Dominica’s ‘Hotel The Champs’ Rebounds After Maria

Cabrits in daylight
Daytime View of The Cabrits and Fort Shirley from Hotel The Champs six months after Hurricane Maria.

During my post-Maria visit to Dominica, I had briefly chatted with Hans Schilders and Lise Van de Kamp,

Hans & Lise at The Champs 2013
Hotel The Champs Proprietors Lise Van de Kamp and Hans Schilders.

Proprietors of Hotel the Champs in Picard, near Portsmouth before actually staying at their establishment in March 2018. Up to then, we just  happened  to meet up by chance at various venues around Roseau, such as the Fort Young Hotel and the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association.

As this stay on-island came to a close, I looked forward to spending some quality time in their company at their award-winning five-room hotel on the hill. From their location, I was able to get a sense of the post-Maria situation in the north of the island, take my last tour with Dr. Birdy  to  the Syndicate Nature Trail, and most of all, catch up with my dynamic hosts to learn about their post-Maria plans and climate resilience projects. (For an overview of Dominica’s intention to become the first climate-resilient country in the world,  click here  and also here)

Throughout the years I lived in Dominica, I had always enjoyed occasional visits and overnights at their establishment, as my northern base.  In fact, I was the first guest at Hotel The Champs when they opened their doors in 2008!   And six months after Maria, I was further delighted to be among other guests who were spending their vacation on Dominica at this quaint property overlooking Prince Rupert Bay, with stunning vistas of the Cabrits National Park and Fort Shirley. I have previously written about my fun-filled occasions at The Champs on my Ti Domnik Tales blog, and you can read those posts here.

Dr. Birdy  had driven  me, with all my luggage to Picard from my apartment at the home of friends Vernon and Geramise Gordon, near Roseau. After he dropped me off, I chatted briefly with Lise and we arranged to meet at the pool a bit later that afternoon. Meanwhile, I went for a short walk up the hill behind their property. I was shocked to see the extensive damage to the terrain nearby.  I already knew that The Champs had lost its entire  roof and all of its solar panels had blown away, but the force of Maria was further reinforced in my mind when I observed the devastation of the forest a short distance away from the hotel.

The hills just above Hotel The Champs were slowly recovering six months after Hurricane Maria:

 

I slowly strolled back to the hotel, and took time to gaze at the more-exposed Morne aux Diables, the island’s northernmost peak.  Without the normal shroud of dense verdant cover,  its distinct profile stood out starkly against the baby-blue sky of this serene afternoon on the Nature Isle.

Morne aux diables and environs
Morne Aux Diables on March 24, 2018, as seen from the road above Hotel The Champs in Picard, Dominica.  The town of Portsmouth is located in the foothills, centre/left of this photo.

 

I was very hot and sweaty by the time I pulled on my bathing suit and quickly showered off for my anticipated refreshing dip. In The Champs salt-water pool, I truly relaxed and savored the sensation of enveloping my body in the warm water for several minutes.  Then Lise appeared, and her infectious energy, along with a few laps together rejuvenated me as I listened to her incredible Maria stories with focused fascination.

Champs Hotel 2
The inviting pool at Hotel The Champs was fully operational, minus solar lights only, when I enjoyed it in late March 2018, six months after Hurricane Maria.

As we swam several lengths of the pool, Lise described that terrible unforgettable night on September 18, 2017. The hoteliers had stayed in one room, while their  guests were in the adjacent rooms.  They were forced to  hold the door shut against the powerful winds and horizontal rains with only their hands for an hour and half during the worst of the storm. There was no way to communicate with the people staying in the other rooms. They could only hope they were okay and protect themselves as best as possible. As it turned out, their guests from the USA were holding their door shut as well, and their French visitors on the other side remained on their bed while rainwater  gushed through the window.  Fortunately, they were all fine. But when they opened their doors after the cyclone had passed, they, like everyone else on Dominica were totally shocked by the surreal scene of devastation around them.

Lise also shared some Maria stories about her staff.  Sadly, three of them lost their homes, and some of the others left the island. But thankfully, their lives had been spared. From the original 12 who were with them before the storm, only five continue to work with them, due to the changed circumstances for everyone.

However, the proactive proprietors had decided within one week that they would reopen the hotel, and carry on as best as possible. And true to their word,  they opened their doors to guests once they had electricity, which was around the end of October, only six weeks after Maria! Although the new roof was not yet finished, the enterprising couple were able to offer A/C in the rooms, access to the pool, and meals on the balconies! The understanding guests still had internet access through Mobile hotspots, and happily tolerated cold showers until solar water heating became available in late December!*

Evening by Cabrits
View of The Cabrits and Prince Rupert Bay at dusk from Hotel The Champs.

 

After the swim and Maria stories, I changed for dinner and waited for my hosts in their temporary dining area.  The sun was setting and there were some beautifully lighted boats in the bay.  I could never tire of that view, and I felt increasingly  sedated as I sat at a table and sipped on a drink.  I noticed that Hans had his swim as the sun was setting, while amiably chatting with some of the other guests who were also refreshing themselves in the pool. By the time everyone arrived at the pre-set tables, I was feeling very sleepy.

