Saturday, April 07, 2007

Travels with Mom, part 2

The path was very steep and muddy, making me glad we were on horseback. A short ways into our trip we came across another group of tourists, Europeans, waiting for the rest of their party next to a little pond. We passed by as many of them as we could – they were too slow for us with two small, saddle-scared children – and made our way slowly and carefully up through grassy slopes and palm trees. Tiny pineapples grew by the side of the path.

At the top of the ridge was the most perfect little house, painted green with white shutters, surrounded by a vast expanse of naturally occurring lawn, reachable only by horse or by foot, its ramshackle outhouse across the path in a field. The guides told me an old man lived there, farming his plantains and other crops with the best view in town from his rocking chair.

About fifteen minutes later we had made our way down the other side and past a crashing cascade they told me was “the small one,” getting out of the saddle next to a kind backwoods colmado looking a bit like an old west trading post. Behind it, one could look very carefully over a precipice at the top of the waterfall, but it was hard to judge distance from that angle and gauge how tall it really was. So we went down the now even steeper, no-horse footpath to get to the pool at the bottom, accompanied by someone’s little black and white dog. At the bottom we found two swimming holes filled with cold water of a glacial green, the waterfall crashing down from above and covering everything and everyone in a cool mist. According to my guide book, the thing is 53 meters high.

A few daring Dominican teenagers managed to climb their way up the rock face under the pounding water, one of them reaching perhaps twenty feet before cannonballing into the pool below. I wasn’t feeling quite that brave, but since we were there, we had to get in, at least enough to take a picture for the old scrapbook. I managed to get thigh-deep – for about four seconds. I have never made any secret of the fact that I am a cold water wimp, and that water was not only cold, but it was not a warm day, either, with the sun coming and going from behind the clouds. A quick dip was enough for me. Mom, on the other hand, long notorious for being even more of a wimp than me, actually swam around the whole thing, something which no one in the family will ever believe but which I swear is true.

Once reclothed, we and our temporary dog tripped our way back up the path, passing a Domninican tour group of perhaps a dozen people, one of them carrying an enormous piece of hand luggage. “Moving in?” we asked. “For a couple of hours,” was his reply. Must have been some party. When we reached the semi-colmado where our horses and second guide awaited, we mounted our trusty steeds, sure-footed Carmelo and stubborn Ceniza, and packed out what we’d packed in. Passing a few other groups hiking in, tiredly enquiring how far they had to go, the guide and I had a bit of fun at their expense by telling each that it was “only another hour or two now.”

If anything, the landscape seemed even more spectacular on the way back. But we’d forgotten entirely about the scenery along the path in our excitement over the falls and so had left our cameras in the backpack, inaccessible, and thus that perfect house and the impossibly steep, impossibly green ridges dropping down on either side of us are only in our memories.

Caked with mud, we took advantage of the little bathroom and sink in the parada’s parking lot to change clothes and wash ourselves and our shoes. We decided to save road time by eating the apples and nuts we had in the car for lunch, but we’d only gone a few yards before we had to stop again. One of our guides, apparently with a sister and small daughter, was madly hailing us from the side of the road, so we cleared out the back seat as best we could to give them a lift. (Gave them an apple, too).

We deposited them at their mother’s house, halfway to Samana, and continued on our way. This time we were hoping to take a bit more time and get some nice pictures of houses and interesting businesses along the way, so we divided our roles into (a) driver and (b) scenery-watcher. (B) was supposed to shout out “Stop!” whenever something impossibly cute or scenic was spotted, but the plan turned out to be completely unworkable because of (A)’s difficulties in making time, avoiding potholes, and keeping the drivers behind from getting overly horn-happy. It became kind of comical to listen to (b): “Oh, look at that! That’s a good one!” and then, “Oooooooh… never mind, too late. Next time, maybe.” This occurred approximately every 90 seconds until we hit Nagua, where we stopped for a bathroom and batida break before pushing on through, this time onto a highway I’d never traveled before, up the northeastern coast.

Now it really felt like a road trip. We were in unknown territory, speeding along a surprisingly well-paved road. The towns we passed through were so tiny they were not marked on either of my two road maps, nor were they mentioned in the guide book. In between them were vast stretches of fields, hills, marshes, and often, the sea visible off to our right – anything and everything except for civilization. The Falcon seemed to be feeling just as fine as we were as it ate up the kilometers. Perhaps the mechanic was right and we could make it to Puerto Rico. Imagine our surprise when we found out we, in fact, had done just that, as one of the ubiquitous blue Brugal-sponsored signs that mark roadside settlements told us we had arrived in a place called “Puerto Rico A Pie” – Puerto Rico By Foot. This definitely wasn’t on our map.

It was tempting to stop and see what exactly this hamlet might have to offer in terms of diversion, or even simply in terms of explanations for itself, but we had a lot of ground to cover before we got to anyplace likely to hold a hotel. We took a quick turn through Cabrera, the small coastal town from which El Prodigio hails, and then pushed on to Cabo Frances. This northeastern tip of the island was marked as a national park on one of our maps and we were curious as to what it might hold.

Eventually we found a friendly Brugal sign marking the turnoff, but the lip of the road was too high and the road too rough-looking for the Falcon to take on without further information. A few yards further, we came across a man walking alongside the road and stopped to ask about the place. He was Haitian and his Spanish wasn’t so hot, though, so we moved on to a clump of teenage boys. One of them filled us in on Cabo Frances. “It’s a lighthouse.” “Oh! Is it nice? Is it pretty there?” “No! It’s falling down,” he answered honestly, and I laughed. We probably would have found it interesting nonetheless, but it wasn’t worth losing an axle over, so we went on. A bit farther we passed some more mysterious ruins, stone walls weathered down to only a few feet tall, under a palm-topped cliff.

According to our guide book, there were some lovely beaches along this coast, but the writer warned us that they had all been bought up by large hotel chains and would be full of tourists and touristic developments in no time. We pulled off the main road to take a look, stopping first at Punta Preciosa. This was not a swimming beach by any means, but a wild rocky point above a short stretch of sand that ended in another cliff, that one with a small islet off its tip. It was exceedingly scenic as well as windy and choppy. Later we learned that there is an old sunken ship under its waters, a bit of which can be seen sticking up above the waves at low tide.

Just about a half-kilometer further was Playa Grande, the one our book had assured us would quickly become over-developed and practically uninhabitable by the more discerning traveler. We turned off where Brugal directed us to, parked on the dirt amidst palm trees, and strolled down to the glorious, long, sandy beach where about four other foreigners were scattered to watch the four Dominicans working at surfing in the choppy waters. “Development!” Mom exclaimed in worried tones, pointing at a half-dozen shacks selling fish and beer back among the palms. It would have been a lovely place to spend the day sunning and consuming Presidente if it hadn’t been so late already. It reminded me of Oahu’s north coast, where I had been similarly watching surfers only a few months earlier.

Pushing ever onward, we came to Rio San Juan, one of our possibilities for lodging that night, but which had few hotels listed in our guide book. Rio San Juan used to have a dive shop offering scuba excursions, but it’s now closed; the town is mostly known for its unusual lagoon. We took a quick turn around the place, noting two hotel possibilities, one on the rocky coast, looking breezy and cool in its white lobby if a bit run down, the other a couple of blocks from the lagoon, and looking somewhat uninhabited. The town had a couple of beaches but just small ones, on either side of the breezy option. We decided to decide after looking at the Laguna Gri-Gri.

It was right there, seemingly in the middle of town: quiet waters with a dozen small boats afloat on it, shaded everywhere by towering trees sprouting right out of the water. Cement steps led from a little plaza down into the lagoon, and next to them an information booth – closed. There was only one person there to talk to, an old man sitting on a step next to the two-spot car park, so we talked to him. He quickly scared up a couple of guys with a boat, who started to make it ready before we’d even agreed to a tour. This turned out to be over-priced, even after a negotiated deduction, but we decided to do it anyway since we were there and all.

Our guide explained that the waters came from a subterranean river that emerged at that very spot, and that the lagoon’s name came from the trees surrounding it, also called gri-gri. They drove us slowly through a stand of mangroves, very slowly because of the illegal fishing nets strung across our path in spots. There was a swamp house on stilts, just like in Louisiana, and then more illegal fisherman – these ones teenage boys in a wooden boat known as a cayuco, pushing themselves along by pole and looking for eels. Egrets flew above us and some kind of vulture strutted along the interwoven tree roots below.

Emerging from the eerie mangrove swamp, we came out into the choppy waters of the ocean, passing by a minuscule island with a bit of ruined wall on the ocean side. The guide told us it used to be a restaurant, but was destroyed by Hurricane David back in the 1970s. It was hard to imagine a restaurant could fit on such a tiny slice of land, but he explained that it used to be larger, with a dock even, until it started getting washed away due to lack of care. We continued all the way down past the Bahia Blanca hotel and the so-called “Playa de la Guardia,” a beach known for the shacks at its back, occupied by military men. Then we returned the way we came, making sure to note another important local site – “Playa del Amor,” so named because “two go in and three come out.” Didn’t look like it could fit more than two anyway, buried in a sort of thicket as it was, but we were assured 8 could fit if a party were required.

