So as some of you may know, Matt and I tagged along with his brother Steve and Steve’s friend Kitzel to the Dominican Republic. Steve and Kitzel were taking part in an annual tae kwon do conference, and why they always schedule these conferences on the equator in August, I don’t know. But Matt and I figured that we would join them in the Dominican, sit on the beach, and laugh at Steve and Kit as they proceeded to some punishing three-hour workout.
Flights to the Caribbean are always, for some reason, scheduled to leave at the ass-crack of dawn, so Matt and I actually departed at 3:00 a.m. Monday morning for our 6:15 flight at O’Hare. When we arrived, we were given the option to upgrade to first class on both legs of the flight, for some extra $$$ (but not as much as it would be to initially book business). We looked at each other and said, “Yes.” It was extravagant, and yes, I'm kicking myself upon viewing our credit card bill, but oh, it was soooooooo worth it. For a few hours in business/first class, one is treated like a human being, rather than loathsome cattle. And they feed you! Real food that you don’t have to pay extra for! We arrived in Miami, and later the DR, well, not exactly refreshed, but relaxed.
When you arrive at the Punta Cana International Airport, which is charmingly hut-like, as opposed to some impersonal concrete building, you are forced to take a picture with two women in traditional Dominican dress while a band playing what I assume is traditional Dominican music performs. You are not asked to purchase this picture upon arrival, which made me wonder, what is this picture for themselves or something? As it turns out, they magically know when you are leaving the country and ask you to purchase the picture then. Because everyone wants to commemorate the moment he/she steps off of a plane after being awake for 30 hours and taking a six-hour flight.
To enter the Dominican Republic, one must pay a $10/person fee. Then one is issued a “tourist card.” Matt and I thought, oh, maybe this tourist card will be valid for a certain period of time, or it will be a nice souvenir. But actually, they take the tourist card away from you approximately 10 steps later. We collected our checked-in bag and discovered that, unlike just about every hotel in the universe, our resort does not have a complimentary shuttle from the airport. That shuttle is reserved for the people involved in Sol Melia’s fancy-schmancy, quasi-timeshare “vacation club.” So Matt and I took a 15-minute, $40 cab ride to Paradisus Palma Real. But considering that our driver could have whisked us away to Haiti with us none the wiser, I’m not complaining.
The resort was standard for the Caribbean, beautiful lobby, very airy, everything is marble, fountains, huge pool, lots of columns, soothing music (Spanish-language ballads, called bachata in the Dominican, and jazz…no reggae here at all), gorgeous view of the ocean, palm trees, exquisite gardens, etc. All the rich food and fruity drinks you could possibly want (resulting in a 7,000-pound weight gain for me). Staff members were friendly but a little more reserved than the average Jamaican resort-worker. I found that my lack of Spanish-language skills were not a significant obstacle, as most people I ran into could speak English, and I did just fine with “Hola,” “por favor,” “gracias,” etc.
After we had been invited to a presentation extolling the virtues of the previously mentioned vacation club (which we were lucky to avoid all week, with some on-the-spot lies, “Have you been to our presentation?” “Yes, on Tuesday, with Antonio.” “Oh, okay.”), we were taken to our rooms, whereupon Matt and I fell asleep for about six hours. We had a late dinner at the buffet (tasty!) and took a walk around the resort and on the beach before going to bed. Our television included many American stations, but no NBC, so I was Olympics-starved all week.
Wednesday was the evening that Matt took the “all-inclusive” part of the experience a little too seriously and drank himself into oblivion fairly early. I warned him to not be too hungover for our scheduled horseback riding and Romantic Dinner the next day. Steve and Kit were going to be doing their three-hour workouts the rest of the week, so they would be complaining of sore legs and would walk like old men.
On Thursday, Matt and I went horseback riding. They advised us to wear long pants, but Matt and I only had shorts with us. We took a 45-minute open-air bus ride. On the side of the bus were painted the words “Feel the Nature!” I felt the nature in my eyeballs as dust flew into my contacts. We rode with several Americans, including Melanie and Joe, who were newlyweds. Melanie made sure to inform EVERYONE multiple times that she owned her own travel agency business WITH A WEBSITE and got some obscenely cheap deal for this trip. The other Americans were frat boy/sorority girl-ish, also there for some wedding, and I guess I understand why people hate Americans. They were loud and talked incessantly about money, fully living up to the stereotype.
Our horses appeared to me to be rather underfed, but I hope that’s not the case. They were very docile. Mine was tall and brown with a black mane and tail. He was named “Antoniosanto” or something like that, but I prefer “Reynaldo.” So my horse was temporarily re-named, by me, “Reynaldo.” He wasn’t terribly keen to take direction. If I tried to guide him with the reins, he would look back at me with this look on his face that said, “How many times have you ridden a horse? Three? I do this all day every day, and I’m following the others.” The horses didn’t seem to have very good depth perception as they would try to squeeze next to each other, trapping our legs between their bodies. They shat a lot, and I only asked for two things on this horseback ride: 1) that I wouldn’t fall off and 2) that horse shit would not touch my bare leg. We walked down to the beach, and the horses didn’t seem to enjoy the surf, as this is when many of them started to trot or gallop. I liked trotting, but galloping was pretty scary. I’ve always hoped that I’d be a natural horse-rider, but galloping caused me to cry, “Shit, shit, shit, whoa, horse!” But I didn’t fall off. My butt really hurt, though. Matt and I agreed that our asses had “felt the nature.” I now understand why they advise one to wear long pants for horseback riding, as the experience left me with chafed, chafed thighs. Very uncomfortable, but it was a fun experience, and I actually wouldn’t mind going horseback riding again soon. With jeans.
Friday was a complete wash-out in all respects. Tropical Storm Fay was a tropical depression, and it rained all day long. Although I did have a spa appointment…a facial provided by Marta who had an incomprehensible accent but very nice hands. Matt’s scuba diving was canceled. We were scheduled to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Island, but we sat huddled under a hut at DI until the trip out to the ocean platform was ultimately canceled. The rain was cold, and the wind was blowing branches off the palm trees. Our bus was once again an open-air bus, so on the ride back, low-hanging branches would reach through the window and smack me across the face. Painful! Later at dinner, I experienced dizziness and nausea and abruptly left for my room. So I watched a lot of “Monk” and “The Dog Whisperer” until I fell asleep. Not to be gross, but Matt and I found that diarrhea was a daily experience in the Dominican. We were careful to avoid the tap water, and our food didn’t seem particularly questionable, but perhaps they washed our veggies and such with the water? Who knows? Fortunately, the gastrointestinal discomfort wasn’t anything that confined us to our room. You have an attack, get a hit of Pepto, and you’re good to go. If you do travel to the Dominican, and I recommend it because it’s a beautiful country with wonderful people, bring LOTS of Pepto and Immodium. LOTS.
On Saturday, the weather was perfect once again, and Matt finally got to scuba. I went to breakfast, and my waiter, Francisco, was strongly indicating that he could help me get my groove back. I found this unbelievable, as I hadn’t showered from the night before, and I felt cramped and tired and chafed. I would see Francisco periodically until we left, but he wasn’t as friendly when Matt was around.
Our dolphin trip was rescheduled for Saturday, and we actually got to go! They took us by boat to a floating platform in the ocean, and for about 15 minutes or so, we were in the water with the dolphins, touching them lightly if they came by. No fingers in the blowhole! After that, they had us snorkel with stingrays and nurse sharks. We were all wearing lifejackets, so no diving to the bottom to touch the rays and sharks. Afterwards we chatted with Eddie, a guide who could give dolphin-related directions fluently in English, Spanish, French, and German. And I held a couple of parrots. The whole Dolphin Island trip was definitely fun and worthwhile and was a key moment for Steve and Kit who had unsuccessfully tried to do similar dolphin swimming events three years in a row.
I spent some additional time in the hotel pool and had a wonderful time, but when I saw someone in the pool with a *naked baby* (not known for their control of their bodily functions), I took that as my cue to leave. Later Matt and I met up with Steve and Kit and the tae kwon do people who were already very drunk in the casino. When tae kwon do nerds get drunk, it’s both awesome and terrifying.
On Sunday, Matt and Steve and Kit and I went snorkeling, and that was kind of an intimidating experience for me. I hadn’t snorkeled before, except for a bit of practice in my swimming class and at Dolphin Island. And something about open ocean just freaks me out. But I was relieved when I saw that we could wear lifejackets, and after swallowing about half a cup of seawater, I eventually got used to the snorkel. Some guys were feeding the fish something or other, so all kinds of small, colorful reef fish came swimming up and around us.
So it was actually pretty awesome. Afterwards, we all sat in the pool drinking fruity drinks, and here is where I made a fatal error: failing to reapply the sunscreen. So I burned the shit out of my shoulders, adding to my omnipresent intestinal discomfort and chafed thighs. After that, Matt and I made a trip to the nearby shopping mall to get some souvenirs. I fell in love with larimar, the national stone of the Dominican, and wanted a bracelet. The man working at the shop didn’t want to take my credit card for the $60 bracelet, but he would take $40 in cash, so I guess we successfully haggled, although I hadn’t intended to. We also bought a bachata CD from our bus driver, who made the music himself. We like to support local music, after all. Sunday and Monday morning were pretty low-key since we had to pack and prepare for the journey home.
Ugh. Although I was ready to go home and see the puppies and chinchillas and get my digestive system back in working order, I wasn’t looking forward to spending the entire day in airports and on planes. Sadly, we were given no option to upgrade.
All I can say is, Matt and I are NEVER EVER EVER going back to the Miami International Airport. Not even if we’re going to Miami. There’s a reason their initials are MIA.
It was a bit harrowing touching down in Miami with the crappy weather, but we didn’t crash-land, so that was good. Customs and security were nightmares (making Matt all cranky in that guy way that DOESN’T HELP), but the real kicker is that they kept us on the ground for an HOUR because they couldn’t figure out how many people were on our plane. (I think the count differed from their log due to a computer glitch). And even with this hour delay they couldn’t get our checked-in bag on our plane, so we waited at O’Hare til about 12:30 a.m., hoping it was on the flight just after ours. But no. They finally found the bag the following morning and delivered it to our house yesterday, but what a nightmare! Oh, and I later found out that they charged us $20 for the privilege of delivering our bag about 12 hours late. God, I hate American Airlines.
And as my project manager buzzes my phone and drags me back to reality, I must once again leave the flawless white beaches of Punta Cana in the Dominican. "La Isla Bonita," as I believe Madonna would say. It was great to spend so much quality time with the husband and brother-in-law, and I'd much rather be there than here.