Thursday, May 12, 2004

(Finally Inside Dominica)

Well, because of things going on and the pager rotation, I just haven't gotten around to seeing Dominica yet. Heck, other than the boat drill a couple of weeks ago, I haven't even set foot on the pier. So, with the day off, I decided it was time to sample it a bit. For those who have come back here to see the waterproof camera pics, they are here. The rest of you can just read down 'till you get to them.

I took a shore tour called the Wacky Rollers tour. It is a Range Rover military vehicle that has been painted very brightly. Each one has a completely different paint job, and there seem to be a dozen or so. Each goes different places at different times, there were three or four on my tour. We still were moving around at different enough times that we rarely saw each other. I figured that this would be a good way to see some scenery and figure out what I would want to go back and see later.

Dominica is incredibly gorgeous. It is a small island, but is made up completely of mountains. A number of them are over a half-mile tall, which keeps them in the clouds. It is the only place owned by the U.S. that has genuine rain forests. It's quite the contrast from Aruba (which, if you remember, gets 17 inches of rain a year), getting around 370 inches of rain a year.

I (obviously) have quite a few pictures, but not nearly as many as I would have liked. It is a bit hazy from the rain, and we were moving pretty fast most of the time which makes it hard to take pictures. Most of us were standing in the back, but the things bounce around so much that it also makes picture-taking difficult. Most of the roads that we were on were only one lane, but two-way. They were VERY twisty, and again without speed limits or passing zones. The thing to do, apparently, is to honk every time you get close to a corner. Unfortunately, not everyone follows this nicety, so we had several close calls. Luckily there isn't enough traffic density to cause too many accidents. I think that this is not only due to the small size of the island, but largely to the fact that gas is $8 a gallon.

Our first stop after driving at a rather mad pace through the city was at an overlook. Here I am, although I should have had the person taking the picture use a flash. The Destiny is just outside the right of the second city picture, I had to zoom quite a bit to get to it. Because of the amount of rain, there are obviously a lot of beautiful plants here. Even the air plants really thrive. They have a wide selection of fruit plants, and a lot of spices that they export. There were cocoa and nutmeg trees everywhere. I also saw cashew, mango, star fruit, bread fruit, banana, cinnamon, guava,  coconut (of course),  and several other plants right on the side of the road. At one of the stops, he stooped down to break off a blade of grass on the side of the road, and it was lemongrass (which smells fantastic). A couple of times he would reach down at the edge of the pavement and pluck something, one plant's roots smelled just like spearmint. There was a tree with a smooth, inedible fruit that they pluck and carve into things. I know a lot of plant-lovers out there are probably irritated at me for not telling you what all of the flowers and plants are. If I was writing an official travel story I'd take notes. However, I prefer to just enjoy myself and see everything, the names are really secondary to me.

We made another stop at a park. There were a lot of beautiful plants there, I wish that I could have had time to explore this stairway some more . . . There were a number of places around (such as a beautiful mansion at the top of one mountain) that had evidence of major damage. I didn't shoot it, but there was a school bus that was completely crushed by a tree here. There had been a hurricane some years ago that caused all of it. There were a lot of mahogany trees here, an awful lot of mahogany furniture is made on the island (but not exported).

We stopped shortly at another overlook, where I got a number of mountain pictures. Several of these were also in the clouds.  For anyone with high- speed bandwidth or lots of time, here is a short movie of the location.  Here is the valley, as well as a close-up of a house that they were adding a story to (more on that later). On the way to it, I actually got a shot of Trafalgar Falls, even shooting over the roof of a moving off-road vehicle. I didn't say it was a good shot . . . We weren't going there, but I hope to next week.

We stopped at another location where there were a great number of hot springs. The whole area is under a lot of pressure, but keeps from blowing because the pressure releases in many places.  As I was walking around I would feel hot spots, and it would be a small bubbling hole. There is sulfur everywhere (as it comes out of the ground also), and they sell it in packets. The gas is pretty much dissipated as it comes out of the ground, so the sulfur that they sell doesn't smell. They put it on their faces to clear up skin and bathe in it. There are a number of hot springs around there, and just below us was a small lake that couldn't be seen through the steam. The water is under such pressure that it comes out of the ground at 120° C (248° F). Of course it instantly turns to steam, and makes the lake WAAAAY to hot to try swimming. Good for boiling food and such though . . . if you don't mind the sulfur taste. Here is an example of hurricane damage (this is the bottom of a tree). At this stop he handed out Coke, water, and coconut empaņadas. I know that some of you (Tonya) are thinking "Yuck!" I don't like processed coconut at all. However, fresh coconut is very good. They shredded this with a lot of the milk and mixed it with pure sugarcane to put into the dough, they were very good.

