Here are some island idiosyncrasies that will explain some of the things that are interesting about Dominica and our life here.
Water. I think I’ve explained this one lots already, but in case you missed here, here’s the recap: When it rains lots, the water first gets cloudy and brown (ewww). If it keeps raining, the water cuts off because the water table gets too high, and the water can get contaminated with extra dirt. I imagine this is especially fun during the rainy season. During the first few days, our windows for showers were really limited. It has been much better lately. Something cool: our hot water is solar powered. Something not cool: hot water is available in the shower only, and is only available when it has been sunny long enough to heat the water. Also not cool: always washing hands and dishes with cold water. Something really, really not cool, which I have fortunately only had to do once: Playing “Little House on the Prairie.” Translation: Complicated bathing which involves turning on the propane tank and lighting the gas stove, then pouring bottled water into a pot and heating it until it is warm, then stripping down in the shower and “bathing” with a washcloth and bar of soap, using only the water in the pot because the water has not been working for days. The result was a quasi-clean, still quite greasy me. This was the only day so far that I really had a hard time. After I dried off and my hair still looked like I’d washed it with bacon grease, I poured some baby powder in my hair to absorb some of the excess grease. Nice.
Propane Tanks. I hate them. I hate turning them on (mainly because it involves opening our cabinets under the sink which are housing a serious mildew colony, which in turn invokes an uncontrollable gag and an urgent, violent scrubbing of my hands) and I hate lighting them. I am okay with lighting it, but am mostly freaked out by Charlie’s lack of faith in my propane-stove-lighting skills. So I am confident until his fear invokes my fear. He is fairly convinced that I am going to blow something up one day. Scary. What is really scary, though, is lighting the oven. Lighting the oven requires opening the cabinet doors, turning on the tank, opening the valve, turning on the propane in the oven, opening the oven, sticking a match/lighter/flame-starter into a hole in the oven, which then ignites. The scary thing about this is that there are horror stories of students/spouses on the island who have turned on the gas and then waited too long to light the gas… their ovens fill with gas and then when they go to light it, the oven blows up. This horrifies me. So I sprint to open the oven and light the gas immediately after I turn the oven on. I also just try not to use the oven; we have a toaster oven, which is practically my best friend in Dominica.
Power Meters and Outlets and Switches. You pre-pay for your gas at a number of stories, including the handy, dandy Dominican 7-11 down the street. You do something with a code on your power box and then type in another code, which if entered correctly, plays a happy song and makes a happy face appear on the screen. When you are low on power, the power box emits an annoying beep until you reload the electricity. They also have different electrical outlets here on the island: 220 volts (which may or may not be the European kind? I’ve never payed attention…). Luckily our apartment has 110 volts (American) and 220. Dominican appliances require the 220, and American appliances from home require the 110. Not all apartments have both, which means they require converters, which also freak me out. We also have switches that look like little light switches on the 220 volt outlets to physically turn the outlets on and off. I guess this is because electricity is insanely expensive on the island.
Shelf Milk. Finding “regular milk” (milk you drink at home, in real life) is an anomaly here. We have been drinking soy milk thus far, but recently ventured out and purchased a case of “shelf milk” which is milk that is not refrigerated and sits on grocery store shelves in soy milk-like containers. (They may also drink this in Europe? Frannie says she has had it on one of her Spanish-Speaking adventures.) We bought “Belle Hollandaise: Lait Ecreme” which is made in the Netherlands, and have yet to try it. At the Save-a-Lot, the fabulous grocery store in Roseau that carries regular things, I snagged and half gallon of 2% milk and felt like I had won the lottery. Charlie and I have been savoring it and drinking it like it’s liquid gold. We’re easy to please. While on the topic of Save-a-Lot, it is the BEST grocery store ever (for Dominica). It is small — maybe the size of a large 7-11 (the real kind), but has “real milk” from time to time, as well as other exciting items if you are lucky: I went on Monday and was ecstatic to find mozzarella cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, and the previously mentioned refrigerated 2% milk. SCORE. It is also the best place to buy meat on the entire island. Here it is the standard for stores to sell ziplock bags full of frozen, freezer-burned pieces of UFO meat parts; I wish I were kidding. Hence, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot when I found meat galore in properly wrapped and labeled styrofoam containers: our freezer is now stocked with ribeye steaks, ground beef, ground pork, pork chops (boneless and bone-in), chicken breasts and thighs, bacon, and breakfast sausage.
