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Travel Image: Dominican Republic
Travel Image: Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic: White Knuckles Meet Amber Cervesa
By Cliff Lambson

San Juan is an accommodating stopover when traveling to the Caribbean; a modern air and seaport surrounded by teal water and spiraling mountains dashed in jungle flora. All the fair-skinned northerners gleefully get off to island hop, or join up with cruise ships. My connection to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is less than an hour long. The plane is all but empty now, save a smattering of Dominicans on their annual pilgrimages to the homeland to see what their relatives have spent their Western Union monthly remittances on.

I’ve always dreamed of living in a Caribbean beach town surrounded by tall mountains of flowing jungle to explore. I’ve moved back away from my wing seat to take in the—now quickly approaching—mountains. Our pilot has us up on a steep bank, turning hard away from the spiraling rock and palm. I head back to my seat to buckle up and prepare for impact and notice a giddy gent in the row ahead of me—mercilessly devouring a pint of Johnnie Walker Red (he obviously likes flying as much as I do). He’s pantomiming as if he’s the pilot of the plane—holding a pint—flying us over the abruptly rising mountains of San Juan. He clearly he hit that bottle long before we took off.

I drop my lack of knowledge on him—I’ve never been to the Dominican Republic—and he, as any typical Dominican would, offers help. It turns out that my new friend (Daniel) is a maintenance man and works just down the street from me in Boston. In Latin America—or so it seems—that makes us as good as “primos” (first cousins), this comes in handy. He rummages through my Lonely Planet and web page printouts and locates a place to stay in the capital that fits into my plans and budget. I had absolutely no plan on those subtleties. I had a little bungalow on the beach in Las Terranas on the North Coast in mind, and tickets to see a baseball game back in the capital a few days later, and an open slate beyond that.

Our flight—and my thumb gymnastics through the translation dictionary—is now over and I find myself in immigration, filling out forms in Spanish; completely guessing the logical answers. I get enough of the questions right and I’m through customs and into a huge pool of finely clad, almond skinned welcoming parties. No one’s expecting me, but that doesn’t slow the huge smiles and inquisitive looks. I pick up the pace as if I’ve got somewhere definite to go and burst through the doors and outside—into a scorching heat like I’ve never felt before; 7 to 107 Fahrenheit in 4 hours.

I was really expecting much more—like a city for instance. The water is straight in front of me and I honestly don’t know if Santo Domingo is to the right or left, I haven’t a clue. The horizon is water ahead and hazes on the sides. I have a week, dollars, a decent smile, and a decent way, I’m just a little short on a clue. I’m holding the dice at this table.

In comes my hero Daniel, he’s just been received, and his entourage is now making its way to a taxi. Daniel has big family here on the island and his support and annual visits are what keep them stable. He asks me if I need a lift; his cabby-buddy Vito or Bito or Beeto (actually “Victor” in Spanish, but I was struggling with their mangled diction) was there to take him to the city. A lift to somewhere might be a good start; they’ll take me to capital.

With the only word I really knew well in Spanish – “Si” - I jump in with him and Vito/Bito/Beeto and we're on our way.

I was awarded the front seat and the view was paralyzing. I'd never seen anything like this before. One ramshackle hut after another, piles of trash, abandoned cars—some still being driven—small refuse fires, and possibly the worst sight of all, dead dogs every few miles on this now very busy highway.

I wanted to ask if perhaps this devastation was from a hurricane. I was curious to know what month they pick up the trash here. Is that house being built, or torn down? But like the rest of my questions, they’re returned simply with smiles and splashes of laughter.

However, I do understand 'cervesa' and "si" I'll gladly have one. We stop at the first pile of squared cement and this colmado (corner store) has a dutiful freezer from heaven. Encased in ice, our purveyor of the islands nectar (Presidente beer) pries three huge “grandes” from the ice chest. Caked in ice shavings, a napkin is quickly wrapped around the bottle in an elegant and quick fashion and the top is popped off.

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