January 24, 2014: Rum Oxen & Stormy Skies

Today was my final full day in the Dominican Republic—such a strange thought! Elana and I agreed both that it feels like I’ve been here for months, and that it feels like all of those “months” passed by in the blink of an eye. We woke a little early so that we’d have time to pack and go out for breakfast before our hotel checkout time. The main street was all clean and puddle-lined; last night’s rainstorm had continued well into morning, unlike most of the rain I’ve seen here. We ate at a little café, where the breakfast plato del día included perfectly ripe papaya and delicious café con leche.

When we had previously had breakfast at the café adjoining our hotel, two days ago, the proprietress had told us that she’d been working on a gluten-free brownie recipe. On the way back from today’s breakfast, we popped by, and she had indeed created black-bean brownies! She gave us one for free, since she recognized us; it was so mild and perfectly-textured that we bought several more for the road.

Our plan for the day was to bus to Santiago before dark; we had left everything else open-ended so that we could explore a bit more before leaving the coast. Once we checked out of our hotel and loaded ourselves up with bags, we began our pleasant, aimless stroll along Cabarete’s main street by stopping for a fresh natural juice from a fruit stand, thus conveniently adding a new fruit to our list: jugo de granadilla, or juice made from the fruit of Passiflora quadrangularis, a type of passionflower with huge fruit. The granadilla juice was thick but refreshing, and tasted like pear-watermelon juice. The bottom of the cup was full of seeds and granadilla goop by the time we finished, but it was well worth the straw-vs.-seed navigation efforts.

The longer I’ve been here, the more confused my language has gotten. I speak English about 95% of the time with Elana, and I speak Spanish with the vast majority of other people I talk to here. I reached a new level of linguistic chaos today: we walked by a man who addressed us first in Spanish, and we responded in Spanish. He then said something like “Have a good day!” in English, and I caught myself responding in English but with overdone Spanish pronunciation: “You too!” (pronounced like “jyu tu”). What the—? There’s absolutely no logic to me speaking English with a Spanish-inflected accent, brain! Very entertaining.

We also ducked into a few shops: Elana found a gorgeous and affordable hammock to bring home to her trees in Dajabón, and I haggled successfully for a small pendant made of the ocean-blue Dominican stone larimar. We stopped for lunch at a comedor, where we had some fine Dominican chiva picante (spicy goat meat). Then, we climbed into a carro to Sosua, and in Sosua, made the now-familiar switch to a carro towards Puerto Plata.

At the edge of Puerto Plata, we took another fun detour, this time to the Brugal Rum Factory. Brugal is the largest rum manufacturer in the Caribbean, and their bottling plant offers free tours and rum samples. Our tour guide deftly gave the tour both to us and to a few French-speaking tourists concurrently: first, he’d explain something in Spanish for Elana and me, then repeat it in French for them, then flit back to us.

Outside the Brugal factory.

Outside the Brugal factory.

Our tour started outside the factory, where they had some antique distilling equipment arranged around, alongside some fake oxen. The guide explained each element of this display (minus the oxen), then led us up some stairs and into the factory itself.

Historical rum-makin'.

Historical rum-makin’.

Inside the factory, we stood on a walkway a story above the factory floor. The bottling machinery, laid out beneath us, was reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, if modernized somewhat. Conveyer belts and tubes snaked all around each other in silvery lines and curves, and the central assembly line stayed in perpetual motion. A flat of empty bottles would be placed, like so many bowling pins, at the beginning of a conveyer belt; they would find their way to a central section where they were filled with rum (in today’s case, the Añejo rum), spun about, and topped with caps that whizzed down through a curved tube.

The guide pointed out and explained each aspect of this process. As we walked along the platform, Elana and I noticed more and more of the factory workers’ heads turning toward us. A few waved, but most of them just stared openly, eventually to the degree that we could see several pairs of eyes trained on us in any direction we chose to look. The guide took that moment to explain that zero women worked in the factory (at least on the factory floor), joking about how distracting it would be for the men, and adding that it was very dangerous work, besides. It was very interesting how overtly this bias was stated, in contrast to the way things are talked about in the United States.

After the tour concluded, we were led to the gift shop, which housed hundreds of bottles of all their rum varieties, arranged beautifully, plus miscellaneous Brugal paraphernalia. We perched by the “bar” and had a few free samples of their basic rums, specifically their Carta Dorada (golden low-tier) and Extra Viejo (golden premium) rums—neither of which I would sip straight, but which were perfectly serviceable.

A veritable gallery of rum.

A veritable gallery of rum.

From Brugal, we walked to the corner and caught a small guagua (van) to get to the center of Puerto Plata. There, we jumped onto a larger, comfier guagua headed to Santiago, and with that, we were on our final leg of the journey. I was at a really engaging part in the book I was reading, and a few times I pulled it from my bag, and even opened it once or twice… but before I’d read a paragraph, I would get distracted by talking to Elana or by gazing out the window and drinking in a bit more jungle scenery. I’ve had full access to these things (Elana conversation and jungle scenery) for almost two weeks now, and I knew I would miss them enough that even my longing for my book paled in comparison. The sky was split-grey and handsomely stormy, and the distant mountains were padded with blue mist.

We decided to stay at the Hotel Colonial, the basic-and-inexpensive place I’d stayed on my first night in the country. At first, they put us in a basement room that smelled of lemony pee, had a ceiling fan that quaked frighteningly in its mounting when used, and which was out of reach of the hotel WiFi… so we decided to spring for a 2nd floor room with A/C (just a few dollars more), which was a billion times more pleasant.

We walked to a local supermarket, then returned to the hostel for dinner. Earlier, we had learned that, janky as the place is, it has its own kitchen, which sells dinner some nights. Since it had no real menu, we could more or less customize a Dominican meal to our exact preferences. I had a tasty chuleta (tender pork chop, in a mild sauce with bell peppers and onions), along with passionfruit juice, the standard rice and beans, and the most fresh and perfect tostones (fried plantain slices) I had ever tasted.

We spent the rest of the night quietly: writing, reading, Internetting, talking. We had a few sips of Crema de Oro, a semi-traditional Dominican ponche crema liqueur that tastes just like over-sweetened eggnog. It was a fittingly placid and contented final night for a magnificent and adventurous trip.

January 23, 2014: A Raft in the Mountains

Elana and I stumbled out of bed at 5:40am, and were waiting at the curb in front of our lodging by 6:00am. Today, we had booked a whitewater river rafting adventure tour on the Río Yaque del Norte, up in the Central Range mountains. After our tour van collected us, we attempted to snooze a little more, while the van collected a few other people for the rafting. The sun sidled into the sky, in shades of pink, and I realized that this was the first proper Dominican sunrise I’d seen.

The total travel time to our rafting site was about 2.5 hours. During that time, I slowly ventured into full consciousness, read a bit of my book, then watched out the window as we passed back through Santiago and as the low tropical forest trees began to be interspersed with pines and other mountain-esque trees.

When we arrived at the rancho that hosts the rafting, we were delighted to discover that they were feeding us breakfast, including endless coffee. They even scrounged up some cassava bread, which is made of naturally gluten-free yuca/manioc/tapioca (a crop of many names), specially for Elana and me. Elana’s Peace Corps friend Riya was waiting for us at the rancho; to our delight, she had been able to arrange to join us for the rafting (but had transited in separately). We ate on a wooden deck overlooking the river, enjoying the peace and remoteness of the spot.

After breakfast and adequate caffeine refueling, we switched into swimsuits and river gear, collected our lifejackets, helmets, and paddles, and piled into a large, bench-lined truck to get to the launchpoint for our rafting trek. Once there, they divided us into raft groups; the three of us were in the same raft, along with our guide and a German tourist named Max. We all settled into the raft: Riya and I in the back, Elana and Max in the front, and the guide perched behind.

After a brief safety and rowing-technique talk, we hefted our raft down the hill and into the river. Moments after leaving shore, we drifted by a little cement platform far up the hill above, on which a dog stood and barked loudly at us, as we floated inexorably away. This gave the experience an entertainingly ominous Splash Mountain feel: I was reminded of the ride’s animatronic forest creatures singing worriedly as you (and Brer Rabbit) float toward your almost certain doom.

There was almost no warm-up period: within minutes of getting in the water, we were hitting sizable rapids. On the first large rapid, the raft tilted enough to fling both Max and Riya overboard. We quickly reclaimed them, however—and the guide claimed he’d done it intentionally to spur Max into paying closer attention to the called-out rowing signals.

After that first dramatic rapid, everything was very fun and fairly smooth. Before each big rapid, our guide would tell us its name (from “Terminator” to “Mike Tyson” to “Cemetery”—encouraging names, all), then give us a heads-up on anything unusual we should be aware of for that rapid (like if there would be extra-big rocks on one side). Then, we would go speeding through it, sometimes rowing heartily, sometimes all scooching down into the bottom of the raft, paddles held up, to ride the roughest bits out. Several times, we would pass through a rapid, then the guide would row us back into it so that we’d all be splashed thoroughly and then swept back out again.

The scenery along the river was phenomenal. Far off behind us, there were half-clouded, purple-blue mountains. Most of the rapids ran within a river canyon, with the canyon and valley walls rising sharply on both sides of us. The valley walls overflowed with plant life, with trees (mango, mimosa, pine, palm, and many others whose Spanish names I heard, then forgot) growing up in every possible hillside space. Where there were no trees (and even where there were), low-growing shrubs and vines massed up and tangled together.

¡Qué hermoso!

¡Qué hermoso!

The canyon rocks themselves were shaped and curved by wind and water. Wild berry vines dangled down some of the canyon walls (another guide even climbed up and picked some). I also spotted the tasty edible gourd tayota growing wild, as well as some stunning crimson-and-white, star-shaped flowers growing out of a rock crevice. Every now and then, we’d see a power line or a rickety thin wooden bridge hanging high across the river. Several of these had been located by enterprising vines, and were swathed in green.

At one point, our entire expedition (four rafts) stopped so that the more adventurous types could go jump off a 25-foot rock into a deep river pool. After much waffling, Riya and I decided to go for it (while Elana video-recorded us). I went first, crept to the edge of the rock while the guide gave instructions, then leaped off with a mighty shriek and landed safely in the water far below. Aflutter with adrenaline, I swam back to the boat and got to watch Riya make the jump as well (hers with a more impressive, warlike scream). Here’s a video of our jumps (first mine, then Riya’s), with fitting musical accompaniment:

At another point, our guide, ever-mischievous, distracted me by pointing at some imaginary bird off in the forest, then flipped me off the raft and into the shoulder-height, calm water. After my initial startlement, I savored the feeling of floating along with the river’s current. Elana also jumped in and swam for a while with us.

As with 27 Charcos, it’s hard to detail every last moment of the busy, rapid-filled day, as the numerous adventures blur together somewhat—but suffice to say, it was ridiculously, giddily fun.

Unbelievable beauty.

Unbelievable beauty.

When we reached the end of our rafting adventure, we leaped off the raft and piled back into our truck-with-benches. Thanks (once again) to this wonderful weather, we were quite comfortable and warm—even in our open-topped truck, even way up in the mountains, even though we were sopping wet with river water. We had a surprisingly delectable Dominican-style lunch back at the rancho, then all piled back into our van for the 2.5-hour return trip to Cabarete. While I didn’t particularly want our mountain rafting expedition to end, I was very glad we’d had the chance to see that part of the country, however briefly, as we would have been hard-pressed to travel to that remote, inland region otherwise.

Back in Cabarete, Elana and I rested for a bit at our hotel, then did a quick dinner and some shop-browsing on the main drag. We bought a mamey sapote (Pouteria sapota) fruit from a fruit stand, and once we were back in our room, we added two new fruits to our fruits-we’ve-tried list:

  • The mamey sapote looks like a potato or sweet potato on the outside, and opens to reveal bright orange flesh and one large, long, nifty-looking seed. It had a nice texture, but neither of us liked the taste: to me, it seemed like the offspring of old apricots and over-smoked salmon. (It’s possible our sapote was over- or under-ripe, so I’d still try this one again just to make sure.)
  • We also cut up and sampled the mamón (custard apple) that we had bought in Samaná, since it had needed 3-4 days to ripen. This one, with its rosy rind, creamy white flesh, and black seeds, smelled wonderful, and tasted surprisingly close to milk or egg. However, it had such a mild flavor that it was hardly worth navigating around all the seeds for.

It was our final night in Cabarete, even though it felt like we just got here. The time has flown by. Once again, I fell asleep to the sound of another tropical rainstorm drip-dropping outside the window. I will miss so many aspects of this place.

January 22, 2014: The Museum of Amber

Given our long day yesterday, we opted for a relaxed, slow-paced morning around our cozy hotel. We had brunch at a sunlit café that adjoined the hotel, and were delighted to discover that they offered bottomless coffee (“café sin fondo“). Our coffee-addictions rejoiced.

This country, overall, has been a very easy place to eat gluten-free, since the diet is largely meat and rice (this is actually one of the reasons why the Peace Corps placed Elana here, since she’s gluten-free too). A full 1.5 weeks in, I had my first GF issue: I asked if a menu item came with corn tortillas and was told it did, but it arrived (looking heartbreakingly delicious) wrapped in a big flour tortilla. Alas. They were very kind and apologetic, but since the café was a slow-food sort of place, this added an extra dollop of slowness into our day, while the second, genuinely-GF meal was cooked. Still, 1.5 weeks without a problem is a fantastic record.

Over breakfast, we decided that we would expedition to Puerto Plata, a city along the coast to the west of us. We headed out from the hotel, then ran back in to fill our water bottles, then headed out, then got waylaid by an interesting shmancy-Dominican-clothing store, then ran a few errands—then finally, around 2pm, caught a carro to Sosua. In Sosua, we switched to a different carro which would take us the rest of the way to Puerto Plata.

Roofdog, the Puerto Plata Welcoming Committee.

Roofdog, the Puerto Plata Welcoming Committee.

The carro dropped us a few blocks from our key destination, the Museo del Ambar (Amber Museum). Puerto Plata is full of marvelous old gingerbread Victorian houses, and the museo was located in one such Victorian, a huge, multi-balconied, beautiful pale yellow building. Once we entered the main building, a young guide led us into the museum exhibits, which were all arranged within the upstairs section of the building. Here, it was dimly lit but pleasant; as we walked through, the guide gave us a little explanation for each section. Apparently, the RD is somewhat unique in the amber that can be found here: whereas many countries may only have a few colors of amber, the RD has a whopping 10+ colors, including the very rare blue amber (which shows blue only under direct sunlight, and otherwise appears as a normal amber color).

The exterior of the amber museum.

The exterior of the amber museum.

The museum exhibits were a little scattered, but were magnificently cool nonetheless. In every room, there were a number of small exhibit-panes in which pieces of amber were mounted, along with written descriptions of what you could see within them: flower parts, termites, ants, spiders, even a tiny lizard (the prize of their collection). Higher on the walls, they had framed collections of amber from other countries with notable amber. The back of the museum was done up to look like an amber mine, complete with little stalactites and fake vines. About half of the amber specimens were either back-lit or illuminated from above, which gave them an otherworldly golden beauty.

Golden.

Golden.

The prize lizard-in-amber.

The prize lizard-in-amber.

After the museum tour, we spent some time in the gift shop, which offered scads of gorgeous amber, both set and unset. They also sold larimar (a semiprecious, ocean-blue stone that is found only in the Dominican Republic), as well as Dominican cigars and other nice-quality paraphernalia. Once we finished there, we headed back into the streets and strolled through Puerto Plata for a while. We stopped at a department store; Dominican clothes and shoes tend to have the most majestically gaudy color-pairings ever, which we appreciated.

An old Victorian in Puerto Plata.

An old Victorian in Puerto Plata.

When we emerged, it had grown dark, and a tropical rainstorm was splashing down on us. We were able to hop into a carro to Sosua almost immediately. I don’t think I’ve discussed Dominican driving methods previously in this blog, so: when you’re on a Dominican road, speed limits are merely scenic signs, and lanes are no more than an idle suggestion. If the road has two lanes going in one direction, it’s fairly common for drivers to drive smack-dab in the middle of those two lanes, right on the well-intentioned dotted line. It’s even more common for drivers to go as fast as humanly possible, passing all obstacles that stand in their way by breezing into the opposite lane. This is true regardless of whether the road has the solid double-yellow “no passing” lines, whether there’s immediate oncoming traffic, and whether the daring pass will only put them right behind another slower vehicle (which they will then also hazardously zoom around).

Thus, as you can imagine, taking a carro after dark, in the middle of an enthusiastic rainstorm, with all of the normal Dominican driving tendencies, made the experience rather harrowing, instead of its normal “mildly alarming.” However, since we were at regular full carro capacity (three people in the front seat and four in the back), I figured our squished-together-ness would be better than seatbelts in the event of an accident…? Or so I told myself.

