Written by Jose Kevo on 24 Feb, 2005
The final days of 2004 were fleeting, like the remaining grains of sand shifting to plunge through the gooseneck of an hourglass. Nightly blow-outs were still running full-tilt at El Chipero, but after three weeks of intermittent appearances, desires for more of the same…Read More
The final days of 2004 were fleeting, like the remaining grains of sand shifting to plunge through the gooseneck of an hourglass. Nightly blow-outs were still running full-tilt at El Chipero, but after three weeks of intermittent appearances, desires for more of the same had fizzled. With Mami working and Junior tied to the church as an associate pastor, having the compound to myself come evenings provided about the only tranquil retreat to be found these days.
With Mama Juana always an arm's reach away, accompanied by music from the village center, should I not feel like changing CDs, darkness was comforting, deterring views of high-rise buildings springing up along the waterfront one block away.
People randomly passed, always with a "buenas noches" while some pulled up chairs for a chance to practice English or have extended conversation. Talks of what used to be were pleasant strolls down memory lanes, yet no one cared to broach the subject of irreversible changes within Bayahibe that eventually would leave everyone out in the cold.
The Dominican Republic was experiencing their harshest winter ever, with snow flurries in the mountains and coastal temperatures plunging to the upper 50s/lower 60s. Raiding closets to borrow pants and jackets was essential for more than staying comfortably. Cooler weather not only multiplies mosquitoes, but has them invading indoors for keeping warm too. As if the troubled country already didn't have enough to worry about, outbreaks of malaria are back on the rise. Perhaps the key word is worry, something the family chastises my overindulging in, but even they couldn't deny conditions were spinning out of control with hopes that a new year would somehow be better.
Widespread carnage was sweeping the village on December 30th, with preparations for feasting. Hooved and feathered creatures which hadn't drowned or been swept away during hurricane season were facing demises in backyards everywhere. Putting goat on my José Kevo's menu would require a cooking lesson.
Returning with 10 pounds of chivo, another neighbor was scurrying from the house; his large bag of something was abrading my leg. While putting meat away, a rather heated interchange out back suspended efforts. Mami was pawing through a cooler of seafood, accusing local fishermen of trying to unload lobsters that wouldn't pass for shrimp. Scalded exit justified earlier encounter.
Wondering if we'd had another communication breakdown regarding dinner plans, Mami unleashed breathless accounting how Italian bosses sprang a private New Year's Eve dinner party. A couple of other vendors came and were chased away before José was sent to resummon Ómar, almost running me over. He was smiling, now knowing Mami would pay top-peso with kick-back for herself in reimbursement. Asking about the goat, she grabbed a large bowl, tossed a flurry of ingredients for marinating, and placed a covered dish on the shelf. An island secret? Apparently, leaving meat unrefrigerated for 24 hours...
Obstacles of Perseverance
The laundromat was chaotic, trying to accommodate last-minute decisions for what locals would model that night for New Year's Eve. An unplanned break occurred when the neighbor returned to find her home flooding. A small stream was gushing down the unpaved street, draining toward the first two houses, thanks to a construction worker breaking the main waterline while digging a trench. How long the problem had been flowing was anyone's guess, but Celeni's rampage had rallied the block. Eventually, the village mayor appeared with the head of the utilities company. Professional demeanors calmed the uproar, but the only solution was shutting off the village's water supply with no guarantees of restoration heading into the holiday weekend.
Thankfully, the last load of wash had been completed, and most homes still had access to outdoor rain towers, which were the main source until indoor plumbing debuted in the late 90s. Preparing for night on the town would involve lugging buckets of water into showers and rinsing off a coffee can at a time. Speculations were offered of how tourists would manage, but I told Mami that if they started complaining to smile rapidly, saying, "¡Bienvenido a la República Dominicana!"
The creolle-stewed goat was a success staged in late afternoon to accommodate varied schedules. The last of the dishes were almost done when Mami stampeded in, looking to organize a bucket brigade. Numerous containers would have to be filled, carried three blocks to the restaurant, and boiled in a cauldron. Suggesting she start the fire while I retrieved round two, common sense lacking panic turned up another source across the street. With preparations running behind, assistance disguised as another cooking lesson was worth missing open rounds of el Chipero around the corner.
Feeling somewhat drained, it was after 9pm when we returned home. An ice-cold Presidente momentarily refreshed but registered no desires for festive consumptions to sedate restlessness. Mami had things under control, gulping the beer she'd asked for while revelers passed, streaming into the village center.
Children and adults were extinguishing the last of an endless month's supply of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and M-80s dangerously within the crowd. Coerced smiles and conversations while trying to track the next explosion were disengaging.
As the night wore on, amusements revealed time finally mattered, though few wear watches. Ones who did were all reporting differences heading towards midnight, but there was no count-down or official announcement when the new year finally arrived. The cue came with the first sonic-boom, echoing from down the coast, prompting migration towards the waterfront. Imposing fireworks shows lit up the night from nearby resorts, with visible displays over the moonlit Caribbean, as far away as Casa de Campo and La Romana.
A small hand grabbed mine; it turned out to be José. Picking him up to give him a better view, the 5-year-old running unaccompanied in the streets all night had had one too many sips, laying his head on my shoulder while sucking his thumb. Putting him to bed was an excuse for returning to the compound.
Mami hobbled home shortly later, asking for another beer. She'd just settled on the front porch when one of her bosses appeared with a hysterical dinner guest in tow. The tourist had locked keys and camera inside her cabaña. To no surprise, owners/managers were nowhere to be found, and Mami loyally agreed to track them down.
Music and firecrackers were still barraging, but holiday anxieties were alleviated with the comforts of home. Junior returned shortly after 1am, opting to sit under the streetlamp. His steadfast calmness was soothing as we dared to dream about what 2005 may hold. At 4:15am, Mami had yet to return...
Toewritings in the Sand... Like Handwritings on the Wall
A thermos of coffee was waiting outside my door, but otherwise, there were no signs of life at 11am. Deciding to snooze the day away, at least a bed of sand was justified. Passing along the waterfront, a friend was bearing brunt from tourists coming off another sleepless night, further agitated by no place open for breakfast or boats for hire. Pretending not to understand English, he later expressed sentiments regarding Dominicans deserving time-off, too, before proudly announcing he'd pre-booked another group at triple the rate. The snorkeling invitation wasn't the least bit tempting.
Unexpectedly having extended time with IgoUgo guide Donnaparadise, also in Bayahibe for the month, was worth bypassing the siesta while analyzing inscrutable island fixations and other paralleling circumstances. Channeling my toes through the sand, I toyed with making this a New Years resolution with daily possibility.
