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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Movin' on

I know, why? Why move on? All good things come to an end, again. Time to load up the bikes and hit the road. After a month here, Las Terrenas feels like home. We wish it was our home! Maybe some day. For now, we move on. While Las Terrenas has been good to us, we think we should see the rest of the island. Besides, we wouldn’t want to lose our “travellers” status just yet. Although tempting, the expat life is still a ways off.

It’s been a great month, including three family and friends shifts. First week in my mother and sister joined us. Shift 2 saw our dear friend Robyn from Nelson here for two weeks of fun in the sun. The final shift was put in by Amy’s mom and sister. By the end we were picking everyone up at the airport like we owned the place. El Catey, the local airport, is one of those small-town airports, like Castlegar, where you park for free beside the door. Except, there is no door....this is the tropics, it’s an open-air airport! Gotta love that.

Highlights of the month -- too many to list -- include a wonderful seaside dinner with Amy's mom and sis. Also, a day trip to Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital, during the first shift with my mom and sister. Again to recap, because of the “Columbus not discovering America, but really discovering the DR” thing (see last post), Santo Domingo, founded in 1496, is the oldest European settlement in the Americas. At a population of 3 million souls, it also merits the title of the largest, and no doubt the most chaotic, city in the Caribbean. Given that it was our third or so day on the island at that point – we didn’t even have our tans yet – it was a bit of a gong show getting in and out of the city in our rental car. Somehow we survived and managed to negotiate the insanity of Santo Domingo’s traffic chaos (lanes...what lanes?) and spent the afternoon walking the Zona Colonial – the original city where all the “New World firsts” are...e.g., oldest church in the Americas, oldest fort, oldest whatever, and of course the Cristoval Colon (aka Christopher Columbus) statue. All in all, a successful mission to the genesis of European civilization in the Americas.

With Robyn, we loaded up the rental scooter and hit the road down to El Limón, a town 15 km from here and the trailhead to a “middle-of-the-jungle” tropical waterfall – Cascada El Limón. It really is one of those postcard-perfect tropical-jungle waterfalls with the swimming hole at the base where you can swim behind the curtain of water and pretend you’re Tarzan. Not sure what was more exciting, the swim behind the curtain, or the three of us riding a scooter on the highway for 30 kms! Another good mission, with the exception of me slipping on the trail and falling hard on my ribs and elbow. Two weeks later I still can’t fully inflate my lungs without grimacing in pain. All part of the fun as they say.

spazboy gets up
Then there is the kite surfing lessons and my evolution towards kite surfing stardom. After three lessons, I was up and kiting, sort of, but my status as a kite surfing god will have to wait a bit. As it turns out, it takes more than a few times to get on the cover of Kite Surf Magazine. Who knew? J Anyway, one day perhaps. The ladies had fun being kite bunnies and watching the hot Dominican dudes flying around. These guys are ripped!

Oh yes, and the salsa dancing. As mentioned in a previous post, a place within staggering distance from us called Mosquitoes (not sure they understand the exact meaning of that word to us...not an entirely enticing name), is THE place for salsa on a Friday night. Women, especially the florescent ones right off the plane from Canada like Robyn, get treated to a crew of young energetic Dominican men looking for dance partners. From what we can tell, the Dominican national salsa team trains here on Friday nights, or at least that what it looks like. Wow, these dudes are good! I have taken a few salsa lessons in my time, and, previous to this, might be willing to reluctantly suggest that I sort of can salsa, a tiny bit. But, there is NO FREAKIN’ WAY I’m going out on that dance floor. Since men lead, it’s all about the man making the moves, of which, I have none. At one point, a very generous Dominican lady had pity on me and insisted I get up and dance (with her). I think she realized her mistake seconds into it. This is high-level stuff, and no place for an unseasoned gringo. Ah well, as with the kite surfing, becoming a latino salsa god will have to wait. Robyn and Amy, on the other hand, were in high demand, and did an admirable job of keeping up with the national team.

So ya, time to move on, regrettably. In Amy’s words “I love it here!”. We may have found our future expat base, but alas, that, as mentioned, is still a bit out there. We’ll see what happens. For now, the plan is to load up the horses and go west along the north coast of the island. If you recall, the “island” is the Island of Hispaniola, which consists of two countries: Dominican Republic and Haiti. To see the entire island therefore, means we have to go to Haiti too. So that’s the plan. Ride west and cross into Haiti, then circle back via central Haiti and the south coast of the island. We’re not entirely sure what to expect, or if you can ride the roads, or if it is even possible to find accommodation and food along the way. But hey, that’s what travelling is all always, more on that adventure soon. Chau!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Another day in paradise

Cliché, I know. But it really is another day in paradise. DR, and specifically Las Terrenas, has turned out to be something out of a movie. Late last night, walking back in our flip flops with our dear friend Robyn (Nelson connection) from Mosquitoes – THE place to salsa on Friday night around here – we were mesmerized by the full moon streaking through the palms and bouncing off the ocean. Best moonlit ocean swim ever, bar none. It still amazes us how the ocean here is as crystal clear as any chlorinated swimming pool. With the shimmers of moonlight rippling along the bottom underneath us, it took it to a whole new level of surreal.

