Dominica: morning has broken

Dominica was devastated by Tropical Storm Erika last August. But the beauty of the Nature Island, and the spirit of her people, survived the ordeal, writes Paul Crask, and every morning still brings fresh wonder

Soufrière Bay, near the southern tip of Dominica. Photo by htomas/iStock.comEmerald Pool. Photo by paulzizka/iStock.comThe author’s friend Pomme. Photo by Paul CraskBoats at anchor in tranquil Soufrière Bay. Photo by Loneroc/Shutterstock.com

My home is in a small village called Giraudel, on the western slopes of the Morne Anglais volcano in the southern half of Dominica. It’s a peaceful farming community, noted for its tradition of flower-growing and its rather sporadic but impressive and popular flower show.

As I am writing this in September, helicopters are flying overhead. They are delivering medicine, food, and clean drinking water to the villages of Delices in the south-east and Laudat in the heights of the interior, both cut off from the rest of the island for over a week now. The helicopters are no longer delivering aid to Petite Savanne, because that village has been almost totally destroyed by landslides, and six hundred or more survivors have now been evacuated, including some of my friends.

On 27 August, Tropical Storm Erika devastated Dominica. It was nature at its most raw and brutal, and it took everyone by surprise. Rivers and streams became raging torrents that swept away buildings, roads, and bridges, flooding everything with water and silt, including the capital Roseau and the island’s main airport. Steep mountainsides fell in huge landslides, destroying and burying houses and killing some of the people who were trapped within them. Not since Hurricane David in 1979 has Dominica seen such destruction, and the cost of rebuilding broken infrastructure and over 370 homes is more than this tiny island can ever afford by itself.

It pains me to write these words, because I love Dominica so much. I have lived here for ten years, and there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be.

Known as Waitukubuli by the indigenous Kalinago, Dominica is about thirty miles long and sixteen miles wide, and in that space, incredibly, there are nine active volcanoes (one of which I live on), and diverse habitats that include cloud forest, montane forest, and swathes of rainforest. Meandering down from the elevated interior are hundreds of rivers, each one with numerous cascades and waterfalls. There are volcanic hot springs, there are birds that live nowhere else, and there is the second largest boiling lake in the world. Dominica’s coral reefs are pristine and dramatic, and sperm whales are resident in our waters all year round. It’s an amazing place.

My simple mountain home has a view of the Caribbean Sea. Sometimes I sit on the porch and watch beautiful orange and purple sunsets, sailboats passing, or cruise ships coming and going. Today it is calm, clear, and blue out there. Erika has long gone — she fizzled out after she left us — and the only ships I can see today are the Royal Navy auxiliary vessel Lyme Bay, here to bring medical aid and erect temporary water supplies for some of the west coast villages that still have nothing, and the inter-island ferry, which is currently our only connection to the world beyond.

From my garden, there’s an infrequently used track that runs behind the village and follows a narrow ridge all the way up to the top of the mountain, where there are views of Dominica’s other volcanic peaks, the capital Roseau, and remote coastal hamlets where people are still stranded. The Waitukubuli National Trail winds around the mountain, passing right by my house, and joining me up with friends on the other side.

My friend Pomme lives on a ridge to the south-east. He has no electricity, water pipes, nor telephone. But this is by choice, not because of the storm. Of all the people I know on the island, his self-sufficiency and connection to his natural environment are by far the most complete. His gardens are full of provisions, vegetables, herbs, and fruits. He has a natural spring for water and he makes his own charcoal for cooking in his outside kitchen.

“Since Hurricane David in 1979, people became very lazy,” he once told me. “They stopped growing their own food, because it was all there in plastic bags and tins on supermarket shelves. We never had all that before. Nowadays, people have no idea what they are eating and drinking and they have become dependent on imports, they are addicted to fast food, and they are not taking care of themselves.”

In the immediate wake of Erika’s wrath, I was reminded of his words, when there was some short-lived panic-buying in the stores of Roseau. Shelves were emptied in a frenzy and tempers were momentarily lost. But in the farming village of Delices, people still eat what they grow and grow what they eat. And so I dared to hope they would manage their way through their ordeal just fine.

I’m wondering how Pomme is faring after the storm. I can’t get to his home now, because the road and bridges between us have all gone. But I’m sure he’s doing all right. After all, he’s hardly ever needed the outside world before now.

 

In the aftermath of Erika, I have been spending quiet moments doing some clearing up in my garden and along the narrow track that leads to our home. It has some deep ruts where it flooded. This morning I constructed a rainwater catchment for the house, as it seems we may be out of water for some time. Ironically, since I built it, it hasn’t rained, and it feels rather inappropriate to wish for some. Standing in my small banana grove, I am instead warmed by the September sun, and I listen to the sound of birdsong above a faint whisper of breeze. I feel inexplicably happy at this moment, despite everything that has happened. It’s as if my garden or the mountain it sits upon is talking to me, telling me not to worry, that everything is going to be all right.

Another friend on my mountain, Gordon, told me it is “dread” to feel this way: to have such a strong and intimate relationship with your natural environment. A dread himself, he spent several years living naked deep in the forested interior like a modern-day Maroon, a runaway from the developed world and the draconian laws of the notorious Dread Act that made it legal for the police to shoot him because of the locks in his hair. Now he has a smallholding, and he makes and sells organic compost and herbal teas. We share some mountain talk every now and again. A couple of years ago, I took a walk to his home after another violent storm had passed, and told him the rain had been so heavy on my tin roof that night that I thought it must have been rocks falling.

“It was hailstones,” he said, grinning. “I went out on my porch and saw them crashing all around in the darkness. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not here.” Hailstones in Dominica? Why not? This island can be like that: beautiful, wild, rugged, natural, and always full of surprises. And that’s why I love it. Dominica makes me feel alive.

“I’ve lived up here for thirty-eight years,” Pomme told me. “But it’s so fresh and beautiful that every morning when I stand on my porch it feels like the very first day.”

I think travellers go home rejuvenated by time spent in this magical place, leaving with a fresh and different view of how life can be. A friend of mine came to visit from England once, and was quite literally wide-eyed for two weeks. So used to cities, offices, concrete, and glass, his senses were on overload as he waded through rivers and followed me up mountain tracks through the rainforest.

I finish clearing up, and wonder what will happen to Dominica next. How long will it take to rebuild things? Will travellers still come here? But I reassure myself that Dominica has always been a place for people who like to get off the beaten path, who love nature, adventure, and the great outdoors. Despite Erika, our hiking trails and waterfalls are still without equal in this part of the world, our reefs remain pristine, and the sperm whales never left us. Without bridges here and there, river crossings have now become even more exciting 4×4 journeys through the wilderness. It’s all a matter of perspective. So long as people continue to visit, this island will manage its way through the storm that has just been, and those that are yet to come.

Though I’m writing this about a week after Erika, you’ll be reading it at least a couple of months from now. I expect by that time all the mud will have been cleared and we will have commenced the task of rebuilding and fixing our roads, bridges, and homes. Pomme, Gordon, and I will be working hard in our mountain gardens, talking to the earth and listening to what it has to say. The helicopters will be long gone, the airport will be open, and people will be visiting us again. Fingers crossed.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Antigua, Sint Maarten, and Barbados, with connections on other airlines to Dominica