Clouds and winds hindered expected heavy traffic, and apart from having a front-row seat to a group of carefree teenagers, Donna had been at it since early morning. With another year's arrival, I coveted the lifestyle of being young and Dominican rather than a middle-aged fool, trying to play catch-up.
Returning to the village, el Chipero had gotten an early start since colmado was closed, and few indicated having funds for Boca de Yuma's traditional spree. Promises for returning later went unfulfilled. Plenty of spirits were still at the house, but I also couldn't deny time was quickly escaping, with less than a week remaining.
Raiding the refrigerator accumulated a plate of leftovers. The fork striking plate without previous sounds from the microwave roused Mami from her room with pleas not to tolerate the preferred manner of eating food cold. Offering to fix her a plate, all she wanted was a beer. Joining any males at the table was rare; subduedness was even more unusual. Overwhelming silence was finally broken when inquiring for feedback on what she should do.
Capitalizing on daily struggles, her vulnerability had been targeted by foreigners in opening rounds of the long-feared forced buy-out. Ridiculously low offers had already been made, my unexpected arrival scattering the vultures. Holding out until the end would empower top-dollar, but even undervalued price on prime real estate was a small fortune for solving immediate problems, leaving little consideration for the future.
Mosquito-proofing myself for sleeping out on the porch gave Junior freedom to prepare the following day's sermon. It took some time before drifting off with lullabies from the village center. I headed to the colmado the next morning to buy eggs as el chipero's tent and cooler were being loaded into a truck, much to ex-pat onlookers’ and tourists’ approval.
Holiday traditions visiting family and friends were kept to a bare minimum, whether from absurd fuel/transportations costs or from no one having much to offer guests beyond a cup of coffee. Our family had no time or funds for jaunting about; Mami was rarely…Read More
Holiday traditions visiting family and friends were kept to a bare minimum, whether from absurd fuel/transportations costs or from no one having much to offer guests beyond a cup of coffee. Our family had no time or funds for jaunting about; Mami was rarely home for the few acquaintances passing by. Taking charge of my own calling plans, a visit was in order to the hamlet of Benarito.
For years, Reynaldo had been a friend and motoconcho driver, but upon arrival, my heart sank when he wasn't at his familiar post. Almost a week passed as I showed his picture, asking around before I got some accurate information that he was shuttling tourists with a Saona Island excursion company. Finally, camaraderie resumed where it had left off, but conversations were limited before daily departures and hurrying home in the evenings. Quality time together was compulsory!
We agreed to meet at "the cross" one morning where Highway 3 intersects the Bayahibe turn-off, but after an hour waiting, I hopped another motoconcho for the short ride. Entering Benarito, rather than just passing by, was virgin territory. As the driver jostled along dirt roads, the impoverished conditions were rudely alarming. Stopping at a cluster of clapboard shacks, his instructions were to head around back. Our sudden appearance hushed frenzied activities dominating Sunday morning chores until Reynaldo looked up, calling my name.
Ceasing work for a greeting with a hug, his gaunt frame, clad in water-soaked underwear, rekindled my concerns of malnutrition, although he'd already assured me it was his natural physique. Reynaldo wasn't surprised about my tracking him down, but he also indicated picking me up in due time. My cocked eyebrow and suspicious smile caused us both to laugh, his fawn-like eyes glowing with warmth.
Family members were still captivated by me, likely the first foreigner to ever come calling. Reynaldo began unreciprocated introductions with his wife, sisters-in-law, nieces, and a stove-up older lady, obviously matriarch of the family, but my mind stalled on the first reference. He'd failed mentioning any marriage since my last visit, or they'd already celebrated an anniversary and were now expecting their first child in June.
A chair was quickly fetched, along with cold glass of water with instructions to wait while he finished. Surveying the surroundings, I gathered that the compound had five small houses and a shed surrounded by dense growth of banana plants, sugar cane, and other garden staples. At times, chickens well outnumbered the people.
A distant outhouse smell indicated no indoor plumbing, further confirmed by stacks of laundry and dishes being washed in outdoor basins. A main electrical source was never traced, yet something powered televisions and stereos from each of the houses. Eventually, Reynaldo disappeared out back and reemerged, wrapped in a tattered towel, clean and ready to dress for the official beginning his day off.
He was eager to show where he lived: a portion in one of the houses containing a bedroom and kitchen/dining room. Photos and things shared over time were proudly displayed, along with numerous electronic gadgets contrasting the simple life. Sitting side-by-side in the back doorway, Reynaldo accepted congratulations with still little to say about his new life, beyond hoping his first child was a girl and hinting to name me padrino/godfather. He reconfirmed that the girl with a slight swell was Maria, a 15-year old he'd known and loved for three years. Yet, typical of traditional culture, she never directly spoke to or looked at me, and Reynaldo showed no interest in having their picture taken together.
Now working as a boat captain six days a week, he earned RD 7,000 monthly—about US$230, not including tips. While no longer driving a motoconcho, his first purchase from increased income had been a smaller, more economical motorcycle he was anxious to show me, with details lacking from everything else!
Unfortunately, I found he's yet another potential victim of the living-on-credit craze: Payments of RD 2,000 every 15 days were already well behind. Whether from lack of understanding or serious concern, the dire nature of the subject never registered, and Reynaldo terminated the lecture while placing Maria side-saddle behind him for making a colmado run.
Left to my own devices, still under the watchful eyes of curious strangers, I assessed the other modern-day amenities scattered about, potentially costing more than could ever be paid. Upon return, Reynaldo sensed my pensiveness and invited me to climb on behind him. He made a familiar fuss about my being positioned comfortably, had a camera ready, and so revealed his genuine nature. And with his customary "¿todo bien?", we were off. As to where, it wasn't important.
A Machito Named Kevin
Sentimental roles were realized while riding carefree on the back of a bike, with Reynaldo assuredly at the helm. In the States, mentally retreating to our family compound's front porches is my frequent comfort, but I was now reminded of another at-home place that would take a backseat no more.
Coursing along shaded country roads with endless vistas to either side, staring at the back of Reynaldo's head, familiarly recaptured my attention. There had been no indication of anything beyond a mid-afternoon joyride until coming to a collection of homes swallowed in dense orchard. Reynaldo was between guide-like spiels, identifying various plants, when we turned down the lane.
An older lady busy with yard work motioned us onward through a jungle-like garden perfumed with blossom scents; the purpose of the expedition was revealed when greeting a pair of gentleman. Reynaldo was looking for a conejo machito/buck rabbit to keep with his two young females. We entered a large fenced-in shed that had Noah's Ark qualities, with menagerie scurrying about, but close inspections didn't expose any males. They suggested trying a neighbor, and so began my vocabulary-expanding education regarding rabbits!
