Dominican Republic Visit
Go to week 1.
24 August to 7 September 2013 - week #2
1 September 2013 - Sunday of a new week in a new place. The sun was shining and the day stretched before me. At 11 a.m., after checking my e-mails, I met up with my fellow Air Canada Vacations travellers and Vanessa, ACV's representative - another French-Canadian though I never got around to asking her how long she'd been living in the DR - who walked us over to a conference centre and presented us with her office hours (not many compared to Joel in Samaná last week, but this was because she had to serve many different hotels in Punta Cana) and a small selection of tours. As I had not arrived at the Punta Cana airport with the others yesterday, but had made my own way here by taxi from Samaná, there were a couple of documents I lacked, one being the list of excursions on offer. When I glanced at Vanessa's copy, I saw that there were 23 tours possible. Some of them were very similar to each other and the majority seemed to be boating tours to interact with dolphins, stingrays and nurse sharks and then the compulsory drinking and dancing or “partying”. There was an ATV tour, a zipline (not as impressive as the one in Samaná), a horseback tour (no details) and three jungle safaris (the only thing different that one of them offered was attendance at a Haitian religious celebration, which sounded interesting!). There were even a couple of tours that specialized in spas, offering massages, yoga, and tiny fish that cleaned all the dead skin off your feet! I was looking for something unique, as usual, but had no idea of either the times or dates they were offered, or indeed the prices. Vanessa had to go off to another hotel to give her presentation there, so I arranged to meet her at 4 p.m. during her office hours. I cannot for the life of me remember what I did until then, but it's possible that I explored the 4-hotel complex with my map, found out where the different restaurants were located, looked in the shops, did some work in my room - I possibly had a contract to write up - had lunch in the buffet restaurant and observed other guests - a fascinating pastime indeed and one that can while away many hours.
Finally 4 p.m. came round, and I arrived at the tour operators' office a bit early so I could be first in line. I told Vanessa right away that I was looking for excursions that were out of the ordinary, as I planned to photograph and film them and analyze them on my blog. I also informed her of the experiences I had already had last week so as to narrow down the choices a bit. Some of the tours remaining were offered once a week, some were offered more than once a week. Finally, after much description and discussion, my itinerary was all planned out and I ran to my room - and my safe - so that I could pay her before she had to leave at 5 p.m. for the day. I would not then have another opportunity to meet her in person until possibly Friday, if all the reservations were successful as I hoped. Here is what was planned: Monday, a catamaran trip to Saona Island; Tuesday, deep sea fishing in the morning and a surfing lesson in the afternoon; Wednesday, a cultural tour to Santo Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic; Thursday, a rather expensive catamaran sail to Cap Cana - a newly developed area where the rich and famous tend to live; and Friday, a VIP trip to Isla Catalina and Altos de Chavon, also by catamaran. I must like catamarans!
2 September 2013 - A lovely day that goes down in my memory as being the best of the week. It started off a bit complicatedly as we were French-, English- and German-speakers in our van. Our guide was a Dutch woman, Crystal, or possibly Krystel, who was fluent in all three languages as well as Dutch and Spanish. But after half an hour or so of picking up people at different hotels along the Bavaro strip, we were driven to an Ikea parking lot where we met up with a large bus. All the Germans were asked to transfer to the bus and some French- and English-speakers from the bus joined us in the van. Now we were ready to go to the beach, it seemed. After a few more minutes of driving, the van and the bus both arrived at the same place and we had a walk of about 10 minutes down toward the beach and a wharf (see photo), where we had our photos taken. The German-speakers then boarded one catamaran and we French- and English-speakers boarded another with our Dutch guide. She had been living in the Dominican Republic for 19 years having originally come for a short stay of 6 months to help out a friend. It seems she fell in love with the country and now feels out of place whenever she visits the Netherlands on holidays. I expect that as a freelance tour guide she is kept very busy all year round, but more about her later.
As soon as we were on board the catamaran with our small but intimate group, I could tell that the day was going to be fun. Yes, we had a photographer along with us - a young woman called Ariza this time - and she took her job seriously by getting couples to pose together and apart so that she could offer them a professional photo shoot. I was fascinated watching her work, seeing the various suggestions of poses that she came up with, that I vowed that today I would accept the offer to be photographed so as to purchase her CD of photos and music. The young catamaran crew, too, was fascinating to watch, as you will see from the video below. Constantly on the move, they pulled up the sails for us, they danced for us and they danced with us - thus I learned the bachata, the national dance, which is fairly easy, really, with two steps to the right and then two steps to the left. They also entertained us at the sand bar, which was a new concept for me. You sail to an area of shallow water in which you can stand on the pure white sand, the water being about chest height, and the crew comes round offering you Cuba Libres (or perhaps they should be renamed Dominican Republic Libres) made with the brand of rum whose name was all over the catamaran - they must have sponsored the boat, I surmised. This way, I got to know better and have photos taken with “Billy” (my bachata dance partner, who later told me his real name was Juan Daniel) and Hector, as you will see above and below (and in the video, in which I tried my best not to include, and thus spare you of, the more risqué dance moves). I also met and chatted to two friendly young university-aged Ukrainian girls on the same tour who were studying in Toronto. You will see them in the video attempting to copy the crew's lively dance moves and not quite succeeding.
