September 2nd - Having finally arrived in the Dominican Republic the day before, we spent the morning taking it easy around the hotel. We booked our hotel and my return flight to the US. Since Cristina had to return for Venezuela on the 6th and my existing departure from Cancun was on the 7th, I thought for a _moment_ of flying to Cancun on the 6th and taking my original flight back ... but decided I didn't particularly want to see that place ever again. I've never booked flights on my phone before, I remember I saw my friend Doug so once and I couldn't believe one would leave such a potentially expensive transaction to the utter tediousness of twiddling about on a mobile site -- I make enough mistakes doing it from a computer. But here I was just me and my phone. In the past I've asked travel agents to find me a flight somewhere and then independently looked for a flight and almost invariably I've been able to beat the price and/or convenience of the flight the travel agent found, so I don't have much faith in them ... except Cristina's travel agent friend is the only one who has been able to find deals better than anything I could find (though Cristina's mom and others have called into question how she could have failed to know and warn us that Venezuelans were being refused entry to Mexico), so I put my faith in her to get me a flight back to the States. Which she did, for $485.38 something which I felt was pretty good for a 3,194 mile international flight less than a week out, and it's on me that it didn't click that the airline was Spirit, which is famously unpleasant. So we got that bought and paid for. Killed some time until the 2pm bus across the island to the Samaná Peninsula.
We had the hotel conjure up a taxi for us. Juan seemed to be a nice guy. He was going to take us to the bus station for something reasonable ($25?) but then he offered to take use all the way to our hotel for $150 (a three hour or so trip). I knew the bus was only going to be $16 between us for the same trip but... well a road trip through the middle of the DR sounded fun. While a bus may be technically a road trip, it isn't the same blasting through ten feet high as at eye level. Anyway, we got our adventure.
Hopefully this works as an animated gif
Apparently not, (the original I was trying to post)
Juan got off the big new main highway, apparently to avoid the "expensive tolls" of a few dollars, and soon we were driving at a third of our former speed dodging around potholes on a decrepit road, among houses of cinderblock and corrugated metal. Soon we passed through a checkpoint manned by armed soldiers, and it was evident the soldier thought taking this route to avoid tolls seemed pretty ill advised. The military checkpoint was outside the town of Sabana Grande de Boyá, and we were all a bit nervous about this rural town that apparently needed to be surrounded by the military (there was a checkpoint on the far side too). Cristina's mother had been carjacked in Venezuela so Cristina was acutely aware of this danger in unstable areas, and she's pretty sure our driver, though a big guy and though he had tried to sound confident was pretty nervous too.
I have a deep distrust of taxi drivers, which, though I feel Cancun vindicates it, it can seem kind of paranoid when your driver is actually good and honest. Juan seemed very nice but I still checked the google maps every now and then, and in this case the further we got off what appeared to me the route we should be on the more concerned I got. After we passed the last road to make it to Samana without a major detour I pointed this out to Cristina, who asked Juan and he seemed to express that he knew where he was going .... though he later admitted he was lost as we approached the town of Cotui, and Cristina and I were happy to thereafter take a more active role in navigation.
It was indeed interesting to see so much of the rural parts of the country though. Previous travels just along the coast last year only exposed me to parts of the country that looked pretty developed, but the interior looked very equivalent to Africa. Indeed, since the population appeared mostly black it was interesting to try to pinpoint in exactly what subtle ways it didn't resemble Africa. All I could put my finger on was that everywhere I've been in Africa the men wear their hair extremely short but there was a lot more hair to be seen here. Large parts of the countryside seemed to be thick jungle, and there were some surprisingly rugged little mountains in the middle of the country.
What should have been a 2.5 hour drive ended up taking 5 hours. Despite this, we actually liked our driver Juan, I think getting lost was an "honest mistake" he genuinely regretted. We ended up using him again for all our driving when we returned to the capital and I'd probably use him next time I'm there as well. He seemed to so sincerely care about our wellbeing that I correctly guessed that he has children of similar age to us.
I had hoped to get to the hotel before sunset but our detour prevented that. I was a bit impatient to get this proposing thing underway. Once we checked into our adorable little villa, I got the ring box from the backpack and into my pocket in preparation, but it was big and bulky and as we ended up laying together in the hammock I was afraid she'd notice it and so I put it back in the backpack when she went to the bathroom. Merely proposing in the room simply wouldn't do. Presently I suggested we go look at the beach, and she was amenable to this. But now I needed to get the ring again! How?? Fortunately she said she needed to dash up to the bedroom for something. Perfect!
We made our way through the hotel grounds and out onto the beach. The beach stretched off into the darkness to the left and right with no lights or human habitation as far as the eye could see, and overhead an infinite number of stars twinkled. Heavy waves crashed on the beach. Es profundo said Cristina, which I took to mean the waves were strong, but it can also mean profound in the same sense as in English.
I held her in my arms, gazing fondly at her and trying to think of how exactly to best start this.
"What? What is it?" she asked. And here I thought I was being sly and casual. Well there was nothing for it but to get on one knee...
...and then I fished around in my pocket trying to get the ring box out. It took awkwardly long. Finally I got the ring box out and presented it, saying "I have one more thing for you"
"ohhh, es lindooo" she was saying, admiring it, and I realized I hadn't actually asked the important question.
"oh, also. Will you marry me?" I asked.
"Siiiii!" she exclaimed, followed by "will you really marry with me??"
"Sii" said I, rising from my knee to put my arms around her
"You will marry with me???" she asked again
We then took the video I posted announcing the engagement.
September 3rd - As I mentioned in the earlier entry we just bummed around the hotel but it really was tropical paradise, with us practically having the hotel grounds to ourselves, the entire beach maybe having half a dozen people visible on it, total, and they miles down the way. That being said some Europeans showed up via the access road to the beach that was just beside the hotel, and brazenly put their stuff on the lounge chair our stuff was on. Being as the engagement ring was in Cristina's bag and my paranoia was still in full effect, I'd been keeping an eye on the stuff from where we frolicked in the surf, which seemed adeuqate with no one for miles, but was certainly not adequate with gosh darn Germans or Ukrainians rummaging in bags on the very same chair! So I went up to move our stuff, expecting they'd at least be apologetic but they just kind of looked at me like _I_ was intruding as I extricated our stuff from under their stuff and moved it to the base of a palm tree a bit away.
Cristina and I discovered we'd left my external phone battery (without which my phone lasts like an hour) in the taxi, and her shoes in the hotel in Santo Domingo. This was regrettable as shoes were recommended for the horseback riding excursion, but she made due with her flip flips. Some time after that the strap on her flip flops broke though, which left her in dire footware straights.
That evening, having spent the day lounging by the beach and pool and generally frolicking in the sun, and having leftovers from the delicious carne asada lunch ("churrasco" actually, which may or may not be the same thing?), as well as from the very good chicken the night before, decided to just eat our leftovers in our little kitchen. But that evening we discovered the gas to the oven apparently wasn't on! And it was too late to rouse anyone! Cristina then exhibited a mcguyver-like cleverness and put the meat in the bottom of coffee maker's glass carafe and turned it on. It was a bit slow, but it worked!
September 4th - At a comfortable time in the morning (9am?) as we finished another delicious breakfast, the man from the horse riding excursion came to pick us up. He was a balding fellow originally from the Asturias region of Spain who combined a sort of dorky lankiness with a machismo swagger, and was accompanied by his Dominican wife, dark-skinned, fro haired and giving him a wifely sass on occasion. We stopped at an ATM in the nearby town of Terranas and then continued about a half hour further along the coast to the small town of Barrio Las Flores. This drive was a pleasant one along the winding coastal road. The light traffic was mostly motorcycles and motorscooters, the houses were small but cute, gaily painted and overhung with lush vegetation. One town we passed had a beautiful public pool in the town square, the pool was built to look more like a pond than a rectangular swimming pool and was full of kids splashing about. At some points we were driving just beside the sandy beach, at another point we drove besidea disused a kilometer-long runway with weeds growing on it.
We checked into the tour agency's office and then were dispatched off in the care of an elderly man of indiginous features who didn't speak a word of English but seemed kind (and of course Cristina could correspond fluently with anyone who didn't speak English). We walked down the block to where a nine year old or so was holding the tethers of two horses. We mounted them and were off with the man accompanying on foot, just behind us, encouraging the reluctant horses with a constant "hurruh! hurrah!" and swishing of a slender stick, which together barely motivated the unenthusiastic beasts.
As I've remarked before when horses come up, I quite rather like horseback riding but as a non-horse owner one is pretty much limited to sad little trail rides where the horse just proceeds down a course known so well to it it could go with its eyes closed. This was a classic example of that and no amount of applying my heels would make the horse go an iota faster, nor would pulling back the reins slow it, nor pulling to the left or right would make it consider for a moment altering its route. I thought back fondly to Kyrgyzstan and Nicaragua where I'd had the opportunity to ride horses that moved like an extension of my body.
Notwithstanding the stubborness of the horses, it was a beautiful trek down into the wild forest of some kind of national park. We descended down to where a cool clear river flowed in lazy slow curves through its own gorge in the forest, and proceeded along the stony river for a bit before climbing out and up a steep path among the trees, occasionally having to make way for people coming down with horses laden with baskets full of coconuts.