Several stops turned up nothing but warm welcomes and potential prospects further down the road until happening upon a huge buck with nests full of fertile evidence. Reynaldo's decisive focus was broken when asking for 400 pesos, with promise to repay. Indicating that the rabbit would be for his 20th the following week, his puzzlement turned out to be over the concept of a birthday present, which he'd never received.
Once coffee was served and the rabbit placed inside a plastic feed bag, and I securely hooked my fingers into Reynaldo's belt loop while holding the bag with the agitated rabbit outward in the other hand. Unfortunately, it did little to steady my balance. Hee-hawing about becoming a rabbit rancher further induced our squirmings, until banter stalled with him repeatedly saying my name. Kevin—that was the name Reynaldo had chosen for his new rabbit. He snickered a couple of reasons before also pointing out that it was white.
Santa, with his loaded sled, couldn't have garnered the attention we received when pulling up. Family members I'd yet to see appeared as Reynaldo proudly displayed his new rabbit. Once in the cage, within seconds of getting acquainted, Kevin began fulfilling his intended purpose… just like rabbits. Asking if Mama Juana was in the water, Reynaldo insinuated that's what could help measure up to my namesake. Adults chimed agreements while glued to the Sunday matinee. Swarming children confirmed his enhanced virility; the first nests of bunnies were expected within weeks...
Ties That Bind
Maria set the table and quickly disappeared. We hastily finished the mountain of rice laced with stewed codfish and beans while Reynaldo picked, distracted by a dubbed Van Damme feature on television. He indicated that his half-remaining meal would be for dinner, provoking me to wonder whose meal I'd just devoured. Wielding a large machete, he went back to the chores earlier interrupted while various family members still kept watchful eyes on the tuckered-out rabbits.
Repeated invitations for later joining him, Maria, and friends at a roadside bar had already been denied. With a last hope for changing my decision, Reynaldo put on bachata and began dancing around the kitchen. He walked me through the latest steps until I could successfully lead. Still not wanting to be out drinking after dark, my only prerogative was hideous common sense, rather than throwing caution to the tropical tradewinds.
Heading towards the setting sun, Reynaldo slowed when passing the familiar roadside bar. Reverberating music overpowered sounds from traffic whizzing by an arm's length away. Perhaps the night would've been as rewarding as the day, but I was satisfied; content knowing there'd be other times and opportunities. Arriving at the cross, a couple of motoconcho drivers sprang into action, but Reynaldo pulled me back, saying to wait. Small talk continued until I flagged down another driver. Reynaldo assured me that this was a friend I'd be safe with and immediately started issuing instructions for heading towards Bayahibe.
We were off with a wave good-bye, and I had already begun processing the day's events when driver circled into the gas station. Within moments, Reynaldo pulled up, already troubling to make sure everything was okay, but more urgently to reconfirm how many days I had left, see if I had any plans for tomorrow, and to ask if my decision had changed about tonight, all while repeating my name with goofy grin. Not knowing whether it was the rabbit or me generating such affection didn't matter. A mutual legacy, so to speak, had been exchanged—one that will propagate reminders of a lasting bond regardless of time or distance apart.
In the Dominican Republic, Christmas Eve, known as La Noche Buena, captures the full expressiveness of the advent season. Like a hen gathering her chicks, Mami came flying down the street that morning with cackling that brought neighbors running as quickly.
She'd just finished the…Read More
In the Dominican Republic, Christmas Eve, known as La Noche Buena, captures the full expressiveness of the advent season. Like a hen gathering her chicks, Mami came flying down the street that morning with cackling that brought neighbors running as quickly.
She'd just finished the breakfast shift while enduring quite the earful from irritated, sleep-deprived tourists. Concern and contempt towards complaints were muddled in swift spews when all eyes suspiciously turned to me on the front porch. A loaded question asking about sleep was really hinting to find if I'd joined the traditional contingency for parading all night through village streets, carousing with ancestral instruments, song, and dance.
A disheveled appearance implicated guilt, though no admittance was revealed about actually turning in early or brief arousals during passing encores. The jutting of Mami's lower lip familiarly accompanied balled fists on hips, and my silence on the subject reignited the neighbors' clamor. Rising from the chair amid referrals to unreasoning tourists, my silence was broken as I asserted, "Good, and I hope it's even louder tonight!" Amused howls supplemented Mami slapping high-fives before turning her nose up and feistily marching away.
Draining the last of the stout coffee did little to help me ponder the ever-growing tourist- and expat-spawned issues, drawing lines in the sand far beyond nearby beaches. Today, there were greater battles to be fought, evident in steady-flow strutting towards the baseball field with rooster in tow. Christmas Eve cock fights have been staged ever since Puerto Ricans fled U.S. occupation in 1898 and founded Bayahibe.
Cheers from the distant crowd began shortly after noon, with males of all ages tightly hemming a makeshift ring where five-minute bouts took place with game cocks sparring, but never until death. Neighbors challenged each other, birds got passed around for inspections based on waging bets, and feathers started to fly!
Height came in handy, with people layered seven-deep, but spectators often provided the better entertainment, battling heatedly amongst themselves. Brother Romeo, the dark-skinned black sheep of the family, was more than cocky in a white shirt and shades as the sport's local aficionado.
Fists full of pesos continued growing after every round, ushered with flashing devilish smiles and thumbs-up approvals; that is, until one of his roosters got its drumsticks flogged! Previous winnings were fleeting with pay-outs. When he began digging in his pockets, I accepted that as cue for departure, lest mine got cleaned out, too! Besides, watching a few rounds always suffices, though contests run through late afternoon.
How the Grinches Tried to Steal Christmas
Opting for a calmer environment, I returned to the house for beach gear but was interrupted when a large truck loaded with appliances and furniture stopped out front. A well-dressed Dominican, accompanied by driver and armed guard, entered the laundromat and asked for Junior. He had a hollow look when telling me to get Mami and then stay inside, indicating that this wasn't an unexpected delivery. Straining to eavesdrop through a slatted window, I thought Mami's unusual silence only confirmed misgivings. She hadn't made payments on her washing machine in over a year, and they'd come to repossess and collect in full!
Purchasing things based on credit has become standard global practice, along with living in debt. But for Dominicans trying to get ahead, the country's credit practices are highly suspect and seem destined to make people fail miserably. Payment installments are to be made every 15 days, with compounding interest rates at 12 percent or higher. Local utility bills get hand-delivered, but otherwise, there are no credit-billing system reminders because there is no reliable postal service. For numerous reasons, creditors count on customers not to remember or be able to make payments, waiting months, even years before sweeping in like vultures to pick already malnourished bones clean.
For now, Junior foiled current attempts paying about US$120 from the week's worth of earnings—about what Mami earns for an entire month, working 48+ hours a week as cook at a local restaurant. But over $500 was still owed, thanks to interest. Shrewd creditors, in turn, promise to help with even shadier terms of refinancing; this pitch was no different. For only $300, the family could have another new washer. They'd take back the old one, knock a portion of debt off the bill, and then wait for the whole nightmare of opportunity to recreate itself. They promised to return in January for renegotiations and to collect full payment. Then they headed down the block, spreading holiday cheer to other neighbors.
