FALL ROUNDUP

Onward!

Sorry for the long delay in getting back to my blog, but I’ve been kinda busy! The three weeks spent visiting friends and family in the States in September were enjoyable but sufficient, thank you very much. The luxury of lounging in a king-sized bed watching big screen TV and surfing channels soon wore off. Endless advertising for cars, miracle drugs to cure the ills of the nation (Why is everybody sick?), and hateful personal political attacks ruled the airwaves. The congressional inquiry into Judge Kavanagh’s misogynist teenage behavior was the icing on the cake.

I have to admit that traveling from destination to destination in a clean, smooth riding vehicle over paved, pothole free roads was a treat, as was dining out at various themed restaurants that served food that somebody else cooked. Attending football games that featured my grandsons as players, my granddaughter as cheerleader, and my son Zach as assistant coach was drawn out but fun. The drive to Serpent Mound, the world’s largest surviving example of an ancient animal effigy, was like a trip back in time. When I was younger, I often headed to the Arc of Appalacia in southern Ohio to check out the fall foliage and soak up ancient spiritual Indian vibes.

The entire family, including my younger son Josh, visited to the Ohio History Connection in Columbus where the exhibit “1950s: Building the American Dream” was on display. Definitely déjà vu, it featured a Lustron all steel prefab home like the one I grew up in, which cost $4,190 when constructed on your own lot!

On Josh’s 50th birthday, the boys and I dropped by the shady old cemetery where my mother’s side of the family, including the illustrious Grandpa Charlie, are buried. Afterwards, we spent some time going through old photographs to explain to the grandkids who was who. It’s amazing to me that the folks who played such a huge part in my reaching adulthood are all dead now, when I myself still feel so young. (Most days.)  

I popped in my old craft store in Dayton and was proud of what the subsequent owner had done with it. I spent another day on the farm of an old friend—lawyer, polo player, gourmet cook, and excellent woodworker. His health has failed dramatically in the past few years, but at least he’s still alive, unlike many of my peers.

I came back home in October to find a railing around the veranda of the main house. Other than that, not much had changed…still no lights, no phone, and no internet. On my 71st birthday, I went snorkelling at my old stomping grounds, the Soufriere Scott’s Head Marine Reserve. ELAS! I hardly recognized the place since Maria. Shanties that once graced the seaside were missing and many homes on higher ground were still roofless. Underwater was like a coral graveyard. Few reef fish remained thanks to the hurricane and the invasion of lionfish that savvy fishermen were cleaning by the coolers full to sell to restaurants in town

October a time of Independence in Dominica, and as usual, folks can’t wait to celebrate. A series of cultural events leads up to the World Creole Music Festival at the end of the month. For kicks, I rented a space in the botanic gardens for four days under the auspices of Waitukubuli Writers at a music, food, and craft event called Creole Rendezvous. Hurray!  I actually sold some books.  I’m still recuperating, but I enjoyed being out and about. I then rushed to complete my entry to the Commonwealth short story prize, which was due Nov. 1st, and sent it in a day early. It was a good thing I did, because the mobile data on my tablet was down for the next three days. After another long weekend, it will be back to the lonely job of staining the plywood to seal the ceiling of the main house. Meanwhile, I plan to enjoy the fact that I’m living the life I chose to lead, in the place I want to be, healthy, free, and simple. Despite all its problems, this magical island still suits me.   

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Maria, Maria: Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane, Third Quarter

JULY: Stand By

I don’t know what Roseau has got, but every time I venture into town I come home exhausted. Even if I only have a few errands, the drive alone over these devastated roads if enough to wear me out. Whether it be grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy, or the never-ending search for Wi-Fi, town is always a struggle. The traffic is horrendous, and because there’s absolutely NO place to park, it’s necessary to walk from task to impossible task once you find a spot. Not that I mind the exercise, but I can never get what I want on the first try. I end up searching shops in the debilitating heat, tripping along the sidewalks that are broken and dangerous, and circumventing the trash that is piled up everywhere. Even if there was a nice place to quench your thirst or have lunch, I can’t imagine eating or drinking in town. The idea is to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, more than once I’ve come back to find a traffic ticket attached to my windscreen after squeezing into a dubious parking slot. Then it’s off to pay the magistrate’s court before I forget and have to go to court. What a racket.

Even though I feel better than last month, I decide to get another blood test just in case the Iron tablets (400 mg twice a day) the doctor gave me last month aren’t working. The good news is that they are, and my blood hemoglobin is up to 9.5! I only wish John could be cured so easily. He has another doctor’s appointment in Martinique on July 6. I sure hope they can do something for him this time.

Unfortunately, John comes home a day early saying they cannot treat him in Martinique, which is exactly what they told me a year ago, but he wouldn’t listen.  He must be thoroughly discouraged—I know I am. The night he returns, I’m supposed to meet the ferry at 7:30. Hurricane Beryl is in the forecast, and I’m anxious about driving. I wait over an hour and then attempt to drive home in the pouring rain. My night vision is impaired under normal circumstances, but that night I am especially blind. We pass long lines at the grocery and gas station, but I’m too nervous to stop. We reach home at 10 o’clock. I have a glass of wine and go straight to bed.  

When I check the internet the next morning, it looks like Beryl, with winds of about 100 mph, is pointed toward Dominica like a loaded gun. Considering what happened with Maria, I panic, and so does everybody else. We rush to the gas station and fill up, get money from the ATM at the airport, buy 100 lbs. of dogfood at the feed store, stand in a long line at the grocery, and then buy fresh fish, batteries, and roofing nails before heading back home. Phew. Mission accomplished. After the groceries are unpacked and put away, we start securing the guesthouse. Thanks to Maria, there’s only two windows left to cover with plywood. I carefully put away the few belongings that remain intact, while John cleans out the garage so the transport can go inside. Now there’s nothing to do but wait.

By evening, the data on my tablet stops working, so there’s no way to check the storm’s position. They used to include a hurricane-tracking map with the phone book, but I guess that’s too old fashioned. These days, if you can’t Google it, it doesn’t exist. The radio is playing gospel hymns interspersed with clergymen praying, which only adds to the portent of disaster already hanging in the air. I hum along while drinking an entire bottle of wine. What else can I do?

On Sunday morning, people begin to flood into the shelters. The hotel here in Layou Park, which has been hanging on the side of a cliff since TS Erika, is where we’re instructed to go. Yikes! According to PM Skerrit, neighbors are supposed to check on the elderly (me) and disabled (John) who don’t comply, but we don’t see another soul all day. My son Josh phones to say Beryl has hit wind sheer and is slowing down. Hallelujah! At dusk, I put the dogs in the cast concrete kennel just in case, while John elects to sleep in the transport in the garage. Déjà vu all over again. In the end, we get a little thunder and lightning, some rain, and absolutely no wind. John comes to bed around midnight and we sleep peacefully until daybreak, when, like robots, we start undoing what we did to prepare, only this time in reverse.  

Life goes on, one day at a time, for the remainder of July. The ferrous sulfate pills seem to be doing the trick as far as my hemoglobin is concerned. I look and feel much better. Now that I’ve figured out how to transfer documents and pictures from my laptop to my tablet where I can send them out as via email, I’m back to submitting short stories to literary magazines. It’s always a gamble, but at least I can still call myself a writer. The problem is sometimes you have to wait so long to get a reply, and the story is tied up in the meantime. I’ve also sent my 4th novel, Rise Up Sister, to my editor. I’ve worked on it for over two years now, so I hope she’s gentle with me. I’m not sure it or I could survive another complete rewrite.

They finally tested and reopened the $11 million Chinese bridge, but the road is practically impassable on either side. I call it the Bridge to Nowhere, but not too loud and not in public. Why? If one has the courage to live here and the patience to wait, the government of Dominica can be quite helpful, i.e. they finally gave John the money for his operation with no strings attached—he can spend it how he wants and probably will. I got some money for food allowance a few months back, and I am also pleased to be getting a monthly sustenance allowance for the elderly through August. Then, miracles of miracles, the guys who came to assess the damage to my home in April return! Yes! They intend to supply labor and materials to fix my roof! There are three of us from Layou Park on their list:  my 80+ year-old widow neighbor, a blind man up the road, and myself. Some people might be offended to fall in such a pitiful category, but all I can say is thank you very much. The representatives say they want to inspect the structure to make sure it can take a proper roof, which fortunately it can. What a relief. I’m so glad I didn’t rush out and fight for materials myself. Sometimes courage and patience pays off, although when I ask when they intend to begin, they cannot tell me. Oh, well. I’ve waited ten months already, so I guess I can wait a little longer.

Just when I’m practically broke, July 18, 2018 dawns as a bonus payday. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, when my US Social Security payment is deposited in the bank. It’s also the day I pick up the third government sustenance check from the village council in Mahaut. Surprise! Surprise! First thing in the morning, the guy who’s the supervisor for the construction of my roof phones to say they’re coming to inspect my structure (again). I commit to waiting for him, but a tropical wave accompanied by torrential rain has arrived, so he later postpones. I go to Mahaut and collect my cash, and then I powwow with Giselle to try to sort out a problem between my tablet and my dashboard at WordPress. We succeed, and I manage to send off the second installment of “Maria! Maria!” to my WordPress blog from home.  

I make lunch using what I imagine to be seasoning peppers from the garden, but they turn out to be extra hot and my food is ruined. Shit, man. As I’m cursing the peppers, the phone rings. The representative from the World Food Program informs me that I have another installment of WFP money waiting at the St. Joseph village council office. What, boy? I thought that was finished. He says it’s a one-time payment, and I can pick it up tomorrow. Great. I only have one question — if I am so blessed, why am I so depressed? It must be all the rain, or maybe it’s the fact that my old Rottweiler, Babylon, has a grossly swollen head and seems to have gone blind in one eye. It started with a runny nose about 3 months ago, and the sneezing and coughing up blood. I had the vet for antibiotics to no avail, then he cut off a growth under the dog’s tongue which bled like a stuck pig for 3 days and then stopped. I thought he was getting better, then all of a sudden Baby went completely blind! I wonder if he doesn’t have cancer. He’s still eating and I take him out on a short leash so he won’t bump into things, but I feel so sorry for him.

AUGUST: Don’t Trust

August is a month of celebrating emancipation in Dominica. I had thought about launching Nobody Owns the Rainbow in conjunction with August Monday, at the beginning of the month, but after the cultural events that occur at the Old Mill, which includes dance, music and an art exhibition but nothing literary, folks are accustomed to taking a vacation before school starts in September. Luckily, Anne, my friend at Papillote Wilderness Retreat in Trafalgar, decides to host an art exhibition for a mutual friend of ours on the 12th, and I am able to take my books there. It’s a lovely spot with a hotel, restaurant, gardens and hot springs, most of which has been restored since Maria. The crowd turns out to be just the kind of people for me to chat up. I have a good time and sell quite a few books. At 6 p.m. I make my exit and drive like a maniac to reach home before it gets dark at 7.

On Monday a guy comes to measure the metal gates that need to be replaced after fifteen years of service at River Ridge. (Maria dealt them a final blow.) I know he is not the best welder around, but he used to be my mechanic and helped me out of some tight situations, and I know his family needs the money. I give him a deposit for materials, and he says he’ll complete the job in five days.  

