Dominica Days

Wow. It’s been like three months and an entire lifetime since I was in Dominica. Two months into the Spanish confinamiento (coronavirus lockdown), my February trip to the tropics seems firmly rooted in the ‘life before’. But I’m just so happy to have gone. Those big, big memories of  beautiful nature, adventures around the island and amazing friendships both old and new are something to hold on to now, perhaps more than ever.

Tranto 1

I was in Dominica because I’d been invited to the 100th birthday of an old friend’s mum. I’ve known Pauline, her husband Godfrey and the family since Pauline and I were on the same course at Goldsmiths’ College in London in the early 80s. Pauline likes to tell the tale of how she spotted this punky girl with tons of ribbons and decorative hair grips on the Number 36 bus to New Cross, only to find her in the same reception class. Yes, dear reader, that young punkette was me – and 40 years later our friendship is still going strong.

Scotts Head
Scott’s Head, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea

During my stay in Dominica I split my time between solo days out and trips with the family. I was staying on the other side of town, in a great Airbnb near the top of Morne Bruce, hosted by Corinne, a French Rasta. On my second day, Corinne suggested I get a bus to Scott’s Head where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea and return via Bubble Beach in Soufriere.

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The journey there was a bit like purgatory, jammed into a tiny minibus with seats that folded down out of nowhere at the last minute, making escape impossible. But on the way home I found the amazing La Belle (above) – an as yet unopened café and unofficial museum. The owner, Boyce, had real artistic vision and delighted in showing me the world through his eyes – the driftwood that looked like dolphins, the model of the first taxi to go along the road to Roseau 70 years ago, the tree trunk seats with chair backs attached, the ancient lime juicer, the old coal iron (for rich people) and more. He later took me down to Bubble Beach where a hot sulphur spring bubbles up through the shallows and introduced me to the guardian of the beach, Dale, who runs a little bar there.

Wooten Waven
Sulphur spring baths at Wooten Waven – a blissful way to spend an afternoon

The next day, Pauline’s family and I went to the amazing sulphur spring baths at Wooten Waven. Then, the day after, I took off on my own again, this time to Trafalgar. There I found the incredible Papillote Gardens created by Anne Jno Baptiste who came to the island in 1961. At this point, the holiday turned into an unintentional  pilgrimage because, as a former journalist, I’ve always been aware of Dominica’s Papillote Press, run by a lady called Polly Pattullo. Polly was the features editor on the Observer Magazine in the 80s when I used to send feature proposals out to the Sunday supplements – I’m sure I sent her a few! I asked Anne if she knew Polly and she told me that she lived almost opposite*. She urged me to go and knock on the door, but I didn’t because it was starting to rain and I was scared I’d miss the last bus back to Roseau.

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Day 4 was perhaps the most memorable – we drove to the family’s ancestral land in Castle Bruce to the east of the island. We visited their portion of beach (yes, really!) and I swam in the river that divides the two halves. I nearly got swept out to sea and had to be rescued by Pauline’s daughter, Ella (a former lifeguard), but that’s another story! Celina grew up here in the 1920s – she used to have to wade through the river to get to school and had her own horse called Sultan. The beach had a beautiful atmosphere – it was somewhere that you just wanted to linger and talk about old times.

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Celina’s birthday party at the weekend did not disappoint. It was attended by the Dominican president and she looked completely regal chatting to him over dinner. After the moving speeches, a free bar and subsequent mad dancing to old hits like I’m in Love with a Man Nearly Twice My Age and new ones like I Love my Life by Dominican calypso star, Sour Sour, I went home to be greeted by Corinne and her daughter Lytleen who had just won Miss Teen Dominica! Two queens in one night! Talk about an eventful day!

Pauline and Celina
Pauline and Celina, at Celina’s 100th birthday party
Carnival queen
Back home: Lytleen Julien, winner of Miss Teen Dominica 2020

It was a fairly hungover group of four who set off to find the Pirates of the Caribbean beach the next day – myself, Pauline and her niece and nephew in law. Caroline and Noel from London were among the nicest people I’ve ever met and we’ve been in touch since.

