Sunday, February 26, 2012

DR 1

It was kind of complicated but nonetheless romantic. After Maureen had spent a week solo in Costa Rica finishing up her dental work from last summer, we would meet up in Hispaniola. But instead of her taking the direct flight to Santo Domingo and having to navigate her way through a strange airport, we would meet at the Miami airport and travel together from there.

It took a long while for me to find cheap flights which would line up correctly, but I finally did. And I was happy that we would be doing it on Ash Wednesday, which would obviate the hassle of dealing with Carnival. It was only after I had bought the tickets that I found out that the next weekend was the DR's Independence Day, their biggest holiday of the year. So the next week was spent with me online desperately trying to find non-existent hotel rooms.

Finally I had lined up some third rate choices. Early Wednesday AM I got myself to the ABQ airport and started my journey. For totally unexplained reasons the flight from DFW was over an hour late. So when my phone rang as I deplaned in Miami I thought it was Maureen worried about why I was late. Instead it was Maureen Skype calling from a hotel at the San Jose airport, where American Airlines had put her up after bumping two planeloads of people from Miami flights.

As I made it from Gate 3 to Gate 49 I wondered what we would do. Then I got kind of mad when I found out that they had sent the flight anyway but that she was scheduled for tomorrow. What to do but to head to Santo Domingo. An hour late.

A $40 taxi ride into town. I arrived at the half decent hotel in the Zona Colonial at 1:30 am. Up at 9 before the breakfast buffet closed. Now for a walk around.

For those who don't remember their Seventh Grade history, Santo Domingo was the first European settlement in the New World. Columbus built his house here (still standing) in 1504. It was then command central for the invasions of Mexico, Peru, etc., etc. But then it became a sleepy backwater, expecially after France took over the whole island in the Eighteenth Century. Nowadays they've spruced it up as much as they could, but, honestly, as colonial zones go it isn't that special. A nice abandoned nunnery or two, but you've pretty much got it in a couple of hours.

In the early afternoon I took a taxi to the bus station to buy our tickets for Haiti. It was about a mile and a half away, and I decided to walk back. Down this street and that. Past the presidential palace. Being surprised that the city, while not wealthy, was not nearly as poor as I had imagined it would be. Certainly workaday and uninteresting, however.

Back to the hotel to keep checking their computer to see the news from Maureen. Apparently the flight to Miami at least was a go. Then out and around the Zona again. Across the street from the old cathedral they were doing a sound check at the Hard Rock Cafe. I went in to see the new friends I had met last night on the plane. There had been five really bedraggled old skinny hippies. At first I thought that they might be the fabulous furry freak brothers going surfing. Then I realized that they were probably a rock group. Sure enough, they were from the Bay Area, and they had gotten a gig to do two or three gigs in the DR as a Guns & Roses tribute band. Oh boy.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to see them tonight. Because I had to go back to the airport. But first I had to go back to the hotel and wait for Luis.

Luis had been my cab driver the night before. When he had heard about my predicament he had volunteered to drive me back out tonight, wait for Maureen, and then charge me only $40 for the whole shebang. At first I thought that there must be some angle, but it turned out that he was just a really, really nice guy.

And indeed he showed up before 10. I checked the email once more and learned that Maureen's flight would only be an hour late. Everything was closing in the Zona so we headed out there, got some coffee and sat around and talked until the plane finally arrived. Maureen was very glad to see me. We finally got to the hotel after 2.

Then up at 9 for the breakfast buffet. Two hours to see everything interesting in the Zona. Then a taxi for the mile over to the rental car place.

Except that we had to go way roundabout in heavy traffic because Independence Plaza was in between us and Hertz, and it was the first day of celebrations. Finally a little before 1 we were on the road and up towards the Samana peninsula in the northeastern corner of the island.

Flat and uninteresting tropical land on the way. But I was highly impressed by how unpoor the DR is. Traffic is only slightly irrational and actually quite easy to drive in. We got to Samana town around 4 and went to see the hotel room we had reserved. The website had been a total lie. Que sorpreso. So then we had to go around the grubby town and try to find some place else. The only half decent room was only available at a totally indecent price. After fuming for a while, I hinally had to suck it in and pay them the money.

By now it was 5:30 and my relaxing afternoon at the beach wasn't going to be happening. We started driving out towards the end of the peninsula, but only made it about halfway before the sun went down. It wasn't all that special anyway.

Saturday morning we were up at 8 for the whale watching tour at 9. That's humpback whale watching. Because this bay is where they all come to mate and give birth every winter. Each and every one of them. And Kim the marine bioligist makes a living by taking boatloads of tourists out to see them.

All kidding aside, it was pretty neat. Especially because we were able to cruise alongside a mother and her newborn calf and an excort male. Spouting and fins and splashing tails, etc. A good time was had.

Then it was back to the land and about an hour over to the town of Las Terrenas. The LP had touted this as the greatest spot in the DR, a cosmopolitan center of French bakeries and Italian restaurants, way more European than Latin American. Not to mention the great beaches and laid back ambience.

They really lied.

Granted it was a holiday weekend, but under any circumstances the place was an ugly, congested mess. Loud, poor, and stupid. With ugly brown sand to boot. And way, way overpriced.

That's what was really weird about the DR. Everything was way too expensive. How could they afford it? Or has American currency just collapsed too much? I mean, you can get a $30 motel room in Albuquerque that's better than an $80 hotel room here. Just doesn't make any sense.

Well, I was happy that all the hotels in Las Terrenas had been full up. It would have been very depressing to spend all that money and come here expecting holiday fun and finding this. All of a sudden crappy Samana town looked a lot more authentic. Back to our hotel we drove.

Sunday morning we packed up and hit the road for the north coast. I was vaguely hoping to find a nice secluded beach where we could dip our toes, but by now I was suspecting that the Lonely Planet's descriptions of the fun to be had in the DR were all b.s. As I've noted earlier, some countries just aren't that exciting or great. But people writing travel guides have to pretend they are. Else who would buy the guide? It's not that the people are crappy. In fact, most of them are really nice. Very few if any rip offs, etc. It's just that the place is, er, nondescript.

So when we reached Cabarete, which the LP enthused was the adventure surf and water capital of the DR, I was not disappointed in being disappointed. Another dirty, noisy, congested place with no place to park and nothing to do. Not having found any pleasant beaches so far (apparently all the good ones have been taken over by massive resorts), we headed inland.

Up and over slightly hilly terrain. Through towns small and larger. Neither traffic nor landscape nor people that could be described as unpleasant, but nothing remotely knock your socks off, either. Everything ranging from undesperate poor to sort of middle class third world.

We found a half decent family pizza parlor for lunch. Twirling up into the mountains, although by now it had clouded up and started to rain, so that we couldn't really see anything. Got to our destination of Constanza just before dark. Room was simple but adequate. Kind of in the center of town, though.

Which turned out to be a problem. Because even though this is supposed to be a quiet agricultural center, and even though it is Sunday night, it's ten o'clock right now, and the loud Latin music sounds like it will be incessant all night.

Oh well.


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