Boats by PBH
The sea view directly in front of Hotel the Champs, along Picard Beach.

When Sabrina placed the huge fish dinner in front of me, I savored every bite on the generous plate that she had prepared until I could eat no more. Meanwhile, Hans updated me on their plans with respect to becoming a climate resilient hotel, and explained about the “water-proof” roof that had recently been completed.  When Hans excitedly described “the special roof that took forever,” he noted that its construction became a reality with consultations with several building professionals. He also said that the new roof included a “TPO” layer, which is a strong plastic glued to plywood beneath it, with heat welded seams so that the entire roof is like one complete sheet of plastic.  It is white to reflect the sun and strong enough to hold all the solar panels and even walk on it!

The Champs Hotel
Everyone from everywhere is welcome at Hotel The Champs.  The congenial hosts speak several languages too!

Mind you, these hoteliers have been thinking green for a long time.  Since they opened a decade ago, they enhanced their sustainable priorities as their business evolved, including storage and filtration of rainwater, conversion to LED lights and  installation of DC inverter units for air conditioning purposes.

It seems to me that Maria’s devastating blow only further reinforced their desire and determination to become increasingly energy-efficient and seek solutions to the concerns surrounding the climate resilience of life and property should another natural disaster or unforeseen event impact their business. Their overall objective endeavors to be fully functional within 48 hours of a disaster, once all of their infrastructure is in place!*

Over the course of my three-day stay at Hotel The

Birdy and Lise (2)
Dr. Birdy and Lise Van de Kamp made my time in the north of the island enjoyable and unforgettable! Not forgetting Hans, who was attending a meeting!

Champs, Hans and Lise took me around their property and showed me what had been restored, reconstructed, renovated, initiated and soon-to-be improved to resist a natural disaster or unforeseen loss of utility services.  My head was spinning with their ambitious projects and I could only admire and be in awe of their dedication and determination to not only improve their own enterprise, but also contribute to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, climate-resilient way-of-life. I hope that others will follow their lead!

For me,the stunning 270 degree views from the sea-facing balconies and dining area, delicious food, congenial conversation, comfortable room and relaxing pool-time enabled me to  easily distract from the reconstruction activities, which discretely continued in the background.  My visit at Hotel The Champs was far too short and filled with activities: the exciting tour to Syndicate Nature Trail with

Hibiscus at Cabrits
A beautiful post-Maria hibiscus bloom at Hotel The Champs.  Lise was understandably very proud of it!

Dr. Birdy , more intriguing conversations with Lise and Hans, and a long walk along lovely Picard Beach.

As I prepared to depart Dominica after two months on-island post-Hurricane Maria, I felt very optimistic. While there is still a substantial rebuild in store for Nature Islanders, the Hotel The Champs is  an exceptional example of how it is definitely possible to “Build Back Better.”

When Marlon, the hotel’s driver punctually knocked on my door at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday March 27th to drive me to Douglas-Charles airport for my early connecting flight en route to Canada, I didn’t feel quite so sad about leaving my beloved adopted country.  I believe that by the time I return next year, considerable efforts will have been put in place to work towards making the Nature Island’s structures and infrastructure as resilient as the amazing people who live there!

THE END!  (This is the last post in ‘After the Hurricane: A Post-Maria Visit to Dominica‘ blog. Thanks for reading!)

P1000470
Picard Beach, a few minutes walk from Hotel The Champs, offers incredible views of The Cabrits and Fort Shirley, as well as sun, sand and sea.

*Details of the Hotel The Champs ‘Climate Resilience’ plans were provided by Hans Schilders as a follow-up to our conversations in March 2018.  He presented his experiences and initiatives to a  symposium on  Climate Sensitization and Disaster Risk Management, facilitated by the DDA, in collaboration with the  CTO in Dominica in July 2018. I am grateful to Lise Van de Kamp for re-telling and reminding me about Maria stories from Hotel The Champs.  Sincere thanks to both of you and all the best! I look forward to spending more quality time at The Champs next time I am on-island.

 

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Places I (have) Love(d): Dominica’s Library Services “Carry On” Despite Major Losses

 

As I searched online for information about the state of Dominica immediately following Hurricane Maria, I came upon some aerial photos of the city of Roseau.  In its devastated condition, parts of the compact Caribbean capital seemed almost unrecognizable.  It took a few views before I could orient myself to the changed streetscapes.  When I identified the then-damaged Fort Young Hotel  (now open and undergoing reconstruction),I studied the photos immediately south of this renowned accommodation.  From above,  I saw an ‘old’ building with an absent roof, like many others. But in this case, it was the Roseau Public Library, an institution that I had frequented at least once a week for many years while I lived in Dominica.  In the days following the devastation, I realized that along with the structure, the collection must have been destroyed, along with any equipment on the premises.

