Dry Season on Dominica

That dramatic cloud…ends up on your head as rain.

Apparently the rainy season in Dominica is in the high summer.  I’d really hate to see that, since the last five days in the “Dry Season” have felt like living in a monsoon.

Dominica is the first of the islands with a “Boat Boy” system that we’ve come to.  This is a term I dislike, as the “Boat Boys” are really responsible, grown men running businesses and I think it’s demeaning to them – so I prefer something like “Yacht Helper” or “Boat Concierge” better.  But like many older not so great terms there really hasn’t been a great replacement for this one that rolls off the tongue as easily. 

Originally this term comes from the fact that these guys all have small boats, and when you pull in to a harbor you are approached by a bunch of different fellows offering you all sorts of services like garbage pickup and fresh fruit for sale.  Fortunately on Dominica the system has matured over the years, and now in most places you pick one of these men to be the primary person you work with, though they all work together and anyone will help you if you need it.  Once you’ve set up this relationship the other guys leave you alone except for occasional visits if they have something they think you might like – its very low key and low pressure.  The relationship you set up is like a permanent concierge or guide for the island you are visiting.  This fellow can help you arrange tours and visits, find services you need, take your garbage, arrange laundry for you – almost anything you need or want is a lot easier to do with a local who knows where everything is and what there is to see and do.  Dominica has taken it one step further, with the PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security) group, which is almost like local guides guild.  They ensure that standards are met in knowledge and professionalism, and they also undertake responsibilities like patrolling the harbor at night to provide some security for the yachts.  Their efforts have paid off and it is a good system and they are continually refining it.

We’d been advised that Martin Career from the boat Providence was a first rate professional guide and we should contact him on arrival.  Our friends on Troubadour were arriving in Dominica before us, and we decided to follow this recommendation and use the same assistant as we would likely do our tours and sightseeing together.  When we pulled into Portsmouth on Dominica Martin was expecting us and greeted us as we anchored with a warm welcome and a bunch of local bananas.

Talking with Martin we quickly learned a lot about the local area and made plans for a trip to see some of the islands highlights as well as a rowing tour up a local scenic river.  Set with our plans for Wednesday for our first tour, we went to bed Tuesday night with our alarms set ready for Martin to pick us up at 8:00 the next morning.

After packing some swimsuits, towels, snacks and water we were met by Martin the next morning where he took us ashore to meet our guide, Dillon.  Dillon has been doing guide work for a number of years, and also works for the forestry service in the national parks.  Our tour was to be a driving

One of many beautiful spots, though the water is brown from the runoff

tour, with some walk in side trips to some cool destinations, a stop in a local restaurant for lunch, with more tours capped off by a hike to a waterfall in the afternoon.  

As we left the boat with Martin it was already an overcast day with a light rain.  As we started our driving tour the rain picked up.  Climbing into the volcanic mountains the rain became heavier, and the clouds that frequently mask the mountains turned into a fog.  This didn’t stop Dillon though – we gamely stopped as we passed sites, showing us a Bay Rum distillery and many local plants and trees.  We sampled several different species of Bay Leaves (who knew there were so many, and so different), tried fresh Guava from the tree, sampled wild growing coffee beans, cinnamon bark, lemon grass, and more local herbs and plants than I could keep track of.  Dominica used to have plantations for cocoa, sugar, coffee, spices, bananas and other crops and with the collapse of the plantations many of these crops have gone wild and can be seen growing by the side of the road or growing in the woods.  The difference between what we see as a dried, preserved spice in the stores and what you can taste and smell with the fresh, wild herb or spice is profound.

Apparently you do not have to rappel down to the crops

Dillon is a storehouse of information about the local flora and fauna.  He also taught us much about the local lifestyle.  Dominica produce most of its own food and has numerous farms for growing vegetables and fruit.  There is also are considerable export crops for certain items, such as bananas that are sold in Europe, but much of what is grown is for local consumption.  The farming methods are less involved and more labor intensive than factory style farming, and farming occurs in what we would thing of as…improbable…locations.  Such as on the steep sides of what most of us would think of as a cliff. It’s hard to picture planting or harvesting bananas on a hillside so steep you’d think a misstep would send you tumbling to the bottom, but they do.

Part of the tour featured some of the places where Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3 were filmed.  Some of the nature and jungle scenes were filmed here in Dominica, and some of the remnants  of the filming still can be seen.  In Pirates 2 the river trip up to the witches house was shot on the river we are still planning to tour, and the house was left on location.

Argh…there be Pirate movies filmed here.

Eventually we arrived at a location at the top of a volcano called the  “Cold Soufriere”.  After a short walk in, we came to an area that showed some signs of active volcanic activity.  At the end of the trail the ground…bubbled.  There was a lot of rain and a stream, but all over this area there was a constant stream of bubbles coming up through the water.  The bubbles clearly contained some Hydrogen Sulfide gas in the mix of whatever else the volcano was emitting.  Hydrogen Sulfide, for the less chemically inclined, is also produce naturally by such process as eggs going bad.  It is not an excellent smell, but here there were more whiffs of it rather than any sense of oppressive foulness.

