Thursday, August 21, 2014

Living in Roseau

View of Roseau from Morne Bruce

Hello! It is a doozy of a rainstorm outside right now!

Today's post will be a mixture of updates and a few moments from the last week, which I want to share with you. It's a bit of a long one, and low on pictures, but here's the breakdown if you care to scroll on through.

1. Describing Roseau
2. Thoughts on Street Harassment
3. Making Progress with my Watson Project
4. Good Moments with Ground Lizards 

(1) I've been living just outside the capital city of Roseau (rose-o) in a neighborhood called Goodwill, placing me within walking distance of practically everything in this small city. The city is laid out on a grid, and over the last several days of more-or-less aimlessly walking around, I think I know where nearly everything is located. Street signs are infrequently posted, but I've made landmarks of the different supermarkets, banks, restaurants, and shops. Most buildings are one or two stories--the tallest is four; they are predominantly concrete, but some are stone, some are corrugated tin. Many are vibrantly colored, and a few even have murals depicting nature or political scenes. 
map of Roseau, Dominica

Lunch is the most important meal of the day, and can be obtained deliciously and inexpensively at many of the local restaurants, cafes and "snackettes." There are a few larger stores such as Save-a-Lot, and Astaphan's (supermarkets), Whitchurch (an all-purpose sort-of department store), Jay's (bookstore), but most shops are very small and have a fairly limited selection. Anything packaged or imported is far more expensive than the fresh produce, but I did splurge on some peanut butter. The majority of shops are clothing and shoe boutiques, electronic shops, barbers and salons, and a smattering of other professional and government offices. 

The new market on the northwestern corner of the city, by the mouth of the Roseau River is the place to buy all kinds of fresh produce. In the old market (where slaves were once sold), which is just a few blocks up along the bay-front, vendors sell clothing, art, and local crafts. One wonderful feature of this area is The Juice Man, who makes delicious and cold by-the-order smoothies at his small stand. When I continue along the bay-front by the ferry dock and the locked cruise-ship pier (cruise ships don't come during hurricane season, and will return around November, bringing 2000 tourists per day), I pass the ritzy Fort Young Hotel and come to the Roseau Public Library, a beautiful building with a wrap around veranda and well-stocked shelves. 

On the inland, eastern side of town is the immigration office where I got my visa extension (hallelujah), and the Botanic Gardens. These gardens hug the majority of the outskirts of this side of Town, and are the biggest open space in the area. The Gardens are simultaneously a park for picnics, cricket matches, and weddings, and house the Jaco and Sisserou Parrot sanctuary and the Mountain Chicken restoration project. There are both economic and decorative sections of the gardens, where different crops and non-edible plants are cultivated. Heading away from the Botanic Gardens is the road up to Trafalgar, where I'll be living for a good portion of my stay in Dominica. 

As I was preparing for my departure, I was emailing with Prof. Matthew Allen, who was to spend a few days in Dominica in July. He sent me his impressions of the island, including a wise warning about navigating the narrow roads: "you can walk it too, but there ain't nothing like a sidewalk and the minivans tear down the street with little warning." 

(2) The lack of sidewalks (there are a few in Roseau, but they tend to disappear, or are used as parking spaces) is not such a bother, but the level of street harassment is truly irritating. It sucks that this has been a major part of my week, and I feel that it's worth writing about. So far, nothing completely rude has been said, but the attention is uncomfortable, and feels like a constant reminder that--hey, this public space you're traversing-it's not somewhere you should feel empowered and wholly human. What I hear when a man (I've only heard it from men) says, "hey, why don't you come home with me?" or "ohh, pretty white girl" or a seemingly innocuous but leering "helllooo," it makes me feel anxious, stripped of my full personhood, and sometimes even pissed off. I don't get mad very easily, but this hits right hard at the angry nerves. 

These comments might seem excusable to me if these types of greetings were between all people. It would be different if the atmosphere were actually one where everybody greeted each other, even strangers. That simply isn't the case here. As you might expect, people who know one another will share a knock (a fist bump) or a hug or a wave and a brief conversation when passing on the street. Other strangers don't greet each other, save perhaps by eye-contact. Women hardly acknowledge one another at all. I am curious as to whether this is because we are so burnt out by the annoying attention of cat-callers that we prefer the polite indifference of not minding each other's business. I've taken to sending silent thank you's to men I pass who don't cat-call at me, in hopes that this little telepathic signal will add to a minuscule amount of karmic progress. 

