Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
- Submitted by: Mark R. Leeper
- Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005
September 7, 1992:
Well, usually my trip logs start in New Jersey, but this one really starts in Orlando. We are finishing up the World Science Fiction Convention (report available on request) and going on to Puerto Rico in a sort of 'Roots' tour for me. My father was born in Ciales, Puerto Rico, but also lived in the Dominican Republic, and I have aunts and uncles in both places I've never met.
Our flight to Orlando was not without incident, however. We were scheduled to leave Newark at 7:41 AM and arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, at 9:15 AM for our 10:10 AM connection. At 7:41 AM, however, we were sitting on the ground waiting for a line of thunderstorms to pass. In fact, we didn't take off until almost 9 AM. We were sure we would miss our connection and have to wait for the 2:10 PM one (and hope it wasn't full), but we managed to make up some time in the air and land in Raleigh by 10 AM. American Airlines held almost all the connecting flights, so by running from our plane to the connecting one two gates over, we made it. (And I can now say I've been North Carolina if you count a two-and-ahalf -minute sprint through the terminal.)
The flight from Orlando was less eventful. Dinner was cheese ravioli--not a typically Puerto Rican dish. (Mark had chicken, which did come with salsa.) According to the tour books, Puerto Rico is on Atlantic Time (one hour ahead of Eastern) and uses Daylight Savings Time, but we didn't have to change our watches and according to this we should have, so something's not right.
After landing in San Juan we picked up our Hertz car. (No customs to clear, no immigration, no changing money--yay!) We loaded our stuff in and started off, but the brake light wouldn't go out. The attendant decided the brake fluid was probably low, but they had no brake fluid. So we went inside to change cars.
This accomplished, we drove off and got lost. The map the guest house sent us implied they were on the main street between the airport and Old San Juan. They weren't, and there are several main streets. Streets are also not laid out in a rectilinear pattern, and there are a lot of one-way streets. Eventually, Mark figured out the Hertz map was the most complete and we found the street Tres Palmas was on (from its address)--a side street about two blocks long off another side street. Even so, finding it was difficult because many of the streets had no street signs.
So after an hour we found the guest house, which in its brochures claims to be ten minutes from the airport. Who knows? Maybe if you don't get lost, it is.
After the Peabody Hilton in Orlando, the rooms at Tres Palmas were a bit of a shock. They're less than half the size. Of course, they're also half the price and certainly sufficient for us. There's a television, a refrigerator, a small bathroom, lots of hangers (though they're wire rather than wooden), and a clock-radio. One wall is completely covered by a mirror. No, not for that reason, but to make the room seem larger. (At least I think so.)
It's hard to say much about San Juan so far, but in one respect it's just New York--guys come up to the cars at stop lights wanting to wash their windshields for tips.
September 8, 1992:
After breakfast, we drove into Old San Juan. Driving through San Juan, I can see why people come to the mainland--it all looks pretty run-down, except for the tourist areas, which are full of expensive hotels and mainland-based chain restaurants (Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc.). I'll have to see what the rest of the island looks like, of course, or it would be like judging all of New Jersey by a small section of Newark.
We started with the fort of San Cristobal, in part because it had a parking lot. It's not as famous as El Morro (which means 'The Headland' and should not be confused with 'El Moro': 'The Moor'), but it is much larger and in fact is the largest fort of its type in the Americas. It was used up through World War II, but is now a National Historic Site. There was a short guided tour covering the general history and the tunnel system under the fort. We also walked around on the battlements for a while, where we had some lovely views of the city.
Our plan was then to park the car and walk around Old San Juan (the historic section). One small problem--we couldn't find any place to park. There are apparently a couple of parking garages, but we never saw them. This is partly because of a second problem: one-way streets. San Juan is full of one-way streets. And it's not like most cities where the directions alternate. It's more like each street voted independently on what direction to go. After driving through all these very narrow streets (oh, yes, problem number three was that the roads near El Morro were all closed for repairs) for about a half hour, we revised our plan and decided to head for El Yunque (the rain forest) today and return to Old San Juan via public transportation. We figured the rain forest would have more parking.
But first we decided to eat lunch, get some juice at a supermarket, and go back to the guest house to change, as I was not suitably attired for hiking in a rain forest. We had hoped to find someplace serving Puerto Rican food, but saw only fast-food chains and Chinese restaurants. Not wanting to spend the day looking for lunch, we settled for a Church's Fried Chicken which was in the same shopping center as a small grocery. Not very exotic, but what the heck. In the grocery we stocked up on exotic juices: mango, papaya, guanabana, tamarind, guava, etc., as well as a couple of mangos and some cookies. (Oh, and a half-gallon of orange juice for Mark, who was feeling a cold coming on.)
Back in the room I changed from my dress into shorts and a Tshirt and hiking shoes and we headed for El Yunque. Luckily the roads to there are fairly well marked (certainly in comparison to everywhere else) and we didn't get lost. But traffic was very heavy and there were a lot of traffic lights, even in the less built-up areas. It took us an hour and a half to get to El Yunque. (El Yunque is actually the mountain, but it's what everyone calls the Caribbean National Rain Forest as well.)
Even without hiking you can see a fair amount. All along the road you have the variety of plants, both flowers and trees. You drive right by a small waterfall and further along is a tower from which one can get a panoramic view. It was overcast the whole time we were there, which made the view a little less spectacular, but the temperature a little more bearable. (It rained quite a bit on the drive there, but not during our actual visit.)
A newspaper article described the trail to La Mina Falls as being accessible to anyone who could negotiate around a mall. This is true only if the mall is built on a steep hill and climatecontrolled to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. The hike is also listed as 0.7 miles, but it seemed longer. To the falls was downhill on a well-maintained (in fact, paved) path with a profusion of flora, but limited fauna. We saw many lizards, and heard birds and even the coqui (tree frog), but never actually saw the frogs. This waterfall was more impressive than the one by the road, though not on an absolute scale, and we rested there a while before commencing the hike back (uphill). I am definitely getting out of shape--coming back was a real effort. It did take less time than going there, though, maybe because we were worried about how long it would take and didn't dawdle.
