Thursday, March 09, 2006

Ballenato in Samaná

3/5 - 3/8/06

Research progresses: I finally made it over to Amantes de la Luz, the public library, to check out their newspaper collection and start looking for evidence of Santiago’s pre-tipico-book musical life. The same day, I interviewed one of the DJs from the main típico station, Super Regional. (You can listen to it online! Check it out!) Both informative and entertaining, and I’ve been invited to appear on the show to receive calls from afar one day soon. I’ll give you all the details as they become clear, so you can tune in too. Heck, you could even call us up!

Then, all of a sudden, I decided to take off to Samaná for the weekend with friends Angela and Noelia, both of whom work at the Centro Leon. Samaná is said to be one of the best, if not the best, places in the world to see humpback whales, as they come to this bay to breed every winter. And since there are only a couple of weeks left in whale-watching season this year – by law the tour boats only go until March 15 – it was just in time.

Thus, Friday morning found me arising rather than usual and hurriedly packing for the beach. Samana is quite a drive from Santiago. First we headed south on the Duarte highway past La Vega, turning off on the highway to San Francisco de Macoris just before hitting the mountains. San Francisco is only about 1/6 the size of Santiago but has a larger mall and a larger branch of La Sirena, as well as a bunch of exclusive gated communities with rows of enormous mansions. Why? Drug money. That’s pretty much the only thing the town seems to be known for.

Just past Macoris, however, things get quite scenic as one passes through emerald green rice paddies stretching off as flat as anything in both directions, punctuated by a stray palm tree or flamboyant here and there. A ways after that, you’ll find some unusual grassland where cattle graze under bonsai-shaped trees no taller than a man. Finally one comes to Nagua, a very hot seaside town where the sun seems to burn everything to a blinding white. There, I requested a quick stop. More merengue típico star accordionists have come from here than perhaps any other single town, including Maria Diaz, El Ciego de Nagua, and the legendary Tatico Henriquez. A few years ago, the town, spurred on by journalist, merengue conservator, and Nagua native Rafael Chaljub Mejia, erected a bust of Tatico in one of the town’s parks. Now, Tatico and his accordion look out over the Hall of Justice and Secretary of Education buildings. Unable to determine what magic the Naguan air contained to have spurred on all these famous fingers, I settled for a picture of myself with Tatico.

Nagua is the last town before heading out into the province of Samaná: it’s located right in the crook of where the arm of Samaná reaches out from the mainland. It’s a crossroads where you can either head up the coast towards Cabrera, El Prodigio’s hometown, or east along the peninsula. If you choose the latter, as we did, you drive right along the coast before heading south towards the town of Sanchez. There’s no tourism here because the beach is rocky rather than sandy, but you’ll pass through groves of coconut palms that grow all the way out to the water, providing shade to the tiny blue and pink-painted wooden houses of the local fishermen and other workers. As you get closer to Sanchez, the architecture changes. The road becomes lined with really charming houses similar to the historic Santiago Victorians, but with a different style of decoration, the ventilation panels featuring asterisk or square patterns rather than the scrollwork of Santiago. The vegetation also becomes thicker as you climb a ways into the hills. Then, as we neared the end of our journey (thank goodness, after three and a half hours) quite suddenly we dropped down towards the coast, and an amazing view spread out before us. The town of Samana sits in a semicircle around a calm bay where many sailboats are anchored. Two very small, thickly forested keys sit right in the middle of it and are connected to the mainland by a walkway that sits high above the water on arched legs, looking like something out of a fantasy film. Off in the distance one can see other, larger keys that resemble the whales we’d come here to see.

After that long drive we were dying to try out the local specialty: pescado con coco, fish in coconut sauce. Thus we beat a hasty path to the closest seafood restaurant with a view of the bay. We tided ourselves over with garlic bread while waiting for the main course, which turned out to be worth the wait. The coconut sauce is like that of a Thai curry without the spice, but just as flavorful, the fish was perfect, and the rice, beans, and tostones on the side hit the spot. Afterwards, we investigated the local hotel situation, which was unimpressive. Thus, my companions decided we should go see the whales first and then head to another town for overnight accommodations. As we tried to reach the whale-watching organizations listed in my tour books by phone, though, a hawker came along and made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We thus ended up following him on his motorbike out to a launching spot for lanchas, small motor boats that would take us out to find large marine mammals. There, I hurriedly changed into my bathing suit in the smelly, waterless bathroom and jumped onto the boat – so hurriedly, in fact, that I ended up forgetting my camera. This eventuality changed our itinerary somewhat, and we ended up making a stop on Cayo Levantado (Raised Key) before heading out for our date with the whales. (I called ahead to tell them we’d be a bit late.)

