Highlights of Dominica

 

west coast sunset

Secret Beach

I spent a couple days traveling around with a German couple from Dresden, who met me at the Portsmouth Ferry terminal. We asked Shorty to take us to Secret Beach on his motor boat, a small, secluded, hidden beach isolated between a massive cliff and the Caribbean sea. There was a cave you could wade through, through a narrow passage with only space big enough for your head to stay above water that opens up in a big bat cave.

bats in the cave

We took a cruise up Indian River, a protected area where motorless boats get paddled up by slow talking rastahs. At the furthest point up the river, there was a small bar serving peanut punch, guava wine, and rivergrape wine, aka ‘fat-pork-stain wine’ (all disgusting, unfortunately). Our guide was Gregory, not Jeffrey, because “Jefferey is J and Gregory is

Gregory

G and they really not so much matching.” He apologized if his English would ever be “not englishable enough,” but could speak German, French, English, “I can speak anybody.” He explained the bamboo is not “originated,” the seamoss is “nice deliciously,” the mangroves were very “livable,” and the river “swimmable,” with no “dangerosity. He pointed out some fish that eat crab’s legs, and saw one crab still alive with only 2 legs left that was “well f*cked up.” We saw a hummingbird which “beat his wings 250 time before one second flow.” He took us to a “postcardic view with all the

Indian River

good vibes” where its “nice scenery, nice breeze, nice reflection, nice everything… its just nice to be nice.” We thanked him for a great tour and his entertaining narration, and he asked us to come back because “that’s how I do business, more for less, the more I work, the less it cost, sometimes I work for nothing, that’s how cheap I get.”

Me and Ordovich feasted on lobster with a couple other medical students, the sunset painting an

lobster feast

unbelieveable background. When we went horse back riding, we rode up the hill deep into a luscious forest, passing lime trees, mango trees, avocado trees, cassava trees, banana palms, pineapples, coffee bushes, cinnamon bark, breadfruit, yams, carambola, red lavender flowers, coconut palms, and lemongrass – all seen growing from a trail less than 1 km long.

We went to Macoucherie Distillery, a local rum factory that looked

Macoucherie Rum

as though it had been abandoned 50 years ago. But a handful of staff kept it running, one guy in the office who was the default tour guide since the other 3 staff were busy crushing sugar cane. They make the rum from start to finish, and only age some rum 1 year while the others aren’t even bottled, since you bring your own empty bottle to fill it straight from the cask for just a few dollars.

cassava bread in carib territory

They left me at Trafalgar Falls near Rouseau, a beautiful place of freshwater and hot geothermal water meeting between rocks at the base of a waterfall. Me and Will, another couchsurfer from Portsmouth, went hiking in Cabrits National park in the north of the island, exploring Fort Shirley and some old canons. We took a bus past Calibishie to the Atlantic side, where Carib territory begins and fair-skinned, skinny-nosed natives harvest cassava. They pull the roots from the tree, peel them, and grind them down to flour to make cassava bread.

Trafalgar falls

We spent a few nights out trying the local beer Kubuli and listening to a lot of Reggae. We met a bartender who was expecting his first son with his Chinese girlfriend. We asked him what the baby’s name would be, and he laughed and said “Im gonna throw a pan down on the floor and whatever sound it makes, Ching Ping Pong, and itll be something like that!” When leavin Dominica, I saw a guy with dreadlocks so long they actually touched the backs of his heels on each step… simple, but memorable additions to my Dominican highlights.

Guadeloupe to Dominica, chez Ordovich

I ferried from Pointe-a-Pitre with L’Express des Iles, the most organized public infrastructure for transportation I’ve seen in the Caribbean. The boats are brand new, always on time, and run often enough for it to be practical for both tourists and locals. It connects Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia a few times a week in each direction, and a one way costs little less than a return ticket, and a one way costs the same if you’re going to the next island or the last island. It seems logical that you could scam this into cheaper travel if you plan things right, but paying 70 euros each ride always added up to too expensive – even more than flying with LIAT.

