Maria! Maria! Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane: First Quarter, 2018

JANUARY, 2018 :  Key West

Ho, hum. Christmas 2017 has come and gone, and Santa had no place to land his team of reindeer because I’m still roofless. Most Dominicans are already looking forward to an early Carnival, while I am looking forward to getting off this god-forsaken island and freeing up my head. For one thing, I have run out of books to read. There’s no library, and even if we did have a post office, the price of ordering books from overseas is completely cost prohibitive. I suppose I should think about a Kindle, but to me that feels like being a traitor to the tradition of paper-based books. Besides; how would I charge the contraption?  

Thank God for the Key West Literary Seminar, a wonderful event I previously attended in 2015. This year’s theme is “Writers of the Caribbean” (Perfect!) and the lineup is spectacular—Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Robert Antoni, Marlon James, Kei Miller—all my contemporary Caribbean literary heroes. Since I was lucky to get a scholarship to both the seminar and the workshop, I shall go with an empty suitcase and return refreshed with a treasure trove of Caribbean books to read.

Unfortunately, there is no way to reach Key West from Dominica in one day. I overnight in Barbados and then on to Miami and KW. I reach my bed and breakfast, Author’s House, after dark on the second day. The 73-year-old concierge, Barby, greets me. She shows me to my room (nice, with a microwave and a fridge) and asks if I’ve had dinner. Without a second thought, she drives me around to nearby grocers and delis so I can pick up something to eat and drink.  Although I have missed Jamaica Kincaid’s opening address, I fall into bed satiated and wake up the next day ready to rock and roll.

It’s about a 20-minute walk to the San Carlos Institute where the seminar is held. Although Hurricane Irma passed here 3 months ago, everything is spick and span as usual. Old Key West has a flavor all its own—architecturally, literarily, and artistically—and I enjoy the walk. I breakfast upstairs with some of the gracious hosts who have made my visit possible before the seminar begins, and I’m introduced to Daria Sorhaindo, a teacher from Dominica who is also here on scholarship. The auditorium, which holds several hundred people, is packed, and we settle down to listen and learn from 9 a.m. At lunchtime, I dive into the array of Caribbean books for sale in the lobby like a pile of candy, knowing that this is my chance to purchase some cutting edge regional reading material. The after lunch session is just as thrilling and lasts until 5 p.m. I decline an invitation to see the film Poetry is an Island, a documentary about Derek Walcott that I’ve seen before. Instead, I head back to my room to digest what I’ve heard and eat the remains of last night’s supper. I watch TV for a while (a rare treat for me) and fall asleep during the 11:00 news.

Saturday is full of more inspiration. Daria and I sit together and talk about what we’ve learned at lunch. Following the afternoon session, she’s off to another the Derek Walcott event and a late complimentary dinner, while I head home to the Jacuzzi, which is right outside my door. I enjoy talking to Barby, who informs me she is an artist and the former Queen of the Conch Republic. Go figure. She gives me a beautiful salad left by a departing guest and a slice of Key Lime pie. Delicious.

On Sunday, I take an alternate route to the San Carlos, past the old cemetery that is reminiscent of New Orleans with its mausoleums and raised cement burial sites. (The highest place in Key West is 5 feet above sea level.) I meet Daria for a cup of coffee and we settle down for the particularly hilarious morning seminar with Robert Antoni. After a complimentary conch chowder lunch at Oldest House, we amble back for the afternoon session, which is open to the public. We enjoy Edwidge Danticat’s amazing literary observations, then we go out to dinner and say goodbye. She is heading home, and I am staying on for another 3 days of workshopping.

Monday night, the participants for all the workshops drink wine and dine on Ernest Hemmingway’s lawn! That’s right, folks. I chat with Arlo and Freya, the gracious KWLS directors who have made all this possible for me, and reconnect with Martha Payne who was in my Lee Smith workshop in 2015. Then I find our table where I meet my workshop leader, Naomi Jackson, and Adeli, another writer in my group who is staying at my B&B. We make it back home just before midnight, which is way past my bedtime, but the next morning the self-serve breakfast is on the table by 7 a.m. and the location of the workshop isn’t far. There are 12 of us with novels in progress, 3 each day from 9-12 for 4 days. (I have made a mistake on my itinerary and have to leave a day early.) One is a cool black guy, but the rest (except for Naomi) are white women, of whom I am the oldest.

The afternoons are free. Usually we head to lunch as a group to get to know one another. There is a planned activity every evening, including an open mic. I chose to read the opening passage from River of Fire, and feel proud of what I have written. The time limit is 3-5 minutes, but some people abuse the constraint, which leaves others high and dry. What is it with artistic types? Why are they often so myopic and self-centered? I head out in the wrong direction when I leave the theatre and end up eating dinner at an Italian restaurant with a very cool elderly local woman who used to work in the US State Department before I finally find my way home!  

Next day is my turn to workshop the first 20 pages of my 100,000-word novel Rise Up Sister. No one seems especially impressed, including me. Something is wrong, but nobody seems to be able to tell me what it is beyond Naomi who says, “Part of being a writer is to be willing to throw away your bad choices.” I give away a dozen of my books so I’ll have room for the new ones I’ve purchased in my luggage. Checking out of Author’s House, Barby presents me with a print of one of her paintings and fifty one-dollar bills to apply to my roof repair. When we hug goodbye, I find I have tears in my eyes. Key West is always an adventure, and I wonder if I’ll ever make it back again. I hope so.  

At home in Dominica, everything looks worse than I remember. For the first time in twenty-five years, I am painfully aware that I live in the Third World. When I try to share my enthusiasm for Key West, no one seems very interested, including my fellow Waitukubuli Writers. To go from such a literary mecca to a literary desert is quite a shock. It takes me the rest of the month to catch up…with what, I’m not quite sure.

For some reason I am feeling tired again: short of breath, rapid pulse, and weak legs. I can’t understand it. Maybe this is what it feels like to get old. Yet I managed to walk miles all around Key West, where everything was flat and pleasant. So what is the problem besides the general ongoing struggle in Dominica? Everything is so DIFFICULT! From driving on the treacherous roads, to fighting for fruit in the market, to struggling to start the generator every time I need electricity.  Yikes!  Although I’ve never really suffered from depression, I feel a renewed sense of hopelessness settle over me according to the state of disarray. I’m beginning to realize that the island will never be the same after Maria . . . Just because something is over doesn’t mean it stops happening.

FEBRUARY 2018: Don’t Stop de Carnival

Well, one thing you can say for Dominicans: They love their Carnival. The calypsos this year are actually quite good. (There’s been plenty to write about.) I spend some good times catching up with old friends who are on island for the fete. We lunch on the balcony of a restaurant that overlooks the streets of Roseau. Never mind that the food sucks, the streets are filthy, and the surrounding buildings are falling apart. It’s Carnival and Dominica sweet, boy, so none of that matters.

Once the king is crowned and Val-Val buried, reality returns, and we are right back in the struggle. No lights, no phone, no supplies, and no love. Shortly afterward, I get a text message from UNICEF saying that I am to receive monetary assistance from the WFP (World Food Program). Great. All I have to do is go to the social services office in the ministry building in town and pick up my money. They don’t tell me how much. The next morning, I circle Roseau for a parking spot and then wait for over an hour in the office with about 20 other desperate people only to be told I’m supposed to go to the village council office in my constituency of St. Joseph. By then it’s almost noon, so I race down the west coast highway only to find the office is closed. I go to the next-door police station where I’m told that the council people are out to lunch. I wait until 2:30, but no one ever comes back.  

The next day, Friday, I return. I am told that I am definitely on the list to receive financial assistance, but it won’t be available until Tuesday after 2 o’clock. Understand that the round trip to St. Joseph takes over two hours across seriously compromised roads, so I am none too pleased. But hey! This is (used to be) the Nature Island of the Caribbean, so I am privileged to live here. Right? On Tuesday, I meet at least 100 people standing in line in the hot sun outside the village council office. Only one person is allowed in at a time, so the process takes hours. Neighbors reproach the cheeky people who push ahead. Some hopefuls wait all that time and come out empty handed because they’re not on the list. In the First World, there might have been a riot, but Dominicans are used to taking their blows. When I finally get inside, I am rewarded with EC $240, barely enough to pay for my gas. Welcome to Paradise, Kristine.

The ongoing situation with John’s health is another example of how frustrating it can be to live on a small island. He had a stroke about 5 years ago, but recovered nicely because of his stubbornness to give in and the fact that I paid for a private hospital room and his physical therapy. He stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, ate well, and was on the mend until an inability to swallow laid him low. We finally found the right doctor, a gastroenterologist, who diagnosed suspected achalasia. He needs to travel overseas to get it fixed, but because John can barely read or write, this is going to be difficult. He has no passport, no birth certificate, no one to travel with him, and on and on and on. Between doctor’s appointments and tramping around town trying to sort out the bureaucracy, I soon became emotionally and physically exhausted.

Still, I didn’t give up. I got an invoice for the cost of the operation from Cuba Heal. After running around from one building to the next in the blistering heat, John applied for temporary financial assistance from the government of Dominica in July of 2017. We heard nothing in August, and then of course there was Maria in September. It was the middle of October before the staff of the Red Clinic, which is the nickname given to the prime minister’s office, began to answer their phone. It was November before I even got a phone with which to call them. Naturally, there was a lot of confusion. One department blamed the delay on another, and the accusations flew back and forth like the ball in a game of ping-pong with me as the net.

Let’s face it. Being “de white lady” can be an advantage or a disadvantage when you’re trying to sort something out in the Caribbean. It took every ounce of patience I could muster to stay civil on the phone while I got the run around. All the while, John was getting worse and looking for someone to blame—me— which added to my level of post-Maria stress.

Then, just when I thought the situation was hopeless, I called the Red Clinic one more time, and I could not believe my ears. Did Ms. Davis in Accounts just tell me that John can pick up his check after lunch on Friday? I ask her to repeat what she just said to make sure. Then I do a happy dance and pass the news to John, who seems strangely unaffected. I guess that’s because I have done all the legwork while he sits back and grumbles. Anyway, he gets the check. It’s made out to him personally, so he can do anything he wants with it—buy a transport, build a pig pen, give it to his daughter, whatever. When I tell him he now has more money than I have, he is unamused. Hmm. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

MARCH 2018: Rise Up Sister

What can you do except keep on keepin’ on? The repairs on the guesthouse are proceeding slowly: the ceiling is sealed and painted, and the veranda has been extended so as to hold the oversized dining table that has been clogging up my office. There’s a privacy fence railing around the perimeter to keep the chickens out and the dogs in.  Bati Mamzelle almost feels like home, although definitely not large enough for two people.

Every time I walk out the front door, however, the ruins of the big hutch confront me. I still have some money to fix it, but none of the contractors who have come to look have come back. John and a new helper have torn all the lumber off the roof and the veranda, so all that remains is the concrete block skeleton similar to a Mayan ruin minus the thatched roof.

After we removed the tarpaulin from Samaritan’s Purse, even more water leaked into the downstairs as a result. The rain has been especially abundant this year, which is good for the greening of Dominica, but bad for my shriveled up feet. Every morning and afternoon, I have to sweep water out of the downstairs veranda before I can feed the dogs; therefore my shoes are always wet. I must try to find a new pair of lightweight boots because it doesn’t look like this situation will change anytime soon.

Since my feet are wet already, I decide to head to the beach in Mero where I meet my friend Frederique, a retired French restauranteur who has hosted two of my book launches at Romance Café. She tells me she is planning Reggae on the Beach again this year, a benefit for the Dominica Association of Disabled People. I agree to participate as a bookseller and a reader if she needs me. We reminisce about the last time we saw Nelly Stharre at the event, a deceased local reggae artist with extraordinary talent and a big heart. But I decline to hear Frederique’s version of what really happened to our friend. That’s what’s so great about writing fiction. If you don’t like what’s going on in the real world, you can crawl into your manuscript and give the story a noble ending.


(Publication date: September 1st, 2018)