Discussions—even heated arguments—would've been preferable to the total silence enveloping the houses. There were more dark, looming clouds besides those in the overcast skies, extinguishing any fun-in-the-sun plans. Financially back at square-one, Junior resumed pressing the last of the laundry, eventually sharing mild-mannered resentments about how the family's crisis had been his life-long ruin, pillaging everything earned, including from years with the Chicago White Sox. The somber mood was eventually lifted when a friend stopped by with an invitation for a cruise up the coast. Especially during the holidays, resort employees take special liberties in treating family and friends to unprocurable opportunities.
Boarding at the village-front lagoon, detouring around into the harbor, and docking along cliffs hadn't been much of a ride until Elia's sharp whistle signaled for a dozen or so women and children to join us. By speedboat, Casa de Campo, one of the most luxurious resort communities in all the Caribbean, is a 5-minute ride. The passengers were reeling with excitement as we hugged the coast, passing along elaborate mansions before turning into the marina to glimpse a favorite attraction, Pedro Martinez's yacht.
I'd seen it before; it was now less impressive, overshadowed by another private vessel built like a mini-cruise ship. One can only guess what was really going through others' minds, but such spoils of displayed wealth only reinitiated gnawings in my stomach.
Silence was abandoned when I returned home to find Mami no longer concealing tension levels while trying to get everything done before heading to work. My delegations included finishing dinner preparations and setting the table for the most anticipated night of the year, but unfortunate circumstances had more than scattered the family. Rather consumed once everything was ready, Junior insisted on getting dressed and joining José and another friend for the carbon-grilled guinea hens and accompaniments, but I'd lost more than just my appetite, making for a lousy dinner companion.
This day couldn't have ended quickly enough, and I was more than eager to chafe, having the compound all to myself. Once the table had been cleared, a stout Cuba Libre sedated more than my perpetual guilt at having ample provisions, at considering myself blessed but never having enough to make a dent in the family's ongoing financial problems. Even adopted blood is thicker than water, and thankfully, so is the local rum. Conceding my turn to sleep in a bed was the least I could do, especially if I was numbed to the cuddle of a concrete floor...
When All is Calm, All is Bright
A pair of contemplative hours on the front porch had passed before anyone began stirring in the houses. Junior offered a "Feliz Navidad" with his "Buenas días", pulled up a chair, and dissolved into the peaceful morning while the village still slept. A warm breeze had whisked clouds away in consummating Christmas, a day that transpires like a lazy afterthought in DR. Honoring Mami's wishes of spending the day off in bed, my need for coffee was the motive for suggesting a late breakfast.
Julissa's Diner is a faithful stand-by, where postcard views all but surpass the inexpensive menu. Once selections had been made, calling my Missouri clan was a priority for exchanging the season’s greetings and contrasting their sub-zero weather with our tropical particulars. Purpose and ambience had rekindled our appetites, and second helpings of everything were definitely in order.
Contradicting what a difference a day can make, the proceeding inescapables calmly resurfaced through a father-son parley that transpired at high noon. In a land of such uncertainties, best-laid plans are futile, and entertaining dreams and desires is almost cruel. Yet these are the makings of hope, steeped in a cultivated resilience of survival. A pair of bedraggled tourists staggered in at around 2pm; four hours of solitude at the only place open in town had been a gift-wrapped gratuity.
There would be no visits or visitors and no special plans except to acknowledge the day for what it was: Christmas in Bayahibe. A long siesta was packaged with a brief beach appearance, generous helpings of leftovers, and traditional apples, nuts, and candies. Happy hour on the front porch got a late start once Junior left for church, and Mami celebrated by turning in early. Various friends, neighbors, and even strangers continued passing by until deciding to deck for el chipero, pulsing fervently. Scattered people return annually for Christmas, and interrelatedness stages an enormous family reunion. This year, I was also one of those arrivals, embraced just as closely. Second wind, third wind—good company inspires such ventures.
Mami was already up, thwarting my attempt to sneak in. Thankfully, the cup of coffee offered wasn't bait for a lecture, though she did mention hearing from irritable tourists at breakfast again. Mutual smiles substituted for words, and she quietly left me on the front porch.
Written by Jose Kevo on 21 Nov, 2003
Standing at the intersection, my arm hadn't even reached a full upwardly extended position when no less than four motoconchos came screeching to a near-collision halt at the curb. Passing a moment's worth of judgment over which driver might not only accommodate the safer…Read More
Standing at the intersection, my arm hadn't even reached a full upwardly extended position when no less than four motoconchos came screeching to a near-collision halt at the curb. Passing a moment's worth of judgment over which driver might not only accommodate the safer passage but also be willing to provide more than just a ride, I climbed on behind, held on, and was off at a frenzied pace. To where? Sometimes it just doesn't matter!
Without the motoconcho (motorcycle taxi), Dominican life would all but come to a stand still! Most travel guidebooks warn that these should only be used for transportation as a last resort due to the danger levels of riding helmetless behind what's often perceived as reckless drivers. These advisories are obviously derived from more fact than fiction, but to never risk testing fate by going for a spin is denying yourself part of the Dominican experience.
Call it forbidden fascination! Growing up, my father was a State patrolman. Based on the number of motorcycle accidents he'd encountered, he made sure we knew and had seen all the gory details in hopes of squelching any desires to go for a ride; little alone ever owning one. His methods worked, but neither of us ever counted on my life eventually evolving in DR.
I'll never forget that late afternoon shopping run in La Romana years ago when approaching rains and other circumstances beyond our control prompted Junior to hail us a couple of motoconchos for getting to the publico stop ASAP! He hated these things; even more so after a brother had recently been killed while riding a motorcycle along the open road.
Everything my Dad had ever drilled in my head came rushing back as I apprehensively straddled the seat and began fumbling/shifting packages to free a hand for some means of holding on. No such luck; the driver quickly racing off almost as fast as my lifelong embedded doubts and fears fled to be replaced by an exhilaration that turned fixation. Since the initiation, local friends are somewhat perplexed by my always wanting to ride the motoconchos; something like an excited little kid at the carnival.
In a smaller city like La Romana, using motoconchos is a great introductory environment though I still confess cowardice towards the bustling, chaotic traffic of Santo Domingo. The convenience of getting anywhere around town for RD10 has became more than just transportation or excitement. And if you're brave or adventurous enough, it won't really matter where you go as main and side streets reveal aspects of Dominican life hidden to the majority of travelers. Without jeopardizing your safety holding on, definitely have your camera out; auto-focus is more suitable than manual.