LIAT is another convenient but expensive means of travel. “Leeward Islands Air Transportation” connects all the islands from Anguilla to Barbados, and further down to Trinidad and Guyana, but isn’t exactly the most organized company. The LIAT acronym is also interpreted as “Leave Island Any Time,” or “Lost in Airport Terminal” and “Left in Any Terminal” for their notorious mishandling of luggage. The planes leave 40 minutes or early or 1 hour late, with no accurate updates given by any of the misinformed staff. Sometimes the pilot doesn’t show up, or no one is working to check you in, and I even tried to check in for one flight that a LIAT employee insisted didn’t exist (she eventually found the right flight number to print my boarding pass).

There was a strange secrecy or exclusiveness with ferry travel that I didn’t quite figure out. The two French Islands Guadaloupe and Martinique are separated by Dominica, an independent, poorer Island, just like St. Lucia further south. The French nationals traveling with EU passports were normally searched and questioned about smuggling in cigarettes but little else, while the Dominican and Lucian passengers were barely allowed to buy tickets to France without showing hotel confirmations, contact numbers of the people they were visiting, a reason why they were going, more than 25 euros per day they would be there, and an emergency contact number if anything should happen to them. It was like crossing the Mediterranean from an uncivilized Africa to the pristine palaces of Gibraltar, when in reality the islands are right beside eachother sharing similar culture, history and people.

Yet, you still felt different in Guadaloupe, as though you were in mini-France, with its paved highways and overpasses, traffic lights and round abouts, shiny little Citroen cars and scooters; the people – fair, their clothes – branded, their French – Parisian. In Dominica, the roads are unpainted and undivided, the intersections simply yield to oncoming traffic from the main road, the beat up cars magically keep on running, and the rastahs outnumber the expats, speaking creole and Patois I rarely understand.

Me and Ordovich on our gallant rides

Still, life goes on the same way, hot and slowly, day by day, but I had left the air-conditioned apartment of Francois for the coackroach/ant/mosquito friendly apartment of Ordovich. He lived in Picard, a mini-America south of Portsmouth. Hundreds of medical students attend Ross University there, and do little more than see the small confines of that village. Ordovich was different, not cursed by the solidary life of perpetual study, traveling around Dominica more than most. He took me horse back riding in some wicked cowboy boots, and told me about Secret Beach, a spit of sand reached only by boat. He hadn’t been to the neighbouring islands

(C) Ordovich Klarxonov

yet, but was planning a trip to Ireland. He was often like this, a surprising left-fielder. He liked to blare Rachmaninoff symphonies, and played the Accordion and piano in a mixed style of blues, western, classical and almost klezmer that could perfectly narrate a black and white film. He was an amazing artist, with a similar, cartoony drawing style that blended 18th century romanticism, Moulin Rouge and Pirates of the Caribbean scenes that looked like they were drawn on dirty, antique paper. He drank coffee from wine glasses and only wrote in cursive.

People that I tried to describe him to said he reminded

(C) Ordovich Klarxonov

them of John Lennon in the 1970s’, or an American lad from New Orleans that dreamed to be French in the early 1800’s. He went by the aliases Black River Bandit and White Devil, was superstitious, read cards, and had a dirty mouth that always smiled when he spoke. He wore a hat over his curly hair, held his skinny jeans up with suspenders, smoked a pipe, and went nowhere without his leather, scholarly bag. That was his only academic fashion, being a med student, and the rest of him an explosion of old and fringe societies.

Gwada, a.k.a. Guadeloupe

I booked a regrettable 7:30 am flight to Guadeloupe which had me leaving Julia’s stable at 5am. A few hours later, I had arrived in France. My Icelandic passport got me waved through immigration as if I was back in the EU, but I requested a stamp from the Police station in the arrivals hall which said “Guadeloupe,” not France. It was St. Patricks day, which apparently everyone in the Caribbean cares about despite there not being any Irish on the islands, so my host Francois had planned an exciting holiday excursion.

spices

the fish market

We were to tour all of Grande-terre, one of the two islands comprising Guadeloupe’s butterfly shape. We started in the capital, Pointe-a-Pitre, at a lively fish market. Nearby were stalls of fruits and vegetables, spices and hotsauces, pin-cushion dolls and home made rum. We tickled our noses through rows of smelly things, and bought some carambola, sting ray, habanero peppers and parsley.

fruits and veggies

Next we drove along the south coast, stopping in Le Gosier for a view of Ilet du Gosier, a tiny island off the coast. We carried on to the Club Med beach, where dozens of palm trees shaded the sandy beach and all the half nude frenchies lazing around. We bought tiny cups of juice for 3 euros each, and once again realized I was no longer in the cheap Caribbean but instead on a European island disguised by sandy beaches and warm weather.

