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Traveler's Journal: Dominica

What's Jumpin' in the Jungle? : In search of an elusive, hopping Fountain of Youth

April 21, 1996|DAVID WALLIS | Wallis is a New York-based freelance writer

ROSEAU, Dominica — Dominica's postal workers are angry. They spend countless hours redirecting much of the mail delivered to this tiny Caribbean island because senders intend another destination: the Dominican Republic, which lies 500 miles due north.

It's an ongoing problem, I learn, as I explore this island republic in the West Indies. To describe Dominica as undiscovered might be the great British understatement, but in many ways Dominica is the great British understatement. The mountainous terrain, dense jungle and fiercely independent people frustrated British attempts to subjugate the country. It was also a French colony and retains French influences; many of the locals speak Creole. But Dominica, a part of the Windward Islands archipelago that includes French-owned Martinique, became independent in 1978.

I had unmistakably found the right island to escape ringing telephones and impending deadlines. With no casinos and few beaches, Dominica doesn't draw hordes of camera-waving tourists on package tours. Instead the island woos visitors seeking long hikes to emerald-green mountain lakes and challenging dives around a well-preserved coral reef that surrounds much of the island.

Nor was it lacking in adventure when I visited two years ago, with the adventure beginning at the Hummingbird, a little inn located outside Dominica's capital, Roseau. Except for a reclusive Belgian couple, I was the sole guest and the doting innkeeper, Jeanne Finucane, instantly became my mother. She wore flowery frocks, smiled warmly and at breakfast, served up warm bread, homemade star fruit jam and unending tales of Dominica's wonders. One yarn in particular grabbed my attention. Jeanne told of the Dominican's reverence for mountain chicken, known to scientists as Leptodactylus fallax, to Creole-speaking locals as crapaud and to the untrained eye as an exceptionally big frog, since it can grow to a foot in length.

According to Jeanne, those who taste Mountain Chicken, which resides in Dominica's myriad rivers and forests, will live longer and feel stronger.

I asked her for a taste, but she explained that many hunters eat their catch rather than sell to the market, and that she hadn't seen a crapaud in months. On the rare occasion that they do appear, each frog costs $3--quite a sum for the Dominicans whose average wage hovers around $8 a day, according to the country's department of tourism.

My interest piqued, I recalled one of the primary rules of journalism: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out first." So I decided to confirm Jeanne's story with the island's former prime minister, Eugenia Charles, who, I was told, is a huge fan of the nocturnal frog. "Eating crapaud gives you strength. My father loved it, and he lived to 107," she said, adding, "Be careful how you hold them, though, because they will pee in your eye. It's a defense mechanism."

Even blasts of frog urine would not deter me. I decided to dash off into the bush to find the hopping fountain of youth. Realizing the necessity of making a safe exit from the jungle at some point, I hired a licensed guide, George Nanton.

We drove two hours along the coast road to the seaport town of Portsmouth to meet George. His house, more of a wooden shack, was on a dark dirt road. George, clad in camouflage attire and wader boots, introduced his hunting partner--a man referred to simply as "Rambo."

The pair were a study in contrasts: George, a construction worker by day, was 27, solid muscle, bearded and silent; Rambo was lithe, perhaps 18, and laughed often at jokes only he could hear.

We jumped into my rented Jeep, switched into four-wheel-drive and lurched up a crude mountain track. Twenty minutes later the Jeep bounced to a stop at the first hunting ground--a small clearing in a cinnamon tree forest. George had brought his pump-action shotgun, which seemed like a lot of firepower to stop even a very large frog. But he cleared up the confusion as he pointed to the gun's blood-stained handle. "This was last night's wild boar. You never know what you're going to find out here."

Bon chance, Rambo uttered in thickly accented Creole. George said that tradition dictated a return salutation to ensure a successful hunt. So I uttered, Bon chance, (French for good luck) to my compatriots and wondered if Hemingway had ever chased frogs.

We scurried through the thick verdant brush. Rambo imitated what he said was the frog's high-pitched mating call, while George aimed a flashlight off into the leaves.

After an hour, our take was two grapefruits and a bunch of bananas.

George seemed perplexed: "Should have had frogs by now," he said. "They sing before and after the rain." But regardless of the recent storm, the frogs were silent on this night.

We'd been in the jungle for three hours with no luck. I considered returning to the Jeep empty-handed, but George was irked. Visitors are scarce and he had promised results and wanted to deliver.

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