She was barely noticeable in our rental car headlights as we pulled into the marina, but there she was, stumbling forward aimlessly, desperately searching for even the smallest morsel of food in the dirt in front of the guard station. Kimberly jumped out of the car and picked up the tiniest baby puppy we have seen in a long time. She could not have been more than four or five weeks old, probably ripped from her mom while still nursing.
We later found out she had been dumped on the beach a few days earlier, along with her siblings. The others didn’t make it. She was doing her best to survive despite the dangers and indifference that surrounded her. One thing was certain, she was ours until we could find her a suitable home. She immediately collapsed into deep sleep on Kimberly’s shoulder, but quickly perked up again at the smell of warm milk. It only took her a couple of days to learn that food, water, playtime and a comfy bed were the new norm. She even learned within 24 hours to pee on newspaper! Leaving our sweet Rona to live a very pampered life with Kimberly’s dad, bonus mom and their pup, Abby Normal, was very difficult for both of us, but we chose to not bring Rona with us for many reasons.
As tempting as it was to keep this little one, a lot of those reasons would still apply, so the search was on for someone who could care for her. Despite being the largest town in the Caribbean, Santo Domingo has only one animal shelter, and it was full. After several days of web searches, emails, and phone calls we finally located someone who had room to take her in. Dee runs Moringa’s Mission, a no-kill shelter, from her home. From there she works tirelessly to place Dominican animals, including dogs, cats, horses and goats, in forever homes as far away as Canada. Her property, however, is in the north part of the country. This meant a more than eight-hour road trip, but it was worth it to know little Empanada was going to be in loving hands, with lots of other animals for company. We handed her over with mixed emotions, but are well aware that this is not the last animal who will come into our pet-deprived lives needing help. Dee, and her friend Leslie, rely on donations to run their shelters. Please consider a small gift to assist them in their important work.
One of the reasons I was so excited to visit Santo Domingo is that three of my classmates from the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C. (Class of 2013) live and work there.
Despite their busy schedules – they have all moved up into very senior positions within the military or police – they made time for the four of us to get together and catch up. José and his family truly rolled out the red carpet of Dominican hospitality, and hosted us all for dinner at their house.
We spent a delightful evening reminiscing and solving the problems of the world over amazing homemade Dominican food and copious amounts of red wine. Despite the years since we last saw each other, and our different nationalities and military services, the bond of our friendship and military camaraderie is still strong.
Whether travelling cross-country or to a nearby city, driving in the Dominican Republic is a combination of exhilaration and terror. While most highways are in outstanding shape, and several even provide complimentary emergency services to motorists, it’s the other drivers that create a dangerous and adrenaline-pumping environment.
What is considered a safe distance between vehicles is measured in millimeters, and nobody slows down regardless of how close your vehicles get. At least once a day I would ask Kimberly if I was driving the wrong way down a one-way street because of the incoming traffic. I wasn’t. Cars use whichever lane is open with no regard for street direction or other vehicles. It’s like a massive multiplayer version of a Grand Theft Auto car chase. Need to turn left but you’re in the right lane? No problem. Want to stop in the right lane of a major highway to get a bite to eat? No problem. Want to merge a massive truck, but there’s a car in your way? No problem. You can do all of these things and more without even looking over your shoulder! I credit my ability to drive here for a month without getting into an accident on a mindset I developed when cycling daily in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.: assume every single other vehicle on the road is purposely trying to kill you, and act accordingly.
We found it quite strange that major thoroughfares have huge, axle-breaking, back-crushing speed bumps in the oddest places. Many were painted yellow, but some were nearly invisible, until one of us screamed “SPEED BUMP!” and I had to bring the car screeching from 100 kph to about 10 in just a few feet to avoid leaving most of the tiny undercarriage in pieces. Did I mention that we rented an economy car? This was a comically small KIA that made me wonder where to insert the wind-up key to get it going. Next time we’ll splurge on something with a bit more ground clearance.
And then there are the motorcycles! “Motos”, as they are called here, are everywhere. They are the most common transportation, and are used for everything from moving a family of five including unrestrained newborns and toddlers, to transporting livestock, to hauling mattresses and building supplies. We saw all of this, and more, with our own eyes – and our jaws dropped. They also seem to have only two speeds, idle and full throttle. Cars are no obstacles for them, just markers to get around on a racecourse as they zoom by close enough that we could read their dash instruments. About half the moto drivers have helmets, but strangely they use them more as decorative items, as almost all were being carried on arms, not worn on heads.
The best road trip we took was borne out of sheer coincidence. One of our dearest friends in the entire world, Michelle, her boyfriend, Claudio, and their families were vacationing at a resort in Punta Cana, less than three hours away by car. We could not pass up this opportunity to catch up while they were here. It didn’t take much self-convincing to decide to get a real taste of land life, and splurge on a hotel in the area. A fancy hotel. You know the type: electricity, air conditioning, wifi, rectangular beds that don’t move, showers with unlimited water, swim-up bars…the works!!!
We had an outstanding time with them and their families. When we took off sailing a year ago we expected to see friends and family that would come visit us, but to have a total chance encounter in another country with a best friend was an unexpected delight. After three days, we reluctantly said goodbye and drove back to the marina.
