Sorry to inundate you with reading material – I am trying to catch up for all the time I missed keeping you updated. What can I say, take it into the bathroom – those of you who still make lengthy trips there… In this update, I’m doing a little backtracking, so as to describe our adventures in:
We left Guadeloupe, the lushest island of all thus far, on March 14, bound for Dominica, to pick up our next “charters” -- friends Bette & Leo Rutman and Sandy & Larry Lefkowitz, (“The first week is free,” Gary now tells guests. ”After that it’s $15,000 a week, plus food and drink…feel free to stay as long as you like.” That, by the way, is actually what a boat like Lulu charters for in season.)
Dominica -- never heard of it, right? You’re not alone. Almost no one has, despite the fact that this small island – 29 miles long and 16 miles wide -- lies directly along the run between Guadeloupe and Martinique. It’s rarely advertised, has few – but certainly no luxury -- hotels and virtually no visitors, save yachtspeople. Which is why it’s so unspoiled. All that may change, and soon, since virtually everyone there is now bent on making Dominica a center of eco-tourism. It sure has the raw materials.
Dominica breathes beauty out along with vast quantities of oxygen from its incredible variety of growing things. The Smithsonian calls the island “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years,” which is why it’s described as the only island Christopher Columbus might yet ecognize today.
Another, perhaps apocryphal, story has it that when words failed Columbus as he described the island’s steep peaks and deep valleys to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, he grabbed a sheet of paper and crumpled it up.
Dominica is a giant sponge, soaking up the overflow from its 366 rivers, usually swollen from the extra rain that falls when clouds get stopped by the tall mountains. As a result, vegetation grows thick and oversized – palm trees have colossal silver-green fronds measuring, we estimated, 36” wide and eight to ten feet long. Dominican palms are so tall that, viewed from our anchored boat, they looked like giant flowers stuck into the sand beaches. More unusual are the many ancient swamp bloodwood trees, 400-years-or more-old. The soil is so dense and moist that tree roots can’t breathe, so they literally come up for air --sending out huge, above-ground flying buttress roots that radiate from the trunks like teepees. Other species grow their bared roots in impressive networks of swirls and ripples, like mermaid tresses, trailing yards and yards over the ground.
The abundance is everywhere, species growing atop species in epiphytic (friendly, as opposed to parasitic) relationships. There are, for example 90 species of orchids on the island, 160 bird species, four different types of bananas, seven of pineapple. On the relatively short Indian River, there are 20 species of crabs, 188 of swamp ferns, whose fronds cast trembly yellow and green reflections along our path, reaching out to an approaching skiff as if offering up the woods and waters. We saw greenback herons, mud hens, manicou and agouti. Later, in the rain forest, we picked fat bananas and grapefruits whose plump pulp spouted rivers of juice down our welcoming throats. Gratefully, we saw no representative of the 13 bat species.
Dominica’s steep topography, coupled with its massive interior rain forests, defies elaborate road building or mechanized farming, which is why both tourism and agriculture have faltered. There is, as a result, a colossal 50% to 60% unemployment rate, particularly among young men. Concurrently, scores of agricultural jobs go unfilled -- because, young men reason, “Why should I want to spend all my days lugging bananas like my parents to make $12 to $15 US a day?”
With no industry to speak of, the population, numbering 72,000, is poor in a way that defies description. Many people live in tiny shacks no bigger than outhouses, patched together with an assortment of discarded wood, corrugated panels, graffitied boards – houses constructed entirely of “found objects, ” with dilapidated tin- or thatched roofs of woven sugar cane.
Row after row of low grimy buildings – homes and stores -- line the main street of Portsmouth, Dominica’s second largest “city.” In the kind of stark contrast that typifies Dominica, this magnificent natural harbor on Prince Rupert Bay is littered with the rusting hulks of large boats that were picked up and hurled to land by hurricanes dating back to the ‘70s. Funds have never been found to clear them: corrupt politicians and bureaucrats also swam in Dominica’s scant money pool.
Dominicans themselves enhance and embody their homeland’s disparities: you pass scores of rickety houses shuddering on crooked stilts -- yet surrounded by colorful, carefully tended gardens. Many such homes in the countryside are clean and painted. It is the highest achievement for a Dominican to succeed in buying a house -- of any size.
