If there is one thing guaranteed to elicit an exaggerated eye roll from a person living in Dominica, then it’s getting the island confused with the Dominican Republic. “Do your homework, people!” the charismatic taxi driver yelled when explaining her frustration about this prickly geographic point. “It’s not hard! We’re a small, green island and the Dominican Republic shares its space with Haiti. We are not the same!”
I was nodding along furiously praying I wouldn’t start mixing up the two when I knew full well which was which. Employing a diversionary tactic was necessary. I asked about the famed category 5 hurricane Maria which hit the island in 2017, devastating everything in its path and considered the worst natural disaster on record to hit that part of the Caribbean.
I was visiting the island two years after Maria with my toddler daughter in tow, still unsure of what was going to greet us. I needn’t have worried. There were still bridges being constructed and the odd wind-ravaged and now abandoned house but aside from that the clean-up job had been thorough and very well executed. The only slightly jarring note were a number of battered cars parked neatly along the edge of the roads. I assumed there’d been an unfortunate pile up at some point until it was explained to me that the cars had been retrieved from sodden fields, plucked from atop palm trees, removed from gardens and hauled from rivers and were now waiting to end their days at the dump.
The night of the hurricane sounded truly terrifying, made all the more haunting by the excellent story-telling abilities of my taxi driver friend. She knows how to employ dramatic pauses when required. But hers was also a cautionary tale of cover ups and misinformation spread by the Government.
“We were never told it was a category 5 by the government,” she explained. “We only found out when relatives in other countries called us before it hit saying, “they’re forecasting a cat 5. Be prepared”. We all thought it would be a cat 2 or 3 so people were still driving around in their cars when it hit”.
As with all natural disasters, there were incredible survival stories. For instance the elderly man who clung to his mattress as it was torn from his house, and who was found – still holding on – hours later in the middle of the road.
Miraculously the airport’s runway avoided being flooded which, thankfully, meant aid could be flown in almost immediately. “So many countries helped us,” explained the taxi driver. “We were so thankful”.
I like to think this generosity was a result of people realising just how wonderful this island is. Covered in peaks of thick rainforest, my daughter and I started off at the Emerald Pool located Morne Trois Pitons National Park. A cascade of glittering water surrounded by plumes of butterflies feeds a blissfully clear pool the colour of a Morpho butterfly’s wings. Then on to the extraordinarily British-sounding Trafalgar Falls (the island has a wonderful mix of Anglo and Gallic names owing to its battles between the English and French over the territory throughout history). A short walk through the forest and you can hear the spattering of water on rocks long before you see the thin strands of H20 landing on the floor below. Swimming is recommended.
A further drive saw us pass through the capital, Roseau, and along the coast towards the north. I emailed the owner of the guesthouse where we were staying the night in advance asking about dining options. “Red Rocks is great!” the reply. No address, just a name. The taxi driver appeared to know where I was talking about.
This is where things began to get delightfully weird. We suddenly turned off the road and bumped across a stubbly field where an old shipping container had been converted into a bar of sorts. There was no one about and a few plastic chairs scattered about. The taxi drove off. I cleared my throat. Suddenly a beaming lady appeared asking what I would like to eat. And then a man – no larger than a woodland sprite – emerged from a path with long, grey dreadlocks and enormous, kind eyes. He spoke in an extraordinarily sing-song tone and talked about us walking with him to his ‘red kingdom’. Reader, I fully understand if you think my brain has leaked out of my ears but, I swear, this is all true.
Whenever I tell my friends this tale, they ask in astonishment what I thought I was doing walking with my daughter and this strange little imp down wooded paths as twilight fell. I can only say that something in my gut felt the situation was safe and, thankfully, I was right.
We finally emerged on a Mars-like surface (hence the reference to the ‘red kingdom’) where the crimson-coloured rocks had been smoothed into an undulating landscape that dropped away into the azure sea. A slither of a moon hung in the fast-darkening firmament. Our guide explained his family had lived there for years and now he was guardian of this sacred place.
We made our way back to the shipping container and gorged ourselves on fried plantain and salad. Just as I was pondering how to get to our guesthouse, headlights came bursting over the horizon and a car screeched to a halt in front of us. “Darlings!” bellowed a Canadian accent. “I’m SO glad I found you. How were you going to get to my guesthouse? Let me have a beer before I take you back. How OLD is your darling baby? Those eyes! Beautiful! Now, have you eaten enough? STOP. Actually, don’t answer that. I’ve made cake. Us girls will go back and have tea and cake. Wonderful!”
And with that the three of us piled into the car and spent the rest of our one night in Dominica devouring chocolate sponge and talking about the marvellous randomness of life on an island like the Dominican Republic. JOKE. Dominica.