Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bend Me, Break Me

I'm going to have to re-read this blog and look at the photos really quick. Right now, I'm losing the plot. There's nothing that can erase the joy of an excellent vacation quicker than a horrible trip back (like getting home from Prague) and that's precisely what we got.

We checked in at Gregorio Luperon airport for our flight to Newark, NJ, this morning, only to find that it had been delayed for at least two hours. It took well more than 2 hours of sitting in an unconditioned hallway before we could board. At least the flight wasn't packed, and apparently ALL of Continental's flights through Newark had been delayed, so maybe we'd make our connecting flights back to SFO. Elena's was around 8:25, mine and J's slated for 7:20.

Our flight made it in at 7:45.

On the plus side, we cleared customs relatively quickly and the connectors were, indeed, delayed. On the negative, the security gate at Newark was a clusterfuck of epic proportions. I won't go into details, but I wouldn't be surprised if a riot had broken out there tonight. No control over the line whatsoever. Everyone fighting to get through because for some reason, the boards listed all the delayed flights as leaving at 8:35. TSA had no clue what to do. And these guys are charged with our safety. WTF!?

We got through and made it to our gate, only to find out that there wasn't even a plane there yet. I sat, stewing in frustration and saltiness, while J checked the boards and found out we leave at 9:10. Or so we hope. That gave us time to round up what little American cash we had to buy a Coke. With all the Brugal Extra Viejo we had on us, it was time for a goddamn cocktail.

I remarked after buying the Coke how the new-to-the-country immigrant woman - who hardly spoke English and was probably lucky to get more than minimum wage - was so courteous and nice, despite the mayhem of delayed flights, short tempers, and frustrated travelers. And here we are paying extra for federalized security workers who get higher pay, a great pension, and can't do their job to save their lives. Fuck you, TSA.

Anyway, before the jackbooted thugs come to take me away, I should get back to the story. We finally boarded our flight and were on our way home...

After the fantastically delicious (note sarcasm) "cheese steak" that resembled a high school cafeteria burger, I really had to go to the bathroom. It was when I got up that I noticed that the bug bites on my left foot had swollen my ankle to look like a giant lump of red Play-Doh. My foot could barely bend, so I limped my way to the lavatory. Once inside the tiny cubicle of stinky ass death, I noticed my face was reddened and broken out. My back was much the same, only with a bunch of miniscule whiteheads to complete the package. Again, I say, WTF!?

Between the bites, the unbearable humidity earlier, and the altitude, something was throwing my body way off. For all I know, it could've been the "cheese steak."

I spent the rest of the flight watching my clubfoot swell and redden some more. Once in SFO, I thought I might need a wheelchair, but managed to limp to the arrivals area where Ian was waiting with a car, and Elena already was. At some point, J had to support me under one arm like a human crutch, it was that bad.

But that's not the worst of it. I had to swallow some more pride and have J carry my bag up the stairs at my place for me. That wasn't so bad. What was bad was that for the first time since moving my furniture in, I cursed living in a walk-up. Especially because it became a crawl-up. That's right, I can't walk up stairs in my state.

So here I am, finally home, typing this last chapter of the trip. My foot is elevated and the swelling seems to be going down a touch, but it still hurts like hell and my skin could be mistaken for that of a 15 year-old pubescent boy.

If you put him in a deep fryer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dominican Observations

  • If I haven’t mentioned it enough, driving in the DR is crazy. The mortality rate on the roads should be much higher than it is. Thank goodness it isn’t.

  • People are really, really, really friendly. If you’re ever feeling like a misanthrope, visit the Caribbean for a few days and see that there is a nice side to humanity.

  • Dominicans are beautiful. Whether they’re black, white, mixed or indigenous Taino, rich, middle class or poor, there’s a certain glow and joie de vivre that really shines from behind the eyes and the smiles.

  • Politics are serious business. There are campaign posters everywhere, and almost all the graffiti is of a political nature.

  • The motorbike is king. Don’t be surprised to see someone riding down the highway, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and carrying the crutches he got from his last accident. Or a family of five doing the same thing. On one bike.

  • Local TV shows baseball, baseball highlights, and baseball news. And the occasional non-baseball content.

  • Many Dominicans cut off the last consonant of words, so, for instance, Buenos dias becomes bueno dia, which sounds supiciously like the Catalan bon dia. I suspect this started because no one wants to take the time to differentiate between formal and informal. This place is anything BUT formal.

Red White and Booze

When you’re on an island with as slow a pace as this, you don’t end up doing half the things you anticipated. We were hoping to have a nice, final dinner out, maybe party it up, but instead we were caught off guard by an invitation to the resort’s VIP Fourth of July party. It was last minute in terms of us not knowing about it until late today, and also last minute because the staff just decided to do it. Our poor host Eduardo even had to scramble to put it together.

And what a fine job he did. Like the other night, libations were in full effect. An American-style barbecue was prepared for the masses. And they’d even hired a pretty decent live band. Over coco locos and Santo libres and ice cold Presidentes, we enjoyed our last night on the resort’s tab in style. There was even another full-blown fireworks display as the band played “Born in the USA.” The humidity was a killer, and things looked grim when a tropical rain started to fall during dinner, but everything went off without a hitch.

Naturally, the vacationing jingoist factor was in full effect. People in stars-and-stripes do rags; American flag and eagle shirts; even a champion Midwestern woman with a bit of a mullet, a red striped sleeveless button-up, and navy blue mom-jean shorts. Ahh, Americana! The staff were more than happy to humor everyone – after all, they know where their bread is buttered – and even I had to get choked up at the playing of the national anthem, the big flags, and the ginormous American flag cake. Ok, maybe I meant cracked up. Especially because the flag cake was drawn backwards!

Yes, even a non-flag-waving, unpatriotic curmudgeon like myself had a wonderful time, and appreciated all the hard work that went into this last minute affair. It would have been hard not to.

While I’m a backpacker at heart and don’t care much for package vacations, I have to go out of my way to acknowledge the incredible job the folks at Lifestyles do to make sure everyone has a comfortable and enjoyable time.

Scared by the prospect of bad commercial hip-hop at the onsite nightclub, J, Elena and I returned to the villa to unwind with a few more cocktails and hang out well into the night. We’d polished off all the Brugal, so it made sense to crack open the Absolut and the Beefeater and our bottles of tonic water. After all, the quinine in it will hopefully prevent any malaria that may result from the super-humid evening’s mosquito bites.

The last night is always the most bittersweet. We talked about how amazing a time we’ve had. I wasn’t allowed to mention how much I dreaded leaving tomorrow, nor regret things we didn’t do. We focused on all the great things we’d done and all the great people we’d met in such a short time. I realized that in all the traveling and adventure-seeking I’ve been doing for the past several years, this was probably the most relaxing and refreshing holiday I’ve taken in ages.

In a world full of crazy overland adventures, extreme sports, marathon journeys, solo expeditions, and punishing itineraries, sometimes a short, immersive break with your friends is all you need. Gracias, mis amigos.

Beauty and the Beach

I’m geeking out once again, tapping this out on the ol’ Powerbook while laying on Cofresi Beach. My Lonely Planet guide book says this is just an “OK” beach with little to offer, but as far as I can tell, it’s pretty damn nice, not very crowded, and the water and sun here are the same as they’d be on the supposedly better beaches many kilometers away. Meh.

In fact, despite some of the warts, the Dominican Republic experience so far has been more beautiful than I’d anticipated. The people are warm and friendly. Everyone stops and smiles and says “¡Hola!” as you pass by. This short break is almost coming to an end and I think the three of us can agree that it’s the friendliness that makes this place what it is.

Roads are shite. Cell phone service is unreliable. The humidity can be stifling. You can’t help but take things slow and easy, because there’s no other way here.

Except when attempting to pass on the highway, of course.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Servicio a Todas Horas

I woke up at 8:00 to let the maid in. Usually they come in on their own, but you have to be present when they’re coming in to make you breakfast. Yes, you read that right. They make you breakfast in your own kitchen and serve it to you in your own breakfast nook around these parts. You can call us spoiled, alright. With Angela in her little blue maid outfit cooking us up some eggs and cheese and waffles and making fresh watermelon and pineapple juices, we were really getting a taste of how the other half lives. Or perhaps, the other 1%. We have to remind ourselves not to get used to this.

At 10:00 Fausto came to pick us up in his comfy Toyota van. Sure, we were a day late, but he didn’t complain. He expertly negotiated the perilous Puerto Plata roads to take us around the town.

First stop: La Fortaleza. An old Spanish fort, La Fortaleza is a nice piece of brickwork, topped with now defunct cannons and portholes for shooting at invading enemies. While it isn’t the most impressive old fort out there, it was nice to get a chunk of history amidst all this luxuriating. Fausto warned us in Spanish quite bluntly not to buy anything from the vendors scattered about the entrance, and also covered our entry – they usually scalp tourists at US$15 a head. Yowch.

We carried on through the shanty-like surrounds of Puerto Plata. Fausto chuckled when Elena called the old area lindo (pretty). The grass is always greener on the other side. While locals will fight and scrape and ride beat-up motorbikes down shitty roads to make a few dollars a day, those of us on the über-luxury-resort side of the fence think the old, run-down part of town is charming.

To many, we have it all. And we do. But there are times when our mechanized, commercialized, same-same means of building neighborhoods are outclassed by the handiwork brought on by necessity and creativity. After all, what do you prefer? A fluorescent lit strip mall? Or an alley full of vendors adorned b torches made of old coffee cans? Something to think about on the way home, I suppose.

But first, back to commerce. Fausto took us to Larimar House, one of those joints where they hand roll cigars, press them, and box them up for your immediate enjoyment. We were welcomed not with cigars, but with Mamajuana, a Taino libation that incorporates potent herbs, honey, wine, and spirits to make a very sweet and inebriating aphrodisiac. 400 pesos scored us a bottle of the herbs, which will hopefully pass customs on the return trip.

Our main concern in pushing the bounds of customs, though, is with cigars. We figured between the three of us, we can legally bring back 150 cigars. The shopkeeps were well aware of this, so while Elena was given a lesson in rolling cigars (she got to keep the one she made!), they buttered us up with a couple of their local stogies and worked on getting us to buy our US-imposed limit of cigars.

Something to keep in mind: Good cigars aren’t cheap. They aren’t in the Dominican, and they aren’t in Cuba. When you buy a $3 Romeo y Julieta “Cuban” cigar in Mexico, congratulations, you just bought yourself a phony. So it’s easy to say that in buying our limit of the store’s own handmade cigars, a couple of boxes of Cohibas, and some Arturo Fuente Rothchild’s, we’d just invested largely in the Caribbean’s economy. But hey, as J said when we got our eye-bulging tally, “We’re only in the Dominican once, right?” They did soften the financial blow a bit by offering us a few more shots of Mamajuana for the road, as well as a couple more robusto cigars. When I told the guy I really like torpedos, he threw a few more of those into the bag. “To enjoy at your hotel!” Either they made our day, or we just made theirs.

Attached to the cigar shop is the amber and jewelry shop. We couldn’t stop for one of the DR’s signature products without picking up another. Unfortunately, the sell at the jewelry store was a little harder and insistent than with the cigars, but we all picked up some pieces that our loved ones will be quite happy with. Dominican amber is reputed to be the best in the world, so I really hope they are happy.

A couple more stops in search of local arts and crafts (I can’t go anywhere without picking up some piece of indigenous work), and it was time for Dominican specialty number three: Rum. We asked Fausto if it’s cheaper at the airport’s duty free or in the shops. It was pretty much without question that the next stop would be the supermarket. Litre bottles of Brugal Extra Viejo rum for 190 pesos. That’s just over $6. Needless to say, we explored our customs limits once again.

Bags full and wallets nearly empty, it was time for Fausto to drop us off and say goodbye. His services were much appreciated in a place with bad, unsigned roads, street hustlers, and tourist gouging. He made sure we made it through unscathed, got a fair deal, and was good company the whole way. As we said goodbye and handed him a fat tip, he asked when we’d be back in the Dominican again. J may have said “We’re only in the Dominican once,” but with great people like Fausto around, we might have to be back. “No se, pero tengo su tarjeta,” I said. I’ll be keeping that card.

Wiped Out

Sunburnt. Waterlogged. We were beat. There was no way we could go out. But we had 8:30 reservations at the fancy VIP Restaurant in the complex, and how could we turn down a full-service dinner? It was pretty fantastic, especially the lobster, but I think we were just too wiped to appreciate it. Or maybe too spoiled. Either way, we made it a quiet night at home, sipping mineral water, cooling our sunburns, and smoking Cohibas.

At some point in the middle of the night, the need to snack reared its ugly head, so J and I took the golf cart out to the all-night Beach Club to pick up some munchies. We knocked back a couple of Presidentes while waiting for our order to be ready, overhearing the conversation of a group of fratboys. We figured they’d immersed themselves in an all-inclusive stupor. J guessed they’d never “left the reservation.” Our suspicions were confirmed when they were talking about rumors of people being drugged and having their kidneys stolen after leaving the confines of the resort.

When our order was up, we giddily walked back across the beach to our golf cart with a hot stack of burgers. As we left, J wished the fratboys, “Good luck with your kidneys.”

One Dominican Minute

The pickup time was slated for 8:00 am. That gave me just enough time to shower up, get dressed, return the rental car, and head over to the main reception with the guys. Today’s fun-time activity: Catamaran sailing between Playa Dorada and Sosua. One of those rough necessities of a Caribbean holiday, I suppose.

The bus picked us up sometime closer to 8:30. About the only thing that happens on time are TV shows and maybe flights on Island Standard Time. While people in other cultures try to downplay how long things will take, i.e. “just a minute,” or “two seconds,” islanders let you know that it will take a while… “One Dominican minute,” they say. Which could be anything from one actual minute to all afternoon.

It took us one or two Dominican minutes for our little bus to round everyone up at their resorts and drop us off at the beach, where we waded into the water and climbed aboard the Freetsyle II. We were pretty much the only Americans on board, the rest being Brits with varying degrees of sunburn and dental issues. Our objective for the day: Sail fast, snorkel deep, and make fun of the boatload of Aussies on the Freestyle I. Oi! Oi! Oi!

Sometimes, there’s nothing like cat sailing. It’s relaxing and exhilarating at the same time. You have the rocking motion that can lull you to sleep or throw you off your balance. There’s plenty of room to lay out and sun yourself to a crisp, while cool water occasionally splashes up from beneath you. And when Duran Duran’s “Rio” comes on the sound system, you can hang off the bow pretending to be Simon LeBon. Which we did, and the passengers who were old enough gave an appreciative snicker.

The anchor dropped at a reef near Sosua and we jumped in for a nice snorkeling session. We fed the fish, avoided landing on any of the gigantic sea urchins, and generally had a good time of floating around with our faces buried in the water. It was a bit crowded with everyone snorkeling the same reef, so Elena and I followed J’s lead of swimming toward the outskirts. Peaceful, floating bliss.

Back aboard, the bar opened up, and Mariela did a good job making sure we were never, ever without a beer or rum drink. Sometimes we were double fisting ‘em, unable to drink them as fast as she could make them. Every few seconds, she’d shout “Who needs anodder beer!?” “Beer, rum, or sex!?” The latter part was in reference to her specialty, Sex on the Boat. A cocktail. Along the way, I met my Dominican twin, Felix. Aside from a wider nose, curlier hair, and much darker complexion, we looked like we could be brothers. Freaky.

The crew and other passengers made for quite the festive atmosphere as we made our way to Three Rocks, our next snorkeling destination. With deeper and cooler water, it was a more refreshing swim. We ended our session there in a cannonball contest, competing for a bottle of Brugal rum. Eight of us lads or so had a go of launching ourselves off the side of the boat, trying to make the biggest splash we can. Winners were chosen by applause, and with a huge Mancunian contingent, there was no way team San Francisco could win.

The way back was even more fun and drunken. The crew put on a little dance show, and then some of us were pulled up to strut our own stuff with “Follow the Leader,” some local form of line dancing with a lot of clapping, a lot of putting hands in the air, and uncomfortably strange on a rocking boat, synchronized jumping around. We had plenty more drinks, learned and forgot a few Spanish phrases, and Elena exchanged numbers with Mariela so we could party in Cofresi later.

That’d be a Dominican “later.” We never made it out again.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Party Time

The day’s driving adventures required a relaxing evening dip in the pool and a good, stiff glass of Brugal. It was the big night at the resort – the VIP World welcome party – so we had to be fresh.

Pimped out in my best island get-up, I sported linen pants, a crisp pink collared shirt (short-sleeve, of course), and my new nubuck sandals. It was time to go back into swanky island tourist mode, after all. All I needed was a panama hat and a big cigar to complete the look. But I look stupid in hats and we’re not hitting the cigar-rolling joint until tomorrow.