Cold bubbly pool

What is interesting about these bubbling pools though is they aren’t what you’d expect.  There are some hot bubbling pools on Dominica where you can cook an egg in the water.  But these bubbles weren’t boiling, the bubbles were gases seeping up from some deep underwater volcanic action.  And the water was cold, quite chilly in fact.   At this spot was some volcanic mud which is quite prized for use in spas.  I declined to rub it all over my face but others were happy to give it a try!

Kathy trying out the totally unnecessary youth & beauty mud.

Moving on from the Cold Soufriere, we stopped for lunch at a great little local spot on the water.  We had some choices of all local fare – ribs, fish, chicken or peleau – a local chicken and rice dish.  The food was excellent and reasonable, with many sides of local dishes such as friend plaintains, “provision” (local root vegetables), rice, and beans.  A locally made hot sauce (now stocked in our galley!) topped it off.

One interesting thing we tried was a locally made Ginger Beer.  In the sailing circles back in the states the “Dark and Stormy” is a popular drink – it is made with Ginger Beer and dark rum.  I’ve never liked any of the bottle Ginger Beers that we’ve had, and I’ve always politely grimaced down any Dark & Stormies that were bought for me by people that did not realize I could not stand them.  However, the home-brewed ginger beer here on Dominica was a revelation.  It was milky, not clear like the Ginger Beer we’re used to.  But it was also surprisingly delicious, with a sharp bit of ginger hotness to it without the cloying ickiness I never like in the bottle brews.  Suffice it to say, I could happily survive on a Dark & Stormy made from the local home brew!

You can really see the runoff; normally crystalline waters!

During all this the rain had continued.  Sometimes it was so heavy we couldn’t see out the windows, sometimes it mostly stopped or stayed light.  But the water kept coming down and some of the rivers we passed over (Dominica has 365 rivers) were swollen and brown from all the run off and had a lot of stuff – coconouts, bamboo, branches and the like floating down stream.  This is not bode well for the waterfall trip, as the waters there were known for their clarity and part of the fun was jumping in and swimming.  Not so good of the water was brown and the currents dangerous.  So the call was made to abort that waterfall trip and to a different part of the island – through the Carib Indian reservation and to a place called the Emerald Pool in one of the national parks.

The Carib reservation wasn’t much to see – there were some places to buy some local hand crafts, but there really was not a lot by way of traditional Carib lifestyle to see or learn about.  Like many native cultures the Caribs had a rough time of it when the Europeans arrived and their culture, language and lifestyle hasn’t really survived very well, at least not visibly in day to day life.  They were notable in that they resisted the Europeans pretty forcefully, essentially beating a fighting retreat for years to more and more remote parts of the island until eventually they were put in a reservation – which is better than some islands where they were completely wiped out.

The final stop was at one of the National Parks, to visit the Emerald Pool. This  involves a short walk through what feels like a pretty deep rain forest, though from what I understand it’s not the true deep forest.

Add your only wild jungle sound effects here.

The parks are well maintained here, with clearly labeled paths and bridges. The trail to the Emerald Pool winds through the forest beside a strong stream, down into a ravine where the falls are.  The area is wet (well, it was raining most of the day) and lush with tropical plants and growth.  At the bottom of the ravine is the pool, with the waterfall.

On a sunnier, more sweltering day this would be a cool and refreshing stop.  It was still a beautiful and secluded place, with water misting down over the sides in a curtain beside the loud and busy water fall.  Everyone got in for a swim to the back of the waterfall, though the water was rather chill it was still refreshing.  We’ve been living on salt water so long that it was odd not to be sticky with salt after coming out from a swim!

The Emerald Pool

After walking back, and drying and changing we got back in the minivan for the drive home.  The rain and weather were lightening up and we saw much of the island’s beauty as we drove up the coast on the trip back.  The same island with those huge, lush tropical plants also has a dry side, with cacti and other succulents where the rain doesn’t fall so much.

The Deluge

Two days after the first tour we were scheduled to take a trip up the river on Friday morning.  We were to start early – at 6:00 – so as to “wake up with the river” when a lot of the birds and wildlife were at there most active shortly after sunrise.  In the night though, the rain continued to pour and as we stood yawning and rubbing our eyes Friday morning we awoke to a harbor filled with brown water and flotsam.  The rains had been so heavy that the crystal clear water of the harbor had been turned as brown as the Mississippi river.  The river tour, which must be conducted with oars since motorized propulsion on the river is prohibited, was a washout for the day.  And for the next day, with more constant rain and occasional heavy downpours. 

Since we called the tour for Saturday, we were able to catch the local Market Day, though Danielle was soaked while being caught in a torrential downpour while returning to the boat for our forgotten grocery bags.  The rain was on and off all day, and we took a gap in the rain to go in to town and do some more grocery shopping.  That evening we decided to get pizza delivered (to a dock, for dinghy pickup), and Will and Graham (from Troubadour) donned foul weather gear to make an after dark dinghy run through monsoon-like conditions to pick up dinner.  An adventure; they arrived back dripping wet in the foulies, laughing about their crazy trip in the dark and rain and the odd people they met on shore while waiting for the pizza man.

As I type this we are waiting to maybe have another go at the river tour.  The rain and wind persisted last night, though it has let up for now.  In spite of the rain we like it here, though we are NOT waiting around for the rainy season!

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