Cayo Levantado has no motor vehicles, but it does have a couple of hotels and a lovely white sand beach backed by a bunch of small food and alcoholic beverage stands. On the path from dock (where we had to leap up nearly five feet to reach it from our little boat) to beach there were stands selling tourist items, and we just caught the woman we needed before she left for the day, enabling me to buy an overpriced disposable camera to capture our afternoon’s adventures. We then had about 40 minutes to relax on the beach and enjoy the view of the wooded Samana coastline over a drink. Noelia and I shared a large beer – which reminds me, why do we not have large beers for sharing in the U.S.? – and Angela ordered a pina colada. It came in an attractive hollowed-out pineapple, but she reported it had no discernible alcohol content. We found out the guide who accompanied us was actually a baseball player who usually lived in Santo Domingo but was here recovering from an arm injury. The water was a little cool with the cloud cover coming and going but we jumped in anyway, and I swam around until the lancha camed back for us and we hopped back aboard.

The cloud cover was getting thicker as we headed out into the middle of the bay, and the water was choppy. But our captain, who as it happened was sporting a t-shirt from a school in Bushwick / Ridgewood, was far from daunted. He sped along those waves as if they were the Indy 500 track, but they definitely weren’t, as our rear ends soon discovered. Eventually we yelled to our baseball friend to toss us some life jackets to use as seat cushions. He agreed that at this point they were less useful as “salvavidas” (lifesavers) than as “salvanalgas” (buttsavers). It was a good thing we had them, because it took us quite a while of roaming the bay before we found whales. In the meantime, I passed the time by making bad whale jokes in Spanish. E.g. "y las ballenas, tocan mucho ballenato?" A bad pun on "vallenato," Colombian accordion music, which if one didn't know any better, and if one were German, one might think derived from the word for whale (ballena) rather than "valle" for valley. (I actually saw this spurious etymology on a Latin music web site developed by Germans.)

The first one we saw was kind of far away, but it was easy to observe his antics: shooting huge columns of foam from his blowhole, jumping up and down, putting his enormous tail up and slapping the water. We headed over to him at top speed, but he dove again before we got there. Then we saw another lancha not far from us, so we headed for them to see if they’d found anything. They said there was a whale there, but it had just gone under. We waited for a while (Angela wondered why it was called “whale-watching,” when it was clearly “whale-waiting”) and then we did see one. And then another. It’s obvious while they’re called humpbacks, because what you see when they come up to breathe and go under again is a hump with a fin in the middle of it briefly sticking up above the surface, sea serpent-like. Soon we even saw a baby whale, lighter in color than the adults and of course much smaller, though still as big as a truck. The baby skimmed the surface for a minute and then went under, and just as I was wondering, “where’s the mother?” she came up too. The two of them came up to breathe side by side, and while the mom exhaled in a big puff, the baby spit out water from its blowhole in a stream like that of a garden hose. They didn’t stay long, prompting the guides to wonder why they were all in such a hurry this afternoon – apparently, that morning the whales wouldn’t leave them alone, jumping up all over the place. I guess the whales had better things to do than entertain us, though. Anyway, it was just as well as it was getting late and we still didn’t have a hotel. Reaching for our salvanalgas, we prepared for the trip back.

Angela and Noelia had fixed on Las Terrenas for our nighttime destination – kind of a long drive that would take us over the steep mountains that run down the middle of the peninsula, so we were anxious to get going. Still a bit damp, we piled in the car and took off. It was certainly scenic, even at dusk. We passed through El Limon, the takeoff point for mule trips to the Limon waterfall. This is the stunning cascade shown in the movie Jurassic Park, and I vow to return to it later, although Angela warns us that it’s a tough hike from the point the mules have to stop up to the falls. When we drop down to the north coast and suddenly find ourselves in a town again, it’s past dark and we are once again starving.