In Sosua, we switched over to a carro toward Cabarete just as the rainstorm slowed, so our final public transportation leg of the night was a smidgen less terrifying. We sought dinner immediately upon arriving in Cabarete, settling on an American-style sports bar called Kahuna Restaurant and Bar. (Cabarete, you are such a bafflingly weird touristy place.) Elana had a whole fried fish, and I had a bunless hamburger, both with sides of grilled vegetables, all of which were delicious.

(My Dominican vegetable-deprivation has actually brought about a permanent change in my food preferences: while I was there, I craved vegetables so much that it completely overrode my lifelong dislike of bell peppers, and even after my return, my newfound liking of bell peppers has persisted. I never knew this day would come.)

Once we had cleared our plates, we sat contentedly, finishing tropical rum drinks and gazing out at the dark beach and its palm tree lanterns, while American hockey shone brightly on TV screens all around us. We walked back to our hotel through dark, humid, warm streets, and spent the rest of the night happily hunkered down, amid video chats, books, and writing.

January 21, 2014: Leaping from Waterfalls

Adiós a Clavellina! We woke earlyish, and after a quick coffee and breakfast, we gathered our things and said farewell to Elana’s casita. We walked to the road that leads out of town to seek a bola (free ride)—and after ten minutes’ wait, we lucked out! A pickup truck drove by, with one of Elana’s friends in the passenger seat, and since they too were heading to Dajabón, we were both able to get a bola with them.

Clavellina farewell committee.

Clavellina farewell committee.

We climbed into the bed of the truck and cozied in, perching on the side of the truckbed and tucking our feet and bags in amongst a bunch of large, silver jugs full of fresh milk. Then, we set out toward Dajabón, holding on tightly as we bounced down the road, taking one last look at the fresh morning fields. A few times, we hit bumps large enough to cause Elana and I to bounce up off our truckbed-side seats, but we were nonetheless quite secure.

After a stop for another bola passenger and a stop for some more large milk jugs, the driver dropped us off in Dajabón, right near the stop for the expreso buses toward Santiago. A midsized guagua was about to leave, and we nabbed two of its last available seats before it rumbled into motion.

Leaving Dajabón was a bit of an interesting exposure to some of the systemic racism here. Coming into Dajabón from Santiago, three days earlier, our bus had passed but not stopped at a number of military checkpoints along the road. However, the other direction was a whole different story: within an hour of leaving Dajabón, our bus had been stopped at five different checkpoints. Since Dajabón is on the border with Haiti, they were apparently very concerned about Haitians traveling illegally or carrying contraband. At the first checkpoint, the guards closely examined the passports and papers of all the people on the bus who looked more Haitian—but didn’t ask to see any documentation from any of the medium-to-lighter-skinned passengers. They also searched through several of the Haitians’ bags and packages. The later checkpoints were all less thorough, with the guards asking to see only the passports of the Haitians (yet again). At only one of the checkpoints did they actually ask for everyone’s passports—including ours—but they were satisfied just by seeing that I had a passport-shaped object, from a distance, and they didn’t even wait for Elana to dig out hers from her bag.

I spent much of the bus ride reading George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, whose snowy, foggy, glum landscapes made an interesting contrast to the guagua‘s noisy, cheerful Dominican music and the tropical scenery outside the window. This author has a habit of writing hundreds of pages of build-up and then casually dropping startling plot revelations; I encountered one of those revelation-points while on the guagua, gaped for a bit, then nudged Elana and whispered “Oh snap!”

We asked the guagua to drop us in Navarrete (about a half-hour outside Santiago), where we switched into a crammed carro headed towards Puerto Plata. We jumped off near Imbert, at the entrance to our primary adventure for the day: 27 Charcos. This place has a series of up to 27 waterfalls (depending on how much rain there has been) which flow through slick limestone canyons, which you can wade, swim, slide, and leap through.

We bought a quick lunch at the 27 Charcos’ restaurant, then changed into water-safe clothes, collected our lifejackets and helmets, and hiked into the wilderness. Our guide spoke some English as well as some French and some German, although we still mostly stuck to Spanish. He took great delight in teasing us and trying to startle us with loud noises, but we teased back quite effectively (e.g. after we spotted a tiny snake and he suddenly, coincidentally sped off down the trail far ahead of us).

Snaaaaake!

Snaaaaake!

Today, we would only do 12 waterfalls, as there was not enough water in the river canyons for all 27. To get to the beginning of these waterfalls, we crossed a large bridge with a beautiful view of the Río Damajagua below, then marched for about 30 minutes way up into the hills, up a huge number of wooden-backed mud steps, stepping around serpentine tree roots. Most of this trail was through a tropical forest, solidly shaded by trees overhead and with greenery invading on all sides. We heard, but did not see, some ciguas palmeras (palmchats, or Dulus dominicus) shouting down at us from the trees; they are the Dominican Republic’s national bird.

After trotting down two final sets of narrow wooden hillside steps, we reached the waterfalls. Here, we waded into a shallow natural pool, surrounded by rocks and ferns and hills on all sides. Up ahead, the water rushed through a gently curved limestone canyon. We walked in knee-deep water for a while, then reached the first waterfall, which formed a perfect tiny rock slide into a pool below. With the guide’s assistance, we slid down it and splashed into the lower pool.

Sublime beauty.

Sublime beauty.

The rest of our waterfall expedition was tremendous fun, as well. The whole time, we were wading or floating in gorgeous, milky, pale blue-green water. The limestone walls of the canyon varied in color, from dark greys to light browns, sometimes streaked with moss. We spotted several nifty little stalactite-like quirks within the rock. A few highlights of the whole adventure:

  • The first few waterfalls were ones that we slid down, but soon we came to a very high waterfall, perhaps 25 feet high. Here, we had the option to jump off it into the deep pool below, or to slink around the side to an inferior rock slide. I stood on the edge of the precipice and waffled over whether to jump, and finally I managed to talk myself into it—and leaped!—and flew—and landed safely below, shooting underwater with a splash. Absolutely terrifying, absolutely amazing.
  • At one point, our guide let us explore backwards a bit, through several extra half-underwater caverns (which were sort of under the waterfall we’d just slid down). We swam between the sloping walls and splashed around under a waterfall at the back of the dim cavern.
  • Midway through the expedition, we swam by a jungle vine dangling down from the branches of a tree that was growing atop the canyon walls, far above us. The guide suggested (I think jokingly) that I should try to climb the vine. I double-checked: “Really? It’s strong enough?” then leaped onto the vine and monkeyed my way about eight feet up it, as it swung gently over the surface of the water.
Take that, vine!

Take that, vine!

  • At the very last waterfall, which was another choice of jump or slide, we were allowed to go down it as many times as we liked, climbing back up a wooden ladder after each time. Then, we had time to float about in a giant mineral-blue pool, staring up at the ceiling of trees, very much at peace.
Thank goodness for waterproof cameras.

Thank goodness for waterproof cameras.

Here’s a video of two of our waterfall adventures: first, one of our first rock slides down a waterfall, and then our leap off that one particularly high, scary, wonderful waterfall:

After hiking back out of the waterfalls and across the river bridge, we changed into dry clothes and headed to the autopista (freeway). There, we caught a guagua into Puerto Plata, where we switched over to a different guagua to Cabarete, where we would be staying for the next three nights. In Cabarete, we walked a few blocks to the hotel we’d booked, checked in, and collapsed on the bed for a while, rather tired from the waterfall-jumping and from all the crowded legs of our public transportation journey.

Flor amarilla.

Flor amarilla.

Cabarete was hands-down the most touristy place I’ve been in this country. The main drag is located right on the beach, with a single row of restaurants and shops wedged between the beach and the main street. Everywhere, there are English signs, money-exchange shops. and bizarrely non-Dominican cuisines.

We had dinner at José O’Shay’s Irish Beach Pub (really? yes), an absolutely baffling tourist-geared bar and restaurant. It’s done up just like a standard exported-Irish pub, with dark wood and bar kitsch all over the walls… except that there is no back wall, and instead it opens directly onto the beach and ocean, with more bar tables arranged in the sand. So very surreal. We ordered extremely overpriced European/American-style food and froufrou tropical drinks (mine came served inside a hollowed-out pineapple), and sat outside at one of their beach tables. Flocks of nighttime tourists strolled by, and all the palm trees were adorned with colorful lanterns and international flags.

