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June 27, 2008

A Mini-bus Named Self-Defense

The spirit of the commons thrives on a Caribbean island, and the best way to experience it is riding to town in a van

A van named Self-Defense cruises up and down Calibeshie’s one street in the early morning light. Four passes as the village gradually wakens, nets only six passengers. Calibeshie is strung out along the highway taking up almost half a mile of the Northeastern coastline of the Caribbean island of Dominica. The houses are ramshackle, once mostly tin and now tending towards the concrete. Every second house doubles as some kind of commercial establishment either a “snackett” where you can grab an early morning “bake” or a shop selling some kind of “provisions”. There are also a number of rum shops where you can bring an old gin bottle and get it filled from the big plastic jug under the counter for just $12 EC (about $4.50 Canadian). Then there are a scattering of bars like the Ghetto Inn and Jah-on-the-Highway.

Self-Defense needs to pick up enough passengers to cram the 14-odd seats, making the trip around the island to the capital Roseau worthwhile. It’s the main way to get around in Dominica if you don’t have your own transport. Vans with names like ‘Roundabout’ and `Too legit to quit’ or `White diamond’ climb up and down plying the island’s endless switchbacks and try to evade the worst of the minefield of potholes. While the scenery is spectacular it doesn’t pay for a driver to lift their eyes from the road.

Today I have to take the drive in to Roseau to do attend to some chores. The scene in the van depends on the driver and the chemistry between the different passengers who put in an appearance on route. Self-Defense is this morning piloted by a large, lugubrious fellow who is preoccupied by the engine overheating. We stop at his house in Calibeshie so he can pour one of a long series of jugs of water over the excitable engine. Then he decides to head out hoping to pick up more passengers on the road.

Roadside vendors on the island of Dominica.

It’s just coming on 6:30 and the sun and the wind are pushing the night clouds back into the peaks of Morne Diablotin that hovers nearly 5,000 feet over sea level. Diabolotin is the largest of Dominica’s dozens of peaks, most of which are covered by lush green volcanic jungle. It makes the shorter trip across island a lot more strenuous than heading for the longer winding coastal road. As we start out Self-Defense’s radio keeps me awake. It’s the talk radio show “Matt in the Morning” and the subject is a hot one – the agreement of the Labour Party government of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit to build an oil refinery on the Caribbean coast of the island.

The refinery is the brainchild of the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela who is gradually spreading its influence into the Eastern Caribbean. The refinery is meant to provide oil to the other islands in the region. Matt is virulently opposed, critical of the lack of discussion and dubious of the employment and other benefits. One of my fellow passengers, an older gentlemen dressed for town, pokes me in the back and asks what I think. White passengers are a bit of a rarity in these vans so I represent a good chance to get an off-island opinion. Not being one to hold back I tell him that I think the plan is crazy and Dominica will regret it. I ramble on about how hypocritical it is to market Dominica as the Caribbean’s Nature Island, a paradise of eco-tourism, and then turn around and build an oil refinery. A couple of spills either coming in or out and you have a major cleanup on your hands and a reputation in the tank. My van mate nods and holds his counsel.

Later when another elder gentlemen, an acquaintance of the first man, climbs into the van I learn my inquisitor’s opinion is exactly the opposite of mine. He tells our new arrival that he is totally frustrated with Dominicans and their inability to embrace progress. He points out the beautiful passing landscape and proclaims: `Look at all this useless land! We could put factories up on so much of it.’ Perspective, I guess. While he doesn’t change my view it leads to a certain modesty on my part. All very well to embrace eco this and eco that but if you live in a place like Dominica (the poorest island in the region next to Haiti) giving people more opportunities in life must seem always worth the throw of any dice available.

We pass on down through Portsmouth, Dominica’s second town. The French territory of Guadeloupe looms as a backdrop to Portsmouth Bay and the old British fort at Cabrits. In the foreground are a number of rusty old freighters thrown up against the oceanfront – victims of the second to last hurricane but just too expensive to bother towing away. I think of asking my friend what would happen if they had been oil tankers. But it’s my turn to hold my council. I doze off as we make our way down the Roseau road along the Caribbean coast. But I receive a sharp poke in the back from one of the old man and a reprimand that this is my first trip on this road and I should be paying attention. Self-Defense fills up with schoolgirls and market women heading for town.

