Three and a half weeks after Maria, I finally have a chance to reach Roseau, get some money, and call my family. At 6:30 a.m. on Monday October 2, 2017, I crawl over the landslide to meet my ride. Three other neighbors are crammed into the backseat of my friend’s little jeep. As we pick our way to the Warner Road junction, I feel a sense of wonder and exhilaration despite the cramped conditions. But the kind of perilous roads and widespread destruction we encounter makes me wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off to stay home. I am shocked at the amount of brand new houses that are roofless; some of them never lived in. In the village of Jimmit, businesses and homes demolished by flood during TS Erika and subsequently rebuilt are mashed up yet again. Dominica Coconut Products, the site of an historic water-powered mill located at the junction of the Belfast River and the sea for well over a century, took a final, fatal blow.
Just around the corner, the village of Mahaut looks like it has been bombed, and the line of traffic we are trapped in isn’t moving. Persons wearing surgical masks and gloves due to the dust and the threat of leptospirosis are walking to town like zombies. No one is smiling, and every man and woman looks to be for themselves. There is a rumor circulating that armed police are stopping vehicles further up the road and putting people in buses. After about a 2-hour delay, we decide we should turn back. We’ll try again tomorrow, but this time we’ll depart at 5 a.m. to beat the rush. When I point out its still dark at that time and I have to cross a landslide, everyone just shrugs.
Back in Layou Park, I receive rations of three cartons of UHT milk, 2 packs of Crix crackers, and 4 packs of Ramen noodles from the shop. Jeesh! Best I stay in the bush with my coconuts and green bananas! The shop owner throws in sugar and flour on credit because I have no cash, but I forget to ask for toilet paper and matches. On the way to the head of the landslide, we visit an elderly neighbor who lives down a lane off the feeder road. Like almost everybody else, she is in a mess. The difference is that she is bawling about her lost possessions instead of praising God she is still alive. She says her children came from Guadeloupe to rescue her, but she refused to abandon her home and her stuff. When we leave her, she is still wailing about the injustice of it all, as if no one else is affected. Well, as the parable says, ‘If you make your own bed, you’re supposed to lie in it.’
Speaking of beds, I leap from mine at 4 a.m. the next morning in the pitch dark. Then I struggle to put myself together by flashlight so as not to scare anybody in case I reach town. John gives me a ride to the bottom of the landslide. Just as we reach at 5:05, I see my friend’s headlights disappear back down the feeder road. No! No! John blows the horn, grabs the flashlight, and scrambles up and across the landslide before me. My so-called friend has gone on without me! At daybreak, I, too, clambered over the landslide to arrange with my neighbor Steve to make a foray to Roseau at 6 a.m. the next day. I hope that we’ll have a more sympathetic connection.
When I reach Steve’s home at precisely 5:45 the following morning, he informs me that his battery is dead and the transport won’t start. We push it back and forth up and down the driveway until it finally jerk starts. We are off, jumper cables and gas cans onboard. About half way to Roseau it cuts off again and we are stranded on the West Coast highway. Cars zoom by, but no one even slows down for an old white woman and an even older black man. Finally, two guardian angels named Massley and Cuffy come to our rescue. That’s what’s so contradictory about Dominica— people can be very self-centered and tight fisted, or they can’t wait to do everything they can to help. After trying various mechanical techniques, we agree that Steve needs a new battery. Thereupon Cuffy actually GIVES him a used battery he has on board so we can get to town to purchase a new one. When I explain to Massley that I haven’t been able to talk to my family for a week, he LOANS me his Flow cell phone to make an international call. I briefly speak to my son and daughter-in-law who say they’ve contacted the US Embassy and the Red Cross, but no one has been able to find me. When they ask how they can help, I am lost for an answer.
Steve and I proceed to Canefield where we try several places to buy a new battery but fail. The devastation we observe along the way is amazing. Auto Trade is mashed up and flooded, and new and used cars have been washed across the road to Whitchurch wholesale, which is totally destroyed. Further down, Nassiff’s building supplies has caved in on itself, as has 4-D. We stop by E.H. Charles where Mr. Charles himself is greeting customers. There are no lights inside and no cash register. After waiting in line for almost an hour, Steve and I get our ration of nails, but there’s no roof putty. Then it’s on to Scotia Bank where the ATM is actually working! The city of Roseau looks and smells like a ghost town. The river has compromised two bridges and most of the homes and businesses on its banks. The remaining stores have been looted and streets are still blocked by sand and mountains of foul-smelling debris.
After we finally manage to find our way back across the river, we stop to buy groceries at S-Mart. The place has no lights or refrigeration and no dogfood or bread, but a good supply of the same deadly ration-type food. I buy a 30-pound bag of cat food for $150 and make a joke about my dogs meowing. While waiting in line to check out, my friend Vincent from Pt. Michelle informs me that a fellow who used to work with me died trying to rescue 9 families that took shelter in one house, and were subsequently buried alive—no joking matter.