The locals’ friendliness belies and defies their poverty. Regardless of their physicality, their ragged attire or lack of personal hygiene, passersby offer morning greetings, street directions and all manner of suggestions. Some solicit you to sell fruit or bread or for small chores like carrying away garbage. Their approaches vary from cheerful to slap-happy, but rarely exhibit the insistent or threatening manner of other islanders we’ve experienced. For the most part, they are simple, decent, peaceful, churchgoing people.
Adding insult to previous injury, Hurricane Lenny smashed and washed away numerous Portsmouth beachfront homes, among them that of our guide, Martin Carriere. After Lenny, Martin’s wife, Florian, refused to remain a sitting duck for the next demon-storm, so the family of three crowded in with relatives many months ago. Nonetheless, Martin pronounces himself a rich man. And in so many ways, he is.
Martin is another virtually indescribable Dominican institution. He is tall, broad shouldered and slim, with Denzel Washington-good looks and a road map of muscles earned rowing visitors up Portsmouth’s swampy, thickly vegetated Indian River. He refuses to use his motor, as so many of the other guides do, because it spoils the tranquility and magic of the experience and pollutes the fragile eco-system. (How ever did we express ourselves before we had this word?) The son and grandson of banana farmers, he his encyclopedic knowledge extends not only to flora and fauna, but to the folk remedies that issue from them.
Martin has turned the familiar Caribbean scavenger occupation – boatboy – into a profession, in effect, bootstrapping his way out of poverty or backbreaking plantation work. His wooden skiff, Providence, is unique in the harbor: clean, freshly painted, sporting a beefy 40-horsepower Yamaha. Yachties like us can reach him -- to arrange for safe anchoring, sightseeing tours and all manner of other local services -- not only by VHF radio – unheard of enough among his competition -- but also by email. Mind you, there are other boat boys, one or two as well groomed and efficient, but Martin literally and figuratively stands head and shoulders above them all.
He and some of his more enterprising colleagues have set themselves apart by forming an association of government-licensed tour guides. We were to interact with them in ways we hadn’t we’d planned, because quite unexpectedly we became enmeshed in the social fabric of the island.
In fact, Gary got a chance to expound publicly on a cherished theme of conservatives – law and order. As in: “throw the bum in jail and throw away the key.” For once the two of us were even on the same side of an issue, something that may never repeat itself in our lifetimes. His opinions were received with respect and agreement – anathema on the US East Coat, they were all the rage on Dominica’s West. Afterward, I got the feeling, if asked, he might have even entertained the thought of running for public office.
Beauty and the Beast
We knew, from our daily Safety & Security Net broadcasts, that two boats anchored in Prince Rupert Bay had been boarded one night just a week before our scheduled arrival. A boarding isn’t necessarily an actual break in – it means someone gets onto your deck or cockpit, someone looking usually not to harm you, but for money -- which is ominous enough. Here in the Caribbean, as in the States, such trespasses are increasingly committed by young men desperate for drugs or alcohol.
Most of us sleep with locked hatches and companionway doors, or, if that’s impossible, then slumber not quite easily, one ear to the hull. Thus, boardings are usually unsuccessful -- though obviously terrifying, especially if you recall each yachting couple is all alone out there in a dark, unfamiliar harbor, without a 911 safety net, without nearby police to call on.
We also knew that the perpetrator, a well known
rotten apple, had been found and beaten up vigilante-style, probably by the
local boatboys whose meager livelihood he threatens. He’d then been carted off
to the police and thrown in jail. He was, we were told, as in the past, the sole
cause of the recent boardings.
Apprehensive, but also anxious to experience Dominica’s well heralded, unsullied beauty, the four of us opted to come. With guests ticketed to fly there in a matter of days, Gary and I had no choice anyway.
In the four days before their arrival, we fell in love with the island. We’d eaten its fruits; trekked the rain forest, enveloped in its myriad bird and animal and tree sounds; tasted clear fresh mountain spring water; slipped and slid over and through rocky riverbanks; swum under a roaring waterfall; been scuba diving deep down along a magnificent coral wall garden, snaking our way through a dark underwater tunnel. We’d experienced warmth everywhere, from the affable people to the airport sign that reads: “Welcome to All Visitors. We love you. Sorry you have to leave.”
And we’d developed respect for our various tour guide/taxi drivers, all of them literate, well-spoken, intelligent, moral, hardworking. Our taxi driver, Maclean Marie, for example, wanted not much more from life than college educations for his three children, “so that they don’t have “to hustle, hustle, hustle like me.” And our scuba instructor, Inga, as slight as a 10-year-old: his missing right arm in no way inhibited him from manning his boat, hoisting our tanks and shepherding us through Dominica’s fabled dive spots.
Most of all, we’d come to care about Martin, who’d orchestrated all this. We’d been struck by his wholesomeness, his congeniality; appreciated his pride in his heritage, his reverence for his land and its enormous bounty, for God, for his wife, his parents, for his grandparents. We read the sparkle in his eyes as he mentioned his six-year-old daughter, Nickie; admired the breadth of his local knowledge, the delicacy of his hands fabricating tiny palm-frond birds. He wowed us, balanced at the riverbank on his haunches, one hand anchoring a small coconut to the ground, the other whacking it apart, each crack of the giant machete blade coming heartstoppingly close to his fingers. Martin’s welfare became important to us.
Boarding close to home
What we didn’t know was that the perp -- whose nickname as close as we could catch it, was BayGo (pronounced by-go) -- had been released on bail. Moreover, since there were no identifying witnesses, penal repercussions would be inadequate.
Mel and Jackie were leaving Dominica before us, returning North to prepare for their son’s wedding, The morning of their departure I turned on the radio and heard Mel describing a boarding. It didn’t take me long to figure out it was Feisty that was boarded. Mel, in readiness for an early passage and sleeping lightly, was awakened around 4AM by the sound of a thunk on his hull. It couldn’t have been the dinghy, which was lashed on deck, prepared for an island passage. Racing to the companionway and looking out the hatch he saw a black man peering into the boat from the cockpit and began screaming, “Get the fuck off my boat!” Simultaneously, he switched on all deck, mast and spreader lights, and began sounding his foghorns. The intruder fled.
Soon we all learned a second boat had been boarded and BayGo –presumably -- had stolen a third boat’s dinghy to ferry himself around, eventually abandoning it on the beach.
The large harbor emptied of sailboats faster than you could say “Donzi.” By around 10 AM, we were one of the few left. Martin was outraged. So were the other boatboys we talked to, as were all our various new Dominican friends.
Announcing this second round of boardings over the Net was inescapable, and Mel did it with great reluctance: but our primary allegiance belongs to the safety of the boating community.
“Let’s just boycott Dominica,” suggested some voice out there. A not unreasonable response – why put ourselves in danger? Others took a more wait-and-see approach. I announced that we were on the scene and in touch with Martin, who is touted throughout the liveaboard network.
Martin dinghied out to see us in mid-afternoon, his uncharacteristically solemn face criss-crossed with sadness, frustration and anger. He was determined that this incident bring change. I reported the ugly radio rumblings -- that It was clear to me he and the island stood to lose an important following. He said he’d spent the day talking with friends and officials, and had succeeded in arranging a Monday night meeting with the Prime Minister: a special audience for the boatboys and the tour guide association.
Though our plans were to pick up our friends on Saturday, spend a day touring and leave early Monday morning for Martinique, I asked Martin if he would like us to attend the meeting.
“Oh, yes,” he said, latching instantly onto the unexpected offer. “It could help a lot if you would speak for the yachties.” With that, his mouth unzipped and slipped back into its normal groove – a broad, ear-to-ear smile, vanilla-white teeth meeting rich chocolate skin.
“Our prime minister, you know, is new and we all hope he will make important changes,” said Martin. “He is a native of Portsmouth and we think he will want to do something about this problem.”
We already had a skeletal understanding of the Dominican political situation. Dame Mary Eugenia Childs, dubbed the “Iron Lady of the Caribbean” and the first woman to head a government in this area, had been Prime Minister of this former English colony for three consecutive five-year terms. The island’s economic shambles and apparent aimlessness must speak to her failure.
