I had traveled to Dominica for the jungle, for the verdant cloak of bromeliads and fern trees that overlays this volcanic island in the Eastern Caribbean. But life just outside the forest, I would quickly discover, was as intriguing as inside.
As we drove, my focus kept shifting from the incredible flora to the strips of asphalt spilling down the coast, twisting at improbable angles on descents. Locals walked the streets carrying umbrellas in one hand (to fight the inexorable rains) and machetes in the other (to trim the unyielding forest).
My driver swerved to avoid a creature. It wasn't one of the many dogs sunning on the tarmac, but something from the sky: a broad-winged hawk that had lost its prey to the canopy.
We stopped at Kalinago Barana Aute, the Kalinago cultural center, the last remaining reservation belonging to the native people of the Lesser Antilles (known as Caribs on other islands). Established to preserve culture and provide economic opportunities to the Kalinagos, the center offers visitors tours and even home stays.
As our jungle excursion began, I thought I was being shown a magnificent eco-kitchen. "This is where you can find lemongrass," the Kalinago guide said, pointing to vegetation behind banana trees. Every few feet was another spice or herb or dangling fruit.
Eventually, we reached an actual kitchen, where Passing Cloud - a Kalinago man nicknamed for his movements around the island - floated between two stations. Beneath one open shelter, he shredded cassava and other roots into a bucket, as if making spackle. He then took the concoction to a second hut and formed patties, laying them out on a concave grill and protecting the mixture with strips of heliconia leaf. The result was cassava bread.
We walked past tree fern roots carved out to represent past Kalinago chiefs, their stretched faces recalling Modigliani. My guide offered stories about warrior initiations, which involved bow and arrow skills and packing facial lacerations with spices. "If they flinched," she explained, "they could not become warriors." She also recited rules for neutralizing bad omens: Bathe with herbs on prescribed days at the intersection of river and ocean, bury said herbs, then walk home without glancing back or engaging in conversation. Complete these steps, and then the only risk is to have one's buried herbs discovered.
Back on the road, driving south, we caught glimpses of turquoise seas through gaps in the palms, and squat homes with corrugated roofs. Remnants of the island's recent elections dangled overhead, though the red flags and shoes abandoned on wires spoke only briefly of victory before the green of Dominica swallowed them.
Not long after exiting the reservation, I found the Islet View Restaurant. The smoked chicken covered in callaloo - the nation's flavorful soup - and the views of the village below would have been enough of a draw. But Islet View also had 50 different rum bottles infused with herbs, spices, or produce, set on shelves behind the bar. Like the flags and shoes from the road, some of the rums were imbued with political messages. I tried to choose between the Chavez or Obama Special (without letting patriotic obligations sway me).
While rums for complex men had intricate recipes - the Man Better Man was a concocted mouthful - it was the simple and illogical rums that were most impressive. Garlic-infused rum was like a wonderful pasta sauce that somehow doubled as an elixir.
I asked Rudy, the owner responsible for the flavors, to recommend his favorite. "I don't drink," he said. "But my favorite would be the Obama Special." The ingredients included the heliconia's long leaf; maze mawe, or the "sensitive plant" that curls like a pill bug when touched; and bois bande bark. The teetotaler explained that men loved this presidential offering, as two of its three ingredients were a cocktail for virility.
Over next few days, I continued driving along the Caribbean, stopping when the scent of barbecued chicken from roadside grills wafted into the car; halting to snap bay leaves from trees, finally understanding the incomparable pungency of a leaf that had come desiccated in jars and appeared futile in sauces; pausing when faded, pastel villages such as Fort Saint Jean presented scenes that were incongruous with Dominica's lushness; braking to hike to another waterfall, each more beautiful than the last.
On my final day on the island, I set off on the most challenging of Dominica's day treks, the Boiling Lake Trail. (Dominica also has the 115-mile Waitukubuli Trail, the longest in the Caribbean.) The Boiling Lake Trail began through a forest of large-buttressed chatannye (Sloanea caribaea) and massive gommiers (Dacryodes hexandra), the latter of which had been used by Kalinagos to build boats big enough for 50 people.
The trail offered spice-rack flavors, and my guide, dubbed the Bushman, foraged cinnamon bark and green-apple-tasting leaves that offered a common-cold remedy.
"What time is it?" shouted the Bushman, after he Tarzan-roped himself onto the trail. "It's hiking time."
I leapt rivers and ascended mountains with panoramic views of the green peaks, of nearby villages and the capital city, Roseau. The mountains were misty from the boiling fumaroles below. I descended the muddy trail and the iron-tinged rock face into the Valley of Desolation.
There, my guide painted our faces with clay that had gone gray from carbon and sulphur mixed in the molten gurgle. The waters percolated, and the Bushman placed two eggs in a bag, holding them in place over a 100-degree puddle with his hiking stick. Ten minutes later, we ate the eggs and continued downstream, where cool mountain water mixed with lava-heated pools. A natural hot tub had formed beneath a waterfall and had the paradoxical ability to look like an oasis in a paradise.
Thirty minutes later, we reached the Boiling Lake. The steam from the cauldron was at first impenetrable. When it lifted, the gray waters, touched with turquoise, bubbled in the middle. The Bushman, who had been singing on the hike, mashing up non-classics like "Let's Get Physical" with "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," had grown quiet, conceding to the mystical qualities of the lake.