This outstanding educational and cultural institution has always meant a great deal to me and countless other patrons on the Nature Island. In one of my earlier blog posts on Ti Domnik Tales, I wrote that : ” This stately wooden structure was built in 1906 with funds donated by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  Its broad veranda has a sweeping view of the hills above Roseau, as well as the southwesterly seashore.  Very often, a pleasant breeze blows through the building when I am seated at a serviceable table with books in hand.  There is even wireless internet in this century-plus building, which is a great help if I bring my laptop with me.  I am also grateful to the friendly and knowledgeable staff who are always ready to assist with any query.  My appreciation for different types of literature has expanded a thousandfold (I think!) due to its  diverse and ever-growing collection of local, regional and international fiction.”

As news filtered out from fellow lovers of the Roseau Public Library who were still on-island immediately after Hurricane Maria, I tearfully accepted that the losses were indeed substantial. I also soberly realized that this historic building, which would have endured the wrath of a number of severe storms in over a hundred years was no match for Maria, a Category 5 cyclone.

As a patron and donor, I really wanted to “do something” to help, but I also realized that it would take some time to reconstruct both the building and the collection. As I was eager for more details, one of my first visits after I arrived on island post-Maria was to the National Documentation Centre where the library was situated for the time being in a few small rooms.

When I first entered the temporary headquarters, I did notice students making good use of the setting with its complimentary internet and available access to electronic copies of journals, while library staff provided reference services and online assistance. I was warmly welcomed by the staffers, who made me feel like an old friend who had come back to see them. (True!) As a longtime patron, I was acquainted with most of the full-time library workers over the years, and as always, I appreciated their inclination to be cheerful and helpful, regardless of the situation.

As the Chief Librarian, Mrs. Vernanda Raymond was not in office that afternoon, I did say that I would return another time, as I had not made an appointment.  The staff encouraged me to drop by anytime, and as such, I reappeared, a few days later.  As soon as they saw me, I was ushered in to Mrs. Raymond’s office, and I mildly protested, saying that I did not have a set appointment with her.  They were not deterred.  Everyone seemed happy to see me and I was more than delighted to be in an environment from which I had derived so much enjoyment, despite the drastically changed circumstances.

Although Mrs. Raymond and I had never met face-to-face before (her office was not located in the Roseau Library building), she cordially introduced herself and took considerable time to update me on the recovery of the Dominica Library and Information Service (DLIS) following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Her cheery demeanor and optimistic outlook was readily apparent as she informed me of the state of the libraries on-island post-Hurricane Maria. Sadly, the Roseau Public Library lost most of its 25,000 volumes and 95 per cent of its furniture and equipment. But there was some good news. Fortunately, the unique Dominica collection was mainly spared from Maria’s wrath, with the exception of a few titles. I was most concerned about those materials, as I feared that some of them would be very difficult to replace.

Although the historic 1906 Carnegie  library was severely damaged, it was hoped that it could be restored as part of a larger cultural facility on the same site, as per earlier renovation plans that were originally designed in 2012. The current intention is to build  “a safer, modern and resilient public library in Roseau.” The other branches, located in Portsmouth, Marigot and Grand Bay are in the process of rehabilitation, as well as re-establishing their services.

Therefore, the DLIS is forging ahead as best as possible, particularly in the electronic domain, along with hosting topical public workshops and providing research assistance. A number of generous donors and organizations have come forward to contribute to the “restoration” of all aspects of this invaluable Dominican institution and its services, and the DLIS is extremely grateful for their assistance.

Readers will find a detailed overview with photos of the status of the Dominica Library and Information Service (DLIS),  which includes branches in Portsmouth, Marigot and Grand Bay from immediately post-Hurricane Maria up to May 2018 by clicking here.  Despite the wrath that this catastrophic cyclone imposed on this invaluable Dominican cultural and educational institution, the DLIS definitely “carrying on” and in their words, “still standing.”  And I will always give them my enduring love and support, in every way that I can! For now, my collection of contemporary Canadian literature is destined for the Roseau Public Library as soon as they are ready to receive it!

*For further information about how you can assist the Dominica Library and Information Service in cash or kind, please contact: Mrs. Vernanda Raymond, Chief Librarian, Dominica Library and Information Service by email at dlisDominica@gmail.com or chieflibrarian@dominica.gov.dm or call (767) 266-3409/3341/3397.

**In February 2018, the DLIS was in need of about 40 – 45 computers (desk) of Intel Core i5 (or higher) for the entire library service, as well as Kindles, cameras, furniture, projectors, scanners, book racks, photocopiers and other equipment. A more complete list of items is available from Mrs. Raymond, the Chief Librarian. Additionally,  contemporary materials in all subject areas, a current printed set of encyclopedias,  DVDs for children and adults will be appreciated when storage space becomes available. It is best (in my opinion) to contact Mrs. Raymond first about their current priorities and most pressing library needs. Any shipments would require details for customs clearance, including: purpose, cost, sender information, and approximate value. A bank account has also been set up for cash donations specifically for the DLIS.