Back at the car we drank some juice we had and some water from the water fountain, and then returned to the guest house. This took considerably longer since I made a wrong turn (a car was blocking my approach to the correct exit ramp) and we ended up going way west of where we wanted to be. One problem in finding your way from the map is that whatever road you want is one-way in the wrong direction, and there is no such thing as 'drive around the block.' Nothing is rectilinear here, so going around the block invariably takes you off in some unpredictable direction.
September 9, 1992:
I realize this log isn't up to the excitement of some of our previous ones (at least not yet), but that's partly due to the nature of the trip. As I said earlier, this trip was mostly to see where my father came from. Sightseeing, etc., was added on, but there just isn't that much major sight-seeing to do in Puerto Rico. (Of course, Mark has already filled half a log book with the first half day--about three times as much as I've written.)
After breakfast we drove to Ponce, after only one wrong turn. This was an example of how signs are mostly for the Puerto Ricans themselves rather than for the tourists: the turnoff for the autopista for Ponce is labeled 'Caguas,' which is the first big city, rather than 'Ponce,' the major tourist destination. Both names on the sign would have been nice.
The autopista is a super-highway across the mountains from San Juan in the north to Ponce in the south. This doesn't sound so important until you see what the alternative is, which we did on the way back. This road did give us a chance to see something more of Puerto Rico--first, some nicer suburbs of San Juan (you could tell they were nicer because there were satellite dishes on the roofs of the houses) and, later, the mountainous interior of the island. The rock formations visible where the road cut through reminded me of New England--in particular, the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Halfway through we stopped at the Monument to the Puerto Rican Peasant (Jibaro). This had a vaguely socialist feel, no doubt because of all the monuments to peasants and workers one finds in China, Eastern Europe, and the CIS. (Statues of Lenin et al have been torn down, but those of ordinary people tend to remain.) This also gave us a chance to take some pictures of the scenery, hard to do from a moving car (especially for the driver!)
We arrived in Ponce about 11:15 AM, having left San Juan about 9:30 AM. (I should note that the autopista is a toll road, with tools at the same level as the mainland.) Ponce has several things in common with San Juan: unpredictable one-way streets, streets closed by construction, difficulty in finding parking, .... Puerto Rico apparently has a very high ratio of cars to people, but seems to have a low ratio of parking spaces to cars. The result is massive traffic snarls as 10% of the cars are looking for spaces at any one time. :-)
But since Ponce is smaller than San Juan, we actually did find a space about five blocks from the main plaza. In Mexico, this plaza would be called the zocalo, but that word is not used in Puerto Rico. People think of Spanish as being a single language, but there are as many variations as there are countries that speak it. (For that matter, British English and American English have their differences as well.)
We walked around the plaza, which includes a Victorian firehouse painted in horizontal red and black stripes. (Why is a building from a Spanish colony/American territory described in British terms?) This is supposedly the most photographed building in Puerto Rico (how do they know?), so we photographed it as well. There is also the cathedral, described in the guide books as being pink, but apparently recently painted blue. A large part of the plaza was fenced off for renovation--this is standard wherever we go. In Puerto Rico, we couldn't be sure if this was to repair the damage done by Hurricane Hugo three years ago, spruce up the place for the 500th Anniversary celebrations of Columbus, or just general upkeep.
After walking around the plaza we decided to have lunch and go on to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center just outside of the city. There isn't that much in Ponce itself to fill time with, and the drive from Tibes to Manati would take at least two hours. I had called my uncle Beto and arranged to call from a particular gas station on the Manati-Ciales road between 6 PM and 7 PM, and I wanted some time in Ciales before that.
We found a cafeteria on one of the side streets which served Puerto Rican food. This appealed to us a lot more than the Burger King or McDonalds on the plaza itself. Mark and I both had pastel y platano. A pastel is something like a Mexican tamale--meat wrapped in a corn meal dough, though without hot sauce. Platanos are plantains, something like bananas (there is also a non-sweet variety), only fried. Yum! And we shared an avocado salad and three Cokes. All this came to about $9 for the two of us.
After lunch we attempted to leave Ponce, got stuck on one-way streets, and eventually got out. After only one more wrong turn, we found Tibes.
On arriving we paid the $2 admission for each and started with the film about the Indians who lived in Tibes and in Puerto Rico before the arrival of Columbus. The most recent and best known were the Tainos, who were a peaceful people who went to war only when attacked by the Caribes, a very fierce and cannibalistic tribe that roamed through all the Antilles. The one characteristic object of the Taino seems to be the cemi, which is a sort of triangular stone but with two sides slightly concave and the points somewhat rounded. These represented spirits of some sort, but it's not clear how they were used.
After the film there was a guided tour (for us and one other couple). After seeing all the archaeological sites in Mexico and Peru, this one was a bit of a let-down. Even though its the major archaeological site in the Caribbean, there isn't much to see. What was discovered after Hurricane Eloise in 1975 were several batays, or ball courts, marked by stone borders rather than the high stone walls of (say) Chichen Itza. There were also some skeletons and pottery objects found. The reconstructed Indian village there is just that--a reconstruction. (Well, you can't expect grass huts to survive five hundred years, can you?) There are some petroglyphs in the stone, though they would be almost impossible to see if they weren't outlined in white paint (some by the museum and some by vandals--I'm not sure why one is more acceptable, though the vandalized ones may also have been scratched).
There were also some pottery and other objects found there, which were displayed in a small museum with bilingual labels. (Not all museums will have this, it turns out. Now that Spanish has been declared the official language of Puerto Rico, there may be even less English that there is now.)
