By the first part of August it was becoming apparent even to me that the boat repairs were not going as scheduled. Not even close. I had just taken the Sirius II out on a sea trial ostensibly to calibrate the recently repaired autopilot. I soon learned that the autopilot would not hold the boat on course. Moreover, even with clean fuel and new filters, the engine was still heating up at full revs. Now what? That I didn’t know, but I did know that I had been promising my friends in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic that I would be there “soon.” In my mind, the only way I could keep this promise was to take a sailor’s interlude—leave the boat behind and fly.
Jim Ferris agreed to take me to the bus station in Key West (in exchange for working one extra day for his wife) so that I could catch the Greyhound bus to the Miami Airport. The only SNAFU to this plan was that I forgot the video camera. While returning to the Marina to fetch it, the bus left. One minute late, and the driver knew what I was about. Much to his chagrin, I am sure, Jim ended up driving me to Big Pine Key (about 30 miles up the Keys) before we caught up with the bus. What a way to start a trip!!
So, that is what I did, arriving in Puerto Rico on August 29. Lack of planning ahead was immediately evident. Puerto Rico, a possession of the United States, was on holiday, celebrating Labor Day Weekend. My friends are involved in retail. Holidays mean work. Thus, there was no one to meet me at the airport. Furthermore, I saw very little of them over the next few days. Not to worry. What I really wanted to do in Puerto Rico was to experience some of the history and to tour the various ports where I most likely will berth the Sirius II in the event I make it this far next year. That’s the plan.
Puerto Rico was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The 500-year old city of San Juan was built early in the next century to provide a defense against Spain’s European enemies, who were quick to follow in Columbus’ wake to see what riches awaited them in the New World.
Negotiating the highways and byways of Puerto Rico was a challenge, but made somewhat easier by roads modeled after the US system, bilingual signs, including signs directing slower traffic to keep to the right, bilingual signs, and by speeds posted in miles (although the “mile” posts were in kilometers). Finding a place to stay each night was also a challenge, as they don’t have motels, as we know them. You have to leave the highway system, go into the nearest town and look for a local hotel.
The day after Labor Day I was bound for the Dominican Republic, where I will be for the next month. I was met on time by my friend Carmen Rosa. I emphasize “on time” because last winter when I came to visit she was very late. We since have had several discussions about the differences between Latino Time and Real Time.
Although it is reckless to characterize the social structure of a developing nation, Carmen’s condo in the commercial district of Santo Domingo is a step above upper-middle class. She lives on the ground level of a four-flour building, in a three bedroom, three-bath condo with her brother, Joaquin, whom I judge to be about 60, and her 26 year-old son, Frances. The condo is very comfortable and roomy; I estimate about 2000 sq ft, that includes a formal parlor, which is never used, and her office, as she works out of her home. I’m still not sure exactly what her occupation is. She calls clients for whom she keeps books, she lists real estate for sale, and she loans money. At exorbitant interest, I might add. While I was there she was negotiating a loan of RD 8,000, which will earn her a return of RD 12,000 P&I in four months. Not a bad return on your investment.
She reminds me of a soccer mom, as she spends a lot of time running household errands for her family as well as her “secretary,” Reina, and her daughter, Lilly, and providing transportation for her son, Frances, who works at an advertising agency. They only have the one car and Frances likes to come home for lunch. After enjoying the meals that the “secretary” prepares, I understand why. The routine: They all sit at the dining table with their eyes glued to the TV to watch an hour-long, Dominican produced soap opera. After lunch, Frances retires to his room for a nap before returning to work and Lilly changes to her school uniform, gathers her homework and sets out for the afternoon session of middle school. She returns about 6:00 p.m. and then she and her mother leave for their own home. But not before they prepared the evening meal for the family!
This is my third visit to the Dominican Republic. I am getting a feel for the country and its people. Although less than 1/3 the size of Washington State, with 50% more people, in reading the local papers, it seems as if half of the Major Leagues’ baseball players come from the Dominican Republic. How can this be? Culture or biology, as I refer to later? Or dedication and effort?
The island was discovered by Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. In 1496 Columbus’ brother Bartolomew established Santo Domingo, the first permanent city in the New World, which became the capital of the Spanish Empire. The three million Indians were enslaved and nearly decimated by the middle of the next century.
A Restored Church in Colonial Town, Santo Domingo, the oldest European City in the New World.
Carmen prefers to defer to the man in the car to be the designated driver. I found this to be in part a cultural thing, i.e., in Latin Cultures it is the practice for most women to cede to the man for certain responsibilities, such as driving, even when the woman could most certainly do a better job. For example, Carmen knows her way around Santo Domingo and was far more efficient at getting us from point A to point B. I would have preferred not to drive as I think the Dominican drivers are among the world’s worst. I’m sure readers who have experienced other developing cultures would say that about the country where you were. That’s not to say that these drivers lacked skill. On the contrary, they have to be very skillful to drive like maniacs. Read on.
The stronger reason why women defer to men to do the driving is biological. Driving in the Dominican Republic is a very aggressive, non-contact sport of intimidation. Don’t flinch and don’t make eye contact with the other driver! As most men are from mars, they do these things better than women. Let me explain.
When approaching a cross street, no one really has the right-of-way, even if there is a stop sign. The convention is that the vehicle entering the intersection first has the right-of-way, even if entering from a side street. The oncoming vehicle can’t take this right away, as the first vehicle is already occupying the space. To do so would mean hitting the first vehicle; a no-no as this is a non-contact sport. Besides, no one wants to do an accident report.