Places I (have) Love(d): Dominica’s Beautiful Beau Rive Closes Its Doors

When I was scouring the internet for any available information about Dominica during those first few days following Hurricane Maria, I came upon some aerial photographs. Very little news was leaking out of the island, as it was basically cut-off from the outside world for several days. As I quickly scanned dozens of shots, I could hardly recognize once-familiar places on the island.  The apocalyptic views only made me fear the worst for everyone in Dominica, and my heart skipped several beats when I came upon a view of Beau Rive Boutique Hotel. I knew that the proprietor, Mark Steele was overseas, as September was the usual month in which the hotel was closed and he took a well-deserved break.   There were a few comments beside the shocking photo and I added my own: “OMG, has Mark seen this?”

Fearing the worst, I immediately fretted about an ominous outlook for hurricane-impacted Beau Rive. For me, the lovely hotel had always been an idyllic escape from the busy-ness around Roseau.  Once or twice  a year, for over a decade, I would traverse the island, en route to the east  coast where I would immerse myself in its complete serenity, casual elegance, extraordinary hospitality and tantalizing meals.  I considered it a true Dominica ‘east coast’ retreat and I always felt ‘at home’ there.

As I consistently enjoyed every visit, I could never resist writing about my exceptional experiences at this award-winning hotel, and as such, I included several pieces  in my Ti Domnik Tales  blog .  They can be found here.

Beau Rive after Hurricane Maria
Beau Rive’s devastation as captured in this aerial photo a few days after Hurricane Maria.  Taken from the Beau Rive Facebook page.

My worst fears became a blunt reality when it was confirmed that  this international award-winning accommodation incurred severe damage during the storm. When Mark found out about the wrath of Maria during his overseas travels, his first concern was for his staff and their well-being. Initially, he had no idea of the extent of the devastation.  Even before he was able to make his way back to the island, he had organized an online fundraising campaign for his staff, now jobless. It quickly reached about $20,000 USD from compassionate and concerned former guests, many of whom had become friends with the Beau Rive family during their often-repeat visits.

When Mark arrived back in Dominica, the whole surreal scene must have been a severe shock to his soul.  He had lovingly built  the impressive hotel by hand, yet his perspective remained focused on concern  for the plight of others. Regardless of his personal loss, he  seemed determined to find a way forward, despite this unforeseen catastrophic event.

I did have the pleasure to see him a couple of times while I was on-island a few months after Maria, and  I was encouraged that he was  forging ahead with other plans and possibilities. I admired his tenacity and focused efforts to complete his ‘retirement’ home, which had sustained damage and losses during and after the storm.

In the mean time, he made a temporary shelter for himself in the only dry room in the hotel.  While there, he reported that he was making his way through a substantial number of  books that still sat on shelves in the sitting room. Miraculously,they were not damaged by the howling winds or the driving rains. And to think he was enjoying them all by flashlight in the complete darkness, as there was no electricity for months to come.  As well, he could only communicate via cell phone calls or texts, as wireless internet was non-existent at that time. You can read more about Mark’s musings and activities post-Maria on his Facebook page here.

It was about mid-March when I finally visited with him near Castle Bruce at the once-beautiful Beau Rive.  Our mutual friend, birding specialist and tour guide extraordinaire Bertrand Jno Baptiste, a.k.a. ‘Dr. Birdy’ (more on other touring adventures in subsequent posts) drove me across the island so that we could first visit the Emerald Pool, a renowned eco-tourism site and then spend a few hours on the east coast, in Mark’s congenial company.

When we first arrived, it was all I could do to hold back the tears.  Mark, as always, came out of the changed entrance way to greet us.  I could only offer him a huge hug and a big pat to Maxim, one of his beloved dogs that had survived the hurricane. All around me was evidence of the massive destruction. Bits and pieces of galvanized roofing material, random boards, guttering, downed trees chopped into segments and other types of debris were neatly piled up along the lane-way. Dr. Birdy, with his ever-sharp eyes, spotted an errant nail near the parking spots and we immediately looked around for others – one  of the lingering hazards all over the island post-Maria.

Mark took us through the reception and library areas and we ended up by the once operational swimming pool.  We did not venture upstairs, where the extensive destruction  of the bar, kitchen and dining areas, now with a non-existent roof must have caused Mark tremendous heart-break.  I could instantly recall the many fine meals I had enjoyed in those serene surroundings overlooking the ocean, which I cherished as fond memories of time well-spent at Beau Rive.

As Mark further described the situation to us, I felt the tears pricking my eyelids again.  I did not take photos of the devastation of this outstanding Dominican

South westerly view from Castle Bruce Road
Post-Maria landscape southeast of the Castle Bruce Road in March 2018.

property as I felt that would only add insult to injury. Instead, we chatted about Mark’s experiences when he returned to Dominica after the hurricane. As well, he shared some of his ideas about future plans, which I will leave for him to disclose publicly! I gazed all around me and tried to get my mind to adjust to the drastically altered scene.  Castle Bruce and environs on the island’s east coast had suffered  severe blows from the extreme sea blast of the category 5 winds that left much of the lush landscape burnt and battered. It seemed that it would take a longer time for nature to recover on this side of the island and in the areas where the wrath of Hurricane Maria basically tore up everything in its path.

Sea Views from Beau Rive in different times.  They are taken at slightly different angles and heights, nevertheless, the change in the terrain is dramatic! On the left, a pre-Maria view and right, six months post-Maria!

After a filling Dominican lunch at the nearby Islet View Restaurant, we drove to Mark’s house, which was nearing completion before Maria but was not  habitable due to damages and losses incurred in and following the horrific storm. Despite the ravages of Maria and its aftermath, I was, as always, completely taken with the beautiful panorama in Mark’s personal piece of paradise.  In this idyllic setting,

Sheep at Marks
Sheep safely graze at Mark’s farm in Dominica.

sheep peacefully grazed and Dr. Birdy identified a variety of birds that flitted around the property. Although all of Mark’s goats were lost in the massive storm, he did not lose his desire to farm, raise and nurture a variety of livestock, including sheep, a bull and a cow.

Despite the beautiful outdoor environment, I was most taken with a stunning piece of stained glass, designed and carefully made by Mark’s hands.  Miraculously, it had survived the storm and I take that to be a very good sign! It is my sincere hope that in this sensational tropical setting, Mark can find peace and contentment,  and renewed fulfillment as a musician and visual artist!

Marks Home (2)
The beautiful stained glass window/skylight, created and handmade by Mark, is representative of his extraordinary artistic talents!
Mark and Birdy (2)
Longtime friends Mark  and Birdy.  Two great guys I am honoured to know on the Nature Isle!

Although the hotel as I once knew it is permanently closed, the property is up for sale and I expect that any prospective buyer could make the most of this extraordinary site.  But whatever future fate befalls the former Beau Rive, I do know that Mark

 

will make the most of his changed situation. And I will always cherish my fond memories of a  place that I have truly loved on Dominica.

 

 

 

Places I (have) Love(d): Historic Springfield Hit Hard by ‘Maria’

 

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The leaking post-Maria breeze-way between the kitchen and the dining room as seen on January 27, 2018.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in late January, my friend Nancy Osler took me up to see Dominica’s historic Springfield Plantation Guest House in its post-Maria state. She is the on-site Manager of ATREC, a local management company with study -abroad programs for students that partners with  Clemson University in the USA, the owners of the property. This beautiful natural setting of about 190 acres, some of which is rainforest, is located inland on the Imperial Road above the settlement of Antrim.  It’s about a 20 minute drive from Roseau, the capital city.

I spent my first year and a half in Dominica living at this beautiful former 18th century estate, and have loved it from the moment I arrived there in 1997. Over the years, I have been fortunate to return to this special place many times for day visits.  As well, I have been blessed to have become friends with both Managers during my almost two decades in Dominica: first, the late Mona George-Dill and then Nancy Osler, who has been there since 2005. (I have written extensively about Springfield in my blog Ti Domnik Tales. As well, I compiled an  historical overview of the estate, which dates back to the 18th century, for Domnitjen Magazine in 2009).

But now, just over 20 years since I first encountered this idyllic setting , the drastically changed scene rendered me completely aghast. I was basically speechless as Nancy showed me around the property. Truly, I just wanted to cry.  She said that I could ask her anything about it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I was so terribly saddened by what I saw in a place that I had cherished so dearly for such a long time.

There was extensive damage to most of the structures on the site,  caused by fierce winds that gusted up to about 160 mph.

 

The surrounding foliage fared no better. An ancient Samaan tree, which had withstood previous hurricanes, had succumbed to Maria’s wrath. However, its “twin” was still standing and there was some hope (on my part, at least) that it might rebound in time. The stately Royal Palms that lined the  walkway to the Butterfly Garden en route to the trail to the river did thankfully withstand the wind blasts for the most part, although their fronds were severed or at the very least, stripped almost

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Stately Royal Palms rebound, as seen from severely damaged rooms at Springfield in March 2018.

bare.

And then there was the human factor.  In the days and months following the devastation, Nancy relayed bits and pieces of her traumatic ‘Maria’ story to me. Nancy had sent her staff to their homes before the storm.  She along with Liz Madisetti sought refuge in her apartment, which is located on the property.  While it seemed initially to be a sheltered spot from the winds, the normally calm stream some distance away overflowed in the torrential rains that carried debris from higher in the mountains. When muddy waters entered her living space, she and Liz sought shelter in the bathtub for a few hours. While the water up to that point was no more than four inches high on the floor, there was no way to predict what would take place from one moment to the next.  Then came a few minutes of calm.