We arrived about 1 p.m. at Saona Island for a lovely lunch and after fixing a time with the photographer, I went to wander along this picture-postcard beach to take photos of my own (see above). Near the end of our time on the island, our crew then, with other crew from the same outfit, who had arrived with tourists on the island by means of other catamarans or via speed boat, joined in a last line dance for us. As for the photo shoot, I do not like all the photos Ariza took of me, but the advantage she had over Nathanael of last week, is that she had her laptop with her and was able to upload the photos and show us what she was selling us then and there. The colour was slightly off and the resolution was very low - probably so that she could take (and sell) the maximum number of photos possible - but I managed to bargain down her price (as I had not brought with me more than $26, and needed to keep some for tips for our catamaran crew), and below are three that I liked. I can say that in all my years of photography classes, I never dreamed I would be involved in a swimsuit photo shoot on an exotic island in the tropics, let alone that the swimsuit model being photographed would be yours truly! Well, I guess I can now add that to my bucket list as something unexpected accomplished. Who knows where it might lead!
On our return to the wharf on the mainland via speedboat, we were caught in a heavy, but thankfully brief, shower. Nevertheless, we managed to dry out sufficiently in the van on the way back to the Ikea parking lot, where once again the Germans joined us, and we were all delivered to our respective hotels. One surprise we had on the return to our hotels was that at some point during the ride past cane fields, a young man joined us carrying a box of rum bottles. On each of the bottles he had stuck labels comprised of the photos he had taken of us at the wharf. At only US$15 each, it was unique and a bargain to boot (it included a CD of more photos and music of the Dominican Republic). I had no more money with me, but Krystel kindly offered to stop at my hotel, as I was one of the last to be dropped off, and wait for me as I ran to my room safe and then to the exchange booth in the lobby to get the correct change to buy my special label rum bottle (and CD)!
After a run around the hotel complex's jogging circuit, I headed over to this evening's à la carte restaurant, called “Gourmet”. After checking that it was supposedly the most exclusive restaurant on the hotel complex premises, I had two comments for my waiter: 1. There were definitely too many lights on. In my opinion, in a higher class, perhaps one might even say romantic, restaurant, for purposes of enhancing atmosphere, the lights should be dimmed. After all, we did have additional candles at our tables; 2. For the same reason, why did they allow children in the restaurant? There was a small boy at the table next to mine and he most definitely did not look comfortable, for although he had certainly been told that he had to be on his best behaviour, from his constant squirming in his seat, he looked as though he would much rather have been in a more relaxed eating establishment. I expressed my opinion that there should be at least one restaurant on the premises where children would be exempt, and this was probably the one. The waiter then said that in return, he had one question for me: “¡Eres muy linda!” I replied, “¿Es una pregunta?” and he admitted, smiling and perhaps lightly blushing, that it was not. In any case, the presence of children at this resort took a while for me to get used to, because in Samaná I had been at an adults-only resort, and the absence of children there was certainly a bonus! To my travel agent, I would definitely state my preference for adults-only vacations in the future.
3 September 2013 - All my life I had wondered what men did on their own when they went fishing and this morning I was finally about to find out. I was at the lobby bright and early for a 7:20 a.m. pick up and a small van with the logo “Gone Fishing” pulled up. I was the only pick up at my hotel, but we went to the other equivalently-priced hotel on the same complex to pick up a Portuguese man from the fishing village of Cascais, who was, I would guess, in his late forties. Next we stopped at the Ibero Hotel and picked up a German man from Heidelberg who was probably in his thirties. He told us had been out fishing earlier in the week with his son and they had caught a large fish so he was eager to try again on his own. When we arrived at the beach after about 20 to 30 minutes more of driving, we were asked to wait for a while in an outdoors bar until another van drove up delivering two Americans from Dayton, Ohio, who were also in their 30s. At the bar, the conversation I was having with the German and the Portuguese men was overhead by a young salesman who, hearing I was from Canada, invited me to look in his shop. I told him I was not much of a shopper, but perhaps later when we returned from fishing I would take a look, if there was time. The young man was happy with that promise and hoped we would be lucky with our fishing trip and catch something.
Finally our guide, Anderson, invited us aboard. Once inside the tall boat (after signing a waiver, of course), seated on benches to either side, under cover, we were told that no refunds would be given and they would not turn back under any condition should any of us feel seasick. They also told us that the waves were 5 1/2 feet high and if we did feel seasick, we should “jump in the ocean,” at least that's what I heard Anderson say. I was somewhat mystified by this instruction, as I thought that jumping into very rocky waves several miles off land should be the last thing we should do. Especially as they had not even issued us with life jackets, though these were visible to us, hanging from the ceiling or lying under the benches on which we were seated. I wondered if perhaps his English was a bit off and he meant to say “dump into the ocean” i.e. if you have to be sick, don't be sick on the floor of the boat, (otherwise I'll have to clean it up) but, rather, be sick over the side into the ocean and the sea will carry it away. Anderson then introduced us to Dinero, the first mate, and to Captain Franklin, who promptly disappeared upstairs to the wheel and we only ever saw him again at the end of the trip. Though he does appear momentarily in the video below.
