If St Lucia is the prettiest island of the East Caribbean, then Dominica is the most unspoilt. A note, should you get to visit: Dominica is an island nation, slightly bigger than the Isle of Man and with a comparable population – about three hundred and sixty square miles, holding some seventy thousand people. It is pronounced with the stress on the third syllable – 'dom-in-EE-ca'. Do not confuse it with the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti but is the more orderly, better-run and less environmentally-degraded country on that island. People from that country are called Dominicans – 'do-MIN-icans.' People from the East Caribbean island nation are 'dom-in-EE-cans' and they don't like being mistaken for the Hispaniolans.
Some sixty percent of Dominica is intact rainforest and forty percent is in national parks. It's also home to a few thousand Carib indians – the largest surviving community in the whole area that bears their name. Elsewhere, they were either massacred by the French and English, killed by European diseases or gradually displaced by the descendants of slaves. Today, they live apart to a large degree – and they're working to preserve that. For instance, Carib men who intermarry with non-Carib women are not allowed to bring their foreign wives into Carib villages at night, reinforcing a degree of cultural isolation – although a significant number are now mixed-race.
Concerning the island's tiny capital, our ship's captain felt that a warning was in order: "Roseau does not welcome the independent traveller. What's more, it's a Sunday, and almost everything is closed, although a few shops and market stalls will be open for the tourist trade. Thirty minutes is more than enough to explore the town." It is not a large town, even by local standards, and there's little to see. He was dead right, "dead" being the operative word. I browsed the quayside market stalls and bought what elsewhere might be called a Hawai'ian shirt. Its print is loud, involving drums, fruit, parrots and whatnot, but it is black print on white – as close to monochrome as I could find.
As my mother is no longer very mobile, we opted for the Easy tour, as opposed to more adventurous outings such as kayaking, snorkelling, jungle hikes or inner-tube river rides. The guide pointed out some of the carved signs around the harbourside, erected to honour various people who helped to rebuilt the island after it was devastated by Hurricane David in 1979. One read, at the bottom, "THANK GOD THE FRENCH WERE ALSO HERE" – a curiously-phrased tribute, I thought.
Our minivan drove us high into the mountainous interior, stopping to point out coffee bushes, guava, calabash and cocoa trees and pineapple patches, all growing right by the road, plus occasional small banana plantations. It was all gratifyingly low-impact stuff, located in market gardens or along the edges of the road, with the forest pressing close and looking to be in fairly decent nick, all things being considered.
(Aside: you, my dear reader, are I am sure an educated, enlightened sort; you do know that pineapples grow on a short stalk emerging from the top of a low, rosette-shaped plant akin to an Aloe vera or an agave, don't you? I have met several folk recently who had conceived the notion that they grow on trees. (Insert standard comment about shocking decline in educational standards here.)
High in the spine of the island, slightly over towards the even lusher, wetter Atlantic side, we turned off the narrow winding road onto an unsurfaced road. Soon, we were following a grader as it ground along, levelling the surface, although despite the newness of the thoroughfare, there were multiple new houses either built, occupied or nearly finished along the sides, standing on plots hewn from the forest.
Eventually we got to Jaco Falls. A ramshackle collection of green-painted shacks to gladden a peace-freak's heart, festooned with rainbows and misspelled slogans about the world, the environment and nature, it was a real version of something from the Glastonbury festival or a thousand other eco-hippie gatherings. Among the stalls selling some groceries for the locals along with a slightly-better-than-average assortment of the usual handmade souvenirs and tchotchkes, we were offered free fresh forest fruit and fruit cocktails or rum punch. I went for the punch. It's aptly named. I suspect that the rum was the dominant ingredient. Fruity but very potent. I chased it down with a Kubuli beer, the local brew, which was as unassuming as any generic lager anywhere.
[Edit: going over this a second time, I discover that I misspelled the capital, Roseau, as "Rousseau", and the local beer as "Kibuli". The name "Kubuli" comes from the Carib name for the island: Wai'tu Kubuli.]
It was a careful climb down a steep and somewhat ramshackle flight of nearly a hundred steps down to the river at the base of Jaco Falls. No Angel Falls these – a narrow plume of water emerges over a cliff and drops some thirty or forty feet to a basin perhaps six or seven yards across. What moved me was the experience of standing in something close to virgin rainforest: the multi-layered leaf mosaic trapping all the direct sunlight, the continual drip of water from the leaves above, the mad profusion of plant life, with epiphytes everywhere – in some cases, plants growing on plants growing on other plants. Utterly glorious. Lovely places to visit, rainforests – if you don't mind being damp, are not bothered by miscellaneous creepy-crawlies and they either don't find you tasty or you can ignore them... but you wouldn't want to live there.
I clambered over the rocks and squatted to taste a handful of the river. I have to report that it tasted exactly like water, if perhaps a tad metallic. The last time I tasted a river was high in the hills above the Sulby valley in the Isle of Man. The water was browner but still tasted like water. Odd, that.
There are flowers everywhere here. In these latitudes, there is no single flowering or fruiting season, no spring or summer or winter. The days are always the same length – fifty-fifty night and dark – and there are just two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Some plants may specialise in reproducing during one or the other, and others may have their own specific periodicity, but at any point in the year, various species will be flowering and others finishing and setting seed – there is always something to eat, be you frugivorous or a nectar-feeder. By the same token, almost all plants will have some browning or falling leaves all the time – rather than the frozen north's one big leaf-drop, it is continual here, so there is a continuous supply and a resulting community of fungi and animals which specialise in living in and on leaf-litter.
Studying some of the flowers with what relics remain of my biologist's eye, there are various forms identifiable – shorter trumpets for moths and butterflies, longer trumpets for hummingbirds, open plants with protuberant anthers for bats and so on. And indeed careful inspection of as many flowering shrubs I could see from the van, soon afterwards, rewarded me with my life's first glimpse of a wild hummingbird.
After our visit to the waterfall, we returned to Roseau for a slightly more extended browse around the market stalls erected on the quayside and the couple of duty-free shops that were open. The latter puzzle me; is there really a big market for luxury leather goods, expensive watches (whose design screams the fact that they cost a lot to all who see them, itself a singularly good reason not to buy or wear one of them in my book) and imported alcohol and tobacco?
This stuff isn't aimed at British tourists, I think. I suspect they're after the American dollar. I commented as much outside when looking at a market stall whose colourful tropical shirts went up to XXXL. "In other words, 'we cater for American tourists',” I remarked, to the great amusement of the stallholder.
He had to ask, though. One of the things I find a little odd on these islands, given the general fluency of the locals in standard English – or at least, the ones who deal with the tourists much – is that people mostly can't tell Brit from Merkin by our accents. They have to ask.
Like in Castries, the dozen or so stalls all sell much the same stuff as each other (and come to that, as the stuff in St Lucia as well): souvenirs made from wood or seashells, a superfluity of T-shirts and colourful sun dresses, beaded necklaces, bracelets and other jewellery, sulphur soap, hats and caps including Ethiopian-coloured ones with fake dreadlocks, and so on. It's not a very classy array.
Cocoa tea sticks are a rarer item, although one stall has a whole array of spices. I comment on it and the stallholder, in perfect colloquial English, tells me how to make it, including cinnamon and nutmeg. I comment that I have these at home, it was just the cocoa stick itself I couldn't get. She asked me where I lived in London; when I said "south", she suggested the market in Brixton, where, it emerges, she used to live before she retired back home again. Apparently a fair few middle-aged émigré West Indians come back home after a decade or two in London; hoarded British savings permit one to build a good house here.
Also on the quayside were carved stone memorials to those people and countries who lent aid to the reconstruction efforts after Hurricane David in 1979. One, after listing several local and foreign dignitaries and organisations, ended with the line:
THANK GOD THE BRITISH WERE HERE
Now, in context, the one about the French also being there suddenly made sense.
Of course, these days, all the financial influence of the Europeans is being rapidly displaced by a newer, bigger power: the Chinese. The Chinese are apparently in the Eastern Caribbean in some force, building factories and industrial infrastructure, roads, jetties and much more besides. I passed a number of multilingual signs – in Chinese as well as English and sometimes French: "road works," "men at work" and so on. On Dominica, I also saw what initially looked like signboards but which were actually political sloganeering. One, for instance, criticised the construction of a new twenty-five-million-dollar presidential palace while local children were starving.
