Healing on the Nature Island*

*This article was originally published in Canadians Resident Abroad, Winter 2002, and has since been slightly modified:

It was a frigid night in January of 1997. Howling winds. Snow drifts gathering on an already icy central Ontario, Canada highway. I cautiously crawled along the deserted road in my old Toyota. It was -20 C, and getting colder. I huddled into my long lambs’- wool coat and promised myself: “No more of this!”

I had been ill for a long time. Heavy metal poisoning, severe multiple chemical sensitivities and persistent allergies had taken their toll on my productivity and my personal life. Unpolluted indoor and outdoor environments were critical for my improved well-being. I had not had any luck in the parts of Canada where I had lived during the past several years. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Around that time, I decided to go on a fact-finding mission in the Caribbean. I had noticed that in previous years, a southern vacation had always bolstered my health. I had attributed that brief improvement to being in the holiday state of mind. However, with years of medical treatments and my own personal research behind me, I knew that those lovely islands had many of the basic ingredients for potentially restoring my health: clean air, clean food, clean water, fresh breezes and few airtight buildings.

It was by chance that I noticed a short note in the Queen’s Alumni Review from a Canadian couple who had uprooted and relocated to the Caribbean. Calgary, Albertans Sue Toy and Dennis Ference had actually built a house on the tiny Grenadine island of Bequia (“beck-way”), a short plane ride from Barbados. I made contact, explaining my quest, and they promptly provided me with information and an invitation to visit them if I should come their way.

My decision to proceed to Bequia was made very quickly. I was curious and intrigued that other Canadians had made the leap, and were carving out a new life for themselves in a foreign land.

I had been carefully scrutinizing information about other islands. All of the travel guides promoted Dominica (“dom-in-EE-ka”) as a place that appealed to nature lovers and adventure travellers. This English-speaking island is located between the French West Indian islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. It offered neither 5-star hotels, nor long stretches of white-sand beach. Instead it boasted of a magnificent rainforest and other natural wonders as the self-proclaimed “Nature Island of the Caribbean.” These appealing descriptions certainly caught my attention.

When I called to book a room, the staff member at Dominica’s Springfield Plantation Guest House (now a research centre) assured me that they would accommodate my special needs upon my arrival from Bequia. They even offered natural foods and pure spring water. It sounded like just the right ticket and I was very excited.

After a full day of travel from Toronto, I jet-hopped from Barbados to St. Vincent and then to Bequia. The soft warm breezes, colourful scenery and fragrant flowers took the edge off of my permanent chill and sharpened my senses after the dull, dreary Canadian winter.

When I met up with Sue Toy and Dennis Ference, their extension of Canadian/Caribbean hospitality could not have been finer. Their beautiful home, set on a hill overlooking the harbour was aptly christened “The View,” with its stunning sunsets over the sea. They graciously entertained me with a huge meal of local dishes, which included stuffed Mahi-Mahi (fish), christophenes in coconut milk, brown rice, green salad and fresh fruit salad for dessert! (Sue is a gourmet cook.) They gave me a sense of island life and many examples of the differences between Canadian and West Indian cultures. Dennis stressed that it is very important to have a lot of patience and a tremendous sense of humour when living in a developing country.

Tiny Bequia was very lovely – quaint beaches, intimate cafés, and beautiful sailboats in the harbour. But somehow I didn’t feel as well as I thought I would there. A nearby garbage dump burned its refuse. The smoke occasionally drifted over the town. Also, drinking water had to be boiled because it was held
in cisterns. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and did return last year to renew acquaintances with my first expat Canadian friends.

I then travelled on to Dominica. The journey on the small turbo-prop aircraft was a harrowing one. Jet fuel fumes and on-board spraying of insecticides had me almost incapacitated by the time I reached St. Lucia, my in-transit destination. When I boarded the plane for Dominica two hours later, I could not have cared less about anything because I was feeling so ill. After an hour or so and a bumpy landing, I was at Canefield Airport in Dominica. I stumbled off the plane, doubled over with pain and unrelenting nausea. I was not sure if I could make it to the terminal without assistance.

The Springfield complex is nestled in the edge of the rainforest.

Amazingly, I took a few breaths of fresh air and I immediately began to feel better. In the taxi en route to Springfield, which is 1,200 feet above sea level, I gazed with awe and fascination at the lush green beauty all around me, and the stunning views of the northwest coast as we climbed higher and higher. It seemed incredible. I was very tired, but hardly felt ill at all by the time I pulled into Springfield.

There, the very caring and concerned manager greeted me. She appreciated my special needs and went to great lengths to ensure my every comfort. We removed an area rug from the room and she had the maid remake the bed with my own sheets, which I had brought from Canada. The charming space was laden with antique furniture and offered a spectacular view of the Antrim Valley right down to the Caribbean Sea. My room was set farthest away from the kitchen, the road and the parking area. Therefore, I could not be exposed to any type of fumes.

View of the Caribbean Sea and the Antrim Valley from Springfield

I was delighted with the home-cooked meals, full of fresh local fare. The tranquility of this “heaven on earth” captivated me. I was content to sit for hours on the veranda and gaze down the valley towards the sea. Doves cooed, crickets chirped, huge frogs, called “mountain chickens,” called to each other in the night. Sometimes the evening din of the insects in the forest was deafening. But I didn’t mind one bit. This pristine setting, also a wildlife preserve, had a soothing effect on me. The rushing river nearby was a refreshing place in which to dip in the late afternoons. Walking trails behind the guesthouse provided plenty of opportunities to stretch my legs and quietly contemplate my next move.

Apart from making myself at home at Springfield, I did take an island tour, a hike to magnificent Middleham Falls, and a tour of Roseau, the capital. I was also impressed with the warm, friendly people I encountered everywhere, who were very willing to provide directions and offer advice about living in their country.

When I returned to Canada after this brief visit, I was sold on Dominica. However, I wished to proceed cautiously as it would be a major step to move overseas. After a few lengthier stays, I decided that a migration to Dominica would be in my best interest, health-wise.

Almost five years later (15 as of 2012!), I am still on the Nature Island.

Of course, being a resident is not the same as being a tourist. There have been many challenges and I have learned personal lessons here that did not present themselves in Canada. I am very grateful for this opportunity to live in another culture.

Gwendominica returned to Springfield to attend a wedding reception in 2001.

Although I no longer reside at Springfield, I return there whenever possible and continue to be enraptured with its natural splendour. I am fortunate to be able to rent a modest home south of Roseau in a clean quiet area. I have a spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea and the nearby mountains. My recovery has been slow, with some setbacks. However, I firmly believe that had I continued to live in Canada, I would not have made any progress at all.

In the summertime, I have been able to return to my homeland for follow-up medical treatments. It is always nice to reunite with family and friends and to enjoy the diverse cultural and culinary offerings in the Greater Toronto Area. But by the time late August rolls around, I am usually feeling much worse. The excessive pollution levels have taken their toll. Then I know it is time to return to my beautiful adopted country. As the plane descends into Dominica’s Melville Hall Airport, I remind myself that I am truly blessed to live on the healing Nature Island.