We decided that rather than back-track to Ponce and take Route 10 (labeled as a through road) to Arecibo, we would continue up 503 (listed as a road), then take 143 to connect with 10. 503 was a road, but so steep and curved that a speed of 25 miles per hour was as high as we could get. There were signs warning of curves ahead, but they appeared to be at regularly placed intervals rather than marking any particular curves. The road was very scenic, that's for sure. What was strange was that every once in a while we'd see a cluster of houses, sometimes enough to call a small town, but often just a half dozen or so. There might also be a beverage/cigarette stand (sort of like the rural equivalent of a 7-11), but nothing more. Where do these people work? Do they drive into Ponce each day? (There's a commute you'd hate.) Do they work in nearby fields? Do they telecommute? The houses looked prosperous and there were very nice cars there, so these weren't the unemployed. (There were also no gas stations for most of the distance between Ponce and Arecibo, so people must go to one or the other to fill up at least.)
I had considered taking back roads to Ciales because it was shorter, but I decided that the through road would be faster even though longer. But, all things considered, Route 10 wasn't that much better. It was more downhill than up, which helped but would have been true in any case. I think the real 10 was under construction and we were detoured onto side roads anyway. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Arecibo and connected with Route 22, another toll road, to Manati. From there we took Route 149--marked as the same type of road as Route 503, but much wider and easier to drive--to Ciales. Ah, Ciales, my ancestral home. In fact, that's what I wanted to find--my ancestral home at 4 Palmarito Street. After driving around for about fifteen minutes hoping to hit it by random chance, I stopped and asked someone where Palmarito Street was. Who knows if it's even still there, I thought. It turned out to be only two blocks ahead of us. It is a small street, only one block long. Number 1 was clearly labeled but neither of the two houses on the other side had visible numbers. On the porch of one was an old woman, so Mark (a better Spanish speaker than I, and at times like this, more extroverted) went up and asked her where Number 4 was. It wasn't. Hers was Number 6 and the other house was Number 2. The empty space in between must have been Number 4 at one time. There was a fragment of a house still standing there, but even that post-dated my grandfather's house--it had plumbing. We explained to the woman that my father had been born there eighty years ago. She said the house had been torn down, either in 1955 or 55 years ago (I didn't quite follow, but you get the idea). She seemed to recognize the name 'Chimelis' though not from my T-shirt (maybe she couldn't read), and said the Chimelises now lived in Manati. So we must be a well-known family, because Beto later said that my grandfather had lived in Caleche the whole time after he returned from the Dominican Republic (around 1940?).
We were supposed to call my uncle Beto (actually Emerito) from a certain Texaco station. One small problem: the phone was broken there. Luckily, we found another close by and within a couple of minutes my uncle arrived.
Brief family history interlude follows, which can be skipped by people more interested in the travelogue part.
History of the Chimelis Family: My father's father (Ramon) had three wives. The first was my father's mother, Isabel. My father (Raphael, later Ralph) was the oldest, born in 1913. The next was my uncle Ramon (later Raymond). Then my grandparents divorced and my grandfather, father, and uncle moved to the Dominican Republic in 1926. Isabel remarried and had four more children, but they didn't get along with my grandfather's side of the family and I've never met them. My grandfather then married Leonor, a Dominican woman, and had two more children, Juana (later Juanita) and Francisco. Juana was born in La Romana, but Francisco was born after my grandfather moved to Santo Domingo, leaving my father in La Romana working in an office as a clerk (this was about 1927 or 1928, so my father was fourteen). Juana eventually married a Colombian, Henry Rodriguez, and moved to Hyde ParkNew York, and finally Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Ramon married Idalia and lived in Paramus, New Jersey, and eventually Miami, Florida. Idalia's family is also large, but luckily for you I won't try to describe it.)
In 1929, when my father was sixteen, my grandfather decided he should finish his schooling (at least through the eighth grade), so he took my father back to Puerto Rico, where he arranged with a friend that my father would live with them and attend school each day, then work in the friend's office after school and on weekends to pay for his room and board. My father finished fifth through eighth grade in two years, and then (I think) came to New York City in the early 1930s. Meanwhile Leonor died (or there was another divorce) and my grandfather returned to Puerto Rico. I'm not sure at this point where Ramon and Juana were, but I know that Francisco stayed in the Dominican Republic, and in fact, my father doesn't remember ever meeting him. My grandfather returned to Manati, where he married Maria and had (in some order), Vincente (later Vincent), Emerito (later Beto), Eduardo (later Tato), Ana (later Anita), Rosin, Marinita, and Armando. I also have a semi-adopted aunt named Wendy.
Ana was raised from about age 10 up by my Aunt Juanita in Hyde Park, so I think of her more as a cousin, especially since she's only about five years older than I am. She now lives with her husband Norman and their two children in Southampton, Massachusetts, very close to where my parents live in Chicopee. Vincente has a Ph.D. in astronomy and lived in the Southwest for a while, then in Ohio (next door to the people who were my parents' landlords during the 1940s in Miami!), and finally in Melbourne, Florida. Armando died of cancer in Hyde Park, and his son was killed in a car accident that we found out about when someone at the newspaper where my brother works saw the name 'Chimelis' on the wire story and showed it to him. (It wasn't a great shock, as we had never met him, and I had met Armando only once.)
Anyway, Francisco is still in the Dominican Republic and Beto, Tato, Rosin, Marinita, and Wendy are still in Puerto Rico. Rosin is in Caleche/Ciales; the rest are in Manati. In fact, Marinita lives next door to Beto, which is convenient, because Beto's wife (whose name I never did get) broke her foot recently and Marinita is doing the cooking and housework.
(The above is all as I understand it now, and undoubtedly has errors.)
So I got to meet Beto, Marinita, and Wendy, as well as Beto's oldest son Albert and Wendy's children (no names given). Beto has another son Luis, and Albert and Luis have filled the living room with sports trophies. (Even in Puerto Rico they have problems spelling 'Chimelis'; one plaque said 'Chimelli.' I mention this because my brother's trophies also have an assortment of spellings on them.)
