Monday, July 03, 2006

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.

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