The young Indian girl reached through the car window and grabbed my hand, holding it tightly between both of hers.
"Please," she implored.
I was in Dominica, a tiny East Indian island of only 85,000 people that boasts -- or despairs -- of being the only major island nation in the Caribbean without beaches. The same magnificent rocky, volcanic coastline that daunts tourists today had kept away European conquerors for centuries and, as a result, Dominica today has a small population of about 1,000 native Carib Indians, the only pocket of indigenous Caribbeans left in the world.
The girl's face was brown and flat like the Indians of Southwest America. We had stopped at a small shack along the road that sold beer and cigarettes and she had come out to the car where I was waiting for my companion, a British computer salesman I'd met in the capital, Roseau.
She opened the car door and I followed her to the shack, which was leaning leeward somewhat, possibly because of the tropical storm we had had the night before.
The storm had been so fierce that I had gotten out of bed and sleepily curled up between the bed and the wall in case the raging winds shattered the window.
The same storm had devastated the Indians' banana crops, flinging stalks like the proverbial matchsticks along the sides of hills and across the road.
Once settled in the shack, the British computer salesman and I drank Dominica's sweet light rum from dirty glasses with the girl's father, who smoked much and spoke little. She disappeared and came back later, crying, with the stiff body of a lizard clutched in one hand.
"My lizard is dead," she wailed, this passionate child.
I found a discarded cardboard tube of a toilet paper roll and made a little coffin that was not quite long enough on account of the tail and we walked back a ways behind the shack and dug a hole in the soft loamy earth, between thick roots. She held my hand again.
Getting to Dominica is a bit of a chore. I flew British West Indies Airways to Antigua, spent the night, and caught a Liat flight in the morning. Liat is a trip in itself. Taking the East Indian airline is more like taking a minibus than a plane. As they approach any of the number of small islands they service, the pilots will call out and ask the passengers if anyone wants to stop. Then they radio down to the airport to find out if any passengers are waiting. If not, they skip the island and fly on to the next.
From the air, Dominica looks like the top of a mountain sticking out of an expanse of water, a perfect place for Noah to land his ark. I was staring at sheer walls of green-covered volcanic rock and the next thing I knew we were landing. I was on the wrong side of the plane to see the narrow strip between the rock and the ocean.
Old-timers, who are incidentally not all that old, say planes landing inDominica's Canefield Airport used to have to jam on the brakes and come to a harrowing stop, but they have added on to the runway now and built a small, glass airport terminal that was very busy the morning I landed because Prime Minister Vere Byrd of Antigua was arriving in another plane for a state visit.
Dominica's Prime Minister Mary Eugenia Charles had come out to the airport to greet him, wearing a powder blue suit and white sandals. Charles, one of only a handful of female prime ministers in the world, has run Dominica for most of its 10 years of independence and she makes Margaret Thatcher look like a softy.
"Women make better politicians than men," she said to me when I spoke with her a few days later. "Men always have little affairs on the side to take their minds off work."
For a tiny island, Dominica has a fascinating history. It passed from the Spanish to the French to the English with amazing regularity, possibly because its inhospitable coastline made it both difficult to attack and defend. For decades the island would lie peacefully until some new king claimed it, and eventually forgot about it. Which is why the Caribs were able to survive while the Indians on the other islands perished.
Eventually the English dominated the island, but France left behind a notable cuisine and a heavily French patois.
Dominica became independent from Britain in 1978 and less than a year later was sacked by Hurricane David, which hit without warning and cut the island off from the rest of the world for three days.
Charles took over in 1980 and has been beset by the most bizarre coup attempts.
In her first month in office, a group of Dominica defense force soldiers stormed the government office building in Roseau at lunchtime, when Charles was as usual working away while everyone else had left to get something to eat. Fortunately for her, they stormed past her unassuming office on a lower floor and she telephoned police.
The following year, a group of Ku Klux Klan members was arrested in Louisiana loading beer and automatic weapons in a pleasure boat. They had planned to invade Dominica, overthrow Charles and put her arch-rival Patrick Roland John in power. John had been caught a few months earlier attempting to buy drums of acid in Martinique.
"Acid. What was he planning to do with acid?" I asked Charles during our interview.
She shrugged, unconcerned.
"Some little scheme, I imagine."
Dominica's minister of tourism is a lovely lady who winces whenever anyone mentions Dominica's lack of beaches and who can tell you at any given time how many tourists are on the island. There were 70 the week I was there. But Dominica is trying to lure more visitors. With grants from the European Community, it paved its small network of roads and built paths to its spectacular waterfalls. Some cruise ships now anchor at the northern end of the island and take boats to a narrow strip of volcanic sand where they have parties by firelight, but there is only one dock in Roseau and it is needed by the banana boats.
