La Republica Dominicana, Caribbean
Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Arriving at the departure gate at a leisurely pace, we sat down to read while casually observing the quickly growing queue of anxious holidaymakers making their haste to board the flight painfully obvious. A fellow traveller of some experience once remarked that I should “watch how everyone subconsciously thinks they’re on a bus”. This applies both to entering and exiting the aircraft, but the latter is by far the more entertaining.
We were an hour late due to some mechanical fault with the Manchester-to-Puerto Plata flight so the airline flew them all down to Gatwick and we were expected to move up and make space. Therefore we now needed a bigger plane so someone got out the yellow pages and phoned Rent-a-shit-heap and got us a 747 Jumbo that had seen better days (the sixties). Eventually boarded got settled in our seats and waited for the 18 stone woman with the neck-brace, leg cast and verbal diarrhoea. She infrequently accompanies us on long haul flights. She last appeared on a flight from San Francisco to London, was skilfully helped to her seat by two crew members. We dutifully moved to give her more space to put her injured leg up, feeling it must be awful to travel long distance like that. Four hours and a bottle or so of champagne later she was deftly making her third unaided trip to the bathroom with the grace of a ballroom dancer, and the noticeable absence of her neck brace….eyebrows were raising. Turns out our luck was in this time and we got a pleasant middle aged Welshman instead.
I read most of my book “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux (Louis’s Dad) a real traveller, now in his sixties, bumming around Africa from Cairo to Capetown on his own. He meets all sorts of guys from soldiers and tribesmen to politicians and “aid” workers, and more than a few nervous gap year backpackers whose parents had obviously funded their year of “self discovery”. He gets shot at in Kenya by bandits (pot shots) and gets offered a nocturnal delicacy called the “Nubian banana??!” and naturally declines (although it seems quite popular among Europeans visiting Cairo…nice!).
Arrived refreshed and sparkling â€“ not! More like stale and flat. We commenced our cattle-herding, complaining-scousers-whinging-kids-a-thon of a holiday. Christ… what have we let ourselves in for? Arrived at the all inclusive concentration camp and were promptly subject to a shakedown and issued our identity tags which were clipped round our wrists and tamper proofed in a repeat offender stylie. Once the niceties of the check-in were complete we found our rooms. Not bad in fairness but it wasn’t long before the “holiday from hell” brigade got busy, no doubt photographing aspects of their rooms that were not like in the brochure! Next day rumours abound of leaking roofs â€“ toilets â€“ people… The all inclusive food was shit, but you got to expect that when you hand over your money to a smiling spoofer in the travel agents.
That nights entertainment was priceless, in that it was obvious nobody got paid for it. It began around eight with “Speedy Gonzalez” accompanied by some twat shouting over the P.A. Then the dodgy equivalent of the Hi-Di-Hi gang emerged and “entertained” the great unwashed with the help of some holidaymakers kids who were too young to know better… bless! I stayed riveted to my taxi seat for the 5 minute ride into town. I know! “5 mins” I hear you say? Yes it could easily be walked but apparently it was too dangerous to mix with the locals as they were all “dodgy thieves and not to be trusted”. I secretly suspected that this description would more accurately apply to my fellow holidaymakers.
Had a good night in CafÃ© Lax; chilling on a swing, listening to good tunes and enjoying a frothy Presidente (the beer, not the local head of state).
The camp was so dull we agreed only to sleep there and spend as much time away from the Holiday from Hell brigade as possible. They were enlisting anyone with a gripe. I formed a secret society of like minded individuals who cast off the shackles of the all inclusive ID tags on a nightly basis with a view to enjoying the real Dominican Republic experience. The only tricky bit was getting back into the camp at 3am with a hastily stuck on tag and fooling the late night security guard / soldier in combat gear and with an M16 rifle!?
Caberete was noisy fume filled and brilliant! The only discernable “danger” seemed to be the chaotic traffic, a family of four with shopping on the one motorbike, reminiscent of Delhi. I noticed a few tiny budget pick-ups that consisted of a chassis, wheels and a seat, absolutely no bodywork. Although there was evidence of affluence in the new Toyota jeeps and BMW trail bikes parked up outside the trendy beachside restaurants.
We spent the next few days alternating between catching some rays and jumping into the sea to cool down. Numerous “necklace vendors” patrolled this stretch of beach, each one with a wooden case full of the exact same wares. Their modus operandi is this; sit down beside a sleeping tourist, wake them and display your wide variety of coral necklaces and sit there long enough to embarrass your host into buying something. Fair enough, but after this another guy will see that his mate has made a sale, so he follows suit. If you’re not careful you could end up looking like some coral encrusted B.A. Barracus.
Most of these guys had shirts on indicating that they were members of the official tourist sales federation. They were all quite friendly but it must be quite disheartening to hear “non gracias” for much for much of the day. It had clearly got to a couple of them. I saw one who was clearly having a bad day, and yelled “Not buy today!” at me and stormed off in a huff.
It turns out that Caberete is one of the top destinations for wind surfing in the world; however this sport is quickly becoming replaced by the much more funky and cool kite surfing which sounds shit but looks truly great. What ever “dude” came up with the idea is going to be very rich as it is every spoilt teenagers must have item.
The sport has apparently been about for a few years now but you don’t see much of it in Belfast so it was news to me. For those of you not aware of what it is, it’s exactly what it sounds like, although the kite part is more like a parachute than the thing small kids take to the park. These big kites offer some seriously big “airs” they can actually fly for a fair distance too. I even saw a guy with one leg doing it and he was really good.
We eventually got bored of sitting in the sun so we decided to go white water rafting. Which incidentally, we booked ourselves, in town in an outdoors “adventure” (cringe) store and ended up on the same bus as people from our camp, only we paid a fair price compared to the ones who had bought the propaganda and stayed put in the safe confines of the “resort” (am I the only one to spot the business angle here?).
Anyway we boarded this big old bus at 6.15am two hours later we were in the next town a few miles along the coast still stopping at hotels too pick up more adventure seekers. This was also our first chance to see any of the country, albeit via a bus window. Approximately 4 hours later after climbing into the mountainous central region, we passed a recently crashed articulated lorry that had obviously lost its brakes, or perhaps the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. There were several locals standing about pointing and talking among themselves. Like in most developing countries, the rules of the road here are quite relaxed and open to wide interpretation.
We arrived at the outdoor adventure centre. And we hustled down to hear a brief talk on the plan for the afternoon. A woman in her early fifties cornered the guide and with a panicked expression and asked him “so what exactly can we expect?” All I could think was that the question would probably been best put to the person you booked it through, before you ruin a brand new pair of safari shorts! Anyhow I digress, We enjoyed a basic but filling buffet lunch then jumped into the lorry along lots of American teens who thought everything was “Awesome” or “like so cool” (and this one time at band-camp…) They were either part of some Christian group or a irritating cult. When we got to the river we tried our best not to be in “frightened woman’s” raft for obvious reasons. The river was only graded a 2 or 3 at very best so I didn’t expect the nasal flush experience of the likes of the mighty Bote Kosi in Nepal which was both truly terrifying and exhilarating at once.
All said it was a fun day out and we all got chucked or fell in at some point. The inevitable bus ride home was long and my arse was still wet! But I cannot say it was dull, the driver had a very naughty habit of trying to overtake everything even if it was going faster than him on an incline. This led to about 8 instances of neck and neck crawling up hills on the wrong side of the road watching a truck come at you doing 60mph while you tried not to damage the upholstery.
Next day we went to the nearby town of Sosua, which apparently has the one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Europe and America (weird fact,I know). Something to do with post World War Two relocation schemes although the destination seems a bit arbitrary?
The guy in the adventure store said we had to try the local bus, purely for the experience. The Wa-wa is usually an elderly Hiace van, stuffed with as many humans of various ages, sizes and shapes as possible. They fly up and down the main street in Cabarete on the way to some nearby town and their function would not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated as the windows are usually tinted. They beep wildly to let the punters know they’re coming and there is invariably a guy hanging out the side door with a big wad of dirty readies in his fist. When you board there is sometimes the odd frightened tourist squashed down the back looking relieved to see another tourist boarding the “van of death”. These are always the independent travellers with a bit more savvy than the all inclusive crowd, and a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Planet grasped in their hands.
Despite the description, it was one of the highlights of the trip for us, a bit more of what we were hoping for despite evidence that we were in Uncle Sam’s back yard. It was great fun hurtling through the traffic and the potholes with only the smell of burning brakes and the occasional glimpse of the street when some one leant forward, to indicate what was going on… Debbie counted 27 people in one, including us (I couldn’t see as she was on my knee!) The distance between Caberete and Sosua is about 24km and this lively and efficient service cost ten peso’s each (20 pence). The tourist taxi would cost $12 US for the same distance in mundane air conditioned luxury. It’s not the money, it’s just the clichÃ©d adage “when in Rome” and our holiday would have been much less colourful if we played it safe.
Despite the squeeze it was always smiles all round. The locals were extremely courteous to Debs at every stop whereby she had to jump out to enable others to exit or enter the vehicle.
Sosua itself is very tourist orientated and a lot of the architecture reminded us of north Queensland, with wrought iron balconies and a somewhat Victorian feel.
A Rasta-man in a Glasgow Celtic shirt spotted me for the chump I am and approached from across the street offering me some weed. But the idea of following him up an alleyway wasn’t too appealing so in my best Glaswegian accent I said “I’ll tae a rain check on that pal”.
The Hawkers and traders seem a bit more aggressive in their sales techniques compared to Caberete. We walked the length of the beach and the hassle was pretty intense to rent a sun-bed. By the time we reached the end of the beach I was beginning to lose my cool and Debbie had images of me brawling in the street, as with the hawkers in Delhi. (I blame the heat but sometimes your patience can wear a little thin and you can end up becoming a bit of a sideshow at the market!).
Eventually we caved in and hired a sun-bed each, the guy seemed quite protective of his turf so we felt quite safe to leave our stuff there while we went snorkelling. There were a few fish on the inner reef but the reef itself had taken quite a hammering from the people standing on it over the years.
We had Schnitzel for tea during a heavy rain storm in a tiny German restaurant that catered for tiny German tourists who are present in abundance here both working in the diving industry and on holiday. Then back to the main street to flag a Wa-wa home. As you stand there waiting another local custom became apparent. A guy stopped his motorbike and offered us a lift which I thought was a little strange. It turns out he was only offering a lift to me as another bike would stop for Debbie and sure enough before I finished chatting with this guy and another guy had pulled in. Apparently it’s commonplace and polite to offer someone a lift if they look to be waiting, plus the guy gets a few pesos for his trouble. But in the end I preferred my chances on the Wa-wa and Debs wasn’t too keen on jumping on the back of some strange mans bike on her own and I’m a bit chunky to sit on the handlebars so we left it.
Getting off the Wa-wa is a bit hit and miss as it was hard to remember what our stop looked like so risking being shown up for the charlatan I was, I yelled up to the driver the resort name. Which was promptly muttered quietly around the bus quizzically â€“ Busted! A few friendly laughs erupted and we exited somewhat deflated, feeling that perhaps we had been taking up valuable space that could have squeezed on a few more of the hard working hotel staff on what was essentially their rush hour commuter bus!
After a monster drinking session in Caberete with an English couple, Steve and Carmel on Thursday night, Friday was a complete write off. I lost a flip flop outside some bar on the beach and drank enough rum to put Long John Silver to shame. We ended up drinking with the owner of one of the bars, who insisted on protecting us from what can only be described as a crack whore. She was in terrible shape and offered us cut price cocaine, much to the bar manager’s disgust and he beat her away.
On the Saturday we finally got the chance to go cascading on the first 12 of the waterfalls of Damajangua. Basically the idea is to swim and clamber up the river and the waterfalls. The river runs through a canyon about 12m tall in places, very Indiana Jones. Once you reach the top the real fun begins and we head back down by jumping over the waterfalls into the deep pools below. Some of the waterfalls could be better described as a flume of running water, perfectly smooth and great for sliding down at high speed. After a couple of hours of this we were both knackered but refreshed, squelching back through the jungle in our wet shoes to where the van was parked beside the main river. By this time a fair number of entrepreneurial locals had set up shop for us to buy crushed sugar cane drinks and a variety of tourist orientated trinkets.
No escape from it, not that we minded but you tend to feel guilty for not buying anything when all you have with you is a change of clothes.
And so our trip to the Dominican Republic drew to an end. The next day we were flying back home. I must say it was a relief to finally get rid of our “all inclusive” identity tags and become regular people again. The overall experience of our time in the country was fantastic and we would definitely consider it again though obviously independently where you can feel more immersed in the culture.