Let me be clear: it's not that I want to be ignored. Far from it. As someone who has to push herself to engage in conversation, and who doesn't find it terribly easy to make friendships, I am grateful to those who will offer a polite greeting, or help direct me to the 'ital' cafe I was trying to find. When something like that can transcend into the finding of common ground, it's a truly beautiful thing, and makes me feel good about myself and people in general. But--if the only motivation someone has for calling at me in the moment I walk by them is the fact that I am female or white, I'd rather they kept it to themselves. 

When I discussed this with one of my friends at Gaiadid, she pointed out, "I don't get why they do it. Does it ever actually work? Do any women actually respond to this crap?" I can't imagine that any of these men find women to willingly spend time with them by harassing them. It can't be about attraction. I'm certain it's about control, and I am perfectly fine and capable being in control of my own self thank-you-very-much. That's sort of the whole idea behind the Watson (and human rights). In a way, this harassment has brought the issues of race and gender and other forms of privilege to the forefront of my attention, and it's good for me to be conscious of how my womanhood and whiteness play roles in my day to day life, and how these elements of my being influence those around me. I firmly believe, however, that no matter the factors of a person's life, be it their race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, income, religion, etc., we all deserve respect and freedom from the danger and marginalization that results from street harassment.

I appreciate your having read through my thoughts on this, and I would like your feedback, especially on this last point on the matter: what can I do about it? For now I'm just ignoring it, walking by, disengaging. I worry that this is tacit approval, however. I realize I probably can't stop it from happening, but I have considered ways I could respond: "oh--I didn't know you were talking to me. Did you want to engage in a meaningful conversation? No? Oh. Well then." I don't know that I would actually say that--it does make me feel better to imagine it--but I also don't want any of these situations to escalate. If it's these guys' egos that are at stake--what would they do in defense of their precious sexism, when confronted? What do you all suggest?

Free Writing Workshop Flyer, hosted by me!
(3) On another note, I have been making a fair amount of progress with project related activities. I'm going to be hosting a writing workshop next Wednesday, August 27th at the Roseau Library from 3-5:00 pm. I'm trying to spread the word about the event, and hope that some writers will attend! I was lucky enough to meet poet/novelist Alick Lazare, author of Pharcel: Runaway Slave, Kalinago Blood, and Nature Island Verses, yesterday, and he said he would be there!

I plan to volunteer at the Roseau Library a few days a week, and when the school term starts in September, get involved in their events with the local kids. I may also be able to get involved at the primary school at Ross Medical School in Portsmouth, but we will see!

I'm also volunteering at the Botanic Gardens through the Forestry and Parks Department. Hopefully through this, I'll also be active in their Mountain Chicken Project, which is an effort to study and restore the populations of the Mountain Chicken/Crapaud (Leptodactylus fallax), a large frog endemic to Dominica and Montserrat. 

This frog has been threatened over the last decade due to the introduction of the Chytridiomycosis fungal disease on the island in the early 2000s. Once a common food and then a delicacy here, the frogs are seriously threatened, and I'm excited to be able to get involved in efforts to boost their populations. I'll be going on the Second Annual Mountain Chicken Hike this Saturday as one of my first activities with the conservation team!

Close-up of a mountain chicken frog
the Mountain Chicken, looking stately

(4) On a related note, I'd like to share a story with you about an afternoon I spent in the Botanic Gardens while I was exploring the city. In a book lent to me by the family at Gaiadid Gardens, Ensouling Language by Stephen Harrod Buhner, the author describes the importance of moments of duende in one's writing, and how these add depth not only to written work, but to the way we experience meaningful instances in everyday life.

Buhner writes that:
         "There are moments in life when we experience something out of the ordinary. Moments when we feel the trembling and then a long silence. Something shakes us out of our daily world into something new and we feel an ecstasy. We get caught up in something outside of and greater than the self. We feel a moment of what Garcia Lorca calls duende."

I had one of these moments. I can't wait to have more.

I was wandering through the Botanic Gardens, trying to get my bearings and find a way to spend my afternoon. I felt much less like a stranger walking around the greenery of the park than I had in the streets of Roseau. I passed by the Bamboo House, where the rapid-growing, thick cords of bamboo had been planted and shaped into a chapel-like enclosure. I spent a few minutes at the parrot sanctuary where three Jaco Parrots (Red-necked Amazon Parrots) flew between branches in their trees inside their large-but-caged house, preening their long green and yellow feathers.

Across the lawn on the far side of the gardens, I saw a series of stairs leading up to a sign that read "Jack's Walk." It pointed into the wooded slope on the far end of the gardens, and I thought that this would be a wonderful retreat. Buildings can never provide the same kind of shade as trees. I took long strides up these steep steps, and followed the arrow-shaped sign up a wide path that made a series of hairpin curves up the side of Morne Bruce, the hill that overlooks the city. As I went, taking my time up the winding trail, but nonetheless beading with sweat in the tropical humidity, I heard the raspy calls of small brownish-black birds flitting in the overhead branches. I also became quickly aware of many small, quick rustlings in the underbrush on either side of the path.

I smiled, unabashedly curious, and glad to have such a discovery to find on my own. I surprised myself, and I'm sure, the little creature, when a slim brown lizard skittered across the track a few feet in front of me and I shouted, delighted, "Hello!"

Soon enough, as a I went along, dozens of lizards darted and dashed across and down the path, paying no attention to the differences in topography between the flat path and the near-vertical slope it cut. I made another of the hairpin turns and came upon another of the reptiles. At first, I misidentified it as a skink, but later learned it was a Dominican Ground Lizard, about a foot long, with a graceful sloping head, a grey scaly hide, and rows of lateral turquoise splotches marking either side toward its tail. It was sitting in a bundle of a plant that my mother has in a pot at home--a plant she called mother-in-law's tongue, also known as snake plant, or Sansevieria. It's mottled green leaves stood upright like a crown or a bower for the lizard I had intruded upon.

Unlike the dozens of others I had seen that day, this lizard didn't hurry away when it saw me. I knelt down slowly, excited at the chance to take a picture, and took a quick snapshot with my simple point-and-click camera. The lizard made eye contact with me. I decided I shouldn't move, and stayed crouched, holding the gaze of the animal. I think we remained that way for several minutes. I remember thinking, "I won't move until you do." I don't remember much else from those minutes, except the way the lizard gazed back at me across its slender body with its yellow eye.

When the lizard did move, it went up the trail. I said softly, aloud, "I'd like to come with you." After a moment's pause, the lizard began walking upwards in the center of the trail. Feeling a great sense of awe, the origin of which I wasn't particularly sure, I began following the lizard, remaining a few feet behind, as I would with any other hiking companion.

The lizard continued up the trail, rounding each of the hairpin turns. Once in a while, it would pause, and glance over itself toward me, waiting close behind. Seeming satisfied, it would face forward again, and resume our journey up the center of the path. I'm not making this up. This lizard really guided me up the path. Near the top, where the path soon opened up into a field edged by flowering Flamboyant trees at the summit of Morne Bruce, the lizard paused again. After a moment's eye contact again, in which I once more crouched down as a gesture of respect and thanks, the lizard disappeared off the path with a flick of its tail in the leaves and grass of the underbrush. I stayed another moment, feeling the strange sobering-up that follows a moment of sincere magic, then made the last few steps to the summit where I sat and overlooked the city, framed by an old cannon and a statue of Christ. These large monuments didn't seem to reflect the encounter I had just had nearly as well as did the bright red flowers of the trees and the wide clearness of the open sky and seas.

It wasn't until a few minutes had passed that I noticed an elderly man sitting against one of the Flamboyant trees, who greeted me with a friendly wave. I wondered if he could see the effect of the magic that was still making me feel vaguely luminous. I smiled and waved in reply.

our hero, a Dominican Ground Lizard

I hope you are doing well. As always, I'd love to hear from you.


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