On Tuesday morning, a set of roof people show up. (I now realize that my case has been juggled between a couple of different aid agencies.) These folks are from the IOM, International Organization for Migration, sponsored by the UN. Two nice young Dominicans, Nathaniel, the supervisor, and Jewel, his sidekick, spend a long time taking pictures of flowers, gathering herbs, and telling hurricane stories. On Wednesday, a long dump truck that actually manages to back down my driveway and over the bridge delivers the materials. There are about six other people involved besides Jewel and the driver, and they all have drinks in hand. After endless chatter and confusion, the lumber, galvanized, nails, screws are in my possession. Great. Jewel says she will call to let me know when the work is schedule d to begin.

The next day, a set of neighbors that have never been invited to set foot on my property for various reasons arrive with an order to take away four sheets of galvanized. What? I’ve waited eleven months to get this stuff and now they’re taking it away after 24 hours? When I find out that these are the guys assigned to put on my roof, my heart sinks. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but as far as I know none of them has much roofing experience. On one hand, just like with the gate builder, I like to give people a step up and a chance to improve their skills. On the other hand, I wonder if they can handle the job. I have plans to visit my family in the States in September, so I hope they will be done before then. Maybe it’s better if I’m not around if and when anything goes drastically off the rails. As I’ve said many times before, I never signed up to be “de white boss” so it’s a good thing John will be around to keep an eye on them.

The IOM roofers return and start on the house on August 15. Luckily, the weather holds up and they finish what they are authorized to do in 5 days. About halfway through, the guys inform me that I need to buy 14 more sheets of galvanized, but Nathaniel comes to my rescue and has them delivered along with plenty of extra lumber and plywood the same day. The inside of the house now resembles a big barn with the bare underside of the galvanized showing and the rafters exposed. Sheets of plywood running the wrong way block the sides. Although they never intended to do the veranda, they refuse to divert from their plan so that it can attach to the wall of the house instead of an extension of the new roof, which is bad in case of the next hurricane. Oh well. Before they can come for the extra wood, John has already used it to construct the frame for the veranda. I’ll have to buy more galvanized, but other than that most of the roof was a gift.    

Meanwhile, I’ve located another growth on the edge of Baby’s gums that bleeds profusely when you press it. Just as I’m about to call the vet again, the very expensive new gates arrive—big, clunky, boxy atrocities with menacing spikes on top. Ug! After you pass down my long driveway surrounded by hedges of colorful flowers, the gates are the first thing that greets you. Stop! Beware! War in Progress! That is the message the new gates broadcasts loud and clear. The way I see it, I have two choices about the gates and the dog: try to fix the problem, or live with it. But I am not a welder or a magician, so again I’ll just have to wait and see.

September: Remember

The roof is on (more or less) and the plane is on the runway. Never mind that my dream home now more resembles a barn with a high pitched roof that exposes galvanized corrugation from the inside and that Hurricane Isaac is marching across the Atlantic toward the Lesser Antilles as a Category 1 storm. I am off to the States to check on my boys, Zach and Josh, my three grandchildren, and my friends, all of whom have their own set of paersonal problems—emotional, marital, and health wise.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since Maria. Before I leave home, I secure my few remaining belongings and leave the rest to John, poor guy. Currently, there are no windows in the big hutch and the veranda roof isn’t nailed down, so of course I’m worried. Truth be told, I’d rather stay on island and face the music rather than fret about it from abroad, but the developed world awaits.

Amazingly, the official death toll death toll in Puerto Rico has risen from 67 to almost 3,000 despite President Trump’s claim of stellar response. The threat of Category 4 Hurricane Florence to the Carolinas is yet another wake up call for a world where some folks still insist that climate change isn’t real. Luckily, Isaac is downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reaches Dominica and does little damage. Florence, however, made landfall as a Category 1 and continues to dump rain measured in feet instead of inches on the eastern seaboard and inland. It will be interesting to see if Donald takes this hurricane more seriously than Maria. His narcissistic world finally seems to be seems to be crumbling around him. Dude, where is my country?

As much as I love my family and friends, I feel like a fish out of water in the States. The time spent in front of the TV watching news, sit coms, and sports combined with the endless hours spent in the car and eating fast food on the run is debilitating. That’s not how I want to spend the last years of my life. Sure, it’s great to be mobile and have proper roads and telecommunications, but life on the Nature Island (despite the relative struggle) is still worth it in my mind.

Apart from the lack of convenience, the deep and abiding love I have for Dominica is second only to that of my family. Let’s just hope the hurricane season settles down for the rest of the year, I reach home safely, and, God spare, I can linger in “paradise” a bit longer.  

 

 

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

APRIL, 2018: Reggae on the Beach

Reggae on the Beach comes and goes at the beginning of April. It is sparsely attended—no Nelly—plus six months after Maria, it’s still difficult to organize fun things in Dominica or get folks to spend money on anything but rum to make them forget their worries. Mashed up roads, businesses, houses, and beaches are in the majority. There is trash strewn everywhere and dogs and people are begging on the street. In the course of six hours, I sell two books: one to an old friend of mine, a Rasta tour guide/ lawyer who is flying higher than a kite, and the other to a handsome Brazilian couple who are the generous international sailors that sponsored the event. It was a lot of work for $100, but at least I was on TV.

When I get home, I discover two of my dogs have been poisoned: Rosie, the local mongrel, and Homer, the homebred Rottweiler. Although I have a fair idea of what to do, there’s no antidote for Gramoxone poisoning, which is the flavor of the month according to my ruthless, ignorant neighbors. Most of the dogs that ingest bait laced with the organophosphate don’t survive; it’s a long drawn out death—the poison burns out the lining of the esophagus before it migrates to the stomach, lungs, liver, and kidneys. The only defense is activated charcoal, which I always keep on hand, or dirt mixed with milk, assuming the dog will take it by syringe. Fortunately, both of these dogs are co-operative. After two weeks of their suffering and my crawling around on my hands and knees in the kennel, they’ve both lost a lot of weight, but are almost back to normal.

