Thursday, April 1, 2010

Food for Thought: The Secret of Dominica

Sometimes as travelers, we come across places that are so beautiful, so rare, and so full of nature’s magic, that we want to keep them a secret. Food-G fans and followers, this one's between you and me.


I knew it was special the moment we sailed within view, as it glowed in bright green, framed by a vivid rainbow.

You've probably never heard of it, don't know how to pronounce it (dome-uh-NEE-ka), and are wondering if it's that country attached to Haiti. It's not.

Dominica, located between the Carribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique , is a "natural" kind of island. Abundant fruits, flowers, waterfalls, birds, mountains and rivers add to a lifestyle that celebrates and depends on Earth's abundance. This place is a nature lover's paradise. If you have a spirit of adventure and appreciate rustic, unspoiled beauty and rich local culture, then you're in for a very special treat.

You may have seen parts of the island, like the cypress-lined Indian River, in Pirates of the Carribbean 2.

 It's a curious fact that Dominica has one of the highest rates of centenarians (people over 100 years of age) per capita, in the world. A woman there by the name of Israel, recently passed away at the age of 128.

While anchored off the shores of Portsmouth for 5 days, we took a tour of the Northern tip of the island with a wonderful guide named Martin Carriere.

This fact was one of the first he shared with us.

“People live a long time on Dominica,” he told us. "By the end of our day together, you will understand why."


The first place Martin took us was to a shack in the forest. He picked a leaf from the ground and asked us to smell it and guess what kind of leaf it was.

“Ginger! Cinnamon! Clove! Nutmeg!” we called out, all of us wrong.
“It is bay,” he explained. And the shack in the forest was a distillery which made rum out of bay leaves.

The aroma of these bay leaves was much spicier than the grocery store varieties back in the states He listed the things bay leaves were used for: teas, rum, soups, stews, medicines, etc.

Next, he took us to a small home in the forest. When I looked around this seemingly wild setting, I noticed that fruit was hanging from the trees: coconuts,

tangerines, calabash gourds,

and something that looked and tasted like a small, low-acid grapefruit. Martin took out his pocket knife and shaved the bark from a tree.

I held it to my nose: CINNAMON!

He plucked a yellow pod from a tree and cut it open.

It was cacao. Each purple-fleshed cacao bean was encased in slick white pith.

“Taste,” Martin urged,handing me the pod. “Don’t chew, just suck on the outside. You won't like the taste of the beans inside.”

The cacao bean casings were sweet, sour, a bit creamy, and nothing at all like the chocolate.

As we travelled along in Martin’s white van, driving up, over and around volcanic mountains, he pointed out tree after bush after vine bearing some kind of fruit, nut, or medicine: yams, castor beans (for castor oil), bananas, ginger, sugar cane, vanilla orchids, okra. Even cultivated crops seemed to blend into the lush landscape.

Martin plucked one delicious tropical treat after another, offering us samples of flavors unknown to our American palates. And with each plant, he knew what kind of ailment it could treat, from eczema to nail fungus to respiratory health.

We stopped at a beautiful beach, framed in rocky cliffs, where he chopped a stalk of sugar cane, peeled the bark, and cut juicy bite-sized pieces for us. As I chewed the woody pith, the sweet liquid ran down my throat like hummingbird nectar, and I listened to Martin tell us how chewing the wood helped to clean the teeth.

“Noni” he said, picking a knobbly pale-green orb from a tree, “is a very powerful medicine.
Put it in a bowl until it turns black. It will smell very strong and eventually the skin will crack, and ooze a liquid. That liquid is very good for detoxification, and cancer prevention.”

Side note: We took a Noni fruit back to the boat with us, and within 48 hours the cabin reeked of the smelliest, moldiest Limburger you can imagine. We didn’t keep it around long enough to drink the ooze but the smell was amazing in its putridness.

Along the way, we passed many people walking on the roadside, and every single one of them waved and called out greetings, Martin calling back.

“Eh mon! How you going mon? Yah mon!” they would shout to each other.
“Welcome to dee island!” they would shout to us.

At first I wondered if Martin knew all of them. We were stopped by a waterfall eating sweet fresh bananas from the tree, when an elderly man walked up and began to chat with Martin in a language I didn’t recognize. When he left, Martin explained that it is customary to greet and talk with passers by. This way, there are no strangers. The elderly man, he said, was speaking to him in Creole. There were efforts among the islands people to keep this language in use, now that English is the primary language.

We covered but 40 miles and perhaps one-sixth of the island throughout the day. The homes we saw were modest. Many without electricity or running water. There was a noticeable absence of things like televisions, or the big resorts and mansions that have popped up on the hillsides of other Caribbean locales. But everywhere we went there was an authentic sort of wealth.

Doors were wide open, or altogether absent. People sat on their porches conversing, or sharing fresh fruit or a bowl of stew. Little girls—always in pairs, it seemed—waved and smiled huge smiles at us as we passed. It was Sunday, and mothers were walking home from church, with their children skipping along behind them, dressed in crisp, white, neatly-pressed clothes.

We stopped at a small cinder-block house when Martin saw some of his friends. It sat on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Two rocky islands rested off shore, and a couple of perfectly-spaced palm trees arced towards the water—the perfect hammock spot. It was the end of a hot day and we were grateful to be offered cold beers. There had just been an election and Martin’s friends, happy about the results, were driving around with a loud speaker proclaiming their victory. When they drove away they turned on their loud speaker and called out to us, “Thank you for coming to Dominica! We love you!”

On the way back to Portsmouth, Martin told us stories of his childhood. How his mother was happy when the mangoes were ripe, because she didn’t have to cook so much. He and his siblings would walk home from school eating mangoes from the trees, the fruit oozing it’s sweet tropical juices. There was no need for candy. When the children had belly aches from too many mangoes, she knew just what leaf or seed or bean or herb to pick to heal them.

I’ve heard it said about the Mediterranean, that it’s not only the natural local diet, but the sense of community people have with their neighbors that keeps them free of ailments like heart disease and cancer. There was a quality to the lives of Dominica’s inhabitants that made me feel envious, and more so because it seemed that the lifestyle here was not taken for granted. The people, at least in this little corner of the island, were living not only off the land, but off each other. Everyone talked to everyone, and very few people we saw were alone. This place, these people, this land, and this lifestyle had a wholeness to it that could be felt.

I think the official motto of the country best sums up it’s spirit:

"Après Bondie, C'est La Ter" (Antillean Creole)

"After God is the Earth"

When we bade farewell to Martin at the end of the day, he asked us if we understood now why people on Dominica live for so long.

“Yes,” we told him. He had helped us understand. Not by telling, but by showing us this very special place. There is no single word, or laundry list of reasons I can give towards a longevity theory. But I can tell you that I felt it, and it did to me the best thing that travel can do to a person. It made me see another way to live. A different way. A simpler way. A more wholistic and connected way. Maybe, a better way. I hope that someday you can go to Dominica. If you do, look up Martin Carriere. He will help you to see for yourself.

1 comment:

Jen Cheung said...

ouuuu! caribbeans!!!!
i was there last May for vacation for a whole week! I miss it so sososo much! its like paradise there eh? thanks for visiting my blog =) i won't be on my blog much because i'll be on vacation to China for about 1.5months ;) but do check out my blog. there'll be schedule posts for all of you every other day! thanks for ur support! please do take cares!!


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