Club Med beach

We arrived on the windy Atlantic side in Point des Chateaux, a narrow peninsula ending in the eastern most part of the island. Here herds of tourists took pictures of La Desirade, another nearby island, and ate hand-made coconut sorbet from a woman with a rusty churner. We finished the circumnavigation after reaching Pointe de la Vigie, the cliffy northern boundary of the island, and driving through Port Louis and Petite-Canal. Then we cut back east to La Moule, where friends’ of Francois had invited us for a bbq and some beachvolleyball.

Pointe des Chevaux

We played games in various teams, 4 on 4, 6 on 6, girls versus guys, and male only teams.  We could never keep track of the score, and played to 15 or 25, depending on what we felt like. The bbq was potluck style, everyone bringing something different to share. We grilled our stingray in peppers, parsley and beer, and cooked some other fish that ended up tasting slightly better. After filling 3 garbage bags of paper plate, plastic cups, and empty bottles, we went sandy-faced to Maho pub, a grungy, hippy-esque shack with the strangest assortment of locals.

Chute du Carbet

I saw a black, 60 year old, toothless prostitute, blonde guy in Aladdin pants and embroidered vest, a beautiful young woman in a flowy, white satin dress, and the two brothers I had met in Antigua through couchsurfing. They were supposed to be in Dominica, but had changed their minds to spend the weekend in Guadaloupe, and of all places to be at that moment, were also at Maho.

We afterpartied at the Marina, and I crashed hard after 23 waking hours in Francois’ bed,  since he’s that stubborn kind of couchsurf host who insists visiting strangers get to sleep in his bed while he surfs his own couch. The next day, we went the whole way around Basse-terre, the bigger but wilder half of Gwada’s butterfly. We stopped at one national park to see the Chutes du Carbet, hiking to the first of three waterfalls. A little further down the road, we hiked along an unmarked trail to a hot river, flowing down between large rocks and forming bathing pools of decreasing temperature. We soaked in one about 35 degrees, a perfect natural bath in the middle of the forest.

cliff jumping at Cascade Acomat

We met some friends in Bananier who had just finished surfing, and then had a picnic lunch on a dock in the city of Basse-Terre on the southwest corner of Basse-Terre. We hiked next to la Cascade Acomat, a beautiful waterfall pool that you could cliff jump into from any side at any height. We ended our day in Grande Anse, what Francois described as the most beautiful beach in Guadaloupe. We watched the sunset there, with a row of other waiting spectators, and as soon as it fell behind the horizon, stayed for the after show – a sky of pink and orange clouds in a darkening sky.

sunset at Grande Anse

That night Francois’ friend Francois (it’s a common name) hosted a pizza party. In true French style, we paired the home made pizza’s with red wine, and finally went home early for an early, good nights rest. The next day I stole some beach time and wifi from the Hotel Fleur D’Epee, to plan my ferry down to Dominica – my next island destination back in the Caribbean.

Antigua

The Antiguan flag

Louise was a sour faced lady with boy cut hair and a kind heart she was too afraid to show. She was a short, frail, older white woman freckled and bronzed by the sailing and yachting she did regularly with her British Husband. She didn’t smile or laugh, a little awkward with eye contact, but her curiosity about me still poked through. She asked me questions, disinterestedly, and made few references about herself or her own life. She was uncomfortable when I sat beside her on the plane, which wouldn’t have struck me as unusual except that the plane had 50 other empty seats I could have chosen to spare her the act of friendliness. When we landed, she casually offered to drive me to my couchsurfers place, despite it being completely out of her way on the other side of the island.