When they assumed that the eye was overhead, there was a commotion at her door.  Desmond, a longtime staff member and some of his family had come down the hill (normally a five-minute walk) to seek shelter as the roof of their house had blown away.  But they could not open Nancy’s door.  The wind and water had lodged it so that the family had to physically break it down so the trapped occupants could

20180127_131552
The mattress that helped to protect Nancy and several others in the kitchen of Springfield during the second half of the wrath of Maria.

escape.  Then Nancy and the small group quickly mounted a flight of stairs and remained for the rest of the night in the kitchen, until the storm subsided.  They had to take turns holding a mattress against the window to protect themselves from some of the outside fury that was trying to get in!

 

Obviously, I had no way of contacting Nancy, or anyone else for several days following the storm.  As mentioned in earlier posts, there was a huge void of communication from Dominica during those first few days. I had sent a text to Nancy immediately following the storm, and I was greatly relieved when I heard back from her a few days later.  She wrote that she was “homeless, but fine” and that she and Liz were safe and had sufficient food and water. Of course, they could not leave the dilapidated premises due to landslides, mudslides, downed trees and ubiquitous debris, which blocked the Imperial Road for several days.

P1000388-1Along with extensive structural and property damage,  most of Nancy’s personal possessions were completely destroyed. But

my orchid
I gave Nancy this orchid in June 2016, when I left Dominica. To the surprise of both of us, it survived the storm! Photo by N. Osler.

despite the losses, she remains hopeful that Springfield might be  rebuilt as best as possible in these modern times. But that decision remains with Clemson University, the current owners of the estate. For now,  the local management company ATREC, with its study-abroad programs remains closed.

My wish for Springfield, my first “love” on Dominica,  is that this extraordinary site on the Nature Isle will be resurrected as the magical place in a paradise I once knew, and continue to love.

What Hurricane Maria did to Springfield, Dominica*:

*Above photos taken on January 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Neighbourly Way: ‘At Home’ In Dominica

At long last, I was back on Dominican soil. I had been in Canada for one and a half years and I had missed the Nature Island every day. When I disembarked from the Express Des Iles at the Roseau ferry terminal at about noon on Wednesday January 24th, I did not have to wait more than a few moments before two familiar faces came towards me out of the huge crowd on the Bayfront.

First came Tina Alexander, with whom I would soon have lunch- and then appeared my longtime neighbour and host Vernon Gordon, who would take me to my apartment to drop off my luggage and return me to the Fort Young Hotel, my  rendez-vous point with Tina.

While travelling south from Roseau to my old neighbourhood and rental apartment, I was stunned in to silence,even though I had many questions to ask Vernon. What initially rendered me speechless was my quick glance at the Roseau

Roseau Public Library3
Roseau Public Library, which dates back to 1906, was severely damaged and most of its collection destroyed.

Public Library. I already knew that it had been destroyed and yes, I had looked at photos, but to actually see one of my favourite and frequented places in Dominica in such a demolished state instantly brought tears to my eyes. And the sad sights only increased through the areas called Newtown and Citronnier, where some seaside homes and hotels were either no longer there or in a state seemingly beyond repair. In their places, debris and post-hurricane refuse such as ubiquitous galvanized roofing sheets were scattered everywhere – most of the metal badly mangled and unusable.

 

Meanwhile, Vernon was on the speaker phone with his uncle in England; along with arranging extensive repairs to his own home, he was helping him to obtain information about products and goods that would be needed to fix his relative’s house in another suburban area north of Roseau.

By the time we drove up the once-familiar roads in the Castle Comfort and

Wallhouse roof losses
Tarpaulins covered many roofs, and roadways deteriorated following Hurricane Maria.

Wallhouse subdivisions, I could not speak at all. Blue tarps covered most of the roofs in this densely populated area, and the pothole-filled, broken-up lanes and roadways were practically impassable.

 

When we arrived at the Gordon residence a few minutes later, I gazed around me in complete shock. It was the strangest feeling: everything looked at once familiar and oddly different at the same time. That included the houses, landscape and roadways.  Nevertheless, I was, as always, entranced by the verdant shades of green that Vernon immediately told me weren’t there for a month or so after the hurricane.

As Tina was waiting and Vernon had to get back to work, I did not linger after the bags had been dropped in the rear apartment, which had previously been occupied by a student at the All Saints University School of Medicine. They had to evacuate immediately after the storm and were sent to St. Vincent, an island further south in the Eastern Caribbean . I already knew that the Gordons were occupying the larger apartment at the front of their property. With the loss of their roof, they could not live in their spacious home upstairs until the extensive repairs had been done.

At that point, the completion date was unknown as Vernon had to go off-island to purchase his roofing supplies and then wait for a qualified and familiar building team, already in great demand, to do the required work. Meanwhile, some of the furniture that they had been able to salvage was neatly stored in the corners of my roomy apartment, and the student’s belongings were carefully tucked at the back of the closet and underneath the bed in anticipation of her return. These were extraordinary times, and I was so thankful to have a place to stay in close proximity to my longtime good neighbours and to be the recipient of their generosity and hospitality.

