Monday, January 02, 2006

Snorkels and Swedes


What a wacky Christmas! We’ve just returned to Santiago after three nights at an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Plata. It was an excellent way to have a beach vacation, but a very weird way to spend Christmas, at least when one is used to chilly weather and big family gatherings. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve eating a dinner of seafood, plantains, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce; followed by games of foosball, pool, and bocci; and later standing around a bar next to a pool with a bunch of Brits, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, etc, drinking cocktails and watching a Vegas-like performance of merengue, mambo, bachata, and something vaguely resembling palos by scantily clad dancers. Even Santa showing up during the kids’ show (clowns singing merengues and some Latin American holiday favorites, like “Si me ven, si me ven, voy camino de Belen”) didn’t quite get us into the Christmas spirit. The drive up had done a bit better, what with the Christmas pigs roasting on spits at just about every crossroads and in front of every neighborhood store. It was also fun to stop in Puerto Plata, where when we stopped by the old San Felipe fort that overlooks the bay we found a burro wearing a festive leafy headdress and a guy making dolls using scraps of bison pelts imported from the US to the local zona franca (manufacturing zone) for coat-making.

That night we stayed up late watching the after-show dancing to the music of a Dominican rock band called “Azul” that did very respectable versions of “Mustang Sally,” “Twist Again Like You Did Last Summer,” and even “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” But it was a Haitian resort employee who had his own, unique way of doing the twist who provided the most bang for the entertainment buck. Soon he was kicking up his feet, then bumping with the resort guests, and finally he slid underneath the legs of one surprised Swede.

We woke up Christmas morning feeling a bit odd about the whole business, and opened the few gifts we brought sitting on our hotel room beds. But an enormous buffet breakfast got us in a bit more of the celebratory mood, and we then spent the rest of the morning on the beach, where Santa went by in a motorboat, waving at all us beachgoers. The Water Sports office was closed for the holiday, so instead of the kayaking we’d been planning on we just lazed about reading our Phillip Pullman books and napping on the sand – didn’t even get in the water, since it was windy and a bit too chilly for us. Instead, rode some too-short bicycles and took a horse-and-carriage ride around the entire, and entirely weird, resort complex of Playa Dorada. Once accustomed to the daily, busy life of the DR in which most Dominicans live it seems bizarre to be in this gated community of hotels, golf courses, windsurfing, and enormous quantities of food. Must be even more bizarre for those who work here, presumably commuting in from some Puerto Plata barrio. It’s also kind of sad that this is all most tourists see of the country, as beautiful as the beaches are. The only experience they’ll likely have of Dominican culture is a glitzy show of merengue de orquesta and maybe a taste of cerdo asado or lambí. Nonetheless, we did spend a lovely hour enjoying the evening breeze and beautiful sunset with Tony the cochero and his horse named Coca-Cola. Next – happy hour, more games, and a late dinner at the Italian restaurant (at these resorts you can either eat buffet at any time or make reservations for one of the a-la-carte places) with bananas flambé for dessert. However, not much attracted by the disco music, we turned in early. All the better for getting up early for our snorkeling trip to Sosúa beach the next day.

One would have thought they might have let us sleep in a bit later, after standing around for some time behind a bunch of Germans waving their lit cigarettes around right under the “no smoking sign,” but eventually we did make it to Sosúa, where masks, snorkels, a boat, and a bunch of divers awaited us. They took us out to the middle of the bay, whose waters were so calm they looked almost white, reflecting the cloudy sky back at us. The water was a little cold but not as bad as we expected, so the 45 minutes we had went by all too fast. I panicked a bit at first – some kind of psychological block against breathing through a tube underwater – but one of the dive guides took me by the hand and led me around and soon I got more or less used to it. Anyway, there were plenty of wildly colorful fish, sea fans, urchins, anemones, and brain corals to distract me. Huge blue fish with greenish fins; little neons; red ones with brown spots; trumpet fish; and blue, yellow and black-striped ones that ate banana from our hands. My guided tour was definitely the best deal as my friend kept diving down and bringing up interesting things: a spiny white sea urchin that attached itself to my fingers; little white shells and urchin skeletons; enormous sand dollars bigger than my hand. Amazing.
We could hardly beat that experience, especially since there was absolutely no wind to get the catamaran going, as our water sport director Agusto (“El Rey de la Playa,” he calls himself) had hoped to do. But we did take out a sea kayak and rowed down the whole length of Playa Dorada, checking out numerous coral atolls along the way. Then it was read, sleep, and sun until happy hour. Hard life.

Finally we came to our last morning at the beach. We didn’t want to leave, so we took full advantage of our remaining all-inclusive privileges, eating a big breakfast and lunch, taking the kayak out again, and borrowing masks and snorkels to see what we could see. A lot, in fact – following Agusto’s advice, we headed down past a palm-tree-studded promontory and found a rocky reef where no other swimmers were to be found, but plenty of fish were. From there, we snorkeled most of the way back to our own beach, examining the underwater landscape on the way – forests of sea grass, rippling sand, algae-encrusted ropes, schools of little yellow fish. It was a perfect end to our three nights of luxury. When we got back to Santiago, we celebrated by going to see King Kong subtitled in Spanish. The best part was where the Skull Island travelers meet up with giant flying insects and swear at them. We laughed wildly at this part along with the theaterful of Dominicans- since we could all completely sympathize.

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