Goodbye, Dominica!

Houses on the outskirts of Gallion, overlooking the Caribbean. Typically, even these remote small houses are tended with pride and care.

Houses on the outskirts of Gallion, overlooking the Caribbean. Typically, even these remote small houses are tended with pride and care.

As our time in Dominica has come to an end, we want to share some general reflections and specific tales of our last week plus. Overall, we had a wonderful time. Dominica is beautiful due to the topography and jungle cover. People appear happy and have a high quality of life regardless of the prevailing low income level. Public services are comprehensive (free potable water, free primary and secondary school, sanitation services, universal health is almost in place, and electricity is common). The crime rate is the lowest in the Caribbean. The real jewel of Dominica, as we see it, is that everyone is growing food. There is no agribusiness but there are hundreds and hundreds of small subsistence farms. Many families grow all their own produce. Eating local isn’t a fad, it is how you survive here and have for generations.

We hired KG to take us hiking one day. He had to clear the trail with his machete, he did the whole thing in slippers, and filled his little camelbak with the water of two green coconuts before we hit the trail.

We hired KJ to take us hiking one day. He had to clear the trail with his machete, he did the whole thing in slippers, he wore his knit hat the whole time despite it being 85 degrees, and filled his little camelbak with the water of two green coconuts before we hit the trail.

Dominicans have a complex creole heritage mixing cultures from Europe, particularly France, the indigenous Kalinago and West Africa. The result is a high Roman Catholic church attendance (80%) that coexists with myths and taboos that seem fantastic to the outsider…. The Soukouyan is a female witch. You can protect yourself from one by carrying garlic. A Loogawoo can turn itself into an animal. In human form, you can identify them on the street as they will not pass you on their left. When a Loogawoo dies, it rains all day. To ward off evil spirits and for healing potions you can seek out medicine from the nearest Obeah, a practitioner of folk magic and sorcery. My favorite is the Jumbies. They are evil forest spirits that attack after dark. To ward them off simply curse them or their mother. You can also take your shoes off, place them on the ground backwards and sit on them, wear you shirt backwards and place dirt on your head. I asked a 20-year-old local guide if he had encountered jumbies. He said a year ago, one flew up in front of him as he walked home in the dark. To make his escape he ran home.

The shallow ledge we were able to snorkel out to when the conditions where just right and where we saw an octopus.

The shallow ledge we were able to snorkel out to when the conditions where just right and where we saw an octopus.

One of the daily highlights of our time in Dominica was the snorkeling. As we gained more familiarity with the current and wave patterns (and talked to more locals about their experiences) ,we became bolder and explored farther. On calm mornings, we could swim out to where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet and view a large shallow shelf filled with coral and fish. It was stunning and one morning an octopus quietly revealed itself sunning in the shallows and let us watch for at least 10 minutes. We also snorkeled farther and farther distances, one day traversing over 2 miles along the coast (from Scott’s Head to Champagne Reef). In the middle of that swim, we came across a very large number of fish schooling. En masse, they created a solid wall blocking out all sunlight and filling the sea from the surface to the ocean floor, which was about 30 feet deep. We observed five 24-inch jacks preying upon them. We continued to watch this beautiful mass of silver bodies until they swarmed around and under us; our best estimate was that there were 1-2 million fish making up that school. Words are unable to do justice.

"La maison" at Bois Cotlette Estates. History buffs can read up more and see a picture of this building 100 years ago here: http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/article.cfm?id=386

“La maison” at Bois Cotlette Estates. History buffs can read up more and see a picture of this building 100 years ago here: http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/article.cfm?id=386

On an afternoon hike, we stumbled upon an information sign for an old estate, called Bois Cotlette. We followed our noses and ended up meeting an American couple that bought this estate two years ago. The land was first cultivated in the 1740s and was a plantation for sugar, coffee, cacao, and lime at various points in time. They have done a remarkable job of presenting (and preserving) the ruins that make up the various buildings associated with the plantation. It was quite beautiful and allowed us to learn more about the    history of the island.

Boiling Lake with a view of the erupting bubbles in the middle

Boiling Lake with a view of the erupting bubbles in the middle

Dominica proudly claims the second largest boiling lake in the world. However, few Dominicans have seen this lake because the trail is a physically challenging route with steep steps, slippery mud, spitting fumaroles, and numerous stream crossings. Guides advise you will travel at about one mile an hour between the leg workout and the views, which makes the 8 mile hike an all-day event. We got to walk through elfin woodlands, rainforest, sulphur deposits; we heard one of the native parrots; we saw both the Atlantic and Caribbean from the middle of the island; we rested our muscles in a trailside hot mineral stream; and we saw a boiling lake. The lake is about 200 feet across and in the center a rolling boil erupts in large bubbles constantly. At the viewpoint 100 feet above the lake, we were bathed in hot steam. It was awesome!

