This village has many secrets. People are inter-related in complex ways, everybody is someone’s cousin. Some refuse to acknowledge their relation due to long standing family feuds. Brenda the Venda so tender is actually Tia’s sister who runs the place I’m staying in, but she didn’t tell me because there’s been a big fall-out. I went to say goodbye to her today, concerned that her shop hadn’t been open yesterday. Turns out she only opens up fully on Cruise ship days, Wednesday and Saturday this week. But none of those tourists came in anyway. Her shack is so shabby and dirty looking, of course the cruise ship people are not going to venture in easily.

I’ve been trying to locate ripe bananas since I got here; there are banana trees everywhere loaded with clumps of green atop the now familiar purple ‘pod’ that hangs like a faintly obscene pendulum but no yellow ready to eat bananas to be found. A couple of decades ago Dominica along with the other Windward Isles was one of the biggest exporter of bananas to the UK. We honoured a loyalty trade with our ex-colonies that ensured the banana industry was lucrative for Dominica. They were small, sweet, delicious bananas. Then the EEC clamped down on individual countries trade relationships and the market in Britain was flooded with big long uniformly shaped poor tasting, go soggy quickly bananas industrially produced in Costa Rica and other latin American countries. Costa Rica was known (and still is as far as I know) for its exploitative ‘Finca’ system where men live on reservations for months, years at a time, leaving their own land and families. They’re encouraged to spend their earnings on alcohol, indeed they can be part paid in hard liquor. Keeps them in debt and keeps them from leaving. Ever since I knew this story I  always ensure I’m buying Windward Isle bananas, usually this entails Fairtrade. If only we knew the true stories of our consumer choices. In this screwed up world where most political voice seems powerless, what we choose to do with our money really can be the most powerful choice we make that has direct effect on peoples lives. Still wish I could find ripe bananas here on ‘Banana Island’ though…

People are reluctant to give you any clear information about where to go, what to see here…they just wave their hand absently when you ask directions, it’s always ‘up the road’ or ‘down the road’, I think they keep the special places to themselves. I have no guide book and have avoided checking stuff on the net, just wanted to ‘follow my nose’ and see what turned up really. All day and particularly in the evening, when the heat has cooled, plumes of steam rise here and there, up through the trees, it gives the place a mystical feel, and brings back memories of Manikaran in the Kulu Valley, Northern India, where I spent some ‘lost’ time many years ago. ‘Lost’ because I was smoking particularly strong chillums and couldn’t leave the place, though I had barely any money left, in the days when I’d travel rough on a tiny budget, challenging myself as to how long I could last out. It was cold and wet in Manikaran so we’d spend much of our time in the Sikh temple wrapped in Kulu shawls, where there were hot ‘caves’ fed by sulphur springs and where you could eat for a few Rupees if you took part in prayers and chanting every evening, which we did, willingly, very stoned. The smell of sulphur, and its deep yellow stain, permeated everything in that magical, spiritual place and I am transported back there whenever I smell it, as I do here, and it leaves me happily spaced out.

It was in Manikaran I decided I needed to extend my plane ticket after a year away from home, and in those days before email or mobile phones that meant an 18 hour journey all the way down to Delhi, in a bus so cramped, my knees were squashed to my chin, and then 18 hours all the way straight back to the foothills of the Himilaya. Luckily, I was only 24 years old and such self-enforced hardship is possible at that age. Not now though. I’m discovering very fast that I’m no longer the traveller I was, I need security and comforts, I need to know where I’m sleeping each night and that I’ll be able to sleep on a decent bed when I get there in a bit of quiet. Plus ca change!

So today I discovered ‘Shangri-La’. It started with curiosity about some particularly beautiful dry stone walling along the road, a lot of love and money had evidently been put into it, atop was a big old ‘iron’ that the old rum trade used to use to distill the sugar, and a huge iron wheel that I assume was the old water wheel used in production. There was a large gap, an unbuilt entrance way, with a couple of bamboos lying casually across it. I could see steam rising beyond so was compelled to investigate further and followed a way through the forest to a glade with a half built ‘viewing platform’ and bar area, all lovingly crafted from local stone but unfinished and appeared to have been left that way for a long time. There infront of me was a large spring bubbling away sending jets and puffs of steam up into the greenery above: ferns and banana. The minerals have painted the rocks in rich colours: dried blood red, plum, seaweed green, saffron and gold. I watched it for ages, aware of how lucky I was to have it all to myself. There’s something so powerful, elemental, about seeing the ‘workings’ of the Earth, experiencing this much abused entity as a living breathing life force. It’s like a gurgle and a spit, then a puke, a vomit of revulsion perhaps at what we’ve done. But also a sense of its eternity and renewal, the smallness and short-term-ness of human nature.

Eventually I picked my way out and back on to the road where further round I came upon ‘Shangri-La Rainforest Retreat’. I’d seen the hand carved signs for this place before, it looked very exclusive but as I wandered in through the open entrance it was immediately apparent that the place was empty, forlorn. Hushed and quiet, no one around. A small sign at ground level said ‘Residents and Tour Groups only beyond this point’ which I ignored. It was a lovely space made out of the forest, bamboo cabins were scattered here and there, each within their own hidden bamboo ‘copse’, which is a gentle, elegant plant and instantly relaxes you as its long dry leaves flutter like paper.  I took a closer look at the cabins, empty. Nobody. I looked inside, beds upturned, furniture in disarray. Good wicker and wood furniture, the cabins well designed and made. Confusing because the place was not destitute, just empty and neglected.

I walked on into the forest, there was a track and timber steps down, taking me past a couple of hot springs where I lingered to take in their strange beauty. I could hear the river below and then I was suddenly upon it, through a clearing and there before me were a series of hot pools carved from rock sitting directly over small waterfalls gushing over boulders. It was stunning. Washing himself in one of the pools was a young guy from the village who called out to me to join him. Not having my swimsuit with me, I played shy, sat on the edge and took in the gorgeous surroundings: rainforest all around us. We had a short conversation, shouted over the noise of the river, he said ‘I want to go and have a new life in London!’ when he found out where I was from. I laughed. Here he was soaking himself in clean natural hot pools on a fast flowing river in the rainforest. And he wants to be in London. I thought of London and what it would do to this sweet natural boy. Then he told me he’d just had a confrontation with two big snakes, ‘only five minutes ago!’ with one, unusually, rearing up at him as if to attack. He’d taken a stick to scare it away. He assured me they’d be gone now as the sun was going down. Then he came over and told me all about the place. He’d helped build it, he made the stone walls. I complemented him on how well crafted they were, he was pleased. I asked him what happened here, why is this beautiful place totally deserted and unkempt? He answered that a guy from Tenessee had it built but that he’d ‘fallen and hit his head and died’ the year before. So now ‘there’s a Rasta that lives here’. It was unclear if the Rasta was there to take care of the place or had just taken advantage of a free place to live. Who can blame him. Having seen the poverty a lot of these people are living in I don’t know why others haven’t moved into these nice cabins in the forest. I guess ‘squatting’ is not the Dominican way.

The pools, though, have become a ‘free for all’ for those who know, the villagers, rather than an exclusive retreat. There’s some kind of redemption in that sad tale I suppose, I mean, the air of an unrealised grand project, a dream, hangs over the place, but people are enjoying it still. Those people are probably some of the poorest because when the guy directed a way back up, across the river at its shallowest point, I arrived at the back end of the village, an area of small,  shabby shacks of corrugated iron that I hadn’t come across before, hidden away behind banana plantation. So these people come to the river to wash everyday and to the hot ‘exclusive’ pools to soak in the warmth of healing waters, to soak away the toil of their day.

After my young friend left I did of course get into those pools, in my underwear and it was absolute bliss. I plan to return and spend the morning there (this time with swimsuit) before I have to make the long road trip back to the airport.

How can I tear myself away from here? I have found my very own ‘Shangri-La’.

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