Me and Julia

She dropped me off at Springhill Riding Center, a stable I would couchsurf for the next 5 nights with a Polish woman named Julia. She was beautiful, with orange hair as wavy as birthday ribbons falling all the way to her belt. Her bright blue eyes matched the turquoise Caribbean water she often took her horses swimming in, and her big perfect smile lit up her whole face everytime she talked about something beautiful. She thought everything was beautiful – the horses, the flowers, the trees, the fruits, the beach, the sea, the harbor, the boats, the cliffs, the trails, the roads…

She seemed to be 25 at heart, but the few wrinkles in her face gave her away for older, and only

swimming with horses

her weathered hands had aged to the 38 years she really was. Her hands were rough from a life-time of horse handling. Her English was good, her German, apparently better, and Danish and Spanish lingered somewhere too. She had decided to travel the world for horses, working in Poland, Germany, Denmark and now Antigua schooling horses and training riders.

We took the horses swimming one day, and the next 4 days I was given the duty of taking one lame horse for his daily swim. By the end

Big Joy

of the week, I took him on a trail ride and he had stopped limping all together. I took another horse riding named Joy, who was so much bigger than the Icelandic horses  Ive grown accustomed to. I couldn’t even see over her back when I stood beside her, and her every step in any gait seemed like an exaggerated, slow-motion heave.

It was hard to leave the stable, but I wanted to explore more of the island. With Julia, we went out a few times to dance, meet other couchsurfers, and took the scenic drive along Old Fig tree road, where endless banana plantations and pinapple fields grow along the windy road along the coast. I went to one of her belly dance practices, where her and some other ex-pats jingled around in colourful, sequined bras and coin belts. Another dancer friend of hers invited us to their burlesque-show practice, where 5 middle-aged women sexily danced around in flirtatious Moulin Rouge attire.

We met another friend of hers named Pep, a retired astrophysicist who is also a UC Berkeley Alumni. He had plenty to talk about, full of incredible stories, and in his old age had become a

Beaches on Fig Tree Drive

single guy with an eye for younger women. He also had the heart of a 25 year old, and, I believe, was in love with Julia. He lived in a house on the hill overlooking Falmouth Harbour, and rented out his rooms to young boaters to have some lively roommates and company to mingle with. He asked me questions about my life in Berkeley, when I would go back, and I mentioned my (failed) attempt at a serious relationship there that would have otherwise still kept me in Berkeley. Then he really started to psycho-analyze me, and wanted to know why that guy didn’t knock me over the head and drag me into the cave then and there since Pep started to worry that I may now become the kind of girl who never settles down.

I tried and failed to make it to either Barbuda or Montserrat, since the one and only Barbuda ferry had lost its engine just 3 days earlier, and the Montserrat boat only traveled on Mondays, even though Wednesday and Thursday were advertised on their website. Instead I got to walk around St. John’s, lost in the midst of 2000 cruise ship passengers window shopping for overpriced jewelry and underpriced liquor and tobacco.

cruise ships in St. Johns

I stopped at a bakery to buy lunch and all they had was bread or buns, with ham or cheese. Still it took the baker 5 minutes to handle each customer, so I waited for a while to get served. The guy behind me in line was in pilot uniform, badged Liat, on and off the phone constantly to try and get out of flight duty. By the time I got served, he snuck up behind me and pretended to be with me, ordered the same thing I did, and paid for both our lunches. Then he got a call to say he didn’t have to fly, and offered to show me around on his afternoon off.

Simbo was Dominican, half-black, half-white, with the accent and build of an islander, but the skin and blue eyes of a westerner. He took me to the helicopter pad offering tours of Montserrat where a pilot friend of his worked. The island is a huge volcano, that blew up something fierce in 2007. I was tempted to take the $240US tour but for 45 mins of flying around a volcano and not even landing on the island to explore it seemed like a waste… especially since Pilots in uniform get to fly free and I could have just stopped at a costume shop to match Simbo. Instead he showed me Dickinson beach, where you cant walk 5 metres without being sold something – coconuts, massages, beach chairs, earrings, jet-skis, braids, or dread locks.

Nelson's Dockyard

I spent a day exploring English Harbour and Nelson Dock, where all the super yachts and privately owned sail boat mansions float around, looking shiny and unused. It also creates a huge sailor culture, of young crew from all over the world living and working on these boats for the owners who only use them a few times a year. I considered taking a stewardess job for 2000 euros for month (food and rent included), but the boat was going north and I was headed south.