We were told that the next government brought, in short shrift, a level of corruption unmatched in anyone’s memory. Refusing to let this bunch carry this on through a full term, a coalition of most elements on the political spectrum threw the rascals out after four years and elected Roosevelt Douglas of Portsmouth. Just six weeks in office, “Rosie” was clearly a man with a smorgasbord of problems -- and an already full plate.
Just do it!
“Martin,” Gary began, as we sat sharing beers in our cockpit, and from our earlier private conversations, I knew this was going to be interesting. “I think you know how much Lulu and I have grown to care about you and about Dominica. But we’re not everyone. A week ago, when the first boardings happened, I didn’t want to come. And I wouldn’t have if we didn’t have guests flying here. There’s too many other beautiful islands to visit. Maybe yours is more beautiful. But it isn’t worth the terror. We’re unarmed and all alone out here at night, with no one to call for help. It’s too scary and there’s too much at stake to take a chance.
“It’s great that you’ve arranged this meeting with the Prime Minister and it’s clear that you care,” he went on. “But I gotta tell you, boating people like us don’t care about meetings and much as we love you and Dominica, they -- we -- want results, not conversation. Your job is show off this lovely island and to make visitors happy and you do it beautifully. My job is to protect my boat and my wife and I take it just as seriously.
“You’ve taken a job that lots of amateurs do, and don’t make much money at, and made it into a profession. You’re a businessman. And now your business is in danger. You could lose it. Let me tell you, as a businessman, I’d be doing something -- right now -- to make my customers feel safe. I’d do it regardless of what the government does –- only you know how much you could lose by the time the government takes action. It’s a big bunch of yacht people out there and they all speak every morning.”
A Harvard Business School grad couldn’t have come up with a more targeted business plan. Martin listened carefully and we knew we had reached him.
“It will be a great hardship to patrol,” he told us. “But we will do it.”
By the next morning, Friday, I could announce on the radio that the boatboys had a meeting with the PM, but in the meantime, as of Monday evening they’d be patrolling the harbor five hours every night. This went a long way to diffusing the situation.
Meanwhile we picked our guests – the Rutmans and Lefkowitz's -- up at the airport. They exited Customs already babbling about how spectacularly lush the island looked from the air – how different from all the others they’d visited. Sunday, Martin showed them the Indian River, and we toured the rain forest, the Carib Indian reservation. We traipsed through thick woods swam in the Emerald Pool, so called because the foliage beneath and around the pool of water is so verdant that the white waterfall crashing down is instantly dyed green.
Our friends became instant fans and enrolled in the mission to attend the meeting and help change along.
Bette & Leo Rutman, Sandy & Larry Lefkowitz are part of a friend-group -- 14 of us -- that we affectionately call “The Melons,” having to do with the quantity of food they bring when spending a long weekend on the boat. As in: cases of beer, soda and wine; whale-sized whitefishes; porterhouses the size of manhole covers; great slabs of Nova Scotia and giant chunks of baked salmon; inch-thick packages of assorted coldcuts; hunks of assorted cheeses; supermarket-sized bags of bagels; armfuls of paper tubes housing Italian and French breads; jars of peppers & condiments; cartons of chips; half-gallons of juices; two-pound containers of cream cheeses and deli salads; pails of tomatoes; baskets of blueberries, peaches, nectarines, oranges and apples. Plus dozens of Dannon Lite yogurts -- because every year we’re determined to have diet lunches!
After a human chain of bearers passes this bodega’s worth of staples from the dock up the stairs, onto to the deck, into the aft deck, down the stairs and into the salon -- when the entire living area is gridlocked by all this food pulchritude, plus all their duffels, hanging bags, cosmetics and even one guy’s bed pillows, then and only then do they bring on the melons…
And so we call them The Melons. They all like to blame me, insist that I’m the instigator, but you all know better.
