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Adrift between cultures in tropical Dominica

“Nobody in the community likes me… I know it.  I knew it the day I set foot on this island.  I’m okay with it”

Sharon was very adamant about her outsider status.  She seemed proud to tell me that she was not like the rest of the folks I would meet in this small island nation.  Yet, I would soon come to realize just how not “okay with it” she really was.  The voluptuous thirty-nine-year-old of African descent moved to Dominica from England at the impressionable age of fifteen.  This is the first insight I am allowed as we sit at the table at Riverside Café in La Plaine, Dominica.

The French-Caribbean-inspired cuisine of Riverside Café is prepared by two white West Indian ladies who, when not needed, sit in the corner smoking cigarettes and sipping espressos as if perched on the side of Champs de Elysees.  The European ambiance sits in stark contrast to the truly extraordinary tropical surroundings. There is a tantalizing sense of European familiarity and Caribbean exoticism at play – the lazy splendor of a French café on a jungle river.  The setting on the Taberi River bank is enhanced by an immaculately choreographed garden with paths leading to freshwater pools below.

While you can order a Kubuli, the locally brewed beer, or a rum drink like anywhere else in Dominica, wine seems more appropriate.  We order glasses of red and white, both kept cold so as to keep.  Sharon and I are joined by my host Elise, a tall brunette with thick-rimmed glasses from Orange County, California who, after two years in the Peace Corps, left Dominica for the states only to find that she could not shake the majesty of the island.  She returned less than a year later to obtain a marketing job in the capital, Roseau, where she is “underpaid and overworked.”

Before arriving at Riverside Café, Elise had taken me through central La Plaine, the neighborhood where she spent her two-year stint in the Peace Corps.  This is one of the many communities she has since lived in and she talked of the intricacies of having to completely reintegrate herself into each one.  We drove past the kids she taught as they raced, all smiles, to keep up with us down the hilly, potholed streets.  Before turning off the road to her old house she asked, “Could you do me a favor.  Umm, well… See if you could pretend like you’re my brother if we come across anyone I know.  It’s just that in Dominican culture, a man and a woman wouldn’t hang out unless they were interested in each other.”  Being that Elise had a Dominican boyfriend it would not be prudent to act otherwise and the scandal of my very presence would surely circulate in the town’s rumor mill.

This, in fact, was one of the greatest frustrations of her life in Dominica.  There are certain parts of the cultural barrier that are hard to break for couples from different backgrounds.  Elise, a free sprit, feels trapped in a country and a relationship that asks of her to continually do the accepted thing.  Consequently, she must lie to her boyfriend about our outing because he would never understand why she would want to hang out with another man.  To this regard, she isn’t shy to reveal that she does not have many friends on the island and spends much of her free time in front of the television.

Sharon and Elise share a common bond.  There is a certain amount of conformity necessary in an insular society such as this small island where one must give up a bit of their self in order to fit into the greater whole.

Sharon, a woman whose face revolves around her high cheekbones, is a soul in constant turmoil.  She is caught somewhere between the life she could have had in England and the life she has led here in Dominica; the life of her daily dreams versus the life lived everyday.  A devoutly religious woman, she wakes up at 3:00am every morning to engage in two hours alone with God before she rouses her daughters at 5:00am to pray with them.

After our lunch, we sit on the rocks by the Taberi River so that Sharon can smoke her spliff – it brings her “closer to God and clears the head.”  In actuality, it transforms her into a vivacious storyteller.  Captivated on the rocks of the Taberi I sit for what seems like hours listening of her tales, wonders, and philosophies.

Sharon was never accepted as a kid in Dominica because she talked “proper English.” Regardless of the fact that she shared a common skin color, she would never be one of them.  She talks of how she resigned to adopting a Rastafarian look that she has continued to this day in order to try and fit into a society that has yet to accept her as one it’s own after twenty-four years.  Regularly, she dotes on what her life would be like had she never left England.  Just two years after arriving in Dominica she had her first kid, who in her early teens would be raped, leading to the birth of her first grandson.  As if this wasn’t enough, she has been fighting an uphill battle with Sickle Cell Anemia.

As I am sinking all of this in, she assures me she is writing a book about her life.  With such a sordid tale, it is no surprise that when Elise and I arrived at Riverside Café Sharon had been on the phone with a teller of black magic.  When I ask Elise what she makes of this she exclaims, “I don’t know anymore.  Weird shit happens in Dominica that would never happen anywhere else.”

In June, an incident occurred in Roseau that made headlines across the nation.  Hundreds of witnesses gathered across from the Scotia Bank on Hillsborough Street as an elderly woman and a public servant reportedly stood locked eye to eye from noon till after 5:00pm.  Reports claim that the public servant did not want to pass the supposed Soucouyant on her left side.  The Soucouyant is a Jumbie who lives by day as an old woman in the village, but by night turns into a spirit practicing voodoo, black magic, and witchcraft. To not pass one on the left is a widely held belief in Dominican folktales.

What Sharon, a woman whose every other sentence gives praise to the lord, is looking for in black magic I will never know.  It appears she has become more Dominican than she cares to let on.  Her European birth seems more of a status symbol for her and perhaps it is simply that hint of elitism that has kept her at arms length from her peers.

As for Elise, the frustrations are beginning to outweigh the simple pleasures of living on the island.  She plans to fly back to California in just two weeks.  I ask what will happen with her relationship that she has spent almost four years building in Dominica.  She pauses and looks down.  Talking nervously, Elise explains that she hopes that her boyfriend will be motivated enough to complete all the necessary paperwork to immigrate to the United States.  Yet, there is a noticeable hint of uncertainty in her eyes.

As we part ways, I bid them both the best.  I wish Sharon good health and good luck on putting into words the winding road of her life.  For Elise, I hope that she is successful in making the relationship last and joke that she will move back again in another year.  It strikes me that at the core of things they are both facing the same demon.  They are two women stuck between two countries and all the messy ideologies that tie them on either end.

Visiting foreign lands, one rarely catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the local social structure and, more often, forgets it even exists.  As an American who grew up in a sprawling suburb, it is hard to comprehend the complexities of Dominican society. While there are certainly a few small pockets of the United States where kinship and cooperative spirit prevail, as a whole most of us have lost a certain sense of community. When you don’t need to rely on your neighbors for anything, you can forget they are even there – for better or worse.

In Dominica, the community is vital, and the omnipresence of its rigid social mores can have an overwhelming impact on those brought up in countries where individuality is prized over collectivity.  At twenty-four, with her whole life ahead of her, Elise is not quite ready for the totality of it all.  Sharon has found a way to navigate the challenges.  What began as a Rasta reinvention twenty-four years ago has manifest into a new cultural outlook.  But, don’t tell her that.  Sharon still sees herself as that fifteen-year-old girl in England, just a little older, a little wiser, and in a new costume.

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