Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dominica

As I was driving back towards the airport area and trying to read the directional signs against the rising sun’s intense glare, I was thinking about the Guadeloupans. As opposed to the rest of the Caribbean, where virtually every non-tourist person was black, here about 30% of the population was French. And that went to over 90% at the beaches and national parks. But the blacks here seemed to be well integrated citizens of France. The downside was that, while friendly, they lacked the ‘hey, mon’ sensibilities of other Caribbeans.
The upside was that they had a European work ethic. Which meant that the car lot guy was there early at seven, as planned. And he efficiently finished my paperwork and then drove me down to the ferry dock. Where I bought my ticket and boarded the boat.
The other ferries I had been on had been pretty small and in various states of repair. But this was a medium sized, commercial catamaran with 300 seats on two levels. I watched Guadeloupe sail by, the mountains re-cloaked in clouds, and about an hour later we reached the north end of Dominica with its green, rugged mountain spine. Ah, goodbye to Froggieland for a while, and back to the easy life of the English speaking Caribbean.
When we reached Roseau there was somewhat of a scrum to even get through the doors. So far immigration had involved a quick, perfunctory stamp. Here, however, each passenger seemed to get at least the second degree. And there were only two lines for all the people. So it took about twenty minutes for my turn. The guy asked me if I knew the name of the person who owned the hotel I would be staying at.
But I got my stamp. Then I went into the next small room to retrieve my pack. And there it became about as third world as possible. It turned out that many lowlife Dominica women go over to Guadeloupe to buy crap, then bring it back, all wrapped up in heavy bundles, to re-sell. Every single one of which the customs agent had to then open and check. And these were rude, pushy women. Which was very shocking here in the Caribbean, where heretofore everyone had been unfailingly polite.
All this in the hot humidity of a small confined room, waiting forever to reach the front of the line. There was a nine month pregnant woman in front of me, and people kept pushing in front of her. Finally I had had enough, and called one woman out and told her this other lady was first. Anger ensued, but I won. The pregnant lady had her turn, then I had mine.
Whew. At least that was over.
Hot and exhausted, I was deposited out on the street, my shirt already completely soaked in sweat. And, Oh Boy! In front of me was a truly behemoth cruise ship, 400 feet long, 100 feet high, easily larger and more substantial than the whole rest of the town that it was moored next to. And hundreds of its soft, fat customers were out on the street being hustled by every taxi driver and tour operator on Dominica.
Well, at least the men weren’t being totally rude, but, again, I hadn’t run into anything like this so far on my trip. Besides, had I mentioned that it was extremely hot and humid? And I hadn’t arranged for my car rental beforehand, stupidly thinking that in such a small town it wouldn’t be a problem. Who woulda thunk of a behemoth cruise ship being there?
I headed the three short blocks along the waterfront to the other end of town to find a restaurant that the LP recommended, the plan being to rest and reconnoiter. I knew that I had the right area, but person after person had never heard of said restaurant. Meanwhile there’s all the chaos of the cruise ship passengers. And it’s really hot. Finally someone did know of it. It was thirty feet away. And closed for September.
Two other two places in the LP were just closed, period. I lugged my bags up and back a few blocks to find the last one. Closed, too. By now my brain and body were totally fried. I asked a woman if I could use her cell phone to call one of the companies I had listed. No, but she did explain my problem to another man. He said that there was a car rental company just down there and to the left. The Chinese store owner across the street from it didn’t know where it was. But I finally found it. It was actually one of the companies that I had been looking for from the internet. And I was back to being a short block from the ferry. They hadn’t mentioned that feature of their location on their website.
But at least I finally had a car. With a/c. And now I was ready to get out of town.
Which was about as small and dinky as any capital city could possibly be and still exist. Not one noteworthy or substantial building. The whole place was about three blocks square. In a minute I was in the ‘suburbs’ and headed up towards the interior.
Dominica is known as a natural paradise. That’s another way of saying that there is not a single flat space on the entire island, meaning that it was never any good for agriculture, meaning that its entirety is one big overgrown rain forest. And I had to admit, curving around on the poorly maintained one lane road, that it did spectacularly live up to its billing. Simply beautiful flowers, trees overhanging with vines, wonderfully misshaped hills and mountains as I wended my way up to, er, a famous waterfall.
Once again, though, the Dominican people were lacking in that famous Caribbean charm once I got there. ‘Guides’. A peddler hitting me up for spare change. $1 to use the bathroom. And this was in a national park.
Waterfall seen, I headed back down to Roseau, then turned north on the island’s one and a half lane main highway. What with a couple of detours and stops, I finally reached, down a long, rough passage, my lodgings for the evening. Stonedge. Run by a crazy Belgian French guy.
Didier immediately offered me a welcome drink. Then informed me that he was having water problems, so that I would need to use a bucket for the toilet. I looked around at his establishment. Self-made funky, wooden hippie building done in the early Seventies style. Overlooking the ocean. Could have been worse. Anyway, it brought back old times. And it was only $25 a night. I trundled upstairs to my room.
After a short nap, I was out on the verandah appreciating the sunset over the sea. Then Didier set about whipping up a little dinner. Around me was the gobble, gobble, gobble of the other guests all speaking in French. Amazingly enough, I was starting to understand it. (Dominica is kind of in a French sandwich, and most of its visitors are from Guadeloupe or Martinique, getting off on the super cheap $2 a can Cokes.) But they were nice enough folks, and even deigned to hang out with me and use English.
I went upstairs to sleep in my room. There were no screens on the open windows. They wouldn’t have helped anyway, since there were so many chinks in the building. Nonetheless I was mosquito free.
The next morning I was out on the road, free from the tyranny of manual transmission and seat belt laws. But--to remind myself--I had to keep singing my little calypso song. Which consisted of one line: ’Drive on de left, interminably…’ Which was repeated interminably.
After fifteen minutes I turned off and drove up a tiny little snaking road to a trail to a parrot viewing area. There were no parrots. But it was another excuse to walk through the rainforest. I got back to my Suzuki jeep and drove back down the hill, then up the ‘main road’ to Plymouth, Dominica’s second largest ‘town’ with a population of perhaps a thousand. But there were also 1200 American students at the Caribbean’s largest medical ‘college’, where people pay $100,000 for the first two years of med school. An incongruous KFC in the middle of the wilderness, but I did partake of some corn and biscuits.
Back on the road. And what a road it was across the northern tip of the island. Better and far steeper (and narrower) than a roller coaster, with green hills everywhere and ocean in the background. I was glad I wouldn’t have to come back on it.
About two miles before it re-connected with the main road, though, they had decided to close it for repairs this afternoon. As I turned around a guy standing there asked me if I could take him to Plymouth. Sure, okay. Then as we started off, we passed another guy. ‘Can you take him, too?’ he said Well… ‘Don’t worry, man. He’s a teacher. It’s cool.’ Until then I hadn’t thought to be paranoid.
Back west to Plymouth, then back east to the Atlantic coast. This constant twisting and turning was getting to me. And I’ve driven enough in the rest of the world to know that everyone doesn’t share Americans’ sense of personal driving space, but some of these drivers were dangerous and downright rude.
It wasn’t like everyone was unfriendly. But even the friendly ones were hardly Caribbean effusive. I stopped to stretch my legs. A woman was scowling. I smiled at her. She continued to scowl. Hmmm, when I’m the one trying to cheer people up…
However, the natural environment continued to be stupendous. And these islands aren’t very large (Guadeloupe’s the biggest at 500 square miles), but their convoluted hilly nature and tiny roads means that they seem a lot bigger. I wasn’t going to be able to complete my circumnavigation.
But I got close. Then I turned back inland, twisted and curved a bunch more, stopped for my last walk through the rainforest to a waterfall, came back down the leeward side, and made it back to Stonedge. I was exhausted, but--now that it was over--had thoroughly enjoyed the drive.
The next morning was a Sunday, and after my breakfast of toaste francaise I slowly meandered my way back to Roseau. Here perhaps was a clue to Dominica’s relative unhappiness: No one was going to church. The rest of the (English) Caribbean is about the most Sunday Go To Meeting culture in the entire world. Even the commercial radio stations are always playing religious music. Here on Dominica the only jobs involved depressingly catering to either ‘rich’ French foreigners or cruise ship passengers. These guys needed to get involved in something uplifting.
Well, church or no, Roseau was just as dead and deserted as any other Caribbean town on Sunday. The rental guy never even made it to the office. I wedged the key under his door and walked on over in the hot, empty stillness to the ferry.