If the lid was blown off by our Guadeloupian sucker punch, Dominica came in with the finishing jab. What a fantastically interesting country Dominica turned out to be. After our language struggles in Guadeloupe our standards were fairly low. If Dominica turned out to be a square meter of sand with an inflatable palm tree we would’ve been happy as long as the person that blew up the palm spoke English. But Dominica had so much more to offer. Now known by some as the “Nature Island of the Caribbean,” Dominica’s native name was Waitu’kubuli which translates to “tall in her body” and refers to the dramatic peaks at the island’s interior which are still being formed by volcanic activity. We had the fortune of arriving shortly after an election, which had our port city of Portsmouth festooned with red and blue flags and political posters on every open surface. The Democratic Labor Party (DLP; whose colors are red and yellow) were victorious this year, just as they had been for nearly 20 years. Their victory maintained grasp of the nation’s governance and in turn, all the foreign aid that the government receives. The island was absolutely devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, just before she ravaged Puerto Rico. Just as in P.R., the wake of destruction that Maria left behind still permeates most every aspect of life in Dominica, and politics are no exception. It was described to me in these terms – before 2000 The United Worker’s Party (UWP; the Blue party) had the money, now the DLP has the money and therefore the power to nominate candidates in every district, wresting control of the nation’s politics. So what happened in 2000 that turned the tides? Interestingly the UWP was aligned with Bill Clinton, the Republic of China (ROC) and Taiwan. When the DLP assumed power it was shortly after embracing the Communist Republic of China’s (PRC) One China Policy, which denies the validity of Taiwanese independence. After that? BOOM a sudden infusion of money and Dominica’s labor party with colors and values eerily similar to that of China has the power. China is also single-handedly rebuilding Dominica’s infrastructure with its own labor force that is shipped to the island. These men live their entire lives in small camps with structures made from shipping containers and don’t interact with the locals in any way. They look an awful lot like prison camps and I suspect that they’re not run much differently. What is China getting out of the exchange? No one seemed to have a direct answer for that question, my guess is sand for their South China Sea expansion, or access to drinking water, which is abundant in Dominica. In a conversation with someone I was reprimanded for assuming sinister ulterior motives. “Who else is helping us live here on Dominica? People are telling us to preserve our nature, to be wary of the Chinese, but they’re not living here on the ground, they’re not considering our quality of life.” It’s hard to argue with that and the response knocked me on my heels. Am I just swooping into a country, “diagnosing” its problems with limited perspective and prescribing solutions without concern for implementation or impact? And who am I to tell someone how to live? I like to think that I’m being conscious and aware and sensitive, but maybe I’m blind to it. The question also raises a larger issue when thinking about global climate consciousness and community based solutions. What is the best way to work with people on how to manage their resources? How can you work to find viable lifestyle changes and support eco-friendly product choices in communities around the world? I know it involves working from within a community to respect the customs, traditions, and potential challenges of each culture. But it is easier to say these things than to see on the ground implementation. The kind of interaction we’re talking about only comes with time in a place and a sincere desire to help.
All of these thoughts were knocking about in my head while in Dominica but they were regularly vanquished, at least for a time, by the natural splendor of Dominica. Around every bend was another jaw dropping vista. Cliff sides laden with tree ferns, exotic tropical anthuriums, philodendrons, waterfalls, mountain peaks rising through mist and dense canopies. The whole island felt prehistoric in its scale and its pristine state, unspoiled by human activity. The roads through the jungles and mountains were more like creek beds — often just as rocky and with the same amount of water flowing through them. Just like the coastal cities, the forests still bore scars from Maria, decapitated palms and giant trees completely stripped bare by wind. I suspect the forests will recover just fine, they seemed resilient just like the people of Dominica. Everywhere we went there were people rebuilding. Neighbors helping neighbors, replacing walls made of US Aid and Samaritan’s Purse tarps with plywood and stone. I was told stories by those who lived through the storm that would make anyone shudder. Glass windows being smashed to a fine dust by the wind, doors flying into rooms, whole houses being lifted off their foundations and dropping again. The truth of these stories was evident in the streets, on every block at least one lot contained a pile of rubble or had been recently cleared of debris and weeds grew tall. Despite something like 90% of structures being damaged in Maria, the people seemed optimistic and friendly. We were received warmly by all and never once did I feel unsafe or unwelcome. I think some people were happy to see a foreign face, perhaps a sign that tourism may be on its way back. Cruise ships stopped coming after Maria’s destruction and with it all the money that travelers bring for T-shirts and hats and island tours. People don’t want to see broken structures and struggling people on their tropical vacations, they want the Caribbean from the post card – smiling faces and palm trees, crystal blue water and coconuts. There can be damaging effects of tourism but there’s a lot to be gained as well. The powers that be pulled that industry from an island when they needed it most. Its sad and discouraging. But the people of Dominica continue to rebuild and the island is still one of the most beautiful places in the world. As the island gets back on its feet it will be interesting to see how China lending a hand when no one else would plays out. I hope that I’m proven wrong in my suspicions and Dominica is rebuilt with all of its resources left under Dominican discretion. I will certainly be back to find out.
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