Posted by: John Adams | July 28, 2007

Tales from the Road

More old stuff, but new stuff’s right around the corner–I promise!

Buying freedom, seeking Paradise, and being brave

“How was the Dominican?” the imaginary voice in my head asks me.

“Just fine,” I reply.

“Nah, you don’t get off that easily. Give me specifics. What’d you do?”

“Well, since you asked,” I tell him slyly, turning around in my swivel chair so I can see the whites of his eyes. “I’ll tell you.”
Monday

I drove (and drove, and drove) over washed-out roads that haven’t been fully paved since the Duvalier years until I reached the River Massacre and the one-lane bridge and the gate that welcomes visitors and brave pilgrims to “La Republica Dominicana.”

The Haitian side was a sham, as always. My Dad walked into customs with five U.S. passports and a little U.S. money. He bargained with the customs officer, who insisted that he pay the standard $10 (Haitian) fee in U.S. dollars since he was holding U.S. passports. The official decided to be congenial.

“Since you didn’t know about the way we do things here, I’ll give you the youngest one off,” he said, referring to my sister.

As we walked back to the car, I remarked to my father and brother that Haitians had never been cut out for bureaucracy – they were natural-born salesmen. The man in the office couldn’t care less what his customs book said; he had a product to sell. The product he was selling in this case just happened to be freedom.

After negotiating our way through Haitian customs and walking away holding our stamped passports like indulgences in our hands, the next step was to negotiate our vehicle over the tiny one-lane bridge that spans La Rivière Massacre. The “river” is really nothing more than a creek, but it has a sordid history. A few hundred miles south of where we crossed, Dominican troops once trucked Haitian immigrants to be shot. Their blood ran red in the creek, and the name “Massacre” was aptly given to a body of water that aptly serves as the dividing line between two worlds.

And they are indeed two different worlds. On one side is bedlam and anarchy and unpaved streets and high walls with broken glass cemented into the top; on the other, neatly squared blocks and street lights and a stabilizing police force that keeps everything in check. One side is limping towards progress; the other is skipping toward Hell.

After crossing the border, we made the long drive to Sosua, a small town founded by Jewish refugees from the Holocaust during the Second World War. It is now a burgeoning haven for tourists, who flock here from countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands to escape the cold and spend the holidays on the beach.

Our hotel – which we found over the Internet – was not as nice as it looked in the pictures, but it had running water and a nice, warm bed. After driving for several hours and developing a terrible cold on the way, that’s all that mattered to me.

An old friend from high school (I say it as though high school were really that long ago) called almost as soon as we arrived to say that he was driving up from Santiago to see us. He arrived about three or four hours later, and we had fun catching up as the winter rain poured down outside.

He caught me in the middle of being very sick; I had thrown up twice between the time he called and the time he got there. The room we had wasn’t very good for holding large groups of people (he’d brought a few friends) and so we had fun shivering down in the open-air lobby while the rain poured and I tried not to vomit.

It was good seeing him again, though.

Tuesday

I woke up this morning to the loudest booming thunder I have ever heard in my life. It was around 7 in the morning, and I woke to a huge boom and the sound of car alarms going off in the parking lot. At first, I thought there was a jet plane hovering right over my hotel room. Then I woke up a little more and progressed to thinking someone had committed an act of terrorism in the street. Then I saw the lightning and woke up fully and counted 12 seconds in between the peals and the flashes, heard the rain pattering on the tin roof and went gradually back to sleep.

Wednesday – Friday

Honestly, from Wednesday to Friday is a blur for me. I only know that it rained every minute of every hour during these days. I know that I checked my e-mail a few times and went on a cave adventure walk that passed through claustrophobia-inducing caves with tiny pools you were supposed to swim in (I didn’t) and stalactites and stalagmites – I can’t ever remember the difference – that you could play piano on (I did).

Somewhere in there, we went to a theater that was about one-twentieth the size of what it would be in the States. It had the kind of projector my teachers use to put up Powerpoints at PBC and I think the “reel” used was actually a burned DVD because the first thing I saw after the screen did its 30-second warm-up was an interactive menu with several options on it.

