Entering Higuey''s open-air terminal for gua-guas heading east, the porter immediately looked at me and called out Bavaro? Indication had him feverishly motioning to the bus ready to depart - an older, un-air-conditioned model already crammed to the hilt. Untimely arrival sentenced me to the storage bench in front dividing the passenger section from the driver and three others crammed in front with him.
Nursing a small hangover, I wasn''t looking forward to the one+-hour ride wedged with four others knock-kneed against the front row of passengers, or the nauseating affect of riding while facing in the opposite direction. So here I was - up front and center stage looking back at the bus full of people...well aware of the two-way view further spotlighting the only foreigner on board.
The guy sitting to my left was futily trying to juggle oversized bundles of rolled-up hammocks and after about the third crack on my elbow, he exclaimed Entschuldigen Zee. I wasn''t sure who he was talking to until he offered another ''excuse me'' in Italian. Speaking Spanish, I told him I was American - as if giving some kind of relief to speak English.
The young man was Haitian working as a beach vendor along Bavaro''s coast. I played into feeding his curiosities as to who I was, what my intentions were for spending a couple of days in the area; an omen I should''ve been more receptive to. What began was a long list of reasons to consider changing my plans, or at least being highly guarded. Apparently, my preferred mode of wandering about would target me for anything but the Dominican hospitality I''d came to expect.
He began detailing various incidents of being grossly taken advantage of, over-charged, assaulted, abandoned...I''m squirming hoping no one within hearing range understood enough English to think I was in agreement. Apparently, he was reading my mind - that his mishaps were just because of Dominicans'' contempt for Haitians. He assured I would have to be even more careful because I was a tourist with lots of money - not just some poor beach vendor.
By now the gua-gua had turned off highway 106 to head north along the Bavaro strip; my entire cramped and suffocated body numb except for the pounding head. Views out the windows were of nothing but dusty, barren fields with scrub brush and exposed karst. I''d all but tuned out the continued warnings and was quite relieved when he and others exited at the first stop - silence more welcomed than additional space.
Every so often, we''d pass another grandiose gated entryway leading off into more forsaken land; a fabled guarded resort some where back there. After a couple more curves and all but in the blink of an eye, the gua-gua was dwarfed by fields full of coconut palms naturally growing as they had for centuries. I''ve an infatuative weakness for palm trees and the soothing affect recharged my battery for the adventure I was about to embark on. Beside, I wasn''t any tourist; those things only happen to those that are.
Tell-Tale Legacies of a Tourist
Like some trapped animal trying to escape the jackals, my pace heightened along the cage wall of tourist shops and restaurants lining El Cortecito''s main street. Glimpses of marine-colored waters beyond suggested retreat once I found a pathway actually leading to the beach. Unfortunately, more relentless environment was all that was waiting.
I made a bee-line for the waters'' break trying to put distance between myself and vendors only to find more vulnerability from those offering pricey water activities/excursions. The brewing high-stress mode all but went over edge when hearing a scream - one of the latest going home with a souvenir belly button ring. I surveyed several thriving open-air tattoo/piercing stations in the sand. To think tourists make such a big deal about food/water poisonings, but would risk these potentially unsterile practices?
Armed guards were positioned at both ends where El Cortecito''s beach joins resort boundaries. I had to breakout and would risk mounting attitude to get passed any approach or questioning. With backpack slung over my shoulder, I inconspicuously ambled by...just like any other tourist; the only bonus caucasianness would bring for the day.
Warm waters lapping at my ankles curbed some of the edge, but I was disappointed by the gross overdevelopment I found regardless of how far I walked. The Atlantic''s stunning hues were further shimmering from additional tide turned up from passing boats, wave runners and other water craft. Para-sailers were rising above palm trees like trapeze artists completing the circus atmosphere. How could something be so right, yet feel so wrong?
A cluster of empty lounge chairs at one of the resorts beckoned me from the mid-day sun; a group of boisterous, apparently intoxicated Germans driving me further towards the outer boundary in hopes of slavaging something meaningful. I''d no more than parked when a young Dominican appeared to somewhat routinely ask if I''d like anything to drink. He wasn''t likely expecting my refusal in Spanish, nor my somewhat forced smile.
Earnestly trying to shift focus as my eyes trailed from the towering palms overhead out to what has to be one of the most beautiful strips of beach in the world, I readily succumbed to facing this was as good as it was going to get. Despite extra changes of clothes and toothbrush stashed in my backpack, there was no way I''d be spending a night in this area. The Haitian vendor had been right; my bruised pride fitting in as a Dominican relegated to a suspected pocket full of tourist pesos.
In defiant protest, I''d already determined not even going for a swim and was fighting drowsiness luring me towards siesta. Heavy eyelids were sinking fast until being jolted wide open from a piercing screech just off my shoulder. Call it a nightmare; the middle-aged man standing with a pair of tittering macaws on his shoulders more tense and stressed out than their rude awakening had resentenced me to!
I didn''t want to hold his damn birds refraining suggesting what he could do with his polaroid. Walking towards El Cortecito, the guy''s startled look as I bolted away kept flashing through my mind. ''Yeh bud, whatever it takes to permanently keep you here in the DR''s Edenistic East, but I''m gettin'' the hell out of here...back to my village where I belong!''
The Grass IS Always Greener...
The motoconcho drivers were in great debate before pointing me to one that wasn''t wearing a coalition vest to insure legitimate service. I reluctantly climbed on as we headed off. Conversation was centered around trying to convince him I wasn''t one of them - a tourist, but there was uneasy panic as we headed further off in an unfamiliar direction. It was quite the relief when spotting the abandoned terminal in the middle of no where. Paying 30 pesos, I made a beeline for the back-seat of the empty bus.
Within minutes other connecting publicos arrived, a driver appeared and we were off for Higuey. Once we''d cleared the dusty parking lot, I pushed open the window to maximize any breeze. Within a couple of stops, the gua-gua had filled to capacity but the cramped conditions pinning me into the corner by a host of strangers was actually comforting and reassuring that; away from the spoils of tourism, Dominicans are some of the friendliest people on earth.
Turning onto Highway 106, dry barren lands were slowly giving way to fertile greens of the area''s interior. A tranquil clamness had returned and from more than just hanging out the window like some panting dog. Scattered business, homes and people all but frozen in time rekindled the countryside magic which induces what makes the DR my favored destination on the planet.
An occasional vendor''s shack piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables reminded how little I''d eaten for the day, or even the sun-exposed line weighted down from cuts of meats. Rolling, overgrown mole hills known as the Oriental Mountain Range, painted the perfect backdrop for fields of grazing livestock...further accented by roadside trees so ladened with mangoes, I had fingers whipped more than once trying to grab one while passing. Hunger could wait...knowing I could pick one out of the yard once reaching home.
Caribbean pastel-painted houses line the small streets in the village of Otra Banda just east of Higuey; the intricate gingerbread carvings around the doors, windows and lattices the final reassurance that my decision to flee from the tourist trap had been the right one.
As for the DR''s most fabled, popular vacation destination? I''d say it''s just that - along with all the spoils which come from such a place. But for a simple country boy trying to pass myself off as a local, I''ll take the intoxicating appeals of common, every day Dominican life any day of the week; especially now that both my headaches were finally gone.