After a stop at a shop for postcards for me (this was the first place in the RD I’d seen them for sale) and Internet time for Elana, we headed back to our hotel for the night. While the hotel was fairly inexpensive and a bit far from the main strip, it was actually very pleasant: well-sealed against mosquitos, with lots of space and shelves, plus the squishiest bed I’ve encountered in this country. After a long and fruitful day, the squishy bed called my name, and I answered.

January 20, 2014: The Great Binational Market

I really might have to invest in a stylish mosquito net and a tropical climate: once again, with the help of both of these, I slept soundly and deeply (which is usually not my forte). Elana and I sat on the side porch to take breakfast (cassava bread again, this time with peanut butter and honey, plus coffee), and watched the neighborhood fowl scurry about for cassava crumbs. There’s a breed of chicken here that are the most lovably ugly creatures: they all have bald necks and vulture-like heads, and often have a club foot. Several of these handsome devils showed up with their equally bald-necked chicks, and competed for crumbs with the awkward dandy roosters and wobble-faced guinea.

After breakfast, we walked to the main(ish) street of Clavellina to catch a bola into Dajabón. Bola is used to describe a free ride or hitchhike. In this area, you’ll most often get a bola on the back of a moto, but you might also be able to grab one with a car or truck, if you’re lucky. Elana spotted a local friend of hers who was heading to Dajabón, who agreed to give a bola. She gave him instructions on where they should drop me in Dajabón, and I jumped on the back of his moto alone (Elana would grab the next bola that came along).

My moto driver had been riding closely alongside a friend of his when they stopped for us. Initially, I’d thought that they were just going for a ride together, as pals. However, once we set out from Clavellina, I saw that my moto driver was pushing his friend’s moto by keeping his right foot on the back of the friend’s moto—and they did so all the way to Dajabón! His friend’s moto had just enough oomph to get it over speed bumps and holes, but my moto driver’s foot-push was firmly present the rest of the time; it was really an impressive feat of balance and coordination. (When we arrived, I asked them why, and Elana’s friend told me it was because the other moto was almost out of gasoline, and of course Clavellina is far too small for a gas station.)

The two men kindly stuck around and chatted with me until Elana arrived on her own bola a few minutes later. Then, she and I walked through the city to the Dajabón-Ouanaminthe binational market. Dajabón is located right on the Dominican side of the Haiti-RD* national border, and every Monday and Friday, there’s a huge market, with sections set up in both of the border cities.
(*RD = República Dominicana = Dominican Republic.)

The market on the Dominican side is a huge maze of outdoor stalls and vendor tables, arranged around a giant two-story building which contains hundreds of stall spaces. The mercado building houses largely secondhand clothing sellers, as well as people selling blankets, sunglasses, cosmetics, cutlery, and really most things you could think of. Many of these dry goods vendors have their wares piled up in huge masses, which you must root through to find what you need. The outdoor stalls, meanwhile, have a lot more brand-new clothing and shoes. This is also where most of the fresh food is sold: huge sacks of sugar, fruits and vegetables piled up on tarps on the ground, shrink-wrapped flats of sodas, boxes of breads and sweets, gaping-mouthed dried fish in small open stacks, and more. Significant swaths of the outdoor market reek of the dried fish (which is arenque, or herring), a salty, half-rotten, aggressively fishy aroma.

Once in the market, Elana and I went directly to a food stall operated by an acquaintance of hers (who used to live in Clavellina). Here, we each ate a very tasty plato del día for lunch, while the doña half-jokingly scolded Elana for not visiting her often enough. Here and everywhere in the market, it was oppressively stinking hot. Every part of me felt sticky—but after acquiring a half-frozen Gatorade to sip on, I felt a lot better.

Elana and I began our shopping attempts by sifting through the heaped piles and crammed racks of secondhand clothes inside the market building. Many of these clothes bore labels from well-known American brands, and many still had plastic tags from Goodwill etc. (with American prices) on them. Elana found a nice skirt amidst this maelstrom of objects, then we headed downstairs and outside to the outdoor vendors. Here, a lot of the clothes were more Dominican-style (instead of secondhand-American), and I nabbed a few things.

The market was fairly hectic, but it was much less hectic than its usual. A few people told us that this was because there was some fighting going on in Haiti, so a lot of the normal vendors and shoppers hadn’t crossed over. Once we’d finished with the market, we walked over to the RD-Haiti border crossing in this area, a gate on a bridge over the River Massacre (so-named for a massacre of buccaneers by settlers that occurred there in the 1700s). A steady stream of people ran in both directions on the bridge. Across the river, on the Ouanaminthe/Haiti side, we could see people bathing and washing things in the water.

Haiti, from the Dominican/Dajabón side. The official border crossing is the tall gate in the middle of the bridge.

Haiti, from the Dominican/Dajabón side. The official border crossing is the tall gate in the middle of the bridge.

Elana has mentioned Dominican racism toward Haitians a few times. Especially since Haiti is much poorer, it’s not uncommon to hear Dominicans make jokes/comments about Haitians being smelly, or about how you’ll get robbed or killed if you go to an area where a few Haitians live. There are a lot of race/class distinctions tied to nuances of skin color: most Dominicans are brown-skinned, but how dark or light they are determines—for example—whether they’ll be stopped and questioned at military checkpoints, suspected of being illegal Haitian immigrants. Elana told me that, during one of her projects, she had included a Haitian child (very dark-skinned) in a mural she did for a school in a mountain pueblo. The darker-skinned child in the mural was included among paintings of children of many different Dominican shades, since there were several Haitian migrant worker families in that campo. Yet there had still been some minor backlash from the community about that: not overt racism, just a sort of disdainful “But why?” (Please note: these are only scattered thoughts, not a deep analysis, as this is not a subject I am sufficiently informed enough about to discuss with any semblance of authority, both as a tourist-outsider and coming from a position of race privilege.)

After the border, we walked back through Dajabón to meet Elana’s best Peace Corps friend Yvette, at a little hotel restaurant. Yvette seemed energetic, funny, and caring, and the three of us sat and talked while also taking advantage of the hotel WiFi for a few Internet things. Elana and I also decided to eat dinner there, then bade Yvette goodbye and headed to a Dajabón street that’s on the way to Clavellina, to seek a bola home.

There were a good number of Clavellina townsfolk waiting there (at the unofficially designated bola pick-up spot) when we arrived, and not so many motos heading back to Clavellina, so it was a good half-hour before we got one. Elana had me take the first bola again, squeezing in as the third person on a moto. I didn’t really have a place to rest my feet, but I managed to cling on safely, feet lifted, for the entirety of the dusty, bumpy 20-minute ride back into Clavellina.

Usually, the electricity here is off in the morning and comes on in mid-afternoon, but today, it did not come on until well past dark. I sat on the front porch with a tiny headlamp of Elana’s, writing and listening to the crickets. When the luz (light) finally arrived, half the lights in our house and the neighbors’ houses came on all at once. A large clump of children, somewhere off in the village, started cheering and screaming happily. Soon thereafter, I began to hear dance music drifting over from the discoteca.

Sunset.

Sunset.

Later in the evening, Rubén came over again for a while. We sat on the porch, drinking ron y jugo de fruta (rum and fruit juice) and eating popcorn. We had pleasant and animated conversations: on siblings and half-siblings (Rubén used hermano padre, literally “brother father,” to mean “half-brother with a shared father,” which was an interesting and useful phrase); on insects and frogs and why many Dominicans are afraid of them; etc. Then, we said goodbye to him—this was the last time I’ll see him, at least on this trip—and Elana and I settled in to look at photos. My last night in tiny, convivial Clavellina.

January 19, 2014: Life in the Countryside

The roosters in this village don’t know how to rooster, at least not in the traditional, pastoral cock-crows-at-dawn sense. They crowed to themselves for half the night and most of the morning. Nonetheless, I slept soundly and contentedly. When I arose—or rather, stumbled ungracefully out from under the edge of the mosquito net—Elana was making coffee, and two young neighbor children were hanging around keeping her company.

Vigilant rooster, sleepy cat.

Vigilant rooster, sleepy cat.

(Elana says it is normal practice for people to leave their doors and windows open when they are home and available, which signals to other people in their community, especially children, that they may drop in freely. If you visit someone who is eating or drinking, they’ll offer whatever they have to you as well, even if they have very little.)