We get a battery next door at Valley Engineering, and then stop to check on Giselle, my book designer in River Estate. Her mother, Esther, is there, and absolutely NOTHING has happened to their home, although many around it are severely damaged. I use Esther’s phone to call the UK to tell the company there to hold the shipment of my third novel to Dominica until further notice. Rose, the manager, extends her sympathy and says she will make sure the books stay safe. We get a bag of dogfood from Minya’s mini-mart and some bread, and then stop for gas. After waiting in line for about a half-hour, we drop a bag of dasheen for Steve’s family in Mahaut. Then we are homeward bound. Unfortunately, when I try to lift a heavy bag of groceries out of the back of the transport at the top of the landslide, the physicality of the struggle finally catches up with me. My right arm protests with a resounding crack. Shit, man! Just as John and I finally manage to get copious the supplies to the house, Max calls from the end of the driveway with another bag of dogfood courtesy of the expat neighbor who left me down the previous morning. As they say, feast or famine.
Black Friday, October 13, 2018, is my 70th birthday. Although I can’t say there’s much to celebrate other than the fact that I’m still alive, it beats the alternative. I try to do some laundry, but my arm is killing me. The cloud of gloom lifts when the backhoe operator appears. After we negotiate a tip of $200 because he says he wasn’t instructed to work here even though the feeder road is a government road, John, my hero, assists him with his chainsaw. By the end of the day, the road is clear enough to pass. Happy Birthday to me! I was promised a celebration by my expat neighbor, but just like the phantom ride to town, it never materialized. Over the weekend, I resume working my way around the flower gardens surrounding the house. In the process, I hope to find Grandpa Charlie’s sailboat painting which somehow disappeared from its frame during the hurricane. There’s no foliage on the trees, and the sun is incredibly hot. I can feel it burning my arms and the back of my neck even though I’m wearing long sleeves. As I’ve already had a nasty lump of skin cancer removed from the back of my shoulder, I have to be extra careful.
After a rum and Kool-Aid aperitif, I make a nice big salad with watercress and beets and cashews for supper. Along with pumpkin soup, it is the first meal I’ve eaten in a month that really tastes good to me. Around midnight, the wind starts to blow mightily and heavy rain falls. I have to admit I feel spooked. I’ve never been fond of wind, and Maria made me even more frightened. The rain, however, is a blessing. Plants that were drooping under the intense sun appear instantly refreshed.
As I’m lingering over my second cup of coffee the next morning, D’Jango and Gouti, my clef palate ridgeback dogs, decide to kill and eat a chicken. BAD DOGS! What a way to start the day! John and Max work on putting up guttering while I attack the flowerbeds. Right before lunch, I find the clapper for my Solari wind bell. Hurray! I reward myself by consuming the last of the pumpkin soup and then spend the afternoon cleaning up the pet cemetery. (Not the Stephen King novel, but the plot in my backyard.)
It takes a while to locate the cement plaques we made for my deceased dogs, and as I find them, I remember each of them and their special ways. First there is my darling Ophine, my original Dominican mongrel. Tootsie the circus dog, who climbed onto the chicken coup roof and rode in the wheelbarrow, is next to and Kali the love bug, who gave hugs. Sniper the genius Doberman, who sang happy birthday on cue, is near the center. Wanda the castaway pit bull with the bad skin and and poor lost Roadie are on the side. Terrible Lucky, a Rottweiler/ Ridgeback I picked up by the roadside laid to rest beside his wife Lucy, a pure Rott that plunged to her death over a cliff behind an agouti when she was two years old. (Those two founded the doggie dynasty here at River Ridge and were the parents of River and Valley as well as many other pups.) After Lucy came Zoe, a beautifully trained Doberman that died with a belly full of Lucky’s puppies; crazy Raina, daughter of River and mother of Homer; Zion the lion, son of Valley and father of copious offspring; and finally a mass grave for the little ones that just didn’t make it. It’s hard to believe, but over the course of ten years about 300 pups were born in the kennel. No wonder I have ruined knees.
The torrential rain and wind keep up over the next few days. There’s not much I can do except keep on mopping. The trees and plants appreciate the wetting, and there’s another waterfall forming on Morne Couronne. The rejuvenation reminds me of the final paragraph of River of Fire.
‘Krystal gazes up toward the mountains and her mind is instantly soothed. Pioneer species of plant life seem to be sprouting before her very eyes. When it starts to rain, she stares in fascination as each drop polishes the tender foliage. She inhales the fecund smell of the soil and remembers the rainforest. A double rainbow forms over the valley, which pulsates with luminous shades of living color. A Mountain Whistler carols from the heights above the escalating hum of the river.’ Five weeks after Hurricane Maria all of this is coming true except the part about the Mountain Whistler. Let’s bet it’s going to be a while before I hear the sweet song of a rufous-throated solitaire again.
I’m hoping to get some vegetable seeds to plant in the rich humus that was once the forest floor. Now that the old giant trees are no longer standing, there’s plenty of sun when it decides to shine. But when it does, watch out! Plants wilt and unprotected skin burns from the unfiltered UV light. There’s a weird sort of haze hanging in the air that makes the mountains look white. It could be smoke from fires to clear debris, or it could be Sahara dust. Whatever it is, I wonder if it doesn’t somehow contribute to the magnification of the sun’s rays.
Meanwhile, the issue of negotiating finances to put the roof back on my house is hanging over my head. (No pun intended.) Unfortunately, there are no building materials, even if I did manage to come up with the money to pay a contractor. (All of whom are presently occupied, anyway.) There was a time when John and I could have managed the construction ourselves. But as I’ve said, he is not well, and until the funds to pay for an overseas operation come through from the government, my outlay of cash is on hold. Élas. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in limbo.
We get the generator started, so I can charge my computer and the cell phones. Never the less, I’ll still have to go out somewhere to use the Wi-Fi to contact my bank in the States. At least I can begin to transfer this handwritten journal to the computer. An editor at a beautiful magazine called Interviewing the Caribbean has asked me for a hurricane story for the spring issue. I just wonder if I have enough emotional distance to write it. My reactions are running high right about now. In my heart, I know I will never see the Dominica I fell in love with 25 years ago again, and sometimes that thought is too painful to bear. Never mind. To occupy my time, there are at least a million shards of glass from the solar water heater that blew off the top of the house and crashed into the backyard. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to pick them all up and dump them in a hole and cover them up with dirt so the dogs won’t cut their feet when passing. I can do that. It’s good to put my head down to a simple task. It gives me time to think about a plan.
The next day, John goes to check on the people in his native village of Gallion. The report is that the cottage we so lovingly built there is flat down along with most other structures. At least nobody was injured. When I finally get up the courage to drive to town by myself, I go the Springfield way. I want to check on my friend Nancy, the manager of a tropical research center founded by Cornell University. But when I reach, the place is demolished, and she has fled to Canada. From there down the road to Canefield the destruction is astonishing. Most roofs are gone or worse. I stop by Giselle’s again, where I am able to call my son Josh. On my way into town, I order a 100-pound propane tank for the fridge and two 20-pound tanks of propane gas for cooking for delivery to River Ridge. I see a 15-pound bag of dogfood in a shop. I buy it.
As agreed, I meet Giselle by the ferry terminal to help her transport donated boxes of rations. We wait for hours in the stink and the dust and the heat. The post office across the street is closed, and my dentist’s office is closed. The good news is my broken tooth is bearable. After the boxes are loaded on my jeep, we stop at the grocery, where mold has begun to grow on the broken ceiling tiles, and then wait in line at the gas station. Been there, done that. When I finally drop Giselle and her boxes, she agrees to help me sort out my phone situation so I can attempt to use data to communicate with the rest of the world. I stop to check my friend Liz, who is temporarily staying at Springfield, to ask about the corrections to my young adult novel, Island Time, which I hope to send to the Burt Award in Trinidad by the end of the month. She calls Wendy, who is in the States, and she promises to send them right away. I reach home exhausted, and I swear I won’t venture out again any time soon.
On Saturday, Max informs us that this will be his last day; he is otherwise occupied, whatever that means. Like most young fellas hanging out by the roadside, Max is relatively unskilled when it comes to practicing a trade. Unlike the others, who can be loud and rude, he is polite and soft spoken. Of Kalinago decent, he knows how to hunt and fish and plant and but is poorly educated in the traditional sense. He doesn’t really worry about a roof over his head. In fact, his nickname is “Tent” because he’s perfectly capable of sleeping under a tarpaulin in the bush.
Max is addicted to crack cocaine but says he is trying to “fix himself.” Being the mother of an alcoholic drug addict, I know better than to intervene. The most I can do is feed him and encourage him to stay clean and sober by giving him a job if he wants it. Honestly, I understand the sense of hopelessness that pervades the lives of young Dominicans. The self-image youths have gleaned from watching videos and cable TV portrays black men in a certain stereotype that will never work around here. The result? The brain drain has been complete and inexorable. With or without a college education, there is little opportunity to succeed in the First World sense of the word in Dominica. The most islanders can do is get a mediocre job and take a big loan. The least they can do is end up living from hand to mouth on the roadside like Max and figure out a way to support their habit. Indeed, the passage of Hurricane Maria has served to highlight the shortage of skilled labor we have on the island when it comes to fixing things—roofs, utilities, roads, bridges, and even our own backyard gardens. Thank God for my partner John, who has the skills and ambition, if not the health, to get things done. Today, he rebuilds the front door of Bati Mamzelle so it opens out instead of in, which gives us a lot more space in the kitchen. In fact, there is little that he can’t do if he sets his mind to it. Yet these days he needs a helper, and, as I’ve said, good help is hard to find.
(Publication date: August 7th, 2018)