St. Kitts and Nevis

 

Topless trees and mountains in the clouds

I arrived in St. Kitts at 10 pm and got picked up by my couchsurf host Mike in his beat up Nissan Sentra. It was missing both driver side and passenger side windows, the back bumper and the muffler, and a Phillips wrench replaced the key to turn the car on and off. Mike was all smiles, and had steaming hot Chinese take out ready for an impromptu picnic.

We drove out to Muddy Point, along a bumpy dirt road, and pulled up to a hurricane-torn apartment building surrounded my palmless tree trunks. We explored the graffiti-painted walls after having our midnight picnic under the brightest, full moon I’ve ever seen. The wind was so strong that the clouds seemed to pass overhead in fast motion, lit up as bright white mountains moving up and over the volcano peaks of St. Kitts. The moon cast our shadows on the black sand, the curling waves were as white as day, and even the coral was visible through the rough water because of its crystal clean clarity.

St. Kitts southern peninsula

I didn’t exactly couchsurf Mike’s place, but slept on a mattress in a tent on his living room floor. The tent was a mosquito net substitute and worked just fine, but with some minor rearrangement, we turned his living room from a campground back into a social space. We had another picnic on the southern tip of the Kittitan peninsula, sharing a whole chicken, some fresh tomatoes, and cheese bread in silence while we watched the sun go down. We then had to drive back over the mountainous road without headligths in the dark, since both the Sentra’s headlighs and highbeams strangely stopped working.

Hash House Harrier trail along the rail road

Mike took me to a Hash House Harrier event, a name I cant explain, but it refers to a group of people coming together and walking or running a newly marked trail once a month on a different part of the island. It was the St. Patty’s day Hash, so everyone wore green, and we trekked along the old rail road and through sugar cane fields down to a littered beach.

St. Kitts was the first Island I visited that felt like the real Caribbean. Im not really at liberty to say what defines the ‘real’ Caribbean, but I can try to explain it the way I perceive it. Life is slow, really slow, and simple. Locals were locals, with fewer rich expats exploiting their lifestyle, and no cultural divide between the locals and the colonial locals since St. Kitts is actually an independent country – different from the French, British, American and Deutch islands Ive been to so far. Small wooden houses in various pastel and neon colours had replaced the gated communities and concrete beach resorts, and communities lived together in walkable villages. Only one narrow road, 31 miles long, goes around the island, with a different village every 2 or 3 km. Each village was known by atleast 2 different names, and the streets and alleyways were unnamed and unmarked, with foot traffic and chicken crossings keeping the road in use.

The island looks lived in, not groomed, and tourism still hasn’t taken over all the industry in the island. You drive past countless abandoned windmills, left to ruin since slavery ended, surrounded by stone buildings and ancient churches built during colonial rule. Instead of restoring any of these places and turning them into tourist attractions or UNESCO World Heritage sites, they leave the guinea grass to take over their forgotten history, and keep on

tombstone grazing horses near Kittitian Hill

growing sugar cane in the fields around to be processed by more modern methods. The churches are doorless and the wooden window shutters are half rotten, but some churches are still used. The cemeteries are overgrown and horses are tied to tombstones to try and eat down the luscious vegetation.

I settled into this atmosphere nicely, and got accustomed to the easy going pace of things. You could make friends with just a nod hello, and bus drivers and shop owners would treat you like a visiting relative to their home instead of making you feel like a passenger or a customer.

the man with the horses

At Black Rocks,  one of the souvenir sellers became my friend after I bought a Ting (grapefruit soda) from her, and her dad was my bus driver back to town and her uncle was the taxi driver who later took me to look for a horse man. Everyone knows eachother in the villages, and you could find or run into anyone you wanted to, whenever you wanted to. My local friends said I even started picking up the local talk, after trying hard to put on my mothers Guyanese accent, and I got asked if I was an islander 4 or 5 times by other strangers. I learned that Guyanese are one of the largest minorities on the island, so that may explain why. I eventually met the man with the graveyard grazing horses and asked him to take me riding. I think he said yes because he recognized my Island talk, so together we took two stallions for a galloping sprint around the Cane fields and up Kittitian hill.

