Dominica, part 1

We have been in Dominica for a little over a week. Dominica is a small island in the Windward Islands of the lesser Antilles and is locally called “the nature island”. Please note this is not the Dominican Republic and the name is pronounced Doh-min-EE-kuh. Part of what makes this a fascinating place is the history. Dominica is geologically one of the newest islands in the Caribbean and has the highest concentration of volcanoes anywhere. In its 290 square miles there are 9 volcanoes; each year the South American plate is subducted 2 centimeters under the Caribbean plate. None of the volcanoes are active but small earthquakes are common and the island is covered with hot springs, cold springs,  and steaming fumaroles. (In our shared taxi from the airport we rode with a volcanologist who has been working in the Caribbean for decades and was on Monserrat when the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted.) The topography is quite steep and jagged and is covered with lush tropical jungle.

Looking across the crater we live in. The far ridge is the other side, the near ridge was formed after the explosion.

Looking across the crater we live in. The far ridge is the other side, the near ridge was formed after the explosion.

On the human front, Dominica is home to the only concentration of pre-Columbian people in the eastern Caribbean. The Kalinago people came here in canoes from the Orinoco River in South America. The story goes that they didn’t deny early colonialist’s claims that they were cannibals and fought fiercely to keep their land. Between the Kalinago “cannibals” and the intimidating landscape, Europeans were not too anxious to build massive settlements on the island. However, the French and British repeatedly fought for control through the 18th century. The culture today is influenced by French, British, West African (imported as slaves), and the Kalinago. Many slaves who were brought over escaped and set up camps deep in the interior mountains. Given all the resistance and the very small percentage of whites, British controlled Dominica was granted emancipation in 1834! Dominica became a fully independent country in 1978.

Our apartment, in the bottom level. Our hosts live upstairs.

Our apartment, in the bottom level. Our hosts live upstairs.

We have rented a little apartment for a month, complete with everything we need to pretend we live here. We are on the very southern tip of the island, which is quite narrow. The Atlantic is literally a stone’s throw and I can hear the waves against the rocky shore as I write this. By walking out to the road, you can see the Caribbean side, and the very tip of the island where the ocean meets the sea. (Being friendly neighbors they “wave” a constant greeting to each other.) Our hosts daily deliver a bottle of freshly squeezed juice and it is often accompanied by several pieces of fruit. Outside our door is a garden with fruit trees and tropical flowers. So far, we have enjoyed grapefruit, mango, papaya, passionfruit, bananas, tamarind, gooseberries, something called an “apricot” that is only like our apricots in that is has pits and orange flesh. Given that we are making the majority of our meals, we’ve had fun exploring the local market and seeing both familiar and unfamiliar produce. The soil here appears to be very fertile. Unlike in Puerto Rico, everything we’ve gotten is grown on the island.

The village we live in, Scott's Head. Our roof is a red one, very close to the right edge, just above the dense concentration of houses.

The village we live in, Scott’s Head. Our roof is a red one, very close to the right edge, just above the dense concentration of houses.

The village we live in (Scott’s Head) is a small fishing village. It is a simple life. Fishermen go out to sea in 20-foot open boats that resemble a canoe more than most fishing boats. Every afternoon, you can see spear-fishers swimming back and forth. Most days, someone has strung a net up between trees or porch posts and is repairing it. They drop Z-traps made out of sticks and strung tight with homemade net onto the ocean’s floor. We have partaken in this by eating fresh fish and gone snorkeling. There seems to be a clear and amicable agreement of boundaries between the fishermen and a national marine reserve. We can walk to a snorkeling site in less than 10 minutes and multiple other sites are a short bus ride away. The southern part of the island is an old volcanic crater, which means that the Caribbean here is very deep close to the shore. We’ve swum out over coral reefs to the edge of the abyss, where all you can see is the deepest blue below you and shimmers of fish schools moving through it. It is beautiful! Some other highlights of our snorkeling have been seeing an electric ray, a spotted sea snake, very large brightly colored corals, and swimming in small schools of fish.

Fishing boats and a Z trap

Fishing boats and a Z trap

Hiking is another tourist attraction here. Two years ago, they completed a trail that runs from the south to the north of the island, a total of 115-miles. It is called the Waitukubuli National Trail and goes right by our house! Parts of the trail are on existing roads, parts follow Jeep tracks, parts follow trails built over 100 years ago, and parts were newly constructed as trails to link it all together. We hiked up the first four miles. Much of it is quite steep, climbing the steps built into the trail. Even on a hot day, you are shaded in the jungle and fruit trees are common along the trail. The first stretch is particularly rough because the trail was washed out in three places in December during a storm. The washouts are remarkable and look more like they were cut by a bulldozer than by rocks due to the near vertical edges and flat bottom. Local famers use the trail to get to their fields, so we found a make-shift trail at each wash out allowing us to get by. After our rocky climb, we were able to look down steeply onto Scott’s Head below us.

View from the top of the ridge looking back down at Scott's Head and the southern tip of the island

View from the top of the ridge looking back down at Scott’s Head and the southern tip of the island

Where the trail washed out

Where the trail washed out

The first night we arrived, our taxi driver pulled over so we could watch the sunset and everyone in the car saw the green flash!

The first night we arrived, our taxi driver pulled over so we could watch the sunset and everyone in the car saw the green flash!

Roseau, the capital and largest city in Dominica. The white vans are all buses.

Roseau, the capital and largest city in Dominica. The white vans are all buses.

Our neighborhood in Scott's Head

Our neighborhood in Scott’s Head

One night while waiting for our dinner at a local "restaurant", this kid (Austin Judge) just sat down at the table, pulled out his cards and started instructing us how to play. He was full of enthusiasm and not afraid to call JIm out for attempted cheating.

One night while waiting for our dinner at a local “restaurant”, this kid (Austin Judge) just sat down at the table, pulled out his cards and started instructing us how to play. He was full of enthusiasm and not afraid to call JIm out for attempted cheating.

The jungle around here has some amazing trees. This one has huge buttressed roots.

The jungle around here has some amazing trees. This one has huge buttressed roots.

The hiking trail in a rare level place

The hiking trail in a rare level place

Hitchhiking is common and safe around here. One day our host saw us on the road and gave us a ride back up the hill in the back of her pick-up.

Hitchhiking is common and safe around here. One day our host saw us on the road and gave us a ride back up the hill in the back of her pick-up.

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Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

We just finished 10 days in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Us and many other tourists.

A classic view of old San Juan

A classic view of old San Juan

Old San Juan is on an island, with the heart of town being about 7 by 12 blocks. The oldest house was built in 1524 and is where Juan Ponce de Leon’s family lived for 250 years! The age of the city can be seen everywhere. The narrow cobblestone streets are paved with materials carried over as ships’ ballast in the time of colonization. Buildings are either turning to rubble or lovingly restored and painted vibrant pastel colors. In addition to nearly 500 years passing, these buildings have survived wars and hurricanes. We never tired of walking around and looking at the art of architecture: inviting balconies, hallways that allow a glimpse of a green dark interior courtyard, elaborate crown moulding, shuttered windows showing high-ceilinged indoor living spaces. Some buildings have collapsed to the point of losing their roofs; one was gutted completely and turned into a private park with exterior walls. Each open window or door provides a view into another world.

A building left to decay

A building left to decay

San Juan exists where it does because it was a strategic location for the Spanish to control entrance to a large harbor that many boats used as the first or last stop in an Atlantic crossing for resupplies and fresh water. Ultimately, Puerto Rico and San Juan specifically were seen as the key to control of the Americas. To that end, the Spanish built heavy fortifications around the city. In fact, old San Juan is within the fort’s protective walls. We toured the two large forts on either side of old San Juan, both run by the National Park Service. They included tunnels, very thick walls, worn staircases, sentinel watchtowers, old cannons, musket demonstrations, and lots of other tourists.

A view out of a sentinel post from one fort across the island with the other fort in the distance

A view out of a sentinel post from one fort across the island with the other fort in the distance

One part of what we are doing with this year of travel is seeing if we can find a better place to live than Portland. San Juan is complicated. On the plus side, people are incredibly sweet and generous. It’s beautiful and the ocean is close by. We found public beaches we visited to be clean, have areas with lifeguards, have fresh-water rinse showers, and good snorkeling. The public buses are cheap at 75 cents a ride but it is nigh impossible to find a route map or schedule and it isn’t uncommon to wait an hour for a bus. Our guide book said Puerto Rico has more cars per square mile than anywhere in the world and we saw awesome traffic back-ups on the one-lane streets in San Juan. Despite the size and accessibility of old San Juan, pedestrians only get about 30 inches for a sidewalk. Tourists pour into San Juan via cruise ships a couple times a week. With two boats in, we found it hard to walk down the narrow sidewalks never mind get a table at a restaurant. It is great for the economy, provides many jobs, and momentarily lessens the quality of life for residents. Our Airbnb host told us that the country has an unemployment rate of 16%, that a majority of the population is elderly, and there are few job prospects outside San Juan. We attended a wonderful small farmers’ market with local produce, bread, and flowers. However, 80% of the food consumed on the island is imported; many plantations sit fallow. Two ways that San Juan is ahead of Portland are 1) banning smoking in public places and 2) creating a culture where people only take their dogs to places that are appropriate for dogs and always clean up after their dogs. In short, it is complicated; there is so much potential and those who are working for change sometimes battle “island time.”