Las Terrenas just after dark is all twinkly fairy lights on thatch-rooved restaurants, and white sand and waves lit by moonlight. The tiny beachfront bars and inviting B&Bs are all connected by one dirt road that follows the coastline from the town graveyard all the way down. Seldom has anything looked more inviting to me. But we were feeling sticky and salty so we decided to find a hotel and shower off before going any further. We went down the line inquiring within, and though some of them didn’t have anything available to meet our 3-person, 3-bed needs there were some good deals to be had, especially for families and larger groups. One beautiful hotel with a pool and Jacuzzi has 2-bedroom, 2- bath apartments with kitchen renting for US $110. The one we ended up with was less picturesque but conveniently located near the restaurants. We got a room that could have slept five for US $60. It did have two strange features, though: no door on the shower area, and when you flushed the toilet, which was in a separate room, the sink made loud gurgling noises that cracked us up every time. This establishment was run by a French couple that still didn’t speak Spanish, making communication problematic, as we found out when a discussion erupted between Angela and the ruddy-faced Frenchman. He had indicated that there was a secure parking area for her newly-purchased vehicle, but when she went to park there she found an unguarded, ungated empty lot with no other cars to be seen. Feeling uncertain about this location, she hoped to leave the car in the single space in front of the hotel, instead, where the watchman could keep an eye on it. The car would have fit in there and allowed the gate to be closed if the owner had moved his ATV a foot or two over, but this he would not do, insisting that the rear lot was perfectly safe because last week “muchos dominicanos avec grandes carros” had left their SUVs there with no problems. This incensed Angela even further as he seemed to be saying something stereotypical about Dominicans and flashy cars, and things ended at an impasse, both parties walking away in a huff.

Everyone’s mood improved, however, after we showered and went across the street to an inviting-looking Italian restaurant with specialties in seafood pasta. All tables were full so we sat at the bar and ordered wine. The Italian bartender, from somewhere near Bologna, was fun to talk to and very friendly, serving our group a complementary plate of prosciutto and crusty bread as we ordered wine. I got the house white, a variety I’d never heard of (Trebbiano) but which was very good and from the bartender’s hometown. We were already on our second glass by the time we got seated, but no matter, we were in a good mood. I got the shrimp ravioli and arugula salad, while the others ordered the spaghetti langostina (lobster). Both were excellent, the desserts less so, but we didn’t mind since we’d enjoyed our seaside dinner so much. After all that, we were only in the mood for sleep, and headed off to bed happy.

Our sleep was interrupted on several occasions by music emanating from the pool area, but still, it was hard not to wake up in a good mood when a day of laying around on the beach awaited. First, though, a big breakfast was in order, as we were all in agreement that a good vacation also means eating well. Oddly, we only found one restaurant among the many in the area that was open for Sunday breakfast, and they didn’t have the pancakes we were hoping for. Still, eggs, toast, cheese, coffee, and juice filled us up and got us adequately prepared for sunbathing. After eating, we headed through town – there is actually a typical Dominican town here, back behind the beachfront businesses – and out to Playa Bonita.

The beach lived up to its name. Another beachfront dirt road leads past a series of lovely hotels, all no bigger than two-story farmhouses but with thatched rooves and cabanas hung with hammocks, and lawns of soft grass shaded with palm trees running down almost to the water. We parked in front of one of these and headed down the beach to an unpopulated area, putting our towels down between two palm trees. Here was spent a happy and lazy couple of hours, even though the cloud cover and breeze made it a little too cool to go in the water until right at the end. From there, we went back to the hotel to collect our things, bid farewell to the unfriendly Frenchman, and try out the wood-fired pizza restaurant for lunch. (Oddly, though the place was named “Pizza Plaza,” underneath this it advertised, “specializing in fish and seafood.”) Since arugula is my favorite green, I ordered the Margarita + Rucula pizza, wondering if it might be grown in this area – it’s so fresh over here, but is usually in short supply in Santiago. The pizzas were great but rather larger than expected, so we had leftovers to stink up the car with all the way home. After lunch, we just had time to squeeze in one more brief visit to the Las Terrenas beach, where we found a disco lite blasting merengue and bachata at us. However, the lyrics were quite appropriate, as one merenguero sung to us, “how beautiful are the waves.”

The way home was uneventful, but the pizza smell emanating from the trunk made us hungry so we had to make a pit stop at the enormous La Sirena store in San Francisco de Macoris. We bought Ruffles, Sun Chips, and Coke for the drive, and I also discovered that in spite of having applied sun block at least three times, I had got burnt in a rather odd pattern (two stripes across my midsection, and splotches on one side only of each leg). I guess I really should only be allowed to sit in the shade from now on. I helped myself to a handful of aloe lotion from a tester bottle, which helped to make the rest of the drive more comfortable. Needless to say, we all slept well that night and ate pizza.

Since then, I’ve been daydreaming of Samana and having a little beach house there where I could happily write books in the shade of the coconut palms. But in the meantime, I had to get back to work and back to my routine. This entailed my accordion lesson on Monday, followed by coffee and a dominoes game with Chiqui and Laura, visits to Amantes de la Luz (where I nearly fell asleep over my dusty newspapers) and the Centro Leon on Tuesday, and taking in a Dominican film at the Casa de Arte on Tuesday evening. “Negocios son negocios” (business is business) was actually a very amusing comedy about a dorky guy in Santo Domingo who gets mistaken for the new financial manager of a major bank. Wacky high jinks ensue. I recommend it.

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