Cristina on her own flight from Venezuala to Dominican Republic. I don't know what the guy behind her is photographing
Aug 13th, Santo Domingo Airport, Dominican Republic, 15:30 -- I find myself standing in a line in a broad hallway lined with flags of various countries of North and South America. The line is not moving, and appears to lead into a very large hall in which the line continues for an untold length. I can't make the wifi work. Cristina should have arrived about three hours prior, but I have no way to contact her. Several hours ago when I was in Panama I was able to connect to the wifi I had a message from her saying she hadn't been able to contact our hotel to arrange pick up, so I wonder if she made it okay. I'm also feeling rather bothered because I'm pretty sure I was just scammed.
My past experience rather worked against me. I've traveled to many sketchy places and thought I knew what the scams would be. I used to not change money in official airport money changers, suspecting them of giving bad rates (but it's hard to compare them "side by side" with money changers outside tho airport since they're literally not side by side), but lately (well here and Fiji) I've been doing it since it can be a hassle finding a money exchanger in the wild. But at least there's usually posted rates and several of them so it doesn't seem like any worse a scam than a slightly bad rate. Well in Santo Domingo airport there were two of them across from each other, _without_ posted rates. I hadn't even looked up the exchange rate since it's always posted, which may seem dumb but hey I've traveled to 31 countries now and it's never been an issue! Well there wasn't a posted rate here. So I went to the window and counted out ten twenties and asked him to exchange them to Dominican pesos. The slimey money exchanger said "for $180 I'll give you 7,500 pesos" to which I said "I gave you $200!" And he counted out the nine twenties in front of him. It's possible I myself miscounted but I strongly suspect he used a sleight of hand trick to hide one twenty. It would have been easy for him to pop one under the keyboard that was right there or hold two together as he flipped through them. Backing out now wouldn't make it reappear though so I asked him what that rate was, being too bedraggled from 12 hours of travel to do 7000/180 in my head (and also suspecting this giving me numbers too big and clunky for mental math was yet another attempt to hornswaggle me), he said 42 and I said alright really wishing I knew the official rate so I could at least attempt to haggle, which seemed like almost what he expected (due to the kind of tentative way he asked if I'd accept that exchange instead of just saying that's what it was). Googling it now, the official rate is 49.90:1, so his rate was only 85% of that which is indeed particularly bad.
Incidentally it turned out almost every price for anything I encountered was given to me in dollars, of which I'd retained none, and reconverted to pesos at the rate of 1:50, which is conveniently close enough to the real rate, but I was stuck re-converting dollar prices to peso prices at 1:50 to pay with pesos I'd gotten at 1:42 so I definitely would have been better off just keeping my dollars or even getting money from ATMs which give like a 1:48 rate. I think I'm definitely gonna go back to avoiding airport money exchanges.
And so I found myself standing in this line that was NOT moving. With no way to contact Cristina or anyone else. Nothing to do but feel frustrated. When I finally got into the hall itself I was alarmed to see the line snaking around the entire hall and back and forth and back and forth. In all my travels I have NEVER seen a passport control line so long and so slow. It took two hours for me to reach the front. I wondered if Cristina was waiting for me here at the airport or had gone back to the hotel. And if she was waiting here would she wonder why I hadn't emerged in the two hours since my flight arrived? Presumably she should know how slow the immigration is but maybe through fortunate happenstance she'd gotten through hers quickly. While I waited in line I finished the book I was reading ("For the Term of His Natural Life") Finally in the last five minutes I was able to connect to the wifi but Cristina evidentally had not been able to. When I finally got up to immigration the guy left his station while dealing with me to go have a quick chat with someone at another station, as if there was any question about their work ethic.
Arriving finally in the arrivals hall, unsure if I'd find her, I saw a dark haired senorita immediately rise up and hurry to greet me with a happy hug and a stream of Spanish. After some initial holas and como estases I asked her "hotel taxi?" nodding through to the door. "No" she said shaking her head sadly. "Hmm, we look" I said, taking her by the hand and walking to the doors, where we could see what hotel taxis and such were out there but none had our hotel's name (I had managed to send them an email in Panama but I never did see any evidence they got it). Whilst we were standing near the door numerous taxi drivers tried to engage our business but Cristina handled them in Spanish. Finally I decided to call the hotel even though I didn't have an international package on my phone and it would be $3 a minute, but it surely wouldn't take more than a minute and be worth $3 to get sorted... but the call couldn't go through. But mom was online so I messaged her asking her to call them, but it didn't work for her either. "How much for taxi?" I asked Cristina. "Cuarenta y cinco" she said and then tried to figure it out in English. The word 45 is almost the same in French (which I speak a bit of) though so I said "forty five?" and she said "si!" and after a little more hesitating trying to think of options I said "let's take taxi" and she nodded and we found one of the drivers who had talked to us earlier and she engaged him. As it happens the "hotel shuttle" which we took on the way back at the end of the trip cost $50 and was a less nice vehicle with less professional driver (not egregiously so, but still), so we really didn't miss anything.