Using this form of `transport’ is a good way to get a sense of what Dominicans are like and what matters to them. Sometimes it’s a full of conversation one-on-one but more often it’s the rapid fire repartee, one-liners and wry observation that are thrown up along the way. The driver is often commanded to stop so a message or greeting or package can be passed to someone along the route. You get a taste of the dozens of little deals and arrangements that go into survival on an island where more than a quarter of the population have no official employment. “I went all about the place looking for a steering wheel.”…”We all got to stand up for one and other”….”the ocean is dead these days”… “bananas are all gone, like the song says yes we have no bananas”…` The last a reference to the World Trade Organization ruling that has dramatically cut the export price of Dominica’s precious banana crop. Mostly you come away from a van ride with a sense of the bonhomie and fierce democratic spirit that makes the Caribbean such an attractive part of the world.

I finish my Roseau chores amidst the heat, the crowded streets and the cruise boat tourists who for a few hours most days rubberneck around the town as the locals try and think of someway to pry lose a few dollars. I head back to the bridge where the vans gather – a departure point for all parts of the island. This time I hitch a ride with Press On who is taking the more dramatic mountain route back to Calibeshie. The new driver is a handsome younger guy named Soeu who sets much livelier tone in his van. Women are divided into three groups. Darling if you are young. Sister if you have graduated into middle age. And Mummy if you are really deserving. As Press On strikes out, an argument commences almost right away between two old guys about whether or not one of them should finish the house he is building. While he worries about getting it done before he gets too old or too poor, his fellow passenger interrupts with `Your children will just sell it all, better to spend your money on rum and ganja!’ This is greeted with great guffaws of laughter. The first man is not intimidated however— “that may be your policy but it is not mine.”

Richard Swift, for many years a mainstay of the New Internationalist magazine, now freelances from Canada and the Caribbean.

As we climb out of Roseau one of the Mummies gives out a distinctly girlish squeal as we teeter on a section of cliff road that mostly isn’t there anymore. On one switchback we pass a well-heeled Rasta and his glamorous girlfriend in a fancy convertible and Soeu leans out the window and yells “Be careful Rasta Man”. As we approach a hamlet in the centre of the island a great cry goes up for the driver to stop so we can buy bags of Dashin – a staple of the Dominican diet. The ubiquitous tuber is available here and its a deal for just $5 EC for a big bag, about a third the price of the Roseau market. Soeu greets the attractive young woman who dispenses the bags with a wistful “I’d love to wake up every morning to that beautiful smile.”

As we ride across the island the large woman beside me amiably crushes me each time we hit a new switchback corner. Press On’s radio belts out the latest calypso music. Its carnival time and in Dominica calypso rules the roast. It’s an intensely political music coming from every possible perspective. Trina Simons, last year’s carnival contest star, has a new song “Contradictions” to answer criticisms that her songs are altogether too positive. A sycophantic song presents Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit as a “political magician”. While a third lays out a complete program for a single federated state in the Eastern Caribbean. The 14-year-old daughter of the deceased Dominican singer the Mighty Spider has come up with” In the Footsteps of my Dad”.

We now pass back down to the Windward (Atlantic) coast of Dominica and pass through Marigot and Woodford Hill. Idle men gather at roadside tables to play dominos – the island’s favorite game. The conversation inside Press On turns to food and prices. Dominica is the most food self-sufficient island in the eastern Caribbean and exports fresh produce to other islands. An old Rasta farmer calls for his stop and leaves with the parting shot: “I have lots of provision at home. Once you start to buy food that is when you get selfish.”

As we approach my stop I must leave behind a fascinating conversation about island psychology. A well-dressed middle aged man is sounding off to a woman who has been complaining about the selfish young. “Attitude! You have an attitude. I have an attitude. Everyone on this island has an attitude. I have my bags already packed.” Perhaps he does, I reflect, but so many of the Dominicans who leave the island in search of opportunity end up returning. Something attractive about attitude I guess.

Richard Swift is a former editor with the UK-based New Internationalist magazine who is currently a freelance writer in Toronto. He avoids the Canadian winter in the Windward Islands. Email: rswift@web.ca