! Many islanders are conscious of the crabs, which provide a livelihood to many as they are eaten most of the year, and slow their charges to avoid the black mass. But some do not. The squashed crabs do not go to waste. The hungry mothers dine on the flesh as they re-cross the road on their return to the mountains. In the daylight chickens will feed on those bodies that remain.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark you notice the banks on the side of the road contain a thriving mass of moving shiny shells rustling their way through the leaves. But the road resembles a battleground, the wounded, dead and dying litter the road, the opportunist cannibals feed as they pass.

We felt most humbled to witness this amazing migration, to experience the drive that these crabs most feel in order to undertake such a mammoth journey to ensure of their species own survival.

However we also felt horrified at the numbers squashed by careless and ignorant people, many of whom rely on the crab for an income or at least have friends and family that do. The islanders are trying to protect these animals. Road blocks are set up during the migration and people are encouraged not to collect crabs, particularly those with eggs. We are hopeful for the future as people become better educated and aware so that future generations can experience one of natures amazing events.

Say Hello to the Black Mountain Crab

Emerging from the forest through the leaf litter and on to the road

A steady clicking and ticking of needle like toes

As the night progresses the numbers boom

The high curbstones provide yet another obstacle

Although called black their shells are more of a deep purple

8 legs is an advantage for climbing

Often they cross the road near street lights which I think must confuse them

This one is definitely confused

They swarm around and into any building in their way

Home owners are for ever sweeping out their houses in the morning to remove the squatters

A chance meal for the long return trip

Although this one may have just fainted!

Stop! Crabs crossing

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

At the Races

On the Saturday we arrived in Providence we were lucky enough to catch a horse race on Southwest Beach. 

In a rum-fuelled discussion on zoology we were told that the first horses of Providence might be the descendants of large sea horses. As part of their evolution they changed their diet of seaweed to that of grass of terra firma. The English brought thoroughbred mares, which have now been mixed with the blood of the spirited Colombian trotter.

There were two flat races, each race consisting of two colts or fillies. Each runner was owned by a local syndicate. Honour and glory were at stake, and we heard whispers that due to alleged cheating or unfairness last month someone was stabbed. 

Most of the island turned out to watch them gallop along hard sand on the waters edge. We could hear bets being placed amongst friends and rivals on which runner would win. Some of the bets were over £200. The largest bet we were told about on a recent race was £750. On an island with a poor economy this represented some very serious alliances! 

The horses trotted up to the starting line past the punters talking quickly and loudly on the beach. On the first race the riders where quite distinct. 

The noise of the crowd built to a crescendo, children were called in to close quarters so as not to get trampled under the hooves of this local Derby. Suddenly we saw the horses galloping towards us through the surf. Spray and sand was flung up from each striding hoof. The rivals vied for pole position. With their tails raised they shot past us towards the finish line with the bay increasing his lead.

It was over too quickly and exciting to watch. Apparently they only race once a month, so we happened to be in the right place just at the right time.

Feisty fillies warming up

Smart uniform including Liverpool football socks circa. 1985

A crowded finishing post (palm tree)

Ladies Day at the beach

And they're off.....

Sprinting clear

Cruising to victory

Second race (the 13:45 at Royal Providence)

A closer encounter

The grey ahead by a length

But the chestnut powers through to take it at the finish

Thursday, 21 May 2015

History of Old Providence

We were interested in the history of Providence and Santa Catalina so noted down gems of information we found around the islands. So, for those of you who are interested, this is what we gleaned, I wouldn't base your PhD on these 'facts' alone though.....

The islands were formed by an ancient volcanic mountain building phase during the Miocene period (23 to 5 Million years ago, which is pretty recent in geological time). Casting our fading memories back to our geology degrees we saw evidence of the volcanic eruptions that formed these lands, including crystallised lava flows, ash and pyroclastic deposits and lava bombs. We surmised, perhaps in error, that the volcano that created Providence and Santa Catalina was now extinct.

Those in the know say that the first humans to arrive around 400 years ago were Miskito Indians who navigated across from the Central American Caribbean coast in long dugout canoes.

Historians state that British sailors washed up on Providence in 1510 following a shipwreck. They named it Providence as it was due to God or nature that this land saved them from a watery death. The prefix of 'Old' was added later to distinguish the location from the Bahamas site of New Providence.

The Spanish captain Diego de Nicuesa and his expedition team discovered Santa Catalina on 25 Nov 1510 and San Andres 5 days later, giving them the names of Catholic saints corresponding to the dates the islands were discovered.  

San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina became recognisable navigational aides since their hills could be seen from afar warning any navigator of the surrounding barrier reefs.

History states that in1629 the first settlements were instated by the arrival of English Puritans from New England. The Puritan adventurers arrived on the Seaflower, the sister ship of the Mayflower which some 56 years previous had taken another group of British Puritans to Massachusetts.

The British returned many times to the islands. There is evidence to suggest that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe published in 1719 was inspired by a story of a castaway sailor that survived 8 years in the North Cays of the archipelago.

Old Providence served as a refuge for audacious buccaneers and pirates, many in search of adventure, fame and treasure. These desires, the protection of the British Crown and the mutual aim to fight the Spaniards brought the pirates and puritans together. Of notoriety was the famous pirate Henry Morgan (now mostly remembered by the rum of the same name), who used them as a base for his famous attack on Panama. Sir Henry Morgan was welsh and a colourful character, who was a pirate and an admiral of the Royal Navy. He is famous for raiding mostly Spanish settlements and was very successful.  

Around 1740 British colonisers with African slaves arrived from Jamaica and developed sugar cane and cotton plantations. English - Spanish wars ended in 1786. The islands became Spanish possession becoming part of Great Colombia and later Colombia after the Spanish colony’s independence.

Today on the island we found that there is not much patriotism towards Colombia, which hasn't ben particularly welcoming or supportive to the islanders traditions, culture and language. Many folks we talked too freely expressed strong sentiment that they wanted to be independent, and also wished they were still part of the Commonwealth like their neighbours the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. It is a unique place and we hope that Colombia embraces the wonderful diversity within its boarders.

Providence viewed from one of its small Cays or island outcrops

The remnants of Fort Warwick built to keep the Spanish at bay

Many of the older buildings in the main town have a colonial Caribbean feel to them

This was the Governor's House, now home to the local government and Mayors office

The walk through the forested Santa Catalina to find Morgan's Head is dotted with colourful images regarding the history and folklore of the islands

Rumour has it the treasure accumulated by the pirate Henry Morgan when he sacked Panama was brought back to Providence and his hidden somewhere on the island

Captain Morgan's ghost still walks the beaches of Providence, with his parrot on his shoulder a bottle of rum in one hand, a cutlass in the other and a girl under each arm

The famed Morgan's Head - I can't see it myself but apparently his nose fell off during a storm last year!!

The ghost of Henry Morgan?!

More guns to defend the narrow straits between Santa Catalina and Providence - the only safe harbour around the islands

Rocky islands called Cays appear on the northern and north-eastern sides of Providence

The waters around the islands allegedly contain 7 shades of blue - can you see them all?