DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 2003 It would seem the Betcher’s are hooked on winter vacations. This year we decided that we’d like Jordan and Dan to join us. We brought the idea up during the summer and found some interest but lack of commitment. Dan thought it over and came around quickly, Jordan still hesitated. One night Jordan’s girl friend triggered renewed interest by saying “what part of free don’t you understand?” The light came on in Jordan’s head and he decided to join us. A similar light came on for me as well, Jordan was going to miss Maureen. A sense of adventure, and budget had some impact on our choice. Our favorite Travel Agent Lisa came up with a couple of options, Dominican Republic or Mexico. Olwyn’s hesitation in Mexico quickly narrowed the choice for our third “hot spot” destination, the Dominican Republic. Now we just had to choose where on this large island. The island has three main tourist locations, Punta Cana on the east coast, Santa Domingo in the south and Puerto Plata on the north. Big Cities have never really interested us so we quickly ruled out Santa Domingo. Besides, there were no direct flights from Winnipeg and the thought of a layover in Toronto or a long island bus ride was convincing enough to say yuk! Punta Cana sounded lovely, miles of white sand beaches and calm ocean waters. In our reading tourists loved the beach but stated there wasn’t much else in the way of scenery or activities. On the other hand, Puerto Plata was surrounded by mountains and offered excursion choices that went beyond beach activities. This appealed to both of us for selfish reasons plus it offered comfort that, should the boys get bored on the beach, there would be lots of activities to choose from. Hotel choice was simple. We already knew we wanted a beachfront All Inclusive property with several restaurant choices, and nightly entertainment. Not too small and not huge. Our travel agent helped us in choosing the Karisma Hacienda Tropical on Cofresi Beach just west of Puerto Plata. We arrived on the 31st of January to heat, humidity, and wonderful sunshine. Airport security and customs was nothing more than a row of six to eight 2 guys leaning on a table shooting the breeze. We walked past them and on to our waiting bus. As seems to be the case in all the Caribbean islands, everyone drives like maniacs! The trip from the airport to the hotel was an adventure in itself! Dominican Republic is a democratic nation. A first impression was that people here were better off compared to the other islands we’ve visited. Better off maybe, but not a whole lot. Poverty is still blatantly obvious. They depend a lot on tourist dollars for income, so everyone is very friendly and anxious to please. We arrived at the hotel, and were greeted with an ice-cold punch. The check in was swift leaving us a lovely afternoon to explore and get oriented. Late in the afternoon we met our tour rep. Lisa. She gave us some insight on what to do and what not to do. Things like don’t drink the tap water, do take the Safari trip, don’t drink to many “fruity” drinks, do get out and meet the people, don’t piss off the bar tender as he’s likely going to get rid of you by serving the 170 proof rum. We were all up early Saturday (to our surprise that included Jordan and Dan). Early enough that we got to the bar before it opened. C’mon we needed water after our beach walk what were you thinking? We spent the day soaking up sun and wandering the beach, swimming and discussing what excursions we wanted to take part in. We spoke with many people who said that we had missed the worst weather the area had seen in years. Ten days out of the previous fourteen had been raining! We dodged a big bullet there! We had actually thought about booking a week earlier, but the flights had been filled. No accident that we got here when we did! Sunday was a bit drizzly, but not enough to keep us indoors. The morning was spent wandering the complex. There were several other pools and buffet restaurants dotted throughout. While some of the villas were appealing with their private pools and spacious accommodation overall our area was the nicest. It was closest to the ocean and had the most activities and socializing. When it cleared later in the morning it was back to the beach. The beach wasn’t as long as the one in Cuba, but the sand was hard- packed and lovely to walk on. Almost every day started with a long walk from one end to the other. Being on the Atlantic side of the island, we had great 3 waves to play in. When the sun got too hot, we walked in the shade of huge palms along the oceanfront. Puerto Plata is also a cruise liner destination, so we often saw huge ships as they passed into the harbor. The locals also use the beach a lot for wind