This is the same way you change lanes on the boulevard. Don’t bother signaling. That might alert the other driver to your intentions, causing him to alter his course to get there first. If your front quarter is ahead of the vehicle in the other lane, make your move. You are ahead; you have the right-of-way! And once you have this right established, you have the right to slow down, straddle the dividing line, or even stop to pick up a friend. Knowing this, many drivers do straddle the dividing lines, thereby taking up two lanes, so they can switch lanes at a seconds notice. Thus, a three-lane boulevard effectively becomes a two lanes, thereby compounding the traffic congestion.
Their one virtue is at intersections with working traffic lights. Unlike many Americans, Dominicanos understand that yellow means to clear the intersection and red means stop—do not increase speed. They can do this without the need for a yellow light to warn one set of drivers that the green light is about to change to red, followed by an additional yellow light to warn the other set of drivers that their red light is about to change to green. This extra pause, or double warning, has done to driving habits what the count-to-three (or four, or five, or ten) system has done to the discipline of children: It allows more time for bad people to do bad things. Oops, I digress.
Early in my stay Frances pointed to all the cars around us and asked if I had ever seen so many “Jeeps?” I pointed out to him that we norteamericanos use SUV to refer to this vehicle. I explained the U=utility and V=vehicle, but I wasn’t sure what S was. Stupid? Silly? Superfluous? Suburban didn’t seem to have the right ring in an urban setting.
Before I alienate a second set of readers, I will admit that the SUV does have a practical purpose. It puts the driver in a better position to see the chuckholes, of which there are thousands. And, he was right. There did seem to be a lot more SUV’s here in proportion to the total number of vehicles. New and expensive-looking ones. I never realized before that every automaker makes its version of the SUV. Many with huge front bumpers. The better to intimidate!
My second week here I rented a car and drove across the state to visit friends and to tour the North (Atlantic) Coast. The Dominican Republic is about ¼ the size of Washington State and has 1½ times more people. So, how is it that half of the baseball players in the major leagues seem to be Dominicanos? Is it because of some of the cultural differences alluded to above? Or is it dedication and effort?
In Luperon I visited Ron Garrett, who now lives here on his boat, formerly of Key West, and a handful of other cruisers who were here two years ago when I was here. In Pepillo Salcedo, next to the Haitian border, I met “Texas” Billy Adams, also formerly of Key West, but no longer living on his boat, nor no longer married to the gorgeous 18 year old Dominican. Darn. Both Ron (old, but younger than me) and Billy (really old, i.e., older than me) are working on separate projects to re-enter the work world. Ron wants to develop an extensive fish-farming project and Billy wants to become an export/import broker.
I found it interesting that both of these retirees would be preoccupied about finding new work. Toward the end of my visit, when Carmen and family started talking about me spending more time with them, it dawned on me. Even though it is the good life, I would go stir crazy if I “retired” here. I would have to look for something else to do, not just to earn money, but to avoid premature death by boredom.
Other visits along the North Coast include Monte Cristi, where Carmen was born and still has family; La Isabella, where Columbus’ brother attempted to build the first capital of the New World; Puerto Plata (a week before the earthquake); Las Terrenas, a beach resort in the foothills of the rain forest; and Dajabon, where I contacted diarrhea at a Haitian Open Market. Oh well. The scourge of a world traveler, I guess.
The most interesting event during this trip, however, was an overnight stay at a “lodge,” as it was called, south of Puerto Plata. It was pouring rain when I arrived and I almost didn’t stop. I could not see any activity or cars. But I braved the rain and walked up to the office. Sure enough, it was open. “Where are all the cars and people,” I asked.
“In their rooms, and we provide garages for security purposes.”
I checked the room out and it was huge, with a wet bar (for my gin ‘n tonic) and separate Jacuzzi. The bed was the most comfortable during my entire trip. The television even included an adults-only channel. But the real clue came as I was dozing off to sleep when the office called.
“Are you here for just four hours or are you spending the night?” Duh.
Another excursion to the Southwest part of the country was a total delight. Except that Francis did all the driving and, frankly, he scared the hell out of me. Every two-lane highway became three lanes, with whoever dared occupying the middle, “passing” lane. There was no third lane! But the city of San Juan de la Maguana was so beautiful, clean, friendly, and enthralled with its native Indian history. This was the only area in the Dominican Republic where I noticed this attention to the Native Americans. Furthermore, all Latino women are beautiful but here they were even more beautiful. I almost decided to move.
Toward the end of my stay, I mentioned to the family that I would like to take them out to dinner to a nice restaurant of their choosing. Joaquin, who works seven days a week trying to get his new business established, excused himself. Carmen and Francis chose to have lunch at Meson de la Cava, an exclusive restaurant literally carved out of the cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
The lunch, presentation and service were exquisite, equal to any of the fine restaurants in the USA. We had grilled mero (grouper), langosta (lobster, but really a crayfish) with pasta, and imported salmon. I order to bottle of Kendall Jackson chardonnay to wet the palate for this delightful meal. They were anxious to see the bill when it came, curious as to the cost. As a point of comparison: $70 US plus tip.
What more can one say?
Steve Jones returns to the Dominican Republic for the Holidays.
Copyright © 2003, 2004 Steven Jones. All Rights Reserved.