Back in town, I tentatively walked in the front entrance of the Fort Young Hotel. It was filled with a lunchtime crowd, comprised of aid workers, residents in search of WiFi due to scanty wireless services and limited electricity around the island, and a few intrepid tourists. As I scanned the busy scene, I caught Tina’s eye across the room and then turned around to see a group of familiar faces sporting huge smiles. I am certain my grin stretched from ear to ear as I quickly strode over to greet several friends who just happened to be there too!

Even though I was hot and sweaty in my boat travelling outfit of long pants and long-sleeved blouse, I rejoiced in chatting face to face with this assembly of friends in Dominica. I had intended to shop for groceries, but fatigue, afternoon heat and engaging conversations prevented me from going any farther than the washroom that afternoon.

When we collectively parted later that day with assurances to meet throughout my stay, I waited outside the hotel for Vernon to pick me up on his way home from work. When he stopped, he  remarked that I had not purchased any groceries. I explained that I was now on island time and that I could do it tomorrow, but he insisted on taking me to a nearby store (ACS 7/11 Mini-Mart) to pick up some essentials. There, I purchased heavier items and enough supplies to tide me over for a day or two. Once back at my self-catering apartment, I unpacked my groceries and part of my luggage while waiting for the rest of the Gordon family to appear after their workday.

Now extremely tired from my very long travel day, I wanted nothing better than to

Gordons Roses
Spectacular blooms in the Gordons’ post-Maria garden.

sit on the porch and stare at the beauty all around me. With a kitchen chair to support me and a cup of tea to soothe me, I

Gordons Brownie Dog in Repose
Brownie the playful puppy.

also acquainted myself with Brownie the puppy, a recent addition to the Gordon family who became one of my walking companions. While I could not directly see the sunset from my perch, I enjoyed the shades of pale colours in the western sky and relaxed to the early night sounds of a few insects and some birds who were slowly reappearing four months after Maria.

Gordons Garden Dove
Soothing sounds of doves serenaded me early mornings and evenings.

As I had lived across the street and later just down the road from the Gordons for about 15 years, I certainly felt ‘at home’. I could not think of anywhere else I would rather be, despite the devastation all around me.

I had only begun to settle in when I got a taste of what the Gordons and everyone on Dominica had experienced during Hurricane Maria. On my first Sunday morning on island, I watched the German cruise ship, Mein Schiff anchor at the Roseau Pier in torrential rain. It was rather chilly, relatively speaking, and I did wonder how the visitors would enjoy this dreary day. I started to shiver on the porch, and went into the bedroom to get a jacket.

On my way to the closet, I looked down and was shocked to see a puddle of water next to the bed. “How did that get there?” I wondered to myself as the wet area was not close to a window and they were all shut anyway. Then I looked up and gasped as I grasped the situation. Drops of water steadily fell from a growing stain on the ceiling.

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Gordon father and son secure a torn tarpaulin during a break in torrential rains in January 2018.
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Catching the drops to prevent water damage!

 

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Water marks on the ceiling of my bedroom!

 

I took another deep breath and went next door to tell the Gordons. I tentatively knocked and entered. Vernon and his wife Geramise were in the midst of  their Sunday breakfast.  “Um…it looks like we’ve got a little flood going on.” I really hated to tell them this. “Where?” Geramise asked. “In-in the bedroom,” I stammered.

In a flash, Vernon surveyed the scene while Geramise and I gathered containers to catch the drops. “I guess the tarpaulin has ripped or come off and water is seeping down through the floor above,”  he surmised.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he and his son Kevin climbed up a ladder and readjusted the temporary cover during a break in the pounding rain. The tarpaulin, which had been in place for about four months had ripped apart. As it was only a short-term solution while the Gordons were preparing to rebuild their permanent roof, I contacted my friend Tina Alexander of Lifeline Ministries to see if she knew where to source a new tarpaulin. Sure enough, she secured one for the Gordons (thanks Tina!), and the next weekend father and son went back up on the roof to replace the torn one with a stronger version which would hopefully hold on until the real thing could be built anew.

During my first few weeks in Dominica, even up to Carnival in mid-February, the rain persisted, along with heavy winds. Tarpaulins all around detached and flapped vigorously in the night, but it was too dangerous for people to go up on their roofs to secure their temporary measure.  So most people in my neighbourhood did whatever they could to contain the relentless rainwater, while hoping that help would soon be on the way.  For many, awaiting a reimbursement from an insurance company was a lengthy process, due to the overwhelming volume of claims, coupled with the challenge of locating highly sought-after building supplies on-island. Companies struggled to meet with the excessive demands but sold-out very quickly so the  purchase and reorder process crawled along.

While the Gordons chose to obtain supplies on other islands, there was still a lengthy wait for qualified roofers to do the job that included sufficient improvements to make it more climate-resilient. As the next hurricane season approached, concerns were mounting all over Dominica about lack of preparedness, but most of the people that I met were optimistically holding onto the hope that all would be well before the rainy season began in earnest again!

Before I even arrived at the Gordons apartments, I was aware that electricity service was non-existent, as in most other parts of Dominica. That meant going without any current during the daytime. However, my hosts, like many other neighbours, invested in a small generator so that power was available for about 4 hours every evening. Most days, I frequently found myself at the Fort Young Hotel, where I enjoyed breakfast or lunch along with WiFi service. Therefore, I was not adversely affected in terms of writing and other online communications.