Finally we came to an overlook with some rough corrals for horses and a simple open sided cafe overlooking the waterfall. We stopped here a few minutes for our guide to rest, and changed into our swimming gear. Then down the path on foot!
Below the main waterfall there was a smaller waterfall falling into a quiet pool in a much more serene setting than the main waterfall (which had a fair number of tourists at it). We swam in this tranquil pool a bit after the main one and an old man who was sitting beside it talked to Cristina in Spanish. She commented after that the old man by the pool seemed like the kind of wise old man who, if this were a movie, would have imparted some sage wisdom. Instead he encouraged her to sail illegally to Puerto Rico and thus in American territory onward to the continental US. She shook her head at this silly notion.
The main waterfall was crowded with pasty European tourists in speedos. Like the ones at the beach, some decided to place their stuff, of all places, right on our flip-flops. Like literally on them. I guess so they wouldn't get damp on the ground, but who does this??
The pool was chilly but refreshing and we spent about an hour swimming around in it. There was a neat little cave grotto in the back. Two local lads were wowing tourists by jumping from astounding heights into the pool. Another young man had a beautiful parrot he was letting people take pictures with. The only payment for this was a voluntary tip which he wasn't even terribly insisted upon. We gave him a few dollars.
Finally, having thoroughly refreshed ourselves in the waterfall's pool for an hour or so, we removed our flip-flops from under the european's stuff and headed back down to the smaller fall, where we swam a bit more and received sage wisdom, then up the path to the cafe overlook. There we changed and rested a few minutes. I was laughing at a sign in which rum and coke was "Cuba Libre" in Spanish, English, & French, but in Russian it's "rum and cola" presumably because politically speaking the Russian sphere is unamused by the idea of a free Cuba. Then I noticed pina coladas on the menu, yes please! It ended up coming in a freshly hollowed out pineapple, and given they harvest coconuts hereabouts, if its possible to make coconut cream on the spot (is it?) that was probably fresh too. I'm not sure I like pina coladas as much as I like the idea of them, which is to say, I do like pina coladas, but I always feel like having one signifies I am officially on vacation and living the high life!
I know the boots and shorts look is weird but I wasn't about to wear long pants and flipflops were inadvisable for horseback riding so this is what you get
Back down the trail, across the river, into Barrio Las Flores. a delicious meal there, and then back along the winding coastal road to our hotel. At this point it felt like we'd done a whole day's worth of stuff already, but it was only early afternoon! We proceeded to go swimming in the ocean and walking along the beach. At sunset we walked first to the point of land to our west and then the one to our right. In our perambulations over more than a mile of beach we passed a mere handful of people, and at one point just at sunset a local man came trotting along the beach on his horse at a quick canter.
That evening we had a delicious dinner of prawns at the hotel restaurant. We had been told we needed to tell them if we were going to have dinner there, which we had. This afternoon we asked what time dinner was on and they told us whenever we liked and didn't press us to answer just then. It was somewhat of a marvel to me in the early evening to see three or four of the kitchen staff idling away at the kitchen-restaurant counter just awaiting our pleasure. In some hotels the staff might have seemed sullen about this and it could have been guilt-inducing, but all the staff at this hotel seemed so genuinely happy in their jobs and dedicated to making it the best possible experience for guests that it just felt fun. It felt so "5 star" and yet unbelievably the hotel is listed as 3 star. After watching the sunset from out amongst the waves and the warm sea, we got cleaned up and changed and came back out for dinner.
September 5th - We had hoped to go diving this day but Gail the receptionist couldn't get ahold of the one diving company, and this other she had gotten ahold of that sounded even better ($70 for all day, diving (snorkeling, "with tubas") at three different locations, lunch on an island, possibly alcoholic beverages included) was a go at first but the other original clients pulled out and it was no longer worth going out for them. So instead we lounged around the beach and pool until it was time to catch the afternoon bus around 2:00.
The bus from Las Terranas to Santo Domingo was a comfortable coach that got there smoothly in 2.5 hours along the new highway, though it did go through a heck of a lot of toll booths (though also I confirmed we wouldn't have seen much of the authentic Dominican Republic living conditions from the bus). Got to the bus shed in Santo Domingo during a pouring rain, and Juan, whom we'd messaged to advise of our arrival came to pick us up. We were soon reunited with the missing battery, and a visit to the previous hotel got us back her shoes!
