Jullan took me out on another trip one weekend. Ostensibly to check the sediment in the rivers, it was really just an excuse for him to drive the van and me to see the country. We went up and down the west coast, past Layou but not quite as far as Portsmouth.
While the west coast was interesting in itself, a series of fishing villages along the main road, the south coast was far more dramatic. Not far south of Roseau, beyond a stretch of widened road hugging the coastline, a major road snakes up the valley to Bellevue Chopin, a straggly little village full of everything you expect from a Caribbean community. Chickens crossing the road, big busted mamas hanging up the clothes, gossiping to their neighbours in backyards full of old bits of metal, broken furniture and interspersed with the occasional pot of flowers. Young guys, their baggy jeans round their knees revealing some branded underwear, would be lying under a wreck of a vehicle trying to fix it. The old men sat around under trees playing dominoes and waiting for dinner, arguing about cricket or politics or the old times. Boys and girls dashing around the house, the backyard, the village, trying to think what bit of mischief they can get up to next.
Once down in the valley on the other side, a series of banana plantations opened up before us, shaded by palms and other fruit trees, the Geneva estate. The wide river drained much of the south end of the island, and toppled over a pebbled bed in a series of pools. As almost everywhere else in Dominica, people were bathing in these pools (Jullan pointed out the Minister for Agriculture taking a dip in one place). We stopped where the river rippled over the beach into the Martinique Channel and I walked over to its banks. A man was floating in the pool below me, his head face down in a rubber ring, as if dead.
A bunch of kids were throwing stones at each other and laughing fiercely above. The beach itself, like many in Dominica was a mixture of dirty black sand and pebbles of many sizes, backed by palms and sea grapes, but the sweep of Grand Bay was impressive, topped by a magnificent cliff above Pointe Tanama.
Jullan hammered the little pickup along the road, which although it clung to the coast still was seriously inclined every few yards. Little liming joints hugged the hillsides above the waves – not much more that a simple hut, a few whitewashed stones and a couple of tree trunks painted up in bright colours. We stopped at Fond St Jean, where Jullan’s family lived and I was introduced to various friends and relations. We dropped down to the rugged coastline and met up with a few fishermen who were gutting and cleaning their catches in the newly built fish landing site. Below, a tiny harbour had been carved out by the waves, a few jagged rocks barely breaking the surface of the water was all that protected the little coloured pirogues from the current, the storms and the waves. The village itself hid in the smallest of clefts in the coastline, twenty houses on the flat and others precariously placed up the hillslope. The interior of the island began a few hundred yards to the north of us, even at this time in the morning shrouded in thick low cloud.
This was not the end of the road, it climbed steeply above Fond St Jean in a series of hairpins that Jullan found difficult to control the pickup on. First he took me to the very end of the track – at the far end of Petite Savane village. Here I nearly died. Jullan’s driving was a bit suspect at the best of times, his impetuous and slightly fiery nature made him lose concentration while dashing along in the government vehicle. The pickup was not the best vehicle on bad roads, although it had four wheel drive, the lack of weight in the back of the truck made it lose traction easily on steep slopes. We were now on a 1 in 4 incline, parked on gravel and Jullan did not have the patience to do a proper hill start. He sliddered and slided on the gravel, the wheels spinning furiously and kicking up a cloud of grey dust. We inched nearer the crash barrier that protected us from a 200 foot drop.
We escaped, but he insisted on taking me down another steep gravely track to Petite Savane Bay where the Fisheries Unit had established another shed, again supplied by some Japanese money. It sat well above the waves on a grassy patch, a small stream seeping out from the hillside and bubbling under huge boulders to the sea. To our left the rocks themselves were oozing water, the fishermen had fashioned bamboo stalks into pipes to control the flow. Ice cold freshwater from well within the rocks quenched our thirst in the stuffy heat and I stood mesmerized as a few feet beyond, the waves from the Martinique Channel crashed against the rocks.