The party itself had far more flare than I did. Sushi with mango (excellent touch, by the way), whole pigs being spitroasted over a barbecue, freeflowing drinks, you name it. We were all seated around the pool, and the high point was the entertainment. The band was talented, but it was the singer who lived up to his reputation as a Dominican superstar. He was obnoxious, hilarious, and all around fun. And pretty drunk, too, including his ode to Jack Daniels as part of the routine. They played Latin versions of just about everything, whether it was cumbia, bachata, or Pink Floyd. The zenith was a huge fireworks display done to their cover of – get this – “Clocks” by Coldplay.

While I’m not big on these resort parties – think cruise ship dinner and entertainment – we were actually really entertained. There were also amazing dance routines, as well as another act who’s allegedly one of the best singers on the island. And while her voice was excellent, I was a bit more enthralled by her booty and attendant skimpy outfits. What can I say? I’m a pig.

But the highlight was really, truly the main singer and his band. We all agreed that they’d be the best guy to play at our respective weddings. He’ll be drunk and obnoxious, just like all the guests.

Road Rage

The other day, when we’d told of our plans, Eduardo asked who was going to drive. J and Elena pointed at me. I’m the one with third-world driving experience, and having gotten rid of my car recently, I’ve been needing a dose of spirited driving to cure the withdrawal symptoms.

“Spirited” may not be the right word for driving in the Dominican Republic. Whacked-ass-holy-shit-this-is-crazy is probably more accurate.

Our first dose of madness came at the first intersection we found with a red light. There seemed to be a lot of commotion at the intersection, and we soon found out why.

The car was immediately swarmed by a throng of teens wielding squeegees and sponges, who started washing the windshield and rear window no matter how many times we protested. “¡No gracias!” Then they begged and pleaded for money. And 50 pesos wasn’t enough. Once you pay one of them off, they work their way to the next car and another couple come and start washing your already-gleaming windshield. Madenning. The light turned green and we made our way through only after J handed the budding automotive aestheticians a handful of Marlboro Lights.

A tip for traveling: Always have cigarettes. They are both a conversation starter, and a way to cheaply deal with aggressive panhandlers in developing countries.

And by developing, I really mean it. They’re getting around to re-paving the roads in Puerto Plata and putting in some sort of subterranean piping or wiring. Which means half the road is a dug up ditch, and the rest is a pothole laden death trap for timid drivers. You have to brake, swerve, and gun it like crazy through opposing traffic to get around these things with your axels intact. Who knew you could have such white knuckle thrills in a Corolla?

Once we were on Highway 5 – the main road to Sosua and environs – it seemed like smooth sailing. If you consider dodging motorcycles and cars coming right at you from the other side smooth. It’s rare that there’s a yellow line marking the center of the road, so it appears Dominicans will use the whole road in either direction.

When there is a yellow line, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Take one blind corner. Take a hill. Take a double-yellow line to prevent any sort of passing in such an obviously no-passing situation. Now add a big ol’ box truck that doesn’t seem to care about any of the above. The sum? Swerving and avoiding being creamed at 50 mph. Literally, by several inches. If my passengers were older, they would have most certainly had heart attacks. Hell, I nearly soiled myself as well. But a little, evil, leadfoot part of me thought, “Now, this is fun!”

A hundred potholes and a handful of “That motorcyclist could’ve been dead!”s later, we were in Cabarete, a little ways past Sosua.

Cabarete is the windsurfing and kitesurfing capital of the Caribbean, and it shows. You can’t NOT notice all the boardsports going on. But that wasn’t on our agenda. After the little driving odyssey we just had, we were more than happy to chill out at a beach bar, get some sun, and do some people-watching. There were windsurfers, of course. Girls clad in bikinis, dudes with way too much hair and flab to be seen in public, naked babies, and vendors. Some were selling jewelry. Others cold drinks. One guy was hawking peanuts. But the most interesting had to be the guy carrying around a large Rubbermaid tub full of pasta. As much as I love street food and getting a really good feel for local flavor, I wasn’t about to dig into noodles that were festering in a plastic box carried on some dude’s head.