Unfortunately, of all these people only Beto spoke any English. (I would have expected Albert, who was about twenty, to have learned it in school, but I guess not.) While I can understand Spanish moderately well (if spoken slowly) and read it even better, my ability to speak it is below Mark's. So we ended up in triangular conversation: Mark spoke Spanish, someone responded in Spanish, I translated for Mark, etc. This allowed us to carry on a conversation, albeit awkwardly. I had hoped to do better over dinner, but when dinner was served it was just for the two of us-- everyone else had eaten earlier. We both felt very uncomfortable about this--it's bad enough to have someone cook dinner for you, but when they aren't eating with you, it can make you very uncomfortable indeed. Beto did come into the kitchen and talk for a while, but on the whole I can't say the visit went outstandingly. After dinner, Mark took a picture of all of us (except himself, of course) and we said our goodbyes. I hated to eat and run, but getting back to San Juan was going to take over an hour (longer, actually, because we got lost again!) and I've been conking out by 9 PM. I hope our early departure didn't offend them, but on the other hand, they were probably as uncomfortable as we were. (Oh, by the way, a note to my mother: Marinita puts olives and diced potatoes in her beans. And the rice here is different too--sort of shiny and a little smoother than on the mainland.)
I'm glad I met all this family, but I think I will probably not try calling Francisco. He speaks no English, and since even my father has never met him, I'm not feeling too guilty about not calling him.
(Oh, I checked the San Juan phone book and I also have a relative there, Rafaela. I'm not sure who she is--maybe Tato's daughter?)
September 10, 1992:
Since we're in Puerto Rico, on the beachfront, and have brought our swim suits, we decided to take an early morning swim. The beach was pretty well empty, in part because it was off-season and in part because it was so early. This was the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean (which is on the southern side of the island), and the waves were a bit stronger than they would have been in either the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.
After the swim and breakfast, we took the bus into Old San Juan (based on directions for a sheet in the room, which turned out to be somewhat outdated). The bus went as far as the bus terminal rather than Plaza Colon, but there were smaller trolleys from the bus terminal into the main part of Old San Juan.
We started by walking down Calle Fortaleza to Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park) and Cristo Chapel. Pigeon Park is, not surprisingly, full of pigeons. This is interesting, though I can't say it is particularly scenic. (There is, however, less pigeon 'residue' than one would expect.) We then went up Calle Cristo to see San Juan Cathedral. It has a black-and-white parquet floor that is very uncathedral-like and a ceiling painted to look like carving but too low to fool anyone. Then we visited the Casa Blanca, Ponce de Leon's house. It was somewhat sparsely furnished (and I think none of the furnishings were the originals), but it also had an ethnographic museum upstairs. We walked back to the shops and stopped for a cold drink to refresh ourselves.
Getting to El Morro was the next order of business, but this was made somewhat difficult by the fact that they were constructing a new building right where the street we were supposed to take used to be. Even on foot negotiating San Juan isn't easy. And because the roads were closed, we ended up trekking across a field to get to El Morro. There was some question in our minds as to whether it was open--it looked pretty deserted except for the road crew working on the entrance road, but as we got close we could see a few tourists.
We managed to arrive during the lunch break, so no tours were starting soon, but we were content to walk around on our own. Though San Cristobal is bigger in total, more of El Morro is open to the public, so we had quite a lot to see of battlements, guard houses (one of which is famous as a symbol of Puerto Rico--it hangs out from the wall over the water), the lighthouse (destroyed in the 1898 invasion by the United States and later rebuilt and now being reconstructed), etc. It's worth noting that the United States seized Puerto Rico after the latter had been granted autonomy by Spain, so we were actually grabbing a separate country, not a Spanish territory. We did that sort of thing then. Now we're more subtle--we invade places to 'keep peace,' including the Dominican Republic and Grenada.
Anyway, after El Morro we walked along the water to San Juan Gate, where sailors used to debark and walk up the hill to San Juan Cathedral (before moving on to more earthly pleasures, no doubt). By now it was getting pretty hot--well, actually, it was already pretty hot--and we were tired out. So we decided to walk back to Plaza Col'n to catch the bus back. On the way we did some souvenir shopping and bought a reproduction of a cemi at a crafts shop. We also made a half-hearted attempt to find The Bookstore, which supposedly has the largest selection of English-language books in the city. Luckily for our luggage we couldn't find it.
We waited at Plaza Colon for over a half hour but none of the appropriate buses came by (even though one was listed on the pillar there). Finally we decided we needed to find the bus terminal and, in a very roundabout fashion and with the help of a Tourist Information Center, we eventually found it and our bus. I suspect all this change was to cut down on traffic in the old part of town- -the trolleys are much smaller than the buses.
We returned to the hotel without incident and rested up from our day's exertion. (I should note that a bus ride in San Juan costs twenty-five cents.)
For our last night in San Juan, I suggested to Mark that we eat at the Metropol, recommended in a couple of places as serving good, inexpensive Puerto Rican cuisine. Unfortunately, the address was given as a kilometer marker on a certain route. We couldn't find the markers or the restaurant. We called the restaurant and got better directions, but still couldn't locate it until we asked someone selling books on the street. It was tucked behind some trees and much further down the road than I thought.
However, it was worth the effort. The food was delicious and the service excellent. Mark had dehydrated himself and was drinking water in large quantities. After filling Mark's glass a third time in quick succession, the waiter took another glass from another table and kept them both filled. Mark had camarones rellenos con queso; I had the fiesta Cubana: congri, pork, Cuban tamale, arrow root, pot roast, ropa vieja, and rice with black beans. (Normally, I don't eat red meat, but when one is traveling and wants to try local food, it's hard to avoid.) All this was under $20 for the two of us, but we left a $5 tip for the great service.
Then back to the room to pack (my dress already has stains from where I've been sweating on the leather belt--it really is hot here) and turn in early; we leave at 7 AM.
September 11, 1992:
After a restless night, we were up early and checked out by 7 AM. There was a bit of a traffic jam at one of the intersections, perhaps caused by the heavy rain. At first it looked as if everyone was ignoring the light, but that turned out to be because there was a policeman directing traffic (unlike in the Dominican Republic, where traffic lights are apparently considered advisory only and people ignore them all the time). Once we got onto the main road things were easy, because all the traffic was headed into the city instead of towards the airport.
We returned our rental car, got checked in, and headed toward the gate. But the air conditioning in that section wasn't working, so we stayed in the main terminal until closer to boarding time.
This leg of our trip was on American Eagle, which is apparently the subsidiary of American Airlines that owns all the propeller planes. As a result, we had to check our carry-ons, since there was less storage for them, and we had to board from the runway (in the rain) instead of through a jetway. Luckily it wasn't raining too hard when we boarded. Our plane seemed to be something called an ATR42, if that means anything to anyone.
We were supposed to have a snack on this flight, but they announced they would not be providing it due to the weather. I'm not sure why not, as it was prefectly smooth at the level we were flying (16,000 feet). The plane left about a half hour late, and landed similarly (how much time can one make up on a one-hour propeller flight?). Though it was raining in San Juan, it was bright and sunny in Santo Domingo when we landed.
As is typical of many poor countries, the Dominican Republic plays the 'soak-the-tourist' game. A visitor's card (in lieu of a visa) is $10 each; the airport departure tax is another $10 each. I suppose it's a way to get badly needed money that they can think sink into El Faro (but more on that later).
The only practical way to get from the airport to Santo Domingo is by taxi (or rental car--for some reason Mark thought we were renting a car here, but we weren't). There is a bus, but it runs only five times a day and only to the central bus stop. Perhaps with a third the luggage we might have tried it, but with a fairly heavy carry-on each it didn't seem worthwhile.
It is a fairly long ride from the airport to town (over a half hour and most of that highway driving). The trip was uneventful except for when we almost hit a motorbike which tried to cut in front of us. The taxi fare to our hotel (the Hotel Cervantes) was 250 pesos, or US$20. This was considerably higher than the figures cited in our various tour books, which were in the US$7-10 range. It's a bit confusing, because the symbol for the Dominican peso is also '$', so one is often not sure whether a figure printed in a book is dollars or pesos, especially since the rate used to be 3 pesos to a dollar. Now it's 12.5 pesos to the dollar, and it's a bit more obvious. To avoid confusion, in this log I will spell out 'pesos' instead of using the symbol.
We discovered on arriving at the hotel that no one there spoke English (which I had suspected when I called to make the reservation). It was recommended by someone on the Net and turned out to be a reasonable choice. It was at least as good as Tres Palmas, and at about two-thirds the price (US$42 per night and a lot cheaper than the fancy hotels just a few blocks over). It would not be so bad, since I can understand Spanish if it is spoken relatively slowly, but when I asked people to speak 'mas despacio' I detected very little difference in speed. The pace of life on the islands may be leisurely, but the speech is not.
However, we managed and even managed to get directions to a bus stop to the Colonial Sector. But first we ate lunch at the Rally Restaurant a couple of blocks away. It came with garlic bread, as had the previous night's dinner--this seems to be standard. I had conch with garlic and Mark had octopus Creole style. (We also had a couple of Pepsis.) This came to 240 pesos (US$19.20) including tip. (The restaurants add a 10% service charge, but you're expected to add a bit more as well.)
After lunch, we walked about six blocks to the bus stop and caught our bus to the Colonial Sector. Our bus was an ex-school bus painted red, white, and blue. It was pretty beat up, but in much better shape than the innumerable Volkswagen minibuses which roam the streets taking on passengers. You know how people talk about something being an accident waiting to happen? Well, these minibuses looked like accidents that had happened but were still rolling. They are called guaguas. I don't know if that term is also appled to a larger bus like ours.
We got on the bus (which cost 2 pesos or 16 cents) and thought we would have to stand until some people already sitting two to a seat pushed over to make room for us. For all the complaints I have about a lot of the people we came into contact with, I have to say that the ordinary people we met were friendly to us, willing to give directions or help us out. Unfortunately, though, it's the others- -the people who see tourists only as an opportunity to make money-- who made more of an impression on us. Anyway, very soon we arrived at Parque Independencia (which was actually close enough to walk to if it wasn't the hottest part of the day) and walked down Calle El Conde to the oldest section. Calle El Conde seems to be the main shopping street in that area, closed to vehicular traffic and lined with stores. We got to the plaza just outside the Cathedral of Santa Maria the Minor when it started to pour. So we dashed into the cathedral, which we had planned to go to anyway. This is the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere and may or may not contain the tomb of Christopher Columbus. It claims to have him buried there, but then so did the cathedral in Seville, and possibly also one in Havana. I suppose if you could visit all three then you could definitely say you had seen Columbus's tomb.
Other than having Columbus there and being old, the cathedral was unremarkable. The rain stopped rather quickly (as usual) and we left, planning to give ourselves a quick overview of the historic buildings and maybe go into one or two. This was not to be. We were immediately latched onto by a guide whom we could not shake. He kept insisting he was just giving us free advice so we would enjoy our stay more. He talked about how he wanted to be sure we were happy, so we would go home and tell other people about it, because the Dominican Republic in general and Santo Domingo in particular weren't getting a lot of American tourists. Mark and I both considered telling him that one reason more Americans don't come here is because they would rather go somewhere where they aren't constantly fending off people who want to change money, provide taxis, or be a guide, but we decided that would be considered rude. I realize all this may make me sound like an ugly American, but I can't help contrast this with a place like Thailand, probably equally poor, where people are friendly towards you, happy if you use their services, but not put out or overly persistent if you don't.
So we ended up with a guided tour of the Colonial Sector. I can't help but feel that walking around with a guidebook would have been as informative. For one thing, we didn't get to go into the Alcazar (the home of Diego Colon and his family), although whether we would have in any case is questionable. When we returned fifteen minutes later it was closed, and also closed early (or never opened) on Sunday. Usually in hotter countries things shut down for a long lunch and then stay open later (when it's cooler) to compensate. We didn't want to be walking around in the heat of the day, and this schedule apparently didn't mesh with the schedules there. Since there schedules weren't posted, we have no way of knowing what their hours were, of course.
We had some slight revenge on the guide, though. He asked how we got to the Colonial Sector from where we were staying and we said we took a bus (guagua). What? A guagua. After a couple of repetitions he finally believed us. At this point I think he realized that he was dealing with cheap American tourists and was not going to get an enormous tip. In fact, at the end he suggested US$10 or US$20; we gave him 100 pesos (US$8). This may sound cheap, but we had said we didn't want a guide, and he did say he was giving free advice. He also didn't approve of the hotel we were staying in and tried to convince us to move to a hotel in the Colonial Sector (from whom I suspect he would get a commission). It was about three times the price of ours. Oh, and we also turned down his offer to take us to a good place to buy amber, one of the big products in the Dominican Republic, but something we are not at all interested in.
After this we were hot and tired (we had gotten up about 6:30 AM), so we walked back to where we had gotten off the bus and tried to figure out where to get the return bus. It was hopeless--there were too many buses, none marked, all with drivers shouting destinations we didn't recognize. (It's undoubtedly the reverse problem from the one we had in Puerto Rico. There, we wanted a sign saying 'Ponce'--the last stop--while here we wanted to know which bus was going down a particular street to get to its ultimate destination.) After five minutes we gave up and took a taxi.
We rested a bit and then went out to the grocery down the street for juice and snacks. (The room here, as in Puerto Rico, has a refrigerator.) After some discussion, we decided to drop the idea of taking a bus to La Romana or elsewhere, and instead check on getting a tour or renting a car. And so, with this plan in mind, we went to sleep.
September 12, 1992:
We had breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. Service was incredibly slow, but I don't know if that's a cultural thing or just this coffee shop. Our other meals were somewhat slower than they might be here, but this was the slowest. Mark ordered French toast, which was more like fried bread. I ordered mangu (mashed plantains). I had hoped they were sweet plantains, but no such luck. the dish was pretty tasteless except for the raw onion garnish (maybe that's why it's there).
After breakfast we walked to the Cultural Plaza. This turned out to be somewhat further than we expected (because the hotel clerk had mismarked on the map where the hotel was), and it was already getting hot. We did find it, but only after asking directions from someone.
The Cultural Plaza contains half a dozen museums in a park setting. The Museum of History and Geography was closed, but two other museums we were interested in--the Museum of the Dominican Man and the Museum of Natural History--were open. The museums here, as in many poorer countries, have a two-tier admission structure: Dominicans pay 2 pesos (16 cents); foreigners pay 10 pesos (80 cents). This is still quite cheap.
We went first to the Museum of the Dominican Man. As Mark pointed out later, this focuses almost entirely on the native and black heritage. Perhaps the European influence is covered in one of the other museums. At any rate, this museum covered what is (to me, anyway) the more interesting part of the history. All the exhibits were labeled in Spanish only, but I didn't find that a problem, though I might have to look up the occasional word in my dictionary. (I had brought my basic Spanish dictionary rather than my comprehensive one, so most of the time it didn't help anyway.) There was a fairly large section on the Tainos, who also inhabited this island, and some more on the slave trade with Africa and the descendents of the slaves. There was also a large section devoted to the religious beliefs of the various peoples and their combinations. For example, there is a Dominican version of voudon (voodoo) as well as santeria and other, lesser known, variations.
After the Museum of the Dominican Man we went to the Museum of Natural History. This is known more for its collection of Dominican insects and birds (mounted and stuffed, respectively) than for any broad representation of the Earth's flora and fauna. (Their stuffed lion was particularly silly-looking.)
When we finished here, we decided to walk over to the big tourist hotels a few blocks from our own. Our of the brochures indicated that many of them had tour desks and, as I said, we figured at this point that a tour would be a lot easier to cope with than public transit, which seemed totally chaotic. We also hoped to find a tour out into the countryside. They had tours, all right--at 1000 pesos (US$80) per person to go to Puerto Plata, for example. This was written '$1000' and when I commented this was expensive, the clerk said, 'That's in pesos, you know.' Did he really think I thought it was in dollars?
Having ruled out buying a tour, we decided to rent a car and go somewhere on our own. I checked the phone book in the hotel room and discovered there was a car rental place a few blocks away, which we also remembered passing on the way to the museums. So we walked there and asked about renting a car for Sunday. Because they were open only until 5 PM on Sunday, we asked if there was some way we could drop the car off after 5 PM. The clerk behind the counter-- who spoke perfect English and was probably from the United States-- said we could drop it off at the airport the next morning. I said I would prefer not to, because I didn't want to try to find my way to the airport in the dark. He asked where we planned to go, and I say we have been thinking of perhaps going to Altos de Chavon or someplace like that. He suggested that hiring a taxi would probably be cheaper than renting a car, and when I commented that I had some problems with getting lost in Puerto Rico, he said if I got lost in Puerto Rico I should definitely not try driving here! So Mark and I decided that made sense and agreed we would hire a taxi the next day. We went back to the room, looked at the brochures from the tours a bit more, and decided rather than going out to Altos de Chavon, which sounded like it was a bit too non-specific for us (it's a reconstructed 15th Century Spanish village that has a lot of art galleries, and could well turn out to be the Dominican equivalent of an outdoor mall), we would do the half-day tour of the eastern part of Santo Domingo, including El Faro de Colon, Tres Ojos de Aqua, and the aquarium. I also figured that would give us some time to go back to the Colonial Sector on our own.
When it got a little cooler (well, all things are relative), we went out walking and walked down to the Parque Independencia and El Conde Gate (where independence had been declared in 1844). There were men sitting out on park benches talking, kids playing, and in general it looked a lot like parks everywhere. Earlier we had seen two men playing checkers near the hotel, but the checkerboard had 100 squares instead of 64. I imagine that would make the game more complex.
We then walked back up a different street to the hotel. By walking opposite traffic on the various one-way streets, we managed to avoid having all the taxi drivers offer us rides. We stopped at a drugstore and bought three comic books, one for us and a couple for a friend who collects them. (He's particularly fond of Uncle Scrooge comics and they had one in Spanish.) The store had a system where you stand in one line and get a slip of paper with the total of your purchases on it, then you go to another line to pay. Mark claims this keeps the clerks from mis-charging for the merchandise and then pocketing the difference, since the charges are added up by a different person than handles the money. I'm not sure I follow this. If there is one cashier and he rings up the amounts, then for the cashier to profit the customer has to pay more than what the cash register says. Although I suppose its possible that they're also trying to guard against someone giving a break to a friend, so the two cashiers each add up the total and it has to agree.
We looked at a few restaurants and finally decided on the Mesquito. We both had gazpacho, served here by bringing the broth to the table and then adding the finely diced vegetables there. It certainly keeps them crisp. Mark had camarrones bilbaino (large grilled shrimp with a spicy seasoning) and I had asopao de camarrones (a sort of stew with shrimp). Very good, and very filling--we had no room for dessert. Dinner was 520 pesos (about US$42 including tax and tip). This restaurant was on a street running right in back of the fancy tourist hotels (which also had back exits from their grounds), so I suspect it was probably a little higher priced than other restaurants elsewhere, but it was convenient. (We never did get to the Maison de Cava, which is a restaurant set in a cave.)
September 13, 1992:
We got up and had breakfast in the room, the service from the hotel restaurant being somewhat below par. About 9:15 AM we went out and negotiated for a taxi to take us around for our planned sight-seeing, at a rate of 120 pesos an hour (about US$7.20 an hour).
Our first stop was El Faro de Colon, the lighthouse they are building to honor the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery. (Well, actually our very first stop was to get gasoline, but that doesn't count. Gasoline, by the way, is about 20 pesos or US$1.60 per gallon. The road signs are in kilometers but the gasoline is measured in gallons. In Puerto Rico the distance signs on the road are in kilometers, the speed limit signs are in miles, and the gasoline is measured in liters. I wish countries would decide what system of measurements they're using, and stick to it!)
Well, back to the lighthouse. This is not a practical lighthouse, but a showpiece. It's seven stories high and a halfmile long, has a cross-shaped floor plan, and will project a crossshaped beacon into the sky that they claim will be visible as far away as Puerto Rico. It looks like a cross (no pun intended!) between a Mexican pyramid and something out of BLADERUNNER. It's also a big waste of money, in my opinion, and in the opinions of all the Dominicans who demonstrated and rioted about the government spending tens of millions of dollars to build this thing when there are still houses in its shadow where the people don't have running water. And apparently when they turn the lights on for the cross, the lights in the neighborhood all dim and the television pictures go down to a thin ribbon because there isn't enough electricity. It's still not finished and I've heard that a lot of the visiting dignitaries who were scheduled to attend its opening (on October 12?) have decided to skip it. Part of the problem, of course, is that for 490 years Columbus was a great guy, but then as the 500th anniversary approached, people started really looking at what he did, and suddenly he was not such a great guy any more.
Then we went to Tres Ojos de Agua (Three Eyes of Water), a series of pools in a grotto outside the city. There are actually four pools, but the three inside the grotto are supposedly warm sulfurous water, cold fresh water, and lukewarm salt water. We stuck our fingers in a couple of the pools--they all seemed the same temperature and they all seemed to taste the same, so the sulfur or salt content couldn't have been very high. The fourth pool is accessible only by taking a barge across one of the other pools, and then walking to an area where the grotto opens up to the sky. This fourth pool is either the largest or the second largest of the four, but I guess being outside it doesn't really count. This open pool reminded me of the cenotes we saw in the Yucatan. There was an Italian group there and I can't remember if it was listening to them or elsewhere, but somewhere I picked up the information that people used to swim in this pool, but the government wanted that stopped so they put one alligator in there to discourage the swimmers.
At the entrance to Tres Ojos there was a stand selling stone carvings and a cluster of 'official guides.' At least here they're more honest: the guide said right up front he was licensed by the government but not paid by them, and he charged 150 pesos for giving the tour of the caverns, but that included paying for the barge ride across the pool. We thanked him, but said we weren't interested, and walked through on our own, admiring the cave and the limestone formations. In some ways reminiscent of the Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, these seemed more interesting than those (though lacking the brightly colored religious decorations). The barge ride, by the way, was 3 pesos each!
Our last stop was the aquarium. I had sort of pooh-poohed this, figuring it wouldn't be very interesting, but Mark wanted to go and I had nothing better to suggest to do, so we went. It was excellent, certainly the best aquarium for the price (10 pesos or 80 cents), and one of the best I've seen at any price. There were a lot of well-labeled exhibits in an open pavilion setting (to get the breeze, no doubt, but it also meant that the light was very good). There were a couple of darker areas for nocturnal species as well. Everything was very well labeled albeit in Spanish. Again, I could read almost all of it without the dictionary, and the dictionary was only helpful about half the time I used it. (One thing I discovered later was that it was asymmetrical, so that while the English-toSpanish side listed 'octopus,' the Spanish-to-English side did not list 'pulpo.')
After this we returned to the hotel. The whole morning cost us about 400 pesos, or about half what it would have been on the organized tour that did the same stuff. Plus of course we got to spend whatever time we wanted at each place. We also arranged that Miguel (the driver) would be at the hotel the next morning at 5 AM (ugh!) to take us to the airport for our 7:20 AM flight. Taxis in the Dominican Republic are much more like a combination taxi and limo service--not only can you book ahead of time, and hire by the hour instead of by the meter (meter? what meter?), but the taxi drivers have business cards and specific locations they service. Miguel's card, for example, indicates that he is based at the Hotel Cervantes.
I mentioned the taxi had no meter. It also had no radio (but did have a large hole where the radio used to be) and air conditioning (long since broken). The doors also didn't work too well; I could never get the back door open from the outside, though Miguel could, so there must have been a trick to it.
We rested up until 4 PM and then walked out to try to see the Alcazar, which was supposed open until 6 PM, but it was closed. I don't know if it was closed because it was Sunday, closed because the hours had been shortened, or closed because the person in charge decided to go home early. (The next morning at 5:30 AM, we could see that they light it with floodlights all night. Maybe that's to prevent break-ins, but it's a bit ironic that you can see the outside perfectly even in the middle of the night, but can't find a time to get in during the day.) We did take some pictures of the House of Cord, which is the oldest house built by Europeans in the New World, and where Diego Colon lived while they were building the Alcazar. Our 'guide' on Friday hadn't even pointed it out.
So instead of seeing the Alcazar, Mark and I had our usual 'where is this country going?' discussion. We seem to get into this philosophical mode at least once each trip. Mark seems to think that all of the Dominican Republic's problems can be traced to a surfeit of Catholicism. I'm not really sure it's that simple, and certainly solving the problems aren't simple. As with many Latin American countries, the political situation is not entirely stable (the 1990 election had two previous presidents, both of whom had be deposed by military coups, running against each other, and our 'guide' in Santo Domingo said that the chief of police was in jail on fraud and bribery charges). As with many poorer countries, there is a surplus of population which makes trying to find solutions even more difficult. But I think one indication of the rough times ahead may be people's faith that tourism will save them. Currently, the major industry in the Dominican Republic is agriculture. The guide in Santo Domingo, the people building the lighthouse, the people building posh resorts in La Romana and Puerto Plata--all seem to be hoping to get a piece of the Caribbean tourist pie. But as the United States economy suffers, and fewer Americans travel overseas, and because many of the other islands already have a whole tourist infra-structure in place, it seems unlikely to me that tourists will flock to the Dominican Republic. Americans will go instead to places like the Bahamas (no need to worry about a different language), or Puerto Rico (no need to have a passport or change money), or the French West Indies (with a much wilder reputation than the Dominican Republic), or a Club Med (which is predictable and cheap and isolated from any local problems). Latin American tourists might be more attracted, but even then they have a lot of competing choices.
Would I recommend the Dominican Republic for a vacation? Probably not. I had a specific purpose in going there (which was only partially fulfilled). If I were looking for just a nice island to lie on, there would be many I would put higher on the list. (It's probably worth mentioning that the Dominican Republic doesn't even any its own guide books. All the books we could find in the stores that included the Dominican Republic were for 'the Caribbean.' Puerto Rico has its own books; the Bahamas has it own books; a few other islands have there own books. Mark was perhaps rightfully skeptical of spening a vacation in a country that doesn't even rate a guidebook.)
We had dinner at La Reina de Espana, near our hotel. Like the Mesquito the night before, this place was almost empty. Are we eating too early? Too late? Are there really that few people here? (It could be; after all, this is hurricane season, not tourist season.) I had gazpacho and arroz negra con calamares (black rice with squid); Mark had onion soup and what was billed as paella, but seemed to be a seafood platter, without the rice that I thought was necessary for paella. It was very good, though, and quite reasonably priced. Dinner for both of us, including wine for me, was 567 pesos, or about US$45. I am sure we could find someplace to eat that would have been much cheaper, but for our last night we wanted to sit in a nice restaurant and have a nice dinner.
Back in the hotel room, we packed up our stuff. Our purchases in the Dominican Republic totaled six postcards, three comic books, and a small pottery figure about the size of a hockey puck. If the Dominican Republic plans on making it on tourism, they probably need more tourists who are not like us.
September 14, 1992:
As usual, I had a restless night worrying about over-sleeping and missing the plane. Well, maybe part of it was the pillow, which was about three-quarters the thickness I wanted. So I couldn't even double it--then it was too thick.
We went downstairs at 5 AM to check out, and in spite of the fact that the hotel was almost empty, there was a tour group in front of us checking out. And the tour manager wanted to see all the bills itemized by room, and asked them to move this charge to that room, and so on, for twenty-five minutes! (And there were only five of them--the other dozen checked out yesterday!) Finally our turn came and we took less than five minutes.
The airport is quite a ways from town. I was glad we hadn't rented a car with the intent of returning it at the airport this morning, because so far as I could tell, there were no signs indicating which road led to the airport. But of course Miguel knew how to get there, so we had no problem and were at the airport by 6:15 AM.
During the day the traffic signs and lights seem to be taken as advisory only. At night they are ignored altogether. I assume that Miguel checked the side streets before going right through the red lights, but he didn't slow down at all as far as I could tell.
Even in the airport we had the usual problem. Two young men insisted on carrying our luggage in and then wanted a tip. I offered them two pesos, which they felt insulted at. I explained (in Spanish, no less) that it was all I had left. They said American money would be fine. So I explained I had no small bills (again, in Spanish). Still they followed us around until we finally ditched them by going through immigration where they couldn't follow.
I had hoped to buy a newspaper to catch up on what was going on with the world. I had caught a glimpse of a headline saying Bush declared Kaui a disaster zone, so assumed there had been a hurricane there, but wanted to get more information. There were no newspapers in the international section of the terminal. I did get a cup of coffee (US$1--bye-bye, bargains).
Our flight to San Juan was on a jet (sorry, Mark), and during our lay-over there I picked up a couple of newspapers, one in Spanish and one in English (so we could both read). The Spanish one had a long article in the travel section about Egypt and a cruise on the Nile, which I read with great interest, since it brought back memories of our trip to Egypt. I wish I could understand what it is that makes me unable to speak Spanish, when I can read it perfectly well. (As far as understanding it when it is spoken, I'm in a middling position. I can comprehend what is said, but I have difficulty framing it in English. So if Mark and I are watching a horror movie in Spanish on television out of New York, I can follow it, but can't really give him a good translation.)
Our flight to Newark was uneventful. The car was a little hard to start (well, it's getting old), but did start and we returned home in time to stop by the Post Office and pick up our mail. Then the next day it was back to work and time to start planning for our October trip to the Southwest! In 1990 we went to Europe over Labor Day and southeast Asia in October; now we're doing this same craziness this year. I can't say I really recommend it.