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!

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.

4 thoughts on “January 16, 2014: Whale Bones and Cashew Apples

  1. As I pull my keys from my pocket
    I wonder if this method
    Of courtship has ever been effective
    Has any girl in history said
    “Sure, you seem so nice, let’s get it on”?
    —Amanda Palmer, “Ampersand”

  2. I thought vegetables were legumbres, not vegetales. I clearly don’t know chit from chinola. I’m jealous that your Spanish is so much better than mine. I’m glad you had such a wondrous trip.

    When you spell my middle name wrong, it’s reminiscent of a Latin American fruit. “Hola. Quisiera un naudian, con queso, por favor.”

    1. I think vegetables can go either way. They seemed to use vegetales more there. Chinola is a special word that is only used in the Dominican Republic, I think; it’s fruta de la pasión elsewhere. Hooray for regional slang.

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