Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dominican Republic - May 9

It’s our last full day here, we fly out tomorrow. We picked up Chucho and went to the Botanical Garden. It’s a huge garden right in town. The place was full of school children there for a field trip. They have a train tour (actually a tram), but we decided to take the tour alone on foot. So, we didn’t get the history of the garden, but I think we saw a lot of things that we would have otherwise missed.

We saw some incredible torch gingers. Licuela palms very commonly used all over the city were 6 feet tall here (we’ve babied ours at home to a meer 3-4 feet at the tip). You could see that the garden used to be much more that it was today. Many of the exhibits were closed or in disarray and overgrown. People aren’t as interested in that type of attraction anymore. But you could see how grand it once was. I still took a lot of pictures, and had a great time. At one point we took the trail down through the canyon – which was all overgrown by plants and vines. It led down to a small stream. We didn’t follow it all the way because we couldn’t get through the jungle, but it was really cool to see.

Many of the plants were the same that we see here in Florida – lots of palms, crotons and bromeliads. But it was fun to see them in a different environment. Unfortunately, the orchid exhibit was closed at the time, so we didn’t get to see it.

Afterwards we had lunch at Rey’s Mexican Restaurant – I had a Burrito Pollo and of course Presidenté.

Back at the hotel Paul and I hit the pool again while Cesar met to meet his uncles in town.

It’s been a busy week, and after 5 days, it’s a little easier for me to understand conversations in Spanish, but still muy dificil hablar.

One funny thing that I learned was that the TV Stations don’t stay the same. One night in my room, while I was jotting down notes of our activities from the day, I was watching a movie, “Evolution” with David Duchovny, when about an hour into it, it changed to a Columbian infomercial! Not that the movie was an Oscar winner, but I still wanted to see the ending!

All in all, I really enjoyed my visit to the Dominican Republic. And I am so grateful that Cesar offered to be our host and show us his home. There is so much more that we just didn’t have time to see – you can’t do it all in a week. I think if I were to go back, I would want to visit the North and East coasts. I think the North coast is more mountainous and is more like a jungle. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get the opportunity to return.

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Dominican Republic - May 8

Today we drove to Azua to see Cesar’s family. It was about a 2 hour drive. It was nice to get out of the city and see some of the country. It’s very dry in this portion of the island. We saw lots of sugar cane and plantain fields. Many of the bridges had been wiped out in the hurricane. So there was a lot of new construction along the way, but it wasn’t too bad. Azua

Azua is a small town – much smaller than sprawling Santo Domingo. We went to meet Cesar’s three aunts, Mercedes, Carmen and “Mama.” Cesar grew up with his aunts in this house. It’s small, but not terribly so. Mercedes and Carmen were there when we arrived. Mama lived nearby and came over a little later. These are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Even though there was a huge language barrier, they made us feel so welcome in their home. They spent the morning preparing lunch for us – which I thought was incredibly generous. The meal was sautéed steak full of wonderful spices including onion, garlic, oregano, cilantro and other things. It was served with beans and rice, and a salad with green tomatoes and something called taiyota (I’m probably spelling that incorrectly). It’s a green (fruit?) that she peeled, sliced, boiled or blanched then cooled - a very subtle flavor with a pear-like texture. I’ve tried to find more info on it online, but haven’t had any luck yet. After lunch we had café con leche and that afternoon they made fresh papaya smoothies. Later we also had smoothies made from the passion fruit we bought the day before and brought with us. The best meal of the entire trip by far!

They had this really cool tree in the patio. It’s called a Higuero Tree. It has strange rough-looking bark, with pretty green leaves that break from old wood. It has these round, EXTREMELY hard fruits. We learned that the fruits are used to make Maracas (and I always thought they were gourds).

We also had the opportunity to meet more of his family – some of his uncles, two of his sisters and many nieces and nephews. All of them were very kind and gracious.

On the way back, we stopped at a few of the roadside souvenir booths. I bought a couple insulators for Presidenté. In Boca Chica, they served them by putting the entire bottle inside a piece of PVC pipe with a handle. This helped insulate the bottle and kept it from getting warm too quickly. I thought the wooden onces were pretty cool – so I bought a couple for home. One is big enough to hold a bottle of wine, the others would hold Coronas.

Back in Santo Domingo, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Vesuvio. I had a julienned caprese salad that also had sun dried tomatoes (to die for!) and baked chicken. With the exception of the salad, the dinner was okay all around, so we decided that we should go back to the Renaissance for coffee and desert again. But by the time we got back through the casino and to the coffee bar, it was closed! Dessert just wasn’t going to be the same without the coffee, so we decided against it.