Both of the neighbor kids were initially very shy. The girl, Ariany, assessed me for a few minutes, then decided she liked me and gave me a hug. When Elana and I sat down to take coffee, Ariany climbed up and sat in my lap, resting her head against me and cuddling—rather sweet. Her brother Wendry was much slower to overcome his shyness. At first, he would only peer his head around the side of the kitchen door at me, popping back out of sight if I looked directly at him. Eventually, however, he grew more comfortable, and he and Ariany slid about on the floor together, pretending to be a cow and a cat, respectively.

Thanks to the kids and their tireless enthusiasm for this game, we learned that “pull my finger” is a thing here: one person extends their middle finger, the other person grabs it, and the first person pulls their finger away while gleefully exclaiming “Jala peo!” (more or less “pull a fart”?) or other variations like “Jala mierda!” (I’ll let you figure that one out).

Once we finished coffee and had had enough jala-peo-ing, we kicked the kids out for a bit so that we could have a quick breakfast of fried eggs and cassava (yuca) bread and so that Elana could prep for a Peace Corps presentation she’d be giving later in the day.

Streets of Clavellina.

Streets of Clavellina.

Walking anywhere in this campo is a bit of an undertaking, as, at every other house or tienda (shop), we would spot someone Elana knew, say hello, and be invited to sit down and chat, as they jumped up to grab chairs for us. After several such pleasant delays, we arrived at Luisa’s place for lunch. She had prepared cerdo (pork), rice, a salad platter, and a pumpkin-pea soup, all quite delicious. She also brought out some concón (the crunchy crust of rice from the bottom of the pot after cooking) and dulces de guayaba, naranja, y leche (guava, orange, and milk sweets). Luisa kept offering me more food and fussing over whether I was hungry and if I liked the food, which was very sweet and slightly nerve-wracking, as I worried whether I had given enough compliments (Elana assured me that the persistent fussing and attempts to feed were just a normal cultural thing).

'SUP

‘SUP

Afterward, we headed over to Luisa’s sister’s discoteca (nightclub), a nice, open, tiled patio during the day, so that Elana could work on her presentation. She pulled some tables together and prepared some poster-sized papers for her reunión (meeting). I helped her by looking up a few unusual Spanish construction terms and coloring in some of the posters’ art shmancily, and then wandered off to attempt to photograph the local animals. Most people in this village have a few chickens or goats, and you can also spot the occasional turkeys, donkeys, guineas, palomas (doves) in cages, sheep, pigs, and horses. At this time of year, many of the goats and chickens had young offspring, so I followed them around as surreptitiously as possible (not very), attempting to get cute baby animal photos, because I have priorities.

La discoteca, complete with mirror-mosaic columns and disco ball.

La discoteca, complete with mirror-mosaic columns and disco ball.

Once Elana finished her posters, we walked over to the club, a large, green-and-pink-painted patio where Elana would hold her reunión. It was due to start at 4:30PM; Elana (correctly) estimated that she would start it at 5:30PM, as 10+ women from the community meandered in late (or on Dominican time).

Elana’s presentation was about the new stoves whose construction she is organizing. These fogones mejorados (improved stoves) have chimneys, and thus will be hugely more healthy and efficient than the current cooking method used by many people in Clavellina, an open fire over three stones. With the help of a grant, she’ll be able to provide many of the stove parts and training to the community for free. This proposal seemed to be received well: all the doñas talked loudly and enthusiastically over each other, in tones that seemed argumentative but which Elana assured me are normal and positive. It was really nifty to see Elana at work with her official Peace Corps Pants on, and she handled the chorus of opinionated doñas very coolly.

After the meeting, burned out from all the rapid-Spanish interactions of our very social campo day, we returned to Elana’s casita for a while. We sat on the side porch, ate popcorn, and listened to the competing sounds of crickets and bachata music from the disco at the end of Elana’s street.

A mildly inappropriate linguistic sidenote, from the idiolects of Molly and Elana: I am accustomed to using bolsa as the Spanish word for “bag/purse”; it has been in my Spanish vocabulary for perhaps a decade now. However, early in my trip, Elana told me it was used in the Dominican Republic as slang for “ballsack.” So, logically, we just started saying “ballsack” in all sentences where we would normally say the poor, slangified bolsa. For example, you might have heard us say “Hey! Necesito traer mi ballsack?” (“Hey! Do I need to bring my ballsack?”) or “Puedes poner este en mi ballsack?” (“Can you put this in my ballsack?”). Yes, we have the humor of a pair of thirteen-year-olds, but I blame it on the creativity of Spanish slang.

Once we had recharged sufficiently and night had fallen, we walked into the dark campo streets: no streetlights, just scattered house-lights and discoteca music to guide us. The stars were astoundingly bright and clear, far as they were from any significant light pollution. We settled into wooden chairs by a tiny food cart (where a bunch of other village folk were also hanging out). There, we bought a wildly unhealthy but tasty dinner of frituras (fried food): berenjena (eggplant), bola de yuca (a ball of manioc with some cheese inside), and chulo (football-shaped yuca blobs), all deep-fried. My poor arteries.

Rubén came over for a while, later in the evening. Originally, the plan had been for all of us to go out dancing at the discoteca in town, as Sunday is the big party night here. However, it was closed, and Elana and I both didn’t feel like going all the way into Dajabón for an open disco. (This has been one of the nicest aspects of the trip: Elana and I travel very well together. We both enjoy some adventure, and we try to be up for anything, but we both also prefer a solid amount of relaxed downtime. Several times, we’ve had the conversation of: “Shall we go out tonight?” / “Sure, if you want to.” / “Sure, if you want to.” — then figuring out we mutually would most enjoy staying in.)

Instead, we spent a few minutes visiting with an acquaintance of theirs (an Argentine woman working with an animal welfare organization), then headed back to the casita. We hung out on the porch, joking en español, for an hour or two, then Rubén departed. After a visit from a gregariously drunken neighbor (who needed to know if we had any chocolate to share), Elana and I headed to bed to read and to sleep.

A nighttime visitor.

A nighttime visitor.

January 18, 2014: I Want You to Music

Adiós a Las Galeras. I awoke extra-early to take one final hot shower, since we will have nothing but cool-water bucket bathing for the next few days. After breakfast, Elana and I hugged Sarah (the Chalet proprietress) goodbye—we’d had a lot of fun talking to her during our time here. Then, loaded up with all our bags, we walked down the red dirt road once more.

There was a Rottweiler who lived on a gated property along this path. Previously, he had leaped at the gate and snarled aggressively whenever we passed, consistently startling the heck out of us. But today, he just barked halfheartedly, then gazed at us as we departed.

We had excellent bus timing all day. We were able to catch a guagua (bus) to Samaná within minutes of arriving at the main road in Las Galeras. In Samaná, we had to walk a mere ten feet to get on a bus for Santiago, which left moments after. In Santiago, we had to take a carro (cheap, taxi-esque vehicle) to the terminal for the expreso guagua—but when we arrived, there was, once again, a guagua about to leave, and Elana and I had nice comfy seats next to each other.

We were on buses or between buses from about 9AM to about 5PM, when we arrived in Dajabón. Thus, the scenery blurs together a little bit, so here are a few snapshots and observations from the whole Grand Day of Guaguas:

  • We’ve seen a lot of Dominicans wearing incongruous T-shirts (like a shirt from a specific tiny U.S. college). Today, we drove by a man wearing a shirt that said “I Want You to Music,” which I rather liked.
  • At one point, we saw three boys crammed onto one moto. This in itself is not uncommon, but they were carefully carrying a bunch of 10-foot-long planks alongside them, by hand.
  • Throughout the pueblos, there were often religious declarations painted on walls and the sides of houses. One that was common: “Cristo Viene / Búscalo” (“Christ Is Coming / Look for Him”). Given that I’m more accustomed to using buscar with lost items and misplaced friends, I was entertained by this usage.
  • Have I mentioned how colorful many of the houses are? They’re lovely: lots of bright, vivid colors and striking patterns.
  • Another bizarre painted sign: “Veterinario Armagedón” (“Armageddon Veterinarian”). Well, then.
  • There are many tiendas (shops) that are called “Variedades [Name]” and “Novedades [Name].” These mean “Variety Shop” and “Novelty Shop,” respectively, but every time I saw one, I automatically translated it, in my head, as a “Random Crap Store.”

Almost every single time I’ve seen Elana tell a Dominican that she lives in Dajabón, they have reacted with a grimace. Elana had told me that its reputation was partly due to how remote it is, how close to the Haitian border it is, and also because the scenery is less picturesque than, say, the tropical beaches. I was curious to see exactly why it had this reputation, in person.