Apparently, much of the money for these large, high-ticket items comes from the Chinese. It's not entirely clear to me why they are doing it – locals told me that few Chinese people were to be seen out and about on the islands and they did not holiday there in significant numbers, although there were a growing number of Chinese shops and restaurants. Some of the islands were once agriculturally rich, but only in specialised tropical crops, chiefly sugar cane, which is no longer profitable enough to grow except in small quantities on Barbados and Antigua. Apart from this and tourism, the islands are really quite poverty-stricken and do not have any obvious resources which could be exploited.
I have to admit, at risk of sounding prejudiced or racist, that the Chinese presence smacks somewhat of staking a claim, or placing a foothold, for some sort of economic colonisation. The scale of local investment would seem to my uneducated eye to be a couple of orders of magnitude more than any current or apparent future profits that the Chinese businesses are making. I am aware of substantial investment by Chinese companies in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, where in order to facilitate resource extraction, Chinese companies are building roads, jetties, sea-ports, refineries and so on – and where local skills to construct these don't exist, they're also building schools and colleges and training locals in how to do these things. It's an impressive example of the sort of long-term thinking that's possible when you don't have to report back to shareholders or worry about re-election every few years.
I don't know what equivalent the less-exploited (and thus poorer) islands of the East Caribbean have to offer, though.
After an abbreviated coastal tour, we visited Dominica's national Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of Roseau. They are large and attractive, with some imposing trees. I had forgotten the size of seedpods in the tropics. I picked up half an empty pod that was approaching fifty centimetres long, with indentations from four-centimetre seeds. What is more impressive is that many of the trees are actually quite young – almost all the trees on the island are apparently under thirty years old. Hurricane David devastated the entire island, we were told, and flattened most buildings and mature trees. One example has been preserved – a flame tree that fell on a Canadian tourist coach parked up by one of the buildings in the gardens.
Later, we saw it. The tree survived. The coach didn't. The phrase "mature tropical tree" doesn't convey the right impression. The coach was squashed to a half a metre thick, if that, less like a beer can that had been trodden on and more like a can that's been hit squarely with a sledgehammer. The trunk is as wide as the coach; the edges of the vehicle protrude slightly from under the massive wooden bole, its wheels splayed like a flimsy plastic toy accidentally trodden upon. The tree, only slightly perturbed, has just curved its trunk around and recommenced upward growth, while some of its side-branches, now pointing upwards, are the size of substantial trees in their own right.
It was a scary, graphic illustration of scale – both of that of the tree, and of the power of the hurricane that pushed such a tree over. A tree that presumably had grown up for decades, perhaps centuries, with regular hurricanes and had withstood all previous ones.
Then it was back on the minibus for a precipitous drive up winding, steep, badly-maintained roads to a scenic overlook atop a cliff that commands the town, affording an excellent view of the only noteworthy building – the new sports stadium, mainly used for cricket and big enough to seat about half the island.
- - - - -
The Easy Dominica excursion over, we returned to the ship. The other thing that I'd really wanted to do while I was here was visit a famous dive site called Champagne Reef, which sits in shallow water atop a fault line where volcanic gases bubble up through the warm seawater. There was an organised excursion but the ship's reception desk told me that I'd missed its departure. Since we still had about four hours before sailing time, I asked about going on my own, to be told that it probably was not possible and that there was nowhere good to swim within easy reach of the port.
I decided to ask onshore, as the tourist office was right at the end of the quay. Walking down said quay, I found myself following a woman in her late thirties, wearing just a light shirt over a bikini and following two small boys carrying masks and snorkels. I asked if she was going for a dip and she replied that she and her kids were going on the Champagne Reef snorkelling excursion.
So much for P&O's advice and information.
It now being too late to join it, I asked the tourist office if I could get there on my own. "Sure," they told me, "no problem, it's only about 25min away by taxi. Cost you maybe fifteen dollars and it's two dollars to swim." As it happened, a tall handsome young Rastaman had followed me into the office and was keen (in a very laid-back sort of way, if that makes any sense) for my business. Indeed, he told me, he could also provide fins and a mask and snorkel if I needed them.
