Dominica is the greenest most ‘unspoilt’ of the Caribbean islands because of its rocky unforgiving coastline; its lack of sandy beaches and natural harbours meant the early settlers found it too demanding to fully colonise, the high mountainous interior also kept them away. So it escaped the ‘stripped bare’ and mass planting of sugar cane most of the other islands had to submit to. It also, for this reason, became a ‘safe haven’ for the Carib people, what was left of them, after European disease and greed wiped out most them. The Spanish labelled them ‘Cannibals’ because of certain ritualistic practices that may or may not have involved some form of human sacrifice. It was a great piece of propaganda as it gave them the ‘God given’ right to massacre them as ‘sub-human’. When the Carib Canoe project, Gli Gli, originating from the Carib Territory here in Dominica, successfully ‘connected up’ isolated pockets of Carib communities by sailing island to island in 1996, new awareness of Carib culture developed.

This culminated in something of a cultural ‘coup’ – they convinced the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definitions of ‘Carib’ and ‘Cannibal’. Up until that time it had read: ‘Carib – see Cannibal’ and ‘Cannibal – see Carib’. Which was a blatant colonial untruth, a meaningless stereotype and much out of place in today’s revisionist ways of understanding the world’s peoples. To actually force change on negative, destructive language, that was integral to an early form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ , in the world’s most authoritative dictionary of the English language seems to me a great achievement.

I’m holed up in Wotten Waven, a tiny village on a winding road up into the hills, just before the road runs out and in you’re in rain forest. Which means when it rains it’s torrential, hammering on the corrugated iron roof, until next morning the heat soaks up the wet, the rivers roar (all 365 of them), everything glistens green lushness and gorgeousness. When you find yourself in an overabundance of nature like this, and most of the plants are entirely unfamiliar, it’s overwhelming, your senses reel, joyfulness!

Every morning I plunge into a hot sulphur pool, specks of gold float on the surface of the water, a river rushes below, mango, grapefruit, bamboo, cocoa and coffee trees above. You emerge totally relaxed with soft skin and clean lungs from breathing in the steamy air. When I go walking I can pick grapefruit from the trees, big, fat, sweet grapefruits, not the mean, bitter thin-skinned ones at home, these have thick, soft, easy to peel skin that reveals pink-yellow flesh that’s heavy with juice.

This is an area of natural hot springs, volcanic activity, which is why I’m here because since discovering Iceland I’ve become a bit addicted to soaking in hot pools. People here just connect pipes from the natural bubbling springs and create their own pools from rocks in their backyard. Very irie.

Beautiful to see the steam rising through the banana trees and shafts of sunlight in the mornings. The whole place smells of that characteristic ‘bad egg’ sulphur smell you grow to love in natural volcanic spring areas…it’s a tropical Iceland, all of nature flourishing, transforming, reminding you it’s alive at every moment with its bubbling, gushing and burping from deep underground.

I decided to stay in one place for a few days, rather than attempt traveling around, get to know faces and names. People here are open and love to chat so I’ve met most of the ‘characters’  here already. ‘Brenda the Venda so Tender’ runs the shackshop on the junction. She sells delicious coconut cake and plantain chips and everyone comes to her for a chat, she wears a big red T shirt proclaiming the greatness of God. Her brother has a hot spa called ‘Screws’, there are big hand-painted wooden signs saying ‘Screw’ and ‘Irie Man Screw’ in rasta colours, all the way up the hill. I haven’t tried his place yet.

Christopher the musician lost his leg in a car accident and now hops  on crutches, painfully, slowly, up the hill, waits at the entrance to the waterfalls all day to try and sell his bamboo flutes that he plays so expertly. Trouble is, who can master a bamboo flute? Bob the Snake Man is a young guy who stands at the bend at the bottom of the village dressed in stinking rags with dreadlocks piled up high on his head like an Indian Sadhu. He has a 6ft long thick snake wrapped round his shoulders and a glazed expression on his lovely face, he waits for the tourist minibuses to stop for a photo opportunity and a few dollars. When I ask about him, I’m told he lives with his mother, smokes a lot of weed, people give him clothes but he likes to wear the same old filthy ones. The guy who sweeps the terrace with a swathe of branches, bent right over, one jeans leg rolled up to the side he’s sweeping, a stripy metallic pencil behind one ear, a cocktail stick in his mouth, he always straightens up and calls out when I pass:

‘Hey – you single? I need a wife! I’m a bachelor! I need a wife and kids!’

Tia runs the Bamboo Cottages I’m staying in. A handsome dreadlocked guy (actually, all the Dominican guys are very handsome, the women too, they’re just a beautiful people, clear skinned, bright eyed, must be the air and the fruit) who looks permanently anxious and when he speaks, slowly, everything is very ser-i-ous and he repeats things a lot in case I don’t get it the first time. He lies in a hammock watching crap TV in the afternoons. I would say he’s a heavy ganga smoker. Tia may have his name on the business card as being ‘Manager and Proprietor’, he may have built these brilliantly simple, rustic bamboo structures, but it’s two formidable women that run the place, his wife and sister, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have got this place up and running without them. They run tings. 

When I first came to Dominica I was told it’s a matriarchal society, ie the property and land pass down through the female line. With the emigration of young guys from these islands this makes perfect sense to me – the women stay put and hold things together while the guys are wandering the States or West London or wherever.

They say you shouldn’t go back, and I rarely re-visit special places again because you know they’ll have changed and wipe your memories from before. But today I went back to Trafalgar Falls after 22 years to find most of the village of unrecognisable. When I was there all the talk was of the plans for a big hydroelectric station to be built there, to harness the power of the water, there was massive local protest because the waterfalls are incredibly special, geologically speaking, and to the national cultural identity. The reason being they are really high ‘twin’ waterfalls: one cold, one hot as it’s fed by a hot underground spring – they’re referred to as ‘Mother and Daughter’, they are mythical.

Ras Eddy John, the artist we stayed with all that time ago, painted the waterfalls again and again as if he could ‘fix’ them in time – I suppose that’s what all artist do really. When we there, all those years ago, the village was a free, natural place, kids played and swam in the clean gushing river below the falls, we joined them everyday, there was so much laughter, everyone felt a part of the place. There weren’t so many tourists then, but the local young guys all acted as impromptu guides to show people the hidden ways behind the falls and through the boulders to crystal clear deep pools – they weren’t hustling for dollars, you could give them a donation or not, a rare thing, everyone was just hanging out there.

Now. The village that just had a dirt track has a smooth tarmac road that leads all the way to…a hydroelectric power station that hides the waterfalls. Mother and Daughter are invisible. You climb up behind the station until you come to a big wooden structure. The ‘entrance’ to the falls. You have to pay now. There are tourist buses, and rows of drinks fridges and a bar and a souvenir shop. Of course there are. I’m so bitter at what they’ve done I refuse to pay and just fall in with a tour group to get through the gate, we’re led along a well-marked, stepped forest trail until we finally reach a viewing platform. OK none of this is a surprise really, I know how it works, I’m just so lucky to have experienced this truly magical place before Corporate intervention. It’s what happens. Beyond the platform, a sign warning you continue at your own risk, which most people do, and clamber around the slippery rocks and pools with their wobbly white bodies and swim in the water and photograph each other with the falls behind them. The boulders were the same, the pools were the same, the falls, as far as I could remember, were the same, though locals say they don’t run with the same fierceness as they did. I suppose they’re just grateful that their worst fears were not realised: the falls drying up completely.

As for the vibe, as for the locals, there are none. No village children playing in the pools, no one hanging out, Dominicans worship their Nature Island but now it’s just tourists, who’ve paid for the privilege. Sickening.

These falls no longer belong to the people, that’s clear.

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