14th October 2005
It's a done deal. I was so impressed with the general
in-flight service with MyTravel that I went onto their website to see what they
had to offer. My criteria was:
a)1st week in January - Stu didn't want me to be away for
his birthday on 13th January or mine on 17th January
b) somewhere warm - Stu suggested Sweden - in January! Kate said 'Isn't that dark in winter? Don't they all kill themselves as a result?’
c) leaving/arriving Gatwick at a reasonable time - no more
catching £40 taxis and wandering around a deserted airport at 4am
d) one week only - I got too homesick with 2 weeks away
e) I spent over £700 (holiday and spending money) on
holiday in May and already knew I was going to hate it whilst on the 3-and-a-half hour coach
to Elounda, because of the inaccessible destination. Then, I only had enough
money to eat 3 good meals out, in
Wednesday 4th January 2006
I’m standing in Puerto Plata airport watching the bag
carousel go round and round with three bags on it – blue, red and black. None
of them mine, needless to say. Almost everyone else has cleared off to the
coach. With no clothes in my hand luggage except three pairs of knickers, it’s
a good start to the holiday. In frustration, I light up in the ‘No Smoking’
area. On cue, an airport security guard arrives from nowhere to tell me that
it’s a non-smoking zone. I point out that I have lost my suitcase. He walks
behind the carousel and – hey presto! – reappears with my bag. How does he
do that? I resist the urge to kiss him and find the last available seat on the
coach. The lady next to me says, ‘Are you on your own?’ This is a question
which is to dog me the entire week. The
The bar is opposite reception. We get our priorities sorted from the start and head for the bar. I return the favour and let the luggage wait for me. Piña colada for us, please. All the drinks are free, except imported alcohol. The entire week, I never saw one drunk. I leave you to draw your own conclusions. The buffet restaurant is open until 10pm, so we have time to park the luggage before we eat.
We are driven to our rooms – 5101 and 5105 – both on the ground floor, with balconies. I am in 5101. The significance of room 101 does not escape me. In the Edificio (apartment block) areas I see more staff than guests. They wear a white uniform and always use the greeting ‘Hola! in passing.
Thursday 5th January
The weather over the first two days
is ‘sunshine and showers’. It is warm, with a steamy bathroom feel, which is
draining. I can well understand folk deciding to flake out on the beach for the
duration. I was forewarned that I should not expect good weather for my stay.
‘Precipitation for the next seven days = 20%, 20%, 30%, 30%, 40%, 40%, 60%
(with thunderstorms – check for delayed flights)’. The
Roger the travel representative is worse than useless, as has been my experience on previous trips. Despite pointing out his cubby-hole, I never once found him there throughout my stay. My one question during the ‘Welcome’ meeting is how to get to the Amber museum in Puerto Plata. He advises me to ask a member of the hotel staff to find a taxi driver to take me there. As everyone said I should not travel outside the hotel complex on my own, this is dodgy advice, at best. Thank goodness for friendly, ever helpful reception staff. We hit the private beach and the sun bed. Warning. It is impossible to conduct a conversation on the beach for the constant barrage of hawkers selling manicures, hair-braiding (extensions offered for around $40), hats, souvenirs, bikinis and more hats. We are interrupted by 'Lookee! Cheapie! Almost free!'
Not one of them is offering a beach ball, which would seem a more useful item on the beach. They will not take ‘No, gracias’ for an answer and re-approach with their wares every few minutes. The only escape is to feign sleep or play volleyball (should you be lucky enough to have a ball). Of course, there is always the sea. I enjoyed limbering up in the water to the accompaniment of the beach aerobics ghetto-blaster.
Friday 6th January
I stroll to the ‘horseman’s booth. ‘Back in 10 minutes’. Times this by three and you have Dominican time. Who cares, when you are sitting in the sun watching the world go by? Manuel turns up at 10 and books me on the afternoon ‘sunset’ ride. We get back before sunset. I have ridden before but they look me up and down and put me on a mule. If I am in any doubt about the terminal status of my horse, after repeatedly trying to get her to overtake the others and break into anything resembling a gallop, I am put straight by the group of amateur baseball players we passed, who stop playing to shout ‘mulo’. I constantly feel sorry for the horses. There are horsedrawn carriages standing on most street corners waiting for business. The horses stand in the sun all day, and I see no sign of a water bucket.
It is always cheaper to buy a tour from the locals than to use the tour company as middleman. Unsurprisingly, Roger promotes the tours which pay them a commission and I get sick of the sound of ‘Oceanworld’ and ‘swim with the dolphins for only $150’. A word of advice. ‘Exchange rate’ is a misnomer on this island. It fluctuates wildly, depending on whom you are asking. When I arrived, it was 32 pesos to the dollar. The coca-cola I grateful received in a village during my horse-riding trip cost $1 or 40 pesos. As a rule of thumb, it works out cheaper to buy goods with dollars, unless they give you a lot of change (always pesos) calculated at their exchange rate. I would say it is a good idea to pay in dollars, unless it involves a lot of change.
I return to the hotel to find that Susan has managed to book places for Saturday evening in the Chinese restaurant, one of the four à la carte restaurants; the others being Brazilian (I have booked that for Sunday evening), Italian and the Steakhouse. There is limited seating. It is a mad scramble to get a place and she has waited for over an hour. A party from Wigan are here for a wedding next Thursday and have taken 20 seats.
Roger had mentioned that we would be given a $5 voucher to bet at the Jack Tar casino if we met him at the Main Stage on Friday at 9pm. I return from the horse-riding at 5pm. Susan and I present ourselves at the Main Stage after dinner. Not finding anyone resembling Roger, we ask for directions at reception and take a stroll up to the Jack Tar. The noise of the slot-machines is deafening and there are no smiles on the faces of the punters around the tables. This is serious stuff. Drinks are free if you are betting, so we move across to the big wheel and place our vouchers on the chosen numbers. ‘Minimum bet, 5 dollars.’ says the croupier. ‘We have a $5 voucher.’ ‘No. You must pay $5 as well as the voucher.’ I decide that I am not in the mood for a rip-off, but Susan says she will lend me $5 for the thrill and I can repay her when we return to the hotel. I bet on number 1 as there are more ‘1’s on the wheel and I feel this to be a psychological tactic. More punters will choose the number ‘20’ or ‘40’, of which there are fewer on the wheel, than the number 1, as they feel that they are winning more money. Susan ignores my ravings and places her bet on number 10. I win $10 and return the $5 stake to her. She urges me to change my chips to tokens but I prefer to come away with my $10 win at the end of the evening. When we emerge, the moon greets us. It is shaped like a slice of melon on its side, and looks like it has fallen over. I remember that we are near the equator.
Saturday 7th January
I leave Susan on the beach and go to find a trip to Puerto Plata in the shopping mall (La Plaza) behind the hotel. I am cornered by Alav Tours. He offers me 3 trips for $100, and cleans me out. I never carry too much cash and do not take a credit card abroad with me. The next day, I am to visit a fruit plantation, take a boat through the Gri Gri mangrove swamp and have a ‘typical Dominican meal’ on La Playa Grande beach – all for $40. On Monday the Jeep Safari will take us to a factory where they carve petrified wood into statues by hand; stop off at a ‘typical Dominican kitchen’ to mash some coffee; have lunch in the mountains, then drive to the waterfalls, where we will change into vest, helmet and plastic shoes and jump off the waterfalls into the water. This costs $35. On the Tuesday, we will drive to the Brugal rum factory and then on to Puerto Plata to visit the Amber museum, the Fort and the Cathedral, and a chair-lift up the mountain for the views.
As we sip our pre-dinner drink, the heavens open and the island shows its dramatic side. Thunder and lightning and lashings of rain. Three days of dreadful weather ensue and I will not see the moon again until the day I am due to leave.
Sunday 8th January
Boy, am I glad I packed my
pink mac! Before boarding the jeep it gets a thorough christening. Our guide is
Ingrid. I am to see a lot of her over the next three days while she gives us a
good grounding in the island's economy, history and culture.
She seems to know everyone and chats away in Spanish to the driver Juan and the
cameraman Chicho. He is here to document the day and I buy a copy DVD for $35 at
the end of it, which is delivered to the hotel by 7pm. That's service for you.
Ingrid offers me a 'Cuba Libre' - Brugal rum and coke in equal measures. We
bypass Puerto Plata and drive through Sosúa and Cabarete, which is a
world-class resort for windsurfing. Ingrid explains that they hold championships
here every year. A group of eight Dutch girls join us and Juan the driver is
very excited, phoning a mate and saying, 'Ocho muchachas! Si, ocho muchachas!'
(8 girls). It seems they have made his day. He is a character and toots
furiously at all the motorbikes and cars in his way. The road is pockmarked and
he steers from right to left to avoid the potholes, often narrowing missing
traffic coming from the opposite direction. At one point, he throws both arms in
the air in frustration, as a herd of cattle are driven along the road ahead of
us and in his way. Further on a German bloke boards the bus. He informs
the English chap sitting behind me that 'I have to sit on the left. I had this
seat yesterday. Would you please move seats?' and the poor chap is forced to
move. I have found a lot of this behaviour. In the hotel bar, the Germans would
insist on having a 'proper glass' for their drinks, not a plastic one. On the
beach, a woman once came up to my sunbed and insisted 'This is my bed.',
although there was no towel on it.
The rain is relentless and, as it lashes down again, I notice a motorbike taking shelter under a tree in the road until it eases off. We reach the Gri Gri lagoon and pile off the coach. As the girls visit the 'Ladies', the men admire the boats. Ingrid decides that the rain is coming down too hard to take our boat trip now, and tells us that we will return later in the day. She has already decided earlier on the road that it is too wet for the fruit plantation trip. I am starting to wonder whether we are going to spend the day on the bus, when suddenly we are at la Playa Grande.
As it is Sunday, there are Dominican families on the beach, and the air is full of the sound of Dominican music, waves crashing and children shrieking with excitement. I decide to wash my shoes in the surf and am almost swept away bending over the retrieve them. I decide that today is not the day for swimming, and wander up and down 'Big Beach', taking photos. It is like the Cornish coast on a wet weekend, but with palm trees and much much warmer.
We have lunch under the trees. I have brought my dictaphone and I tape the music and the animated chatter of the local men discussing the state of the nation. My piña colada comes in a pineapple. 'No rum, thanks, Ingrid! I just almost fell in the sea.' This stuff is stronger than the hotel cocktails.
A hawker comes up to show me his wares. They are statues of animals and look cheap and, no doubt, factory-made but he insists that he and his four brothers make them and shows me the knife he uses. It does not look like it has ever even peeled an onion and I graciously decline, telling him that I intend to buy my souvenirs in Puerto Plata market on Tuesday. An aged man with skin like a shrivelled walnut and no teeth sits and serenades me on his guitar. The song is staccato and sounds mental and Juan the driver tells me that the man is Mexican.
We all pile back on the bus and head back to Gri Gri lagoon. This small boy helps me on and off the boat. It is the Christmas holidays. The Christmas tree still stands in reception and there is a nativity scene made of straw outside the hotel. I keep saying, 'It is so weird to be here at this time.'
The lagoon is calm and peaceful. All one hears is the sound of egrets and vultures, and the chatter of Dutch girls in the back of the boat. A small group of boys is fishing on the bank, with plastic buckets and a piece of string. There are fish in the water and the vultures circle overhead, as the Dutch girls debate where the dead bodies are.
It is too choppy to round the coast into the caves so we return to the coach, and proceed to the fruit plantation. The rain has eased off and we get a lesson in Dominican living:
'This here is 'jaguar'. It falls down from the palm trees when the palm fruit appears. After a couple of weeks the jaguar becomes flat, and they make their homes. Also they use them as walls, to separate one room from another inside the house. These people have no toilets. They make a seat from the jaguar to sit on. These people don't buy water. They take the water from the river for drinking. When the river is dirty like you have here today, they drink raining water. So most of the things these people consume they have planted, and they just go to the doctor when they have a real emergency. Because, when they feel sick, they know what kind of tree they can make a tea, which they brew for five or ten minutes. So they never go doctor when they have a fever, ache, stomach-ache, because they know exactly what tree they can make a tea to get better.'
'These people here they plant coffee and cocoa and later they sell them. They make money twice in a year. Most of the things they planted - orange, bananas, beans, they got real chicken eggs, the condiments - they don't buy condiments, they do it by themselves. Garlic, onions, oregano - that's why they live longer than us in the cities. For these people, everything is natural. This is the way they cook and dry food, so they don't use shopping.'
We walk on round the plantation, watching a man with a machete crack open a coconut without taking off any of his fingers and passing it round for our approval. There is lime and plantain and many things I wouldn't recognise if it jumped up and bit me.
Finally, we get to taste the local fruit. The passion fruit topped with local honey is delicious. Real ambrosia. We are encouraged to buy some honey to take home, but I don't think I would get it through customs. I go over to smile at the boys with the puppies and get to hold the black one, wishing I could take him home in my suitcase. As we walk back to the bus, some boys are playing a version of marbles, using coins. They group together and I take a photo, for which they want paying. I do not oblige. Everywhere the jeep is chased by small children, shouting 'Meta! Meta!' (sweets). It seems to have become a local tradition. There was an earthquake on the island two years ago and it destroyed the schools, which have reopened, with staggered schoolhours 8-12pm or 1-5pm. There is a great shortage of exercise books and anyone visiting the island is encouraged to bring a supply with them, for the children.
Monday 9th January - King's Day
Another wet day. There are big puddles on the tarpaulin roof of the jeep. We travel through downtown Puerto Plata into the mountains. Our first port of call is the petrified wood factory. This wood is solid as a rock and is harvested from the forest by local men, for a small fee to the Brugal family, who own the land and have provided the facilities. I am very impressed with these men. First, they have to judge what can be made out of the piece of wood and, initially, use a machete to hack it into an approximate shape. They then use basic tools (including something resembling my vegetable knife at home) to hone it, and finish by sandpapering and, perhaps, painting it. There is a rare wood with strata. I bought a vase made of this for $15, and a statue of a loving couple adorned with decoration for $35. Leonard tells me that he spent three days making this model. I tell him that I love it and will give it a good home. Finally, a standing cobra for Alex ($13). I don't have enough money for the vase and Ingrid tells that the driver will keep it in the jeep until we return to the hotel and I can give him the money. I wonder how much my luggage allowance will be affected as this petrified wood weighs a ton (on my return to England, Alex does not believe his cobra is made of wood, 'It feels like clay and is as heavy as a rock.' I remind him that most fossils were once soft creatures, and he concurs).
We visit a local kitchen for the coffee-mashing ceremony:
'So these people harvest coffee twice in the year, when the grains are red or yellow, it means the coffee is ready. So they bring it here and put it in a cup to get dry. Already the coffee here is dry, they peel it by hand - let me show you. After the coffee is dry they put it inside this bowl. Let me show you - they put the coffee and brown sugar. They roast it for about one hour with the brown sugar. After this they mash it. So ladies mash the coffee because men work all day. Come here to mash, ladies!' I do feel like a lemon, using an outsize pestle and mortar to grind my coffee, to the sound of musical encouragement and clapping. Not content with this, I go on to pose with snake and parrot and, for an encore, sit on an outrageously large bull who is allegedly called Mañuel and who makes millions of pesos a year in sperm donations.
Ingrid tells me that today is 'King's Day'. This celebrates the visit of the Three Kings by giving gifts to the children. She tells me that her six-year-old daughter was in tears as Ingrid has not had time from her busy work schedule to buy her a doll.
We have a 'typical Dominican lunch' in the forest to the accompaniment of the pouring rain. Chicken and salad, Heinz spaghetti and rice, mince and potatoes. I go back for seconds of mince and tatties and this is noted by Ingrid, who tells everyone on the bus the following day of my piggery. I need all my strength for the jump off the falls.
Another short journey and we reach the falls. We strip down to swimwear and don the unflattering vest and helmet and rubber shoes. To get to the falls we have to wade through angry water, five times crossing the strong current, sometimes holding hands in a line. Ingrid stays behind at the jeep park, chatting to the locals whilst we join the strong guide, who looks like he could win several medals in the Olympics. I feel safe. What goes up, must come down. We are supposed to jump off the side of three 20 feet waterfalls into the water. Our guide warns us that there is a whirlpool under the waterfall. We climb and scramble over and up the rocks to the vantage point where we will start the descent. I find it difficult to swim across towards and under the third fall, even clinging onto the rope for dear life. As I am crouched under a ledge with the others, each holding onto the other in the freezing water and trying not to be swept away from ledge by the current, I inwardly chide myself on my foolishness. 'That's another fine mess you've got yourself into, Winnie!' Our guide looks at us and decides that we will only jump two falls. What a star! What a hero! He holds my hand across the strong current of the last river back to base and asks me, 'Why you travelling on your own?' 'I have no friends.' I reply.
Tuesday 10th January
A bit of a distrastrous day, in that I have my camera on the wrong setting all day, and we don't get to the Amber museum, and it is too windy for the chair-lift. There is the visit to the Brugal factory, a few stops off at tourist shops, where we are told not to buy amber on the beach as it is plastic. However, the amber here is at least double what I have paid in the Charing Cross market in London, which is disappointing. I am shown a silver bangle with mini flip-flops made of another local stone, larimar. It is blue of the sea and I recognise the blue sheen of several stones I had jumped across yesterday. The saleswoman wants $100 for the bangle. She must want on. We go to the fort and are told of the siege here in the 19th century by a guide who looks old enough to have taken part in it. I pick up a plastic egg with bits of larimar, amber and other local stones and shells in it for $20, and I am happy. We dodge the showers around the cathedral and I am grateful to be back on the bus.
I am sad to say goodbye to Ingrid. She has made my holiday. It would not have been the same experience, with a different guide each day. I am blessed to have met her.
Wednesday 11th January
A lazy day on the beach. The sun has finally decided to reappear, but there are still showers and ominous clouds over the mountains. Susan lets me use her shower in the afternoon as we have to book out of our rooms by 1pm. I finally borrow a free towel from the hotel towel stall as I have packed mine. When I return it at 4pm, I am told that my flight has been delayed by 5 and a half hours. This gives me another Dominican evening to enjoy, watching the cabaret and eating of the plentiful buffet ('I hate people like you who can eat what they like and not put on weight.' Susan tells me). David, one of the entertainments staff, comes over and he teaches me the salsa on stage with the other couples. 'You are a natural.' he says. 'You a dancer?' 'Only ballet and disco.' When he takes me back to my seat, he tells Susan that I must teach him some ballet tomorrow. I don't like to tell him that I will be on a plane home.
Thursday 12th January
So - I made it. I survived. I learnt a lot about the island and its people. I had a great week. Susan asked me on the beach yesterday if I will come back. I don't know. Que sera, sera. I would recommend the Dominican Republic to anyone, without reservation. Enjoy!
Tip: there is no point padlocking your suitcase on the return trip – my padlock was absent when I reclaimed my bag at Gatwick.
for soundtrack to the holiday, right click and save or left-click to listen (very large file) Dominican Republic
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