Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Dominican Adventure I

The east wind was blowing strongly across the little peninsula that juts out across the south coast of the Dominican Republic and is home to the grandly titled Aeropuerto de las Americas, the international hub that serves this half of the island of Hispaniola. We climbed into the alternative car Mr Hertz's representative told us was all that was available. It wasn't the compact we had reserved but it ran, had air conditioning and the diesel engine wasn't too loud, really, and the bench seat wasn't too hard really, and we are adventure travelers after all. So here we were Friday morning, with nowhere to go and nowhere in particular to be. So, do we go to the Five Star Intercontinental and check in, or just... take off?Sabana de la Mar? Sure, why not?
The first thing we ran into was a traffic jam blocking Highway 3 east out of town. Fire fighters were spraying down a large oil spill and all traffic was diverted through narrow side streets. That took a while, me crunching the Isuzu into first gear and revving the industrial diesel into a semblance of active life. After an hour of rumbling down the four lane highway at 60mph (100kph) we ducked into San Pedro Macoris, an industrial town which the Lonely Planet later advised held nothing to excite a tourist. That became painfully obvious; the locals were as shocked by our arrival in their bakery and sandwich shop, as the Lonely Planet was by the idea anyone would be "touring" this old river port and its dilapidated riverside warehouses. To me it smacked of Joseph Conrad and Nostromo, one of his lesser novels and, perversely, among my favorites of his, dealing as it does with Central American chaos.

The open country north from San Pedro wound through cane fields and sunny plains bounded to the north by jagged green mountains. The road was littered with random potholes and cars took to sudden swerves, indicating a particularly toothsome example of hole-in-the-road. A great deal of time we too found ourselves on the wrong side of the road avoiding potholes just like the locals, and when we missed the holes and didn't avoid them and bumped through them, my wife ground her teeth as her recently operated wrist ground itself inside her cast. She continues to amaze me, she is that tough. This whole trip was her idea: why be in pain at home on the couch when you can be in pain on an adventure?
She amazed me all the more as the road took off up the side of the mountains and she groaned not once as we bounced and lurched through holes, over holes, around holes; and where the road was torn all up at random, we just bounced through the jungle. Aside from her injured arm it was totally wild, totally removed from our cozy South Florida world we had been living in at breakfast time. This was the land of stick houses, and donkeys and kids begging by the side of the road. Other kids, the lucky ones had transport to get them to and from their work in the fields. Just two hours from our world, and its a salutary reminder of just how lucky we are to live where we do.
When we were sailing my wife and I had time to adjust to the new worlds we visited over a period of years cruising, but when we drop in on the DR for just four days the culture shock is as striking to us seasoned travelers as it might be to someone seeing the true Third World for the first time. But all this aside, the ardent traveler still needs refreshment, perhaps a splendid view of Samana Bay, an iced carbonated colored water and a fried rissole of ground meat and yucca:
And then, like visitors to the moon we jumped back into our capsule and launched ourselves off again, little the wiser for our encounter with this alien world. More of the same crumbling dirt roads, wild passing antics on the straight stretches, more cane fields and motoconchos, as the motorcycle taxis are called.
They are little 100cc and 125cc two stroke motorcycles by Suzuki and Yamaha and Chinese interlopers, ferrying Dominicans about their daily business on the highways. And so, home to our five star world of satellite TV and $12 pay-per-view movies just two hours away from a world where it might take a week to earn twelve bucks. My mind was reeling as I cranked the air conditioning and looked out from my fifth floor hotel window at Santo Domingo, Holy Sunday, the teeming capital of this contradictory land.