Livin’ la Vida de la Republica Dominicana

With my girlfriend heading down to the DR to revisit friends and attend a wedding, it was easy to make that my next destination as well.  I wouldn’t be joining in on those festivities, but we’d get a couple overlapping days together before she returned home and I onward with the rest of my trip.  I conned a couple past travel buddies into joining me for the additional days: Kei Mamiya of Japan and compatriot Neil Ferguson agreed to once more throw caution to the wind in pursuit of adventure.

My flight departed on Christmas day and arrived before sunrise the next morning.  May offered that there could be a taxi waiting for me at the airport, but I saw no sign bearing ‘Señor Bussies’, and instead charmed a Japanese guy into splitting a cab to La Zona Colonial.  It was going to cost way too much going solo, so this worked out perfectly.  After dumping him at his hostel, I went the rest of the way to where May was staying with her friend Marybell.  It was early, but after waking May and fumbling with an absurd number of locks, the two of us sat in the morning sun and caught up for the first time in quite a while.   I was very pleased to find this awaiting me.

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We needed some food, and for that visited a nearby cafe.  Curious to try out the new cuisine, I took one of everything.  Most of these items were a sort of fried dough with a meat and cheese inside.  I was relieved to have no issue paying with plastic, meaning my bankroll could last a bit longer.  By the time we finished up and got back, the rest of the family was stirring.  The first person I met was abuela, a nice lady who spoke zero English, and interestingly was a follower of SGI – a denomination of Japanese Buddhism.  I briefly spoke with madre, and then finally Marybelle.  It was great to meet them, sip espresso sized coffee, chat, and sort the rest of the day.  The architecture, and warm weather assured me that I had gotten far from the Michigan winter.

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The plan that emerged involved a trip over to La Romana, where a friend’s family had a place we could stay.  The drive lasted 2 hours, but traced the beautiful southern shoreline.  Their place was quite nice, and by my count had no fewer than 110 places to sit.  The villa is located in Casa de Campo, which is the DR’s Hollywood Hills equivalent and is indeed home to many celebrities, baseball players, and I assume golf players.  Once settled into our rooms, we made our way out to check a few places and grab some refreshments.  The nearby beach was glorious, but so too was the Altos de Chavon, a re-creation of a medieval European village.  The place offered incredible views.  I was told that somewhere along this river the movie Anaconda was filmed.
IMG_4184aAnother stop that day was to a restaurant that served more of the fried empanada-esq delicacies, along with a couple of El Presidentes.  From there we regrouped back at the chateau before moving on to the evening’s activities.  One of the social conventions I apparently failed at was identifying the need to change into something else for that evening.  Feeling confident about one’s appearance is apparently inadequate, especially if in the presence of those who did feel the urge.  I went on and got garbed up into something different (for different’s sake), and we made our way out to the marina.  We were going for a Christmas yacht parade, but by the time we arrived, most of the boats had bailed on the contest to go do their own thing.  This was described by my hosts as ‘typical Dominican’, but was still a great time.  The weather was warm, and the atmosphere down there great as well.

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On the way back towards the car, we caught the parents sipping on wine and were invited to join.  There, we had a nice time all together and even corralled in a few other familiar faces.  We later moved on to have our own night but did seize the opportunity to snap a picture as group.  Here, we have the parents below, and the rest of our crew.

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From there we went out to see what fun could be had.  We hit to a bar or two around the Altos de Chavon area, and I destroyed some street-style hamberguesas before we worked our way back to the estate.  The next morning, after a nice breakfast overlooking the sunny golf course, we tore off to the easternmost point of the island, Punta Cana.  Another of the family members had a house there and was happy to put us up for a night.  It was an hour before we arrived, and we were excited to at last hit the beach.  The amount of seaweed in the water and on the shore really had me wondering why people spend hundreds of dollars a night to stay here, but I was told that it wasn’t the norm.  To be fair, everything else was spectacularly beautiful.

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…especially the people.
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That evening the May and I hung back whilst the others found food.  We were both exhausted and passed out instead.  We arose again around 1 am to find people lingering and still contemplating the idea of going out to do something, but we unilaterally agreed that we lacked the ganas.  I was completely fine with that.  That next morning, May and I bid adieu and bused back to our Santo Domingo hotel to meet up with the rest of my travel crew and begin an entirely different type of trip.  It was great getting the chance to meet some of May’s good friends, and of course to see this country from an angle that would contrast the rest of my trip.  As usual, I was well on my way to packing in a great deal during the short week on that half of the island.

DSC_8875_edited-2We checked in to a decent bed and breakfast where Neil had already arrived.  He came in on the same painfully early flight as I and went on to spend the day sleeping himself back to life.  We grabbed a bit to eat and awaited the arrival of Kei.  With the whole team there, tourism began at last.  The plan for that evening was to walk the streets, eat, and eventually get ourselves dancing.  It was a Sunday night, but the Dominicans seem enjoy a good dance on any day, and it only took a few blocks before we found a little salsa place.  May and I had been excited about dancing together in the months prior to this trip, but in the end I had to cede her to an older man who actually knew what he was doing.  We were ready to move on to somewhere playing music that was a bit more Dominican, and wound up next door at more of a bar.  It was club music, but at least it the music being played was of the island.  We moved on looking for just one more place, but in the end just returned to our domicile.  May was going to be departing that next day, and I’d be without any chance to see her for over a month, so we spent a good long while chatting before finally turning in.  Kei was stuck taking the photo below

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IMG_4241aThat next morning we rose in time to catch our complimentary breakfast and sort out the rest of the day.  Walking around, one of the stops we made was to a Cuban cigar shop, and also the Santa Maria la Menor Cathedral, the first to be built in the Americas.  May had been in on a previous trip to the country, so she took care of some last minute shopping while los tres amigos took an audio tour.  The most interesting takeaway for me was that it was the only cathedral in the entire hemisphere to be built in the Gothic style.  There was an excessive amount of information covering each of the flanking chapels.