Then Dinero counted us up and seeing that there were five of us, took a piece of paper, tore it into 5 pieces and wrote a number between 1 and 5 on each one. He then borrowed a baseball cap from one of the Americans and put the pieces of paper in it and asked each of us to pull one out. I had number 4, the German had number 1 and one of the Americans had number 2. This, it was explained to us, was the order in which we would catch fish. i.e. should a hook become engaged, number 1, the German, would go and reel it in. Should a second line become tugged, the American with the number 2 would go and reel it in, and so on. The likelihood of ever reaching number 4 so that I too might have the chance to reel in a marlin, as I hoped, and to film the experience as well, was fairly slim, so I spent the first hour or so watching Anderson and Dinero set up all five rods and lines, the two floats and the lures which were plastic and metal replicas of large squid (or so they looked to me) with bright yellow, pink, green etc. arms/legs. That said, there was really nothing for us tourists to do, except sit and watch, though we were offered plastic bottles of water and glass bottles of beer (so early in the morning!). I refused both as I did not want to have to try out the head and also because I wasn't sure how my stomach would react to the heavy pitching of the boat. As it was, it was a struggle to stay on the bench from all the rocking, and I made sure I watched the horizon line so as not to start feeling queasy.
After an hour and a half of this, however, all of us must have become used to the motion of the ocean. I'm pretty sure that all that we all got up to - as talk was difficult as well due to the noise of the engine - was take naps, once our inner ears were comfortable with the rolling and we no longer had a fear of nausea. The German, being number 1 in line, got to sit on the chair outside and later the Portuguese man and one of the Americans did so as well. But I stayed inside, very bored with nothing to do, as it was a very boring trip. When finally they decided that nothing was happening and nothing was going to happen, three of the men helped Anderson and Dinero reel in the lines and it was discovered that one of the squid-like lures had been bitten off clean by something out there, but otherwise no tugs, no sightings, no nothing. I stated to the men that now I knew what males got up to when they went fishing. They napped. The secret is out, ladies. Wonder no more.
As we had a little time on our return to the beach before the van came to pick us up, I did go and have a brief look at the shop as the young man had requested. I asked him if I had his permission to photograph the Punta Cana wrist bands (above) and as I said “take a photo of” of instead of “take a picture of” he asked if I was French and from then on we spoke French together as he was in fact from Haiti. I asked him out of interest how his family had faired during the earthquake a few years ago and he said his family was fine but he had been a student at the time and all his schoolmates had unfortunately perished! I asked if he had immigrated to the Dominican Republic at the time, but no, he had only arrived about a year ago. Both his English and his French were excellent, but I assume his only income was commissions from any sales from people he managed to bring into the shop where the proprietress, who I assumed did not speak either French or English, was presiding at the cash register. I wished him luck as I returned to the others and we were driven back to our hotels in reverse order.
I then had just about time to grab a quick lunch at the buffet restaurant in the lobby before meeting the fellow who came to pick me up for my afternoon surfing lesson at 2 p.m. I was expecting someone who matched my impressions of a “surfer dude” and I was not disappointed. Gustavo, the owner of El Macao Surf Camp was a Dominican in his 50s who turned up in an older, well-used car, with his daughter, Sarah, who was shy, and about 6 years old, and his golden retriever, Jack. Apparently, the passenger side door did not open from the inside and he had to lean over me, crank down the window the old-fashioned way, stick his hand through and open the door using the outside handle. Good thing I trusted him! Perhaps bringing the young daughter and the dog added to his image of trust - or at least probably that was what he was going for. Anyway, it worked and he was a nice guy in addition. His English was flawless, so I suspected he'd spent a lot of time in the States probably surfing in competitions. In any case, he was very easy to talk to. He also had a very nice surfing school set up on stunning Macao Beach located perhaps 20 minutes from the resort. He provided lockers and a changing room so I could strip down to my bathing suit, and then lent me one of his technical shirts with his company logo so I would be better protected from the sun. I liked the shirt so much - especially the colour - I wanted to buy it, but sadly it was not for sale.
