24 November 2016

The PC in the DR


I am quite proud of my two years of national service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil. But since that time I haven’t had much contact with the organization or my fellow volunteers. We all lost track of each other shortly after finishing our assignments. Possibly, if the internet had been around back in the late 70’s, more of us would have stayed in touch. I know there are Returned Peace Corps groups all over the US, but that never interested me. I may have even worked in countries where Volunteers had assignments, but not once did I ever think about checking to find out.
For some reason, before I left on this trip, I thought I might see what the PC had going down in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t thinking about that at all when, during my first week in Santo Domingo, I walked into a small museum that I passed on a small street, intrigued by the sign: 100th  Anniversary of the Loss of the USS Memphis.  
While I was looking at the pictures and reading the narrative about the ship that was sunk by waves from a hurricane right there in Santo Domingo, I noticed a man, with a load of fancy camera equipment, documenting the exhibition. We got to talking and he told me that he was the one who had set it up through the US State Department. It was also the final day before they took everything down.
I’m not sure how it came up, but I mentioned my PC time in Brazil. He replied that he had been PC Honduras, two years before me. And even more astonishingly, he told me that one of his best friends was in PC Brazil when I had been there. When I got back to the hotel, I looked up his friend’s name and sure enough, he was in the group that arrived six months after me. And although I knew lots of people from that training group, I can’t say I really remember him. We probably did meet one crazy Carnaval week up in Salvador, but a whole lot of cachaça and rum may have slightly blurred my memory of those four days. 
What are the odds that I would just happen to be at a small exhibition far from home, on its last day, at just the right hour, to run into a former PCV who was best friends with another PCV who served in Brazil at the same time as I did? Clearly it was a sign that I should drop by the Peace Corps office in Santo Domingo, just to see how things were these days.
A few days later, the taxi dropped me off at the PC office and I walked up expecting to simply go in and chat with anyone who was around. I got no further than the glass enclosed guard post with three State Department armed guards sitting inside. I leaned back, looked around, and tried to see if maybe I was not where I thought I should be. The guards were not making any effort to let me through.
I quickly realized that they were local hires so began to speak in Spanish. My first question was if I had made a mistake and that maybe this was actually the embassy and not the PC office. When they assured me I was in the right place, I explained that I was ex-PC and wanted to see their set-up and maybe talk to the director. I couldn’t hear exactly what was being said inside the glass office, but they called someone down. Maybe it was the director. It was not. Someone else was called and at this point I was beginning to think I would never be allowed in. This was worse than any embassy security I’d ever been through.
Birthday Celebration: Snow Cones in the Zona Colonial
Finally, about ten minutes later, a man – obviously a PC volunteer or staff member, came down and let me in. I had my bag searched, my passport taken, and I can’t remember if there was a metal detector or not. When I was finally cleared to go in, I must have looked as shocked as I felt. The nice Peace Corps guy smiled. Apparently, ex-PCV’s of my era have similar reactions.
It was just a teensy bit different back in the day, I told him. Generally, when any of us would make it all the way to one of the offices, which might have meant a 24 hour bus ride without air conditioning, we walked in the front door – usually open because of the heat, lit a cigarette and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator.
My host then took me inside the sprawling former house-now-office. I saw a few volunteers and heard them talking of others who might be by. It was not like that in Brazil. You never just “dropped in” to an office; it took major planning. Mostly, it’s because there is quite a difference between the size of the Dominican Republic and Brazil. My first year was in Salvador, Brazil, and we had a small, two person run office in town. My second year, it was a 7 hour night-bus trip to get there. The closest other volunteers, were a day-or-two bus ride away. Basically, I spent the entire second year without running into many other volunteers at all. Obviously, I never once talked to any of them on the phone.
There are a lot of differences today from what it was. Volunteers can actually call each other 24 hours a day, they can Skype home, and they’ll never have to rely on Time magazine – with pages blacked out by state censors, for their weekly news updates.
I think all of us who served back in the pre-tech era would agree that we were the lucky ones. Being totally immersed in a country and its culture is no longer possible in the age of iPhones. I couldn’t do that now, but that’s because I know instant communication is possible. Just look how frustrated I have been over the past month because I haven’t been able to get an internet connection for most of my time here. The thought of having to wait three weeks to three months to get a letter with the latest news from home, and then knowing the return letter might take just as long, (as it did back then), makes me break out in a cold sweat.
Although times have changed, the Peace Corps Volunteers haven’t. They are still fighting the good fight. They still believe that what they do can make a difference in the world, even if that difference is for only one kid in one small town. But I have to believe it is never just one person who benefits from our volunteers. Generally, it’s an entire little community. I, for one, believe that I gained more than I ever gave. I’m fairly sure that the Volunteer’s of 2016 will also appreciate just how much they have taken away from their two years of service. 
More power to the Peace Corps. It is America’s best export.

