Our journey in Dominica begins with a nice little boat party in the Portsmouth anchorage aboard Fata Morgana in honor of the big fish we caught on the way. I prepare yummy fried fish-fillets breaded with egg-and-flour mixture and we invite our boat-friends: Tina and Mark from s/v Rainbow, Bev from s/v Aseka, and Mel and Caryn from s/v Passages with whom we’ve been sailing together since Guadeloupe.
That evening we make plans to organize some activities together on the island. We decide to visit Indian River the next day. Bev has already arranged a “boat –boy” for all of us. His name is Albert and he will be our Indian River guide for 50 EC ($18 US) per person.
In Dominica, when a yacht arrives in an anchorage, a bunch of small wooden powerboats race to offer all sorts of services: organized guided excursions, small boat-works, transportation, local fruits and vegetables, fish and lobster, and anything else that the cruiser might need, for a fee. These are the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services (PAYS) known as boat-boys and they and their families depend on the visiting cruisers, who, from their part, are very conscious about their role for supporting the local economy.
For Ivo and me $18 US per person ($50 US for the three of us with Maya) for a small tourist activity is a huge expense we would normally avoid. Most cruisers who are for the most part either retired and receive a monthly pension or wealthier couples on a year or two sabbatical vacation have a bigger budget than us. They buy souvenirs, go to restaurants, hire guides, cars, and in general enjoy themselves spending money like tourists do. Which is great, but it is just not our case. Our journey is all about simplicity, minimalism, self-sufficiency, off-the-grid way of life, and finding ways of traveling and exploring the world outside of the system with minimal spending. Plus, we have no regular income, and we are not planning to return to a land-based life and work any time soon, so the longer our savings last, the longer our journey will be. For us $50 US equals the amount of money we normally spend for food for the entire family for a week. But in Dominica we decide to participate, at least this once, in supporting the local economy, and so we sign up for the Indian River expedition.
Dominica, nicknamed The Nature Island, is a 750 square kilometers (290 square miles) island famous for its unspoiled natural beauty, lush rainforest mountains, abundant wildlife, and many rivers, 365 to be exact, “one for each day of the year” as they like to say. A guided expedition to Indian River is a must for the cruisers arriving in Portsmouth, the number one destination, featured in cruising guides again and again as “an amazing experience, unlike anything else you find in the Eastern Caribbean.” (Chris Doyle, The Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands, 12th edition, p.455)
Our guide Albert picks us up at 8 a.m. the next morning and we ride in his motorboat from the anchorage to the entrance of the park. It costs $5 per person to enter, but we buy $12 park permits good for a week for all of the national parks on the island as we are planning to explore Dominica’s interior thoroughly. Beyond the bridge, Albert stops the engine and starts rowing up a wide green river.
Soon the river splits in two channels and we enter the narrow one on the left amidst thick swamp vegetation and bloodwood trees with tangled roots like monstrous intestines above the damp ground, home of giant blue crabs. Albert tells us all sort of interesting and curious facts about the nature here, the trees and the ferns, the animal life, and the history and traditions of the island. He explains that if you cut the bark of the bloodwood tree a thick red sap will start oozing, like blood.
We reach a spot where a small creepy shack stands on the shore: Calypso’s house. Johnny Depp has been here as well as in many other locations throughout the island during the filming of The Pirates of the Caribbean. We are thrilled. Indian River with its bloodwood trees and mysterious swamp vegetation crawling with huge crabs is definitely the perfect set for the eerie Calypso scene.
But we also start noticing trash here and there on the sides of the river, foam cups and plastic bottles. I ask Albert who is supposed to clean the river and he says it’s the park’s job.
We continue on our tour and get to the Bush Bar further upriver. It’s a nice little bar and restaurant, built for the tourists, among a forest-garden with beautiful trees and flowers, populated by birds, lizards, and butterflies.
Then we row back to the entrance and back on the boats. The whole tour takes about 1- 1.5 hours thanks to Albert who takes his time talking about the nature and all sorts of things. Otherwise, the area we covered is not big at all, and we could have done the trip with our kayak in 10 minutes. It was a wonderful experience nevertheless, but both Ivo and I think it was not worth $50. We realize, too late, that we could have gone in the park with our kayak without a guide, saving the 50 bucks. The only rule there is not to use engines upriver (in order not to pollute the waters!?). Guides are not compulsory in any of Dominica’s National Parks. But the most disappointing part was all the garbage around and the park’s official’s attitude towards it.
The Indian River guides and personal sit near the park’s entrance all day waiting for tourists, and during the hurricane season they don’t have much work. But instead of spending some of their time cleaning the river which is their source of income, they just sit around all day, smoking and drinking, doing nothing.
The trash-in-the-river situation started bothering us more and more and a few days after our Indian River expedition Ivo and I comeback there with our kayak and with a big garbage bag. We spend about 1-1.5 hours, the same amount of time like last time, cleaning the area. But we realize we need much more than one garbage bags.
As we get further upriver where Albert didn’t take us last time, we see more and more trash floating around or stuck in the roots of the bloodwood trees. We get to a point where this channel borders a road and a residential area.
Apparently, people use the river to dump their trash from the road and the trash slowly makes its way down to the park. We are appalled. We will need a crew with shovels and lots of garbage bags or a truck if we want to clean up all this.
Very disappointed, we turn back with our garbage bag full since a long time and we head home, to the boat. At the park’s exit where we go to deposit the river garbage, one of the guides tells us that we are supposed to pay a fee if we want to dispose of garbage. He thinks it’s our boat garbage! Both Ivo and I are about the explode, but I calmly explain that this is not our garbage but theirs, and leave.
We feel sorry for “The Nature Island” and its “365 rivers, one for each day of the year”. Who knows how many of these rivers are still flowing, and how many are dry, clogged with litter, extinct.
It is up to the local people and its government to address the issue of land and water pollution in Dominica, to protect their natural resources, and educate the inhabitants of the island about all this, before it is too late.
But also, what can we, the visitors, do to help restore nature’s unspoiled beauty, besides “supporting the local economy” with unrealistic guide fees, which according to Chris Doyle’s guide, are supposed to go towards the maintenance of the parks?
*This article by Mira Nencheva has been publish in www.caribbeancompass.comShare