I've already described our hotel on the return to Santo Domingo with it's rooftop jacuzzi, but I'll add that part of the problem with this hotel was the attitude of the staff. While at Casa Coson the staff all seemed to glow with a personal desire to make your stay as good as possible, the staff at this hotel smiled and did what was helpful when cornered, but seemed to scurry out of sight whenever possible like rats. I'm not talking about in the vicinity of the jacuzzi where maybe they want to respect your desire to not have them at your elbow but in reception and the dining/bar area. When cornered they'd accomplish your request as quickly as possible and without asking if they could help you further would disappear. This might not have struck me as remarkable if it wasn't such a striking contrast from the previous hotel.
We went on a bit of an evening walkabout since the hotel was right in the Zona Colonia, the old town (the oldest continuously habitated town in the Americas in fact), and stumbled upon a lovely pedestrian boulevard with lights gaily strung over it, buskers and people selling art and souvenirs, though I had never seen this place advertised to tourists nor did anyone on the street actually appear to be tourists (at least in the sense of the resorts being full of pasty while European/Caucasians). Finally we encountered the tourists all concentrated at one end of the street where some really overpriced looking restaurants were located and shady looking characters lurked in the shadows prompting Cirstina to warn me not to take my phone out and be wary of being pickpocketed.
September 6th - Our flights weren't until the afternoon so we had a spot of time in the morning. Remember Rafael from Partners for the Americas? Referenced here as the source for our initial hotel recommendation as well as the recommendation to go to the Samaná Peninsula. I had worked for Partners for the Americas in Nicaragua, and a few years ago was offered a project here in the DR I was too busy for so I kicked it over to my friend Mark, so when I knew I was coming to DR the first time (last year), I asked Mark if he had any good contacts. Upon being contacted Rafael had declared that if I was a friend of Mark's I was therefore a friend of his, and had been extremely helpful on a number of occasions. So since we had some time this morning he invited us to come to the Partners office in Santo Domingo. I was excited to finally meet him as well as the other Partners DR staff for various ulterior motives: (1) they hadn't chosen me for a project earlier this year, meeting me might make them more likely to choose me in the future; (2) they might be a bit leery of me saying my fiancee will be tagging along with me on a project unless of course they've already met her delightful self! (3) maybe I could interview them about the several bee related projects they've done this past year and write about it for the American Bee Journal as others have done! (though let me emphasize I had been trying to work meeting Rafael in anyway without these ulterior motives because he'd been such a good friend to us)
The staff (Director, two field representatives and another administrative staffmember whose title I forget) were all very nice. Rafael was taller than I'd pictured, tall and energetic with a virile dark beard. Had a good talk with the director; I asked all the questions I could think of about the projects they've done this year but I fear I'm not very good at this and could hardly write a paragraph about them. The director seemed to have a good chat with Cristina as well (in Spanish), and enlightened us that the DR and Venezuela have very good relations and treaties in place to ensure free movement of their people between them, which explains why we've found it so easy for her compared to most other places. I also learned "Partners for the Americas" no longer works in Nicaragua but DOES now operate in Colombia and... Bhutan ("Bhutan??" "Yes Bhutan" "Like B H U T A N" "yes" "but that's not in the Americas??" "haha yeah well..."). ::shrug:: I do hope I can come back to DR for an official project though. Or Colombia.
Juan was very patient with us, waiting for an hour while we visited the office, then taking us to the mall and going in with us in a search for a bank that could give us USD. Venezuelans it turns out have to show a certain amount of USD to be able to travel, and apparently friends and family loan it to eachother for this purpose so there's this amount of USD that they just keep for this purpose, loaning it to eachother but not spending it. In a kind of sadly ironic twist of fate I had had to borrow $20 from her when caught without enough money for an earlier transaction, and wanted to replenish her.
And then we were off to the airport. Once again our flights were close enough together in time that we were able to go through security together, linger by her gate until the last possible minute for sad goodbyes, and then as the doors closed on her, the literal last person through, waving as they closed, I had to hurry to my own gate. Thereupon I discovered that Spirit Airways feels almost like they're TRING to be punitive: seats don't recline, half-sized metal tray tables that look like they belong in a prison, the stewardesses loudly threatened at least two passengers with removal (one because he had apparently consumed some alcohol and was seated in an exit row, he allowed them to reseat him without causing trouble and didn't seem visibly impaired or uncooperative; the other because her baby wouldn't stop crying), and the flight attendants subjected us to several live-action infomercials. Ugh. By and by via Fort Lauderdale I arrived in LAX around midnight, took the "supershuttle" back home (took about two hours with other passengers dropoffs), wherein I had a nice chat with the friendly Mexican driver about immigration. About 48 hours later I was on a plane back to Australia.