On the way back to our hotel, we drove by the presidential palace, which just happened to be on the way. But as luck would have it, there was a security checkpoint performing random searches. It was a little disturbing to have the car suddenly surrounded by armed guards. Cesar explained that we were tourists and that we didn’t speak Spanish (thank God he was with us). We got out of the car and stood by while they searched the trunk. It was only a few minutes when we were able to get back in the car and head to our hotel.

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Dominican Republic - May 7

Today we drove through the city. I’m still amazed at the volume and chaos of the traffic. We drove to the east side of the city – which was much different than the Colonial District. It looks much more modern with tall buildings and common businesses (even saw a Burger King). Pretty much like a typical city.

We stopped and saw Cesar’s condo. I didn’t want to go in because he had a tenant living there. But it sits up on a hillside with a great view of the ocean a short distance away.

There’s a night club nearby that Cesar talked about, Guacara Taina Disco, so we decided to go check it out. It was the middle of the afternoon, so we knew it wouldn’t be open. We got there and there was a crew working on the grounds and cleaning up from the previous night’s events. I could see the entrance through the gate. It looked pretty cool. It just went down a few steps, and there was what looked like a small patio and bar carved out of the rock wall. Cesar disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a woman who worked there carrying a bunch of keys. She opened the gate for us and motioned for us to follow. I learned later that she somehow got the impression that we were leading a large tour group of about 40 people and we wanted to see the inside to see if we wanted to bring them there. Anyway, I didn’t think it was necessary since I could pretty much see it from there, but we followed her down the steps anyway. When we got to the bottom, she unlocked a door and we followed her through. We walked into this giant cavern. Turns out the little grotto I saw was only the ticket booth. This place was HUGE! It still looked like what it was, a giant cave, complete with stalactites. I felt like I was entering “the bat cave.” There was a concrete floor and hand rails where needed, but other than that, the walls and ceilings were untouched. We walked across the cavern and down a short series of steps into an even larger room. I was dumbfounded. There was a really long bar with many small round tables. Another large cavern to the right held a full stage with concert lights and a dance floor. This place could easily hold a few hundred people. And each weekend it does!

From there we drove across town to see the Columbus Lighthouse Monument (Faro a Colon). It doesn’t look like the usual lighthouse. It’s a huge monument built in honor of Christopher Columbus. It looks more like a modern pyramid from Central America. At night it projects a beam of light into the sky in the shape of a cross. Anyway, we didn’t know this until we got there, but it’s also where the ashes of Christopher Columbus are kept (they were moved there from Spain). It’s a pretty amazing monument. In 1972, the Pope visited the city and they have the "pope-mobile" on display outside. It's under a tent, and it's roped off, but now it's serving as a den for a litter of puppies.

We drove east from the lighthouse to Tres Ojos. It’s a park that has three with three lakes below ground level. It was truly amazing. We walked down the steps to see a cavern with an underground lake. We could see fish and turtles in the lake. We hiked to the next two lakes, and at the last one we had to take a small ferry. It was just a small platform on pontoons that was pulled across a short distance to the other side of the water. They dropped us off on the other side and we walked through the cave. It was pretty cool to think that we were so far underground. But it was large enough to not feel claustrophobic. It was pretty dark in spots and you had to stop and let your eyes adjust. It wasn’t lit at all, but it was close enough to the entrance that you could see okay. When we came out on the other side, we saw the third lake. Other than a few bats and a huge centipede on the way out, we didn’t see much animal life.

We went to a neighboring town, Boca Chica, for lunch. It’s a small tourist town lost of shopping. We were led to a parking spot and then to one of the restaurants on the beach. As soon as we sat down, the vendors were all over us. They were like seagulls! There had to be at least 6 people standing around us trying to get us to buy souvenirs, manicure, pedicure or massages or fish and other fresh critters from the sea. We really just wanted to be left alone and enjoy our lunch and the view. Cesar ended up having a conversation with our host who chased away the vendors for fear of losing his customers. He was pretty good at chasing them away for the most part. We ordered lunch and Presidenté (of course). We were finally settled and enjoyed the mesmerizing aquamarine color of the water and light breeze. Lunch was great. I had bistec (steak) and tostones (fried plantains). Paul had paea and Cesar had fish. Just as we were served, a group of young “spring breakers” sat at a table next to us, there were maybe ten of them in the group, and I’d guess that they had already begun drinking the afternoon away. As if on cue, the seagulls flocked to their tables. A few wandered to our table but we just shook our heads “no” and waved them to the other table (in fairness, they were actually buying things). It was pretty amusing to sit and watch the whole thing.

After lunch we shopped a little- didn’t buy anything. Went back to restaurant to use the restrooms before the drive back and ended up ordering just one more Presidenté (I can’t tell you how refreshing that is on a really hot day). We watched a group of women playing dominos. While we cooled off in the shade. After a while they invited us to play with them. None of them spoke any English. Who knew that the international language wasn’t love after all, but dominos? Our “one for the road” turned into several more as we enjoyed the game.

We decided to stop at the “Super Mercado” on the way back to pick up some bottled water and a few things (including a couple pounds of Café Molido). The store was huge and was a combination grocery, clothing, house wares, electronics and furniture store. Cesar was outside as we went through the checkout. I used my card, and was at a total loss when the cashier clearly wanted something from me but I couldn’t understand. Finally I got the message that she was asking for my ID. I felt silly for not getting that. The bagger was pushing the cart for me to the door, even though I tried to let him know it was okay, I could carry my few bags. When we got just outside we found ourselves surrounded by 4 or 5 men who were arguing about something with the store employee. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, so I just started pulling my bags out of the cart and walk away. Cesar saw the feeding frenzy and came over to clear it all up. Turns out, the men were all cab drivers and they were arguing over who was going to get our business. Thank got that Cesar was there. Otherwise, who knows where we would have ended up! We headed back to the hotel, and I was so tired that I was in bed by 10. It was another busy day.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dominican Republic - May 6

Well, as expected, the city looks a lot different in the ilght of day. We walked for several miles throughout the city, specifically the Colonial District. First we had breakfast at the hotel's outside restaurant. The cafe con leche was awesome. It was a welcome friend. Afterwards, we began our trek through the city. First and foremost, I have to say that I was surprised at the traffic. It was just amazing - cars everywhere, motorcycles and pedestrians thrown in the mix, horns blaring incessantly and only the faintest trace of traffic rules were to be found. We first saw the Altar de la Patria and the Parque Independencia. At the Altar de la Patria we saw the final resting place of the three forefathers of the DR; Juan Pablo Duarte, Matias Ramon Mella and Francisco del Rosario Sanchez. An imposing building in the middle of a beautifully landscaped park, it was two stories tall, built out of marble. Inside were large statues of the three men, and an eternal flame. It was attended by a couple of armed guards (something us "Norte Americanos" are not used to seeing). But they were very nice and offered a lot of history through the translation of Cesar. They were also kind enough to help us out taking pictures of the place and with them as well.

After that - we took a stroll down Conde Calle. This used to be the main shopping district in Santo Domingo. But with the advent of shopping malls in the newer part of the city, it has lost a little bit of it's luster. But it was still filled with clothing shops, souvenir stores and lots of local art for sale on the sidewalks. There was a young women's/girls clothing store named "Lolita" that I was particularly amused by.

Something that was really difficult to adjust to was being constantly approached by street vendors of all types - men selling souvenirs, boys offering to shine your shoes or men acting as their own "cambios"
offering to sell you Dominican dollars for American dollars (I'm still at a loss at how that is a good deal for them - they would typically offer a higher exchange rate than the regular cambios or banks). But they were everywhere, and we had to learn to be insistent without appearing rude. By the end of the day, the polite veneer of a smile and "no, gracias" wore thin to a simple but stern "no."

Near the end of Conde Calle, we came to an open plaza, Parque y Monumento a Cristobal Colon that lead to the Catedral Metropolitana, the first Christian church of the new world. But we came back to that later.

We continued our walk down Conde Calle and went to the Forte of Santo Domingo, or Fortaleza de Santo Domingo. There we picked up a tour guide and got a LOT of history. We learned that years ago the fort was used as a prison, and our tour guide spent time in prison because he was accused of being a supporter of Fidel Castro. The fort has a volatile history - and our tour guide was so thorough that much of what he said was lost because it was just overwhelming. The fort overlooked the Ozama River that separated the original site of the city before it moved and the fort where it is today. There was an action movie being filmed at the time we were there (the name has escaped me) but we got a photo with one of the actors. He was pretty exhausted by then because he had already been killed three times that day. From there we turned and walked down Las Damas Calle. We passed by lots of buildings full of political history. We walked by Trampolin Children's Museum. We didn't go in, but we peeked at their courtyard which was nicely landscaped with lots of orchids and palms. We passed by another small museum that had two carvings of the local Taino tribes. Here we saw representations of the sun and moon. We were on our way to see Don Diego Colon's home (son of Christopher Columbus) we saw some really cool iron artwork. I didn't get any information about them, but they were really cool. We got to Alcazar Virreinal de Don Diego Colon in Plaza Espana. There are lots of pictures of the house at the link below. They said that Christopher Columbus never lived there, but his family did, most notably his son, Diego.

From there we went to the Amber museum. It was pretty cool - there were lots of things to look at. Including their nod to Ju
rassic Park with a piece of amber with a complete miniature dinosaur inside (very gumball machine-ish, but amusing). I didn't purchase anything - it was pretty expensive. And the tour was designed to lead into a sales pitch. We knew that was coming, but went along anyway to see the museum.

By this time we were getting pretty exhausted. We happened to run into our tour guide from the fort earlier and he suggested a small cafe close to where we were. So Paul, Cesar, Chucho and I collapsed around a small table and immediately ordered sodas, bottled water and a couple of bottles of Presidente - the local brew (a light beer, especially refreshing when served ice cold - we became very good friends of Presidente by the end of the week).

After lunch, we worked our way back to the Cathedral. Along the way, we saw the remains of the first monastery (The Dominicus), and the first mental hospital (yes, you read that correctly), and the first University. When we got to the Cathedral, my camera batteries died. We tried to get batteries at a nearby gift shop, but after returning two sets that were dead, I gave up. I'll have to get copies of the pictures Cesar and Paul took. I did get a couple shots though.

It was a lot to take in on the first day, and we were exhausted! We got back to the hotel, and went straight to the pool with a few more icy bottles of Presidente to wrap it all up.

After we rested up, we decided to venture out for dinner. Cesar decided that we should visit China Town (who knew?). We got there a little late, and decided to not spend a whole lot of time shopping around. But we found a little place to eat. It was kind of funny to see a menu that was a strange mix of Spanish and Chinese - "Pollo Lo Mein" for example. We had a good chuckle at that. Although it makes perfect sense, we just never thought about it before.

Later we went to a casino in a Rennaisance hotel. Casino's aren't something I usually enjoy, but Paul and Cesar wanted to go, and I'm glad we did. I didn't gamble, but lived vicariously through them and watched the local lounge act. By the end of the night, Paul had won $140 American dollars. On the way out we stopped by the restaurant for coffee (the best!) and dessert. I had the Passion Fruit Cheesecake. It wasn't really a cheesecake, it was more like flan. But it was the best coffee and dessert in the entire world. It was the perfect end to a very, very busy day.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Dominican Republic - May 5

Today Paul and I arrived in the Dominican Republic. The flight was pretty good. I watched Jumper on the way down. We landed in Santo Domingo at 10:15PM. The wait to get our luggage was a long one. It was interesting going through customs - mostly because all the forms were in Spanish, and my Spanish is pretty poor. I was able to decipher most of it, and just hoped for the best when it came to the rest. We were greeted by Cesar at the airport. Another man was with him who immediately came up and gave me a big smile and a hug. Then insisted on taking my luggage for me. I was really hoping that he was with Cesar - he was pretty wrapped up in seeing Paul for the first time in two weeks. It turns out that he is a long time friend of Cesar's. His name is Jesus, but friends call him Chucho (I'm sure I'm spelling that wrong).

It's late as we drive into Santo Domingo. The first thing that strikes me is how much trash is on the streets. Kind of surprised me actually. And there were a LOT of people out on the streets for such a late hour on a Monday night. Many people out and about, and many women out working for the evening.

We got to the hotel, La Casona Dorado. It is pretty nice, seems clean and safe. The bed is EXTREMELY firm! And it's COLD. Apparently, they don't mess around when it comes to air conditioning.

Although it was late, we decided to go out for a bite to eat. A few blocks away was Cafe Manolo. I was tired and played it safe and ordered a Cuban Sandwich and a Coke "Light." I crashed in my room after that. All thoughts of practicing a little more Spanish left with the last bit of energy I had.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The vacation that almost wasn't...

Well, it was a close call. This past week I haven't been feeling the best. Kinda had this stomach thing that everyone at work was having - only for them it only lasted for a day. Well, it's been almost a week for me. Since I'm scheduled to fly out Monday to the DR, I thought it would be smart to just go to the walk-in clinic to see if I need a prescription. I figured that if I'm going to need to see a doctor, probably should do it here in the states rather than risk waiting to go to a doc in a foreign country.

So I go to see the doc, whom I've seen before. I talked to him, told him about my upcoming trip and then he examines me. His response was "Damn" and then sends me immediately to the ER to have my appendix checked. I was so upset that this was going to mess with my trip.

I got to the ER at about 2pm, checked in, only waited for a few minutes before I was called back. They had me change, took a urine sample, a blood sample, and had me wait to be examined. The ER doc came in, did the exam, and wasn't sure if this was an appendix thing or gall bladder. Either way, yahoo. So he says I need a CT scan. Someone comes in later, I drink the icky stuff, wait an hour, drink more icky stuff, and an hour and a half after that, they finally take me for the scan. It went pretty quickly, but then I had to wait another 2 hours for them to get the results. At this point, I am sick and tired of laying in a hospital bed in the ER watching TV. They finally came in and told me that they didn't see anything wrong. He tells me to take Pepcid and wants me to go get a sonogram. Cripes. Well, I feel okay - not great, but good enough. I've taken it pretty easy today, just relaxed, watched TV, took a nap... a good Saturday. So, unless I feel like shit tomorrow, I'm gettin' my butt on a plane Monday.