Cabarete also has a reputation as being the place to party on the north coast, but I just couldn’t see it. The main drag – ok, the only drag – is riddled with shops and bars and the occasional discoteca but it really didn’t seem much more interesting than other beach towns I’ve been to. Clogged with cars and motorcycles attempting to lane-split through non-existent lanes, it seems a place that’s more hype and crowds than anything else. To its credit, though, the EZE Bar makes one of the finest piña coladas on earth, and the view of all the surfing off in the distance is pretty awesome.

The drive back was almost as harrowing as the way in, only with fewer close calls. At least, of the traffic variety. The one serious point of “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” was when we stopped for gas… and the Corolla wouldn’t go into drive. I tried and tried and tried again, to no avail. The car was stuck in park and the gear wouldn’t engage! Luckily, shifting into a lower gear first and then putting it in drive worked. Disaster averted.

I always do crazy, come-close-to-killing-yourself activities on my trips. Ziplining hundreds of meters above the ground, negotiating Class IV rapids and waterfalls, jumping off perfectly good bridges… none of these made me feel my own mortality as much as driving here. Did I mention that my seatbelt was totally non-functional? Yeah, well, it was.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

¡Mas Gasolina!

We were told that the resort had car rentals on-site. We figured it would probably cost more, but it’s far more convenient than having to go into town – or worse, the airport – to go get one. This would be quick and easy.

It wasn’t. It turns out they don’t have it on site, so they had to order one for us. $55 for a ’94 Toyota Corolla. In white. Anyone who knows me knows my incredible, irrational disdain for white Corollas. Unfortunately, that’s all they had left. And it would come in about 30 minutes. Enough time to stock up on stuffed animals to put on the rear deck. Or go to the VIP bar for coco locos and beer.

We showed up at the office hoping to see our not-so-gleaming chariot waiting for us. Except for the fact that they put a hold on the order, concerned that we wouldn’t want a car without air conditioning. Now, I realize we’re at a chi chi resort where we get choppered in, fed to our hearts’ content, and waited on hand and foot. But we were renting to get away from all that. How would no A/C be a problem for us?

The order was put in again, and that gave us time to check out the buffet for lunch. And to that, all I have to say is, “Eh.” Ok, so I really dug the octopus stew. Mmm… Tentaclicious!

The ride finally did arrive, and as predicted, it was a properly ghetto-ass white Corolla, complete with hubcaps held on with zip ties, a crack in the windshield, a re-purposed Suzuki stereo, and… an empty tank? No worries. The rep from Ramos Rent-a-Car would come back into town with us – he needed to be dropped off anyway, and we’d fill the tank.

Except that the car sputtered and died out before we even left the resort. So adding to our already late start, you have to figure in another hour or so of bumming around until someone could show up with a gallon of gasolina.

Our day of daytripping finally got off to a limping start, at 2:15 in the afternoon.

Lazy Sunday

There’s a warm tropical wind blowing through right now. J’s still in bed. Elena is upstairs showering. I’m drinking a Perrier and working on my laptop as I sit on the veranda overlooking the pool. Our pool. In which we went swimming in the middle of the night.

Yeah, life is rough sometimes. When you’re at an all-inclusive resort, reality gets distorted. You have food and drink at your beck and call. You have the beach nearby. Activities. More swimming pools. More drinks. Last night, the treatment came in the form of a set dinner at the Blue Lagoon. Salad with tuna, ceviche, lobster bisque, and this huge platter of grilled seafood. This was all fantastic, but sometimes you need to escape the coddling and the luxury.

So it was off to nearby Sosua by taxi. Not that far away as the crow flies, Dominican roads aren’t exactly like American superhighways. 45 minutes, $30, and several drunken naps later, we were there, and we secured our ride back by paying our driver another 30 bones. But hey, there’s no nightlife at the compound, and Sosua’s a happenin’ place.

Perhaps not this Saturday night. In fact, it was pretty dead everywhere we went. There were tons of bars open, with gaudy neon lights to attract the non-existent masses of revelers. No matter. We went to Voodoo Lounge, where the German-speaking bartender made a mean Cuba libre and the bathrooms were clean. This latter point is important, especially after gorging yourself on seafood and taking a long, windy road trip in the back of a Toyota minivan. Just so you know.

Our next stop was the Checkpoint, where we’d meet up with my friend Brooke from TravelPunk. She was tending bar in all her Canadian finery to celebrate her country’s big day. Umm, that’d be Canada Day, eh.

