On the Saturday, we were up early to go to the market with Providence who had promised us a ‘cooking show.’
Three mornings a week, Porstmouth town centre (it’s a tiny town by European standards) is transformed by a hundred one-man/woman stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables they have grown themselves. It’s colourful, noisy, delicious. Chickens pick their way through the spoils and cars wait patiently to turn left or right through the throngs. I was struck by the kindness of the stallholders – on other islands, my skin colour has definitely caused me to be treated differently (and sometimes charged differently) in markets, but not here. I was just another customer. It was lovely and I was grateful.
I was introduced to sweet cassava, local apricots (three times the size of the ones I know, with a massive pit in the middle), ignames (yams), taro root and how to identify the various kinds of bananas and plantains. We were offered samples of things, given advice about how to prepare and cook unfamiliar food items. I bought mangoes already oozing sweetness and fresh herbs and firm yellow plantains and tomatoes that smelled of summer. We also bought ingredients for the callaloo soup that Providence was going to teach us to make.
And all of this took place against a musical backdrop; Max (also known as Max Taxi) is a local guy and churchgoer who was singing hymns of praise, Dominican style, over a loudspeaker. With some of the songs, the whole market was dancing. It was impossible not to move your hips to the beat, even my husband who swears he never danced in his life before we met. When we got back to the P.A.Y.S. base, we bumped into Max and – next thing we know – we’ve been invited to church with him the next morning and we have said yes. But that’s tomorrow…
Back at base, a tall and skinny Rastafarian guy with a very large joint (it was 9am) had already set about building a traditional fire on the concrete barbecue base because we were going to cook island fashion, in the old way.
Providence led the way and we all got stuck in to peel and chop and chip and crush roots and leaves and garlic and onions. There was a lot of laughter and an awful lot of learning going on. We learned how to prepare plantain to make chips, and that coconut oil is fantastic for frying because it can tolerate such high cooking temperatures. We had a small debate as to whether deep-frying with oil was such a good idea on a boat and the jury was definitely out. (I use a pressure cooker to contain anything with boiling water, so the idea of boiling oil is pretty terrifying to me on board, but others declared themselves far braver than me!) Providence’s partner was also there – his “doudou” – and she and I got to chat a bit more over a spot of washing up halfway through the morning.
Within half an hour, there were plantain chips going brown and crisping up nicely in the pan, and we were learning to make dumplings for the soup. Before we knew it, we had made callaloo soup in a mighty pot on an open fire barbecue for forty people, full of yam and carrots and onions and chicken and a lot of garlic (I have never peeled so much garlic in my life!) and herbs and all manner of magic and Dominican goodness.
It was more than delicious. Dietmar, who up to this point had been in charge of taking photos and videos for me, and talking to Pieter from Peak, and petting puppies, suddenly became very animated and was soon going up like Oliver for seconds. (I may have succeeded in luring him onto the dancefloor, but the kitchen (apart from for breakfast) has proved to be much more difficult ;))
We had barely finished cooking and eating before it was time to have an antigen test so that we could officially participate in the beach games that afternoon (the local authorities seem very keen to make sure that no one gets or passes on COVID, hardly surprising as the local population has not been exactly enthusiastic about being vaccinated, with most firmly believing that the best medicines come from plants here on the island. Having spent some time here, I can completely understand how you could draw that conclusion, although Dietmar and I are definitely not anti-vaxxers).
The nurses had set up in a tent adorned with lengths of sarong materials as shade and it looked more like a hareem than a medical facility. One by one we trotted in, submitted ourselves to the necessary discomfort (it was nothing by comparison to the nurses in Cabo Verde who, I swear, were aiming for a frontal lobe swab. They were brutal, but that’s 4 months and 3,000 miles behind us….)
Straight out of swabbing, it was time for dominoes with the locals (much like normal dominoes except with enthusiastic slamming of the tiles onto the table when you lay them) and then cricket (Dominica vs the Rest Of The World).
I’d really wanted to get changed for all of this – my brightly coloured dress was not designed for cricket playing – but there was no time, so I took the crease first and tried to keep my skirt out of the way. I scored 8 runs and was bowled out – but then took my revenge on the Dominican team when it was our turn to field and took two catches!
Feeling pretty smug about this, I was then well up for whatever came next (The Dominicans won the cricket by the way, very convincingly and wholly unsurprisingly :)). What’s next turned out to be pwi pwi races. Pwi Pwis are traditional Dominican fishing craft made of balsa wood. They weigh nothing and are very buoyant. They are also a beast to row and I definitely should have stuck to cricket!
With wet legs and a wet skirt, it was now time for crab races. Somehow I got roped into assisting with the numbering of the crabs that had been caught specially that morning for the races and were clearly quite annoyed at having been left in a box for the last couple of hours. Whilst trying to pick up one of the feisty little blighters, it took a chunk out of one of my fingers which then bled impressively. No prizes to you for guessing which crab I bet on – and won 2 races out of 3 with? Oh yes… 😀
And then – as if that wasn’t enough for one day – it was time to learn how to weave traditional baskets with Danny.