One of our last sightseeing tours while we still had a rental car was a requisite visit to a rum distillery. Rum is simply sugar in its most elegant form! The Barceló distillery pays homage to this elegance by being the only distillery in the Dominican Republic to utilize exclusively Dominican sugarcane, distilling only from cane juice and not byproducts, and using traditional barrel aging methods. All these conditions add expense, and reduce capacity, but the results are worth it.
The tour is a fascinating mix of education, olfactory delights, history, and pure sipping pleasure at the end. The tour guides were exceptionally knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They are a friendly combination of historian, chemist, storyteller, and bartender.
The tour ends with a tasting of Barceló’s finest and most exclusive rums, including a limited edition one that is aged ten years in American whisky oak barrels, and then finished for two additional years in French white oak barrels.
Considering that one year of barrel aging in the warm humidity of the Dominican Republic is roughly equivalent to four years in a temperate environment, these rums are extremely well-aged.
Barceló uses aging as the only method of flavor enhancement. None of their rums are spiced, colored, or otherwise altered. Just sugarcane juice, water, and a lot of time. Perfection!
After spending a month exploring the country by land as road daredevils, we were ready to free Pura Vida from the dock lines at Marina ZarPar and move again out to sea. We hoisted up Lagniappe and scrubbed a sizable layer of thick, stringy, slimy, barnacle-crusted, fishy-smelling funk from her bottom.
The next morning we awaited the arrival of the local Comandante to deliver our despacho (clearance papers to depart port). He and two others arrived as scheduled, but informed us that we could not get our despacho until the marina manager arrived and told them we were clear to depart. Confused and frustrated I asked why the delay, but they just said it was procedure and would sit there and wait. An hour later, after the marina manager gave them the green light to let us leave, the Comandante and national police representative, and an intelligence officer commenced the inspection of our boat. I was again confused as to why we needed a full inspection of every nook and cranny of Pura Vida when we were only going thirty miles down the coast to another Dominican port, and why this time-consuming inspection could not have been done while we waited an hour for the marina manager to arrive. Oh well, I guess I should not complain, since we got our paper and were on our way before 10am. We were prepared to give them a tip, which is customary when clearing a port, as we have been doing all along in the Dominican Republic; but after the surly treatment we got from the Comandante and his crew, we just played dumb and waved goodbye. The bottles of rum we bought at the Barceló factory for this purpose would have to wait for a more deserving recipient.
After a few hours of motoring – the winds were straight out of the direction we were headed – we went up the Cumayasa River! Our first river exploration by boat. This river is about a quarter mile wide at the entrance, and does not have the usual sandbar that makes many rivers tricky, if not impossible, to enter with a sailboat. About half mile up the surprisingly clear water of the Cumayasa, we anchored to drop Lagniappe and dinghy ashore to declare our arrival to the local comandancia and turn in our despacho.
The local authorities told us we could not stay anchored in the middle of the river because it was a navigable canal, and that we would likely be robbed. Both of these surprised us since there were no homes or businesses visible, and we saw absolutely no boat traffic except for a tiny rowboat. We didn’t argue. We pulled up anchor and motored as far as we could feasibly go with Pura Vida without risk of getting stuck in the thick slop at the bottom of the river. The scenery was astonishingly beautiful with huge trees growing along the banks to form forty-foot walls of green, and large birds of prey circling the tops and diving through the foliage looking for dinner.
We pulled up at a huge concrete dock with gas pumps and slips for at least ten boats. We were certain that this was a commercial marina where we could tie up for the night to avoid being in the middle of the channel and getting robbed, but the place was desolate. I walked around for about five minutes in the sprawling property before I was confronted by a polite caretaker who informed me this was a private dock and residence. We were stunned! Who has a private residence in the middle of nowhere with space for ten boats and their own fuel dock? The guard was helpful and told me we could tie up to the abandoned marina dock across the river, but after inspecting its cracking concrete pier, we decided to chance it and stay anchored in the middle of the river.
We spent an evening and night in complete quiet and calm surrounded by jungle. It was so quiet that we could hear the birds flap their wings as they flew nearby. This was the perfect antidote for the loud weekend craziness of Boca Chica (See previous blog “Marina Madness.”) One perk of anchoring within eyesight of the private dock was that there were several well-armed security guards on duty, and they made it clear that if we needed anything, all we had to do was call for them. They also came running to the shore and yelled out to us in worry when they saw flames shooting up from our boat. I had just lit the grill, and there may have been a tad too much charcoal starter. I realized that from their perspective they could not see the grill, and it must have looked like our cabin was ablaze. Nice to have vigilant guardians ready to lend a hand. In the morning, before departing, we went ashore and gave them all some cold beers to thank them for their concern and offers of assistance.
As beautiful as the Cumayasa River anchorage was, the lack of a breeze in the afternoons turned Pura Vida into a sauna and we did not want to spend another sweltering day. Before departing, we took Lagniappe a few miles upriver to explore this pristine waterway. There were no visible houses beyond our anchorage, just the occasional steps leading from the bank into the jungle. We then dinghied to the comandancia to get a new despacho clearing us to leave for our next destination, the nearby beach town and tourist hotspot of Bayahibe. This Comandante, wearing my high school alma mater’s t-shirt, no less, received a bottle of rum for his helpful, friendly ways. With Lagniappe safely hoisted back aboard, we sailed downriver back to the Caribbean Sea and were on our way.