Have you ever read a fairy tale that almost seemed more fact than fiction, or a fantasy story that you just wished was real? Well, on Dominica that line between myth and reality is delightfully blurred. On our approach, the vividly green island wore a thin veil of tropical haze. Out of the misty bay shot a single boat that looked like a glorified dinghy. This boat came out to meet us offering a tour up the Indian River, a must-see attraction on Dominica, while we were still at least a mile out. This was the first sign of the almost cut-throat competition for the almighty dollar on Dominica.
The second came immediately after dropping anchor. The sand on the bottom had not even settled before a second boat of the same style and similar once bright, now faded coloring came out. This man introduced himself as Sugar Daddy, like the candy. We would eventually find that most people on this island had similarly eclectic names, although whether these titles were self-styled or actually appeared on their birth certificates was unknown. And of them, Sugar Daddy was the most common; there being no fewer than four others that we had come across. He basically came out offering to do our grocery shopping, and deliver it right to our boat. We accepted because we were not able to go ashore today because it was too late to clear customs, and we thought it was pretty neat having fresh fruits and vegetables brought right out to us. And this was only the first such occurrence.
Early the next morning a man paddled out to our boat on a surf board peddling what he called mango apples, a rare type of mango. At first, we didn’t think we were interested, but then he offered us a free sample. I can honestly say that they were probably the best fruit I had ever have tasted. They were unbelievably sweet, fleshy, and juicy but very messy. The pale orangey juice covers your entire face and drips down your elbows in a gloriously sticky mess, but it is definitely worth it. We bought over a dozen for just a few dollars and a small package of Oreos. They did not last all that long ,but when we had only a few left we tried to save them for a special occasion, but we saved them for too long and were devastated to find they were rotten and gathering flies. We never saw the mango apple peddler again, nor did we ever find them elsewhere.
From our vantage point, the island appeared to be a massive blob of green and more green. But, the unparalleled beauty of the rainforests contrasted deeply with the impoverished cities. The villages here were more destitute than any we had seen before. The streets were either unpaved or full of potholes, and the sidewalks had been chiseled away. I thought I had seen poverty before, but this was different. The sight of this city caused a strange pang, for I could not quite pity the inhabitants because everywhere it was allowed, life bloomed. Yes, the town was poor and dirty, but in a charming sort of way. Every available square inch of dirt was occupied with some sort of plant life, including breadfruit, hibiscus, palms, grapefruit, and more. It was almost as if the forest was trying to reclaim the land.
Something I have learned on this trip is that spontaneous occurrences are generally more fun than planned events. The next day we found ourselves taking a bus ride around the entire island. It was something we had not planned on doing, but ended up being one of the best days of our entire trip. Although, it was not your average tourist bus tour. There were 11 of us in something similar to a Volkswagen hippy bus. There were the four of us, a young Canadian couple, and a handsome French family with three cute little children. Because of a bit of a misunderstanding, the tour guide spoke mostly French, though English was his first language, and the French couple could speak English quite well. Although, half way thought the trip the tour guide either gave up speaking French, or figured out that the French speaking people could speak English but the English speaking people could not speak French.
Moments after we exited the city we were surrounded by jungle. Whenever we passed something interesting the tour guide, who was also driving the bus, would either slow down or stop to tell us about it, and it was generally some type of plant. Tree-like banana plants were weighed down by enormous bunches of ripe yellow or immature green bananas, some of which still had the large purple, almond-shaped remains of the pollinated flower dangling weirdly below. Familiar coconut palms and spindly sugarcane were also present in abundance. But the strangest and most interesting plants we saw on the ride were the cashew tree and pineapple plant. The pineapple plant was particularly interesting because it was simply a pineapple sitting on a bed of leaves. It was just so peculiar seeing it innocently sitting on the side of the road. But, even more fascinating was the cashew tree. The cashew “nut” that many of us are familiar with is actually the stem of a fruit, and is poisonous until it is roasted. Our guide picked a red apple-like cashew fruit for us to look at with the curved “nut” perched on top.
We stopped to stretch our legs in a grapefruit orchard, where dew-laden grass ticked our bare ankles as we stood back while our guide climbed up and shook the tree. Plump, pale yellow pink grapefruits a-plenty rained down. These Dominican grapefruits have spoiled me for life because nowhere else are there any sweeter than these.
Up next was a coconut roasting factory, where the workers toiled at husking the coconuts, stoking the fires and roasting the white flesh till it is left toasty brown with a distinct smokey, nutty flavor. Our bus waded thought a very shallow river to a mock Carib Indian village. The infamous, cannibalistic Carib Indians once thrived throughout the Caribbean, which was named after them, and some never left Dominica. The no longer cannibalistic descendants of the Carib Indians now live on reservations in the forest, and we got to see how they lived in pre-Colombian times and who they are today. Just outside the mock village full of small dried grass huts, the descendants sell wonderful hand-made trinkets of impeccable quality. Nearby, they also dance in full primitive costumes, like something right out of the pages of National Geographic.
Our final official stop was at Emerald Pool waterfall. It was a five minute hike through the rainforest from parking lot to waterfall. From the moment I stepped into the forest I was caught under its seductive spell. Sweet floral and cut grass scents wafted thought the humid air so thick you could take a bite out of it. The air was positively electric, trees had moss skins and tiny green and brown lizards scurried on tendril vines. I glided thought the glimmering, throbbing green forest. Everything glittered with dew, and I could have sworn I caught sight of a fairy out of the corner of my eye. It was magic. The waterfall gushed from the recent rain into the aptly named Emerald Pool. The ever present mist from the fall covered anything nearby, including myself, with dew drops that glitter like diamonds. As soon as I left the forest I could not wait to go back again.
In the parking lot there are stands selling hand made souvenirs and fresh fruits. We sample guava, sugarcane, fresh pineapple, and coconut candy made from the smoky, nutty stuff we had seen roasted. The fresh pineapple was my favorite and I ate it till my mouth went numb. After we had gone back to the boat, and even days, months, and years after we had left, the rainforest still calls to me. And I cannot wait to go back again.