I think that must have been Friday, because right before the movie, this salesman suckered us into buying a trip to “Paradise Island.”

Saturday

We got up at around 6:30 because the bus was supposed to swing by at 7:00. It came at 7:30, which was the first bad sign.

The second bad sign was that to cushion the fact that the ride was going to be a lot longer than the 2 hours promised by the salesman, a friendly (in that sort of intoxicatingly opportunistic way some people are) hopped on the intercom and began issuing a running commentary on the world as he saw it. Flora and fauna; sociology and economics; politics and religion – everything was fodder for this guy and his narcissism. My dad called him a frustrated philosopher who had wandered into guiding tours by mistake.

The third bad sign was that he was the most interesting part of the ride.

The bus meandered through the mountains and down a partly washed-out dirt road for about 3 1/2 hours until reaching its destination at Punta Rusia, where we were to complete the journey by motorboat. This was how we encountered the fourth bad sign: There were two buses pulling up to the same beach at the same time. There were two motorboats departing at the same time. There were two separate tour guides yelling for their “families” to follow them, the reason for all this being that there were two separate companies that stake claim to “Paradise Island,” which is really nothing more than a glorified sandbar about 15 minutes away from the mainland by speedboat.

This means that when we reached the island, we were instructed that only roughly half of Paradise was, in fact, ours. We were strongly encouraged to buy refreshments only from our own company’s bar.

The island had more wonderful mysteries to unfold. There was no changing-room, so there was no way to change into swimming shorts. (I did anyway. I don’t think the Europeans minded too much.)

Furthermore, we had been promised by the salesman that the island was out of the path of all the thunderstorms that beleaguer fair Sosua. This also was a lie. There was a raincloud to the east of us the entire time.

Finally, to add insult to injury, we were told that we would only have until about 2 p.m. to swim and snorkel and enjoy the sandbar. This would have been fine had it not already been noon by the time that we arrived. (This means that in the end, we payed for about 2 hours on the beach and 7 hours on a bus.)

The only redeeming factors to the whole experience were that I learned how to snorkel between 12 and 2, and that the bus was crowded with people who had been just as ripped off as we had. This made the ride home much more bearable and even somewhat humorous. Poor suckers! Paying all that money for two hours on a sandbar! They should know better! *Dejected sigh*

Sunday

Dad wanted to visit a church we’d discovered on Monday, but we all ended up sleeping in and we were heathens for the day. It is truly amazing how long it takes to anything on holiday – getting out of the hotel doesn’t happen until after 2 p.m. for some reason. We meant to visit the beach the entire day, but somehow this didn’t actually happen until about 4:30.

When we got there, though, it was very fun. My brother and I rented boogeyboards (beat-up, overpriced boogeyboards, but boogeyboards nonetheless) and enjoyed taking a beating from the Dominican surf even as we shouted insults into the waves.

My brother joked about how the waves in the DR actually hit back, as opposed to Haiti, where the ocean seems to roll over and take whatever you give it. I laughed at him when a breaker set him on his back…right before turning into one that set me on mine.

The water gets cold around 5:00 in the Caribbean in wintertime, and my brother and I were both freezing as we pondered whether or not to go out for one last ride in before returning the boards. I looked at my brother and said, “Let’s go,” and we ran into the surf shoulder-to-shoulder and dove in headfirst to take the element of surprise away from the cold water. We caught a few good ones and shouted a few parting words of victory at the ocean, marching back to the shore as victors.

“We did it, man. We aren’t wusses,” my brother said as he stared at the ocean with a satisfied smile on his face. The fact that he said that warmed me up inside. It made all the awkwardness with strangers and being talked down to by salesmen and sadness upon returning to find your own country trapped in the Stone Age worth it in some way.

When I look back and remember this vacation, I won’t remember the tourist traps or the incessant rain or even getting ripped-off on a quest for Paradise. No. When I look back at this trip, I will remember it as a time when we were brave and silly and hopeful, even if it was only in our own eyes. Even if it was only for a moment.

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Responses

  1. When was this written?

  2. Winter 2004, I think.

  3. You’re a phenomenal writer, John.


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