Only about 20 vendors at this small weekly farmers' market but it was bustling!

Only about 20 vendors at this small weekly farmers’ market but it was bustling!

One of the highlights of our time in Puerto Rico was joining hundreds of families on the weekend to fly kites. Children were so excited they were running in circles and jumping for joy. Grandparents were teaching the art of getting and keeping a kite up. Parents brought picnics and spent the afternoon. Many kites were homemade from sticks, paper, and plastic. It was refreshing to see so many people partaking in one of the simplest joys. They didn’t need loud music, electronic toys, nor alcohol; this was good old clean family fun. We found an abandoned kite and Megan tried her hand at flying it. After the string broke twice, we realized why it had been left behind. In fact, many light poles were flying swaths of kite-less string; we weren’t the only ones who had a kite that got away.

Families spread out all day on the lawns outside El Morro to fly kites

Families spread out all day on the lawns outside El Morro to fly kites

Cobblestones made from the materials in ships' ballast many years ago

Cobblestones made from the materials in ships’ ballast many years ago

Relaxing in the shade

Relaxing in the shade

Our Airbnb was the top floor of this building. We ate dinner on the corner deck.

Our Airbnb was the top floor of this building. We ate dinner on the corner deck.

Vibrant night life along Paseo de la Princesa

Vibrant night life along Paseo de la Princesa

Megan holds her ears while volunteers demonstrate shooting muskets

Megan holds her ears while volunteers demonstrate shooting muskets

La Perla is an infamous slum in old San Juan. We found a sweet photography exhibit in their community center

La Perla is an infamous slum in old San Juan. We found a sweet photography exhibit in their community center

View from our hostel balcony, the other place we stayed in old San Juan.

View from our hostel balcony, the other place we stayed in old San Juan.

A sentinel post. See if you can find something fishy going on!

A sentinel post. See if you can find something fishy going on!

Sailing in the British Virgin Islands

We just finished a week of glorious sailing in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). If you are unfamiliar with BVI, it is a collection of islands just east of Puerto Rico. The smallest islands are big rocks and the largest have small towns and roads; many are uninhabited. The scenery is beautiful: hilly islands covered in verdant growth, white sand beaches, and sparking blue waters. The water is clear so visibility is quite good, which makes for excellent snorkeling and diving. BVI is a popular place for sailing due to the warm weather, steady cooling trade winds, and close proximity of the islands (you can get to the next island in an hour and to the farthest island in a short day). We chartered a 38 foot catamaran for a week with our friends, Sven and Eva.

On our boat, Kama Hele

On our boat, Kama Hele

Here are a few highlights from our week:

– Despite her propensity for motion sickness, Megan didn’t get sea sick the entire time. Yay!

– Being on a boat provides a tremendous amount of freedom. We had the ability to see an interesting place, read in the cruising guide to see if it was a safe place to anchor, and drop in to visit. Multiple times, we did this and then swam to the shore and explored the beach. One time, we found a half dozen gorgeous large conch shells. Another time, we found an old salt pond and a path that led to the other side of the island. With a willing suspension of disbelief, we became explorers in a new land.

– Snorkeling. We swam every day and slipped on the snorkeling mask to see what we could see. The best snorkeling was in a sheltered bay where we didn’t have to navigate waves nor other snorkelers as we were the only ones in the water. Large coral heads held a wealth of life: territorial fish, bright red crabs, a reef shark, fish in all shapes and colors, giant purple coral fans, black and red sea urchins, and so much more. Before climbing back onto the boat, we found a small school of large pelagic fish lazily circling deep under the shadow of the boat.

– Time with Sven and Eva. We shared good conversation, many jokes, meal preparation, storytelling, and taking each others’ pictures.

Swedes getting some sun

Swedes getting some sun

– Before leaving Portland, multiple people told us “you have to go to The Baths!” It did not disappoint. The Baths is a spot on the shore with giant (up to 40 foot) round boulders dotting the sand. You can clamber in and around the boulders, which resemble slot canyons and caves at times. You can also snorkel among them and get the experience of a wall as a snorkeler. The best part for us was the view from the hill above the baths. We enjoyed breakfast one morning in a restaurant perched on top of a boulder pile, overflowing with many-colored bougainvillea, and looking out over the blue sea and islands with many white sails.

View from above The Baths

View from above The Baths

– Settling into this new phase of life where the time of day doesn’t matter, an afternoon nap can be the norm, and fleece layers are a distant memory.

Conch shells we found on the beach in BVI

Conch shells we found on the beach in BVI

 

The beach is main street on this little island, Jost Van Dyke

The beach is main street on this little island, Jost Van Dyke

Megan at the helm

Megan at the helm