Little Black Book...Dominican Republic
Gardens and Sweets in Puerto Plata
My first impression of the Dominican was one of color; everything seemed bright and clear; as if the air was somehow lighter there. My trip had been something of a whim, going to visit an old family friend who had been raised on the island and gone back there to live in her retirement.
She had arranged for a taxi driver she knew to meet my friend and I at the airport then show us around Puerto Plata for a few days before we met up with her and her husband in Santiago.
His name was Domingo, a tall jovial man with a quick smile and a strong handshake. He recognized us instantly and shooed us into his old SUV with a fatherly smile, one that made sense when we discovered he had four daughters of his own. Something in that open smile made me feel completely safe and I knew instinctively that we would be fast friends.
He laughed heartily as my eyes lit up more with each mile, neck craning to taking in the fields of sugar cane, bright houses and dusty streets. This was the kind of place that could steal your heart, and in that first day it hooked mine.
Later walking the streets of Puerto Plata he treated us like daughters, showering us with sweets. First, sticks of sugar cane from a young boy with a wheelbarrow of fresh stalks. We watched patiently as he peeled and chopped them with an old machete before slipping them into small red and white striped plastic bags like those of a popcorn vendor at the circus. Next came sweetened coconut milk from an eccentric vendor with an old truck piled high with fruit. Then sweet bunches of little limoncillo's, a grape like fruit with harder skin and a large pit which he showed us how to spit into passing storm drains.
Only once on our little excursions did we leave him behind, the day we took the cable car up to the botanical gardens atop Mount Isabel de Torres. We passed on a guide, instead taking our time wandering through the shady woods looking down at the port and the town.
At the top of the mountain is a replica of the Christ the redeemer statue in Rio de Janiero. It stands on the edge of the drop off, solemnly watching over Puerto Plata and her people with arms spread wide.
The rest of our days in the area were spent on Kite Beach in Cabarete, walking, swimming and laying in the sun. After days of beaches and town excursions we were sad to say goodbye to our new friend and his charming town, though as he hugged us he assured us both that he'd see us again. Then he turned to me with his beaming smile and said he definitely knew I'd be back, some people never recover from the Dominican.
I laughed and hugged him again, then stepped onto the bus. But for the next hour I thought about his funny little knowing smile. There was something different about this place. Of all the places I've been somehow, someway this one was already getting under my skin in a way that few others had.
Santiago and Constanza
Santiago, with it's fast food, hot pavement, aggressive men and Americanized shopping strips gave me back my sanity. I felt oddly relieved, as if I had escaped falling in love with a man who would never love me back, maybe it would be okay, I assured myself, maybe this wasn't my place after all.
But Octavia, with her ever expanding network had managed to make a new friend in the mountain town of Constanza. She was a Japanese farmer, one of the many Japanese immigrants who had ended up in the mountains of the Dominican, and she knew of an empty house we could rent for a few days.
Happy to leave Santiago, we piled into the van (of another fast friend she'd managed to make) and made the winding drive up into the mountains. After the first hour I put in my ear buds, drowning out the noise of Octavia's hearty laughter and drank in the view.
That's when she got me for good. As I watched the hills rise higher and higher and the patchwork fields of farms flooring every valley I felt something change. As we drove on the landscape changed again, terraced beds carved into the slopes brought back memories of Vietnam, while the mountains morphed into steeper more jagged peaks like those of the Swiss alps. How could this little island contain such diverse beauty?
The farther we drove then harder I fell. Fell harder than I ever fell for anyone, any place or anything. Somehow I knew that this was my spot, my place to rest at the end of my travels, my place to come home to when my wanderlust fades. My new friend Domingo was right, I was going to come back.