It was very interesting watching the scenery change as we left Santiago and sped toward Dajabón. At first, the tropical palms and bananas were still omnipresent, but the earth seemed more brown-grey, and the other plant life seemed dingier. Farther on still, most of the tropical trees were replaced by dry thickets and rough, tangled scrub brush, with the occasional towering cactus thrown in.

Noble bull.

Noble bull.

When we arrived in Dajabón, we settled into a café to eat dinner as we waited for Elana’s boyfriend Rubén to meet us. Here, too, it was quite different from where we had been so far: dusty and urban, with a handful of young boys hanging around asking for money and trying to sell shoe-shines.

Once Rubén arrived, we jumped into his family’s car and headed out of Dajabón and down a rural, bumpy gravel road, toward Clavellina, where he and Elana both live. The scenery here was still very grey-brown and brambly, but the just-pre-sunset sky was stunning.

You see?

You see?

After our many hours’ travel, we arrived at Elana’s house! I had thought that we had been rural when we were at Nouelle’s in Higüerito, but Clavellina is real campo (countryside): far out of the city, its small houses separated by huge fields and clumps of trees. We went in through the front gate (made of barbed wire and sticks, which collapsed to the ground if left unlatched). Her house consists of 3-4 little adjacent rooms that open onto a tiled porch, a separate kitchen that opens onto the same porch, and another front porch that faces the road. There is a dirt yard with a view of the neighbor’s house and his assorted animals (a dog on a long wire run, chickens, a few cats). Elana has her walls covered with letters, drawings from her students, useful organizational charts, and a row of red hearts (that her mother painted on when she visited). It is very basic, of course—there is no running water, and only electricity some of the time—but it’s staggeringly pleasant.

As always, click on any photo to open the gallery slideshow, then use the arrow keys to navigate.

After Elana did a quick sweep of the cement floors and zapped some mosquitos with her trusty mosquito-zapper-racket, the three of us sat down on the side porch: drinking hot coffee, gazing out at the yard and the inquisitive neighbor-dog, and talking, until the sun had entirely set and it had become dark.

We then headed over to la casa de Rubén’s parents. When we arrived, his parents, his sister, and her kids were all sitting on their patio, talking and eating some dinner, while the television played a Dominican comedy program. They offered us some of their meal (a salty dish with fish and peppers, plus steamed yucas), and we sat and ate a bit with them. Two of their neighbors stopped by to socialize, and my Spanish was given an extra challenge as I tried to follow nine different people speaking rapid Dominican Spanish, all often overlapping with and interrupting each other.

Tangent: the Dominican Spanish dialect is very different from Castilian Spanish, but luckily, because of the time I lived in Chile, some of the dialect quirks are familiar to me. For example, both dialects have the habit of dropping final consonants (mostly /s/), so “muchas gracias” might become “mucha gracia.” Entertainingly, Dominican Spanish also does a lot of word contraction, which can affect both the beginnings and ends of words, e.g. “cómo estás?” becomes “cómo ta?” And then Caribbean Spanish sometimes likes to go a step further and swap the order of the pronoun tú, so it becomes “cómo tú ta?”

On the way back to Elana’s, we spotted Elana’s host parents Luisa and Bartolo (with whom she had lived for her first three months, and from whom she rents now). They were sitting outside Luisa’s sister’s house in plastic chairs, chatting with the sister and a neighbor under a porch light. We stopped by to say hello, exchanged the normal cheek-kisses and/or handshakes, and then sat and talked for a while, recounting a few of our travel adventures and discussing the motocross event in Dajabón the next day.

Finally, we returned home. We passed some time looking through Elana’s old photo albums, then, secure under the mosquito net (the Dajabón area is much worse for mosquitos), we fell asleep, while a rainstorm thundered handsomely on the zinc roof.

January 17, 2014: El Salto del Limón

Today was our final full day in Las Galeras, and we used it well. The moment we stepped onto the patio for breakfast, we ran into two enormous, glorious dogs, and were happily waylaid by doggie affection for a few minutes.

They are, in fact, taller than I am.

They are, in fact, taller than I am.

After breakfast, we climbed into a private car (which the Chalet proprietress had arranged for us) to head to El Salto del Limón. This is a waterfall and tourism hotspot outside El Limón, a town about 25 minutes’ drive farther west of Samaná. Our driver Pedro was chatty and amiable; the conversation varied from his young-adult children and their university studies, to the huge, gaudy expatriate mansions up on some of the hillsides.

We drove from Las Galeras, through Samaná, and into El Limón, keenly watching the pueblos and naturaleza (nature) pass by through the window (as always). Once we arrived, Pedro led us over to two guides with two horses (standing amongst a whole mess of horses and guides), and we mounted up to ride to the waterfall.

La Elana Maravillosa!

La Elana Maravillosa!

Initially, as we headed up the stony path, the guides led our horses by the bridles, but once we were on the trail proper, they gave us free rein (as it were). The path crawled up and down hills, passing through shaded forests and baking-hot clearings, all surrounded by palm and banana trees. At times, the path grew muddy and boggy (the guide noted that it was quite dangerous during the rainier seasons); at other times, it was bouldery and uneven, but our horses marched solidly onward. As we went, we passed many tourists on horseback heading in the opposite direction, which required a little path-shuffle between our horses each time.

Jungle paths.

Jungle paths.

We reached a muddy, shaded area that had a few booths selling tourist goods, and we dismounted here. Then, we walked down a long series of mud-dirt, wood-reinforced trail-steps, descending into a small sort of valley, until we reached the waterfall.

El Salto del Limón was beautiful, backed with moss and lush, dangling plants, with the force of the water breaking itself into tiny soft rivulets around the rocks. There was a noisy mob of tourists clumped up nearby it, but I tuned them out and attempted to take human-free nature photos, while Elana waded bravely into the pool by the waterfall and cavorted around behind the waterfall’s curtains of splashing water.

Not too shabby.

Not too shabby.

Once we had had our fill of waterfall, we headed up the many muddy steps, and climbed up on our horses to ride back. We got to trot quite a bit on the return, perhaps because horses are smart creatures and they knew they were almost home.

(Tangentially: the horseback ride set-up made me somewhat uncomfortable. I’m accustomed to interacting with horses in contexts where they’re not left saddled and are given plenty of space and shade. I could not tell how well-treated the horses were here, but they were definitely not as well-treated as many I’ve interacted with. I know that the quality and humaneness of animal care can vary pretty widely within developing countries, and I have little right to judge as an outsider/tourist, but it nonetheless gave me pause.)

After a lunch of la bandera dominicana (“the Dominican flag,” which signifies a typical meal of rice, beans, meat, and perhaps salad), we climbed into Pedro’s car and headed back toward Las Galeras. While we had managed well enough with just public transportation, thus far, we were really glad we’d tried using a private car this one time, as it gave us some exploration flexibility we could never have had with public transport. Once, Pedro stopped so that I could snap a photo of an important sign. Later, still thirsty from the ride, we asked if we could stop for a coconut if we passed a stand—and indeed we did, so all three of us sat in the cool car and sipped fresh coconut water from the shell. Elana and I also bought some fruit: a squishy-ripe guanabana, and two new-to-us fruits: sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) and mamón (custard apple, or Annona reticulata). Fruit adventure!

Back at the Chalet, we relaxed for a while, tired from a day of humid sunshine and jostling horses. I stretched out in one of the hammocks, and wrote in my notebook, while a gentle tropical breeze brushed over me. Such perfection.

Rooftop kitten. I am so pleased with the timing on this photo.

Rooftop kitten. I am so pleased with the timing on this photo.

We grabbed dinner from town (more tasty rice and meat), and brought it back to the Chalet to eat. During the meal, we were joined by Darling (a Dominican employee of the Chalet whom we’d chatted with for a few minutes every day), and over dinner, our conversation turned to the Dominican dance bachata. Elana has become quite good at it, but I knew nothing of it—so after dinner, Elana taught me the basic steps. Then, we rejoined Darling at the hotel office, where we played dance music off YouTube on a little laptop. Darling taught me some more bachata, as well as merengue and salsa, then he and Elana danced a few dances quite impressively.

After Elana and I were danced out, our bare feet dusty from the cement, we wandered back to our room to pack up, preparing to leave the Chalet. As a bedtime snack, we sampled the sapodilla we’d bought earlier, which was sweet with a strange, grainy texture. To me, it tasted almost exactly like quince paste.

Tomorrow, we brave 8+ hours of bus travel, as we journey to Elana’s home in Dajabón.

January 16, 2014: Whale Bones and Cashew Apples

Today, after our Chalet-provided breakfast (which included a half coconut shell full of sliced fruits dunked in fruit juice), Elana and I headed off into the world fairly early, on a shuttle to Samaná. Our original plan had been to take a whale-watching boat tour; however, after hearing that yesterday’s tour had seen zero whales (since it is early in whale season here), we opted for a relaxed day of exploring Samaná, instead of a questionably whale-ful tour.

We settled down at a plastic picnic table in the comfortably warm shade to discuss our options for the day, enjoying sugared black coffee and fresh chinola (passionfruit) juice as we talked. Once we had decided upon our day’s order of operations, we went first to investigate the intriguing-sounding Shipwreck Museum—but alas, it was closed!

Hola, Samaná.

Hola, Samaná.

The next destination we had selected was the Museo de la Ballena (Whale Museum), so we ambled in that direction instead. On the way, we stopped for ice cream/frozen yogurt, which involved an entertaining amount of Spanish ice cream vocabulary question-and-answer.

While there, I also had a wholly wordless exchange with a Haitian man, who was sitting in the shop next door, separated from me by a glass wall. This interaction captured the pure essence of the standard “hey baby”/”no thanks” exchange that happens about a gajillion times a day here. I have retold it here with the actual gestures and their unspoken, implied meanings:

Man: [stares at Molly through glass wall of shop] “Hi, I noticed you’re a moderately attractive extranjera.”
Molly: [notices staring, makes eye contact, raises eyebrows] “And I noticed your noticing. Can I help you?”
Man: [mirrors Molly's eyebrow-raising] “Yes. I can be flirtatious by mirroring you.”
Molly: [raises eyebrows further and raises one corner of mouth in a skeptical expression] “Yeah, I’m good, thank you.”
Man: [points to himself, then to Molly, then to himself again] “In case it was not clear, I am romantically and/or sexually interested in you.”
Molly: [raises left hand and points to her ring finger] “I am neither available nor interested, and I know that marriage is a reason you will accept with minimal protest and no insult taken.”
Man: [waves hands quickly in front of his chest, and assumes a vaguely apologetic expression] “You are correct in this assumption. I respectfully withdraw my proposition.”

Our map showed the Whale Museum as being alongside the curve of the water, rather than on the main road (which ran straight and thus diverged from the coast here). We walked out along a dirt road, which was overgrown with unruly plants on both sides and had a shoreline strewn with wrecked, half-sunken boats. Along the way, we asked two groups of men where the Whale Museum was; both reassured us that it was farther in the direction we were heading.

Odd, evocative old wrecks along the Samaná shore.

Odd, evocative old wrecks along the Samaná shore.

When we reached the end of the dirt road, we found a few booths selling touristy goods and a large, crowded beach… but no Whale Museum. A boothkeep told us that it was way back where we came from, apparently. We had, however, inadvertently stumbled upon another cool landmark: El Puente, or “the bridge to nowhere,” a slightly decrepit structure that spanned from Samaná across several small islands, then dead-ended. Originally it had been intended to foster resort tourism, but the effort was abandoned in the 70s. We walked across a few spans of it, then headed back to the Whale Museum, this time finding it successfully.

Briiiiiidge to Nooooowheeeeereeee.

Briiiiiidge to Nooooowheeeeereeee.

The Whale Museum consisted of a few buildings tucked in amongst a beautifully-cultivated tropical garden—still just wild enough, but very elegant. When we arrived, the museum was locked up tight, but the adjacent office was open, with two teenage boys sitting within. We greeted them, and asked about el museo; within a few moments, they had opened up the whole museum for us.

The museum was small, with a reconstructed whale skeleton at its center and high, wood-beamed ceilings. The walls were lined with photo-exhibits and explanations about the region and its humpback whales (Samaná Bay is their calving and mating grounds, to which they return every year). The two young men took turns giving us a full guided narration of each section of the museum. First, they gave us an overview of Samaná’s history, culture, and daily life, and then we discussed the humpback whales: everything from their scientific name’s etymology to their reproductive habits. At the end of the tour, they played us some gorgeous underwater footage of whales swimming in the adjacent bay.

We had no trouble with their rapid-fire Dominican Spanish, although we had to ask for clarification on a few of the technical biology terms. Both young men were vivacious, engaged, and knowledgeable, and it was a genuine pleasure to interact with them. At the end of the tour, we chatted with them a little more and found out that they worked with a really cool group called Ecojuventud Samaná, a local youth group focused on ecology and the environment. We also asked them a little more about the area’s naturaleza—apparently there are manatees in this country! although very few—then shook their hands and bade them farewell.

Elana at the Whale Museum. She seems to have grown a turtle-shell.

Elana at the Whale Museum. She seems to have grown a turtle-shell.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that offered a well-priced plato del día (with salad, meat, and sides). The proprietor was initially a little brusque, as we asked too many questions about gluten and agua purificada (purified water), but the meal arrived and was delicious—one of the best I’ve had here. As we ate, we watched tiny green and brown lizards with inflatable throat-flaps cavort about on the wall. Once we had finished eating, the proprietor returned, suddenly genial and full of jokes, so we chatted with him for several minutes more before departing.

We wandered by La Churcha (the Dominican Evangelical Church Saint Peter Samaná), a fascinating old structure which had been shipped in, in pieces, from England, and which then served as a place of worship for the freed African-American slaves who immigrated to Samaná in the 19th century. It was a mixture of original and refurbished parts, with tin sides and handsome, although cracked, stained glass. A friendly churchgoer gave us a mini-tour, explaining some of the building’s history and pointing out the church’s adjoining kitchen and parish school. He also asked if we were from Spain, apparently because of our competent Spanish (hurrah!).

Hola, La Churcha.

Hola, La Churcha.

On the way back towards the bay, we stopped for a lovely large coconut from a coconut stand. The men at the stand also gifted me a bit of raw sugarcane, which was the first time I’ve tried it. It tastes, unsurprisingly, like pure white sugar—excessively sweet. (You gnaw off chunks of the stalk, chew on them until all the sweet sugar liquid is gone, and then spit out the fibrous cane bits that remain.)

We then returned to the market, where we elected to go back to Las Galeras by camioneta (truck)—yet another inexpensive and not unreliable method of public transportation—instead of guagua (bus), as we had before. We climbed into the truckbed, sitting on backward-facing wooden benches beneath a canvas ceiling. A few minutes later, our camioneta rumbled into motion. At first, this vantage point gave me the odd sensation of being in a zoo: as male moto riders caught up with our slower truck, their heads would reliably turn towards us extranjeras, gawking at us as they passed by. Several made kissing noises, and a pair (policemen or police academy, we think) even followed us briefly, gesturing for us to join them and indicating that there were two of us and two of them, and therefore it must be fated. All of this would be extremely creepy behavior if it weren’t so much an accepted part of the culture; as is, it’s just tedious, plus a good reason to be always a little guarded. At least it can be a good source of humor after the fact, with one’s amigas.

Riding the camioneta.

Riding the camioneta.

Within a few stops, the back of the camioneta had filled up, with about 8-10 people folded inside it. Our noble little camioneta scaled hills and vigilantly avoided motorcyclists, dropping passengers off in tiny roadside villages all the while. One of the things that is starting to stick out to me the most about Dominican pueblos: there are always people out and about during the day (and often at night), whether they’re a flock of schoolchildren in blue uniforms, a few adults chatting outside a colmado, or a doña holding court on her porch. I don’t mean to romanticize it overly, but the pueblos seem like such active, alive communities.

The camioneta dropped us back on Las Galeras’s main street, and we stopped by a colmado for a fresh ripe piña (pineapple) and some casabe (cassava bread, a flatbread made from yuca/manioc, which is naturally gluten-free!). We also inquired about a plato de vegetales (vegetable plate) at a small comedor, since—with the standard Dominican diet of rice, meat, and miscellaneous carbohydrates—Elana and I were both strongly craving fresh vegetables. The women at the comedor kindly showed us into their tiny kitchen and let us pick out exactly which of their fresh vegetables we wanted.

Back at the Chalet, we finished off some leftover chicken, rice, and yuca, then threw ourselves exuberantly at our precious steamed vegetables (even the bell peppers, which I normally dislike, tasted magical to me). Our vegetable plate also included tayota (chayote), a mild-flavored, squash-like fruit—another new food for me! For afters, we had the fresh pineapple, plus a red cajuil fruit (cashew apple) that we had bought earlier in Samaná.

Cajuil fruits. A more handsome fruit I have rarely seen.

Cajuil fruits. A more handsome fruit I have rarely seen.

The cajuil fruits are pear-shaped and fleshy; the familiar-in-the-U.S. cashew nut grows within a separate dangly bit attached to the bottom of the cashew apple. Apparently the apples themselves contain approximately five times more Vitamin C than an orange (thanks, Wikipedia!). This was yet another new-to-me food, and I really enjoyed it: very mild in flavor, and slightly astringent, but refreshing, like a perfect cross between a cucumber and an apple, both taste- and texture-wise.

Since Elana and I both speak Spanish and English, and since we speak a fair bit of English with each other and a lot of Spanish with everyone else, our conversations have been getting more and more bizarre and linguistically jumbled. Half a sentence will be English and half will be Spanish, or a Spanish verb will be barnacled by an English suffix. It is highly entertaining.

Buenas nights, amigos.

January 15, 2014: Three Beaches and a Donkey

This morning, a cool tropical breeze blew straight through our front wooden shutters, and nudged at my head until I awoke: gentle, but energizing. I wish that that were my alarm clock every morning. After dressing and brushing, Elana and I traipsed downstairs to claim our breakfast (which came complimentary with the room). In keeping with the Chalet’s theme of Overflowing Kitsch, the breakfast came artfully arranged on a wooden platter, with the various foods and liquids displayed on bits of broken coconut shell and in bamboo pitchers.

We decided to expedition to the Las Galeras-area beaches today, two of which are said to be among the most beautiful in the entire country. The hotel owner Sarah called up a boat operator acquaintance of hers, and he arrived within fifteen minutes to drive us to our launchpoint. Our lancha (little boat) for the day was small, perhaps 12 feet long, and open-topped, with several rows of plain benches and a motor at the back. Ten people (including one adorable, smiley babe-in-arms) helped push the lancha into the ocean, and we were off!

The combination of the small size of our boat and the slightly windy weather made it a magnificent day for boating. We bounced and skipped over brilliant, otherworldly turquoise waves, dipping and leaping dramatically as we crossed the bigger waves. Everything—from the ocean to the sheer, rocky cliffs, specked with plants and vines and topped with palm trees—was unbelievably beautiful. Thanks to this divine Caribbean climate, we were comfortably warm even when buffeted by sea winds and splashed with salt spray. I was grinning like a mad thing for almost every second of the boat ride.

Here’s a snippet of video:

Our first stop was Playa Frontón, the farthest east of our destinations. This beach was perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: fine white sand; hundreds of coconut palm trees all arching gently toward the water; a fascinating section of eroded grey sedimentary rocks and fuzzy-seaweeded tidepools right at the water’s edge; craggy, steep black-and-red cliffs in geological whorls; a proliferation of lush tropical plants crowding up against the foot of the cliffs; and that unreal deep-turquoise ocean. As an added bonus, the beach was almost deserted, since it’s somewhat remote and difficult to access.

The cliffs beside Playa Frontón. Astoundingly beautiful.

The cliffs beside Playa Frontón. Astoundingly beautiful.

After we landed, a teenage boy (an associate of our boat driver’s) hacked open two fresh coconuts with a machete, and gave them to us. ¡Qué rico! We sipped the coconut water down with great delight, then munched on some of the coconut meat, while Elana helped translate between a Dominican guide and a German couple, who had also come over on our lancha.

Then, we headed off down the beach to explore. We had a wonderful time wading around and staring at tiny things in the sand. Among other things, we spotted:

  • a bush with odd, white, pocked fruit (which turned out to be noni, or Morinda citrifolia, whose juice is sometimes sold as a possibly-toxic alternative medicine)
  • interesting rocks and large, complex shells embedded in the grey sedimentary rock
  • one perfect pumpkin shell (AKA a sea urchin test, which I remembered hunting for eagerly on the beach, as a child in South Africa)
  • tiny sand-camouflaged fish, algae balls, and a vibrant green crab
  • at the far end of the beach, a small sea-cave filled with miscellaneous ocean debris and remnants of fires

Once we had had our fill of beach exploration, we headed back to our lancha, and (after another glorious, bouncy, sunny boat ride), we arrived at Playa Madama. This beach was much shorter, and was located at the back of a little inlet, with tangled mats of plants growing beyond the stretch of sand. A small Dominican boy stopped by with his donkey, and Elana asked whether we might try riding the noble burro ourselves. He kindly allowed us to, so both of us took a turn to hop on its back and walk with it around in circles (well, when it felt like walking forward, anyhow).

Burro-riding is serious business.

Burro-riding is serious business.

Because of the sheltered shape of Playa Madama’s inlet, it was an ideal spot for swimming, so Elana and I switched into swimsuits and waded in. Although I yelped a little at the chill at first, the water was roughly the temperature of a half-hour-old bath, and we were soon both floating and paddling around quite contentedly. The rocks along the sides of the inlet jutted out over the water by a few feet, so you could swim beneath them. The ocean floor was striped diagonally, with areas of dense, smooth seagrass (where the water was shallow, about knee-to-hip depth) and of smooth white sand (deeper, up to my shoulder, but still shallow enough that I could stand).

From there, we wrapped up in towels and piled back into the boat to skip along to Playa Rincón, to the west of our original launch-point in Las Galeras. This beach was also quite lovely, but far more easily accessible than the others, so it was much busier and lined with rentable beach chairs. We went directly to a beachside restaurant for lunch, where each of us ordered a fresh grilled lobster (along with the normal Dominican side dishes).

Thus lobstered, we ambled over to another part of Playa Rincón, a quieter, cove-side beach with soft, faint-gold sand and barely any people. We discovered an interesting section of flat, jagged-edged rock shelves that formed mini-tidepools on the beach side, and served as a dramatic wave-breaker on the water side. From there, we ambled overland back to the main beach, lay in the sand for a spell and chatted, and then returned to our lancha for the final crossing back to Las Galeras.

The rock shelf at Playa Rincón.

The rock shelf at Playa Rincón.

After a stop at the Chalet and some haphazard attempts at roadside-flower macro photography, we walked back into town to grab dinner to-go at a little comedor. While waiting for our food, we got drawn into conversation with two young Dominican men, for almost an hour. Elana enlisted one of them to help her demonstrate the bachata (a uniquely Dominican dance style) for me, to the sound of music blasting from a discoteca (nightclub) across the street. Even after we told them we were both casadas (married; this is Elana’s standard response to the relationship question here, as she has found that the simple, fully truthful answer of having a boyfriend does not deter flirtation as effectively), they remained friendly and non-pushy. We returned to the Chalet to eat our dinner, then fell into conversation with a pair of Norwegians who were also staying there. These types of random friendships and interactions are one of the things that can make travel so valuable: the throwing-together of people from many different backgrounds, who might otherwise never have met or talked.

Later in the evening, as I strolled down to the Chalet grounds to video-chat with Ali, I noticed a toad shape, sitting behind a chair outside the front door. I did a double-take, then knelt down, watching it closely for blinking or signs of breathing—but nothing. Its skin looked matte and fake anyway, so I decided it was just a toad statue I hadn’t noticed before, and continued on my merry way into the garden.

Walking back, however, still talking on the video, I noticed that… it had moved about a foot, and was facing a different direction, although it looked just as fake and statuelike as it had before. What the—? I loudly cycled through several stages of bafflement, then found a stick and gently nudged the toad statue with it. The toad statue puffed up slightly and turned its side toward me. What the—? Elana had heard my noises of confusion, and galloped downstairs with my camera in hand. The last thing Ali saw on the video call (before my iPod battery died) was us attempting to photograph the toad, Elana nudging it with her toe, and then—sudden darkness. All further records of the dramatic battle that undoubtedly followed have been lost to posterity. Elana got a slightly numb toe from her interaction with the beastie; with some Internet research, we decided it was probably an invasive cane toad.

Possibly my favorite photo of Elana ever.

Possibly my favorite photo of Elana ever.

Having survived the toad invasion, we fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and of a half-hour burst of tropical rain.

I took far, far too many photos on this day (over 120), so here is a small selection of those photos. As always, click on any photo to open the gallery slideshow, then use the arrow keys to navigate: