The summer of 2011 we traveled for 5-6 weeks of our summer and we loved seeing people we love and new places, but this summer we intentionally decided to reduce our traveling and be home more. It was Jupiter's idea and he was right. Our home feels like a vacation home to us and we want to enjoy it. So, besides a few day trips and a weekend of camping in Cape Cod, our only big trip was to the Dominican Republic.
Jove and Miranda had never been to DR and I had ten years since Jupiter and I went there when we were dating. It was an amazing trip and I hope we can go on a regular basis. We spent part of our time with Jup's aunt Lana and uncle Victor who live in the capital, Santo Domingo. Victor runs an auto mechanic shop adjacent to their house and the house and shop are a very busy and entertaining place. Two of Jup's cousins also live there and one of their sons is Jove's age. We went to various attractions in the capital: the Botanical Garden (an amazing place), the Amber Musuem, the colonial zone (Sto. Domingo was the first city in the Americas and Columbus' son lived there for many years), the Musuem of the Dominican Man and the Malecon (beachfront boardwalk) and parks and restaurants right on the Caribbean Sea.
It was very interesting to contrast the historical lens you looked through at the Alcazar de Colon (Diego Columbus' river front fort/mansion) and the exhibits at the Musuem of the Dominican Man which try to have a critique of colonization and represent the history and culture of the of indigenous people and Africans on the island. But, DR has a long way to go to accept and celebrate its African roots. The day after we went to the museum, Jupiter and I were discussing the lack of awareness of history and identity in the country and I showed him a newspaper article where a Dominican sociologist claimed there were seven "races" in DR. Three of these racial categories had the word "Indian" in them. The day before at the museum, we learned that the entire indigenous population was gone within decades of the arrival of Europeans on the island. Sounds like denial to me...
The city is being developed quickly with a lot more stores, roads and businesses than a decade ago, but it suffers from security issues. There is a tremendous amount of petty crime. The neighborhood that Jupiter grew up in, Villas Agricolas, isn't safe, so we were only able to drive through and briefly stop to show the kids where he lived. People in Jupiter's family and some friends have been telling us for years how bad it has become and we know a lot of people that have been attacked or robbed when they go to DR. The common belief amongst Dominicans is that it is the influence of US criminality on DR and when people are deported after a sentence here, they take back a lot more sophisticated criminal behaviors. These neighborhoods have always been poor, but not dangerous. The childhood that Jupiter had roaming around free isn't possible anymore. And here is the kicker, the underpaid police force isn't going to help you, if fact, you need to avoid them too. The police are so corrupt that if you are stopped in your car, you would expect to pay some money to be allowed to go on your way. We were only stopped once the day before we came home and at this point we were so relaxed about it we were able to continue driving without bribing anyone, we confidently talked our way through it.
When we left the city to travel to Jaragua National Park in the Southwest part of the country near the Haitian border, we drove through beautiful countryside. Most of DR is either tropical lowlands (think sugar plantation), lush mountains, or beaches, but this part is a drier and cactus-filled because it is on the leeward side of the mountains. We drove through scrub desert with only a few small towns where people line the main road with tables selling mangos, green plantains and empty beer bottles filled with gasoline. We stayed at a small hotel called Pirates of the Caribbean in Paraiso (Paradise). One of the funniest moments of our vacation was when we drove to this hotel. Jup had downloaded maps of DR so we could use GPS to navigate and we knew the hotel was near the water at the end of this main street in this small fishing town. So we drive all the way down to the water and see a hotel that looks very run-down and like it is under construction; there were guys putting up the palm thatch roofs around an empty swimming pool. We are a little deflated at this point and wondering how bad it will be and so Jupiter gets out of our rental car to ask the palm thatcher guys if this is the hotel we're looking for and they direct us back a little towards a wall that has our hotel inside of it. Whew!!! we don't have to drink invisible drinks around an empty pool... The real hotel (really a large house with 4 guest rooms) was breezy and had lush gardens filled with fruit trees and singing birds and a big locked wall around it. The owners were two super-friendly ex-pats from Europe who love their job.
It was late afternoon when we arrived and we were looking for something to do before dinner and they recommended a nearby freshwater swimming hole. The Balineario los Patos (Ducks Swimming pool) was the most unexpected little excursion of our trip. We don't have any of our own pictures because we tended not take the big camera to places if we weren't sure about crime. This spot is beautiful, a very clean river empties into the sea and forms a natural swimming pool. The cold, fresh water was beautiful and felt so refreshing on a 90+ degree day. All of the tourists here were Dominicans and there were small plastic tables set up at the water's edge and you could order a drink and some food. If you waded through the river for 200 meters you got to the Caribbean Sea.
Taking a chartered bus trip (a gira) to visit a countryside spot of natural beauty is the most common form of internal tourism in DR. Tati, my mother-in-law, loved this spot and it brought back a lot of memories for her of trips she went on with Jupiter to swim in rivers in the country when he was young.
The next day we drove across a peninsula to one of the farthest west parts of DR. The land here is mainly ranchland and at various points we had to stop and wait for cattle or goats to move off the road. The poverty and harshness of life here was omnipresent. In the dry and hot (over 100 degrees F) conditions, we saw young children walking along the roads with little to no clothing. Often when we stopped the car in this part of the country, children, and sometimes adults, would beg for food or money. The DR-Haiti border is porous and a lot of people come from Haiti and squat in lands in this part of the country. Jupiter and I feel strongly that we want our kids to be aware of living conditions in the developing world and this part of the trip changed them.
The next morning we get up to drive across the peninsula; at the end of this long dirt road, there is a palm thatched restaurant at the edge of a turquoise sea. You park here and hire a small boat to take you to the Bahia de las Aguilas (bay of the eagles) which is a beach inside Jaragua National Park which is only accessible by boat. After a fifteen minute boat ride zooming by limestone cliffs, you arrive at the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. We spent the day here swimming and looking for critters. I ran down the beach and would dive in every so often to cool off. The color of the water and the heat gave this place a dream-like quality.
The next day we went to Laguna Oviedo on the eastern side of Jaragua Nat'l Park. This salt water lake is three times saltier than the ocean and is the remnant of an ancient sea that covered this whole part of the country. We visited the recently constructed ranger station and hired the biologist/park ranger and boat to take us out on the lake. The lake has 24 islands and many of them are nesting spots for birds. We saw juvenile flamingos, roseate spoonbills, great white egrets, terns, ibis and may more species. One of the cays is known for its rhinocerous iguana population. Our guide had done his thesis on the rhinocerous iguana so we learned a lot about it. We disembarked and hiked around the island. The mangrove trees were fruiting, so the kids picked the fruits and gave them to the iguanas. My mother-in-law who is not a huge fan of reptiles had to be convinced that iguanas are harmless and vegetarian. There were a lot of iguanas and you could hear them walking through the dry leaf litter before you could see them. We climbed a observation tower to look out over the lake and its islands.
The National Park participates in a sea turtle conservation program. On a beach just over a little spit of land from Laguna Oviedo, three species of sea turtles build nests. A park guard goes out every night during nesting season and when a sea turtle lays their eggs, the nest is excavated and brought back to a protected area to allow hatching under watchful eyes. The day we were there, baby leatherbacks had hatched that morning and we were able to hold them before they got released that night.
After our wild west adventure, we headed back to the city for a day and took a day trip to a country house with Jupiter's dad before heading east to a resort in the Punta Cana area. We have never stayed in a resort before and I had always assumed that I would get bored after a couple of days... but, I didn't. It was the most relaxed I have felt in a long time. We stayed at Natura Park Resort and got a great deal. We brought Jove and Miranda's cousin with us. We spent our days in the ocean, swimming and snorkeling. The resort had activities for kids and our kids made some friends for us. The kids all loved the games, classes and performances they got to participate in. The guests at the resorts were mostly from Spain, Portugal, Russia, Germany and there were a few people from the US, mostly Latinos from the New York Area. The kids continued to use Spanish at the resort because it was mostly Spanish kids that they played with. Miranda spent an entire afternoon making "albondigas" in the sand with her friend from Galicia and I asked her if she knew what albondigas are and when I told her they were meatballs, she laughed. Miranda is a staunch vegetarian who can barely handle walking through the meat section of a supermarket.
The resort had evening entertainment which included two dance performances, one was Dominican history though dance which was amazing. Since we had built in babysitting, Jupiter and I were able to go out and dance and have some alone time.
So, for our first true international trip with the kids, we are pleased that everything seemed manageable and enjoyable. We may try the mix of more adventurous travel followed by pampering again and when the kids are a little older we hope to introduce volunteering to our trips.