Other islands promote their beaches; Dominica concentrates on its interior, a beautiful, pristine rain forest full of waterfalls, streams, lush vegetation and chattering birds.
Roseau admittedly has few points of interest, but it's small and pleasant and the people are friendlier than those of most islands.
A young woman who worked for my company -- and had been a runner-up in the previous year's Miss Dominica contest -- took me around the town one evening. Massive trees lay uprooted in the botanical gardens and some buildings downtown, damaged by hurricanes, were jagged, empty shells of stone.
We went to one of the city's numerous radio stations, in a house by the side of the choppy sea, to listen to zouk, the French version of soca, which is the lively soul-calypso music that has replaced reggae as the islands' best.
Another musician, elderly and interested in classical, later invited us into his home as we were walking back downtown. He showed off his amazing array of violins and cats, the former hung on the walls and the later underfoot. He told many stories that probably would have been very amusing if I could have better understood his patois.
We ended up that evening at a rowdy soccer game at a downtown stadium that had to be halted as the sun set and goats took the field.
The food in Dominica is among the best on the islands. I ate grilled lobster every night and what was called "ground provisions" -- roasted breadfruit, creamy avocados, fried plantains, buttery yams and rich green calalu.
The downtown hotel where I stayed had a combined bar and restaurant where everyone gathered in the evenings and where I met the British computer salesman who was, like me, interested in seeing the rest of the island.
We rented a brand-new Honda Accord and first drove out to Trafalgar Falls, only about five miles from the capital, where two waterfalls tumble into pools among leafy breadfruit trees and ferns. The roads were waterlogged from the storm; we passed several people on the road who were on their way to check on relatives up in the hills.
Small boys pointed us to a power plant, where we parked the car and hiked up a beaten path to the falls. I kept stopping along the way to gather food -- huge avocados, breadfruit, mangos and naseberries. When I brought my haul back to the cook at the hotel she looked puzzled, as if I'd brought seashells to a fisherman in the Seychelles.
We wended our way back to town and then set out to cross the island. I had a map in my lap but my sense of scale was out of whack because the island was so small. After an hour or so of driving, I determined on the map that we were about half way across the island, only to look up and see water. We had already crossed.
We drove down the east coast, past the ruined banana fields, stopping occasionally to offer sympathy to the Carib Indians who were attempting to salvage what they could of their crops.
At one shop where we stopped, a man offered me some battered bananas but would not accept any money or speak a word. I sat on the steps and offered them in turn to some children, who shook their heads. They too refused to speak.
The rains came again, so heavy it was like being doused with a bucket of warm water. But the sun followed quickly and we found a narrow strip of beach overlooking a few volcanic cones that rose up from the water offshore. The sand, which spilled between the roots and trunks of immense palm trees, was soft and damp from the rain.
We plunged back into the interior, stopping the car a few times to hike the new, well-marked paths to more waterfalls, each pristine, clear and devoid of humans. The road followed a river into a valley, protected from the storm, where banana plants stood tall and defiant. We stopped once more and a man with a machete motioned me to follow him. It is perhaps unwise to follow a half-naked man with a machete into a grove of trees, but he only wanted to chop off a breadfruit for me. It was roughly the size of my head and I held it gingerly on my lap on the way back to the hotel.
The cook sighed when she saw it. Night had come by then and she was in the bar watching Cable News Network on the television. The tropical storm that had raked Dominica had turned into Hurricane Gilbert and was heading for Jamaica, where I had my home at the time.
"Take it back with you to Jamaica," the cook told me. "For you will not have any breadfruit after the hurricane."
I laughed at the notion of carrying a breadfruit the size of my head all the way back to Jamaica.
But she was right. We didn't have breadfruit or bananas or mangos in Jamaica for months after Gilbert, and I often thought of that delicious, heavy fruit I'd so carelessly left on the bar.
Gayle Young is a writer living in Cairo. WAYS & MEANS
There are no direct flights to Dominica from the United States. The island does not have a jet airport, and is accessible only by connecting flights from other islands -- including Antigua, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique, San Juan, St. Lucia and St. Martin. Pan Am is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $583 from Washington via St. Martin on LIAT.
WHERE TO STAY:
The island has no large luxury hotels, but there is a wide variety of informal accommodations available, most of them in the mountains. Among them:
Anchorage Hotel, less than a mile from Roseau, the capital. Winter rates are from $50 double per day.
Castaways, on the beach 11 miles north of Roseau. Winter rates are $70 single, $90 double.
Springfield Plantation, about an hour's drive from the capital. Rooms range from $65 single to $95 double. Cottages and apartments are also available.
GETTING AROUND: Those who are intimidated by the island's narrow, winding roads may want to hire a car and driver instead of renting a vehicle. Driving is on the left. Taxis are available. INFORMATION: Caribbean Tourist Association, 20 E. 46th St., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-682-0435.