Topic: Extreme Dominica
Trip date: December 14th, 2004 - January 8th, 2005
By Claudia Belleau
I have come to Coconut Beach in Dominica, the Nature Isle volcanically spit and shaped in the Lesser Antilles, to spend Christmas holidays with my spouse Captain Tom. The island suffered the only major earthquake in its history-6.5 on the Richter, out 10 kilometers from the east coast ?at 6 a.m. on Sunday, November 21st, 2004, shortly after his arrival on November 20th. It rocked the place awake, a cacophony of people running into the street, as it blew the steeple off the Catholic Church hours before the first service, crushing the blessedly empty Methodist bus, leaving a pile of rubble. The cement houses, skywhite or lime bright, withstood. The aftershock lasted for days: Tom wondered if his hand was shaking on the doorknob or if his room was still trembling.
?This is the second-most mountainous country in the world? a native son, returning to visit after garnering an MBA and a Baptist bible in Missouri, tells me. The airplane arcs, angles, and circles the 29 x 16 range of rainforest, swamp, and black sand before touching down at Melville Hall.
Tom drives the jeep through a winding, narrow cliff road on an island where landmarks are designated by their color or position ?right of the pink house?, ?at the top of the hill?. Although I?m occupied on the cell phone trying to find my waylaid bags, I?m overwhelmed with vibrant signs of life?coconut palms, banana trees, and vibrant tropical green fern, leaf, and fruit jamming for space . A solitary cow grazes, her ribs jutting out. There are more of these underfed critters, joined by foraging goats and dogs. The shanty lean-to?s, built of corrugated tin and open-air space, shelter playing children, old men smoking, a clutch of moms and kids.
We see mudslides, evidence of loose rocks, yawing stretches of space where there once was land. Highway crews are cleaning up the hard-hit east side of the island . The landscape defies this scruffy muddle of daily life, calling to the spirit of the islanders who exist epically in full frontal of the horizon of paradise. The magnificence of perpetually clouded summits on rainforest hills meeting the sea becomes magical when the rainbow swaths the sky with its daily, misty double exposure of reality.
Portsmouth town is divided by the Indian River, hosts Ross Medical School, offers an industrial maritime beachfront and a collision of narrow streets mirroring British history. This deepwater port once harbored both Columbus? ships and Yankee whalers. Yachts and tall ships with international flags, commercial vessels loading bananas, cruise ships- flooding the island with tourists darting to waterfall or market on speeding buses- are moored in sight of Cabrits National Park.
The squad of hawkers and tour guides have supplanted the tribe of original inhabitants. These Carib Indians were relocated to the Central Forest Reserve south of the villages we?ve grazed whose French names correspond to their purpose: Dos d?Ane--Donkey?s Back-- La Source, Bornes (milestones). This Carib territory is distinct. It is still taboo to allow non-Carib men to live in the area for more than a few visiting days. Carib women who marry outside their clan must leave the region.
The mountains here, Morne aux Diables and Morne Diablotins to the south, are verdantly green, yet ?morne? evokes dismal, denotes dreary. Could this signify the reported murders of the Carib chiefs as Dominca was tossed between the English and French colonists, or the purported untimely ends to unfaithful spouses by enforced ?jumps? from the cliffs ?
The quake aftermath impacts the people visibly in the serious demeanor of the celebrants at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. The service is held at the Portsmouth Market, an open-air space, roof held up by columns, by the low seawall barricading the streets from the Caribbean Sea. Tonight the market is a temple. The storage containers by the seawall stand silent sentinels; rows of folding chairs face the altar decorated simply by a palm at the base. A half-dozen servers sit ready at the back of the altar. Panels of linens strung on line form the back ?wall?, blown by the breeze which foreshadows the nightly rain.
The choir, standing facing the altar from the seawall side, raises melodious voice in an hour of prayerful song. The lilting Dominican accent threads through the Anglicized words. Deep African faces, straight Carib hair and bones, attune the voice and attitude of the season. 80% of Dominicans are Black.
The kiss of peace is a respectful handshake or hug; folk in elaborate straw hats and polyester tropical prints exchange blessings. Community is born over coffee and cake sold to rebuild the church; kinship pours into and up onto King George Street where many youth sit watching, waiting.
? Babylon,? some say, anticipating only another day in a nation where the average wage is $1700 US per year.
The last strains of ?Joy to the world? recessional die out in the night which gives nothing up but the exchange of air for the sweat of its people.
Ritual in Dominica is embedded in the daily rhythm of life as the same tasks are repeated with deliberate attention to detail. Hiking is our ritual, and we set out on Christmas morning to find Syndicate Falls, one of the crescendo of cascades testing the ability to forge streams, to use roots and rocks as footholds. Our desire to trek eight hours to Boiling Lake, the cauldron of volcanic steam, has been foiled; it?s stopped boiling since the quake. We use our local knowledge to find the Falls : it?s by the mango tree, near the pineapple field, close to the small shack.
We spot the banana-green shack used by harvesters of the same. I?m compelled to pick grapefruit from the countless felled from the trees by sheer weight and wind. We arrive at a crossroads, bearing always right through a narrow trail cut between groves of bananas, oranges heavy as grapefruit. The dirt-stained man in high, black boots, cutting down his Christmas share of plantains with a machete directs us to the correct path which is back again, off the ?highway?, itself no more than a narrow, paved road up the mountain.
?They raise the price on bananas, but I get peanuts?, he states simply. My waterproof hiking boots become muddy, and I think of barefoot natives harvesting in the rainy season.
Driving Dominica is an exercise in dexterity. Legend states that Columbus, when asked about the topography of the island by Queen Isabella, crumpled a balled piece of paper and dropped it to the ground. The reflexes of a jaguar, the presensing sonar of a bat, and an eagle-eye are foundation for survival on these erratically twisting roads filled with continuous curves, unforeseen flora thrust in your face as you navigate the narrow coastal road.
Many Dominicans do not drive at all, preferring to take the ?transports? from village to village, or to walk those miles in an effort which keeps them solidly fit from navigating steep slopes. People lived in villages linked by mule transport until the first road was built in the 1950?s. Dominicans have been driving only for decades, and approach the wheel of their favored Toyota, Nissan, or Mitsubishi with the abandon of teenagers. It?s not unusual to find them in the middle of roads with no yellow midlines, swerving to avoid potholes marring the road every ten feet or so, cutting the air between as they whiz by. The Astaphan department store trucks delivering home goods throughout the island, the industrial trucks barreling down the road from Roseau to Portsmouth, shake cars in their passing. Being bumped into a ditch could mean a fall hundreds of feet into a gorge. Horns are used coming `round the bends, replaced yearly if possible.
Many have pimped their rides with tags announcing their intentions: Jah Peace, Scummy, Powerblaster. They affix the stick-on banners at the top of their windshields with the same showiness which scrawls ?puppies for sale? or ?2-PAC ?on the walls on homes.
The many pedestrians carrying loads on their heads is a strikingly unexpected yet somehow natural. Folks with cans of cola for a whale watch, bananas, groceries, the old woman at the police station with her attache case of papers balanced upright?they are balanced, unwavering.
One of the guys fills me in on a trick: you can ball up your tee shirt and put it on your head, underneath, for grounding, like yoga exercise where the salute to the sun seems insufficient, the serpent a mere metaphor, and the cat a warmup to what walking this knotty jungle calls for in dexterity.
I hear the creatures that inhabit Dominica through my string of island nights: the `mountain chickens? croaking, prolific as the ban on using them as food protects humans from their parasites. The hummingbirds, the rainforest insects, the sand crab tapping gently on my window are here on my portside, the constant starboard surf lulling me to sleep with a constellation of codes I must decipher before I can navigate this complex new world.
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at 3:59 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 21 January 2010 9:42 PM EST