The lesson began with Gustavo demonstrating how to get up to a standing position from a position of lying on your stomach on the board. Not too difficult to manage on the sand, but somewhat trickier once you are in the water. Once all the safety questions had been answered and I learned how to jump off the board when it arrives near the beach, Estálin, Gustavo's assistant, picked up a medium-sized board for me and, carrying it himself, walked with me to the far end of the beach where the water was shallower but not too shallow and the waves were tamer. There, after fixing my right ankle into a velcroed strap on a plastic line attached to the board, patiently helped me time and time again, getting me to jump up onto the board from the water onto my stomach (the bruising from this showed up the next day!), turning the head of the board toward the beach, asking if I was ready, then pushing the board forward as a suitable wave came along. Meanwhile Rudolfo, the photographer's assistant, had his GoPro3 camera ready to film me using time lapse photography from the beach or in shallow water, while I had my own GoPro2 strapped to my head. Once again, condensation covered the lens of my GoPro, so visibility was compromised (I believe it's time for me to buy some anti-fog inserts) so much that I decided not to make a video from my own GoPro camera's clips, opting instead to buy the $30 CD of photos (sans music this time) offered me by Ramón, the principal photographer, comprising both his and Rudolfo's photos, which were much better. That's Rudolfo, Estálin and Ramón from left to right in the below photo, by the way, and in the short time-lapse video, also below, you will see my various attempts to stand up on the board and, finally, success, It was quite tiring work, and mid-way I was offered a chance to refresh my electrolytes from a fresh coconut sold to them by a man on a donkey on the beach. They also offered to change the board I was using to a longer one, hoping I would have better success with it, which I did. I finally decided I had had enough as I had achieved my goal. Sarah, Gustavo's daughter had also been in the water with us with her boogie board but had left it behind, so I carried that while Estálin carried the big board. Jack had also been involved in the lesson somewhat, in that, as soon as we got into the water, he showed me how he, too, liked to surf. Granted he managed to surf on his board using all four appendages, whereas I was expected to demonstrate my ability to stand on only two!
Back at the surfing school, Estálin, Rudolfo and I made use of the outdoor showers to wash off the sand, and I changed back into my dry clothes before viewing Ramón's work and purchasing the CD. Then before getting into the car to head back to my hotel, Gustavo offered to buy me a cup of ice cream as he and Sarah were having some from the mobile ice-cream-man on the beach. I have always been wary of consuming edibles especially frozen milk products from mobile carts, but Gustavo assured me it was safe, so I gratefully accepted his offer and then while eating, with ice cream cup in one hand and spoon in the other, he commenced driving his car with his feet and knees along the quiet streets, but had finished it by the time we got to the highway, so was able to use his hands as well at that point. It felt somewhat like I was back in my childhood when things were simpler and summer was one long holiday, and when Gustavo pointed out some beach land for sale, I pondered briefly about moving here, as so many have done before me, but then I pushed that thought back and returned to reality, thanking Gustavo for the wonderful bucket-list experience and telling him I would be recommending his surf camp highly on my blog!
The à la carte restaurant this evening was Japanese and my reservation was for 7:15. It bears mentioning, because on my teriyaki salmon this evening, I found that the chef had poured chocolate sauce, instead of soy sauce. When I pointed it out, as I had barely eaten anything off the plate, the waiter, apologizing for the error, insisted on bringing me a brand new one without the sauce this time, even though I said it wasn't necessary as I had had enough to eat with the appetisers alone as they were mostly rice, and therefore filling. He brought me a new plateful without sauce a few seconds later, so I again explained that I really had had enough to eat today and would have to cancel my dessert order too! After all, I had probably spoiled my appetite by accepting the ice-cream from Gustavo, (which was fine, by the way. No unpleasant after effects.) Nonetheless, I was in fact mystified as to why a Japanese restaurant would have chocolate sauce among its offerings. I don't believe that I have ever previously been offered chocolate of any kind in a Japanese restaurant.
4 September 2013 - This morning was our earliest start, and I had no idea that it would also be our longest tour, and that much of it would be spent sitting in a bus. Mind you, there was plenty of scenery to look out on with miles of sugar cane fields, a number of rainbows from short showers, light traffic, one or two stops and a lot of history to absorb. Pick up was 6:00 a.m. but the buffet restaurant opened at 5:30 a.m. so I was able to grab not only some coffee, juice and cereal for my breakfast but also a couple of bagels with peanut butter for my lunch as lunch was not provided on the tour and luckily Vanessa had suggested this alternative lunch to me when I arranged the tour with her on Sunday. Although we were picked up in a van, we were driven to another parking lot so as to be transferred to a large bus. To my delight, our tour guide this morning was multilingual Krystel once again. This time, we were English-, French- and German-speakers all together the whole day, so it was fascinating for me to listen to her provide the same information three times over in the three languages flawlessly, well almost - her French could have been improved as she kept separating her prepositions from her articles, such as saying “de les” instead of “des”, for instance, but even when she was interrupted and had to pause mid sentence, she effortlessly picked up exactly where she left off in the language she was last in. Of course, having been on a tour with her before, much of what she said about life in the DR was repeated, but it did not matter to me. What an amazing talent. But I suppose if you are giving the same presentation day in day out for years on end, your brain just does it for you and you don't really have to think consciously any more. It's like when you take the same route to work every morning in a car, your car, having memorized the itinerary, tends eventually to take over from your brain and drives itself, as it were, leaving you to think about other things.