The guide also informed me that land was for sale right on the coast for $65 a square meter. “I can’t do much with a meter,” I complained. When they suggested I buy more than one, I pointed out that things would then become expensive very quickly and they nodded sagely. “Well, buy a meter then. You can grow some flowers,” was the guide’s solution.

Manatees were supposed to live in mangroves like this, I remembered, and asked about them. These locals had seen many of them, both here and up the river from which the town takes its name, but they explained that the manatees don’t like to come out in high, rough seas like this. (The maritime conditions also eliminated the possibility for us to visit the Cave of the Swallows, usually the last stop on this trip, two kilometers the other way up the coast.) At any rate, when the manatees appear they are happy to see them and so are the tourists. The guide said they are so calm, quiet, and slow that they stay right by the boat without moving, allowing everyone to photograph them to their hearts’ content. I hope to return in calm seas next year and see them then.

We’d seen all we could. In fact, we’d seen so much it was hard to believe we’d only left Las Terrenas that morning. The sun was still up, though not for much longer. The guide thought we could make it to Cabarete in an hour so we decided to go for it, opting for the tourist mecca over the sleepy seaside town. This way, we’d have plenty of sleeping and dining options, and we’d have a shorter drive back to Santiago the next day.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it far before the sun went down, and then Mom had to experience the dubious joys of nighttime driving in the DR – the hidden potholes lurking in the darkness, the blinding lights of other drivers, the inadequacy of our own lights in the unlit streets. Still, we made it, and found a lovely hotel right on the beach with breakfast included – always our favorite part. We particularly enjoyed the European-style bathroom, since we hadn’t showered all day, and the restaurant on the sand with its beer (though that, too, was served European style, which is to say, at a temperature Dominicans would term “hot”). We didn’t so much enjoy the overpowering air-conditioning, but our porter had showed us that it could be deactivated by opening the sliding glass door to the porch, so we did that, and slept the sleep of those who have sat all day in a bucket seat, enduring numerous potholes in a car with questionable shocks.

We arose the next morning fully ready for a final morning at the beach. We hadn’t even gotten much of a look at it the night before, since it was already dark when we arrived, but were pleasantly surprised both by the plentiful breakfast and the beach full of dozens of colorful kites. For us, Cabarete did live up to its reputation as kite-surfing capital of the world, and though we’d never seen this sport before, we were impressed and entertained by the many surfers who went flying past at high speed. I wondered what would happen if two kites got tangled, but we never saw this happen. We did see plenty of hot shots doing spins and flips as their kites pulled them through the air, even jumping far into the air as if they might fly away altogether. This free entertainment, coupled with a paperback murder mystery and sunshine, made for a perfect morning. We felt rested and relaxed as we got back on the road, making for Santiago, if a bit sad that it was mom’s last day in the country!

Instead of the usual highway through Puerto Plata, this time we decided to try the so-called “touristic highway” that splits off near Sosua and gets to Santiago via Gurabo. It appeared to be a short cut, eliminating many kilometers and the trafficky way around Puerto Plata city, and the hotel receptionist assured us the road was fine: even though it “had a lot of curves,” it would be faster than the other way.

The touristic road was certainly scenic, more so than the Puerto Plata route, but we appeared to be the only tourists on it. Also, maybe the road was usually good, but our informant clearly had not taken into account the recent rains. At several points, we were held up at construction sites guarded by military personnel. One was an apparent mudslide, and the road was still covered with the gooey stuff. The sedan in front of us got stuck, but the Falcon valiantly held out in second gear. At another, a piece of the road had simply dropped down the cliff, not an encouraging site, but on the bright side, half of the curve had recently been reinforced with rocks in chicken wire cages.

Because of the lack of tourists, there was also a lack of services on this road. In one little section, there were a ton of tiny businesses advertising amber for sale, and there was a roadhouse there too, but we didn’t pass anything else similar until we were already down in Santiago. The only thing to do was enjoy the views of the Cibao valley stretching out below us, the flamboyán trees just starting to put out their flame-colored flowers, and the roadside stands selling fruit. One had a variety I’d never seen before: a bright, pinkish-red thing, small and elongated, the shape of a half-size avocado. (Later I described it to Rafaelito, who told me it was the fruit of the cashew tree.)

Thus concluded our road trip, DR style, as well as Mom’s vacation. Well, almost – we had a couple more gifts still to buy at the Mercado Modelo, and I still had to pay my totally stupid and unjust parking ticket.


anne said...

That parking ticket! I hope you complained as much as you could when you went to pay it.

Sydney said...

Oh, I did. I did.