Next we moved to our last destination. The morning group hadn't been able to go here, because the bridge to get to it was under water. I had originally been bummed that I couldn't go out earlier, but we had another boat drill. A couple of people went anyway, I think that they had forgotten about the drill. The good news is that it worked out and they didn't get in trouble, because the drill was cancelled. The bad news is that they cancelled it because of rain. They all had to wear ponchos and couldn't go swimming where we did. There are waterfalls  and streams everywhere. They use them both to run drinking water to populated areas, and to run small hydroelectric plants (60%, the rest comes from diesel generators). Here is where we were headed, to a small dam that they had put up to pool water high enough to go into a pipe. They don't divert all of the water, so the natural stream still flows. The pipe is amazing, it is very long, snakes around everywhere, and is completely made of wood slats, with metal bands holding it together. It can curve around a lot more than a concrete or metal pipe, but it must have been a real pain to make. Those of us who were brave enough (only a third) climbed into the pool of water. It was very cold, but if you look at the second picture you will see water pouring into the pool at the end. This water (even though it was above ground as far as I could see) was very warm. I unfortunately didn't have anyone take a picture of me while I was in the water, and of course I couldn't bring the digital camera. I did buy a disposable waterproof camera, I'll try to get those picture posted when I can scan them. What you can't see in this picture is the area to the right of the falling water. There used to be a waterfall there, but the rock split and a big crack opened up. Now the waterfall is quite a ways back inside at the end of the crack. It is about 40 feet deep and runs from 6 to 20 feet wide. It is awesome, swimming through a crack with only slivers of light and sunbeams coming through, trees and vines lining the whole thing at the top. There were lots of crabs wedged into small cracks around the waterline. The crack had a couple of narrow points, and when we got close to the end of it the swimming became more difficult (since we were swimming upstream at a waterfall). I was amazing, it is really a shame so many people didn't come see it. Everyone on my truck was under 40, but there was a whole group of retirees (that came from somewhere else) that WERE swimming to the falls.

After we got out of the water and hiked back to the truck, I looked to be in pretty sad shape. However, it was time for another snack. They had raw coconut, mangoes, apricots, papaya, pineapple (which, of course, I DIDN'T eat), and raw coconut. They also had chunks of sugar cane, which you chew on and suck out the juice. He then poured each of us a glass of their homemade rum punch. It is made from a very strong rum mixed with cinnamon, nutmeg, mango syrup, and sugar cane (all native, including the rum). The rum was really strong and I suspect would have been good, but it was awfully sweet to me. After that we raced (literally, with three other 4x4's) back to the ship, as it was setting sail at 6 (the trip had started at 1:30). Believe me, it is really tough to drink a class of rum punch while careening madly down twisty and rough one-lane mountain roads (some were paved but none with guard rails) while standing in the back of a stiffly-sprung 4x4 and trying to hold on. I have a fleeting suspicion that they give you the punch just to prepare you for the trip back.

I made it back just in time to sit out on the deck for a while and read for a bit. I got a nice picture of the end of the island as we pulled away, then hung around for a nice sunset.

I mentioned the house that they were adding the second story to, that was an interesting phenomenon here. An awful lot of Dominica is unpopulated, which is nice. Then there are the cities and outlying areas. In some of these, the government leases out small houses on a kind of subsidized rent-to-own deal. You could see sections of houses that were in stages. At the end the houses would be small, new, and still under rent. A bit closer were houses that were a bit older but paid off, and the closest houses had a number of different roofs on them where they keep adding on. Of course, eventually you get to the edges of your lot, and you build up instead of out. There is also a third category of land. Like the Americas, Dominica was already populated with natives when it was "discovered" by Columbus. Unlike us, however, the settling people didn't eradicate the locals. They took a gigantic section of the country and made it illegal to build for anyone but natives. The native people are similar to American Indians in that they don't really consider the "ownership" of land. The government allows them complete freedom in where they live, they just pick a spot and build. No ownership, no titles, no taxes, and no building codes. When they die or are done with it, another native can move into it or it can just fade away back into the landscape.

I have a few pictures that I took with the underwater camera that I finally got developed. Unfortunately they developers had a problem getting the camera opened, and a number of pictures from this trip are ruined. They also put the pictures on CD for me (which is where these came from), but there was one picture that they printed but didn't put on the CD, and one picture on the CD that I don't have a print of. The picture that I don't have digitally is one looking up at the crack with the sun shining through. I decided it wasn't good enough to go through the trouble to find a scanner. It is a shame, the waterfall picture and the other pictures of the swim up the crack were ruined. Here is one as I was getting into the water, the small fall that you see here is very warm water. The rest of the water was pretty cold, but it felt good to stand under the warm water coming from a hot spring. Not the greatest picture of me, though . . .  This one is just a snap of the mountains nearby. Here is a link to get you back to June if you are coming from there.