St. Kitts Island has many craters, mountain peaks, and one active volcano that if it went off, would devastate a lot of the island. They say the clouds in St. Kitts are always lower than clouds anywhere else, and its because they get trapped between the mountains and sit above the island like a roof above the low-lying coast. I visited Nevis for a day, the sister island just south of St. Kitts, which is round at its base, and pyramids straight up into one volcanic crater. There I made a friend called Whiskey, a 3 month old green vervet monkey that lived at a bar. The bartender, Lyon, saw I liked animals and tried to sell me one of 10 puppies he had adopted from a stray dog for $50EC (less than $20US).

Nevis in the clouds

I left St. Kitts airport on a late flight, and at 9pm the airport had only two staff working. A janitor mopped the floor and a luggage handler sat around with no luggage to handle. I waited ten minutes before someone arrived at the counter to check me in, and then walked up to an empty emigration hall. Me and Louise, another passenger, walked on to security and asked one of the two people working there to get us a customs officer to exit stamp our passports. Louise, an Antiguan, didn’t seemed phased at all, not even when the flight arrived 40 minutes early and took off only minutes after we rushed through security to board.

Saint Martin

The island is called Sint Maarten on one side, and St. Martín on the other, since this island is split between the Dutch and the French. There’s no official border between the two, just a road sign welcoming you to the ‘partie Francaise,’ and the French side is a little more than half the island since the French guy cheated . Apparently, a Dutch guy and a French guy met at one point on the coast of the island, and agreed to walk away from eachother along the coast until they met again half way around. The French guy started walking north, bought a lot of wine, and then cut straight across the middle of the island to meet the Dutch guy still walking along the shore. Thus, the boundary was drawn in favour of the French.

Sail boats racing past Simpson Bay

The island really feels like 2 completely different places. The French side actually speaks French, while the Dutch side is full of massive hotels and resorts and I didn’t hear a word of Dutch spoken. Both sides speak English, and accept the dollar, but the Dutch side uses another currency called the Guilder, and the French side uses Euros but accepts the dollar at par. The French cars have EU license plates, and the Dutch side have Sint Maarten license plates. They have separate healthcare systems and education programs, and the French bike and play soccer while the Dutch prefer baseball, basketball and cricket.

Arriving in St. Martin after the tiny virgin islands was like landing in a European Vegas in the middle of the Caribbean. The airport was as big as a shopping mall and cleaner than a hospital, and the road to town was lit up with restaurants, bars, casinos, and hundreds of boat masts. It was a Friday night, the second day of the Heineken Regatta, and the island was bustling like a mini sincity.

The Heineken Regatta nightly event at Marigot

We followed the Regatta Events and the hundreds of beautiful boats racing, first at Phillipsburgs boardwalk, then in Marigot where we met some Russians to dance and drink vodka with. One of them didn’t speak a word of English, so we used google translate on my iphone to communicate. I met the one and only Dutch person on the whole Island that night too, and for whatever reason he assumed I was dutch when I asked him for a table for two in English. All the other people I spoke English to thought I was American, and the French people I spoke to in French thought I was Spanish. Noone ever guessed Icelandic, of course.

I spent a few days beaching, first in Orient Beach, an infamous nudist beach where old, French men like to parade around their jewels, and then at Baie Rouge, where wearing a thong bottom got me a free massage on the beach. Me and Matt stayed a couple nights in Simpson Bay on the dutch side, where the old American tourists where a bit more tame.

I enjoyed the Frenchness of the French side – the delicious bakeries, baguettes, wine, and even creperies. I made the mistake of buying a chocolate crepe from a food stand thinking I would get something equally delicious as in Paris, but instead got a pre-cooked, thin pancake, heated up on a pan, drizzled in Hershey’s chocloate sauce, and folded 3 ways to make an inedible catastrophe.

Baie Rouge

I couchsurfed the French side, in Anse Marcel on the north side of the island, which is a small residencial complex only steps away from the Radisson Blu Resort. I had access to 3 different pools, a beautiful beach, and a jack Russell terrier named Poissette to keep me company since Yoann, my host, was working all day every day. He had the evenings off to show me a few cool places, like Lolo’s BBQ restaurant – the best local food in St. Martín, the Shore Nightclub -what I’ve always pictured Ibiza to be like, and Sunset Bar – a famous beach bar on a thin strip of sand between the ocean and the airport runway where planes fly so low you almost get blown away!