I had rounded up half a dozen people who were also interested. We paid him 20US each for a lesson that lasted about three hours and at the end of it, we all went home with a beautiful basket. He was very, very patient with us and we had a really wonderful time. I don’t think that any of us are about to set up in competition to him though – it’s much harder than you might think!
Then it was time for more beer drinking, a dinghy ride home, a last game of Rummikub on board IdaLina and an early bed. And all of it in a tea dress!
With no rest for the wicked, the following day – Sunday – started early with church. In case you’re new here, this is not our usual Sunday morning activity.
This was, without question, the most moving and joyous and positive and welcoming church service I have ever attended. If all churches were like this, they would be full every Sunday morning. The music was as glorious as you can imagine and the sermon was fascinating. The pastor spoke about people needing a ‘reset’ – to stop being distracted by things that have no real value, by the glitz and empty shimmer of much of the modern world, to stop and be grateful for a minute. He said that, sometimes things go horribly wrong to make you stop and take stock of where you are and what you are doing. With or without the filter of Christianity, the message was spot on. We all left the church feeling warmed to our core and with plenty to think about.
A few easy, sunny hours later, it was time for the end of the P.A.Y.S. Yachties Appreciation Week. There was to be a celebration up at Fort Shirley. We had visited the tourist areas of the restored 17th century fort earlier in the week during a hike of the Cabrits (the two hills above the bay) with William McLawrence. It is an impressive garrison in a commanding position at the head of Prince Rupert Bay, with eye-stretching views out to the ocean. Nothing could ever have passed in or out of here without being spotted.
We donned our best party clothes, got a lift with Providence and were driven up to the historic monument where we were left to roam this amazing, historic setting as the sun went down. Tera and Pieter on Peak had brought champagne, so to the noise of celebratory cork popping, we reminisced about how absolutely incredible the week had been.
Once the party officially started,we moved inside the main building and there was more amazing food, more laughter, more music, more good spirits. There were speeches (even I gave one on behalf of the yachties and thanked P.A.Y.S. for such a well-organised and interesting week on their beautiful island), prizes with goodie bags for – it seems – every single boat that attended even one single event this week – and a wild performance by the Dominican King of calypso to finish the evening. We had the old building jumping in a way that cannonballs would never have achieved.
On Monday, we rested, and on Tuesday, we regretfully upped anchor and set sail for Guadeloupe.
Dominica is special. It’s not like anywhere else. But it’s probably not for everyone…
There are islands in the Caribbean where people of colour are primarily only in service roles. The white folk are in charge. If this is what you like, don’t go to Dominica because – well – we only met a handful of pale-skinned people and they were definitely not in charge. Tourists are mostly white, but Dominican hospitality is legendary – and on their own terms. If you’re white, you’re neither the boss, nor do you feel like the target. You’re just a person. Dominica feels well organized, structured, a little overburdened with bureaucracy at times but there’s no blatantly obvious corruption (unlike other places we’ve been). The P.A.Y.S. organization in particular is an example that other islands, eg St Vincent, could follow to attract more yachts to visit. It feels so very safe here.
There are islands in the Caribbean who are wrecking their biodiversity with over-population, over-building and overuse of the wrong kind of fertilisers. More roads, more intensive farming, more, more, more… If you’re into this, don’t go to Dominica because the population is pretty small and the traditional Dominican way is to live in harmony with the environment. You can learn all about partner planting and harvesting by the moon here because that’s what everyone does. There’s a reason why the fish and bird life is so abundant. The land is so fertile and so very beautiful. People may not have much (much what – useless clutter in their homes? Pairs of shoes they never wear? Kitchen gadgets they’ve never used? Hmmm…) by European standards, but no one goes hungry here. Push a stick in the ground and it will grow roots…
There are many islands in the Caribbean where the road system is downright hazardous and people drive aggressively and carelessly. Not Dominica – the roads are honestly better than in the UK. And people love their cars here – along the beachfront at sunset on a Sunday night, the local lads proudly show off their polished treasures –older Japanese sportscars and hot hatches, carefully looked after. People drive slowly, possibly stoned or a bit drunk, but carefully nonetheless. We didn’t feel at all at risk at any point.
There are also islands in the Caribbean that sport vast hotel complexes with pools that could be anywhere on the planet. So far, so good – there are only a handful of hotels on Dominica, but this is slowly growing. Let’s hope the Dominican government doesn’t cave and allow vast over-development. Some things are not meant to be shared with everyone the whole time. It would be great if Dominica could remain as The Discovery Channel – and not turn into the Disney Channel…
In case you hadn’t figured it out, we fell in love with this island and its people.
Dominica, you will forever be in our hearts. You’re a beacon of how good things can be – an unspoiled droplet of all that is best on this planet. Please don’t change too much. You’re like paradise on earth and there’s a high likelihood that we will be back at the first opportunity.
Ciao for now… next stop Guadeloupe, Antigua, who knows what’s next!