So DR, a bit of background for you history buffs. Surprisingly unknown among us gringos, DR actually holds a major place in world history. In a weird twist, Cristoval Colon, aka Christopher Columbus, did not discover “America”, as the story goes. He “discovered” the island of Hispaniola, which today is made up of two countries: Haiti and the DR. He called the island “La Isla Española” (The Spanish Island), which strangely morphed into “Hispaniola” over time. His original landing pad in the “New World” in 1492 was actually in what is Haiti today. After a few botched attempts at settlement on the north coast of the island, his brother Bartholomé founded the city of Santo Domingo on the south coast, within what is now the Dominican Republic, and is its capital. So there you have it. DR is the birth place of the so-called “New World”, with Santo Domingo, founded in 1496, coming in as the oldest European settlement in the Americas – and therefore containing the oldest church in the Americas, and every other oldest whatever in the Americas. It was then from here that the Spanish spring-boarded around the rest of the places they went on to invade and pillage. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

And then there is the quite hilarious and bone-headed story of Columbus thinking he had landed in India – and hence the label “West Indies” given to the Caribbean – and therefore called the natives he saw “Indians”, which consequently lead to that word becoming the standard descriptor for all native people throughout the Americas. Crazy stuff.

Las Terrenas is a cool place. Nelson of the Caribbean perhaps. A smallish town surrounded by everything nature has to offer, tucked far enough away from the glitter of big cities and resorts that it hasn’t exploded, but somehow has developed just enough infrastructure to provide all the comforts of home, including a good array of funky cafes, bars, and restaurants. Then there’s the fascinating mix of local Dominicans and glaring white Euros walking side by side. Buzzing around town on my rental scooter (along with my new expat shirt and streaks of grey hair, my expat look is becoming complete), I’m just as likely to be passed by a balding French guy on a quad as three Dominican preteens on their moped. Amazingly, according to David, a local we have befriended who speaks perfect English, there is no animosity between the two tribes. In his words “we love you guys”. I suppose money talks. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, as they say.

So today is day 2 of my transformation into a kite-surfing god. I figure I should stop looking at the boys flying through the air with those things and see what all the fuss is about. The standard lessons package here is 3 afternoons of lessons, with a guarantee by the end of the third lesson that you will shredding (not sure if they use that word...unlikely...perhaps sailing or surfing...kiting...what is the verb anyway?). We’ll see about that. Yesterday was the “body drag” lesson, which means you use the kite without the board to simply drag your body around the water and learn to control the kite – “control” being the pivotal word. Other than a few explosive “supermans” through the air (i.e., body completely out of the water flying horizontal for an unknown distance), and a sore neck and back, I survived, barely. The power behind those kites is insane. Like being pulled out of the water by a train. My instructor, Denis, a youngish French guy living the life, looking like a cover model for Kite Surf magazine, says in his sexy French accent “smooth Rob, you want to go smooth through the water”. Ya, Ok, smooth...smooth. Then WHAM...SUPERMAN!

So just living the life here these days. A daily routine has emerged. It’s 7:30 am. Coffee in hand (DR grows and produces fantastic coffee). Amy and Robyn will soon be off for a bike ride, or maybe some yoga on the beach, before it gets hot. Great road riding here. Good paved roads winding through tropical jungle. Then back for a swim and a beach coffee. I’ll be off to kite school later followed by the mandatory afternoon beer and swim. The day is capped by an icy glass of Chardonnay (French imports are big here) on the beach to watch the sun go down and contemplate reality. Then dinner on the deck, candles, the whole shebang. Robyn and Amy continue to amaze me with their delicious, yet healthy and wholesome meals. Fruits and veggies are wonderfully cheap here. For desserts, we have discovered the most delicious Belgian chocolate bars on the planet. The mint chocolate seems to be the all-around fav thus far. The final decision of the day is whether the evening swim is to be had in the pool or the ocean. Usually I’m out-voted by the girls and we end up in the pool. Ahh, first-world problems.

OK, another couple weeks in the vaca-rental then we load up the bikes again and hit the road. We’re thinking we should see the rest of the island before officially claiming Las Terrenas the best place in the universe. As always, more on that soon. Adios

Uhh, a little help here...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hola D.R.!

Close your eyes. Imagine that idyllic picture-perfect beach with the white sand, the overhanging palm trees, the turquoise water...the one in the vacation ads...that’s the Dominican Republic. At least that’s the beach we have in front of us at the moment. Amy’s internet-accommodation sleuthing skills have paid off once again, and we are now sitting pretty in the middle of paradise. Una mas cerveza por favor!

It was a bit of a haul from Santiago Chile, connecting flight in Bogota Colombia, then touch-down in Santo Domingo – DR’s capital city – followed by a 2.5-hr shuttle ride to our rental house near the town of Las Terrenas on DR’s Samaná Penninsula. All in all about 17 hrs of travelling. Our first frosty Presidente – DR’s #1 cerveza  – followed by our first night swim in the deliciously warm waters of the Caribbean was...well...AMAZING! Yep, feels like we’ve come full circle from our initial touch-down in Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast last August – and that initial WHAM of hot steamy tropical air upon stepping off the plane – to our return to the sand and palm trees of the Caribbean here in the DR. As the cabin doors opened and we filled our lungs for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled. We’re back.

Although, the journey back was not without its epics. Arriving at the Santiago airport at 4:30 am for a 7:30 flight, we were asking ourselves what we were going to do for 3 hours. However, after all was said and done, we had to run for the gate. It all started upon stepping up to the Avianca – Colombia’s Air Canada – check-in counter and Arturo, a nice man afterall, but who seemingly had the air-transport rule booked shoved up his %@^%$#. First hurdle was our bikes, which, nicely packed into bike boxes, were going to cost us $300 U.S., as casually informed by Arturo. Not so, we said. Check your website (which we had done previously), bikes go free on international Avianca flights. Well, no less than 1 hour of deliberation between us, Arturo, an adjacent colleague, and perhaps every Avianca manager on his speed-dial list, finally got the bikes through for no-charge. OK, phew, let’s go, right? Wrong.

Arturo then casually begins our seat assignments and notices we have a one-way ticket. Oh, I cannot check you in unless you have a return flight reservation, he says calmly and staring into my eyes without expression. At this point, missing our flight had become a serious possibility. After a minute or so of “what?”, “excuse me”, “can you please repeat that?”, “are you serious?”, “uhhh, er, huh?”, “WHAT EXACTLY DOES THIS MEAN ARTURO!!!???”. It means you have to go to that counter over there and buy a return ticket, then come back here and show me the receipt before I can check you in. OMFG! At this point, I had one nerve left, and Arturo was twisting it with a pair of pliers. Option 1: do as Arturo says, or Option 2: there was no option 2 (well, other than applying for Chilean residency). Digging out my AMEX card, I run to the ticket counter. I need 2 one-way tickets out of DR any time in the next month, I say to the guy. After a very tense 5 or 10 minutes (the “going to miss our flight” thing) the guy calmly states “you have 2 seats from DR to Lima Peru (Lima!??...whatever) on June 15”. And, here is your receipt for $2800. OMFG!! CAN WE PLEASE LEAVE THIS FFING COUNTRY NOW?! We did. (I’m still working on cancelling the reservation and getting a refund. Fingers crossed). Ahh, you aren’t really travelling unless you’re dealing with airline check-in epics J

So DR! What a beautiful place. At least the part we have seen. It really is that image of Caribbean perfection that snaps into your mind when someone says “tropical vacation”. We’re renting a 2-bedroom house/villa, surrounded by palm trees and steps from the sand, for a month. It’s the vacation within our vacation (we need to relax!). Las Terranes is a formerly small fishing village on the north coast of the Samaná Penninsula, that is now home to a couple thousand French and Italian expats. It’s that interesting mix of Dominican locals and expats that gives the place its charm. A small Dominican town, on the most beautiful Caribbean coastline you could ask for, complete with French bakeries, mojito bars, and kite surfing shops.

Daily routines thus far include early-morning swims, coffees on the beach, breakfast in the sun, mid-morning swims, lunch in the shade, mid-afternoon swims, cocktails, pre-dinner swim, sunset drinkie-poos, candlelight dinner amongst the palms, post-dinner drinkie-poos followed by moonlight swims. So far, life in the DR ain’t too shab! J

So we’re digging in for the month. Visitors, taking different shifts and including our mothers, sisters, and our good friend Robyn from Nelson (who is here now) are part of the plan. Amy’s big objective is to stay in one place for a while and enjoy the exclusive use of our own kitchen. It’s a nice break from the hostel circuit of S.A. and sharing kitchens, bathrooms, and every other living space with 20 other people, particularly where the average age is early 20s (were we like that?). But really, the main objectives for the month include beach time, snorkelling, and blender drinks. Oh, and, I will hopefully learn to kite surf (apparently Las Terranes is one of the best places in the world for it), and Amy will find our retirement home lost in the endless real estate listings. Gotta keep the dream alive! More on life in the DR soon. Chau babe.

A very happy camper