Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Swinging by Dominica

Portsmouth, Dominica (and below)

A different kind of yacht - motor sailing out of the Saints anchorage
We’re picking our way south through the eastern Caribbean pond like frogs hopping between lily pads.  We estimate the length of the jump, and the conditions for making it, we launch ourselves, and three or four hours later, sometimes longer, we land. Plop.  Another country.  Another set of formalities (and another internet barrier). We’re beginning to get a feeling for how things roll in the pond. We’re beginning to distinguish variations in the pond too. Not all lily pads are the same.

Prince Rupert Bay anchorage at Portsmouth

Most people apparently recognise this hut on the Indian River

Our guide, Sea Bird (Jeffrey) told us we were the first people he'd ever met who'd never seen the movies made on the river - Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3

Yesterday we hopped over from Roseau, on Dominica, to St Pierre on Martinique. You couldn’t pick two more different lily pads, though both are in glorious natural settings (the pond is beautiful – that goes without saying) and both have or had the title “island capital”.

Main street Roseau

Government House, Dominica

Public library, Roseau

Roseau is a dirt poor place with a smattering of  self-important institutions. A parliament. A university. A national broadcaster.  A cricket stadium.  Tourists come for what’s outside the town, the waterfalls and jungle, the mountains, the parrots, the sulphur springs, but for us this time it was the life on the street we saw. The roads barely paved but thick with traffic. The people congregated on the narrowest of footpaths (or in the deep gutters), sitting alone in deep shade on the lush grass of the botanic gardens, idling on the verandah of the many-sided public library, crouching on doorsteps almost in the road. The way they moved their bodies, even those on crutches, or pushing carts. Sensually. Their habit of greeting you as you walked by, even the young toughs. Especially the young toughs.  “Hello sweetheart,” a hand extended.


(Alex was feeling a bit off colour while we were in Roseau, so I'm switching for to a set of photos he took at the market in Portsmouth, in the north of the island - you could transplant the people to Roseau, I think, though perhaps I'm taking liberties here). 

I don’t imagine that St Pierre ever felt like Roseau, though it too was once an island capital.  St Pierre measured itself by European standards. It had an 800-seat theatre, modeled on one in Bordeaux.  Its main street was (and remains) named for Victor Hugo, and people apparently called the town the Paris of the Antilles. St Pierre’s prosperity was built on sugar and, until slavery was outlawed by the French in 1848, on trade in African people who worked the plantations. 

Mt Pelee, the mountain which destroyed St Pierre

The anchorage at St Pierre

 People don’t remember St Pierre now for its elegance, or its culture, or its brutality, but for the fact that on the morning of 8 May 1902 the town and its 30,000 inhabitants were incinerated by a toxic gas blast which shot out of the side of Mt Pelee, the volcano which towers over St Pierre. All gone. Melted. Caramelized. The only survivor was a prisoner, protected by the thickness of the walls of his cell and a trickle of water which kept him alive for five days until he was found amongst the rubble.

Roseau, St Pierre, Falmouth, Portsmouth. These names, a legacy of the colonisers, meant nothing to me less than a month ago. But that’s changing.  Yesterday I finished reading the second of two novels by Jamaica Kincaid, who was born in Antigua. I noticed that the Library of Congress had catalogued The Autobiography of My Mother under Women – Dominican Republic – Fiction and I was shocked. Didn’t those American librarians know the difference between Dominica and the DR?

The anchorage at St Pierre is a ledge along the beach
When we arrived in the anchorage at St Pierre, which is a narrow ledge along the beach (did the volcano’s several blowouts change the shape of the sea floor, we wondered, as we looked at old photographs of many tall ships anchored in the bay of St Pierre in the 19th century), we saw Sahula. We’d been keeping an eye out for David on his red steel sloop. David is a single-hander, a retired law professor from Queensland whom we’d met in Gibraltar, and then again on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. We’d met other friends of his, Paddy and Carolyn, in the Saints, off Guadeloupe. Their boat Kristiane, from Sydney, was flying a particularly bright new Australian flag. I was feeling the need for company, so I paddled over in the kayak and, as it turned out, they could almost have been neighbours back home. 

The Australian sailing yacht Sahula

Sahula's captain David Haigh

 Carolyn and Paddy were settling into the Saints for a longish stay, and she was hoping that David would arrive there before we left. She talked of putting a couple of joints of lamb in the oven for us all (there was a very good butcher/deli in Le Bourg, called Robbe whose meat came in from France).  Both Kristiane and Sahula have decided to delay crossing the Pacific until 2016, so it seems likely that any lamb we eat together will have be Australian not French-born.

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