Pirates of the Caribbean beach
The Pirates of the Caribbean beach!

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Louise Sandiford. I flew to Dominica via Antigua and stayed over for a night. Louise is the younger sister of another old, old friend and she lives there. She very kindly collected me from the airport and we met up later for a meal. I’ve always been intrigued by Louise – she just took off to live on the other side of the world one day in 1985. It was great to meet her properly – a woman who did something I perhaps would have liked to do myself but never dared to. Louise runs production company and location finder Caribbean Crews and also has an amazing guest house in the jungly depths of the island. She’s a totally top lady and I can guarantee you’ll have an amazing time if you stay there.

Lou eco picture
Lou’s eco-cabin in Antigua

Waking up in Antigua on the first Sunday morning, feeling the soft warmth of the air and hearing cocks crowing and a gospel service playing on a neighbour’s radio, I had the most curious (happy) feeling – like, I’m back! Somehow, I’ve managed to go to the Caribbean three times since 2016. In these strange days of coronavirus, I’m almost wondering whether the feeling might more accurately be described as, ‘I’m home’.

Maybe it’s just a throwback to childhood visits to my father in Hong Kong (also warm and humid), or maybe it’s something else.

Walking down Morne Bruce
The walk down Morne Bruce to Roseau

Who knows what the ‘new normal’ will be when we finally emerge from lockdown. Perhaps short holidays will become a thing of the past, begging the question as to whether long breaks might take their place? Perhaps that would be better anyhow. Perhaps there’ll be ways to work and be useful while journeying around the world.

I’m listening to the David Rodigan show on BBC Sounds as I write this, and by some weird synchronicity he’s playing I’m in Love with a Man Nearly Twice My Age, so that’s going to be the song for this post! Go on, have a dance around the house and enjoy!

*It turned out that Anne Jno Baptiste and Polly Pattullo run Papillote Press together

Stop the world, I want to get off!

We never thought it could happen, but now it has. The world has kind of ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the horrendous virus has now killed over 100,000 people, has got millions under lockdown and has slowed the economy, putting livelihoods in peril, there have been unexpected gains for the environment. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen by up to 40% in locked-down countries, greatly improving air quality. In Venice, fish and plant life have returned to the canals.

Air pollution has been shown to be linked to higher death rates in people with the virus, so there are renewed calls for a recovery focused on green jobs and clean energy, building efficiency, natural infrastructure and the protection of the planet. [1] For now, the sky is quiet, cities and roads are still. We are suspended in the moment. The best thing to happen would be, eventually, for the world to emerge as a better, healthier place.

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Dolphins have come closer to the shore in Sardinia since the lockdown started

People are reacting to the crisis in many ways, mainly good. The Today Programme on the BBC (which I still listen to, from Spain) has a Poem of Comfort and Hope every day, and also invites a world famous musician furloughed from his/her usual globetrotting schedule to play live from their home. Heartwarmingly, the National Theatre has streamed a series of live shows for people to watch for free. A multitude of online yoga classes, dance classes, book clubs, meditation and choirs keep our spirits up. WhatsApp groups rally to the aid of the vulnerable. Life is going on, albeit in a completely different way.

Up here in the Spanish hills we are relatively safe. Even though Spain has been hit hard by Covid-19, there are mercifully few cases locally. We’re not allowed out for walks, but many of us are blessed with beautiful views and outside space. I have my gardening to keep me fit. Obviously I’m distressed by the ongoing threat posed by the virus globally, but, on a personal level, lockdown sometimes feels less of a worry and more of a curious experiment – how will life have changed when it’s over?

So, what’s it been like so far?

Week 1 was a bit of a stress-fest. I’ve been teaching at a local after-school language academy and had to learn in a hurry how to do the classes online. I live alone, so was facing a few weeks with next to no face-to-face human contact. That didn’t bother me too much. I have a nice vantage point in my garden from which to watch the comings and goings below. I ended the first afternoon of lockdown with a beer in hand, enjoying the sight of the goats across the valley!