21 November 2016

Moving on Down the Road


Juan Dolio
After about a week in Boca Chica, it was time to move a bit farther down the coast. That had been part of the original plan. Roughly, I had figured a week or two in the capitol, two weeks in Boca Chica, and maybe two weeks in Juan Dolio. All three cities are in close proximity; I had no plans of traipsing around the country by myself with 25 kilos of luggage.
I believe I mentioned earlier that I had spent too much time in Santo Domingo. Should have cut that in half.  From there, it was on to the next stop. The first day or two was OK in Boca Chica, but it turned out to be something totally unexpected. I have decided to not write about it in detail until I get back to California…something about processing it all and looking at it from a distance. Although I doubt that will temper my feelings. I am not about to change my position on sex-tourism. Check back in about three weeks for further details.
Juan Dolio was the next place to go. I had researched it a little before leaving and had found this awesome looking hippie hotel, with very affordable rates. I did try to call before I took the twenty minute taxi ride down there, but couldn’t get through. So I arrived at the front entrance and walked in, assuming there would be a room for the night.
Possibly Juan's Front Gate
Since arriving, I have found out that the really busy tourist season begins at the end of November, and until then there is no problem finding accommodation. A few weeks from now, and I’d be competing with all the Italians and Canadians, and French, and maybe some Americans, that spend three to six months a year down here. Especially the Italians.
Everywhere I went in Boca Chica and in Juan Dolio, I ran across business after business – restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels, owned and operated by Italians. It was when I stopped by the only travel agent in town, (Italian – here for 35 years), that I found out how it had all started. Apparently, back in the days of Trujillo, Italian engineers and other professionals were brought in to work on whatever it was they worked on. And then some just stayed, and others came to visit, and I guess the weather here beats Rome in the winter.
But back to the Hippie Hotel. As soon as I walked it I was instantly transported to Berkeley, California, circa 1968. Indian bedspreads on raised seating areas, Indian-themed paintings and Ohms on the walls, hanging baubles – the only thing missing was incense. It felt instantly comfortable. And it didn’t look like there were many guests.
I was shown to a great little room that had even had a tiny kitchen across one wall. Yes, it was a bit the worse for wear, and could have used a good scrubbing and a new paint job, but what can I say? I was back in my late teens and ready to pull out the tarot cards.
Early Morning Viejo J. Dolio
Dumping my bags, and heaving a big sigh of relief noting that there were no hookers in the ground level hippie common room, I took off for a walk around the town.
Not quite reaching the category of town, it was even smaller than Boca Chica. It’s not like one could spend days on end wandering around a new section of the place. Basically, it’s just one road and you can walk the entire tourist area in less than fifteen minutes. After that, there really isn’t anything.
Every day I was there, I passed in front of leftover traces of Spanish construction. Those walls that most likely surrounded a residence are still standing. I never did find out who, exactly, Juan Dolio was, and will research that later if I ever can get an internet connection for more than a few minutes.
(Yes, my connectivity problems continue. It seems that it actually may be my laptop. I have downloaded new driver software and done a million other things, and my computer says everything is just fine. Except that available Wi-Fi connections rarely show up.)
The beach at Juan Dolio is very pleasant at 7AM. Finally, I was able to walk on the sand and look for seashells, while listening to the small waves crash. At that time in the morning it’s serene and quiet with only the clean-up crews picking up all the garbage that had been left from the day before. I think a few garbage cans along the beach might help.
Like with everyplace I seem to go here, I always think, great, I will hang out here until it’s time to return. But then a few days in I start to see how that is not how it’s going to be. Juan Dolio wasn’t nearly as bad as Boca Chica, but it was enough bad to bother me. And I really did like the hippie hotel, but it had some things going on that I couldn’t ignore.
However, the guys who run it were fantastic. It’s a rather large, rambling, sort-of falling apart place, and there is no way that it shouldn’t have a larger staff to take care of things. Basically, it’s only two men who do everything, and a third who does the all-night shift.
The Italian woman, who has owned the place for thirty some-odd years, wasn’t in the country when I arrived. She has several charity organizations that she runs in India. Something to do with girls’ education. It was one of the reasons I had wanted to come to the hotel. She sounded like quite an interesting lady. It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out she spends five months a year in India, and only comes back for the tourist season in Juan Dolio. So she leaves her tiny staff to run everything. I didn’t really mind taking out my own garbage, or going downstairs to get more toilet paper, or not having my room cleaned the entire week I was there. But I did find it concerning that someone would turn their entire business over to others and not provide adequate help, not to mention very little compensation. I no longer have any desire to meet the owner.
As I sat there one day, I realized it was time again to either get a flight back and cut my trip short, or find another place. Punta Cana, a place I would never consider going, was only a three hour bus ride. That was something I did not want o undertake, but I figured I might have to; especially when I found out I couldn’t change my return ticket. But first, I needed to get to a bank to get more money.
There is nothing in Juan Dolio – no post office, no bank, no real supermarket, no local market. As everyone told me, you have to go to San Pedro. But there was a bank in Nuevo (new) Juan Dolio. From the beach in Viejo (old) Juan Dolio, I could see the expanse of tall structures farther along the shoreline. So I hopped on a gua-gua, (mini-bus), and headed on down there.
This was my first bus ride here and I loved it. People jammed in, sweating, bundles of goods down the middle of the aisle, and happy and friendly drivers and fare collectors. A real taste of this country. A few minutes later, I got dropped off on the road into the New J.Dolio, and walked to the bank.
Bird Nests-entrance from below
After that, I walked farther down the street until I came to a larger supermarket than what was in Old J. Dolio. I got a few things and then asked the sales people if they knew of an economical hotel in the area. The pointed the way and I was off.
Walking down the wide street that runs parallel to the beach I nearly stopped in my tracks. (except that would have been stupid in the oppressive heat and humidity.) I gazed out on a street with massive condos on the right, restaurants on the left, with a meridian strip of palm trees and plants. No trace of 500 year old structures here. What was so freaky was that it looked exactly like parts of Phu Mi Hung, the section of Ho Chi Minh City where I had lived for three years.
The Birds
Once I got to the hotel, I was shown quite a luxurious room, with a huge balcony. I negotiated the price down to about $3 more a night than I was paying at the hippie palace. When I returned to the 60’s hotel, I hated telling the guys that I would be leaving the next day, but they understood.






I’m in the new place now, it’s fine, but I wish I would stop using the mind-set of I only have a week and a half until I can leave. What has happened to me? What has happened to this journey? Since I have no other option, I remind myself that I am more than warm and that I better soak it all up, because who knows when I’ll get back to a tropical climate again?

 

 

15 November 2016

When the Giants Come to Town...



 One of my reasons for travelling to the Dominican Republic was to visit the San Francisco Giants Felipe Alou Academia de Beisbol in Boca Chica. I had no real idea what to expect, or even if I could get past the front gate. Before leaving California, I had tried to contact the Giants’ office in SF and searched for an email address for the academy to see if I could set up something beforehand. That got me nowhere so I knew it would be a storm-the-gates affair.
Every Major League Baseball team has a training facility in the Dominican Republic, most of which are in the area of Boca Chica. From all over Latin America, teenagers, as young as 16 ½ sign with major league teams in the hopes that they will turn out to be the next big superstar. The youngsters live full-time at the academies where they are provided with everything needed to assure their talents are realized: housing, food, training, medical, and English classes.

And of all the academies to try and visit, tops on my list were the hometown favorites. Although I had a ride out to the Giants Academy, it would be up to me to sell myself at the front gate. It turned out that it wasn’t hard at all. Maybe it’s because I look harmless enough, or maybe it’s because I start talking and smiling and don’t give the guard a chance to get a word in edgewise: I’m an American from San Francisco and also a teacher and would like to know if it’s possible to visit the grounds and then possibly talk to someone in your education office about the possibility of working for you. Then again, who really knows what that sounded like in my Espanol?
Luckily for me, the guard got on his walkie-talkie and soon a guy dressed in Giants gear drove over in his golf cart. I then went on to repeat my sales pitch name dropping the Alou brothers and Juan Marichal and how they had been childhood heroes.
One of the fields/Complex in background

That guy turned out to be their equipment manager, Victor Henríquez. I don’t know if it just happened to be him in vicinity when the call went out about the gringa loca at the gate, (my words), but the stars had aligned in my favor. Victor, who has been with the Giants for something like 17 years, was the nicest man you could ever want to meet. He told me to hop in the golf cart and we were off.

I had known that the Giants had opened their new facility this past August, but that was about all I knew.  I was beyond impressed; the place is gorgeous! I’m ready to rent a room there.
Los Hermanos Alou
Victor started the tour by taking me into a main office and introducing me to some man, (whose position I was not quite clear on).I once more dove into my talk about teaching English and asked about any openings. The office guy said I could talk to the education lady a little later on. Meanwhile, I had an academy to see.
While we walked around the facility, I told Victor how I had grown up watching all the greats of Giants baseball. Just in case I had forgotten anything, around every corner there were reminders of my childhood; posters of the Alou’s, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Tito Fuentes. I know their names better than many of the US presidents. The new players also had places on the wall; Buster, and Mad Bum, Cueto, and Casilla, lined the dining hall. (that had orange and black chairs….heck, even some of the socket covers were orange.)
Victor next took me into the massive room where the players can relax at the end of a long day. Two giant TV’s took up one wall, comfortable couches and chairs lined up in front of them. On one side were a few Foosball machines and probably a few other items that didn’t register; I was in the slightest bit of shock over the grandeur and beauty of the place. All of this was in a room where the windows, which took up nearly the entire wall, looked out onto the three ball fields.
View from TV room
Continuing the tour, I was shown two large, open and airy classrooms. I briefly imagined myself teaching English in one of them. Their education program includes English and tech and I think there was something like math and science thrown in. (Maybe I should have taken notes.)  
I’ll stop here to say that whoever the architect was, he got it spot on. The entire complex is spectacular. Tons of windows and natural lighting in every square inch of the facility. Cool concrete and light-toned stone floors, high ceilings with visible pipes – part industrial design but retaining an air and flow of that is not at all the cold atmosphere that is sometimes associated with this style of design.
The players sleep in dorm rooms, but these are nothing like the ones known to many a college student. Large, light, airy, with bunk beds. And those beds are double beds. It’s something I would never have thought of; big ball players needing a slightly larger bed than the smaller of us. Possibly, with all those young ones in the room, it might have felt a little tighter, but not by much. They also had desks and chairs.
Chow Hall
The weight and exercise room, with its high ceilings and state of the art equipment, sits on the ground level just steps from the playing fields.  Attached to that are therapy rooms. Just down the way are the offices with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the playing fields on one side, and into the hallway/reception area on the other. Fish-tankish design that felt comfortable rather than freakish.
The locker room was next. Victor opened the door and invited me in. I hesitated. This, after all, is where the guys change. He assured me that they were all playing so I went in, pulled out my camera, walked to the second row of lockers – and that’s where I saw a guy changing. Luckily for him, he had on shorts, but I high-tailed it out of there.
Victor Henriquez, Equipment Manager
Throughout my tour, Victor told me about his time with the Giants arriving when he was only 19. It was easy to see how he had worked his way up to equipment manager. We went into his office, the equipment room. There, lining the walls, were real live Giants uniforms. I touched them. I have always wondered what the fabric content was. It might be polyester, but it felt darn decent. I am aware that a whole lot of money goes into the research of professional sportswear, but since I had never felt a polyester that I would ever let touch my skin, it was always hard to imagine how anyone could play in the stuff. I guess if you are a professional athlete, they use superior polyesters.
Maybe I stopped jumping up and down and whooping it up towards the end of our tour. Maybe not. The closest I have ever been to anything Giants were a couple of games out at Candlestick. I’ve never even been to AT&T. But I have listened to games on the radio and watched them on TV since I was itty-bitty. To actually walk through and touch part of the hallowed grounds that are team Giants, made my day – if not my entire trip down here.
All the while I kept thinking about my dad. He gave me my love of baseball. I clearly remember him talking about the Latin players and how good they were, and the truly exceptional fact that three brothers had played on the same team, and that team was our Giants.
I also remembered that I was the little girl who desperately wanted to play baseball. Girls had no chance to do so back then. I still have one of the most valued gifts that my dad ever gave me – my own mitt. I found it not too long ago and felt a little sad when I noticed that it had never really seen much action. But then I remembered how my dad knew how much I had wanted one. And when he came home one day and handed it to me, I was over the moon. (I also still have my Willie Mays Louisville Slugger that I got at bat day out at The Stick.)

                                                                 
I would be remiss here if I did not talk about the Yankee’s Academy and how I might just have turned into a little bit of a fan. Before anyone out there considers this sacrilege for a Bay Area girl, listen to the tale.
It seems there are baseball players around every corner here, especially in Boca Chica. It’s hard to know if they are yet affiliated with one of the MLB teams, are at a pre-MLB academy, or just play locally. 
Future Stars
The other day I was in line at the supermarket and two players came up behind me with only a large bottle of water. I told them they could go ahead of me. One thing led to another and I found out that they were both from Venezuela and were at the Yankee’s academy. I told them how I wanted to teach English with one of the teams here.  And then we talked about Venezuelan players like Pablo Sandoval, one of my all time favorite players to watch. I asked if they thought it would be possible to visit their camp and they assured me that I would be welcomed.
This had been two days before I went to see the Giants, but the same tactics worked here. This time, it was a little earlier in the morning, so I waited at the front gate for the receptionist to arrive. She took me around a few places and then handed me off to the English department head, Melissa.
I couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed. Melissa was thrilled that a credentialed, experienced teacher was looking for work, and that I seemed to have arrived at the perfect time. She showed me around the wing of the building with its four classrooms, computer room, and materials library. She showed me the curriculum that had been newly developed and I was quite impressed.
Yankees Central, Boca Chica
Prior to arriving in Boca Chica, I had no idea if any of the teams actually had a proper education program in place, and if they did, had no idea what it might be. I soon found out that most, if not all the teams have something in place and that they are all working to improve their programs. When kids leave school at 16 to hunt the dream of a pro career, all else can easily be cast to the wayside. It has only been more recently that the MLB has realized that these kids need, and deserve, a bit more to fall back on should they not be in that tiny percentage that makes it into the big leagues.

Baseball and proper education; what could be better?

 

 

 

05 November 2016

Paradise Found

Boca Chica (did not look so lovely in person)

I was in Santo Domingo for 12 days, which was probably five or six days too many. I liked the capitol and all the historical sites, but nearly two weeks of that wasn’t necessary. Also, I really didn’t need all the noise pollution that I experienced in my hotel rooms. The room I had at the first hotel was on the ground floor and it sounded like everyone passing by on the sidewalk was actually in my room. My second place was great, and way up on the 4th floor, but that meant that I was constantly bombarded with the noise from the air-conditioning units on the roofs of all the surrounding buildings. It was never quiet. No wonder I got caught up in the city; I couldn’t think straight.

So it was time to head down to the beach at Boca Chica, a forty minute taxi ride from Santo Domingo. I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant about going there. One can never entirely tell by what’s on the travel sites and in the guidebooks, but it did appear that Boca Chica might just be a little more popping than I wanted.
Then I remembered being in Vietnam and taking the bus down to Mui Ne. I knew that particular locale had a reputation for a jumping nightlife, lots of bars with lots of Russian tourists, and all that goes with that – not at all what I wanted. However, I figured it was the beach and surely there had to be somewhere nice. And there was. I stayed in the place I found for two months and it was one of the better two months of my life. Up at 5:30, a walk on the beach, eat something, work on my latest book, jump in the pool, take a short nap, and return to writing. Later there’d be another stroll or two on the sand, a talk with the fishermen and copious amounts of shell collecting. How could it be that hard to find something similar in Boca Chica?
Balcony at Rig Hell
I diligently read through everything I could find out about budget accommodation in Boca Chica, and finally settled on the Rig Hotel. That way, I would have a place to stay at least for the first night. This trip is the first time in my life I have actually booked a hotel in advance anywhere in the world. Unlike in days gone by, you can now read reviews, supposedly get deals – even on budget hotels, and apparently feel fairly confident that you won’t be unpleasantly surprised. Add to that, that I am past the age of walking around town until I find decent, affordable lodging.
The ride down the Caribbean coast was spectacular. The highway goes right along the coastline and it was the first time I had a really clear view of the Caribbean.  Yeah! I was on my way to the beach. But as we started to enter an urban area, I began to worry. Is this Boca Chica? I asked my driver. It was.
Possibly it was because the clouds now covered the sun, casting a dismal grey onto the small streets teaming with people and cars and noise and dirt and confusion. The closer we got to my hotel, the more concerned I got. Boca Chica simply couldn’t be this grungy. Surely we were still on the outskirts. Regrettably, we were one block from my hotel.
According to reviews on booking.com, and the photos, I thought I had gotten a good deal for only being a block from the beach. Booking.com flashed a Deep discount/special offer all because I was signed in.
Rig Bathroom Window
I almost told the driver to take me straight to the airport when we got to the street – more of a filthy alley, that housed Rig hotel. Dumpsters overflowing with garbage, surrounded by piles of litter, covered the length of the small block. To the right were three towering construction projects, one of which looked like its funds had run out. Rig hotel didn’t even look like a hotel and it seemed to be encased in barbed wire.
I paid my $32 and was led up to my room – the one I had paid more for because it had a mini kitchen and a balcony. Traipsing up the narrow, filthy stairwell, my heart sank even lower. When the owner opened the door and I went in, I couldn’t even talk. After he left, I walked around the room in a state of shock.
Hellhole comes to mind. I have always been a budget traveler and prefer simple accommodation, but this was beyond the pale. The balcony consisted of an eight inch ledge and a lot of barbed wire. There was no fridge in the room, and the kitchen was simply a non-working sink and a non-working burner. The bathroom had a clear window that looked directly onto the construction site across the street. And every square inch seemed to be falling apart and filthy, save the floor in the main room. I could not believe I had been this badly suckered. This is my breakup with Booking.com.
I sat down for a moment, thought about what to do, and then figured I would have to stay there one night. But I was going to find something else right away. I hated leaving all my valuables in a room that could be opened with a hair clip, or possibly a hard shove, but had no choice.
Paradise Found
First, I tracked down a place someone had recommended. It was neat and clean and brand new, but too costly. It sort of looked like a high-end Motel 6. And it was still in the middle of what I took to be the insanity of Boca Chica.  Walking further, I recognized the name of a hotel I had remembered seeing on some travel site. It was further up a street and off the first few blocks up from the beach. I had already realized right on the beach was no place to be.
The very nice manger told me the prices and they were way over my budget. He then started telling me of other places, and eventually had an employee walk me about four blocks further away from the beach.
Soon we were walking down lovely streets – you’d never know it was a tourist town. I could feel my spirits lift. It looked like I might not have to take that next flight out of the DR. Even before I walked in through the gate, I knew I was in heaven.
The beautifully landscaped garden surrounded a sparkling clean pool. A covered restaurant area and a small bar stood beyond and to the right. Everything looked shiny and new and well tended to. If the manager from the last hotel hadn’t said that this was the place I wanted, I would not have believed it to be affordable.  
I was shown an immaculate room that was more than spacious enough. The bathroom looks like one of those TV show makeovers and not like anything I had seen in my previous three hotels. There is no A/C, but there is a floor fan. No TV, but I am rather tired of all the political stuff anyway. The only real drawback is that there is no mini fridge, something I have come to rely on in my traveling. But at about $20 a night, I’ll make do.
It did not take me long, sitting out in the peaceful garden, to make the decision to go back to the Rig Hotel from Hell, check out, loose $32, and come right back to my new lodgings. 
This morning, I set out to take a walk on the beach, since that is what the beach is for. As soon as I stepped on the sand, I knew this would be my one and only visit to the beach of Boca Chica. At eight in the morning there were few people out, but there was also not a lot of open space. Every square inch of the sand, from where I stood all the way up the hotel area, had lounge chairs from the side-by-side restaurants that covered the beach.
Looking out at the still, glassy water, I asked a waiter about the lack of waves. He assured me that there are indeed waves. I can’t imagine that they are ever really large. I continued my walk up the beach, greeting the guys cleaning the sand of all the trash from the day before and setting out chairs. From the look of what was sitting at the water’s edge, I don’t think I would really ever want to swim there. And there wasn’t a whole lot of beach left between the chairs and the water. It didn’t appear that there were any shells.
Boca Chica beach: been there/done that. Now back to my little piece of paradise and talking to folks along the way. It was sometime yesterday that I noticed the sounds of birds against the stillness of the air. I try to spot them and get an idea of what they are. Yesterday, I swear I saw a woodpecker, but do they even have them here? They do indeed, and a whole flock was working on the tree just down the street. I was told this by a gardener, who told me the name in Spanish, (no, I don’t remember) and I told him in their name in English. 
Lovely street away from maddening crowd
My room in my little bit of paradise is quite stuffy and hot at night, and I do wish I had a fridge. But I also can sit in here with the door open, fan blowing, and feel completely comfortable with anyone walking by. Last night at about 3am I had to open the room door and it didn’t worry me at all. It is quite refreshing outside in the in the middle on the night in November and I wish I had a little more cross circulation.
I feel like I can finally relax, maybe for the first time since arriving in the Dominican Republic. Maybe I will be able to figure out what I am doing and where I am going.

Kate






01 November 2016

Figuring Out the Skeeter Situation



Before I booked a hotel in Santo Domingo, I spent hours on the internet going through reviews of hotels on Tripadvisor and other sites. Aside from price and location, I paid close attention to room pictures. I found it odd that not one hotel seemed to have mosquito nets over their beds. I was concerned that the hospitality industry here had headed in the same direction as they had in Vietnam.
On my last trip to Vietnam, I had noticed that quite a few hotels at the beach had dispensed with fans and mosquito nets, and had instead installed air conditioning. I was told that one no longer needed to leave the windows opened so there was no need for a fan or netting. Not my idea of a beach vacation. Not my idea of living anywhere, where you couldn’t leave the windows open all night.
On my first night in Santo Domingo, I kept looking around for mosquitoes, but didn’t see a one. I really didn’t believe that The Dominican Republic was mosquito free, but that seemed to be the case. After four days I still hadn’t caught any lurking about. And then they all must have hatched. They are tiny here and, thankfully, don’t make any noise. But it is rather disconcerting to see pockets of about one hundred of the critters hanging out at the head of your bed.
For most of my life, I was never really bothered by mosquitoes. Generally, they don’t like the way I taste, and I don’t get much of a reaction if they do bite me. And I have never really used bug repellant. The idea of spraying on some DDT type chemical, that stinks to high heaven, is rather off-putting. I only started to get slightly concerned about bug bites when I went to live in Malaysia.
Dengue. I heard the tales of horror, of the months of recovery, of the permanent damage to the body, and even death. For my first three months in Kuala Lumpur, I was freaked out by the thought of that nasty disease. But what can one do? I had a mosquito net over my bed and made sure there was no standing water on my small porch. And then I just forgot about it all.
It wasn’t until I was planning my trip to the DR that I again began to think about Dengue. I still had some leftover bug repellant that I had picked up at the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens. It did not stink – actually it had a rather pleasant scent.  But I also figured it was well past its shelf life and it can only be purchased in Mexico. (….darn…why hadn’t I checked for it while I was in the Mexico City airport?) Even so, I brought it along. And when the skeeters started munching me, I started slathering it on.
Unfortunately, either Dominican mosquitoes are immune to Mexican repellant, or it really is past its shelf life.  This morning I had about thirty little red bite marks. (mostly faded by the evening.) Before I did anything else today, I dropped by the bug aisle at the supermarket. There I found a product called Repelengue, 100% natural, no toxins. They had small travel bottles, and after testing that the spray did not have a vile smell, I bought one.
 
Once home, I went about spraying myself. For a moment I thought I had made a mistake as it had a powerful scent. I pinched my nose, stood directly under the ceiling fan, and a few minutes later the odor had dissipated. I now smell like I’m wearing Eau de Citronella, which is not bad at all. Now, let’s see if it works.
It was yesterday that I realized I should not have left my fish oil pills at home. When I was trying to decide which vitamin supplements I really needed to bring, I reasoned that fish oil was not one of them. I’d just eat fish here. I had completely forgotten that taking fish oil is known to leave an odor on your skin that the skeeters hate.
But back to skeeter nets; why don’t they seem to have them here? I plan to head down to the beach town of Boca Chica soon and am again checking out hotels. Not one hotel seems to have mosquito nets over the beds. I just don’t understand this. I feel totally naked sleeping in the tropics without a fairy net billowing over me. As hot as I was last night, I tried to keep myself incased in a sheet. I can’t do that again.
Update: The new spray seemed to work. Then again, there was a huge storm so maybe that was the reason the critters were scarce.
Also, the pictures posted here are obviously not those of mosquitos. They are of the oldest cathedral in the Americas. More on that later.
Kate



29 October 2016

La Zona Colonial



Fortaleza Ozama
La Zona Colonial, the Colonial Zone, in Santo Domingo, has to be one of the most beautifully restored and maintained historical sites I have ever been to. I enjoy ruins as much as the next person, but when old structures are renovated to give one a true feel of what they once were, without completely discarding the decaying old portions, it is quite special.
Santo Domingo de Guzman, was founded in 1496 by Columbus, making it the oldest European-established city in the New World. Many of the forts and churches and houses continue to this day, despite hurricanes, aging, and constant usage. They really did know how to build back then.
Fortaleza Ozama is the fort built on the Ozama River which flows into the Caribbean not far down the way. The main building sits on a hill overlooking the river, with views down to the sea. As I traipsed up the brick stairs, I had a close look at the walls and could easily tell the old from the renovation. I would never have guessed that the Spanish used what seems to be most of the coral in the Caribbean as building blocks for their edifices. Over time, the material that once covered them has worn off. But rather than re-plastering the entire walls, the restoration workers filled in areas needed to maintain the structure and give it the look of one solid wall.
River entrance to Fort
When I entered into the fort, I was amazed at how cool and refreshing it was. It’s darn hot here, but inside it was lovely, with a gentle breeze. If they built buildings like that today, no one would ever need air conditioning. And I am sure that if the next ice age ever hit The Dominican Republic, there would be no need for heaters.
Cathedral
Today on my morning exploration route, I had decided that it was time I went inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria de la Encarnación, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. Not only did I want to see it, but it was hotter than heck at 9am, and they keep the air con blasting inside.
Regrettably, today they didn’t open until noon so instead I walked around the exterior. And that’s where I came upon the young lady in a photo shoot. I wondered if green was the new wedding white, but when I asked her auntie if I could snap a photo, she explained that it was her niece’s Quinceaner. (15th birthday.)
Quinceanera
 
 
 
 
 
Further up the road I found the Ruins of San Francisco something-or-other. Here, I generally would do a little research beyond what is in my tourist pamphlet, but I don’t have easy internet access. You’ll just have to do with ruins, old, very cool. One isn’t allowed indoors, but it looks in awfully good shape for being labeled a ruin.
Ruins of San Francisco
 
 
 
 
Next it was on to the Museo del Amber. Who knew there was amber in The Dominican Republic? When I think of amber, Bulgaria, Russia, and some other countries come to mind. Little did I know that there is a ton of it here and it comes in various hues.
The ground floor - again, in a colonial era building, housed a beautifully set up jewelry shop selling amber pieces as well as those made of larimar. I had never heard of this pastel blue stone before, which can only be found here. I skipped the ornamentation and walked up stairs to the museum. I didn’t have the mindset to really read all the information in the wonderfully curated area, but will go back. There were displays explaining the geological history of amber, where it is found in the world, the various types of amber, and even a small case with Jurassic Park references.
I was alone in the museum when a man who worked there came in and I started to ask questions. It turned out that he was the founder/owner of the museum and had worked with amber for fifty years. We had a lovely conversation about amber and education, and other topics. This is one of the reasons I adore travelling alone. One meets people that one would never meet if in a group. Or perhaps you would meet them, but you would miss out on the personal interaction.
San Francisco Ruins
From there, I went back down to the lower entrance to the fort, just off the river. A sign read Puerta de las Atarazanas. For the life of me I can’t figure out what atrazanas is. I’ll get around to looking it up later. But the tourist policeman explained that the river, at one time, did indeed run right up to this entrance that has now been replaced by a road. He told me that the building directly across the street had been the original customs house.
Everywhere I walked in the zona, there was another plaque or another statue. Just around the corner from the customs house is a statue of Salomé Ureña De Henríquez, (1850-1897), who was a pioneer in woman’s education. I was very pleased to see the statue, but why did they give her such a sad face?
By this time, I was starting to feel a little heat wiped-out. I have a tendency, when I arrive in the tropics, to just keep walking and ignore the feeling. I had been drinking enough water but I could taste the salt on my lips and knew that meant it was time to cool down. I never worry about passing out, but in the past I have ended up with a splitting headache but being stupid and not stopping. Fortunately for me, I was just around the corner from the Plaza de España, with several restaurants in view.
Statue of Salome
You didn’t need to be close to tell this row of restaurants, built in what once was a large house,(I think), were top-dollar places. But all I wanted was an iced coffee and I figured I could afford that.
Looking out on Plaza de Espana
No one was in any of the restaurants, being that it was around 11am and scorching, so I chose one, and walked to an outdoor table by the front entrance. I sat down and realized just how hot I was. Everyone is so nice here. The two waiters not only said there was no problem in ordering only a coffee, but also brought out a fan to cool me down. We talked about where I was from and what their future life plans. Another delightful conversation.
This reminds me of my seemingly confusing national identity. I find it interesting that no one ever thinks I am American when we start talking. They ask if I am French, or Italian, or Swedish, or German, or even Spanish. (not sure how someone made that mistake.) I love that I am mistaken for an International Woman of Intrigue, but don’t know why. No one in California has ever thought I was French.
After coffee, it was time to head back. Today I found a place that serves very reasonably priced meals. I got some chicken and rice and veggies to go, and dragged myself back to the hotel.
I’m now hoping that since it’s Saturday, the baseball World Series is on at a reasonable time today. In California, we always get skunked when it comes to live sports. Case in point, the Rio Olympics. They could have, and should have been broadcast live. I mean who wants to watch a tape-delay of Usain Bolt sprinting down the track? But no, they run it on New York time and we get it three hours later. Baseball, however, is a different story. An 8pm start time in the east is 5pm in California. I always wondered how anyone stayed up until midnight. Now I know. They don’t. Or at least I don’t. The DR is on EST and I really have tried to watch all of any given game, but it just gets too late.

More explorations to come
Kate

 

 

28 October 2016

The Mostly Joys and Partial Frustrations of Life on the Road


THIS IS THE TEMPORARY HOME OF Kate McVaugh’s RAMBLES

It’s the best feeling in the world to be warm 24 hours a day. The humidity means beautiful skin and curls in my hair. And the joints just don’t hurt in this climate. The Dominican Republic is everything I had dreamed of. And mostly it has been wonderful.
Before I left California, I dug out my old flip-phone, (still my favorite device), and sat down at the computer to try and figure out a way to unlock it so that I could use it in the DR. It took a while, but all the information is available online. Just to test that I really had unblocked it, I slipped in a SIM card from my Vietnam phone. I’d done it!
Jardin Botanico
Once here, it would be a simple matter of purchasing a SIM card and I’d be set. The ladies at the hotel directed me to the mobile provider Orange, whose store is just around the corner. Once my details were noted and paper signed, the very pleasant service rep inserted the SIM and turned on the phone, where it said the card was invalid. So much for my hacking abilities. No problem, he told me, just go down the block where there is a tiny shop that can fix it. So phone in hand, I walked over.
In less you have been overseas, it’s hard to explain all the tiny businesses that are set up in tiny alcoves at the front of houses. Maybe the area was once part of a garage. Or a broom closet, because that’s about the size of some of them. This particular shop had one guy sitting behind a small counter, with a few items hanging from nails on the wall. Before leaving Orange, I had the sales rep write out exactly what needed to be done. This was no time to test the Spanish skills. The fix-it guy read the message, looked at my phone, and said he couldn’t unblock it, but the guy down the street could.
The Spaniards used a whole lot of coral in construction
The next shop was larger, (although still an alcove), that extended back into the building. The owner had properly printed signs regarding warranties, services, etc. Judging from those waiting to get phones fixed, it looked like this would defiantly be the man to unblock my phone. He took my phone, read the note of what was needed, told me it would take a few minutes and cost about $7. And he did just that. I asked if he had used a code like I had found on the internet, but apparently that really won’t do it on American locked phones. He had to plug something in and do something else. And when the phone reverted to blocked status the next day, I simply went back and it is now fixed for good. I couldn’t quite understand what had happened, but it will stay unlocked now.
I do love the entrepreneurial spirit one finds in countries like the Dominican Republic. Have a skill, set up a small shop, and build your business.
Regrettably, there are always the pitfalls of travel. Usually they are only minor annoyances and I generally roll with them. But finding that my travel blog of 11 years has suddenly been deleted is not one of them.
I have gone from a complete feeling of devastation, to frustration, to anger, to just dealing with it in any way I can.
My travel stories are what I do every day. Since starting Kate McVaugh’s Rambles when I arrived in Vietnam in 2005, I cannot imagine being abroad and not writing. It makes me happy to write. Maybe it makes other people happy to read. Told that my blog no longer exists was almost the end of the world.
Zona Colonial
I have no idea why it happened, as I was able to post one article on 24 Oct. 24 hours later, the blog was gone. I have tried all the recovery options from Google, and all I get is a “We can’t verify you are you, so fill out the following form.” Alluded to form, that they keep sending me to, is not available.  
Honestly, Kate McVaugh’s two blogs are linked, my photo is the same on both, they are both linked to my Amazon Books page and Goodreads. They have the same recovery email. They have the same cell phone recovery contact, but my US phone is inoperative here. What more proof do they want? Actually, I think all their responses are automated as I have listed all the above in 5 different recovery attempts and get the same, generated reply.
The only thing to do is post these on my author’s blog. Then, when I get back to the San Francisco area, I’m jumping in the car, driving an hour and a half straight down to Mountain View, and banging on Google’s front door.
As upset as I have been, I do realize that Kate McVaugh’s Rambles are not lost. Nothing’s lost forever out there in cyber-land. But I hate that there are lots of people who will be typing in Kate's Rambles and coming up with “there is no such blog”.
Japanese Garden at the Botanical Gardens
But onwards and upwards to the next bit of frustration I will have to endure to post this on my author’s site; difficult internet connection. Both in the hotel I was in the first two days, and the one I am in now, it is hard to get connected and then stay connected. It seems that if I am not sitting within 1 or 2 feet of the modem, I can’t connect. Again, I don’t get it. Everyone’s smart phones work within a huge area. And someone else was on his laptop with no problem. I really do think it’s because that my laptop is still trying to learn Spanish – I can’t come up with another reason.

So today I am staying in and trying to sort out blog writing and internet connecting. I’ll explore somewhere else new tomorrow.   




Kate