I wish I could say the same for John. He has decided to put his daughter, who lives in Martinique, in charge of his medical attention. Great. I’d like to think that I’m off the hook.  The fact that I begged doctors there to respond to my emails concerning his health problem makes no difference. He has an appointment for May 15, and I wish him luck.

At fifty-seven years of age, he has never been off the island, so this will be quite the adventure. If it was me, I’d simply buy a ferry ticket and go, but for Dominicans, everything as to be “pull strings,” meaning that there has to be some kind of inside deal negotiated to get the job done. The entire process takes weeks of back and forth up and down the road to save a couple of bucks. Never mind the wear and tear on the transport or the gas money involved. Well, at least he finally has his passport and a savings account with a debit card, so the rest is up to him.  

Out of the blue, my oldest son Zach and my 13-year-old grandson Jake offer to come down and help in July. Help what? Neither of them has any manual labor skills nor is Dominica a place to take a Caribbean vacation during hurricane season. Still, I hate to say no. I have so little contact with my children and grandchildren as it is. Yet where would they sleep? Certainly not in the garage, which is the only space available. Without a freezer full of junk food and a grocery store around the corner, what would they eat? Can they drink river water? Can they stand a cold shower? With no TV or Net Flex or lights, what would they do for entertainment at night? (John and I usually go to bed by 8 o’clock.) What if the weather turns vile and they cannot leave? I worry about it constantly until Zach wisely decides that they’d just as soon go fishing at a “rustic” lake in Tennessee.  

In the meantime, my neighbor Mercy visits me accompanied by people from an organization called CREED, whatever that means. I fill out a form and they take pictures of my ruined house. After I estimate the number of 2x4s, 2x6s, sheets of ceiling plywood, and galvanized it will take to fix my roof and have it signed by a local contractor, they assure me they will provide the materials and labor necessary since I’m old, John is disabled, and I have no insurance. (Why would anyone have insurance when the value of the roof is always the amount of the depreciation and the victim is always over or underinsured according to the agency?) When I ask them when they intend to perform this act of charity, they cannot tell me. Let’s just hope its sooner rather than later. As it turns out, everybody in Layou Park gets materials but me. Mercy says it’s because she requested materials AND labor for me. We’ll see.

MAY, 2018 : Stress

John goes to Martinique a couple of days ahead of time and comes back the same afternoon as his doctor’s appointment loaded with new clothes and jewelry. He can’t tell me the name of the doctor who ordered a new round of tests, nor can any lab or clinic here in Dominica figure out what the doctor wants because it is scribbled in French. After hours of running around town, I finally am able to get the secretary of his Cuban gastroenterologist to translate and order the tests. The effort takes its toll. By the time I reach home, I am practically comatose.

Should I blame the lousy way I feel on stress? I figure my blood pressure must be sky high considering John’s on going situation and the lack of progress at home after the hurricane. Yet my pressure and my heart checks out okay, so it must be something else. Actually, I feel the same way I did a year ago before a transfusion due to low blood hemoglobin, so I go to a lab and have my blood tested. OMG. A lot of very low numbers cause the technician to call me off the street and send me straight to a doctor that very same day. We do have an internal medicine guy in Dominica, but he wouldn’t be in his office until Tuesday and this was Friday. I make an appointment, get a set of iron and B-12 supplements at the drug store, and drag myself back home.

This all started with a dog bite in December 2016. No ordinary dog bite, mind you. I was attacked by one of my own Rotweilers in a fit of misdirected rage. A branch of the femoral artery was punctured, and by the time I reached a medical clinic 45 minutes later, I was in danger of bleeding to death. Bloob sprayed on the walls and the ceiling of the operating room in a steady stream. I was wide awake as the doctor stitched me upwith no anesthesia. At one point, I went into shock, vomited and soiled my underpants. Yet they sent me home the same day with no pain pills and no mention of blood suplementation. “Blood builds back fast,” the Nigerian doctor said.

Of course the wound didn’t heal properly. Four months later, I was back in surgery, and still no one bothered to monitor my blood. I went to the States in a wheelchair to try to recuperate, but didn’t get much TLC there either. Back in Dominica, tests revealed my blood hemoglobin was 4.9. (Normal is 12.0 -15.) No wonder I felt like shit. The doctor ordered me straight to the hospital for a transfusion, but I waited for three miserable days in a ward with twenty-two other sick and dying women before I got it because it was apparently up to me to track down my own donors! (From my hospital bed?) Meanwhile, the overhead florescent lights were on all night long, there was barely any food, and three women died and got carted away. At one point, I had to pound on the door after nurses locked me out on the veranda to get back into the ward! I felt better immediately after the transfusion and couldn’t wait to go home. But wait a minute. Now they had discovered occult blood in my stool (which I later found out was a false test result) and wanted to do a colonoscopy! No, man. Enough was enough. I practically got down on my knees and begged to be released.

I went home and ate steak and lamb chops and liver and red beans and beets. I took supplements for another couple of months and then I had a follow up blood test. Everything was okay. I felt fine and went about my business as usual—that is until Maria rocked my world. Now I’m back in the same situation. The internal medicine doctor orders a set of expensive tests and I wait a week for the results. The good news is that there’s no sign of internal bleeding, cancer or leukemia. He suspects it’s a chronic iron deficiency and says I should have another transfusion. The bad news is the only place to do that is at the hospital, and I’m NEVER going back there; Post Hurricane Maria, the situation is even more desperate than before. Nor, he agrees, would he ever send a patient there unless it was a dire emergency. The other bad news is he going back to Cuba for three months. He prescribes super-duper iron pills and orders another blood test for a week before he returns. Meanwhile, it’s back to toxic liver and onions while I wait. I should be used to waiting by now, but as we say in Dominica, ‘Weight (wait) is a heavy load.’ Ha. Ha.