Week 2. By now, I was enjoying online yoga every Monday morning and online meditation daily. It was nice and cosy, meditating during the still-dark evenings with the pellet burner glowing. I also started updating my profile on various online teaching websites.

Week 3. I suddenly started getting online English students from across Europe, which was just as well because, midweek, I got a WhatsApp from my boss to say the academy was closing due to the pandemic, and that my next class would be my last with them.

We’re now at the end of Week 4, and it’s just dawned on me that my life has already changed, almost without me realising. From a somewhat badly paid teacher of generally unappreciative teenagers, I’m now a semi-fledged online English teacher with interesting adult clients all over Spain and France! So while the physical world has shrunk, the virtual world has got bigger.

online teaching
My classes have moved online, live and direct from the kitchen/dining room!

As well as teaching, my lockdown routine includes a weekly ‘intercambio’ with a friend – I practice my Spanish and she practices her English. I chat with other friends both here and in the UK, and I’ve been catching up with old friends. The days are full – in fact there’s suddenly so much to do that I’ve stopped watching TV and am living almost entirely in the kitchen/dining room. I do my lesson prep and online classes in here, along with the yoga, meditation and even an online disco with my London friends last weekend! At their request, and with no distractions, I’ve spent today (Easter Saturday) compiling a mega-reggae playlist on Spotify.

A friend asked if I was missing face-to-face contact with people. The answer is yes, but not as much as one might expect. I miss seeing my intercambio friend because the internet connection’s never that great, and I miss interesting events like a gardening-group morning and a sound workshop that had to be cancelled. Yoga is better in real life, too, and I’m really hoping that a holiday with my virtual disco pals will still go ahead in July. Nevertheless, virtual life is much richer than I’d have ever imagined, opening the door to all kinds of new possibilities. Which is good, because apparently the Spanish lockdown is going to last another month.

Result! Today’s music is not just one song – it’s 79 – namely the new ‘Lubrin Dub Club’ Spotify playlist. I must say, I’m secretly hoping that after having unexpectedly launched myself as an online English teacher in the first half of lockdown, I might unexpectedly launch myself as an online reggae DJ in the second half! Even if not, I hope you enjoy the music. To listen, just click below.

Lubrin Dub Club

New year, new horizons

January can often come as a bit of a shock. After the Christmas wind-down, it’s often All Systems Go! in the new year. In my days as a Spanish tile distributor I’d sometimes do a Spanish sourcing trip, a trade show, a tax return and goodness knows what else before the end of the month – it could feel like there’d been enough work in January for the entire year!

A new year can also bring the unexpected. While a friend has had nothing but minor misfortunes so far this year, mine has been marked by conflict. The latest episode was with my last workway volunteer, who arrived two days early, turned out to be a conspiracy theorist, didn’t ask me anything about myself (not even ‘how are you?’), decided that I wanted a relationship with him (?!? – I’d done nothing but try to put distance between us since I realised what he was like – !!) and wanted to give me his take on everything, which tended to be paranoid and negative.

Needless to say, he was on his way sharpish, leaving me with a load of paving stones and new power tools I am not sure I will ever use.

I had to take a naughty student to task, too. Somehow, coming as that did in the midst of the other woes, it didn’t feel like such a big deal.

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Sweet note from one of my best students after the class got told off for misbehaving last term. Controlling the younger ones can be hard work!

After all the drama, I was happy to be invited to a little birthday gathering in the campo (countryside) this weekend. It was a challenge to get there in the dark, but I persevered and was rewarded with a magical evening round a bonfire and the offer of a bed for the night. We had baked potatoes, homemade herby bread twisted onto skewers and barbecued meat and veg while looking out over the lights in the distance. A fabulously diverse group, we were English, French, Spanish, German and Malaysian. The offer of a bed and the warm fire meant we could stay up til the early hours and polish off a celebratory bottle of cava at midnight. Lovely.

New Views
I woke up to an interesting new view on Sunday

Somehow, stepping out of the normal routine for a night made me realise just how far I’ve come in a year. Last January I didn’t have a job – or even much teaching experience. I had yet to meet many of the friends I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with now. My house had less homely touches and I had barely conquered the wood-burning stove.