The drive to the hotel took about an hour on a well maintained freeway surrounded mostly by thick verdant scrub, but also passing through many little towns. We were headed east along the southern coast of the island and at one point the highway ran just beside waves crashing on a rocky shore. Our hotel was a beach resort a bit far from the city of Santo Domingo. Our planning had been a very cooperative affair with both of us suggesting hotels and weighing in on the pros and cons and how we felt about them. Left to my own devices I probably would have chosen a very cute looking hotel I had found right in old town, if only because the beach resort hotel looked a bit.. resorty, which I have an aversion to, but the prospect of immediate beach access and pools won me over and I think she was right to push for it. The hotel was the opposite direction of the city from the airport but kinda equidistant between the city and the other place we wanted to go on an excursion to, an isla off the eastern tip of the island. I think the joint planning was a valuable exercise. During the drive to the hotel we didn't talk much, I'd find while we didn't have much trouble conveying ideas between eachother when alone we were both a bit shy about talking in front of others lest they see the ridiculous fact that we don't share a language. Plus I often don't talk much in car rides. So we sat quietly looking out the windows, while our fingers did a bit of a dance together in our held hands.
Checked in at the hotel. This staffmember who we were told was our "personal concierge" showed us to our room. He had beady effeminate eyes almost like he was wearing eyeliner or girled up lashes and a greasy disturbingly ingratiating smirk, and told us he'd meet us the next morning at whatever time worked for us (8:30) to tell us about the hotel and give us an invitation to something and tickets for complimentary massages. I wondered why they didn't just give them to us when we checked in but hey.
Once this oily character had departed and we'd put our bags down, it was time to exchange gifts! With great assistance from my dear mother I had brought her a cute honeybee charm thing which mom had put on a black ribbon to be worn like a necklace. As it happens she was wearing a black outfit which the black ribbon went perfectly with. I also had brought her a pound of one of my favorite honeys we'd been selling (I'd been in California helping a friend sell honey), a California wildflower honey that happens to taste a bit cinnamony. In getting gifts I'd been slightly concerned it would embarrass her if she hadn't brought me any, but by the same token if I didn't and she did I'd feel like a cad! Fortunately she then whipped out her own gifts: for me she brought a nice looking bottle of Venezuelan rum; and then she revealed two pretty crocheted necklaces (made by her cousin I'd later learn) for my mom in her favorite colors, purple and turquoise! (both photos are of mom later wearing the presents, and showing off the small tomato that was her entire tomato crop) The colors could have been a lucky guess, but given her accuracy in all other things I think she had done her homework! Also, for example, the next thing she brought out was some Venezuelan chocolate for my dad! My dad loorves chocolate and I surely probably must have mentioned this at some point, this was some on-point gift giving! And then her next present really surprised me -- another crocheted necklace, for my friend Billie (a girl)! She had taken note that Billie was one of my very best friends, and I guess Billie had really earned some points with Cristina when I had relayed Billie's remark upon first seeing a picture of Cristina -- "her eyes are like chocolate!" And most importantly at all, when you're potentially about to be entering into a long (long!) distance relationship and your best friend back home is a girl, one has ample reason to be apprehensive of jealousy issues, and her bringing a gift for Billie I feel was sort of a declaration of peace and non-jealousy.
After this we went down to the hotel restaurant, on the plus side there was seating right on the beach, on the other hand, it was a buffet. I was kinda "ugh buffets" and thinking again for a moment about all the cute restaurants we could have gone to if we stayed in town, but the buffet always had some delicious offerings (and less delicious offerings. Always fill your plate with one of everything, and then go back to fill up on that which is actually good), and ate it outside at the tables by the beach, which was certainly nice. The resort being "all inclusive" there were also free margaritas! I can report that when exposed to limitless free alcohol Cristina drinks only in moderation. After, over the course of the whole evening I ordered a third round of margaritas she quietly commented "it is much!" in a non-judgemental but sincere way.
After we ate, an official beach party seemed to be forming on the beach, hotel staff having set up speakers and playing music trying to get people to dance on the sand. We sat on a beach chair chatting in our broken spanglish, drinking our second margaritas, and watched as the dance party grew from a half dozen staffmembers to about thirty people, and eventually we ended up on the dance "floor" ourselves, though I was very self conscious that I am a terrible dancer with no sense of rhythm and what if my unimpressive performance here makes her see me for the dork I am and golly maybe a third round of margaritas would loosen things up.
Then the staff dispersed the dancing and called for eight men to volunteer for unspecified activities and I, drinking said third margarita beside Cristina, was prepared to shamelessly try to hide behind her, but a staffmember cheerfully grabbed me and brought me to the front with the others. The other guys were from a really varied mix of places, Canada, France, Russia, America. Apparently we were to chug a beer, spin ourselves around ten times, and try to run in a straight line ten meters down the beach and sit in a chair. I am unable to chug beer, I don't know how people do it, but it usually results in me puking so I was filled with a bit of apprehension as my turn approached. As it happens, after downing a big gulp or two of the small cup and "accidentally" splashing out most of the rest I was off with hopefully not too much shame. The spinning and running I wasn't afraid of and that went without incident. Then there was of course a limbo line, which we participated in but were both out pretty quick, and then they announced the party would be moving to the discotheque (it was around 10pm). I was a bit afraid Cristina would want to go, but she said maybe one of the other days. People quickly began to abandon the beach and trudge toward the hotel disco, but Cristina and I made our way to a bonfire that had been left burning just out of reach of the waves. No one else was nearby and here by the gently crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea, under a starry sky with Mars glowing like a tiny fireball overhead, surrounded by white sand and picturesque palm trees, we had a very romantic first kiss.
And thus ends day 1! Tune in tomorrow for day 2!