Saturday, May 17, 2014

The little red tomato that could

As my plane landed in Puerto Plata I readied myself for the ensuing task. I knew I would have to deal with the price-gouging cab drivers that prey on tourists as they arrive into the DR. I knew that it would be a challenge to say the least. At the airport a small group of unscrupulous cab drivers control the market. They have formed a sort of loose union, and charge over ten times the going rate of a typical cab driver on the street. They can do this because the newly arriving tourists have no idea how much to pay for a cab ride, they are like lost sheep, not knowing where to go, weak, vulnerable. The wolves feast with each landing plane. I walked out of the doors with my luggage in hand, and was quickly approached by one of the cab drivers. I asked him, "how much for a ride to Ocean World?" He said, "fifty dollars". "I have been here for a month now, and I ride a cab regularly from Sosua to Ocean World, which is a bit farther than I'm asking you to take me. The going rate for that ride is 350 pesos or $8.75 US, why do you want $50 US?" So the cab driver walks me over to a laminated poster that is labeled "Tariff list", it has the prices for cab rides from the airport to different destinations throughout the city. I guess that in an effort to comfort the skeptical tourists, they came up with this poster that they prop up on an easel. "That should read 'Sucker List', I told the cab driver." By now I had the attention of about ten of them. One of them had quite a sense of humor, and kept high-five'g me. "And why are we talking dollars? I thought we were in the DR. I realize that I'm trapped at the airport, so I'm willing to pay you double what its worth. I will pay you 800 pesos." "If I take that, I'll lose my place in line," said the cab driver. It was then that I realized that he was better off waiting for his "lamb" than to take my offer. I walked back into the airport, and surveyed a dozen car rental agencies. The guy at the "Payless" agency seemed to be competitive enough, so I rented a car from him, 30 bucks a day, insurance included. I got a brand new tomato red Hyundai i10, much like a motorized skateboard. You should have seen all of the cab drivers staring at me as the rental car agent surveyed the car for scratches before turning it over to me. I was "the-one-that-got-away".
Having a car is nice. It's great to be able to move around at will. In the days that followed I helped two of my neighbors at the marina by driving them to the grocery store. I also went to Luperon, and hung-out for an afternoon with the oddest collection of Americans.
The day before Marie and the kids were scheduled to arrive, I drove to the airport in Santiago, about 90 minutes away, and rented a room close-by for the night. Believe it or not their flight was scheduled to arrive at 2 am. I didn't want to drive across the country in the wee hours of the night. I was so happy to see my motley crew.
And then it occurred to me, I have a car, the crew is packed and ready to go, let's explore the country. I asked the front-desk clerk for any points-of-interest to see in the area. She thought a town called Jarabacoa would be a good place to start. Marie found a place that offered horseback rides to some waterfalls on Google. What a great tool the internet is. We got to this dude ranch, and were all given horses. All of the gear on the horses was 10 years past its useful life. None of the stirrups matched, the bridles were all jury rigged. The saddles were kept together with enough duct tape to make MacGyver cringe. The horses themselves were a bit small, and so used to their routine that they seemed to be on rails. They would not respond to any commands, they just went about their usual task, in total apathy. The reins were just something to hold on to. The waterfalls were nice, and the kids went for a swim in the 55 degree water. I don't know how they do it? I swear they came back with a purple hue.
Hadrian and Eva on their horses. No, they're not having a good time, so they say.

I felt that I should have carried the horse back. He didn't weigh much more than I did.

Eva and Hadrian at the waterfall, cold!

Again, with the use of Google Maps on my iphone, we found the small city of Constanza, where, in the 1950's, colonies from Japan, Hungary, and Spain were given land in an effort to learn from their agricultural techniques. Off we were, maybe we'll get some good sushi. No such luck, we didn't find a trace of these colonies, but the town was quite nice. The next day we decided to take a drive through "Valle Nuevo" national park. Google Maps showed highway 41 cutting through the middle of the park, it would be an all day drive. I had envisioned something like the "Blue Ridge Parkway". We were so excited with the adventure ahead that we dismissed fact that the pavement had ended, and only a dirt road remained. "I'm sure it's just a bad stretch, it'll get better." After all it is a road on Google Maps, "Highway 41". They haven't failed us yet, right? At the beginning, the road was muddy and rough, but doable. The farther we got, the rougher the road became. It narrowed to barely one lane, until 4 hours into the drive that it became nothing  but a donkey trail. Now remember, we were crossing a mountain range, the Caribbean Alps they call it. Most of the time we had a precipice on one side, and the mountain wall on the other. We drove through shanty villages with only a couple of feet to spare between the car the buildings. The villagers would stare at us incredulously. They had never seen a regular car taken up into this area. I myself couldn't believe the little red car's progress, it seemed to defy all reason. I think the smaller than usual wheel base actually helped it move from one rock, and onto the next, kinda like a motorcycle. The views from the mountain road (donkey trail) across the valley were breath taking to say the least. We found an Eco-resort on Google Maps. It was in the middle of the park, we decided to give it a try. It started raining, the road began to get soft, and muddy.
There were all manner of animals along the way. Here's a donkey just off the road.