Back at the Gordons, with generator power, we shared the refrigerator and the semi-automatic washing machine, which were both located in my apartment. With infrequent opening of the fridge and freezer, food stuffs were kept cool and/or frozen for a day or two. At first I was wary of the more labour-intensive, generator- compatible washer, but after Geramise walked me through the process, I was completely amazed with the results.  The spin component practically dried the clothing before it was out of the machine!

Meanwhile, DOMLEC crews and partners from other Caribbean countries appeared

A Domlec lineman hard at work in Wallhouse.

all over Wallhouse as they feverishly worked to replace downed power lines, ruined transformers and reconnected source wires to houses. I occasionally watched them work. I was amazed by their stamina and cheerful demeanor, as their hours were long, sometimes well into the evening and there was much to be done all over the island.

When the workers were next to the Gordons some evenings, I observed on more than one occasion their neighbourly offer of coffee and tea, which was received by the weary, but hard-working team with profound thanks. I stood by, took photos, chatted amiably with the group and carried the cups back to my hosts.

DOMLEC and friends in Wallhouse
The Domlec crew enjoys a cuppa,compliments of the Gordons.

Then, one Saturday in early March, the power was switched back on at the Gordon’s apartments. After more than five months without electricity, the generator could be retired, and both apartments were fully operational after passing their safety certification check.  Of course, the main house could only be ‘hooked up’ once the roof was replaced and all electrical circuits verified intact.  That was yet to come!

Although a ‘tenant’, I was the grateful recipient of Gordon hospitality and assistance on countless occasions.  I enjoyed substantial and delicious Sunday dinners for my entire stay, along with portions of fresh fruits and vegetables from their relatives in the countryside. Sometimes there were seasoning peppers or herbs such as basilic from their own backyard garden. I even got to savor the occasional fresh jelly

Jelly Coconut in Wallhouse
I savored the occasional jelly coconut from the Gordons’ tree that survived Hurricane Maria.

coconut and its sweet ‘water’, right off the tree in the yard. I kept quiet about that treat, as this once-common refreshment had become very scarce on island due to crop and tree destruction caused bHurricane Maria.

‘Down time’ on the porch was an added bonus.

 

I overlooked the Gordons’

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The phenomenal coconut tree in the Gordons’ yard.

flourishing flower garden that they tended with care.I situated myself there most early mornings and evenings to meditate on the beautiful flowers and trees, listen to melodious bird song, watch the changing colours of the evening sky, observe early morning moon-sets over the sea, and study the stars in the heavens with great clarity in this unpolluted environment.  Sometimes Geramise joined me after work, and we watched the celestial bodies appear and disappear as night fell on the Nature Island.

Full moon in February over Caribbean Sea
Early morning  February full moon-set over the Caribbean Sea (after weeks of rain!)

The fun and challenge of walking ‘Brownie’, the newest addition to the Gordon family gave me experience in managing a puppy. While it was not easy to attach the leash in his excitable state, Brownie usually settled down after about 5 minutes on the road. The neighbours’ dogs always announced our presence and everyone seemed to succumb to Brownie’s good-natured charms. The likable small-breed local dog grew to about twice his size while I was there. I think he helped me increase strength in my arms!

All of the people in Wallhouse, Leopoldville and Loubiere warmly welcomed me and I listened attentively to their stories of Maria. In some ways, I felt as if I had never

Leopoldville Loubiere Under Tarpaulin
Under tarpaulin near the river in Leopoldville.
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Spider was a popular, longstanding eatery in Loubiere.
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The interior of the Catholic Church In Loubiere was completely destroyed by the unknown force of the river beside it.
Leopoldville Loubiere Galvanized metal debris
Galvanized roofing metal was no match for Maria.

left the place and there were moments that life in the Nature Isle seemed just like old times. But in other ways, the obvious damage to roofs from the  sustained winds of 175 mph was less horrific than the devastation caused by abnormally swollen rivers filled with rocks and uprooted trees, as well as a violent sea on that terrifying night. In Loubiere, several lives were lost, while many others barely escaped death. Even six months after the destructive event, people were trying to carry on with a positive outlook and an abiding faith in God. More about this

Post-Maria riverbed below Wallhouse at Leopoldville, Loubiere.

part of my post-Maria story in a subsequent post.

The time in Dominica passed far too quickly and I guess my feelings about leaving ‘home’ showed on my face during my last few days on-island. “Look Geramise, Gwen is crying,” teased Vernon more than once when he opened his apartment door in the early morning  to see me on the porch, staring at the blue sky or gazing at that hardy coconut palm tree.

Gordons’ Brownie waits for a new roof amidst the building supplies

“You don’t want to leave, do you!?” he taunted.  “No,” I readily admitted, “But I’ll be back!”

 

 

Rainbow over Wallhouse, my neighbourhood in Dominica!