I was slightly puzzled by a couple of our fellow travellers today, however. I asked one of them a question, not sure what language she spoke. I tried Spanish and got a blank look, I tried French and got a blank look, I tried English and got a blank look so then I tried German and still got a blank look. Then I asked someone else and got an answer. I later listened to the first person talk to her husband and realised they were speaking Polish, or Russian or some other language I did not speak. I then wondered, if they could not understand my flawless (ahem) pronunciation, then how on earth could they understand what Krystel was saying? The second time I was in the washroom with another lady and the stalls were miniscule - the space between the toilet and the door was tiny and I had to sit diagonally to fit. Now I am I would say average sized but I wondered how a large-sized person would cope. Seeing that there was another woman in the washroom washing her hands, I commented on the tight space to her and got a blank look in the mirror. I then said Deutsch? Français? Español? This time, all I got was a shake of the head and she pointed to her ear. I left and later noticed her standing with her husband and he was using sign language with her. Oh, OK, I understood. So I then went to explain to her husband what I had been saying to her in case she was wondering and he could sign to her for me. Once again, I tried “Deutsch? Français? Español? English?” with him. A blank stare once again. I gave up. Perhaps, I thought, some people just take tours to get somewhere and do not need to understand what the tour guide is saying. Though at some point they will need to understand meeting times and meeting places. Again, I decided I would just have to continue to be puzzled by other people's behaviour and leave it at that.
After a good three hours driving, at least, with a short coffee/bathroom/shopping break at a souvenir store mid-way, we finally arrived in downtown Santo Domingo and our first stop was the Viceroy's house (first photo below) in the colonial centre of the capital city. Built in 1511 under the first governor of Hispaniola, Diego Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus, it was opened to the public in 1976 as a museum. We then wandered though the main colonial square to a church and then to the Pantheon. At this point we had been given earphones and could hear Krystel speaking in our own language, depending on the channel we were tuned to - A for English, B for French and C for German. As luck would have it, we arrived at the Pantheon, built in the 1700s originally as a Jesuit church, then as a tobacco house, a seminary and a theatre, but now used as a final resting place for some of the Dominican Republic's most honoured citizens, just before the changing of the guards. As you will see from the video below, it is full of stiff army-like ritual. Pretty amazing to see in these times of relaxation and an attitude of not caring. We were told that these soldiers must stand on guard for hours on end unflinching in their uniforms in this hot sticky humid weather. Nowadays, the soldiers have about 4 fans blowing cool air on them, but in the old days (merely a few years ago) there were no fans and the soldiers were forced just to let the perspiration drip down their bodies. They do get to change ends about once every half hour so as to be able to move their bodies, but then must do so in the very slow march you will observe in the same video.
We then walked over to the cathedral, in front of which there was a public square and a statue of Christopher Columbus (below). We were given explanations about the various chapels inside the cathedral also through our earphones, and at the end of that, we surrendered our audio equipment, walked over to a shopping mall where Krystel pointed out a cafeteria for lunch (and a washroom) and invited those who wished to have lunch there to join her, and told the rest of us with other lunch plans to meet just inside the mall, which was air-conditioned, in an hour and a half. I first walked down the pedestrian shopping area that was pointed out to us in order to admire the paintings (below) and felt very safe doing so, even with my camera slung about my neck, and then decided to attempt to eat my peanut-butter-bagel lunch on a bench in the public square, fearing that I would be pestered by locals. To my great surprise no one came along to bother me. I decided they must have a very good tourist police and control here to keep tourists feeling safe. I was reminded of my not-so-pleasant experience trying to take a deserved rest on a public bench in a main square in Merida, Mexico four years ago. I then went in search for water, as the bagel and peanut butter had been dry and I had not put water in my pack this morning, thinking surely that they would provide us with water on the bus, as we had been so well provided by water and other drinks on other tours, but this was not the case today. I tried the fancy bar on the nearest corner, but the water was too expensive and they did not offer any non-added-sugar natural fruit juices either. Then I tried the Hard Rock Cafe (yes, there is a Hard Rock Cafe in the middle of Santo Domingo, but no Starbucks and only one MacDonald's, located in the outskirts), but their prices were even worse and again they did not offer any natural juices that had not already had sugar added to them. Finally on the far corner I found a pizza place which sold me a decent sized bottle of water for a dollar - a very acceptable price indeed. I sat down on another bench to have my water and read my book and two ladies joined me on my bench but did not disturb me either. I then met up with the others from my bus at the appointed time and place and we walked back over the main square to a little tourist train where once again we were divided into different language sections each with its own local guide. I found out then that there were only three of us English-speakers, two French-speakers and the other couple dozen had opted for German. This little train went up, down and around a few of the streets, sometimes twice, in this small section of town, while the guides pointed out churches, old houses, statues, etc. I wished then that we had had time to go back to some of these places for they looked interesting, but there was no more time available, so we walked back the way we came in order to join our bus, which was parked in a lot located outside the colonial area, and started on our way back to Punta Cana and our hotels.
