Thursday, March 8, 2012

Welcome to Dominica: The Nature Island (Part One)

By Shervin Stoney

Out the window to my right I can only see mountains. Rolling peaks of deep rich green haloed by the serene blue of the Atlantic Ocean. We are landing in Marigot on the East side of the island. A thin strip of black paved land is creeping closer to us. Finally, after what seems like a lifetime, I arrive in Dominica, the Nature Island.

Even though I am sitting in the first row, I am the last to exit the plane. I walk out of the plane and down the stairs, the crisp fresh Dominican breeze wakes up my sleepy eyes. Waiting by the entrance to the small customs building are my fellow Americans from the Eastern Caribbean 84th Peace Corps Class. I have no thought of the other twenty-one volunteers evenly split between Saint Vincent, Grenada, and Saint Lucia. We stand in a circle and lean in while holding each others shoulders. “EC 84” we chant in unison. We quickly pass through the small customs building and exit the building to find a large group of current volunteers on the highland smiling and screaming our names. Each member of EC 84 is handed a bag of plantain chips, small coconut bread, and a fruit drink. We all introduce ourselves to greeting party members.

In a quick jumble we pack our bags into two small vans and usher off towards our new homes for the next two months. Another member of my Peace Corps class and I occupy the van with a current volunteer. She is from California, like many of the other Peace Corps Volunteers in the Eastern Caribbean. Like me, she is a Youth Development Volunteer.

The road starts off nice and flat, no different than the United States. Slowly we begin to transition to roads that are pencil thin and squiggling as if they were drawn on to the land carefree; so narrow at times that when another car passes we pull off to the side of the road to avoid collision. Our driver is a skilled seamster constantly stringing a needle-sized road with the small white van. I am surprised at myself for not being nauseous from this rollercoaster ride.

On the right there are only verdurous valleys, seemingly untouched by civilization. On the left there are only high walls of vegetation, really steep mountainsides. The radiant greens are spilling over onto the road as if Mother Nature herself colored outside the line for miles, the way children do. The only part of the land that is not green is the coal-black road.

As the roads get wider, I know we are about to enter Roseau, the capital. Population: sixteen thousand. I cannot see any building in the distance that is above three stories. The structures are vibrant and multicolored. We cross a small river named for the capital. The entrance to the city is marked with an arch that is carved out of wood; patterns and colors circle the name of the city sculpted into the arch. The roads begin to get razor thin, I suspect the cars and carts cause it to seem that way. They are scattered along the side of the road, accompanied by a vast number of people standing, conversing and going along their merry way. The city is frozen in time, very few speckles of modernization.

We stop at the edge of the city. The driver tells us he is hungry, and he runs into a small bakery called “From a Humble Beginning.” I have only been in Dominica for two hours and I am already humbled by the all that I have seen: a country that is in a cultural tango with its British and French imperialist history. We drive for another half an hour before we reach Grand Bay. I pass the Pichelin Primary School and the Grand Bay Youth Center, my two work sites. The Pichelin Primary School is tiny and bright green. The Youth Center is a bright yellow and two stories high. Around the corner from the Youth Center we go down a steep hill sprinkled with houses and shops on both sides of the street. The driver informs me that this is the epicenter of Grand Bay, called Lallay, taken from Creole, meaning "the alley." We stop near the bottom of Lallay; I have finally arrived at my home for the next two months. The entire experience so far has a surreal familiarity to it. So much like Jamaica, the place I lived till I was ten, but so different.

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