Taking a spin around the southern, central area of town is a great way to begin even if you're already familiar with these areas from walking or passing using public transportation. Make a couple of loops around the beautiful central square plaza, which is the hub of La Romana activity, before heading north along the plaza street, which parallels the old church. This feeds you right into the heart of the lively open-air market where a multitude of smells prevail to accompany the visionary experience.
Navigating further afield through the busy streets in a deep-seated manner, you'll be surrounded by other cyclists out and about perhaps loaded down with three passengers, a mother with her children. Despite close proximity, you can read lips for the random, inaudible greetings but there needs no interpreting of the smiles which warm you quicker than the Caribbean sun.
For the most part, island life is about being laid-back where nothing is hurried. Keep reminding yourself of this when approaching a busy intersection; especially when your traffic light is red! Motoconchos will pass right through the narrow lanes of traffic to cluster in front. An impatient driver revs his engine setting off a concerted fanfare from the others. The light turns green . . . and everyone is off with a vengeance but there's nothing to fear. Within a block, the exhaust fumes have subsided, the cycles have raced ahead and dispersed back to the outside of lanes, and traffic flow resumes to the slower pace - just as your beating heart will, too!
Here's additional tips for helping travelers maximize the motoconcho experience while minimizing risks:
Tell the driver where you want to go and ask, por diez pesos / for 10 pesos? If wanting to go to the baseball stadium, basketball arena, or souvenir-related shop complexes on the western outskirts of town, expect to pay at least RD20 one-way. For the latter, consider offering the driver extra to wait while you shop since motoconchos back into town aren't as frequent.
And no matter what your reason for daring or caring to experience a Dominican motoconcho, be prepared for the ride of your life!
Written by Jose Kevo on 20 May, 2005
One of the country's best public beaches and departure area for water excursions is in the nearby village of Bayahibe. A público ride, departing from La Romana's Avenida Libertad, costs RD35/US$1.15 per person, and a taxi could run as little as US$30. The…Read More
One of the country's best public beaches and departure area for water excursions is in the nearby village of Bayahibe. A público ride, departing from La Romana's Avenida Libertad, costs RD35/US$1.15 per person, and a taxi could run as little as US$30. The one-way ride takes about 30 minutes. If you've got a rental car, head east from La Romana along Highway 3. The Bayahibe turnoff at Highway 815 is clearly marked. Veer to the right and follow signs another 15km to the village waterfront.
Outside La Romana is the gated entry to Casa de Campo. Unless you're a registered guest or have access to an employee's day pass, don't bother trying to get in. When the US-owned Gulf & Western Industries bought the local sugar industry in the 60s, they also purchased all the coastal land between the city and Río Chavón valley. Casa de Campo quickly developed into a hideaway for global rich and famous and still attracts the country's highest concentration of Americans. Miami Cubans now own the complex. What properties lack in palm-laden beaches, facilities make up for with their world-famous Pete Dye-designed golf courses, including a third that opened in 2003.
As of late 2004, Highway 3 was under major expansion trying to accommodate traffic growth. In DR, these projects can get strung-out forever, increasing risks for drivers and passengers. In some sections, half the highway was blocked off, leaving two lanes of traffic to split what remains, including a rutted shoulder. Defensive driving will get you through, but with traffic increases has also come a greater presence of law enforcement randomly pulling over vehicles for spot checks. Make sure to have documentations in order.
The turnoff on the right for Altos de Chavon isn't clearly marked these days, but it's approximately 6km once passing the Casa de Campo entry. You've gone too far at the airport on the left. Since opening in late 2000, rural vistas along this route are gradually succumbing to development as locals and expats try to cash in on tourism.
Just beyond the airport, the highway descends into the Río de Chavón Gorge, which has served as backdrop for numerous Hollywood blockbusters. The lush river valley was destroyed during the 2004 hurricane season when four back-to-back systems culminated with Jeanne stalling as a tropical storm for 48 hours. Chavón drains the southeastern region, and massive flooding was so severe that Highway 3 bridge washed away under 20 feet of water and debris.
For the next 2 months, traffic was severed. Travelers arriving at the airport planning to stay at Bayahibe resorts were left to navigate like the locals. Watercraft that hadn't capsized or washed away now served as water taxis plying the coast and shuttling tourists with luggage between La Romana and Bayahibe. This unplanned adventure lasted until a smaller roadway was completed across the river, while construction of a new bridge proceeded in record time.
Heading into town on December 17, a burst of color accented the valley from Dominican flags lining the new bridge and furling in the gorge's wind tunnel. A stage had been erected, surrounded by chairs and event tents, for a dedication ceremony that would restore traffic flow. However, it will take decades for the river banks to return to an Edenistic appearance.
A word of caution: There are places to pullover on both sides of the bridge, and rarely will you pass without finding locals swimming in the river, especially near the north side's low-level damn. The country has an extremely high rate of deaths from drowning in rivers, so proceed with caution.
Once cresting the gorge still heading east, you'll see signs for the roadside community of El Limón, which is a perfect example of overdevelopment gone bad. Back in the mid-90's, investors constructed a monstrous shopping plaza of stone that housed an overpriced supermarket, a few small shops, and what was supposed to be office space. Business never took off, and today, the complex is an overgrown eyesore. Across from the plaza is a dirt-road intersection with an arrowed-sign pointing towards the small community of Boca de Chavón.
Of all my years exploring this region, I'd yet to make it to this bedroom community of Bayahibe, which is closer by boat than roadway. A few evenings before Christmas, a friend asked if I'd like to catch a ride on back of his motorcycle. Ráfa had always been a trusted comrade of adventures, this night proving no different.
From the Highway 3 turnoff, it's about 14km to Boca de Chavón, which conjures a feeling of being lost, even though heading in the right direction. The Dominican countryside is surreal through these parts, like a tropical Jurassic Park where nonchalant brahmas graze and nomadic goats roam. The dirt road winds its way, like you'll need to do around rutted potholes, with just enough curves to charm anticipation of what awaits beyond. Random farm houses are scattered; every time thinking one was abandoned, someone appeared out of no where with a wave and a smile. At no point were we passed by a vehicle; only other cyclists, horse and burro riders, and pedestrians all with recognizable saludos a "¡Ráfa!"
At the first signs of modern civilization, we pulled over at the communication towers. A roadside guard, positioned in a squalor camp, welcomed us and apologized for just finishing supper with nothing left to offer. The smell of grease from frying chicken over an open fire was tantalizing, dogs and giant chickens tangling over the scattered scraps. Ráfa gave a quick rundown and went back to the conversation while I explored.
North of the road overlooks the Río Chavón valley and the distant cliff-top structures of Altos de Chavón, with the newest Pete Dye golf course just beyond. The views were impressive, even with the scarred riverbanks from recent flooding. There's potential to explore farther along the gorge, provided you're wearing more than shorts and flip-flops.