surfing, boogie-boarding (like a small surf board, that they ride belly down through the waves) and kayaking… they make it look so easy!! On Monday, we decided to start a bit of exploring and booked a trip up a nearby mountain, on a cable car. The mountain is called Isabbella des Torres and was named after the queen of Spain, for whom Christopher Columbus did extensive exploring. It’s the second highest in the Caribbean, and has the only cable car in the region. So leaving poor Ken behind to suffer quietly, the rest of us were whisked away to start exploring. (Ken had a bit of what is sometimes called “traveler’s sickness” that day, nausea, diarrhea etc… either that or the previous nights’ bottle of crème de menthe didn’t agree with him!.) They took us by bus to the base where we were loaded into a cable car to ride up to the summit. What a sight! 800 meters to the top, we could see for miles! Lush green tropical foliage covered mountains, hills and valleys and far off in the distance, the gleaming gray-blue ocean…just beautiful! At the top, they had laid out a botanical garden, clinging to the edge of the mountain, with paths weaving around through it. A huge arched bridge joined two sides of a valley, and at the very top of the peak, a huge bronze statue of Christ was mounted: similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, but not as massive. From our guide, we learned that the island has little wildlife, other than tropical birds and snakes, most of which are not poisonous, so farming is a large part of their income. The native plants and trees produce coconuts, bananas, pineapples and almost any other tropical fruit you could want. They also raise sheep, goats and a unique breed of cattle bred specifically for their climate. We had only one moment of anxiety (or at least Olwyn did!), on the way down from the top: the cable car stopped halfway down… her first thought was of the huge accident near Montreal a few years ago, when a cable car had fallen off it’s cable and crashed to the ground!! AAGGH! However, much to our relief, it was a simple case of two cars passing each other and one had to stop while the other went on by. 4 That first week was “Physically-Challenged” week for the family. When we got back to the hotel, to find Ken still feeling pretty rough, we went out to the pool where Jordan dragged a lounge chair across the top of his foot, ripping the nail up on one of his toes. Luckily these big resorts all have on- site doctors. We whisked him down to the clinic, where the doctor recommended removal of the toenail. So poor Jordan spent the next few days hobbling around with a large wad of bandages on his foot! Before the end of that week, Dan developed an middle ear infection, as well, so it was back to the doctor for him and a course of antibiotics and anti- inflammatories. By the end of the week, I stated categorically that no one else was going to need medical attention: I’d had quite enough of sitting in that doctor’s waiting room! As it turned out, we stayed healthy for the remainder of the trip! So Day 5 was an R&R day, resting, relaxing, eating and lounging. We treated ourselves to dinner at the Chinese restaurant that night: Yum! At these all- inclusive resorts, the main restaurant is usually a buffet-style, “all-you-can- swine”, as Ken calls them! Here we were treated each night to a different theme, so we never got tired of the same food and it was all delicious. This is one thing that the Dominicans did a lot more skillfully than the Cubans. The food was tastier and a lot more varied, but they had one thing in common: the baking! Even the breads were fantastic! It’s a good thing we only spend 2 weeks on these trips or we’d all be the size of houses! The Chinese restaurant was no different. Delicious food, excellent service, a treat of an evening! After dinner, the nightly entertainment was a beach party, bonfire and limbo dancing. What a hoot! The beach party included forming teams of men versus women, to compete in a variety of silly games, while the rest of us watched grown adults make complete fools of themselves! Great way to end the day! Wednesday we headed out for another excursion. This one was called the Outback Safari. We all climbed into the back of huge open trucks, sitting on long benches and headed out into the backwoods. We set off through the towns of Puerto Plata, and Sosua, east of where we were staying. As we drove through the Cities our Guide Jessie pointed out sites of significance. The first was the Brugal Rum factory. The second was the “Car Wash”. Jessie explained that the Car Wash was a favorite gathering place. Those with cars are proud owners and like their counter parts in Canada they keep 5 the vehicles clean. While the cars were being washed they’d often grab a