I am surprised when I’m informed that I’ve been selected as one of seventy-nine people to receive EC $400 per month for four months as part of the “Rapid Response” aid to elderly victims of Hurricane Maria. (Rapid response? It’s been eight months since the hurricane, and I’m still roofless.) Not that I think the government owes me anything, but $1600 should be enough to buy me a plane ticket out of this confusion if necessary.

Truth be told, the whole idea of climate resilience, as touted by PM Skerrit and his housing revolution makes me shiver. One of the reasons I moved to Dominica was to be closer to the natural world, the really real world, as I like to call it in my books. Now the government wants to move people from traditional village cottages into prefabricated concrete houses manufactured by Petro Casa of Venezuela—or, better yet, into multifamily apartment buildings designed by architects who have never set foot on Dominica. Single mothers are especially worthy in the eyes of the government, as are the elderly like me, but let me tell them something. Even though I currently reside in a one-room shack with a corrugated metal roof and two chickens and five dogs in the yard, I’d rather be dead than to move into something designed by robots that deserves to be plunked down in the suburbs of Miami complete with drug dealers and prostitutes.

I mean come on. What happened to the ethic of maintaining the health of a traditional community from the inside out?  When local culture expects foreigners to fix things instead of addressing their problems communally, ordinary people become dependent. This so-called generosity of inappropriate gifts, which often translates into a ploy to win votes and other special favors, results in internal violence that paralyses the citizenry. And trust me; paybacks are hell. So watch it Dominicans, or you just might end up with even more trouble on your hands.

JUNE, 2018 : Too Soon

So here we are in the next hurricane season. Nine months after Maria, I still have no lights, phone, or internet at home. Nothing has been done to the big hutch or the ruined road, and John hasn’t had his operation. Wait is indeed a heavy load, especially when it comes to technology, infrastructure, and medical attention.

As far as the restoring of Eden according to Nature, progress has been mixed. The river is still an embarrassment, devoid of fish, crabs or crayfish. Otherwise, the landscape has returned to mostly green—vegetation appears to be almost normal—that is if you don’t look up to the heights. Hummingbirds and bees attend the flowers in the yard, and the vegetable garden is thriving. Along with stands of intrepid bamboo, African tulip trees overrun the middle part of the Morne Couronne. They are so hardy that every fallen branch has taken root, sprouted, and is happily blooming its invasive head off. The effect is lovely—fresh greenery accented by scarlet blossoms. In the absence of more endemic hardwood species, these beautiful but rather useless trees appear to run things.

Five hundred feet above the African tulips, the endemic trees on the top of the ridge remain barren and disfigured. Hurricane force winds were even stronger up there and the scant topsoil, never exactly stable, combined with excessive rainfall has taken its toll. Still (like me) they struggle on, but the effect is more reminiscent of scrubland than the former home of the giants of the tropical rainforest.

While waiting for something positive to happen, like a set of angels to show up with free materials and labor to fix my roof, or the surgeon in Martinique to miraculously fix John, I decide to take the bull by the horns. I have a bit of extra bit of mad money to spend since I got my second payment from the government sustenance allowance for old folks, and my friend’s dog is in the kennel for six weeks. So, let’s see. What do I really, really need? I order new reading glasses and attend to my teeth. I pay to have the thousands of e-mails that have been clogging up my computer since December deleted and a new version of Microsoft Word installed. Beyond that, there’s nothing else I can fix for the time.

While wave after tropical wave pummels the island with torrential rain like a power washer gone mad, I am stuck inside watching the weather. The already treacherous roads become ever more dangerous as rivers flood, and temporary bridges wash away. Duh. Maybe government should have started repairing Maria’s mischief BEFORE the advent of another hurricane season. (Actually, some of the damage remains from Tropical Storm Erika two and a half years ago.) Meanwhile, my bones are aching, there’s no hot water in the shower, it’s too cold to bathe in the pool, and the sea is exceptionally rough. Since I slipped and hurt my knee while working in the garden, hiking, even in the rain, is out of the question. Élas. By the end of June, I feel paralyzed and impotent, at odds with the cosmos and myself.

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. 

 

Maria! Maria! Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane

December 2017: Books on the Beach

Around December 1, I’m notified that Nobody Owns the Rainbow has arrived at the port after touring the Caribbean on a RAM Shipping cargo boat for several extra weeks. “Books on the Beach” is coming up, so I turn my attention to clearing seven boxes containing 250 books from customs. Who knows, maybe I’ll even be able to sell a few at the Books on the Beach event. But even though the books are there, permission hasn’t been granted to unload the container where they have lived for the past two months. Day after frustrating day passes, and all of sudden it’s the Friday before the Sunday event! Around noon, I get word that the books have been liberated. Trust me; there’s no place else on earth as chaotic as Woodbridge Bay on a Friday afternoon in December—people are just beginning to be able to pick up their personal barrels of relief supplies sent from friends and relatives overseas post-Maria. But you know what? One of the kids who used to live below me in the village of Gallion twenty years ago has grown up to be a customs officer, and things go as smooth as silk.

The books look great, and I’m proud to be able to present them to the small group of patrons who show up at the event. Yes, man. Maybe it’s possible to be writer as well as a refugee! Unfortunately, none of the other Waitukubuli Writers seem to feel the same way. As usual, Polly and I do all the work—two old white women representing the literary consciousness of a small island state where 95 percent of the citizens are black! Does that make any sense?  Because everybody is so desperate for something to read, I sell a dozen books but  wonder where and when I will be able to launch the rest.