To the south, the plateau eases into lower-elevated river bottoms, with the small community of Boca de Chavón situated at mouth of the river, as seen in the final Overview photo. The Caribbean shimmering at sunset, with Isla Catalina fading in the distance, outshines the construction cranes and bulldozers of mass development taking place along the Casa del Campo side of the river.
The road eventually becomes the main street in town, with one aspect I couldn't help but notice. Civil engineering at some point had painstakingly constructed curbing and sidewalks on both sides but had never returned to pave the street, unlike in Bayahibe, where streets were paved some years back, but without support curbs, flooding eventually washed away streets. Ráfa pulled over at a clearing that overlooks a small harbor on the Boca side and across to the rock barrier that protects Casa's new international marina.
Numerous buildings are springing up along the Casa boundary, but my attention kept refocusing on the palm-thatched Boca building extending over the water. A young man was waving from the balcony, Ráfa explaining this was a restaurant that survived by shuttling Casa de Campo guests across the river. Later, when putzing around, el muchacho had tracked me down and offered a brochure for the La Casita Ristorante specializing in Italian and International cuisine. I was surprised by the elegance represented in the photos. Unfortunately, they don't have a website, but contact numbers include 809/359-6155 or 809/556-5932. They open at 11 am and again at 6 pm daily.
A few wealthy have invaded to build waterfront mansions secured behind walls, elevated views of the sea in exchange for floodwalls instead of beach. Otherwise, Boca de Chavón is a typical poor but proud Dominican village. I'd been wandering around when Ráfa called me into a backyard for introductions. The height of the afternoon coffee hour was in order, and I couldn't help but notice how everything was so immaculately kept, even the dirt yard swept free of leaves. Saying goodbye, we were detoured twice on the short walk to the motorcycle for more chatting and coffee.
We made a quick zip across the baseball field where local youth were busy indulging Major League dreams. The cluster of shacks behind the field was obviously the poor part of town without utilities and motorcycle paths doubling as roads. We stopped in front of a couple of homes occupied by young women followed by broods of youngsters. Ráfa slipped them both pesos, and whether some of the children were his or as part of the Christmas spirit, I didn't ask.
Shades of dusk were painting the skies as we prepared to make the Highway 815 turnoff for Bayahibe. We'd been chatting it up when Ráfa pulled into an overgrown lane and stopped. He quickly hopped off, looked at me, and spun around while unzipping. I had to laugh before joining him. Call it the consequence of Dominican hospitality.
Parque Central is heart of the downtown area and a recognizable landmark from which to base explorations of the city. Locals flock to the shaded benches concealed by lush vegetation all but shutting out traffic buzzing around the square. Under the gazebo are…Read More
Parque Central is heart of the downtown area and a recognizable landmark from which to base explorations of the city. Locals flock to the shaded benches concealed by lush vegetation all but shutting out traffic buzzing around the square. Under the gazebo are restrooms which tend to be hit-and-miss for availability. As a traveler, you'll attract much attention from shoeshine boys. Either wear comfortable sandals or tennis shoes, or be prepared to repeatedly make or break these childrens' survival efforts; a thorough spit-shine polish costing RD10.
Banks, internet cafes, Casas de Cambios for exchanging currencies, and Codetel telephone can be found in the immediate area, but I've always considered the daily life in general as the genuine feature. Some of the most unsuspecting surprises await inside places like the drug store, supply company or hardware store where business is conducted with nostalgic throw-backs to the 60's. Visions, even smells have served as comforts of childhood with chances to step-back into memories of when life was simple; an appeal La Romana has still managed to retain despite very obvious signs of progress.
Streets south of the center running towards Avenida Libertad are dominated with shops specializing in clothing and shoes. Dominicans especially love dressing-up their small children in lace-frilled dresses and stylish suits for boys; unique purchases beyond souvenir shopping. The area often feels as if it's in a permanent state of sidewalk sale since many stores take advantage of pleasant weather for moving racks of merchandise outdoors. There's no shortage of baseball caps, knock-off designer wear, and even truck loads of second-hand clothing parked curbsides that eagerly get pawed through.
Joyerías, (jewelry stores), have a better selection of amber and lorimar creations than you'll find in most tourist-related outlets. Prices reflect the higher quality, but merchants are often willing to haggle over prices; paying with cash guaranteed to net lower costs than using plastic.
The City's Outdoor Market
Across from the northern side of the park is the city's original Cathedral centralized within a large yard surrounded by a caste-iron fence. It's rather plain and unimpressive, and at no point have I ever found the yard or church open for a quick peek inside. Follow either one of the side-streets to find the outdoor market which is north behind the church.
Regardless of when you arrive, expect to find a frenzy of activities. Vendor boothes line streets and sidewalks surrounding the central block which has a cluster of buildings jammed with commodities. Casual browsing nets immediate attention from tradesmen, and while they'll insist you take a closer look, they'll also smile and take "no" for an answer, unlike high-pressure tactics found in some poorer countries.
There's numerous clothing and shoes available for comparative shopping with what's found in official stores. Similar products at the market will likely cost less depending upon your haggling skills. Initial asking prices are often double of what the vendor hopes to earn, and they enjoy bartering. While most local people encountered will only speak Spanish, vendors have often mastered numerous languages based on survival. Basic Spanish will surely help, but expect an interesting exchange, and don't be afraid to walk away to help seal a better price.
Opportunities for buying local music on downloaded cd's should be bypassed since there's no guarantee of overall quality, even if they've played a couple of songs. There are smaller walk-in booths with tourist-type souvenirs that are rather generic in mass production. A shopper is likely to find more original purchases among the house wares and things Dominicans consider everyday standards.
Foods dominate choices in the typical outdoor market environment that always manages to stir concerns of sanitary practices. Filth and waste are rudely alarming, especially along meat counters where processing takes place and flies swarm carcasses. Regardless of cringing, realize how everyone appears healthy and happy from consuming such questionable products on a regular basis. A bag of inexpensive mangoes, grapes, or bananas from the mountains of produce are great for snacking without fear of bacterial illnesses.
The largest building of the market contains a curious assortment of spices, herbs, and dry goods as well as botánicas selling items used for Santería worship. This area is also where you'd look if wanting to take home an authentic bottle of Mama Juana. Most of what's sold in tourist traps is priced higher and contains fewer ingredients. These bottles are loaded for the locals, and prices vary with size. If you know what to ask for, they specifically make blends upon request, including favorites that contain dried seafood and have legendary potencies. The 1.75-liter I requested cost RD300/US$10 with only the dry goods, but will last as long as I keep adding rum, red wine, and honey.
