Monday, June 04, 2012

Caribbean Holiday Cruise: Dominica

Wednesday, Dec. 28th, 2011:  Dominica.  Visiting a Carib Indian Village.

After the aristocratic St. Barthélemy, with a purely European feel, manicured yards, and seemingly more yachts than people, Dominica was a wild jungle.  The island was much poorer, the housing almost shack-like, and the driving downright haphazard, with much traffic jams and outraged honking.  But the scenery was much more impressive:  tall mountains, lush greenery, and constant flowing water (allegedly, Dominica has 365 rivers, one for each day of the year – though I wonder if the river vs. creek distinction for some of those was more based on getting the number right rather than measuring actual water volume).  Dominica – which is not to be confused with Dominican Republic, by the way – is geologically amongst the younger of the Carribean islands, and so the forces of erosion from the frequent rain have not yet worn down the jagged landscape.

An aside:  during my last semester at Indiana University, I took a mathematical modeling class, where my end-of-semester project was precisely the simulation of land erosion as a result of rain.  My goal was to start as simple as possible, and work from the ground up.  So the first model was essentially just like acid rain – I began with an already formed mound, and then had random “droplets” mysteriously dissolve the top-layer “grains” of earth into nothingness.  What do you think was the result?  Nothing pretty – in fact, it looked like a toothbrush.  But as my model became more complex, and I started accounting for water accumulation and having grains flow “downhill” rather than just dissipate on the spot, I was able to get a much more convincing landscape.  Here it is below, for your viewing pleasure.

Still, despite my scholastic attempts, Dominica was by far more rugged, natural, and beautiful than my model could convey.  And our excursion took us to the very heart of the island’s natural beauty, to a Carib Indian Village.

The Carib Indian tour – and more importantly, just their way of life – was inspiring!  There’s really no other word for it:  the peaceful scenery of the village, set in a valley; the pastoral way of life, with subsistence farming and countless “urban medicine” plants growing in every yard; the gurgling creek that flows through the center of the village, providing water for drinking and a place for the kids to swim (we had a chance to go swimming as well).  Everything.

Our tour guides were a Carib Indian couple.  The husband – a former tribal chief, who is thinking of running for office again – told us that there are 3000 Indians in the tribe in total, of which 84 live in this village.  Land is semi-communal, though the passing of it is also hereditary (the chief’s house, for example, is on his grandfather’s land), so I’m not sure I understood how that works:  maybe its communal status is only with regards to farm land beyond the village?  Tourism is actually a very recent addition to the village’s way of life, but the Chief hopes that it will expose tourists to his people’s unique culture, while at the same time providing villagers a way to supplement their income without having to leave for the big cities.  On our tour, we visited three families that are “pioneering” this project, but the Chief’s grander vision is to have the project encompass other households as well, with each family sharing some unique aspect of the Carib people’s way of life.

The Chief was a thoroughly welcoming host – and, I think, a very forward-thinking and dedicated leader of this people.  He had studied in England and traveled extensively throughout the world (partially as an ambassador of the village, obtaining funds and partnering with other Indiana villages), and this experience gave him an understanding of what it takes to form and maintain a community.  He was also very concerned with preserving the village’s culture – and even resurrecting their long-forgotten native language (currently, the villagers speak English, with bits of Creole – and a fair amount of Creole-esque accent – thrown in).  That language had been lost some 400 years ago, but it had been written down by a missionary before it got wiped out.  Tracing through the history of the language in search of a common “descendant” that is still spoken today, the Chief and a university researcher had settled on a language to adopt as their own, and the village is just now starting to phase it in.  For now, they’ve begun by giving each member of the village a nickname in the lost tongue, to go along with their English name (the Chief’s, aptly chosen, was “courageous”).  There are over 80 people in the village, the Chief announced proudly – so that’s already 80 words!  But he’s still figuring out how to work bits of grammar into everyday life…

As he took us on a leisurely stroll through the village, the Chief pointed out various plants and trees, and graciously gave out samples of star fruit, coconut, cocoa plants, and countless herbs. One of the villagers showed us the process of sugar-cane squeezing (squeezed via his own hand-made wooden press); another grandfatherly villager, with a huge smile that admittedly missed half the teeth, showed us various medicinal plants used by the tribe against rashes, aches, sunburn, itching, and other maladies. He and his daughter also described the process of making traditional woven baskets:  from cutting down the grass-like plants in a nearby rainforest, to drying them on the roof of their house, to dipping strands of the dry grass into mud for black or brown colors, or coloring them with a fruit dye for red.  The girl then offered already-made baskets for sale, asking just $5 for small baskets that took her 2-3 hours to weave.  She could have obviously charged more – after St. Barthélemy, tourists would have easily paid double or triple for the delicate hand-made baskets – but it was not the Indiana way, and I really respected the tribe for that.  The Chief’s ultimate vision was to foster an appreciation for the Carib culture and to make the experience reciprocally enriching for both parties.  The graciousness of our hosts really made us feel welcome in their village.