Except for Jay’s bookstore, my outlets in Dominica have all been severely compromised by Maria. So under the bed they go to await a proper send off. My intention is to enter Nobody Owns the Rainbow in the 2018 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Why not? I must send five copies plus a check plus a bio plus an entry form to Trinidad by the end of the month. (It wasn’t even long listed, but at least that’s 5 copies out from under the bed.) That’s the problem with self-publishing, especially from a small island like Dominica, especially in the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane. You have a beautiful book in your hand that you’re proud of, but then what? Let’s just hope I can keep the boxes clean and dry and cockroach free until something turns up.

One thing about being old and poor and published is that I get some consideration abroad. As I’ve mentioned, I have been granted a scholarship to the Key West Literary Seminar, “Writers of the Caribbean,” in January as well as a to a Naomi Jackson workshop afterward. The material for the workshop needs to be sent in by December 15, so it’s back to the Fort Young to download the other participants’ work and send in a synopsis and bio of my fourth novel in progress, the 1st draft of Rise Up Sister.

The international aid workers have all gone home for the Christmas holidays, so the atmosphere at the Fort Young is a bit more relaxed. Giselle and I accomplish the task at hand and then kick back and have a drink on River Ridge Press. It’s been difficult, to say the least, with no electricity and no Internet, and the end is nowhere in sight. But in spite of it all, I keep on writing. What choice do I have? If you’re a writer, you write. Simple as that.

 The last time I inquired about the restoration of my landline, Flow told me 2 years. “Two Years!” Not that I feel like the Lone Ranger. On the drive home, I notice blue tarpaulins still haphazardly cover half of the houses I pass. The joke is that Dominicans must vote UWP, United Workers Party, during the next general election because everyone’s house is covered in blue, which is the party’s official color. Nowhere do you see red, the color of the incumbent Dominican Labor Party. Maybe tarps probably don’t come in that color, but if they did, you still might not see any, because everybody is looking for someone to blame.

As of the end of December, three months after the hurricane, kids are not yet back in schools because hundreds of homeless people are still living there. Roseau stinks to high heaven due to open sewers and uncollected garbage. Although the toilet facilities are closed and persons advised not to drink the water, the market is officially open. Piles of provisions presumably washed in the river are displayed on the broken pavement by vendors who are mostly Haitian. Building materials are in scarce supply. Metal trash, mainly galvanized roofing is piled up along roadsides and riverbanks waiting to be pushed into the sea. Less than 20 percent of the island’s electricity has been restored and personal landline telephone service and Internet doesn’t exist.

Politicians like to talk about the resilience of the Dominican people on the radio, but explain to me the difference between resilient and fatalistic. Prior to Maria, in lieu of agriculture, Dominica’s main source of revenue was CBI, Citizenship by Investment. Say what? Foreign investors from all around the world couldn’t wait to jump on board to the tune of US $100,000 per single applicant! Since the hurricane, PM Skerrit, poor fella, is back to begging from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and anybody else that has aid or money to loan. Unfortunately, the funds have been slow in coming. Globalization has taken a back seat to nationalism considering the magnitude of the worldwide humanitarian crisis and the problem of illegal immigration. In the aftermath of Maria, the US has contributed little to the restoration of Puerto Rico, its own territory, let alone Dominica. A little bit has dribbled in from France, Canada, and the UK, but political renegades like Cuba, Venezuela, and the Republic of China have given the most. How the relief will be distributed remains to be seen? I just hope some of it lands on my roof like a gift from Santa Claus.  

Maria! Maria! Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane

NOVEMBER 2017: The New Normal

Since there’s not much more I can do without money or materials, I am working on transferring this handwritten journal to the computer in the mornings. In the afternoons, I pick up glass from the solar water heater in the backyard. That’s about it. Giselle gets the corrections to Island Time from the proofreader and together we venture to Roseau to send the manuscript to the Burt Award. (I so need to WIN something, especially at this unstable junction of my literary career, but the book wasn’t even mentioned.) On the way to the Fort Young Hotel, we pass the ruined public free library, built a century ago by the Carnegie Foundation.

Élas. There is a big truck parked in front of it hauling the sodden books away to the dump, including my own well-worn titles. We beg our way into the mashed-up Fort Young and order an extra expensive lunch so we can have permission to use their Wi-Fi. After I check 267 unattended emails, some of which are from long lost friends who have heard of the hurricane and are concerned about me, we get the job done. I see Dr. Rick, the vet, in the meantime, and we make a date to have my 17-year-old mongrel Karma euthanized because of a serious nasal infection that’s gotten worse since Maria.

Giselle and I then proceed to Flow to buy a device with mobile data, but there are no phones or tablets left for sale. When I ask about getting back my landline restored, I am told it will take at least 6 months. “Six months!” After waiting in line for an hour, I buy a tablet with a sim card at Digicel that they say might work from Pond Cassé. It does not, so I make an appointment with Giselle for the day after tomorrow to help me get the dilemma sorted out. Maybe she can also help me replace my old computer, which has many idiosyncrasies, with the new one that has never been out of the box. I reach home exhausted. It’s almost dark when Dr. Rick arrives to put Karma down. She has had a long life for a little castaway dog I found her by the roadside, but it is past time for her to go. The good news is that I truly believe my dogs eventually come back to me via doggie reincarnation. (Karma, Karma, Karma Karmelion, you come and go, oh, oh.)

Still, it’s always sad lose them for a while.