Gary’s Evening in the Sun
The six of us attended the meeting in Portsmouth, scheduled for 7 PM in the tour guides’ headquarters, a small, one-room A-frame building holding, maximum, 20 folding chairs. The overflow crowd sat on the porch and hung over the window sills. The boatboys and taxi drivers, even the scruffiest, dreadlockiest of them, had washed, showered or dunked themselves in a stream until they were clean and shiny as schoolboys, each sporting his best tee shirt or button-down. A smattering of wives came for moral support. The prime minister’s advance people were already there: his honey-skinned, Harry Belafonte-lookalike attaché and his minister of tourism, a short, toothy guy in a too-bright striped polo. We were informed His Honor was way behind schedule. Apologies were offered So far it resembled your average Giuliani press conference. The PM was learning the ropes quickly, we decided. We skipped out for a brief dinner, returning to more apologies. In fact he did not show up until after 10. No one left.
The Honourable Roosevelt Douglas – Rosie -- is a veritable artist’s study in ovals: a pair of grape-shaped eyes, prune in color, and two plummy cheeks bobbing in a coffee-colored head, bald and elliptical as a honeydew. A late first-trimester-sized belly protrudes from an otherwise lean frame. Tall, vaguely courtly in demeanor, he dressed nattily in long shirt sleeves, gray suit pants -- and, despite the heat -- as if asserting his status and authority -- a necktie. Breaking faith with the ovate theme, but remaining true to the Euclidian theme, the tie was flecked with triangles.
More raconteur than rabble-rouser, he appeared to be a leader in the canny good-old boy style – a smooth Southern senator, not a banana republic blusterer, more Lyndon Johnson than Fidel Castro. Thanking us yachting visitors for our patience and our concern for Dominica, he suggested we offer our remarks before his. Martin introduced us, informing everyone we’d extended our stay so that we could give the PM our point of view.
I spoke first and briefly. First, about how Dominica had captured our hearts, and second, of the myth that the boardings were the work of one substance-starved young man, when, in fact, we had evidence from fellow cruisers of other youths in other harbors swimming around boats at night seeking to board.
Gary then took his chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to address a public forum without interruption. Although normally reticent to speak before big gatherings, he cottoned to it quickly, probably relishing being heard after years of being hushed, shushed, pshawed, pooh-poohed, shunned, shouted down argued down and given the cold shoulder for pushing all our liberal hot buttons.
He was Clark Kent in a tight tee shirt, suddenly flexing Superman muscles.
I have to say he was masterful. Opening with the “terrified twosome unprotected in unfamiliar surroundings” motif, he then moved into “too many other spectacular islands to visit” mode, then raised the smaller theme of “it’s my job to protect my wife and family,” and expanded it into the more global social dilemma: “It’s your job to protect your country” From there my little honey segued easily into the Crime and Punishment, Law and Order motifs.
“Cruisers like us are just going to sail our boats right past Dominica – and on to Martinique or St Lucia or Grenada, where we can feel safe. They’re already talking about it on the radio every morning.
“So, this criminal is doing more than preying on defenseless cruisers, he is robbing Martin and these other hard-working young men in this room of their livelihood. He’s taking food out directly out of their mouths, and their children’s mouths. And not just them, but the taxi drivers and the restaurants and the food markets. You want to build a tourist economy, you say, but he’s stopping the entire island from accomplishing it.”
Heads were nodding all around us. All that was missing were the “Amen, brother’s!”
”But it is not a small crime he’s committing. I’m not a politician or a lawyer, but I think you have to declare this a different kind of crime -- the true crime he’s committing is an economic crime. It’s a Crime Against the State. Now that’s something you should be able to punish him for!”
At this point I could just about hear the sound of the gallows being constructed outside. Rush and Rudy and Curtis, he did ‘em all proud, my little Casper Milquetoast turned Clarence Darrow.
If he had a regret it was that he couldn’t somehow work into his idea for ending welfare as we know it: whack out their ovaries or zap ‘em all with Norplant.
He didn’t quite get a standing ovation, but I’m sure they wanted to. Just didn’t want to upstage their Prime Minister.
A Rosie picture
The PM took the floor, an earnest speaker with an
obvious sense of humor. He began by telling us just how well he understood the
smaller problem: BayGo had tried on several occasions to rob his own house, on
the main street of Portsmouth. In fact, he described laying in wait in a dark
study at 2 AM, a baseball bat across his lap, to catch the culprit.
BayGo, he informed the audience – most of whom probably already knew – had been apprehended three times in 1997 for trespass, four times in 1998 and in 1999, twice.
