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.