Our first stop on the way back was what Krystel called “The Wall of Shame” (photo below left). Apparently on the occasion of Christopher Columbus' 500th anniversary of the founding of America, the Dominican Republic opted to build a very large concrete and stone monument to him, dubbed the Columbus Lighthouse. It cost several millions of dollars and aimed to block the view of nearby slums of unpainted concrete shanties, the homes of descendants of African slaves brought to the New World in chains, half of whom nowadays are unemployed. It's considered a shame that they did not use this money to provide better housing (and employment) to these citizens instead. It is said that the wall is protected by soldiers with machine guns to keep people from stealing Columbus' remains, which are supposedly kept inside, but then several other countries state that they have his remains so what are these soldiers really guarding? We only looked at it from the outside from the safety of our bus. Our second stop, was a cigar factory (photo below right), a couple of clips of which I have added to the end of the above video.
We did not arrive in Punta Cana until after dark. I think it was about 8:00 p.m. by the time I was dropped off at my hotel so I had missed my 6:00 p.m. dinner reservation at the Italian restaurant. Instead, I went to the buffet restaurant in the lobby again, checked my e-mails and even watched a show, which was a competition between men and women - basically physical and mental skills like twirling hula hoops, naming musical pieces and playing a form of Simon Says. The male MC (one of the activities crew) was greatly favouring the men and helping them try to win each round, adding greatly to the entertainment and to our amusement, but the ladies were the clear winners in all the events.
5 September 2013 - We got off to a great start as a very handsome young man named Vidal came to pick me up first in a special VIP van and then we went to pick up two friendly Portuguese women from the twin hotel on the same complex as mine. Even the driver, Mario, was very friendly. We were on our way to Cap Cana, where were told we would visit that part of the country being developed for the rich and famous and we would have a taste of the life they lived including a lobster lunch. Though the price was high, I figured it was worth having a little splurge and an indulgence from time to time. About 20 minutes into the ride, however, Mario received a phone call from his boss, asking him to take us back to our hotels as the navy had decided to cancel all activity at the Cap Cana marina today due to a storm warning. I was very disappointed but Vidal suggested that I could join another of the tours their large outfit offered in the afternoon instead, so I replied “Well if you are going to be the tour guide this afternoon, then sure, I'll definitely look into it.” I then tried to get hold of Vanessa of Air Canada Vacations to let her know of the tour cancellation but it was her day off so she could do nothing for me right away. Instead she suggested I contact one of the other tour operators in the office (there were various companies represented there) and she made a couple of recommendation of agents to talk to. I met with Raúl of Prieto Tours, and, after finding out what tours were possible for the afternoon, I decided to book the one that Vidal had recommended earlier this morning. Once the tour reservation was arranged, I then went to the à la carte restaurant reservations office to see if I could reschedule my third restaurant dinner for tonight, as I had missed last night's by arriving too late from Santo Domingo. I was told that the only restaurant that still had space for one person tonight was the Grill at the beach. I booked it and took my voucher back to my room. Then, as I had time to kill, I took a coupon that had been delivered to my room to the lobby in order to pick up my supposedly free gift from the Privilege Club desk, which was purported to be a Rolex watch, but was in fact a cheap digital watch with a plastic wrist band. I don't know how they managed to get away with advertising that it was a Rolex!
In any case, as I had time to kill until I was picked up for my afternoon tour at 12:30, I listened to the first spiel in French from a young Haitian and agreed to go over to their sales centre. Once there, I was passed to another Haitian with a gift of the gab, and after he'd tried his best to find out who I was, what I did, and what kind of vacations I liked, he presented the whole concept to me without mentioning any prices. Then, convinced I was interested, called over an even bigger and older guy wearing a real Rolex watch, who explained the money side of the scheme. The thing was you paid for your future vacations at this particular chain of hotels in advance, paying in cash about half of what you'd normally pay for your holidays. This cost was to cover your air flight and your all-inclusive, but you would then stay at their higher standard of hotel - a higher standard than the one I was now staying at, and of the four hotels in this complex two were regular standard and two were luxury standard. The snag was, you had to decide right away and you had to pay all this money either upfront or 30% or 40% or 50% now by credit card, and the rest in instalments over a maximum number of years. The money had to be paid directly to these people in the Dominican Republic; it could not be paid to their representative in Canada or anywhere else. I thought the whole scheme crazy, and the man with the real Rolex watch could tell I was turned off by the whole idea, so backed off very quickly and I was free to go. Needless to say, I never saw any of these guys again. But who, I ask, would agree to such a scheme? I realised this was probably the way they managed to raise money in their country to build all these new hotels that seemed to be going up left, right and center, but wow. It was reminiscent of the whole time share age of the 1980s. And how many people were now regretting their choice to invest in those at that time?