Scores of fires burn bright across the valley after nightfall. Orange flames lick into the dark sky and illuminate the horrific scars on the mountainside; thick smoke obscures the usually brilliant moon and stars. Living in so-called paradise is nothing soft, and it would be so easy to give up. As I write, they say 30,000 Dominicans have left the island. My question is do I still wish to qualify as a Caribbean writer, or would I be better off as a refugee? My hope is that scribbling in this journal will help illuminate the answer. Six weeks after the hurricane, the catch phrase “new normal” begins to sink in. I try to accomplish something on my new devices, but the computer won’t take a charge and the tablet is faulty, so its off to town yet again. We walk right into the Fort Young intending to use the Wi-Fi using good ole Frankenputer, dragging its external devices along like excess baggage.

I order two of the mandatory overpriced lunches, and we chat with the UNICEF personnel for a while. Everything is cool until I knock the sugar bowl off the cramped table. When I apologize, the waitress gives me a weary look. Someone else comes to clean up the mess while I check my email and send a short story off to the Commonwealth Prize.

After lunch, I feel dizzy and feverish. I wonder if I haven’t contracted one of those mosquito borne viruses like Zika considering the amount of open sewers a person has to negotiate in Roseau. The Fort Young, with all its well-intentioned aid workers (UNICEF, Samaritan’s Purse, World Food Program, etc.) also distresses me. Although they are well intentioned, the task of restoring Dominican lives to their pre-Maria existence will not happen overnight. It will be years, if ever, before things get back to the “old normal.” Just when we’re ready to leave, Giselle’s mother calls and says there’s a rockslide under the Canefield cliffs. It takes two more hours for it to clear. While we wait, I confirm my latest novel, Nobody Owns the Rainbow, is on its way from the printer in the UK to Dominica by sea. It should arrive on either November 16 or the 31st.  Dealing with the port is a pain, but at least there’s the reward of holding my very own book in my hand.

Giselle and I stop at the grocery store on our way home. It’s a zoo filled with rude, seemingly desperate people. She has taken to pushing my cart and reading my list like I’m an invalid, which is fine with me. We face a similarly long line at the gas station before I drop her at home and drive to Cochrane to pick up another bag of dogfood a friend has nabbed for me. Eight hours after I left home, I reach River Ridge in the pouring rain.  

Sorry, but I can’t possibly go out again anytime soon. I’d rather pick up glass from the solar water heater than go through the humiliation of feeling like a wart at the mighty Fort Young. John and a new helper called Bully, who is rough and tough like his name, cover the big hutch roof with a blue tarpaulin we got from Samaritan’s Purse. It’s too small for the house, and when it rains it sends great gallons of water inside like a blast from a fire hose. I try to keep the flood mopped up, but after a while I realize it’s futile and give up. So I cook a nice supper of sweet potatoes, corn, chicken and spinach and call it a dayThe next day is a holiday in Dominica—Independence Day—although I bet quite a few folks wish they still had a mother country to depend on. It’s a beautiful morning with the sun lighting up the mountains across the valley like a strobe lamp. I want to do some yoga, but John is already pounding on the roof. I answer some emails and finish a short story, but I have no idea where or when I will be near Wi-Fi to send them out. Although I swore I’d never pick up a paint brush again, I decide to refresh the dirty front door and shutters of Bati Mamzelle. It looks a lot better when I’m done. In late afternoon, I have a long conversation with my son Josh, and then I take the dogs to the river to clear my head. I think back on my first years in Dominica when everything was so new. As described in my first novel, A Face in the River, Paradise was a puzzle I couldn’t wait to solve until rum, obeah, and betrayal cast their shadow on my dream romance.

The next morning promises a lovely day, but not for the two rabbits the dogs killed during the night. Isn’t there enough destruction already? I start picking up glass before the sun gets too hot. Not knowing it’s yet another holiday, John goes to town for PVC cement, but returns saying shops are closed. On Sunday, while charging the deep cell batteries left over from the solar electrical system so we can run DC lighting to Bati Mamzelle, he tears out the plywood partitions in the big hutch. My job is to repaint them so we can use them to seal the ceiling in the guesthouse rather than just let them rotten. Of course we’re short on white paint, so I get drunk instead.

On Monday, I buy more paint and pay for the next 100-pound cylinder of gas while Bully and John clean out the cistern. When I return, Bully has cut his finger rather badly, so I break out the iodine and bandages, and send him home with a bag of plasters. I had intended to paint when I got home, but it’s raining. I proofread my short story one more time, hoping to send it in on the morrow. It’s after dark when I make a pasta dish out of tinned corned beef for supper, which only the dogs will eat.

Tuesday is D-Day. I spend the entire morning standing in line with Giselle, God bless her. It is determined that the tablet that Digicel sold me 2 weeks ago will never work outside of Wi-Fi, so what good is it? I upgrade to a more expensive version, but I still can’t get it to function properly. We proceed to the Fort Young and manage to get the files from Frankenputer transferred to Asus, my new computer. I sort out my email and send off the short story, The World According to Mother, to Salomé, a new literary magazine for women. Then I download the material for the workshop at the Key West Literary Seminar, which I plan to attend via scholarship in January, God spare. Next, I try to figure out how to resend my signature to the Burt Award entry form, which they say is improperly done. I acknowledge a rejection slip for my short story “Go-Go,” submitted before the hurricane, from Interviewing the Caribbean. Boohoo. But as usual Opal, the editor, gives me a second chance. Finally, I send my request for a loan to fix my house to the US Bank via my oldest son, Zach, the financial wizard.

I leave my signature and new computer with Giselle so she can sort out the Burt Award issue. When I finally get home, the old computer balks, as if it’s upset that I transferred all its precious info to the new one! The next day, Giselle and I head to our favorite computer repair guy to fix Frankenputer and install Outlook Express on Asus. He says he doesn’t have any time for us, so I guess we’ll just have to figure out how to send the signature in on the tablet. We do, but when I check my e-mail I realize that Zach has failed to forward the loan request to my bank.