IMG_4238aAfter regrouping with May, we walked over to the America’s first castle, the former residence of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colon, who was kind enough to serve as the Viceroy of the Indies.  Our research suggested that it was possible to enter the structure, as well as the adjacent museum, though we struck out on both.  We returned to the hotel to see May off, and then we men gathered our things and set out for the next night’s accommodation. We trudged under the sun to the one proper hostel in town, arriving just a short moment after they filled their last room.  They sent us to another spot that was a bit of a dump, and completely without personality, but could at least offer us lodging.  We actually followed the street down all the way to the ocean before decided we had probably gone too far.  I was approached by some kid wanting money for food, but I instead gave him a Cliff Bar.  I would be remiss to neglect this quality photograph, crafted by Kei.

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The rest of that afternoon involved walking around, and not much else.  Though the area was full of history, what one could really do in the area was somewhat less. We had had our fill at least.  We lazed about, faked conversation with some annoying people at the pension, and then went to a supermercado to get ingredients for dinner.  We would be dining as kings this evening on imported chips and salsa, and grilled cheese.  The bread seared to the pan though and came out pretty carcinogenic, though we had also gotten some large beers to help rectify the poor cooking.

The next morning we went to Los Tres Ojos, a national park located in the center of the city that really couldn’t feel further from the capitol.  The limestone in this area had been eroded over the ages to carve the ‘three eyes’ caverns out of the jungle.  Getting to one of them required crossing an underground pool on a hand powered raft.  Finally, cameraman Kei makes his appearance.
DSC_8951aFrom the capitol area, we left and spent several hours on a bus that hauled us to the northern shore of the island.  It took a few transfers, but we eventually got into the sea town of Cabarete, where we had booked a stay at some resort.  When trying to figure out where to stay the next night, we realized that by each pitching in 50 dollars a day, we could make it an all inclusive stay.  Obviously the place was not going to be a Four Seasons, but our expectations were nowhere near that.  We were extremely content to have reasonably priced lodging along with the bonuses of beach access, wifi, food, and an open bar.  This would all be especially beneficial as we were turning over the New Year there.  Nothing about this place was pristine, but it was perfect for a few bros.
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During our days there we spent time around the pool, on the beach, playing pocket pool billiards, eating a glorious New Year’s feast, coconut boccie, horseshoes, volleyball, and some of the best live entertainment in existence.  Don’t miss the tinge of sarcasm in that last one.  None of the staff spoke any English, but they would put on skits every night for all of the guests.  Production value was extremely low, but endearing all the same – there was one lip-sync in particular that was killing us.  The weather was great throughout our time, but one day on the beach was enough.  Seriously, how are people be entertained by laying in the sun over consecutive days?!  It is perhaps the most unexciting of ways to spend time in any foreign nation. DSC_9012_edited-a1

We did of course plan this part of the trip to coincide with the transition into 2015, which made for a great night.  We skipped the taxis and instead walked the couple of kilometers along the coastline.  It took a while but our party did arrive to the bustling beaches of Cabarate where masses of revelers had already gathered along the shore.  Open container laws clearly didn’t exist, so we got our own fix and set out to take in the sights and sounds.  People were launching lanterns that soared up over the bay.  The sounds of the open air clubs pounding away proved good foreshadowing, and before long we were up there ourselves.  I was a hot sweaty mess, but no one seemed to mind.  We stayed quite a while before making the hike back.

DSC_9046aThat next morning we spent those last few hours of our stay around the pool before packing up and hitting the road.  Neil would be flying back the next day out of Santiago, so that was where we had to get to.  There were some taxis offering to take us into town for what would be a stupid amount of money even by American standards.  I had been wanting to take advantage of the local transportation, and this proved a great chance.  These are generally just junked out vans that they pack with anyone wanting a ride.  Sadly, all those that passed us by were completely full.  We waited a half hour before I spotted a three wheeled something cruising past to whom I half jokingly gave a wave.  I was a bit surprised when he actually stopped.  The man had no qualms with us hopping in the back for a small bit of cash, logic presumably being that he might as well get paid for a trip he was making anyway.  The way people stared at us gave the impression that this was not a conventional means of getting around.

IMG_0232_edited-1The hike to Santiago didn’t take long, and we were soon checked into our austere abode.  There was a McDonald’s within walking distance which certainly made for a good last meal for the trip.  We got in and were astounded to find it absolutely packed – there was nowhere to sit, and even had a security guard on hand to ensure order.  The menu was pretty unimpressive and had nothing that really reflected the local culture.  Back at the room, we watched 21 Jump Street and passed out.  When Kei and I woke up, we were a man down.  After cashing in on our free breakfast, we took a cab to the bus station that would like us to the next destination.

The DR was an awesome destination, thanks in large part to the variety in locations and experiences that I was able to enjoy.  The two phases of the trip with May’s good friends and mine, really made for some great memories.  The week cruised by, but the adventure was only halfway over!
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