Author of many travel books, especially on New England and the West Indies, ELEANOR EARLY lives in New York and vacations in the tropics. Her last book was New Orleans Holiday; her next will be New York Holiday.
by ELEANOR EARLY
IN DOMINICA in the British West Indies almost everybody is poor, and nearly everybody is happy. Houses rent for $20 to $45 a month, and a good cook gets $2.50 a week. Rum is 60 cents a quart, and beefsteak 25 cents a pound. If more people knew how pleasant it is to live in Dominica, then it wouldn’t be so pleasant any more — because there would be a housing shortage and prices would go up. Many things would be spoiled, and people would not be so happy.
There is an old story, repeated in every guidebook, about how it is supposed to rain 365 days a year in Dominica. This is a completely untrue and libelous legend. But it may be one of the reasons why Dominica is not a tourist resort like some other West Indian islands.
It is not a smart and gay island like St. Thomas. And it has not been exploited like Santo Domingo, where baseball clubs in spring training put Ciudad Trujillo on the map. Nor is it a tourist heaven like Jamaica with taxis and golf, and the Royal Yacht Club for cruising millionaires.
Yet Dominica is more beautiful than St. Thomas, more foreign than Santo Domingo, infinitely cheaper than Jamaica — and innocent as an enchanted land.
It is always warm in the West Indies and sometimes it is hot. But in Dominica it is not too hot and, despite the guidebooks, there is just enough rain to keep things attractive. The days are bright with sunshine, and the nights are filled with stars and fireflies. They are also filled with a lovely smell that comes from trees with big white blossoms called Ladies of the Night.
For nine months I lived in Dominica, and the only times it rained were at night. And the rain made everything clean in the morning, even the pigs and the goats. The waxy leaves of the magnolias gleamed, the rosy-cheeked mangoes shone in the sun. And the little papaws trembled, they were so shiny and clean.
Mangoes and papaws cost an English penny. Oranges, grapefruit, avocados, and tomatoes are also a penny. String beans, baby carrots, and tender young cabbage, big purple eggplants, greens, and black-eyed beans are comparably cheap. And there are various root vegetables, tania, dasheen, and yams, that are even cheaper.
There are 40,000 Negroes in Dominica and a handful of whites, 365 rivers, several mountains, and 18 automobiles. On the Atlantic side of the island there are beautiful beaches, some with pink sand and some with black.
On Saturdays the country people journey to Roseau, which is the capital city of the island, to buy and sell in the market place. Sometimes they bring in orchids that grow in the bush, and for 25 cents I have bought such sprays as fashionable florists sell for $50 in the States.
In Roseau, meat is sold only on Saturdays, sirloins and flanks for 25 cents a pound. Sometimes it is good enough to broil but mostly it is tough. Native cooks wrap the tough meat in breadfruit leaves and bury it in the ground. They anoint it with cassareep and cook it with herbs. And then, if it is cooked long enough, it is tender.
I had a colored cook whose name was Auxanges (“Of the angels”). Her eyes were blue as the sea is blue, and she wore a red turban on her head and gold hoops in her ears. She would buy rabbits and crapauds, all skin and bones, and feed them on rice and coconut meat until they were big enough for a. wonderful meal.
Crapauds are frogs that live in the mountains, where they grow to prodigious size. Once there were crapauds in all the islands of the West Indies. But mongoose, imported from India to kill snakes and rats, also killed the frogs. And now there are none except in Dominica, where they took to the mountains, and so they are called “mountain chickens.”
Crapauds are caught in the dark of the moon by boys with flambeaux who blind the frogs with bright lights and grab them when they leap. The boys sell them alive, and the cooks fatten them until their long legs get plump and meaty. They are served in a sauce made of the soup stock and coconut cream, and crapaud à la king is better than any chicken you ever tasted.
Another specialty of the island is crab-backs, the meat from land crabs, boiled and picked and highly seasoned, flavored with garlic, simmered in lard, and served in the shells.
Fish in Dominica is usually plentiful and always cheap. The fishermen pull up their boats and blow on conch shells to let the people know that the fleet is in. Then the women gather on the beach to buy strange and beautiful fish with wonderful names — cockeyed pilots and big-eyed Johns, oldwives and huge red snappers. If the sea has been good, there are turtles or crabs or lobsters.
Native produce is generally plenteous. But imported goods are scarce and costly, and the prices of imports affect some of the local produce. Eggs, for example, are six to eight cents apiece, and bread is baked in small loaves because of the high cost of Canadian grains. Butter, also from Canada, is about the price of butter in the States and considered a luxury at $1 a pound.
There is nothing prohibitive, however, about the prices of French champagnes and vermouth. Dominica lies between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and fishermen have ever found smuggling more profitable than trolling.
Native rums at 60 cents a quart are brash and potent, and most visitors prefer a brandy-type rum from Barbados, legally priced at $1.20 a quart. There is no better hot-weather drink, they say, than a swizzle made of Barbados rum and Dominican limes, with a dash of Angostura bitters from Trinidad.
Limes grow on nearly every hillside and are a penny a dozen. In season you can pick them in your own back yard. When I was in Dominica I had a little boy named Happy Lad, who gathered for me limes and oranges. Happy Lad also climbed the tall coconut palms, like a monkey in his bare brown feet, to shake down coconuts from the topmost branches. For these and other services he received 50 cents a week, and was considered the best-heeled boy in Roseau.
Happy Lad was also my bath boy. I had a bathhouse covered with jessamine, with a pool big enough to swim in, fed by a mountain stream that poured through the open roof of the bathhouse. Happy Lad dove every day into the water to pull out the bamboo plug. Then he scrubbed the sides of the pool with the fronds of a coconut palm. Sometimes Happy Lad found crayfish scurrying around at the bottom, and then I had bisque d’écrevisses for luncheon.
To get to Dominica one travels by sea. The Lady Nelson and the Lady Rodney of the Canadian National Steamships line, carrying 125 passengers each, sail alternately from Halifax with a few Canadians aboard, and put in at Boston for freight and the rest of their passengers. One-way minimum passage (ten days) from Boston to Dominica costs $173 plus 15 per cent U.S. tax; maximum, $433 plus tax. But one-way passage, unfortunately, is not always available.
There is no direct plane service to Dominica. Flying boats of British International Airways hop between most Caribbean islands, but never stop at Dominica. Neither do the big Clippers of Pan American. But the Clippers do fly to Antigua, north of Dominica, and to Barbados to the south, and small boats ply erratically back and forth between the islands. Unscheduled sailings, however, are nothing to count on. It is better to have your travel agent file application for passage on a Lady boat or advise you as to sailings that later may be scheduled on other lines. And eventually, since everything, even passage to Dominica, comes to him who waits, you will find yourself in Roseau.
There is a small hotel called the Paz (Peace), as well as a number of boardinghouses. Rates at the Paz are $4 a day, and a bit less at the boardinghouses. With a roof over your head you can, if it is a house you want, then go house-hunting.
In other days I have rented the Big House of an old plantation for $25 a month, and staffed it with servants for less than I pay one part-time maid in New York. With the house went gardens and a hyacinth pool, groves of bananas and limes, many tall coconuts, and a view of the sea. The place rents now for $40 and the tenant has a lifelong lease.