coffee in the attached Coffee house. Many carwashes have additional social gatherings behind them. These areas are a great place to meet young ladies if you catch my drift. From there we headed into the countryside. Our tour took us through mountains and valleys and alongside sugar cane and banana plantations. As we passed the plantations Jessie explained the security fencing that was used. Some had stone fences, some had glass mortared into the top making it more difficult to climb over, some had an additional feature of a very poisonous cactus growing like a vine over the top. As we wound our way through the back roads we were constantly greeted by local kids running to the road to give a wave. A neat thing that the tour companies do there is support the local economy. I’m not talking about buying locally but their generosity and sharing of the wealth. They improve schools, homes, roads and the general well being of the local community. I’m sure they make a profit for the owners but it was nice to see that they were conscious to the fact that they fortunate to have what they have and that they were willing to share it. By now it was mid morning. We stopped at a local farm to meet the “real” Dominican people. They explained what they cooked and how they cooked it in clay ovens, small stove tops etc. After seeing their home they offered us a sample of their incredibly strong coffee! The espresso cup was more than enough. Minutes latter we were back in the truck enroute to a local village. The village was small but served a large area. Even though many houses were serviced by electricity the quality of services was nowhere near what we are use to. Brown outs and complete failures are common. That mixed with the extreme heat meant that many food items were bought when they were needed. The local “Rum Shop” similar to our corner store facilitated all required goods. Cooking oils, spices, rice, flour, coffee etc. were sold in sizes from a teaspoon to bushel. Rum is sold by the ounce or bottle and cigarettes or cigars by singles or cartons / boxes. As tourists we overwhelmed the poor shop owner buying vanilla (white and dark), rum and cigars. The prices were fantastic! 750ml bottle of rum $6.00, 700 ml bottle of “sipping rum”, $7.00, 500ml bottle of vanilla $3.00, 25 cigars $7.00. The sipping rum was a “premium price” because of it’s quality but to be quite honest Jordan bought the regular and it was actually much better. The premium was some of the strongest rum we’ve ever tasted! While we waited for everyone to make their purchases we were treated to Scooby 6 Specials. Scooby was our driver and he mixed a very nice amber rum and 7Up. Pop the top off a bottle, dump out an ounce or two or three then top it back up with rum. Holding the top in place he’d do a quick inversion to get it nice an bubbly and gulp, gulp, gulp. From there we drove to the Lazy River where we met up with several other safari trucks for a picnic lunch. On route Jessie pointed out some of the local fauna etc. The road was so narrow and windy that we intentionally passed our turn off to pull a U-turn at the next intersection so that we didn’t have to negotiate such a sharp turn. The Lazy River got it’s name because of the lazy way it winds through country side and with its current you could lazily ride down stream at a rapid rate of speed. It’s not white water or anything but this seemingly quite looking river had quite a current. While we were offered the opportunity to splash and play Scooby and Jessie prepared our lunch of salads, cheeses, cold cuts, breads and of course Scooby Specials. The lunch (liquids and solids) was more than adequate. After lunch it was off to the ocean for some boogie boarding. The spot was east of Cabarette. The beach with its dunes reminded me of a huge version of Grand Beach but with huge waves. Fortunately the guides were all trained lifeguards. Those that took part packed sand into all sorts of strange and uncomfortable places. Nothing like a few more Scooby Specials to get your mind off of being uncomfortable. After a short ride we transferred into boats for a river-boat ride through the tropical jungle. At the end of the boat trip, we toured a mini-zoo, to see some of the exotic animals and birds of the island. One of these was a boa constrictor, which we were told we could hold if we wanted. The only one brave enough to do so was Jordan. I’m going to save this picture and show it to everyone at his wedding, sometime in the future! The trip home traveled the main road through Cabarette, Sousa and Puerto Plata. All these little towns and villages were busy, picturesque places, each with their unique attractions and commerce. Cabarette is known world wide as one of the beach places to wind surf. It’s streets were filled with