Since I had foolishly left my own in the UK, I accepted his offer.
Thirty-two dollars and a three-quarter-hour round-trip, with about four hours to go before the ship sailed. Plenty of time for a one-hour swim and still have a comfortable margin of error to return.
I went back about, switched to my swim shorts, left behind anything even vaguely worth stealing if left unattended on the beach, and hurried back.
Shy Guy, as the banner above his windscreen proclaimed him to be, was an excellent travelling companion. He spoke of the troubles of the local economy and how tourist season – from late December for the next four months – was just starting and would help. He also spoke about high unemployment and how many people couldn't be bothered to do anything to make money – but how on such an island, you didn't really need to if you didn't want to. Claim a plot of land, put up a shack, grow what food you need, sell any surplus for a little income for luxuries. If you have a house, rent out a room for a bit more. I told him how that was exactly what I did, and how I had just started my first job in four years.
He was taken aback. He didn't talk about any comparisons with richer countries – he didn't need to – but the thought of not working for four whole years amazed him. Lots of people were out of work on Dominica, he told me, but being out of work for as long as four months was exceptional. There were always odd or temporary jobs, and every six months, tourist season began again and there would be some work there if you wanted it – maybe rubbish jobs, painting or gardening, but if you really wanted or needed it, you could always find some work within three or four months. To be jobless for six months was unprecedented – he thought there probably were such people, but that was because they didn't really want to work.
And so, after a detour into the hilly interior because of road-works on the coastal road, we got to a slight widening at a turn in the road, he parked up and told me that we were there. Shacks on either side of the footpath held bars – one, inland, for tourists; one, by the sea, for locals. Two young local women sitting chatting at a table in the tourist bar took my two bucks and gave me an environmental waiver ticket permitting me to swim, then pointed me at a boardwalk that led across the narrow shingly shore out of sight along the rocky coast to the north.
I followed it, the only person on it, startling basking anoles, skinks and iguanas out of the way. (They're all kinds of lizard, by the way.)
After a few minutes, forest climbing the steep rocky hillside on my left, open blue sea and the occasional large boulder on my right, I got to a tiny rock-fringed shingle beach, with, naturally, some plump whites sunbathing and a local chap chilling out surrounded by towels, sunglasses and other kipple. He told me to just go on in and swim slightly north.
I donned my fins, spat into my mask, spread a layer of spittle over the glass and rinsed it, then tried and totally failed to walk over the rocks into the gentle surf. The guy on the rocks told me to just sit down, back into the water and swim out, which I tried and which worked perfectly, at the small price of leaving me feeling very foolish.
A metre offshore and the shingle gave way to bigger, static rocks, covered in a fine, waving mat of green algae. Fixed algae are the enemy of any reef – in shallow tropical waters, it's animals that live fixed to the bottom, predating upon tiny floating invertebrates, and the plants are microscopic and float free in the water, keeping it mainly clear. If green plants get a chance to colonise the bottom, because, for instance, human action has destroyed the coral directly, or overfished the area so there aren't enough grazers any more, or eutrophication from fertiliser runoff has led to an algal population explosion, then the bulk of the sedentary animals can't compete and the diversity of the ecosystem collapses drastically, leaving just grazing molluscs and a few pelagic fish.
I thought the algal mat was a bad sign, but I kept going. Further out, once the water depth got to a metre or two, I swam over large boulders and got to the “champagne reef” itself. Hundreds of invisible holes in the rocks gave forth plumes of bubbles – some tiny, like those of the airstones in a larger domestic aquarium; some bigger, with pea-sized bubbles, and some quite large, with marble- or broad-bean-sized bubbles streaming up into the water column, fluttering towards the surface. As the surface was brightly-lit with direct near-vertical equatorial sunshine, the bubbles were brilliantly lit and perfectly mirrored, shining brilliantly like mercury droplets magically possessed by antigravity.
The reef lived up to and even exceeded its publicity. It was a magical experience. The high levels of gases in the water dissuade a lot of the animals, leaving algae and some reef fish and a few sponges, but the overall milieu is just amazing. The gas bubbles spring forth from a relatively small area – probably only a couple of hundred square feet, if that – and beyond that area, the reef life is much more diverse.