A cute pig, hopefully somebody's pet.

A view on highway 41

What a beautiful countryside.

The road was not so beautiful.

The little red tomato didn't miss a step.

The mud was more threatening than the course terrain, but we managed to get to the resort. We were met by the caretaker, and his wife. He asked if we had reservations. I said I didn't, "is there vacancy?". He said, "Yes, but you must make reservations in Santo Domingo. You can't stay here if you haven't." Then I asked, "Is there a restaurant?" He said, "No, we have no food or water. You must bring your own when you stay here." Then his wife interrupted, and said, "You shouldn't delay any longer, as the road will become too rough with the rain. Your car is too low." Having already witnessed the miracle of "the little red tomato that could", I knew only too well what she was trying to say. I tried to get a feel for the remaining road ahead, and it seemed, by the caretakers description, that we were past the worst of it. Along the way, we found a grouping of 4 pyramids that marked the center of the island. There was a lodge with several other buildings, all connected by a deck. The whole complex seemed as though there should have been people, but there was no one. It felt eerie, like in a zombie movie. We all needed to use the restrooms. As we each finished using the restroom, and began to regroup just outside, we notice the caretaker standing around the corner, just watching us. He just stood there and stared at us.  I said "hello", and he gave me a nod, but said nothing, he just kept staring. We all double timed it back to the car, as this guy stared. He kinda didn't seem to be "all there", and that made us all nervous.
These four pyramids mark the center of Hispaniola.

The winding highway 41.

A four-wheel-drive would have been nice.

The road was better, albeit not paved. We arrived at the town of San Jose de Ocoa just before night fall. There were only three hotels to pick from, so the choice was easy. We pick the one with parking on-site for the "little red tomato".
I called our friends Eben and Genevieve, and asked them to join us. We would wait here at Ocoa for them. Oh, and do not take highway 41, whatever you do. I told him that I would visit all of those places that he wanted to visit...without him, so he should join us. After a little hesitation they were on their way to join us. It is great to share new experiences with friends and family, everything is better when we're together.
The kids, all watching movies at night.

A breath taking view towards the Caribbean sea.

A helicopter landed by the fishing boats at Los Patos.

This is a view from our room at Los Patos.

Okay, we're off to see the southwest corner of the DR. The Dominican Republic has the highest and lowest elevations in the Caribbean. Pico Duarte is roughly 10,000 feet above sea level, and Lago Enriquillo is about 100 feet below sea level and they're only about 50 miles apart.
The roads in the area were really good, just as good as any state-side. The drive along the southern coast was very scenic. We would go from high mountain views, overlooking the Caribbean sea, down to small fishing villages right on the beach. A thousand shades of green and blue framed the scenery. The people throughout the DR are always warm and welcoming.
Along the way we came across a wind turbine farm.

This is the famous Bahia del Aguila beach.

Hadrian and his little sand family.

Nothing like an ice cold beer at the beach.

We stopped for dinner at this gorgeous hotel, Casa Bonita.

Eben has had the most time to think about the places to visit as he has been here for a year now. We pretty much just followed his lead. On the Southwesternmost corner of the DR is a fabled beach called Bahia del Aguila. You have to take a boat the last leg of the way. We were left on the beach, and the guide said he would be back in two hours. Lunch on the beach consisted of ham-n-cheese sandwiches that I made from these croissant rolls that I found at the supermarket. They were buttery and flaky, delicious, ah, life in stereo. More so by luck than planning, we actually hired a responsible guide to bring us out here. This all became evident when another guide approached the beach in a dangerously overloaded panga, about 30 souls were on board. Their waterline was so close to being swamped by each passing wave that I was completely sure that it would happen. They looked like escaping refugees. I could see one guy in the center of the vessel frantically bailing water with a child's beach bucket.
We found a brand new hotel in the town of Los Patos that turned out to be the cheapest, yet best hotel of the entire excursion. There was a very industrious guy at Los Patos that washed my car as I stood in front of him, and ask him not to touch my car. He just kept washing. The next morning we were off to see Lago Enriquillo. We were greeted by over a dozen iguanas when we arrived at the park headquarters. Again we rented a boat. We were promised that we would see crocodiles, but not flamingos, they were all at Lago Oviedo to the south of us. I felt a little stupid because we had heard that there were flamingos in Lago Oviedo so I figured there would be some at Enriquillo too, oops. Enriquillos water level has been rising rapidly over the last 4 years. Scientists are puzzled. The lake has doubled in size, and has overtaken some forests that laid close to it's shores. Only the crown of the trees remain out of the water. Our guide was quite proficient at maneuvering though all the tangle of trees. Sure enough our guide was able to find the crocodiles that he had promised us. He even took us over to a crocodile nesting site, and we saw hatchlings at the waters edge. He warned us not to try to grab any because the mother is near by, and would certainly attack if her babies were threatened. As sure as the mountains were cold, lake Enriquillo was hot. A stifling kinda heat that quickly made the short tour quite satisfying. We were ready to leave in short order.
These iguanas were all over the place.

A crocodile at lake Enriquillo.

This baby crocodile is only days old.

Oh, on the way back we pulled into a popular swimming hole just off the side of the road. The locals make a big production of it. Food kiosks line the street on one side. On the other, an outdoor lounge with a permanent building serves ice cold beer, or liquor, and provides the ever-present blaring music. They like their music loud round these parts. Eva had everyone impressed with her ability to swim underwater. She can cross most pools without coming up for air.
Eva was showing off at the swimming hole.

Eben doing a little showing off himself.

These are the food kiosks on the side of the road. The food was great!

Our rambling about in southwest DR had come to an end. It was time to start making our way back home. It would take us 2 days of pleasant driving. We made it to the city of Barajona just after dark that first day. We scrambled to find a hotel, and settled on Hotel Guarocuya because it had rooms with two full size beds, the best arrangement with the kids. It was built by the dictator Trujillo back in the 50's. It sits on the beach, right in front of the city, and you could sense that in it's time it was the pride and joy of the area. "In-its-time" are the key words here. Today it receives very little maintenance. If a mop can't fix it, well then it goes unfixed. That being said, they do mop a lot. The doors and windows are barely holding up, all beat, and broken. At least 30 coats of paint give the place a nice slum like feel. The bathrooms are a disaster. The hot water has been replumbed, and it enters through the ceiling, drops down, and makes a 90 degree turn, straight into the pipe, just behind the shower-head. Yes, the pipe is exposed, and there is a simple rustic ball-valve to control it, up by the shower-head. It's the weirdest thing. Short people cannot operate the hot water. Oh, and no hot water at the lavatory. The casino too speaks of another era. Today, the room simply lays barren. All of the equipment is gone. Back in the room, the surface mounted air-conditioner was slow to cool the room down, but by morning we were all cold. We all met down in the dinning room for breakfast. I think we caught them off guard, and they had to run to the market for staples when we asked for breakfast, just judging from the time it took prepare eggs, toast, and coffee. When we walked out outside this very industrious guy had washed our car. This is a recurring theme. All this aside, it was a nice hotel.
Our "once great" hotel.

I can hardly remember the second day of driving back. I remember speed bumps in the road at certain commercial areas. When you slowed down to take the speed bump, about 10 peddlers would storm the car. We made it to the city of Bani, just west of Santo Domingo. There we found four hotels to survey. We ended up at the first one that we looked at. I hate when that happens. The most memorable thing about that day was dinner at a Pizza Hut knock-off that was okay. When we walked out outside this very industrious guy had washed our car.
The crew next to the "little red tomato".

The next morning we were headed north on the country's main highway. Eight lanes, and full speed ahead, not too scenic. We exited highway one near the north coast. The final leg was again quaint and scenic. By this time the eight of us had full bladders, and were desperately looking for modern facilities. We found a beautiful mountain top restaurant who's view rivaled the Grand Canyon. As I exited the restroom, Genevieve had talked to the waiter, and ask him for permission to sit at a table, and make our own sandwiches. I was shocked, "You did what? And he said what? Are you sure you understood him correctly?" She was sure. With eight people, you can't just fade into a corner. We were the main event. I approached the guy myself, and asked "Is it true?". He was okay with it so out came all the picnic paraphernalia, bread, ham, cheese, mayo, mustard, you name it. We had quite the spread. I jokingly asked the others, "Hey, what do you think would happen if I ask for ketchup?" We gave our waiter a good tip, and were on our way. We were only about a half hour from Eben's place, "Sosua by the Sea", an all inclusive resort. We were not ready to end the vacation within a vacation so we rented a room there for just one more night.

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