Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.
emo_snal

Where It All Began

( What came before )

   It's a beautiful sunny morning in the Dominican Republic. The woman sitting across from us at the outdoor table hands me a pen and with a broad smile tells me "I just need you to sign right here." I look over at Cristina, but she looks at me with a blank expression, her large brown eyes expressing a zenful lack of guidance, like gazing into a beautiful pond. Let's go back fifteen minutes I'll never get back:


This is clearly from later but I was trying to find a picture of her with a relatively blank expression

   “Okay so I'm writing up your invitation to attend this brief informational session about the hotel and then you'll get your tickets for the free massage, and I get a point, you want me to get a point right?” the oily hotel “concierge” is telling us in the warm morning light on the bridge over the pond filled with lily pads. And I'm wondering, Why do I need an invitation? and why do I care if you get “a point” and what kind of creepy work environment do you exist in you're so desperate for this “point?” but I smile and nod because I assume he's going to give useful information about the hotel amenities and nearby activities.
   ”It's a ninety minute informational session but you don't have to stay for the whole thing, but don't tell them I said that or I won't get my point” he's saying. Ninety minutes?? This is sounding weirder and weirder. I look over at Cristina beside me and she looks back at me, her large brown eyes unreadable. While we don't seem to have trouble communicating when we're alone I think we're bit a both embarrassed for hotel staff and others to realize we don't actually share a language.
   "I'll just take you to the woman who will do the session, remember what I told you, dont' tell them I told you you can leave early” he says. I'm thinking okay this is definitely sounding like something I'm going to want to bounce right out of. He leads us off the bridge past the two flamingos preening themselves in the shallow part of the pond – the flamingos are always in the same place, and I wonder if they're tied down or something.
   The concierge fellow introduces us to a woman sitting at a table who smiles at us extremely warmly and welcomes us to sit down, makes a bit of small talk asking us where we're from and all that, and then casually gets into business, asking us to sign a form for some reason acknowledging that we know this informational session is going to be ninety minutes long and finally using the words that explain it all “vacation club package.” I look at Cristina, I don't really want to make a unilateral decision for us but she's giving me no cues, and having only been in eachother's presence for less than 24 hours, we have not yet developed the non-verbal cues to get out of a situation like this. Probably we would have escaped much sooner if we'd just been able to communicate.
   "I don't think we want to do this” I say, putting down the pen definitively. Looking at Cristina for confirmation, she nods. The woman quickly gathers up her papers, and bruskly juts out her hand for a handshake “okay have a nice day” she says like she's barely keeping the smile plastered on her face, and she gestures that we can go. My fifty feet down the path the concierge emerges from the hedge as we pass, looking concerned and asking “what happened??”
   ”We just want to sign up for some excursions not spend 90 minutes hearing about a timeshare or whatever” I tersely inform him with a bid of an edge in my voice. He tries to smile but its more like a grimace as he says “oh," and quickly leads us to another sketchy looking guy lurking in another outdoor hallway, before disappearing never to be seen again.
   The excursion guy himself seemed sketchy and eager to sell us on overpriced watersports. I'm glad I had already looked up things to do because even trying to practically hit him over the head with “we want to go to Santo Domingo" and "we want to go to Isla Soana” it seemed to take him a moment to switch gears from trying to flog off on us his highest commissioned packages to organizing what we wanted. In the end he organized a driver to take us down to Santo Domingo immediately, and the next morning we were do the cruise to Isla Saona.



   It was about an hour drive to the city. I was kind of surprised when we got there and the driver asked where we wanted to go. Like, wasn't this like, an organized tour of some kind?
   "Well we want to see the Zona Colonia and the Tres Ojos and I don't know what else?” I said, so he took us to the Zona Colonia, dropped us off on a narrow street bounded by old looking buildings and with a cathedral spire looming up down one end, and he told us to find him back at this intersection whenever we were done here (picture below is actually the one I took so I could recognize the spot on return)
   So we set about wandering old town. I wasn't feeling very impressed with the tour organizing capabilities of our hotel (which wasn't a budget no frills cheapest option hotel but an “all inclusive” not-the-cheapest one. And I'm used to people trying to get my money in third world countries but usually once you've booked a nice hotel they try to protect you from feeling like they're trying to further bamboozle money out of you and/or especially others doing so.



   Anyway Santo Domingo is apparently the very oldest European colonial town in the Americas, being founded in 1496 By Christopher Colombus' brother Bart, after they abandoned their initial settlement. In the palm tree lined plaza in front of the cathedral (built 1504-1541) a swarthy and beady eyed would-be tour guide started trying to talk to us. I was prepared to not even acknowledge him, as I do to shake off such people trying to importune me in Egypt and other places (but especially Egypt, they're the worst there!) but sweet natured Cristina responded to him so I was drawn in. I then noted that he had an official shirt and tour guide photo ID and hey having a tour guide would probably be better than just wandering around this place ourselves so I engaged him. Actually, I quite appreciated that he seemed perfectly willing to explain everything once in English and once in Spanish, which most people we had and would encounter weren't as inclined towards.
   There was an interesting statue of Christopher Columbus there in the square I would have liked to get a better look but sadly we passed it at the awkward time when we were trying not to get the tour guide to excited by our interest in anything.


