My very last morning… I’m sad to leave, but it will be good to be home. Elana and I woke a little early, packed up all our things, and then headed downstairs to the hotel’s kitchen to see if they had breakfast. They put together a nice plate of mangú (mashed green plantains) and fried egg for each of us; we ate, drank several cups of coffee, and talked.
After breakfast, we wandered out into the streets of Santiago for a brief walk. The sky was beautifully cloudy, a light sprinkling of misty rain had just begun, but the air was pleasant and warm, as always. (The Spanish word for a light mist is neblina, in case you were wondering.) We poked through a few food stalls in a plaza, and glanced at a shop, but really, we were just out for the sake of being out, for the sake of getting a little more city time in before my departure.
At 11:30am, Rubén’s cousin (the same one who had rescued me from the airport after my arrival) came to pick us up in his taxi. I know I didn’t spend that much time here, but somehow the streets of Santiago seemed normal and familiar to me now, as we zipped and wove through traffic, instead of the sense of strangeness I’d had with them when I first arrived in the country.
When we reached the airport, Elana and I hugged each other about seventeen times, and thanked each other profusely—and then I strode off into the terminal, to check in and go through immigration and security. Our plane departed in good time, and I gazed out at the landscape for every moment of our take-off. Storm-sky, misty hills, banana-plant leaves, and tarmac—then zinc roofs, plumes of smoke, clusters of buildings forming pueblos, all swallowed up by the lush and spreading trees.
It has been such a wonderful trip. I could not have asked for a better travel-companion than Elana, with our similar senses of adventure and our appreciation of adequate downtime. We talked about everything under the sun, and we switched effortlessly from crude humor to serious, abstract discussions, all with a healthy dose of silly. She was considerate about everything, and didn’t seem to mind at all when I would disconnect for a bit to introvert-recharge. Altogether, we had a blast together: partly due to the planning and research she’d done beforehand, but mostly just because she’s damn good people.
The Dominican Republic itself is an amazing place, both in the variety and beauty of its naturaleza (nature), and in the friendly and welcoming people I met there. Our destinations within the country complemented each other very well: just the right amount of adventure and sightseeing (waterfalls, beaches, museums), and just the right amount of non-touristy time (sharing dinner with doñas, sitting outside a colmado or on a patio as night falls). It is a fascinating country, and I do hope to be able to visit again someday.
The remainder of my return trip went by smoothly. On the plane from Santiago, I was seated in the middle of a large group of Christian missionaries, all returning from Haiti and all wearing matching neon church shirts. Flying over New York was a strange contrast to the land we’d just left: it was all snow-coated trees and Christmas-card houses, with icy black bits of river glinting here and there amidst the snow. When we landed roughly but solidly on the slick runway, the (majority Dominican) people on the plane burst into enthusiastic applause, as before. The gate was not sealed tight against the plane as we disembarked, and the air that snuck in was cold enough that I could see my breath.
I had only a 1h40m layover, somewhat shorter because the snow slowed our plane’s parking at the gate. So when they finally let us off, I speed-walked through much of JFK: through passport-check and customs, with a lull as I waited to reclaim my checked bag, then to the connecting flights’ baggage re-check, then through security, and finally to my gate at the farthest end of the terminal. Everyone else had boarded when I finally made it there, about 15 minutes before take-off, but I did make it.
Sidenote: I don’t know how widespread this is, but JFK had a new customs system. The last time I traveled internationally (about two years ago), I had had to write out several forms on which I listed every single item I’d bought abroad. Today, there were no paper forms: I just had to scan my passport in a shiny machine, answer a few questions (are you bringing back live animals?, etc.), and then it printed out a slip for me to take to the customs officer. Much less of a hassle! I had a startling moment with that process, however: my passport-check slip printed with a big X over it, which seemed to mean that some of the information was wrong. When he saw it, the customs officer joked that he hoped I had a good lawyer… but he quickly figured out that it was just an issue with the way the machine handled the hyphen in my last name. (Stop trying to get me in trouble with the TSA, hyphen!)
The plane to San Francisco was 90% empty, and I ended up having my entire row to myself. We took some extra time to depart, as they had to fully de-ice the wings during the continual, gentle snowstorm. I didn’t mind, though, as (A) I was just so relieved to have made it to the plane in time, and (B) I had an excellent view of the de-icing process, which was very interesting to watch. The de-icing machine was surprisingly cute, looking rather like it should have been a friendly robot extra in the film Wall-E. It had a large spray-nozzle, mounted atop a long mechanical neck below a row of bright lights. Its neck rotated and swept over the wing, inundating it thoroughly with a precise jet of foamy, white-colored liquid—back and forth, back and forth. Once our wings were fully tended to, we flew off into the night, for one last sleepy journey.
Ali met me at the airport with flowers, chocolates, perky dance music, and boundless exuberance. We drove home to my own well-fed cat and my own bed. Given that it was past 3:00am Dominican time by the time I was settled in, I was exhausted—but even so, I was happy to be home, and still alight with elation from every moment of my travels.