At the end, we gathered in the Chif’s back yard around a campfire, where his wife showed us the making of traditional bread out of one of the local fruits.  We were then invited for a meal in his house:  coincidentally, a very basic structure, with studs showing through the walls, and with draping extension cords for electric outlets.  But the house felt welcoming, especially with two long tables that were set for us, laden with local food:  fish, taro pancakes, the freshly-made bread, a coconut desert, and lemon-grass water.  On one wall hung a black-and-white photo of the chief from 25 or 30 years prior, an ornate staff at hand, when he had first been elected for the office.  On the other wall hung a Tourist Prayer:

Heavenly Father, look down on us,
you humble, obedient tourist servants,
who are doomed to travel this earth,
taking photographs, mailing postcards,
buying souvenirs, and walking around
in drip-dry underwear.

Give us this day divine guidance
in the selection of our hotels,
that we may find our reservations honored,
our rooms made up, and
hot water running from the faucets.

We pray that the telephones work,
and the operators speak our tongue.

Lead us, dear Lord,
to good, inexpensive restaurants
where the food is superb,
the waiters friendly
and the wine is included in the price.

Give us the wisdom to tip correctly
in currencies we do not understand. 
Forgive us for undertipping out of ignorance
and over-tipping out of fear. 
Make the natives love us for what we are,
and not for what we can contribute
 to their worldly goods.

Grant us the strength 
to visit the museums, the cathedrals,
and the palaces and castles listed as “musts”
in the guidebooks.

And if perchance we skip 
a historic monument to take a nap after lunch,
have mercy on us, for our flesh is weak.


Dear God, keep our wives
 from shopping sprees and protect them
from “bargains” they don’t need or can’t afford. 
Lead them not into temptation,
for they know not what they do!


Almighty Father, keep our husbands
from looking at foreign women and comparing them to us. 
Save them from making fools of themselves
in cafes and night clubs. 
Above all do not forgive them their trespasses
for they know exactly what they do.

The chief’s teenage sons, on winter break, also came out to greet us, and later joined us for swimming in the river.  The older one, 17 years old, with a long braid and a very peaceful and thoughtful face, looked like a movie star as he scaled the rocks surrounding the river.  Kat asked him if he likes where he lives.  “Of course”, he replied, almost surprised by the question; “What’s not to like?!”

Towards the end of our visit, the Chief took us nearby his house, to what he hopes to make into a small outdoor amphitheater – to be used both for village meetings, as well as for putting on occasional shows for guests.  For now, the amphitheater is just what Mother Nature has provided:  a grassy/woody slope on three out of the four sides, naturally focusing the attention onto the flat center “stage”.  And what stands on stage are a few remnant huts from “Pirates of the Caribbean II”, that the chief got to keep for his tribe’s involvement in the movie.  The Chief had heard from one of his many contacts that the movie needed some extras for the set, and – against some opposition from another chief, who was hesitant about involving the villagers with the outside world – got the tribe involved in the movie.  One hundred and seven of them, including the Chief’s wife, served as extras for 9 weeks of filming, having great fun, getting free meals, and making some money to boot.  For farmers who make close to 100% of their livelihood off of the land (and really, the land is incredibly fertile and does a lot by itself), it was a great deal.  Go Chief!

After the tour, we still had an hour and a half before the Cruise’s all-aboard time, so the bus driver agreed to take Kat and me to the island’s famous Champagne Snorkel beach.  Fish-wise, the snorkeling was pretty similar to what we’d seen as St. Barthélemy, but the reef did have an unusual geographical feature:  a constant stream of bubbles coming out of the ground, due to volcanic activity deep down in the earth below.  We had a fun, albeit rushed, 25-minute swim, before speeding back to get to our ship.

There, with a time-crunch deadline, the island’s erratic traffic patterns emerged in full view:  People stopping in front of cars, bicycles wheeling in and out of the road, cars parked in the middle of the street, constant honk blasts…  But what topped it all was a truck we were stuck behind for ten minutes, which was slowly carrying a huge unstrapped cargo container.  A man stood on the container’s roof, and his job was to ensure that the low-hanging electric wires, crisscrossing the street, did not catch the front of the container.  In practice, since every other wire was hanging too low, the man’s job was to haul the wires up as soon as they got caught, before they could get snagged and get ripped off of their posts.  “Dangerous job”, remarked our taxi/bus driver casually.  “If one of those wires gets frayed, he could get electrocuted.”  Then again, he assured us, electric companies do try to keep the lines in good shape, because otherwise they’d get sued.  Oh, no problem then.

Still, for all of its economic inequity compared to St. Barthélemy or even Puerto Rico, Dominica left us with a definite feeling of progress for the island.  Both the Carib villagers and our bus driver spoke of their island with pride:  that, yeah, it might not be perfect yet, but the island’s government is working on solving problems, and that things are much better than 10 or 20 years ago, and far better than when the island was under British rule.  The island also seemed to be aware of its rare natural beauty, with dedicated nature preserves and supposedly excellent biking trails.  Of all the islands on the Caribbean, this would be the one we’d be most interested in coming back to someday.

Continue to the next day's adventures in Antigua.

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