Beside the cathedral. I think she looks damn good in my hat (:

   We toured around various other grand old rough-stone buildings, I was sad it didn't appear that we were able to go into the impressive looking fortress overlooking the river/harbor right there because it appeared to still be a government/military installation (I think it was this, which Wikipedia seems to say IS open to the public, such sauce). Nearby they had, in what looked like an old church, an eternal flame being guarded by one of those classic still-as-a-statue honor guards. Additionally there were statues and plaques to various national heroes whom the tour guide explained. I couldn't quite follow but gathered some of the heroes were actually Haitian and/or there was something to do with a once-united post independence Hispaniola before the island divided into Haiti and Dominican Republic. I just spent a collective several seconds confirming this on Wikipedia and learned that it was rather regarded as a Haitian occupation by the Dominicans.

   Guide took us to a “larimar jewelry factory” where they were making and selling jewelry with a pretty blue gemstone that only is found in the Dominican Republic, known as larimar. Of course they saw their strategy with us and talked up how it's known as “the love stone” and if you have one you and your love will never break up. Cristina and I selected a cute amber-and-larimar bracelet for her, which I liked because amber is reminiscent of honey.
   We found our driver again in front of the “Amber Museum.” Our tour guide was about to lead us in there, but the driver objected and they went back and forth briefly in Spanish, I couldn't understand what was said but I didn't need to – whichever of them brought us in would get the commission for doing so if we bought anything. I think the driver having been staked out here planning on bringing us in all along won, and we paid off our tour guide (once again he asked for a price in dollars and then that was converted to pesos at the 50:1 ratio)
   Amber museum was alright. I like amber, it has a certain natural history / entomology interest since it often contains insects. The tour guide spoke English well enough that I suspected she'd spent a significant amount of her life in the states. Turns out they find a fair bit of amber in the DR. I didn't buy anything, since I'd already gotten Cristina the bracelet at the other place (for which the tour guide no doubt did get a commission so he had the last laugh on the commission thing anyway).



   From there we went to the Tres Ojos. The Tres Ojos it turns out are two giant sink-holes with four lakes in them (of which three make up the “three eyes,” or “tres ojos”). Once again our driver handed us off to a local guide. He was quite inclined towards taking pictures of us so we ended up with about a bazillion pictures of us. A rough cobbled-stone stairway led seemingly right into the ground and came out into a dramatic cavern open to the sky in the middle but with stalactites around the sides and trees growing inside. This dramatic setting has been used in a number of movies, including Jurassic Park III and possibly one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Clearly this had been a big sink-hole of which the top had fallen in. The first two lakes were pools of crystal clear turquoise water in two different corners in which fish could be seen swimming about. The third lake was actually in an offshoot cave leading horizontally underground. We descended down to the edge of this lake on the rough steps and found a small wooden square boat there, which we boarded and the boatman propelled us into the darkness by pulling hand over hand on an overhead rope. I watched the green foliage outside the entrance we had come through disappear behind us, and the electriclaly lit stalactites and stalagmites of the other shore approach, and felt this was pretty damn cool. At the far side we walked a short distance through the natural cave and came out just above water level at the second sink-hole, of which one large lake filled the entire bottom. Took many pictures here of this beautiful view.



   After this place the driver asked us where we wanted to go next, I asked him if he knew anywhere else but he didn't really suggest anything (gosh darn useless as a tour guide I tell you!), but since we were a bit tired I said just to take us back to the hotel. As we were driving past the national aquarium he asked us if we wanted to go in. My first inclination was to decline because I've been to some amazing aquariums (Monteray Bay Aquarium and Long Beach Aquarium, both in California, are both pretty great), but it occurred to me that Cristina may not have and I know she loves turtles and probably other aqua-fauna. So I looked at her and asked her if she wanted to, and she said “si.” This turned out to be the cheapest thing we did all day with a $2 admisssion and no tourguides trying to ingratiate themselves with us. Immediately Cristina was delighted to see a pool with several large sea turtles in it. We actually had a really good time strolling around the aquarium looking at the various tanks of fishes, and finally free from a tour guide chaparone who might judge us for our language problems we had a lot of fun discussing the exhibits in our hodge podge spanglish. Of particular note there were two big silly blimp like manatees and ever after whenever we'd had a particularly large meal we'd look at eachother and say “we are the manatees!”



   From there we returned to the hotel, though the tour guide was trying to encourage us to stay out, saying, I believe, that his time was already paid for so we might as well continue to have him take us about, which is strange because back at the hotel he wanted $97 rather than the $90 we had agreed on “because we went longer” … I shrugged and paid it but was getting really tired of this Dominican way of springing hidden fees and charges.


This is a 360 panorama from the end of the dock above, this time looking back into the cave.

   We spent the end of the evening swimming off the beach in front of the hotel. The cliché romantic beach related thing is “long walks on the beach” but slowly dancing out in the crystal clear water just beyond the small waves as the sun sets into the ocean just beside the palm trees of shore strikes me as much more romantic. Clouds came over and gentle rain began, though the temperature was still not too bad. As evening settled in though Cristina said it was getting too frio and I could feel the goosebumps on her arms and legs so we dashed out of the water to our towels (it was mucho frio once out of the water!) We made our way to what looked like a hot tub beside a pool just beside the beach at the hotel but it turned out to be entirely unheated. We then quickly made our way to the hot tub we'd seen in the central area of the hotel …... only to find it also just less than luke-warm. I'm still mystified by this because it sure looked like a hot tub, and I could have sworn I saw people lounging in it as if it was a hot tub at some other time. I looked and looked for some kind of switch to maybe turn it on but I couldn't find one and soon we were shivering significantly in this “hot tub,” and so we dashed back to our room where at least we had a hot shower to warm ourselves up.

Tags: caribbean, cristina, dominican republic, romance, travel, travelogues
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