|Volume No. 1 Issue No. 72 - Monday October 17, 2005
|Dominica - Treasure Island |
by Simon Lee (Reprinted from the Chicago Sun Times October 16, 2005)
If Columbus revisited the Caribbean, the northern Windward island of Dominica might well be the only place he'd recognize. From the air it's a mass of densely forested mountains, scored by river valleys. At ground level, "The Nature Island" bursts with luxuriant vegetation: giant rain forest trees and ferns, wild heliconias, ginger lilies, orchids, soccer-ball-size grapefruits and thick bunches of bananas, the staple crop. Appropriately the national motto is "Apres Bondie C'est La Ter" -- after God, the land.
Everywhere you hear the music of water; the percussion of rain on forest leaves; the roar of waterfalls or Atlantic rollers; the rush of rivers through mountain gorges; the sputtering of fumaroles. The air is redolent of spices, citrus, a potpourri of wild flower fragrances and the eternal dampness of the forest. The fertile volcanic terrain defines the island and its unique Amerindian, Afro-Creole culture.
Dominica is a natural bastion and sobering reminder of what much of the region must have looked like before colonization. There are no casinos or glitzy shopping malls here, instead you'll find mountain lodges, mini eco-resorts and family-run guesthouses.
Although small, 29 miles long by 16 miles wide, its rugged topography makes it seem much bigger. To the Caribs who made it one of their last strongholds, it is known as Waitukubuli or tall is her body. Much like the rain forest, the Caribs have survived in Dominica. The Carib Territory on the northeast coast is the only Amerindian reserve left in the islands. Other survivors are more than 1,000 species of flowering plants (including 74 orchids and 200 ferns), 365 rivers and 166 bird species.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: There are no direct flights from America. Connections usually from Miami can be made in Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia or the French Antilles (Martinique and Guadeloupe). Reliable ferry services operate from St. Lucia and the French Antilles.
Weather: Daytime temperatures average between 70 to 85 degrees, although it can be much cooler during the night in the mountains. Rainy season: July-October, with showers throughout the year.
Bank hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m.,Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday.
Currency: East Caribbean dollar EC$2.67=US$1
Departure tax: US$18.50
Accommodation: Fort Young Hotel, Garraway and Sutton Place Hotel, all in Roseau. Exotica mini eco-resort on Morne Anglais.
For more information: Dominica Tourist Board www.dominica.com; www.ndcdominica.dm and another useful site www.avirtualdominica.com.
The stunning scenery of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, with its Boiling Lake and lunar-landscaped Valley of Desolation, is matched below the water by the seascape of the Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve, resplendent with its submerged craters, sheer coral reefs, lava pinnacles and the thermally heated bubbling water of the Champagne Reef.
Dominica's lush reserve and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, which has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, have helped the island obtain its eco-destination status by organizations such as Green Globe, an international eco-tourism body.
Covering nearly 17,000 acres, the park lies in the south, within easy reach of the capital, Roseau. Besides some of the best examples of rain forest, elfin and montane forest and highest mountains in the Lesser Antilles, it boasts the largest Boiling Lake in the Western hemisphere.
Named for the 4,600-foot-high volcanic massif, the park has a number of trails, varying from an easy stroll to extremely arduous. Some of the hikes, particularly to the Boiling Lake should not be tackled without a local guide.
The three most popular sites are the Emerald Pool, the Freshwater Reservoir and the Boiling Lake. Morne Micotrin, the Freshwater and Boeri lakes are all relics of one of the largest volcanic explosions in the Caribbean. Micotrin is the surviving cone, while the two lakes rest in the lip of the old crater.
For those with stamina, and strong shoes, the hike to the Boiling Lake (four miles as the crow flies but realistically an eight-hour round trip) is a once in a lifetime experience. There are spectacular views en route -- the surreal sulphur-spring moonscape of the Valley of Desolation with its steaming fumaroles, pools of boiling mud, mineral streams streaked black, blue, yellow and orange and finally the bubbling cauldron itself, wreathed in steam.
Sheer green, orange and brown sides drop 40 feet from the lip of the crater to the seething water below. Periodically the steam clears to reveal a near perfect circle, over 200 feet across, ringed by narrow shores. Slightly off-center, a constant whirlpool churns sometimes spitting up a boiling fountain.
Other protected areas include: the Central and Northern Forest Reserves, the Cabrits National Park (site of Fort Shirley, an 18th-century British garrison that housed 600 soldiers, and the Syndicate Parrot Reserve -- home to two endangered parrot species: the Imperial, the national bird known locally as the Sisserou and red-necked Jaco), Morne Diablotin National Park, Indian River National Park and the Scotts Head, Soufriere Marine Reserve.
For the hiker or biker, botanist or naturalist, Dominica is the real treasure island. Even a leisurely stroll along the easy trail of the Syndicate Estate reveals such wonders as the 500-year-old Chatagnier Ti Feuille tree "the grandfather of the forest," giant gommiers and ferns, which dinosaurs once dined on.
The sea, both above and below the waterline, has its treasures. Sperm and humpback whales and dolphins are regularly sighted offshore and divers are awed by reefs that plunge dramatically to depths of 1,000 feet. Beside the diversity of coral, there are rare sea creatures: frogfish, batfish and electric rays.
The Caribs, too, are a rarity; this is the only island where you'll find them in numbers, living on their own land. The Kalinago, or Island Caribs, were part of a continuous migration that began 3,000 years ago from the Orinoco delta.
They displaced the preceding peaceful Arawaks, controlling the Windward Islands from 1400-1700, and due to the impenetrable mountain interior, were able to resist colonization longer than anywhere in the Caribbean.
After Columbus, they repulsed French and English attacks and were still in control when the first French settlers began arriving. Depleted by wars with the Europeans and disease, cut off from their hunting and fishing grounds, they withdrew to the inaccessible east coast.
Their descendants live an exhilarating ride away from Roseau, across a road that snakes up into the mountains, uncoiling down to Castle Bruce and L'Escalier Tete Chien on the east coast. This rock staircase marks both the spot where the dog-headed serpent of Carib mythology emerged from the sea and the beginning of the Carib Territory.
The 3,782-acre reservation, established by the British colonial administrator Hesketh Bell in 1903, is now home to some 4,000 Caribs, the Amerindian tribe that gave the region its name. Although the only time you're likely to see them dressed in traditional costume is when a cultural group performs, their ancient crafts of basket weaving from the larouma reed and building dugout canoes from the gommier tree, are still practiced.
In 1997 a 35-foot dugout canoe, the Gli Gli, the largest built in living memory, sailed from the territory on a historic voyage down the islands back to the ancestral homelands in northwest Guyana, proving that boatbuilding and navigational skills have survived even if the Carib language has not. Despite intermarriage, there are still pure Caribs on the territory, with the short stature, high cheekbones and straight hair of their Mongolian ancestors.
Of the eight hamlets in the territory, Salybia is the administrative center. As Charles Williams, the current chief and proprietor of the Carib Territory Guesthouse, puts it "Life begins and ends at Salybia." Down a track that leads to the sea is the Roman Catholic church with its dugout canoe altar and painted altarpiece depicting scenes from Carib myths. Here children are christened and marriages and funerals conducted. On the same compound stands the primary school and health center. Within earshot of the Atlantic's waves crashing on the rocks is the cemetery.
Although Dominica was ceded to the British by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the French or rather French Creole influence is still pervasive, starting with the dominant Roman Catholic religion and the Breton provincial style of some of Roseau's older buildings. It's noticeable the moment a Dominican opens his mouth. The official language may be English but virtually everyone speaks "Kweyol" -- the French-Creole dialect that evolved as a means of communication between French settlers throughout the Caribbean and their African slaves.
Dominican cuisine is a delectable expression of its Creole culture -- a combination of French, West African and Carib cooking styles. Local delicacies include mountain chicken and crayfish along with river and sea fish, crabs, shellfish, octopus, wild game and root tubers. Carib cassava flour, green bananas and breadfruit are all raw ingredients for Creole recipes from callaloo soup (pureed dasheen leaves, crab claws and yam
dumplings) to yampen woti (roasted breadfruit). Other local favorites are goat water (goat stew), black pudding (highly seasoned blood sausage) and souse (salted pigs' feet, seasoned and served in bouillon).
Dominica's position between the two French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe has strengthened its Kweyol ties while an affiliation with the English speaking islands has made it a unique cultural crossroads in the Caribbean. Kweyol language and culture have played an important role in defining island identity since independence from Britain in 1978.
Creole Day at the end of October is as important a cultural event as carnival. Schoolchildren and adults dressed in Creole national costume cluster the narrow streets of Roseau where only the cadences of Kweyol can be heard.
Festival showcases music
On street corners and in restaurants, Jing Ping folk music bands perform. Their infectious syncopated rhythms led by romping accordion, accompanied by a shallow tanbou drum and the metal "gwaj" or scraper whose onomatopoeic sound gave the music its name. Sometimes the shac shac (maracas), a violin, banjo or guitar may be added. Essentially the Jing Ping band is a folk dance band, whose repertoire is largely Creolized versions of European formal dances like the quadrille, the mazurka, polka and waltz; introduced by the colonizers and then appropriated by the African slaves.
Dominica's inaccessibility has also resulted in the survival of pockets of culture. African derived dances like the Bele are still performed by cultural groups and other African retentions survive in work and play songs.
The annual World Creole Music Festival, Oct. 28 through 30, showcases music from the French Creole speaking world -- Haitian konpa and voodoo roots, Antillean zouk, Louisianan zydeco and West African soukous (www.worldcreolemusicfestival.dm/home.
htm). But most importantly it highlights Dominican music: from traditional forms like Bele and Jing Ping to cadence-lypso (the 1970s fusion of konpa and calypso that influenced early zouk and soca) and Bouyon, the recent fusion that combines elements of traditional music with cadence, zouk and soca.
For three nights in the run up to Independence Day at the beginning of November, Festival City on the edge of Roseau becomes the site of a marathon musical party. Dominicans have stamina to match their mountains, and the
concerts-- which begin at 9 p.m. are still rampaging long after dawn.
Simon Lee is a London-based free-lancer.