A Lunch Favorite
Located off the northeastern corner of the central plaza on the north side of Calle Eugenio Miranda, Trigo de Oro Café is an unsuspecting find. The French-run bistro and bakery is housed in a renovated two-story house concealed behind a wall. Awnings and a jungle-like canopy shade the entire yard, which contains the main dining area. The upscale ambience seems out of place, but prices don't reflect poshness. Inexpensive baguette sandwich baskets run less than US$5, the pastry cases and specialty coffees definitely worth saving room for.
The New Shopping Circuit
When leaving Trigo de Oro, heading left/east runs you into Calle Francisco de Castillo Márquez. Take a right on this street if you still want to shop. I was shocked by the number of wall-to-wall tourist-related stores that have opened within the last year. Most contain the same assortments of junk found everywhere with comparable prices, but if looking for unique treasures from the Dominican Republic, be sure and take a peruse through Corazón Latino located at No. 52.
Their selection of artwork, sculptures, and trinkets qualify as home decor and were certainly worth minimal splurges in price. They add a 5% service charge for using credit cards, and don't be surprised if the clerk needs help running the processing machine.
Continuing south will intersect back on Avenida Libertad at the corner of Jumbo Department Store's complex, where you'll need to check all bags upon entry. American Airlines has a new location in front and next door is an outlet selling more junk, but the best buys are in the store.
The Music Department has local percussion instruments and a section labeled Versión Economica, factory seconds of Latin music cd's sold only in the Dominican Republic for RD85/US$2.85. You'll need to pay for anything within this area before leaving. Perhaps you'll find other good buys within clothing and house wares, but my most-requested souvenirs are in grocery stores.
A 1-pound bag of Dominican coffee costs under US$2. Just across from the bread aisle is a section you'd never know to look for, but it's stocked with mouthwatering sweets, including Jalao, 16 coconut and molasses balls for US$1.65,Dulce Leche, various forms of sweet milk candy with a fudge texture in one-pound bricks, some containing fruit for US$1.30, and packages of tropical pastes, great for making side-dish sauces, for US$1.34. There's also a well-stocked liquor section with local and international spirits priced as cheap as duty-free shops. A recommended favorite is Ponche Crema de Oro, excellent rum cream for US$4 a liter.
The Deli is my other favorite place to eat, with an endless selection of creolle cuisine sold by the pound. There's an upstairs dining area great for people-watching and absorbing the brisk air-conditioning. At any of Jumbo's check-out counters, credit cards or US dollars are readily accepted, and change is returned in pesos based on daily exchange rates.
There's a taxi stand in the parking lot with rates posted, or there are other transportation connections along Avenida Libertad. Depending on the amount of purchases, tip the bag boy, especially if they've helped carry things outside. If you've driven with your own transportation, there is no parking fee, but questionable lot monitors also expect a tip for watching your car.
Top of the photo is south
Getting to Parque Central is an easy walk or taxi ride from the cruise-ship port. If arriving by público from Bayahibe, the van makes numerous stops and eventually passes through downtown. For public transportation transfers to other destinations, a shuttle bus leaves from the park's northwest corner for the main terminal west of town. From there, local and express buses frequently depart for anywhere between La Romana and Santo Domingo. The small terminal for east-bound destinations connecting through Higuey is on the right side of the central street, which heads north from the square.
Written by Jose Kevo on 05 Mar, 2004
Splatterings from noon shower were a welcomed relief straddling back on the motoconcho while shifting the strap of my oversized bag to maintain balance. The gua-gua I'd stepped off of sputtered before heading towards Santo Domingo along with enticing plans for extending my trip.…Read More
Splatterings from noon shower were a welcomed relief straddling back on the motoconcho while shifting the strap of my oversized bag to maintain balance. The gua-gua I'd stepped off of sputtered before heading towards Santo Domingo along with enticing plans for extending my trip. There was no looking back navigating towards Boca Chica for my last few hours in DR.
Unpacking wasn't necessary and 1:30pm was too early for considering a nap despite consuming fatigue. It was time to be the dutiful tourist and see what all the fuss was about with this Sin City along the Sands. Hopefully, it would be reputable enough to distract from leaving home in Bayahibe before returning to the States the following day.
Caught In the MiddleWelcomed calmness heading down Avenue Duarte soon turned ordeal with aggressive shopkeepers manning sidewalks and pegging me as potential for turning a profit that day. Aside the deep tan of my pigment, I felt to have a green US-dollar tattooed on my forehead and was curt resenting they saw me as nothing more. Purchasing an ice-cold Presidente in hopes of taking the edge off, I made the short-walk to the beach in search of solace and escaping the capitalistic zoo without cages. There's no denying that by this point I was merely going through the motions.
Showers had subsided luring travelers and locals back onto the sands, but it was only fitting dark clouds still subdued the skies. Kicking off my shoes, I dug my toes into the sand taking a contemplative swirl off the green bottle satisfied I'd dodged those hawking beach chairs and other scavenging opportunities. That is, until some kid appeared from back of the vacated restaurant and asked me to purchase another beer or leave.
My feet were weighed down heavier than my heart trekking through the sands. I didn't belong on the tourist strip anyway and was heading to the far end where locals are known to congregate. I could see a few scattered faithfuls out on this rainy Monday afternoon and shrugged off initial rudeness from the individual demanding pesos as I stopped to photograph some boats.
But coolness I found was from more than just absence of sun. No one engaged my Spanish conversation. I felt brief resentful stares before people turned their backs. If only they could've look beyond the facade to see and know I was really one of them, but the Dominican hospitality I craved was denied from my unwelcome presence in their domain.
Waiting to purchase another beer for walking to the hotel, three young ladies lounging over a shaded checkers board gave me attention with a look and that world-renowned hissing noise that indicates one thing only -- ladies of the evening. . . obviously trying to get a jump on the day's work. I detested them for it; almost as much as being charged fifteen extra pesos for a beer compared to the local in front of me!
The bed sheets had a cooling, soothing affect thanks to half-heartedly drying off after an elongated shower. At this point, sleep was the only alternative for escaping my present reality as well as weeks' worth of memories reeking havoc within my mind. Instead they held me an attentive captive until replaced by noise levels below from setting up the restaurant.
The late-afternoon Caribbean sun appeared in a final encore making shaded benches in the shabby central plaza welcomed. Grown men masquerading as shoeshine boys were offering everything but a fresh polish; evident by smells of burning reefer and decrepit older travelers with teenagers tagging along far too close! Closing eyes to events around me was only more painful trying to recapture the country I'd came to know and love.
Gua-guas arriving from Santo Domingo were increasing as were passengers deboarding for working the approaching night shift. Prostitutes, hustlers, and an assorted crew from paradise gone wrong. Determining I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was time to bolt! Stopping to snap a picture of the quaint cathedral, which traditionally borders every Spanish plaza, I hadn't realized from where I'd been sitting that a telecommunications tower had been erected directly behind overshadowing any quality of photo. Somehow appropriate with 12 hours to go, but I'd already given up.