Kalinago Barana Aute where buildings are made using the traditional methods

Kalinago Barana Aute where buildings are made using the traditional methods

We previously mentioned that Dominica has a population of Carib Indians. They prefer to be called their self-given name “Kalinago.” We visited the Kalinago Territory (a bit like an Indian Reservation in the States, this is the tiny parcel of land the invading Europeans finally agreed to not take from them) and saw a model village that has traditional buildings, cooking implements, boats, etc. We learned that the word “Carib” means cannibal and the early European explorers believed they were cannibals due to their custom of keeping the skulls of ancestors on their front porch. Because it created fear in the oppressors, the Kalinago didn’t bother to correct the assumption and thus the Caribbean got its name. Our tour also included visiting the ruins of the first Roman Catholic church on the island, meeting an old Chief who is an artist, and seeing buildings abandoned due to earthquake damage. On the walk back, we saw land and freshwater crabs and dipped in a river. Tomorrow we fly to St. Lucia.

A delicious lunch we had at Bois Cotlette

A delicious lunch we had at Bois Cotlette

 

A typical house in the bush made of what materials are available

A typical house in the bush made of what materials are available

These lizards are all over the place here

These lizards are all over the place here

A nicer house in Roseau. The parked cars give a sense of how hard it is to get around as a pedestrian.

A nicer house in Roseau. The parked cars give a sense of how hard it is to get around as a pedestrian.

A simple raft built of scraps of wood. It doesn't have much speed but floats and is working for this fisherman.

A simple raft built of scraps of wood. It doesn’t have much speed but floats and is working for this fisherman.

The much rougher Atlantic side of Scotts Head. Ours is the long red roof closest to the edge.

The much rougher Atlantic side of Scotts Head. Ours is the long red roof closest to the edge.

A school in Roseau. Schools are commonly built this way to maximize airflow. Students always wear uniforms.

A school in Roseau. Schools are commonly built this way to maximize airflow. Students always wear uniforms.

The ruins of the first Catholic Church in Dominica. We appreciated this graveyard having an excellent view and cooling breeze. The church was abandoned after an earthquake made it unsafe.

The ruins of the first Catholic Church in Dominica. We appreciated this graveyard having an excellent view and cooling breeze. The church was abandoned after an earthquake made it unsafe.

We saw this same caption in multiple museums and had to remember that we all view history through our own lens. Dominicans see Columbus's greatest achievement is that he made it home alive.

We saw this same caption in multiple museums and had to remember that we all view history through our own lens. Dominicans see Columbus’s greatest achievement is that he made it home alive.

The rough Atlantic coast. Note how the plants are all shaped by the wind.

The rough Atlantic coast. Note how the plants are all shaped by the wind.

The trail to Boiling Lake. About half of the trail was steep steps like these.

The trail to Boiling Lake. About half of the trail was steep steps like these.

Taking a dip in a hot mineral stream on the side of the trail. The water was a blue white.

Taking a dip in a hot mineral stream on the side of the trail. The water was a blue white.

The trail to Boiling Lake. The peak in the distance (that is in the clouds) was the highest point we climbed to that day. We stood on top of that peak and could see both oceans on both sides of the island.

The trail to Boiling Lake. The peak in the distance (that is in the clouds) was the highest point we climbed to that day. We stood on top of that peak and could see both oceans on both sides of the island.

These land crabs are everywhere in Dominica. They are mostly nocturnal so this was a rare daylight sighting. This guy was about six inches across.

These land crabs are everywhere in Dominica. They are mostly nocturnal so this was a rare daylight sighting. This guy was about six inches across.

The bounty of the local farmer's market brought back home

The bounty of the local farmer’s market brought back home

Ruins of a windmill at Bois Cotlette. They harnessed the windmill to squeeze the juice out of sugarcane. Note the cacao tree on the right.

Ruins of a windmill at Bois Cotlette. They harnessed the windmill to squeeze the juice out of sugarcane. Note the cacao tree on the right.

Dominica has very little indications of large-scale industry. Despite having a jungle, there is no logging. Almost everything is done at a small neighborhood scale. Portable mills were common on the side of the trail in places far from roads or any vehicle access, and no sign of a fixed sawmill.

Dominica has very little indications of large-scale industry. Despite having a jungle, there is no logging. Almost everything is done at a small neighborhood scale. Portable mills were common on the side of the trail in places far from roads or any vehicle access, and no sign of a fixed sawmill.

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Dominica continued

One of the man-made pools at Soufriere Sulphur Springs.

One of the man-made pools at Soufriere Sulphur Springs.

We have passed the halfway point of our time in Dominica and have a greatly increased fluency. We see familiar faces around the village. We understand bus etiquette and routes, we even know some of the drivers by their street names (yesterday we rode with “Ziggy”). We have our favorite vendor at the farmer’s market and know which grocery store sells honey, and which one has local produce. We understand that many restaurants have a menu that doesn’t correlate with what they have so it is best to ask before your heart gets set on something; we also expect that eating out will take at least 90 minutes and know to not wait for the bill as it may never come—go up and pay at the counter. We believe we understand the general weather patterns. We know where we can go to view wave conditions before we walk down to the beach to snorkel. In short, we are settling in.

A steaming sulphur vent, you could not hold your hand directly over it or it would burn.

A steaming sulphur vent, you could not hold your hand directly over it or it would burn.

The next village over (Soufriere, named after the French word for sulphur) is home to hot springs. They have diverted a hot stream into a series of pools for soaking. Farther up the hill from the pools is a field of sulphur deposits, steaming ground that strongly smelled of sulphur and was colored yellow/white. No plants are able to grow in this superheated place. Despite the warm day, we followed the locals into a soaking pool and found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Our hosts manage a cottage that the last tenants left in a mess. We spent a day helping them work on it in preparation for rental again. We cleaned, painted, reattached boards, turned calabashes into lampshades, and learned about the challenges of DIY remodeling in Dominica. Several times we have snorkeled along the coast a distance of about a mile. There are two snorkeling/dive sites on either end of this stretch and five in the middle. The middle sites are not accessible by land. Going this distance has meant that we’ve gotten to see a ton of beautiful coral and fish while getting a good workout. To make this work, we carry water, snacks, and dry clothes in a drybag and tow it. At the far end is the most popular snorkeling site on the island: Champagne Reef. Just off the rocky beach, there are a lot of small volcanic vents that are always streaming a line of bubbles. They are particularly beautiful to swim in as the afternoon light cuts a steeper angle, turning each bubble into a prism. Not only can you see the bubbles but you can hear the vents through the water as you get closer and feel the water warmed from the vents. On one of these long snorkels we saw a lion fish. These are not native and are particularly destructive: they are tremendous eaters of fish, they multiply like rabbits, and are poisonous to the touch. We first learned about lion fish on Bonaire last year and knew that they are commonly hunted and any sighting should be reported. Communities who depend on reef tourism or fishing are particularly at risk of lion fish proliferation.

Fishing boats at Scott's Head. On the far shore, you can see our snorkeling path. We started at the village on the right and went to the second to last ridge that drops down on the left (the one that drops at a gentler angle and is in a bit of a darker shadow).

Fishing boats at Scott’s Head. On the far shore, you can see our snorkeling path. We started at the village on the right and went to the second to last ridge that drops down on the left (the one that drops at a gentler angle and is in a bit of a darker shadow).

We had a few fun days with another couple staying in Scott’s Head: Peter and Mieke from Bruges, Belgium. Mieke made the long snorkel with us while Peter was our generous chauffeur, simplifying the logistics considerably. We enjoyed swapping traveling stories and hope to visit them at home this summer when we are in Europe.

Cutting up a cacao pod trailside.

Cutting up a cacao pod trailside.

 

 

One of our accomplishments has been the harvest of wild cacao. On a recent hike, we came across a small grove of cacao trees with colored pods hanging on the trees and old pods littering the ground. We were able to knock down a few and enjoyed a fresh trail-side snack. On the “Pictures” tab you can see a series of photos we took of eating these pods. Inside the pod are seeds and fruit. The seeds have to be dried, fermented, roasted, and ground to create chocolate. However, there is a little bit of delicious fruit encasing each seed. It is a sweet tart white flesh. We even brought a couple pods home to enjoy the next day. Last week we travelled up to the northern end of Dominica. By bus, the journey took about 90 minutes with one transfer. Portsmouth is the second largest and oldest settlement in Dominica. We stayed in the next village south, Picard, which is unique because it is home to Ross University Medical School. The village is full of American students, brightly-painted apartment buildings, and food carts. We enjoyed the cheap meals, the fresh juice vendors, and hearing American accents. We spent a few quick days hiking, swimming, and visiting Cabrits National Park. The latter is home to a very well restored Fort Shirley. This was yet another fort that never saw an attack but was the location of a significant rebellion. In 1802, the 8th West India Regiment (all black soldiers) revolted against their oppressive white leadership. Although they lost the subsequent engagement with British regulars, the revolt contributed to the emancipation of blacks in the British Empire.

View of Prince Rupert Bay, Portsmouth, and Cabrits National Park from Picard

View of Prince Rupert Bay, Portsmouth, and Cabrits National Park from Picard

Lion fish (credit to Wikipedia for the picture)

Lion fish (credit to Wikipedia for the picture)

One of the many colorful apartment buildings in Picard for Ross University students

One of the many colorful apartment buildings in Picard for Ross University students

Jim relaxing on a fishing-net "hammock" someone strung up on the beach.

Jim relaxing on a fishing-net “hammock” someone strung up on the beach.

Evidence of past hurricanes is never far. Here is a destroyed abandoned hotel complex and a disintegrating barge to serve as a reminder.

Evidence of past hurricanes is never far. Here is a destroyed abandoned hotel complex and a disintegrating barge to serve as a reminder.

The cacao pods we brought home

The cacao pods we brought home

Fort Shirley

Fort Shirley

A cacao pod sliced open with the seeds inside. In the upper right are the seeds of another pod.

A cacao pod sliced open with the seeds inside. In the upper right are the seeds of another pod.

On the right is a seed with fruit around it, on the left it has been eaten off.

On the right is a seed with fruit around it, on the left it has been eaten off.

A flowering tree. These were all over the north of the island.

A flowering tree. These were all over the north of the island.