Throngs of well-wishers are waiting to greet the passengers coming off our plane, which has arrived hours late. It is the middle of the night. The press of people makes us feel like rock stars, but lonely, unclaimed ones. We are not Dominicans returning to their families for the holiday.
It proves impossible to connect with our rental car as arranged. We finally give up and take a taxi to the hotel. By the time we check in, it’s breakfast time. We sleep through the morning. Then the hotel manager, Rafael, makes many calls — over a period of hours — to locate our rental car.
Eventually I am in the driver’s seat of a little Hyundai with a GPS plugged in. (Never mind the SUV I booked months ago.) I gulp and pull into the rush hour traffic. There are motorcycles everywhere, darting in and out, ignoring stoplights. Many motorcycles carry two or three people. Whole families. Some motorcycles carry propane tanks or other bulky items. Horns honk repeatedly. Traffic lanes disappear. Where are we?
We eventually end up in downtown Santiago. We stumble across a Festival of Lights, which is complete with Santa and fairies and Baby Jesus. La Corazon de la Navidad. I breathe deeply and feel at home.
After a second night, we feel more settled. The strong coffee helps.
Our first breakfast turns out to be typical Dominican fare — mounds of plantains and potatoes mashed together, with slices of fried cheese, and eggs with bright orange yolks. Plus piquant purple pickled onions.
It is time to head into the mountains, to the “eco-lodge” where we will stay for three days. We drive north in the rental car, over rutted roads. No, not rutted. Not roads at all. Just dirt. Our GPS is worthless.
We scrape along. I try to avoid roosters and guinea fowl and stray dogs, though they are generally traveling faster than we are. There is a lot to look at. And to listen to. A pig squeals. Its throats is being slit. We glance at each other wide-eyed. We watch men hang the hogs they have just killed. They scoop out the entrails. They build the fires.
Christmas is coming.
The four of us watch for the shack painted “Coco Frio” which is our only signal to turn into our eco-lodge. We shout in chorus when the shack appears. We have been driving more than two hours, maybe three.
We are shown to our thatched huts. We take out our books. We all have books. We know how to relax. We are a weird family.
For three nights we will sleep in folds of mosquito netting, serenaded by the sounds of the jungle on a gentle breeze. And also the boozy carousing of Christmas revelers.
We wake to the sound of crowing roosters. We drink coffee and watch the morning mist snake up from the twisting river below. We admire the coastline in the distance, under a silver bank of clouds, and the hump of Mt. Isabel de Torres to the west.
At breakfast we decide to join some college students who are touring a coffee plantation and amber mine. We ride with them in a van, bouncing over many of the same roads I drove yesterday. We arrive in Pedro Garcia, at a “plantation” which is slip-slidey jungle. We walk beneath towering banana trees, which shade the smaller coffee trees. We learn about coffee.
Curious boys follow our group, then run ahead. A wizened woman demonstrates how she hand-roasts the beans over an open fire. We slurp samples of the bitter brew from chipped cups.
Don’t think about germs.
I watch my husband — ever the middle school science teacher — as he approaches the local boys to ask about their guns, which appear to be welded from tin cans. One boy pantomimes how he loads it with carbine powder, then spits to ignite the powder. The boy mimics the explosion with a broad, delighted gesture.
Our van lurches further down the mountain to LaCumbre. We climb a slippery hillside as the rain begins again. Two by two we descend feet-first into a muddy amber mine. It is a pitch-black pit, dug by hand. We emerge filthy and wet — and rattled by being in this death-trap, where flash floods can be fatal. Each person has to be hoisted out by the others. We are all dirty, our butts are skidded with mud and our hands caked with it.
We attempt to wash our hands using the rainwater collected in banana leaves. Then we eat a lunch of chicken and rice and fried yucca that a woman named Carmen has prepared for us. We are soaked to the skin and filthy. The food is good.
Back at the ecolodge we take “solar-warmed” showers. Apparently “solar-warmed” means frigid.
That evening the four of us play “Five Crowns” at a picnic table as evening falls. We watch the full moon emerge. Doug gets out his binoculars to study the glowing orb. We laugh and talk. We are silent together.
We wake to the sound of rain and say to each other: There’s the morning rain.
It is Christmas Day. After breakfast we drive north in our rental car to explore. We see beautiful homes and hovels. We see green hillsides and abundant trash. We see healthy horses and emaciated cows. We sing “Feliz Navidad.”
We return to our thatched huts and chat with the other guests, who all happen to be schoolteachers also. We play with two little girls from Maine. We spot hummingbirds and warblers in the trees. At dinner there is a Christmas turkey, with stuffing and gravy. There is a plate of Christmas cookies, and nougat candy.
The next day we head toward Puerto Plata where we will spend two days by the ocean. We drive the rental car to “27 Waterfalls” at Rio Damajagua. We are given helmets and life jackets. Our family of four is assigned two local guides. One guide, Kelvin, speaks English and makes jokes. The other, Antonio, takes pictures. The guides lead us through the jungle for thirty minutes.
We come to the river and splash through it. At the first waterfall the guides position us. One holds us by the life vest as if it were the scruff of a neck. The other is below us. Go! We slide down rock as if it were a slide. Whoosh!
At the next waterfall we must jump. Bend your knees like this, Kelvin says. One two three. Jump! Don’t be scared. Try again. One two three! Jump! The water goes up my noise. It hurts, but it is exhilarating.
Don’t think about microbes. Don’t think about sinus cavities.
Hours later, wet and battered, we pile into our rental car and return to Puerto Plata.
We turn into a gated community at Playa Dorado, feeling the oddness of this other world. There’s a golf course. Air conditioning. The ground are manicured. The people walking around look tidy and clean. Their clothes are pressed. They are wearing makeup.
We are not those people. We are crammed all four into the single room which I booked long ago. This is my attempt at frugality. “Who spends time in the room?” That is what we tell each other. Our suitcases are each a jumble.
We rest for a bit. Soon we are wave-jumping in the ocean. We walk along the beach a long way. The beach is pristine until the resorts end. Then the beach is strewn with plastic trash. We keep walking. We walk for four miles, then turn around.
Supper at the resort that night is delicious. We top it off with a dessert of baked coconut that tastes like sweetened condensed milk. Which is probably the main ingredient. We feel slightly comatose. We return to the beach and lay on our backs and look up at the stars, at the full moon.
The next morning we drive to where a dangling cable car takes us up Mt. Isabel de Torres. The car sways in the wind and we emerge into a rainstorm. This mountain is almost always in clouds. Shivering, we pose for silly pictures beneath Jesus’ outstretched arms — beneath a giant statue of Jesus mounted on top of a dome which a dictator built to defend his coast. It was a waste of money because of the clouds. The dictator was a terrible person, a terrible leader.
Think about Jesus. Look at him loving everyone anyway.
I remember Rafael, the hotel manager who helped us with the rental car. He told me he was Dominican from New Jersey, and his girlfriend was from Barcelona, Spain. They argued about machismo and culture all the time. He told me: “I tell her she can’t complain. It was her people who brought the Bible when we had the gold. Now they have the gold and we have the Bible.”
That the story of Jesus survives the behavior of us Christians never ceases to amaze me.
Our last morning — we must drive to Santiago to catch our flight home but we can take the highway this time. No more ruts and pigs and roosters. Or not so many anyway.
We head into Puerto Plata to find a fort, which was built in the 1400s. We read about it in the guidebook. Who can resist a bit of history by audio tour? The day is gorgeous with blue sky. The audio tour costs 50 cents each, but only lasts a few minutes.
Doug and I take a final selfie against the centuries-old stone — I want to capture the scruffy beard of my husband on vacation.
I am so grateful we could take this adventure together — our first time in the Caribbean as a family. Thanks for reading about it.
What adventure did you take in 2015? What adventure do you hope for in 2016?