I swam further round the coast and a little further out over slightly deeper waters. The area is a rocky reef, not some Technicolor coral reef such as you might see on an Attenborough natural history programme, but it teems with animal life: brain corals, sea fans, sponges, gorgonians, big black spiny urchins in crevices, hundreds of anemones everywhere, wrasse and parrotfish and groupers. In the sandy gaps between rocks, flatfish scurried between hiding places, while in the cooler deeper water, in five to ten meters or more, small barracuda moved like thrown knives, idling through the water with feigned casualness, fooling no-one.
I swam around purposelessly, just exploring, floating around and over large free-standing boulders, encrusted with sessile animals. I spotted something with what looked like tentacles hiding in a crevice, which I was not inclined to to try experimentally poking. I spotted the implausibly elongated thin white feeding tentacles of some invisible tubeworms, scattered around crevices like silly string sprayed by some submarine partier.
I found the boat party from the ship, floating in a tight group on the surface with dayglo yellow lifejackets around their shoulders, mostly heads-up listening to their guide, a slim, muscular young local, clad (redundantly, it seemed to me) in a black wetsuit. He floated among his charges, much like a mother duck, leading them into up-ending, dunking their heads and looking around at what was below. Occasionally, he would describe some feature of particular interest, then dive down to the bottom, point at it, then arrow back up to the surface. I'd spotted and identified most of these things myself already, so I didn't hang around with the nervous flock, some of whom looked uncomfortable to be floating above a three or four metre or more water column with things swimming around underneath them.
I tried to go down to the bottom myself a few times, unencumbered by a lifejacket or other floatation device, but I was surprised how difficult it was – on the one hand, how much effort was required – more on this later – and secondly by how quickly my ears started to creak with the pressure as I dove and how quickly they became significantly painful.
In open water above a sandy part of the bottom, I swam along looking ahead rather than down, both literally and metaphorically struck by the sunbeams lancing down through the water to the white, rippled sand. I headed out, away from the shore, into the deeper, cooler waters, above ten metres or so, the bottom there just a murky blur below me, hoping for a turtle and then starting to wonder about sharks.
I felt powerful and confident until it occurred to me that, with no timepiece, I had no idea of how long I'd been out. My confident strokes and powerful kicking immediately stopped feeling so powerful or confident as I turned toward the shore and tried to get back, my right knee clicking painfully with each click and left calf starting to warn of incipient cramp and making me nervous. I slowed my pace, put more effort into my arms and soon was back. The shore guard consulted his large and impressive watch and told me the time.
All that was only half an hour? Amazing!
I rinsed my mask again, took a two-minute breather than then turned and swam back out to the middle-depths for a closer look. The main surprise – and disappointment – was how little depth I can tolerate. It was just too painful to dive more than a few metres deep; my ears simply can't take it. I hovered in clear water, looking at the bottom only three or four metres away, a modest distance that I am easily strong enough to reach and where I have more than enough breath to stay for a few minutes, but I feared bursting my eardrums.
So instead, on this second half of my little excursion, I stiffened my wavering resolve into going further out, but there really wasn't much to see – there was much less bottom life in the deeper waters. Even in modest depths, the impact of increasing depth was very visible in just seven or eight metres. (I ought to insert a disclaimer that I'm an inexperienced snorkeller and these are just wild guesses as to depth.) Out past that point, to perhaps ten or twelve metres' depth, there was nothing to see except lurking darkness between bands of paler sand, and the water was notably cooler. I started to feel very out of my element, and with there being much less to see, I turned and kicked for the shallows again. The currents had carried me a little further along the coast to less-disturbed regions of the reef, with deep crevasses between the outcrops, over which I soared like a bird. I gave in to compulsion, extended my arms like wings and hooted "wheeeee" down my snorkel.
Just a few dozen metres from the beach, where fewer people swim, the animal life is less used to humans. I found myself part of a school, hovering amid clouds of tiny reef fish, quite unafraid of me, darting in to inspect my extended fingers.
Suddenly, I understood why two friends, the good doctors Trafford and Clegg (that is childeric and steer ), both recent converts to SCUBA diving, this August bank holiday skipped the Infest music festival we've all attended for the last decade, just to go inland diving in England. To get the skills to go solo SCUBA, to be free to explore this amazing, alien, beautiful environment, is a wonderful thing, worth considerable expense and sacrifice.
It made me wonder if my damaged body – my creaking ears and creaking knee, my now-resolved asthma (rendered historical by twenty-first-century drugs) and poor eyesight (no longer an issue thanks to disposable contact lenses) will ever permit me to try it? Because I simply have to. I just must.
Then it was time to return. I swam back, almost exactly one hour after I'd entered, slightly tired and very elated. I towelled off, made my way back along the boardwalk to Shy Guy's immaculate minivan – but he was nowhere in sight. Another local said, "you lookin' for Shy Guy?"
"HEY! SHY GUY! YOUR CUSTOMER BACK! WAKE UP!"
Shy Guy emerged from the waterside bar, his shades and cultivated cool almost hiding his flusteredness, gushing apologies: "I dint see you! How was it? Good?"
"It. Was. Fucking. AMAZING."
He grinned widely and laughed. "Ha! Glad to hear it. I like your choice of adjective, man."
"That was one of the top three or four best hours of my entire life so far. And I have spent some good hours."
"Wow, really? That's what I like to hear. But only in the top three?"
"Well, yeah, but the others mostly involved naked women. Or snow. Or seawater. And that very probably beats both surfing and snowboarding."
We chatted on the way back.
I had to ask him about the van. He was clearly concerned that I was going to sit in it in my damp shorts - I didn't take a swimming costume - so I made a point of sitting on my folded towel, it in turn placed on an unfolded plastic carrier bag. I made some comment about the van - car - truck - minibus? - being new.
"Oh, no, man," he responded, "this is a 2001."
"But it looks like new!" I exclaimed.
"Well, a man ought to take pride in his ride. I like to keep it nice. And, you know, having your car looking good, it's like an advertisement, you know? If there's a bunch of tourists coming up to the quay or something, they're gonna go for the vehicle that looks clean and well-maintained and new, right?"
As we drove through the several small towns between the reef area and Roseau, I couldn't help but notice the poverty. And yet, while on the one side of the road, beyond the shacks, was glittering deep blue sea, and on the other side, mountainsides covered in rainforest. Despite what seemed to me – at this early stage – as a very considerable population of some seventy or eighty thousand people, Dominica is really remarkably unspoiled.
I asked if Shy Guy had dived on the reef. “Oh yeah,” he said casually, “loads o' times, man. It's beautiful.”
Hesitantly, I raised my next thought with him.
“You know, I can't help but compare this with Africa, where I grew up as a boy.” He asked and I described where I'd lived and when. “The thing is, so much of this is really familiar to me. You have some of the same plants, crops, products in the shops; your food and drink and music and everything are in many ways very similar. And yet, you know, although Nigeria has oil, it has nothing to compare to this. Here, you have beauty, this gorgeous unspoiled island, you have the sea and of course money from tourists like me.”
He agreed, giving me a quizzical glance.
I was fearful, but I had to say it.
“You know, it was a terrible, evil thing when my ancestors took your ancestors prisoner, enslaved them and bought them here to grow sugar cane and so on... But you know what? I've lived in the place that your people came from, or somewhere near. It's sometimes called 'the white man's grave'. It is an amazing, wonderful place, but it has nothing to compare with this. I hate to say it, but I think you are better off here. I mean, it's not so different from where your ancestors lived in terms of climate and so on – but this place is so much more beautiful.”
I was, frankly, scared that I might cause offence, but Shy Guy struck me as someone not to easily take umbrage. I think I was right. He grinned and laughed at me. “Yeah,” he said. “you might be right. I mean, if you gotta be poor somewhere, you might as well be poor in paradise, right?”
- - - - -
I returned to the ship and went to cool off in the "endless pool", followed by – rather than the formal four-course dinner my mother prefers – an eat-as-much-as-you-like Indian dinner in the buffet restaurant aboard. They even had bottled Cobra. For me, that was close to a perfect ending to a perfect day.