EC. East Caribbean Currency. The bills come in 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100s. The coins are 2, 5, 10, 25 cents and $1 coins. The 2 cents and the 5 cents look alike, as do the 25 cent coins and the $1 coins. The conversion is difficult to do (in my brain at least): 2.7 EC equals about 1 U.S. dollar, so 5 EC = $1.8, 10 EC = $3,70, 30 EC = $11.11, 100 EC = $37.04. I had to make myself a chart. Overall, stuff here is pretty inexpensive.
The Shacks. Food “shacks” on the edge of campus featuring about 20 different shacks which each serve and sell their own food and drink. There are 2 juice shacks which sell fresh squeezed fruit juice in almost any flavor you can imagine: orange, grapefruit, passion fruit, mango, sorrel… all the juices are seasonal, so they change depending on what is available. My favorite it passion fruit! Some of the juice shacks also sell smoothies and fruit. Other shacks sell all sorts of food — wraps, sandwiches, burgers, kabobs, curry, local dishes. There are always grills fired up, searing yummy smelling caribbean spiced meats. I like the chicken kabobs which come with jerk chicken and seasonal veggies (onions, peppers, plantains, potatoes), and sides of lentils and curries potatoes. YUM.
Fresh Fruit and Juice. All of it here is amazing, and super inexpensive. We don’t buy any juice from the store, we just get it fresh from the shacks. I crave it constantly. There are mango trees everywhere — 2 next door and one in our back yard. The mangoes are just beginning to ripen, and I have found a few that have fallen from the tree in the road each morning; I plan on snagging some in the next few days. The same goes for grapefruits and oranges. Charlie and I have both brought home fresh fruit that had fallen from the trees on separate occasions — it is so freaking delicious. The fruit it cheap, too. At the market on Saturday, I got a bag of 6 huge grapefruits for a measly 2 EC (74 cents). We have been eating them every morning for breakfast, and they are so delicious.
Fresh Vegetables. They are abundant here (I think they thrive with the volcanic soil and constant sun and rain), and are available in multitudes at the huge outdoor market on Saturday mornings. I went last Saturday and was told that I had to get there early (like crazy early, we’re talking 5 am). It was about all I could do to get myself out of bed around 7 and down to the market by 7:30 and there were still fruits and veggies out the wazzoo. I came home with a backpack and market bag CHOCK FULL of goodies: carrots, beets, onions, basil, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, avocado, cabbage, plantains, grapefruit, bell peppers, sugar cane juice, and eggs, all for around 40 EC (about $15). I think the stuff that goes really early must be the really good stuff like pineapples, because I didn’t see any of those, but had gotten a delicious one the week before. Needless to say, we have been eating really well and really healthily. It has been so much fun cooking with such yummy, fresh ingredients! The tomatoes here are especially tasty.
Sugar Cane Juice. A local drink, made from sugar cane. There is a sugar cane man at the shacks who sells his local juice; it’s pretty tasty.
Okay, Alright. This is a common greeting that locals use often. I think it the equivalent to saying “hi, how are you.” Okay, alright.
Umbrellas. An umbrella or a lightweight rain jacket must be carried at all times, as it rains a million times every day. We brought 2 umbrellas and one has already died. I bought a second one on my trip to Roseau, and the experience of buying the umbrella went something like this. First, I saw a sign advertising “heavy duty, windproof, golf umbrellas on sale for 24 EC.” Perfect, I thought. This is just what we (Charlie especially) needed, since our other umbrella broke, and since you walk around everywhere here, regardless of weather. A good umbrella is crucial since 75% of the time Charlie has his laptop with him in his backpack. I notice that all of the umbrellas in the stand are exactly the same, and are actually marked with price of 19 EC. I think to myself that this is funny that the sale price is actually higher than the regular price of the umbrella, but don’t think too much of it, because that sounds like typical Dominica (I had a similar experience buying a fan earlier that day). I grab the umbrella and give it a quick once over, noticing its weird faux-leather cane-like hook handle, and the Chinese writing on the bag that the big umbrella is in, but, again, don’t think too much of it, because A) Charlie really needs a big umbrella, and B) this is Dominica. I purchase the umbrella and head home. Later that day I remove the umbrella from its plastic sleeve and notice that it is made of a weird material; something in between a cheap sun parasol and an actual umbrella. I begin to doubt whether this was actually even the advertised umbrella when I open it and decide that it actually feels like rice paper and I can actually see where rain would probably drip through the umbrella during even a minor storm. I reevaluate the faux-leather handle and decide that it is actually really, really weird and probably a really terrible umbrella. Charlie gets home from studying and I give him his new, weird umbrella. He too, is skeptical, but embraces it and hopes that it will do the trick most of the time. He leaves in the rain, and takes his new umbrella with him.
When he returns hours later, he enters our apartment, brushes off his wet-self and announces with a devilish grin that his new accessory is an “Odd Job” umbrella. For those of you who, like myself, are not obsessed with James Bond, are not a man, or do not insist on watching hours upon hours of James Bond movies during Spike TV’s annual Thanksgiving and Christmas Bond movie marathons (aka “Bondathons”), let me fill you in on Odd Job with his character bio, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Oddjob acts as Goldfinger’s personal chauffeur, bodyguard and golf caddy. He wears what appears to be a bowler lined with a metal razor disk in the rim, using it as a lethal flying disc of sorts (this is a bowler hat in the novel, and as such, would have had a round top). It is very powerful, capable of decapitating a stone statue. He later uses it to kill Tilly Masterton by breaking her neck.”
Okay, now back to real life: So Charlie announces that he is the proud owner of an “Odd Job umbrella.” He opens the umbrella and shows me the cuff link button which one presses to open the umbrella. Seriously, there really is a black and silver cuff link button. At this point I am rolling on the ground laughing. Those crazy Chinese. Then he informs me that the “leather” handle pulls out, doubling as a sword and sword sheath. The umbrella is so ridiculous that it takes me a minute to realize that he is only joking about this part. So yes, that is the umbrella. I am still laughing, several days later. In fact, Charlie is out with his Odd Job umbrella as I type. So amazing.
The Bread Lady. She sells eggs and freshly backed bread in a shack in between campus and our apartment. Very convenient and delicious.
Roaming Farm Animals. These include, but are not limited to, goats, cows, and chickens. They wander freely, often stopping traffic. Roosters crow constantly, and hens and their fluffy chicks cluck around. There are at least 6 goats that I know of in a 20 foot radius from our apartment. 2 live down the hill, 2 live across the street, and 2 live up the hill. 1 cow lives across the street. The adult goats are tied up with long ropes, and the babies wander freely and awkwardly. There are favorite hangout spots around here are rock piles. The kids love to play on the rock piles. The purpose of goats is twofold: lawn mowers and once they are big enough, meat. The same goes with the cows. They are not for milk or cheese, which I think is a real bummer. I love me some goat cheese.
Laundry. Because electricity is insanely costly here, apartments rarely have a washer and dryer. You have to send your laundry out to a laundry service, and there are numerous laundry ladies in the area. Out of convenience, we take our laundry to Hannah’s which is right next door. She washes our clothes and hangs them on a clothesline to dry (old school) and returns them, smelling fresh and perfectly folded, for about 15 EC per load (~$5.50). Most apartments also have a cleaning lady (included in the price of your rent) who comes to clean 2 mornings a week. This is especially nice since mold grows like crazy with all the humidity, and all the rain makes for lots of muddy shoes, and the tile-floored apartments get really dirty really quickly. I love help keeping our floors clean and I love not having to clean our bathroom ever.
TV. We have an amazing assortment of television channels including Puerto Rican NBC, US Virgin Island ABC, CBS, FOX, CW and PBS, along with the usual cable channels like TNT, TBS, AMC (Mad Men!!!!), HGTV plus some premium channels like HBO, Cinemax, and 2 Starz channels. We also get some really bizarre local channels, a bunch of sports and news channels, and tons of wacky religious stations. The word on the street is that we all have pirated cable, because the channels go in and out often, and they are always changing to different numbered channels. Weird, but also a very awesome selection for our viewing pleasure.
Ross Spouses Organization. Also known as RSO, this is a group of all the wives, husbands, and significant others who are here, like me, to support our students spouses. This is a fun group who always have events and activities planned to keep us busy and happy. I have made some great friends already and am exciting about the fun we will have in the upcoming weeks, months, and semesters. Yay for friends!
I am adjusting well — better than most of the spouses, I think. Charlie is doing well, too. I actually love it here, minus a few frustrations every now and then. I think that life in the Bahamas helped prepare me, as I am already used to having things be different than at home, like expensive electricity and the inability to easily obtain groceries. It is beautiful here, much prettier than Freeport, and I am constantly in awe of all the natural beauty and bright colors surrounding me. Last weekend we went whale watching and saw 4 gigantic sperm whales and also traveled from end to end of the island. Our apartment building is unfinished, and there are stairs leading to the roof which provide an incredible aerial view of the area — I have been drawing up there, and tonight, I surprised Charlie with a rooftop birthday dinner at sunset. He loved it, and minus all the studying he has been doing all day, said it was the perfect birthday. Now, I’m off to enjoy my fabulous selection of TV shows: specifically, Modern Family. Okay, alright!