IDENTITY - The Struggle of CrisisAll the players had positioned themselves along the pedestrianized avenue waiting to feast at their banquet of scope. The more I paced back-and-forth searching for anything, the more trapped I became as a potential victim. Looks and catcalls; the pulsation of club music second only to the concerted chorus of ladies' hissing which had me ready to backhand the first one which got to close.
A reappearance in the beachside park prompted a young man to ask what I was looking for; replying honestly not knowing. Leonardo offered to show me the sites but I indicated the norm was not my scene. We made our way back to one of the beachside bars and he purchased a beer to share, but quickly moved to the far section so conversation could be heard while escaping the assembled cast of international hostesses.
It became quickly obvious that Leonardo was not about any of this either for one of his rare nights off as a local military policeman. He begin to share about his wife and small children living in another part of the country and how much he missed them. Chiming in with my own current sob stories, he began to realize I wasn't just another mixed-up tourist. He smiled and said he had just the place.
Hopping off the back of his motorcycle, all was too familiar yet different with the colmado doubling as the locals' watering hole. Based on receptions I'd gotten throughout the day, there was self-consciousness stepping inside, but introductions to a few acquaintances quickly detailed how I wasn't "one of them", and all was well. . . almost. The beer tasted the same, everyone crooned along with the saddest of Bachata songs, but faces had changed.
Pacifying substitutes of distraction became riddled with guilt of disloyalty and drinking up their few hard-earned pesos. I made my excuses and expressions of gratitude before slipping out for walking back to the hotel. My scheduled taxi pick-up was in less than five hours and at this point sleep was the only thing I wanted to be taking advantage of.
The hotel's restaurant was closed and staff had gone home, but I was bewildered to find the courtyard stereo system playing louder than ever. Looking around, there was a mutual startling with the skinny kid I almost ran face into. Javier was night watchman also responsible for breaking down and cleaning up the dining area. Once convincing him I was a guest of the hotel, he insisted I join him for his feast of leftover foods and half-drank bottles of wine. Hints of needing sleep did nothing to curb his invitation nor lowering volume of music.
Conversation never went far with all his interruptions only magnifying the self-imposed question of why I was staying up. Reprieve for eventual escape was foiled by three young Italians who came reveling in as the only other guests staying here. They uncorked a bottle of red wine pouring me a glass and at this point I resigned to my second night of no sleep.
Their obnoxious details of local escapades were confirmed by Javier who marveled his new foreign friends with heroic status. It turned out my English was the go-between for filling in a lot of blanks that had accumulated over recent nights, but was also common denominator for linking such different individuals. U2's "Joshua Tree" became the accompaniment of choice with everyone singing along; something the Italians described as the international music that everyone knows regardless of what language they speak. Little did they know, all this only confused the current issue as to who and where I was.
I was dragging worse than the actual check-in line once arriving at the airport. Members from various countries' Pan Am teams were returning home and proudly waving flags and wearing colors to signal their obvious final destinations for the day -- something I was trying to deny but certainly couldn't avoid any longer.
With seatbelt fastened, I melted into the window seat all but numb except for tinglings in my brain like from taking too big a bite of ice cream. Lack of sleep had been my only scoop. The moment I dreaded was upon me as the plane raced down the runway and lifted off from the soil I'm anchored in. The freshest of memories could wait, but I couldn't resist raising the window visor for one last look. . . over a dark bed of clouds. I leaned back and closed my eyes. And the jet whisked me northward; a man without a country.
With major cutbacks on American Airline flights servicing DR's five other major airports, more travelers are finding themselves at Santo Domingo's Aeropuerto Internacional Las Americas and then needing to take Ground Transportation to final destinations The airport's close proximity to Boca Chica is a…Read More
With major cutbacks on American Airline flights servicing DR's five other major airports, more travelers are finding themselves at Santo Domingo's Aeropuerto Internacional Las Americas and then needing to take Ground Transportation to final destinations The airport's close proximity to Boca Chica is a bonus for the added convenience of catching early morning departures while being able to avoid the actual further distance and chaos of staying within the capital.
Publications continue to rank this airport as worst for the entire Caribbean. After all, it does set the tone for most travelers' first and last impressions of the country. For various reasons, even I have tried to avoid using this airport, but was quite surprised by the major renovation improvements, which have taken place over the last three years. Here are some introductory suggestions for survivng potential confusions:
The crowds are thick with locals waiting to pick-up family members. The frenzied hubbub of activities is worsened by unofficial individuals offering to assist you with directions or excessive baggage. Since all forms of public transportation are banned from local airports, taxi service is the only means for departing the airport provided pick-up service isn't included with your travel package or you haven't obtained a rental car from one of the counters just beyond the luggage retrieval area.
Look for official transportation airport employees designated by their vests and name badges. Don't expect them to be bilingual, nor for there to be any semblance of waiting your turn in line. Tourists are usually given private service, but can also be grouped with others traveling to the same vicinity which helps minimize cost. Actual fares are supposed to be preset, but make the verbal confirmation before allowing them to load your luggage just to be sure.
I've yet to be on any flight to/from Santo Domingo that had any empty seats or that didn't have an apparent long stand-by list. Agents are now on-hand to write your arrival time on the ticket jacket as if to suggest a "first come first serve" for seats potentially to help curb the locals' excessive tardiness.
Random passengers were pulled from the slow-moving check-in lines to have bags thoroughly examined before approaching the counter. All luggage is officially screened after being checked. And as if all of this wasn't enough to have me sweating bullets for catching this flight, the excitement and chaos were only compounded by all the International teams departing that morning after the Pan Am games!
For this particular trip, the tax is now collected at the departure counter when checking in for your flight. Where it gets confusing is how they're willing to accept payment. Expecting a flat fee in currency of the country you originated from is no longer accepted. The departure tax was set at RD350 which puts the actual cost at the day's exchange rate. Fortunately since I had no leftover pesos, they were willing to accept credit cards for the first time. The actual converted cost was US$10.71, but based on the government's willy-nilly changes and fluctuating rates of peso value and tax amount based on the season, travelers would be advised to have ample amounts of pesos, home currency and credit card on hand just in case. You can not board your flight until this tax is paid - No Excuses!
Liquor seems to be the best buys; 1.75-liters of quality rum for as little as US$3. Actually getting it back into the States is a different story. While I've never been checked when reentering the country through New York's JFK, they tend to be much more strict on enforcing limits for flights connecting through Miami International.
Written by Jose Kevo on 17 Oct, 2003
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…Read More
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.
Written by Jose Kevo on 26 Sep, 2003
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…Read More
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.