Captain’s Passenger’s log, day four. Every morning on this cruise ship is a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. I open my eyes, cocooned in my extra-long, extra-firm twin bed, and begin to stretch the kinks out of my neck and back. I curl my feet around the edge of the mattress and grab the bar over my head, pulling and twisting, popping and cracking, to wake myself up. My sister usually stirs a few moments later and immediately walks to the door of our balcony, yanks the curtains open and reveals the vista before us in a burst of brilliant sunlight.
Without my glasses on, every morning looks just like the day before: a crayon-box seaside town set against velveteen green-forested hills, always ringed with clouds as if we’re somehow nearer to heaven here, and surrounded by crystal-blue waters. But my déjà vu on Dominica ended after the wake-up ritual. Beyond the ship, there was no tourist frenzy. No steel-pan band and garish Hawaiian-print shirts at the end of the rickety wooden pier, no blinking signs heralding slot machines and duty-free deals. Just a small, shaded shelter, trimmed with doily-printed white wood, a single green flag flapping in the wind, and the town spread before us. At about 9 a.m., when we disembarked, we were some of the first cruise-boat passengers ashore, and we wandered down the main street of the capital of Roseau in search of breakfast at a café called Cocorico.
Vendors were just finishing setting up their wares as we wandered blindly down the main street, and men holding laminated maps of the island tried to entice us into their cabs for the day. A slouching beanpole tailed us until we crossed the street away from him, offering all-inclusive tours with black sand beaches, waterfalls and everything else “Nature Island” had in store. We had an excursion later in the day, so we couldn’t have gone with him even if we’d wanted to. He relented. “If you change your mind, look for me,” he said. “They call me Shy Guy.”
We forged on to breakfast. Fodor’s had promised us croissants, cafes au lait and fresh fruit by the waterfront if we chose Cocorico. It’s always sunnier among the crisp white pages of the travel guides; instead, we enjoyed freshly toasted store-bought baguette with apricot preserves, freshly dissolved Sanka and canned pineapple. They were out of brie, so we got Swiss instead. And it was up to us to remember what we’d ordered and remind them to bring us everything they charged us for. Certainly not something I’d write home about –yet here I am – but the people-watching was worth the sub-par dining. Police officers, an old woman trudging along with heavy tote bags full of who knows what, a young couple holding hands. A young man with braids piled high on his head said, “Welcome to our island. Happy new year to you!” Everyone on these islands has wished us a happy new year. It’s lovely. A man in a wheelchair with no legs and bandages wrapped around his palms pushed himself back and forth across the street in front of the café; a couple from the ship offered him some change as they hurried past. A ghostlike man with hollow, glassy eyes tried to offer us something before my mother shooed him away. The most persistent taxi driver, a man named Harrison, came right up to our table and kept advertising despite our protests. Whatever we wanted, he said. He would take us. He told us flat-out that we were stupid to book an excursion through the ship. “You’re on vacation! Nobody should tell you when it’s time to go home,” he exclaimed, indignant on our behalf. “You come with me? I let you take your time.” All with a sly smile and the most delicious Creole accent. He drove a hard bargain. Even my mother said she’d have hired him if we weren’t already busy that afternoon.
We returned to the ship to shower and freshen up, and then nine of us piled into the van for our scheduled activity: Carribbean Cooking, Rum and Nature. A mother and daughter from upstate New York; a brash New Jersey hausfrau; two women, old friends, traveling together; a man named Steve; and the three Worthy women made up the group. The excursion took us up one of Dominica’s many mountains; as the van climbed the narrow, winding roads, the temperature dropped ten degrees and the breezes whipped our hair around our faces. From the top, the drop-off was so steep that Roseau had completely disappeared below us. Hibiscus and ginger lilies infused the surroundings with heady aromas, and preparations for our cooking class had peppered the air with scents of coconut milk, cinnamon, thyme, garlic. As we cooked – red beans and rice, a Creole tuna dish, coconut-encrusted fried plantains, cabbage and watercress salad with homemade lime dressing, a spiced pumpkin and rum drink served cold – the smells grew stronger and more enticing, and we enjoyed the fruits of our labors quietly at a long table. I leaned back in my chair when I finished my second helping, stuffed and enthralled. After the morning’s “eh” meal, it was quite the way to round out my visit to the island. Just before the van pulled out to toddle us back down the mountain, one of the women who taught the cooking class showed me all the flowers around the house. The ginger lilies, sold for dollars a stalk in the United States, grow like weeds on Dominica. I’d never seen anthurium growing anywhere but in a pot indoors; here, it flourishes. Anything you put in the ground shoots up in no time, she said.
When we returned to town, we had only an hour before all passengers needed to be back on board. We all pouted that there was so little time left, but it was just enough to duck into the small shop we’d seen as we rolled out of town: Desiderata, a small boutique with a beautiful sign and colorful dresses blowing in the breeze through the open doors. The store would have been at home in Wicker Park or the Gold Coast. Instead, at an intersection of two busy streets with incessantly honking traffic and a stray dog gnawing on a discarded chicken leg, there was the shop. It was just as beautiful up close as it had been from the van. The shopgirls were sweet and seemed never to have had a care in their lives. I tried on a beautiful dress and gawked at the beaded pillows and woven rugs upstairs; my sister bought a fancy top.
A skeptical beginning to a day that could well have been just like the others, but Dominica was the first island I’ve visited so far that I really could wake up to over and over again.