In Lubrín, we have two fiestas before the end of January. There’s the Three Kings on 5 January and the annual San Sebastian bread festival on 20 January (today). Sadly, as I write, storms are lashing more northerly parts of Spain and the weather here is decidedly wet and windy. Last night, I could hear the valiant Orquestra Pentagrama playing til the early hours – but didn’t venture out to see them. Today, the procession through the streets was contained within the church and only a few score people attended – a far cry from the thousands who flocked here last year.

deserted streets
So sad: this year’s bread festival was a washout
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True professionals: nothing stops Orquestra Pentagrama!

The fiestas are the same, but everything else is changing. A line of those distant lights at my friend’s party fringe a new motorway cutting through the countryside. It will go through the tiny hamlet of La Concepción nearby. There’s also more industry and intensive farming around, while in the UK we have a new Tory government and will leave the EU in a matter of days. It feels like a lifetime since the innocent days of 1997 when I bought my house here, before the internet caught on, before there was a proper road in, when the village felt like it was still in the 70s.

It’s not all bad. There’s more diversity now, more wealth, and the young team at the ayuntamiento (town hall) are exceptional, putting on a series of walks and other events to bring the community together. I have residency here and a job, so will remain an individual member of the EU after Brexit. The magic may be fading, but as January draws to a close I’m feeling more at home in Spain, more connected and more optimistic about the future.

I recently watched What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary on Netflix. It told the story of Nina Simone’s completely fascinating life and contained some amazing music, which for some reason I hadn’t previously attributed to her. So here’s today’s musical track, which couldn’t really be more apt!

Sinking or Swimming

This is is a bit how it has felt, since I’ve been back on Spanish soil.

The first week was unexpectedly productive – I got rugs, lampshades and a service for the new car – PLUS the rugs were hung on the walls and the lampshades wired in. In addition, there was a good bit of gardening done, digging up the weeds that had invaded while I was away.

cherry blossom
I’m hoping for cherry blossom in the spring

In the second week, I bought and planted two trees (replacing the Moringa and Cherry trees from last year which hadn’t survived). Luckily, we had a deluge the next day, so the new trees are off to a good start.

Moringa tree
Moringa leaves are full of vitamins and minerals

I was also unexpectedly offered a part-time teaching job, so had meetings with my new boss to tie everything up.

The upshot was that on Tuesday 8 October I was sitting in a little classroom in the nearby town of Zurgena presenting my good old London Life lesson to two classes of kids: one lower intermediate with students between 10 and 12, and the other upper intermediate with students from 11 to 14.

So far, so good – the introductory London Life class always goes down pretty well. The only problem was that I have these students for a whole year and need to keep up the good impression, as well as making sure I actually teach them something!

I guess it’s the same for every newly-qualified language teacher in their first proper job. Hours and hours of prep (the course books didn’t arrive for a few weeks so I was devising all of the classes myself – which is not actually a bad thing), struggles with discipline (low point, actually telling some persistently unruly ones to ‘shut up’ in Spanish) and working til 3 or 5am a couple of nights, with brain freeze due to nerves! And then wondering: how do I know if the students are actually taking anything in??

Aretha_Franklin
Classroom management with the help of Aretha (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Luckily, the retired-teacher mum of a good mate was visiting from the UK, and the three of us had a comforting powwow a couple of weekends ago. Things became clearer, and I put some new initiatives into effect. Four weeks into the teaching, I have just received my first Spanish pay cheque and seem to be developing a rather musical teaching method, using youtube vids to teach everything from Halloween terminology (The Phantom of the Opera) to ‘Respect in the Classroom’, cue Aretha!

High point? Hard to say, because every lesson is completely different, but there have been a few. I really like all the kids in my classes and just seeing them smiling when they arrive, being interested (mostly), gradually understanding more and supporting each other is brilliant.

So, for now I guess I’m swimming.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T! Today’s musical track is the late great Aretha Franklin with perhaps every teacher’s best song: