Me: “Oh, you’re from [place x]? Do you know [person y]?”
A Local Dominican: “[Person y]? Yeah, he’s my cousin.”
One month has passed since I arrived in Dominica, and I still can’t over how easy it is to have the above exchange with nearly every person I meet on this small island nation in the Eastern Caribbean. Dominica’s small size, both geographically and with regards to population, allow for this where-everybody-knows-your-name phenomenon. The island is less than 30 miles long (about the distance from the tip of the San Francisco peninsula to Half Moon Bay, CA) and 18 miles wide (roughly Land’s End to Alameda in keeping with the Bay Area comparison). No matter where you are in the country, when people say that they are going to “Town,” everyone knows to where they are referring. “Town” is synonymous with Roseau, the capital. For my first month here, I had to commute from my community in the northeast to Roseau in southeast nearly everyday. The ride takes over 2 hours each way–a long time when you’re squeezed with 16 other people in a minibus, but short considering I was completing a transnational crossing. The population of Dominica is under 72,000 (less than the population of Alameda), but when talking to people who are from here, it seems even less.
And talking to people is obligatory. In the States, “knowing everybody’s business” has negative connotations. In Dominica, it’s just the way things are. The expression “small world” doesn’t seem to be uttered very often in Dominica. Mutual friendships and relatives are ubiquitous. People watch each other, talk to each other, look out for one another, and help each other. I had known that American culture values independence and self-reliance before I came to Dominica, but I didn’t know what that really meant until I lived in a culture where that is not the case.
Something I feel that illustrates this aspect of Dominican culture is the function of buses in Dominica. On every bus ride, the driver will stop in an unpredictable location (which may or may not be on its “regular” route) to pick-up or drop-off something (fresh bread, documents, an mp3 player, fruit, ect). Sometimes the stop is so that the driver can get something he needs. Other times, a passenger requests it. When stopping at a bakery, the entire bus makes use of the opportunity to place their orders and give their money to one person who gets out. What I find the most remarkable is when neither party is a passenger on the bus. For instance, someone on the road in one community will give something to the driver to give to someone else miles away, who will be standing on the road waiting for the right bus delivering their item. The exchange of goods that takes place through bus windows is truly impressive.
As an American living in a small community in Dominica, I have been having an awesome experience beginning to integrate here. It is sometimes intimidating realizing that everyone in my community knows my name, where I live, with whom I live, and basically every single thing I do or say. However, meeting people is as easy as stepping outside my front porch. Walking around my village for 10 minutes, I could meet over a dozen community members without even trying. The hardest part is remembering names, but this too, like everything else, gets easier over time.
And Time in Dominica is never in short supply.