Brooke whipped us up a batch of specialty drinks, some involving a blender, and we taught her a few of our own. Somehow, we always end up with a night like this. Around the bar were a couple from Boston… no, make that Bahstun – accents in full effect! As well as a 20 year-old from Tennessee, accompanied by his 34 year old friend. Before you ask the question, J already did. What was a dude in his 30’s doing hanging out with a kid who just turned 20? We never found out…

The Checkpoint eventually had to close, which is probably good since we had a waiting cab. And J’s skin was breaking out something fierce. Elena wasn’t far behind. Damn the seafood! At least we could have a nice, cooling swim when we got back.

We made our way back to Cofresi. Along the way, the driver offered to take us around Puerto Plata on Monday, so he could show us the shopping, the amber museum, the cigar factory, etc. Well now, we weren’t going to turn down adding a driver into this whole mix, were we? I negotiated a time in my so-so Spanish, and as he dropped us off, it was agreed: Lunes a las cuatro. That means Monday at 4. Or so I hope.

World Cups

Portugal beat England while we were in flight. That’s the news Eduardo gleefully told us at one of the resort’s many bars. That wasn’t happy news (England’s my #3 team, after all) so it was completely appropriate that the bartender served us some nicely blended Coco Locos to soften the blow. “You should go to your Villa, relax, have a swim, and perhaps watch the France-Brazil game,” he suggested. “I’ll see you in an hour or so.”

We did just that. Except for the game part. You see, as awesomely awesome as this resort is, our TV didn’t work, and by the time they appeared with a new one, Eduardo had another final score to report. I immediately text-messaged my French friends to congratulate them. They freakin’ beat Brazil. I filled our cups with Brugal añejo rum to celebrate.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Generalisimo Arrives

Our flight was late. We were all bloated from the airplane rations and sore from the inhospitable seats. The airline tortured us once again by putting on Aquamarine. The only consolation came upon descent, where the waters of the Caribbean were themselves aquamarine, and the island of Hispañola lush and green. We’ve arrived.

The authorities checked our papers and demanded a $10 fee for the pleasure of getting through customs. Once out, we were met by a cadre of uniformed men, one of whom escorted us… back to the airfield. We were corralled into security again. Our bags were taken from us as we were whisked over to a helicopter. The chopper lifted us up along the coastline, over the ramshackle tin-and-concrete huts, and down into a compound, where its director, Eduardo, would be waiting for us.

Upon arrival, we were dumped out of the helicopter, our bags in the hands of more uniformed men. Eduardo watched as we were given the wet towel treatment and subsequently fed an effervescent, yellowish-poison. “Welcome to the Lifestyle Hacienda Resort,” he said.

Alright, so perhaps I’m playing things up a bit. The uniforms are white polo shirts, the wet towels were refreshing, and the yellow-tinged poison actually champagne. And the chopper ride? Freakin’ awesome. We may be carrying nothing but backpacks, but we’re carrying them on our own golf cart, over to our own three-bedroom villa, with our own swimming pool. In case there’s any question: This is not a backpacking trip.

Puerto Plata Bound

Ah, Hispañola. The second largest island in the Caribbean. Home to the biggest mountain in the area. A farm for Major League Baseball. Half French-speaking Haiti. Half Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. I'll be in the latter.

The first challenge is getting there. I hate flying internationally with stops. Taking domestic legs in the US is nothing short of misery, especially when you're routed through hubs like Newark. As in New Jersey. Yeah, the Garbage State.

So here I am in the terminal at Newark Liberty airport. My traveling companions, Elena and Jason, are taking taking alternate shifts with me, exploring what the vast terminal has to offer. J has located a venerable East Coast favorite - Dunkin Donuts. I'm still waiting for Elena to get back so I can take my shift.

In the meantime, I've found that there's wi-fi, playing with Photoshop, recharging my iPod, and totally geeking out over the fact that I've got my Powerbook with me.

This is probably because I'm delerious. I hardly got any sleep on the flight over from San Francisco. They were showing Aquamarine on the plane. I was busy being fascinated and appalled by a guy wearing shooting earmuff protector thingies and a hand-pumpable inflatable neck pillow. I'm surrounded by Jersey accents. 2.5 hours 'til boarding time.

See you on the other side.