My first disappointment at our 12:30 pick up, was that Vidal was not in the van as our guide. It was another young man, amusing and with attitude but without Vidal's charisma. Again there were pick ups at other hotels along the way and we were delivered to a large complex under the auspices of a company called Marinarium in Cabeza de Toro. It is indeed they who do the Discovery tour to Cap Cana, but it was all a bit impersonal and distant. We had once more to wait for other tourists to arrive, and a waiver was passed around for us to sign. On the spacious beach in front of us, there were massage beds (photo below), which were also part of the complex and included in another tour they offer. Finally, our group was called up to board a huge catamaran with two decks - much bigger than the one on Monday, but then there were so many more of us. There was also plenty of crew, who were introduced to us by the DJ and they led some line dancing, but for some reason I couldn't get into all the frivolity today, despite offers of Cuba libres, Coco locos and the bilingual Spanish-English banter of the crew. Our first destination was the Marinarium proper, that is to say, a large rope-caged-off area, which was basically a holding tank for nurse sharks and sting rays. To get to this area, one was obliged to snorkel over, and there was no instruction provided about how to snorkel. We were only told that we were obliged to wear their safety belt, which was a rubber belt that went round the waist. I had brought my own mask and snorkel and we were asked that beginners exit from the right side of the catamaran and experienced snorkelers from the left. So I went off the left side but heard one girl ask her boyfriend as they were also exiting that side, “How does one snorkel anyway?”. Secondly, although we had entered the water from opposite sides of the cat, we were all heading toward the same place and I was caught up in a line behind two large men carrying their toddlers in the water inside rubber tubes - surely these were beginners. We had to swim over this rope-cage structure into these holding tanks to see the nurse sharks and sting rays swimming in circles beneath us. There were two platforms on which to climb and await our turn in line so as to pose for a photo holding a sting ray. Well, this was not what I had expected. The two platforms were noticeably overcrowded, and the stingrays were struggling to free themselves from the clutches of the Marinarium staff. Clearly they did not feel comfortable with this forced interplay with tourists. I told one of the staff, who was waiting with a floating device outside the rope cage, that I was going off to snorkel on my own, because I was not comfortable with the whole set up and he said that was fine. I then snorkelled closer to the catamaran but only saw sergeant-majors. This particular tour was billed as “the best snorkelling cruise in Punta Cana” so I shudder to think what the others were like. I'd seen better aquatic life in the South Pacific and certainly had much better, safer and friendlier interactions with nurse sharks and stingrays there too. Back on the cat once more, we drove (I did not notice the use of any sails) over to an area of shallow water where we experienced another sand bar - i.e. standing in chest-high water while the crew came round and served drinks, this time on a tray laid on a rubber tube (see video), and blasted their music. There was more line dancing on the cat on the way back to shore, but I am sorry to say that I was not impressed, not amused and when I filled out their feedback survey I did not give them very high marks.
Well, you have to have bad experiences, too, sometimes, in order to appreciate the good experiences all the more. And, after all, I was lucky to have found something active to do this afternoon, as tours could have been cancelled all day, as I was unknowingly about to find out. The second disappointment that day, after managing to fit in an evening run before the sunset, was that when I arrived at my beachside substitute à la carte restaurant reservation, I found that it, too, was cancelled, as it was an outdoor grill, and, due to the weather, it had been closed all day. I was told I was supposed to have received a message about the cancellation by phone in my room. I checked on my return, but there was no message about the restaurant cancellation this evening. So I had to settle for a meal at the buffet restaurant yet again.
6 September 2013 - I did receive a call last night, however. It was Vanessa telling me that all tours had been cancelled for Friday due to the weather - more heavy rain was expected. Consequently, we arranged to meet at her office at 8:00 a.m. this morning so that she could refund me the cost of both cancelled tours. I was sad, as I had been looking forward to a great improvement on yesterday's disappointing tour, and had been told moreover that Catalina Island was absolutely beautiful. However, Vanessa reminded me that it now left me something to do when I returned to the Dominican Republic in the future. I agreed and then reminded myself that if I were to come back, I would have to remember to plan for a visit earlier in the year and not during the pre-hurricane season that we were now in. I had no clue what I was going to do today apart from pack, but I took my laptop and plug with me to breakfast and, after consuming my cereal and juice, went to the lobby to work a few hours on e-mails, have a couple of very nice cappuccinos in the lobby bar, and listen to the activities crew play various games with the hotel guests. These were games normally offered poolside that they had had to bring inside due to the weather. I was somewhat surprised that they would offer such adult-like games in an environment where children were present, as they were not what I would consider suitable for children to watch. But who was I to judge? I then spent the afternoon after lunch in my room, watching the rain, reading, napping and packing as there was frankly not much else to do. It was not worth going for a run either as it was wet and therefore slippery on the paths. However, I did have one more à la carte dinner to look forward to and tonight's was Mexican. I figured they could probably get that right, even if they didn't quite manage Japanese. I was unable to judge their attempts at Italian cuisine here, as I had missed that night by our late return from Santo Domingo.