Rosie spoke of the short term and the long term predicament. The whopping unemployment rate among young men is the root cause. Young Dominican men are preying not only on yachties and the American medical students at the local Ross Medical School, but – finding the pickings too thin in at home – are leaving in droves for other Caribbean islands – some seeking jobs and others easy money. “We are exporting not only bananas, we are a factory creating delinquents in Guadeloupe and Martinique. There are 150 young Dominicans in prison in Guadeloupe,” he reported.
“Dominica is the most beautiful Caribbean island and the most pristine,” the PM continued. “We also have to make it the safest. We are in the earliest stages of tourism and we cannot get this reputation. This stain never goes away. We must give no comfort to thieves. To that end I am meeting with my Cabinet tomorrow and instructing the Attorney General to begin preparing a law like the three strikes one you have in the United States. The police will arrest and the courts will act accordingly, be it man or woman. If that’s drastic, so be it.”
The motivation for securing safety goes beyond simply pleasing the nice yachties (or even latching onto Gary’s oratorical coattails and jurisprudential ideas). Far more economically significant, he made it clear, is protecting the rich American medical students. Ross, with its 900 future doctors, is the country’s second-biggest moneymaker. Its existence has spawned a multitude of local service businesses. It was the needs of these students alone that recently brought the island Internet-enabling fiber-optics to the island. As a result, more Dominicans these days have access to the Net than they do to medical care.
In an inspired bit of one-hand-washes-the other dealmaking, more than 20 years ago, the Dominican government gave Robert Ross a 400-acre banana plantation and a lengthy tax abatement to found his school, with the proviso that all student housing would be built and operated by locals owning nearby property. These fortunate people became, as a result, landlords. A steady stream of rental income brought a far better standard of living than weather-dependent, weevil-threatened agriculture ever could.
Building on the medical-school success, Rosie reported he was in serious talks with an agricultural college interested in a Dominican campus.
Promoting eco-tourism demands safety as well. While a network of tourist-friendly roads may never be in Dominica’s future, they’re anathema anyway to the growing army of Timberland trekkers whose itineraries favor thrashing through steamy jungles, hiking up sulphuric volcanoes and fording waterfall tributaries slick with squishy mud and mossy rocks. This Birkenstock-revivalist generation seeks only excellent camping sites -- mosquitoes be damned and bring on the monkeys. However, the dangers posed by drug-addicted poachers and poverty-stricken marauders could propel them to, say, Zimbabwe instead.
But with the country endemically short of green -- the paper kind, anyway -- increased policing becomes impossible. Rosie described his idea for raising some fast cash – a variation on the protections racket any Gotti would be proud of. He was flying to Paris to ask for a few million dollars in foreign aid to go toward better policing and creating meaningful jobs that might keep young men out of Martinique and Guadeloupe jails.
Job creation is, of course, the key to any long-term solution to Dominican poverty, substance-abuse and crime. The PM enumerated the directions he was pursuing. The United States Navy had recently agreed to remove the rusting hulks of beached ships, which would prettify Portsmouth harbor for all kinds of development. Japanese money is available for building a fish-processing facility and, perhaps, better hotels. And the Taiwanese are anxious to pay for dredging a large parcel of swamp land, though it wasn’t clear what exactly for. Dominicans like our taxi driver, Mac, are already gearing up to work on this and other projects – by buying dump trucks and aligning themselves politically to receive lucrative contracts.
This Japanese and Taiwanese glad-handing has no basis in altruism, we discovered. It’s political horse trading, pure and simple. Japanese yen are purchasing Dominica’s U.N. vote on open-access whaling and Taiwan’s money a United Nations seat. Learning this helped us understand why we’ve seen so many Oriental faces and foreign names attached to construction signs as we’ve moved on down-island to Bequia and Grenada.
Having experienced the new Prime Minister, we are hopeful, though have no real reason to believe, that the new money will funnel more into the hands of people like Martin and Mac and Inga than into the pockets of unctuous politicians and opaque bureaucrats, who, in the end, have savaged their people far more effectively than rough-around-the-edges BayGo.
We intend to be there next year to check it all out.
I think Gary is already preparing his speech.