Stepping off the local publico at the crossroads, it didn''t surprise me none of the other motoconcho operators even bothered from under the shade tree. Reynaldo, my new trusted driver, was already kick-starting his Yamaha for where ever we were off for today.
My intentions were to wait on the next passing gua-gua for the 35+ km ride to Higuey; still too many painful reminders of motorcycle tragedy on the open road. Reynaldo was also familiar with our loss and my skepticisms about riding anywhere that wasn''t short distance, but began with despacio / slowly, suave / smooth and a barrage of other assuring adjectives that had me throwing caution to the wind and climbing on behind him without second thought.
Heading east on Highway 3 from the intersection, you quickly come to the hamlet/village of Benarrito that you''d never find on any map. This "wide spot in the road" has always intrigued me the way it appears inhabitants gather roadside every day to watch life pass them by. To insure you get a good look at them, three speed bumps have been placed to slow traffic. People called out and waved; Reynaldo again reminding me this is where he lives now.
Within moments of passing through, you literally take to the open road with fields of grazing cattle to the right, and this region''s signature trademark to the left. The southeast is sugar country where cane fields sprawl as far as the eyes can see appearing to grow right up to the base of the distant Oriental mountain range all but lost in the morning haze. An occassional dirt road heads off the highway; some with individuals waiting for transportation pick-up. Conversation continued and our solidarity was all but dwarfed in the countryside expanse.
I''d unstrapped my backpack fidgeting for my camera when Reynaldo reached around to grab my hand and place it on his hip...all but slowing to a stop for navigating the brief stretch of broken-up pavement. Todo bien / Everything good he asked with the all but protective fuss I repeatedly find from locals. He didn''t resume full speed until I''d convinced him otherwise.
I began noticing more billboards detracting from the natural scenary; advertisements for resorts or 2004''s Presedential elections. Reynaldo started to share his hopes for a new leader when suddenly pulling off the road at the Boca de Yuma turn-off. Another young man was checking his motorcycle with what turned out to be a flat. Reynaldo unlatched a concealed bomba / air pump and tire kit immediately starting to work. When preparing to leave, I asked if the kid was a friend or someone he knew? He shook his head no.
Once Highway 3 makes the L-shaped curve at the Boca de Yuma intersection becoming Highway 4, I''d noticed the difference countless times passing in the gua-gua, but experiencing this open-air, helmetless on back of a motorcyle with unobstructed views was exhillerating. Here, sugarcane is grown on both sides of the road; some places right up to the shoulder. Tall slender chutes all but engulf anything passing through. I pulled a couple of successive deep breaths as if to smell the sweetness. Fresh air was all I got...and another check from Reynaldo to make sure everything was ok.
Along this stretch of highway, there are no roads but only wide tracks cut into the cane fields that are swallowed into the horizon. Some where back there are the bateys; shack villages where Haitian cane cutters live in squalor. Reynaldo looked rather shocked when asking if we could venture down one of these mystery pathes for exploring. He promised some other time. I pledged to hold him to it.
I asked Reynaldo if he''d like something to eat or drink as we neared the railroad tracks which has a small cluster of shacks and stands; Grand Central for this area. He began slowing; pulling off the road without even answering. Before he''d even killed the engine, I could hear Merengue blasting as if the party had already started...9:45 in the morning!
We entered the open-air eatery which doubles as a disco, had the traditional booster shot of Mama Juana, and sat down at one of the plastic patio tables with chairs. Even for a veteran, Reynaldo was somewhat amused at not being able to hear over the deafening music. Feisty hens were challenging the mangy cat for pieces of pastelies we were tossing to the ground. Another gua-gua stopped to pick-up passengers...as if time mattered at this point.
Finishing our pineapple juices and preparing to leave, I decided to step around the corner to see what was source of the rancid smell coming from the creek. Off in the distance were a trio butchering a lot of somethings; the stench coming from whatever was smoldering in the huge kettle. Reynaldo''s gotten to know me all too well and indicated we needed to go before I could proceed any further or pull out the camera. Perhaps to appease my loss, he snatched a couple of bananas off the stalk hanging outside the make-shift colmado and handed the lady 5 pesos. I asked, "Who''s the monkey now"? He laughed though I figured he''d never heard of Curious George.
Crossing the railroad tracks signals the final 15 or so kilometers to Higuey. Along one short stretch, there''s rows of trees which create a canopy tunnel to pass under . Sudden shade called attention to absence of morning sun - something not even considered with the constant liberating breeze riding on a motorcycle. A large farm truck slowly passed with sideboards rising 6-feet high; a young boy sitting atop a mountain of green plantains and smiling...just like everyone in the DR.
The sparse early morning traffic was beginning to pick-up, but by then I was totally at ease within Reynaldo''s care and the questionable commute he''d coaxed me into - even with all the crosses and make-shift memorials we''d passed along the way signifying others not so fortunate. Nearing the city, fields give way to more homes/business...including a couple of roadside motels I''m told are for actividades extraordinario! At least they were in proximity to a premier hot spot for the southeast.
It would take a blind deaf person to miss the gargantuous pagoda-shaped, thatched-palm roof rising above the open-air dancehall that easily accommodates the multitudes. The vast parking lot was empty but the readily heard music was Toño Rosario; a Merengue King that make-shift signs advertised would be performing there Saturday. Reynaldo asked if I wanted to go. Reminding him I had no car; he reasoned we shouldn''t come this far by cycle after dark. Barely out of hearing range, I impulsively broke into the infectious chorus that had been playing. Reynaldo just shook his head; reluctant to chime in.
Except for a serene green field full of goats further accented by unfortunate comrades'' carcasses hanging roadside for sale, entering Higuey''s outskirts are much like any other global town. New businesses, such as car dealerships, gas plazas...even somewhat of a strip mall line the road, but with an unrefined appearance registering you''re in the DR. It''s also hard to miss the thriving garage businesses which keep scores of motorcycles running; an assortment of cyclists in various stages of tinkering amid a blackened grease-pit appearance with accompanying whiff of related grime.
Reynaldo felt me tensing up and squirming entering into the bustle of Higuey''s main thoroughfare. Tranquillo papi he assured while scooting back on the seat for steadiness of contact. Once confirming which regional government branch I was needing, he broke into Tour Guide pointing out things. His efforts to calm, distract me did nothing to divert his attention from the snarls of cycles, cars, trucks he''s used to navigating through. Arriving and stepping off with somewhat wobbly legs, Reynaldo felt need to convince me he''d be right there waiting when I returned.
The whole process was typical when dealing with any faction of bureaucratic government - taking longer than it should, and I got turned around within the unfamiliar facility. Exiting from the other end, I wasn''t even to the curb yet when other motoconchos waiting for random pick-up came racing towards me. Before I could even begin to explain, Reynaldo swept in amid them and reached out to assist me on behind him. Todo bien he asked, and the camaraderie with daily life in the DR resumed along the open road home.
About Reynaldo, until this trip, he was only a kid I recognized growing up over the years from the nearby village of El Padre Nuestro. Since my last visit, his mother had died leaving him to support his younger siblings. If available for hire, he can regularly be found at the Highway 815 turn-off for Bayahibe/Highway 3 intersection. You''ll recognize him by the red St. Louis baseball cap he''s always wearing. He speaks only Spanish.