Trust me; there’s no way I can return to town the following day. Best I stick to painting plywood. At least it’s something I know I can do, and when I’m done (if I ever am) I’ll have something to show for it. As John is putting a small porch over the front door, gas starts leaking from the lamp next to it because of all the pounding.  It’s always something. A surprise visit from my friend Karen, who cries when she sees my destroyed house for the first time, gets me out of painting plywood for the afternoon.  The dogs, Gouti, D’Jango, and Babylon, are delighted to see her, and of course so am I. 

Now that the pump is fixed, Max returns and cleans out the swimming pool.  Hurray! Do you suppose there’s any way I can take a dip before I die? Someone should do a time-lapse film of the greening of Dominica. Everywhere you look things are sprouting and even blooming. Unfortunately, island technology isn’t able to keep pace with nature as there is no cell phone service again today. When it does work, it’s extravagantly expensive. I must try to figure out a better way. Maybe I should change my Digicel sim card to Flow. . . maybe tomorrow.

Giselle and I visit the bank, post office, the phone company, and the computer repair in the morning. We stand in line for hours to no avail, and then face the Fort Young again in the afternoon, where the restaurant is buzzing with flies. After lunch, I answer dozens of emails and start feeling sick again. It could be the swarms of insects, or maybe I’m just fed up with their attitude and their food. We stop for groceries, gas, to top up cell phones, and to buy some vitamin C—you know the routine.  On my way up the feeder road, I meet a woman taking a survey to find out which citizens in Dominica most need assistance after Maria. Me! Me! Me! Yes, I’m 70 years old. Yes, my partner John had a stroke. Yes, damage was severe to my house. No, I didn’t have insurance. She says she will get back to me, which I doubt. But then again you never know.

Next day, Max alternately cleans up the backyard and helps John put up the ceiling in Bati Mamzelle. It’s nice to have him back around. I personally am useless, feeling feverish and weak. I sleep for most of the day, eat an early supper, and then fall back into bed. Thankfully, I feel better in the morning. After breakfast, I tidy up the pool yard and then paint the eves under the front porch. I guess it’s not time to hang up my paintbrush and roller yet. The dogs and I head to the river in the afternoon. One thing I know for sure: A river always follows the course of least resistance. Good advice, don’t you think? Apparently, it’s a lesson I’m still need to learn.

Max digs a bed for me to plant green beans while I attempt to paint the outside front wall of Bati Mamzelle where the plastering is rough. It turns out okay, but by the time I’m finished, I’m worn out. I manage to give Babylon the Rottweiler a bath later in the afternoon, and then decide to rest up for a day in town tomorrow. John needs new tools, and I can always use help carrying groceries. We get the tools, but the shelves of the grocery store are semi-blank. I wrangle two bags of dogfood, which I feel like dumping on the streets of Roseau to feed the poor starving dogs hanging out there. I wish I could rescue them all. When I reach home, I bathe Homer, the Rott with bad skin, and Rosie, the mongrel fleabag—but I’m still feeling guilty about the homeless strays.

I was hoping to make some international calls today, but so far there’s no cell service. I should be painting more plywood as John has almost finished putting up the ceiling in the kitchen, but I decide to go to the beach instead. On the way up the west coast, I get my first view of the parade of solar lamp poles strewn down the bayside that have fallen like dominoes.

When I reach the Hillsboro Bridge that crosses the Layou River right before it reaches the sea, it is partially collapsed and down to one lane. The river itself is unrecognizable, shallow and clogged with sand.

 

I meet my friend Polly from Papillote Press, and we plan a book fair, “Books on the Beach,” for December 10. Theoretically, there will be readings by Waitukubuli Writers, new and used books for sale, and musical entertainment. Sounds like a plan. But the sea is rough and the beach is muddy and stinky—totally unsuitable for bathing. Caterpillars and a gang of men with axes and shovels are working on clearing washed-up logs and debris. I hope they are able to get it sorted out before the event. When I get home, my cell phone is working, so I make two long distance calls to the tune of $60.

The Sahara dust is back, making my point of view a bit hazy. On the other hand, maybe it’s because of all the wine I drank last night. Considering the appearance of mosquito larvae, I add bleach to the water standing downstairs and sweep it out again. Then I paint the last of the plywood (I hope), and help John start to put it up in the main room, which has a difficult, high ceiling. Of course it will have to be repainted, but not by me. I’m too short. We spend the rest of the week trying to get the DC current to the guesthouse. It just keeps on getting more confusing. I finally get in touch with Richard, the electrician who helped with the solar. He promises to come the next day. Then I call Imran, an architect who has bought a couple of dogs from me, to see if he can advise what to do with the big hutch. He too promises to come after work on Monday, but neither of them shows up.    

The scenario of no one showing up is one I’m getting used to. We continue to try to tune up the guesthouse while builder after builder breaks their promise to put a roof back on the big hutch. I know that everyone is busy, and besides there are still no materials, but there’s something in my American makeup that makes me want to FIX things, pronto! After 25 years of living in the Caribbean, I still haven’t gotten over it. Toward evening, I take a walk on the feeder road and notice that the 30-foot phone pole we had to cut in order to pass (one of the 12 that I purchased 18 years ago at a cost of EC $1,000 each), has disappeared. I can’t see any drag marks on the road, so I assume some one has helped themselves to some free building material using a pick up truck. I have a suspect in mind, the same person who sprays Gramoxone in the river where I have taken my drinking water for 20 years. Yet I don’t have the strength or courage to go behind him, which is exactly what he’s counting on.

 

Maria! Maria! Dairy of a Category 5 Hurricane : October 2017: Slim Pickins

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.