The rain had somewhat lessened when I headed out to the restaurant so that was good, but once again I had not one waiter but many and, after I was provided at the entrance with a strawberry margarita, the young drinks waiter was somewhat surprised that all I wanted was water - no Mexican beer, not even a glass of wine. As it was, my table was facing his bar and the door to the kitchen, so it was inevitable that I would be watching the goings-on in this area in my continuation of people-watching. It so happened that the bar waiter dropped a drink, together with its ice and its glass, on the floor in this area, where not only he was constantly walking but also the staff from the kitchen and customers on their way to the salad and dessert buffet. I was surprised that he did not immediately clean up the mess before re-making the drink for his customer, which would have been my natural instinct had I been in his shoes. I continued to watch in horror as not only he but no one made any effort to clean up the mess. All someone did was place a cone beside the wet, slippery area saying “piso mojado” (wet floor). Not only did the drinks waiter glide once but another waiter almost slid, and still nothing was done. I had noticed that the accident took place at quarter past the hour. I was sorely tempted to go and find a mop, but held myself back. Finally, at half past the hour, one of the older waiters (he was in the same light blue-grey waist-coated uniform as the bar waiter so would have had the same job description, I surmised, but being senior, perhaps a bit more sense), finally found a mop in the kitchen and proceeded to mop up a bit of the now melted ice and drinks mixture (though he still left the broken glass on the floor) and then at 40 minutes past the hour a woman in a green uniform came in with a bucket and made a proper job of it. I had also noticed last week that there seemed to be a lot of supervisors not doing anything but watching their underlings work. I gathered from this experience, that each person had his/her job and if you did have an accident, the risk of harm to others, including patrons, was not taken into consideration, as it was not your job but somebody else's to clean it up. Interesting concept.
At the next table to mine, there was a 30-something-year-old German lady and her, about, 8-year-old son. At one point, I saw the son ask this same young drinks waiter for something, and the drinks waiter went off and brought back a large glass of iced water. Apparently, that was not what the boy wanted, and I thought to myself perhaps he wanted just the water without ice in it. But then I saw the poor waiter come back again, this time carrying a smaller glass of iced water. Again, I could tell there was confusion, perhaps, I thought to myself, it was language confusion, and I could offer my assistance, so I decided to eavesdrop. I realised that the boy was, in fact, asking for “Eis,” which in German means “ice-cream,” as he was now on to dessert. I explained to the drinks waiter that the boy was asking for “helado,” so the waiter went away again, this time for a much longer time. I wondered if, in fact, he had decided to go and fetch the ice-cream from another restaurant, a bit of a walk away. Meanwhile, I continued to observe the boy and his mother and, after a pause, I saw him go and fetch a cake from the dessert buffet. I waited some more and still the drinks waiter had not returned. Finally, I saw the boy and his mother leave the restaurant, and I figured they had given up any hopes of an ice-cream. Then I saw the drinks waiter again in a different part of the restaurant and finally decided that he must have told them during his last conversation with them that in fact the Mexican restaurant did not offer ice-cream among their desserts. The result of that observation was that I decided that when people go to foreign countries they could avoid a lot of misunderstanding if they would only learn the language of the country they were visiting - at the very least the names of their favourite foods! Likewise, if hotels wish to market their services to customers from different countries, they could make an effort to provide an on-call interpreter for such cases, such as they do on certain cruise ships.
7 September 2013 - Alas, the holiday was at an end, and it was time to return to cooler weather, the beginnings of Fall, and, I reminded myself, I had both a 10K run and my mother's 90th birthday the next day to look forward to. I knew that our Air Canada flight was due to return to Montreal this morning and that we were being picked up at the lobby at 8:50 a.m. As I was waiting in the lobby, I saw a bus labelled Air Canada arrive at 8:40 a.m. I must say that, in general, pick ups both weeks were always very prompt. However, to avoid any confusion, an extrovert man descended from the bus and frequently shouted the words “Air Canada to Toronto” in English, so it was clear to all in the vicinity what this bus was for. A second, identical bus then arrived outside the lobby at 8:50, and a man descended, but he didn't say anything at all, so we were a little confused and had to ask him if this bus was for Montreal. He was an introverted Haitian. When I told him my name in French, he checked his list and told me it wasn't there. He then asked me if I was someone else on his list, so I said “Non”, repeated my name and spelled it in French. I then looked at his list myself but didn't see my name there either. Then he asked me, “Où est votre mari?” (as if this would solve the problem!). Affronted, I told him, “Je n'ai pas de mari. Je suis célibataire!” Perhaps the concept seemed foreign to him, but apparently he decided not to worry about why my name was not on the list, (in any case I had shown him my Air Canada voucher proving the fact that I had paid for the hotel-to-airport transport), said, “Montez!” and that was that.
Once we arrived at the airport, check in was manageable, as were customs, but when we got to the gate, the disturbing thing was that the Air Canada flights for both Montreal and Toronto were leaving from side-by-side gates. They were, literally, side by side with only mere inches between them! Moreover, they were leaving within only 5 minutes of each other. I was fairly sure that anyone just a bit distracted could easily have wandered onto the wrong plane. I wondered who had organised such a schedule. Were I managing this and was unable to change the schedule, I would at least try to board customers from gates at opposite ends of the terminal so as to avoid any confusion. As we climbed up the stairs to our respective planes, a deluge of rain arrived. Consequently, we were prevented from taxiing on the runway for several more minutes, as we waited for the rain to lessen so that the airport workers could come out from under protective covers and go about their jobs. This slight delay meant that I missed my connecting flight from Montreal to Vancouver, but luckily there was another flight about two hours later to which I was able to be transferred.
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All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies.