Dominica Discovered


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Category: Reflections 11 Apr 10

Not watching the sunís glow spread over fishermen and the sea at dawn in Tobagoís Charlotteville; not an overnight trek from Blanchisseuse to Matelot through hot white beaches, mountain trails, a rising river in a storm at dusk; or sleeping under a ripe mango tree on the edge of a cliff; not the heady day of cricket at Kensington Oval in Barbados, followed by an impulsive midnight swim; nor St Luciaís snaking roads flanked by banana trees ending in a cool valley shaded by the Pitons.

One must island-hop

To get here, one must island-hop through several short flights, the way a Londoner, New Yorker, or Delhi-ite would get to suburbia. Trinidad-St Lucia-Antigua, Guadelope, Dominica. No flight is longer than 50 minutes. On each stop we meet island people, a familiar recognition. Here is an innocence we have lost. Our Trini melting pot which Derek Walcott says is, in some ways, far more sophisticated than cities like Paris, also smells of the rot of new money, of oil, drugs, corrupt politics, and multinationals, and unequally distributed held in the soiled hands of a few, the anger of the dispossessed.

I am writing this watching the sun set from a veranda of our hosts at Pointe Baptiste, a 25-acre estate just off the north coast village of Calibishie. Iíve never known a liquid dark of the quality Iíve encountered in Dominica: a void, absent of stars or human lights that requires you to paint in the landscape with memory, yet, after a day unlike any Iíve experienced in the Caribbean. Eschewing a visit to Rouseau and the trek to the boiling lake, the second largest in the world (Dominica is wedged between two volcanic plates), we walked with our hosts through tracks into the rainforest in Chaudiere, where the colours are so bright, and the foliage so lush, that it feels unreal, a set of Jurassic Park.

If I held my breath at the first sight of two rivers meeting in virgin rainforest where a constant light mist like rain fell, rippling through pebbles, past boulders to a meandering river, I turned speechless when we went further up to the Chaudrom waterfall,Ē the massive cliff from which water gushed into a swirl below, and cascaded out and down in layers, disappearing in a river into the forest ahead. We have been spending the days with Josette and Michael Napier, their sons, Alan (who runs the place) and Patrick, and grandchildren. This colonial home and garden, where one expects Somerset Maugham (who stayed here) to walk through the wooden floors of the home through the library, filled with hard backs of old editions of classics was built by Michaelís parents, Elma and Lennox, in the 1930s.

Elma was a Scottish aristocrat. It was her second marriage. The couple fell in love not just with one another, but with Dominica, and bought Pointe Baptiste, which today remains largely unchanged, heady with mingling, flowering tropical blooms, fruit and vegetation. The images once seen are an assault on the senses, the fanning palms, the arcade of balisier, a shocking flamboyant tree in the middle of a fecund vegetable garden. The mound of red rock from which Michael showed us the beach of black sand, (glistening like crushed black diamonds) was a scene out of the Egyptian desert.

His children and grandchildren had dug caves in this expanse of saffron earth. The steep cliff and private bay belonged to another set. Then there was the view of the white and pink sand beach.

Leaving behind a comfortable home and society, Elma Napier stayed on for 33 years, even after her husband died tragically just three years after their move to Dominica. She spent her days in Dominica writing. (She wrote ďBlack and White SandsĒ in the 1960s, inspired by the beaches and private bay on her property), took an interest in community affairs, and had her portrait on a Dominican postage stamp as being the first woman to be elected to a West Indian legislature.

Dominica, too, has its dark side, as Patrick, one of Elmaís grandsons and a friend from my university days in London, puts it. The novels of Jean Rhys who was born to a Creole mother and a Welsh-born father, John Lockhart, in the Geneva plantation, had already shown me that.

As a white girl who left the island in 1907, Rhys novels (she is most famous for Wild Sargasso Sea) and her feverish personality is reflected by the islandís conflicted terrible beauty with its turbulent history, which included the destruction of her family home following Emancipation and eventually burnt to the ground in 1930, around the time Elma Napier arrived to settle. In 1981, this youngest isle in the Lesser Antilles, with a population of just 72,000 people, suffered an attempted coup of the Eugenia Charles government by right-wing white supremacists, led by Mike Perdue of Houston. But this agro-based island, among the poorest in the Caribbean, rocked by hurricane Dean and cut off from European Union banana trade preference, has managed to grow its economy, diversified, tapped into exotic fruit, coffee, flowers, soap.

Ultimately, it has managed to sustain itself and grow by retaining its essential beauty, a lesson we have yet to learn. In the end, Dominica forces you to keep her in your head, and recreate her in the dark, in her absence. Itís more than an island. Itís the soul of the Caribbean.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur