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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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