Our paper chart of the Windward Islands is well worn near the northwest corner of Dominica. Decades of penciled course marks lead in and out of Prince Rupert Bay, a favorite stop on our north/south track. The Caribbean’s ‘Nature Island,’ sandwiched between the jumbo French ones, is a convenient place to overnight and an even better port for an entertaining visit.
In January, sixteen months after a category 5 storm hit the island, we tacked into the broad bay with binoculars out, scanning the hills where giant hardwoods once stood. Hurricane Maria’s claws left zigzagged scars on the mountainous slopes that serve as backdrop to the tiny town of Portsmouth, but already, vines are filling in the bald spots and trees that survived are thriving from the massive trim and rain. Buildings, sporting new tin roofs, were the first sign of recovery we wanted to see.
A high-speed PAYS boat approached, the driver announcing, “Welcome to Dominica!” He briefed us on services offered, smiled, waved, then sped away. Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services, (PAYS) has reigned in the concierge service offering amenities that today’s cruisers want and need. Agents happily assist boats to moorings, ease the task of clearance, provide safety patrols at night and twice a week, host a cruisers beach barbecue at their newly rebuilt pavilion. They aim to please and easily hit the mark.
Today’s ambassadors are a stark contrast to the old days when a parade of boat boys would escort us in, all vying for the job of guide or hired hand. Services were limited; selling fruit, collecting garbage or leading your dinghy up the Indian River. On one visit in 1979, we were adopted by an urchin who took us to a coconut plantation. He scaled a tree for nuts then used our Buck Knife for the job of a machete. When the steel snapped, he froze in disbelief so we gave him the blade, paid his fee and off he happily went with his first ‘knife.’
Since Maria’s visit, we’d wondered about Portsmouth friends so the next morning we set off, hoping to find them. On the way to Customs and Immigrations, we spotted Leonardo, a post-man, bus-driver, jack-of-all tradesman who always welcomes us in. His roadside house took licks yet he considered himself lucky. He pointed up the road to a rock wall near the church. “De beeg trees wuz stopped right dere,” he explained. “Dat wall save me house.” Free-falling hardwoods choked rivers, sending water through the entire town. “Some houses, dey just float away.”
Dominicans have never had much; simplicity reigns and change is slow. As we walked through the town, rebuilt structures rose next to wrecks caused by the storm or the wrath of time and poverty. A newly paved road stretched to the port and everywhere, cement mixers, block, piles of plywood, stood ready for the future.
After a friendly clearance, we stopped at the Indian River. The bar was busy; tour boats gearing up for a big day. We encountered Franklyn, a pal of 40 years, and listened raptly as he replayed vignettes of Maria’s attack. Nearby houses, one by one, blew away so he hauled neighbors into his. Through the night he bailed the stream that kept filling his bathroom. Corrugated tin flew like paper in the wind. Animals disappeared; trees tangled with power-lines; cars rolled into the sea. His description of the morning after was apocalyptic. His house withstood the violence but everything inside was destroyed by water. “We wuz lucky,” he said. “Blessed.”
His son-in-law Daniel, a parks officer, pulled out his phone, filled with photos from the morning after. One showed hundreds of tiny birds. “We had to feed dem for weeks,” he said. “Dey had nowhere to go- de trees wuz all ghan.” On the morning after the storm, he and others walked every neighborhood accounting for family and helping where needed. “Everyone gave what dey had; bread, a dry place ta sleep.” For two weeks, he carried a $10 EC bill in his pocket because it couldn’t be spent. “Evrybody take care of each udder.”
There was no power for most of the school year. Learning was on standby as schools served as shelters. Daniel’s wife, Phyllis, a first grade teacher, proudly announced that Dominica’s secondary students scored the highest year-end test scores in the islands. I thought pride was involved but she laughed, “De kids had to read and read. No power, no tv, no phones.”
To our eye, Portsmouth was the same as we’ve always found it – impoverished and down to earth; lush and bountiful, but the residents had changed. Smiles were bigger, waves more robust. Hope, it seems, is the one thing Maria couldn’t blow away.