restaurants, surf and other shops geared to the tourists. Sousa has deep historic significance and Puerto Plata is a tipical big city with shops, factories and residential areas. As tourists we could sure see the drastic 7 differences in their lifestyles and ours. We realized how lucky we are to live where we do. As we drove down the hi-way Jessie quizzed us on what we had learned and served, yes, you guessed it Scooby Specials. All the while he was standing on the back bumper of the truck. Een though that in I’s self appeared dangerous it was no match for the “Human Bombs”, “Family Scooters”, Furniture Delivery Vehicles and insane Cell phone users. How about a definition or two: Family Scooter – 1973 Yamaha 125 with dad on the gas tank, mom on the back fender and two school kids complete with back packs sandwiched between them. Furniture Delivery Vehicle – Same motorcycle with the rider holding a 20inch TV on the gas tank. Human Bombs – Same Yamaha replace the TV with a 20lb propane tank (40, 50 or 100 pound tanks of course would be strapped to the back luggage carrier. At home we’re thinking of banning the use of Cell phones while driving. P Insane Cell phone users - Picture weaving through rush hour traffic on a scooter and fishing a cell phone out of your pocket when it rings. No, I’m not kidding we saw it all on our way back home. Day 6 was Feb.6 and Jordan’s 20th birthday! He decided his choice for the day was sun, sand and R&R, with dinner at the Italian restaurant this time. Another excellent choice, wonderful food, great service and at the end of the meal, they brought out a birthday treat for him. The entire staff, Buss Boys, Chef, Waiters and Waitresses, Bar Tender and Maitre d’ marched to the sound of crude instruments made from cheese graters, pots and pans singing happy birthday. The served him a beautifully carved canteloupe, stuffed with other fruits and a flan cake and topped with a candle. He didn’t blush too much!! That evening, the locals set up a craft market near the main restaurant. We wandered around the stands, checking out the local arts and crafts. Olwyn had decided before we left that She was not going to go crazy bringing home souvenirs this year, but would be choosy and buy one nice piece, instead. 8 The locals create lovely carvings out of petrified wood. Olwyn found a dolphin that she immediately fell in love with. It was my job to bargin a good price. If it was up to Olwyn she’d give them the asking price. They expect to haggle (in fact, they seem to enjoy it!), so I have dickering them down to an acceptable price. Another evening when they had set up shop, Jordan and Dan got me to negotiate the price on some of the things they wanted: a lizard ashtray for Dan and a dog for Jordan, both from petrified wood as well… really neat stuff! The next few days, we spent around the resort, enjoying the local color and soaking up the sun. During one of our walks on the beach, we stopped in at one of the other hotel’s shops. Olwyn fell in love with a painting done on burlap, by a local Indian artist. The Indians here are a minority of the population which is mainly Spanish. And many of them are from Haiti. The Haitians were brought here originally as slaves to do the manual labor and even now are not treated well. There’s a fair bit of discrimination against them. But they do some beautiful paintings. Once again, I weighed in with my wrangling skills and bought the piece for less than half of what was quoted to Olwyn as a discounted price. The shop keepers “sell” to the women but negotiate mainly with the men. Sexist perhaps but we saw the pattern more than once. the flea market shops to check out the crafts. Unlike Cuba where the locals were not allowed onto the resort compound, this beach was public and had several shops along the edge. Another day, sore foot and all, Jordan joined an egg-throwing contest! He didn’t get too mucky, and had a lot of fun! Dan played beach volleyball one day as well…far too much energy for that heat, as far as I’m concerned! Most evenings after supper, we walked down to the “coleseum”, an open-air tiered theatre, where we were treated to a variety of types of entertainment. One evening was a comedy show, another was an evening of local dancing, and so on. The entertainment troupe were mainly young adults, all very talented and fully of energy and lots of fun! They really got the audiences going! One Tuesday, after several days of lounging around, we decided to go on another tour. This one was to take us to Santiago, the second largest city in 9 Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo is the largest, but it was a 4-hour bus ride south, so we decided against that one!), so we set off very early in the morning by bus. This was a long day: 10 hours before we got back to the hotel that evening and we all felt it was a bit too much. But for all that, we did enjoy it. They took us into “La Aurora” cigar factory, on the way to the city where we saw how cigars are made: all hand-rolled, and surprisingly, the factory was very nice. I expected a very smelly, dark tomb of a place, much like the one in Cuba. But it was pleasant and very fragrant. When we got to Santiago, they toured us around the city and stopped at a monument that celebrates their liberation, which overlooks the whole city. Then it was on out into the countryside for a drive to a ranch. From the ranch they took us in jeep trucks down to the hiking trail that led down to Jarabacoa Falls: absolutely gorgeous. Ken, Jord and Dan stripped down to swim trunks and waded into the icy pool at the base of the falls (Jord even went in behind the falls!), but I stuck one toe into the water and decided I’d rather suntan on the beach and take pictures instead! After we hiked back up the trail to the top, we piled into the truck and they took us back to the ranch for lunch. Then it was time to start heading home. On the way, we stopped at a ceramics factory… what an eye-opener. This is not what we think in Canada of ceramics, where molds are made by machine and then decorated and painted. The ceramics here are hand thrown or wheel-thrown red clay, shaped into a huge variety of shapes and uses. Hundreds of these factories produce thousands of pieces a day: we had a demonstration by one fellow who was wheel-throwing a huge flower pot: it took him about two minutes to finish! After they are kiln-dried, dozens of women sitting at huge tables, paint and decorate them… beautiful work. If I could have thought of some way of packing them to bring home, I would have bought several more things that day! When we were nearing Santiago, on the journey home, our tour guide asked us if we would like to go back the same way we’d come, on the highway, or would we like a detour through the mountains. The vote was for the mountain road, so off we went! Now visualize a full-size tour bus (much like our Greyhound busses), flying along the edge of a narrow mountain road, with barely room for one vehicle, let alone anyone passing us!! Whew! But well worth it… we saw the interior of the country in all it’s glory! Gorgeous mountains, deep lush valleys, tiny little villages, barely clinging to the sides 10 of the mountains, with open-air meat markets, and raw whole chickens hanging from the eaves, little kids wandering along pulling little burros along behind them, every possible tropical tree and plant you could imagine…just fantastic. We asked to stop on the side of the road at one point to take pictures and it just took our breath away! We were a very tired bunch of tourists when we finally got back to the hotel, but we had reservations for dinner again at the Chinese restaurant. So we pushed aside our strong desire to sleep and off we went to be treated once again to a great dinner. Another nice thing about most of these all- inclusives is their specialty restaurants: even though you have to make reservations they are still included in the price you’ve already paid and the food is usually fantastic. This resort had one dining spot that charged additional, but it was a sea-food place and none of us are all that excited about that type of food, so we didn’t go there. But it was another option if you wanted to partake. Our last two days, we spent at the resort, soaking up sun and enjoying the beach. Jordan and Ken took kayaks out one day and Jordan enjoyed it so much, he convinced Dan to go with him the next day. They didn’t need to go far from the beach to enjoy catching the waves and riding them in! But they never did get as good as the locals who ride the waves like surf-board pros! It was fun to watch them. On our last night there, we had reservations at the Italian restaurant and then went to the nightly entertainment and then back to the hotel for an early night. We had to be in the lobby at 9 am to catch the bus to the airport, so we were up early to finish packing and get organized. It was hard to have to dress in normal clothes again after spending 2 weeks in shorts and swim suits! The trip home was uneventful, a good flight (about 5 hours flying time) and we actually arrived in fairly good time. But we were hit with a shock to our poor systems when we landed, to find Winnipeg temps of –24!! AAGGHH! +30 to –24 in less than 8 hours is just too much: I told Ken next year I just might not come back at all!! So all in all, another successful, very enjoyable holiday and I am convinced that if it’s at all possible, I want to do this every year! It is such a pleasure 11 to get away from our deep-freeze for a couple weeks and really experience a different kind of lifestyle.