Dominican Republic – the heartbeat of a passionate nation!

Exotic, hot, humid, passionate, breathtaking and heart wrenching! These are only some of the adjectives that I could use to describe the right side of the island of Hispaniola, known as the Dominican Republic! It is a land of beauty and of contrasts; a place where the beats of bachata or merengue can be heard anywhere; where men play dominoes on any table they can find; where cockfights are the norm rather than the exception! A place where you can see more four wheel drives than in Toorak, and only metres away see people begging for food! Amongst the beaty and the pain, however, rises the crown jewel of this fascinating country……and that crown jewel is……the people! And this has undoubtedly made this country one of my favourite places on earth!

What is the country best known for? Cigars that rival Cuba, and Amber and Larimar; two semi-precious stones, the latter which can only be found in the Dominican Republic. Most people are surprised to find that Amber exists here, thinking that it is only from Poland and the Baltic countries.

The single thing that has had the biggest impact on both Alex and I, in this country of juxtapositions, has been the human face of the nation. Friendly, exuberant, life-loving and always smiling, despite the hardships we know so many of them must try and surpass on a daily basis. Dominicans are predominantly of Hispanic- African extraction. Africans were brought over as slaves; the Spanish “colonised”, and the rest is proverbial history. Physically they are a beautiful looking race, with their dark skin and Spanish features, often including blue or green eyes. I have looked at many of them and wondered why most of the world wants to be white….why,when you can look THIS beautiful! ( A discussion for another day).

We had an amazing time in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. The city’s Old Colonial Centre is not only the oldest in the “New World” (Carribean) and has been declared patrimonial heritage by UNESCO, but we were also privy to a free one week concert. A series of concerts, involving artists from the Carribean, Africa and the Pacific Nations, were being held in the central plaza, “Plaza Espana”, each night. It was exuberating to hear the reverberating beats of Jamaica, the melodic and spine tingling melodies from Mauritania and the blood pumping bongo beats from Burundi, amongst so many other fascinating sounds. The world suddenly felt so very small, as everybody jammed to the beats of the world! If only this could translate to how ALL human beings of all nations could treat each other.

I want to mention Santa, Johanni, Patricia and Annie. These four ladies were employed by Hotel La Danae, the place where Alex and I stayed. Four lovely ladies who always had the time to chat, and even offer us coffee. Santa had a particularly happy disposition, and was always smiling. One day she hugged me, and told me that she had never met tourists like Alex and I who were so humble and gracious. What a compliment! The reality is that it is really natural for both of us to be able to talk so easily to anyone and everyone!

We spent four wonderful days in Santo Domingo. Apart from the free concerts, there was so much to explore. We found watching how they made and rolled cigars fascinating, but often we could not stay in the shop for long, as clients happily tried out the product. After some investigating, we found out that the Dominican Republic has some top notch cigars……Cuba has the name you see! As non-smokers, neither of us are able to give you any type of evaluation!

It was fun to walk around the “Zona Colonial”, and just get lost in the tangle of cobble stone streets, and alleyways. This is where the real people live and do business. Whenever eye contact was made (which in my case, as you would know, was often), we were always greeted with a “Buenos dias” (hello) and a big smile!

Next: Our travels in the north east of the Dominican Republic.

(Photos: 1. Gate to the old city Independence Park. 2. Osama fortress. 3. Colonial Santo Domingo. 4. Traditional drummers. 5. The shop comes to your door. 6. Making cigars….)

Can I have something to eat please, I´m Hungry!

As soon as we landed in the Dominican Republic we knew we would love it. It has a totally different feel to Puerto Rico. The people are laid back, easy-going, friendly and I feel, very beautiful, both inside and out. They possess a certain joie de vive that simply has put a constant smile on my face since our arrival.

We spent our first two days just wandering around the Colonial City Centre, not going in any particular direction, and just trying to absorb some of the culture and way of life.

Yes, people are very happy and most greet you with a smile on their face, but then there has been the side that has already made me cry several times……the little old man who was selling bottles of honey, who almost fell over with ecstacy when he thought we was going to buy all the bottles he had….only to watch the look of total despair on his face, when he realised that we were not! My heart sank to my feet – what he was asking for was less than what a meal would cost us! I felt sick to the stomach as well as deeply saddened as I walked away, and I wondered why I had been blessed with such an “easy life” when others had it so hard.

On another three occasions, I have bought food and given it to people who were hungry. And NO they have not asked for money, and YES they have come straight out and asked for food because they were hungry! Yesterday, a little boy of about 8 years of age walked into a bakery where Alex and I were having a snack, and told us that he was hungry. As I looked into his tiny face and big chocolate eyes, I felt overwhelmed… could I deny him one of life´s most primal necessities! As I handed him over some bread, I asked him his name……Miguel was this little boy´s name…not a non-identity, but a little boy with a name like all of us……but a life…NOT like all of us! Before he walked away, I also gave him a key-ring – he thanked me, and smiled at me, in a way which we both understood. To think that so little can actually mean so much! That night, I went back to my hotel room, and cried both openly and silently!

On another occasion, a young man came to the window of another place where we were snacking and asked if he could have some food as he was hungry. He lifted his t-shirt to show his protruding belly, and then pointed to a small plate that he was holding, telling us that he had gotten the food from a rubbish bin. I once again found myself sick to the core, as I realised that although such a basic necessity as food should be a right, not a privelege, this is not true for all. Of course I bought him some food, and gave it to him. As he walked away, we both watched as he shoved it into his mouth with vigour, after which he threw the paper bag in the bin. As he turned around, he caught our eye, and waved and smiled in a way that we will never forget. Part of the irony was that this very person who obviously did not have some of the basic necessities in life was still able to do what I have seen so many ¨”educated” people not do, which is throw his rubbish in the bin. Food for thought!

I have felt very touched by the very real poverty I have seen here. For some it only exists on TV, but to others it is a way of life. I have no answer as to why some of us will experience it in this lifetime, whilst others will not, but I will say this:

Please be conscious of those around you, and those that are less fortunate than you. Please do not take for granted what you have. Please consider how fortunate you are, and please do not cry over all the things you could have. If you have a roof over your head, and food in your mouth it is already so much more than so many other people.

Alex has a new phrase which we are using often these days, “The more we see, the less we want!” When your eyes have been opened up to so many other people and places, it is hard to place any real importance on the new four wheel drive, designer shoes, or flashy houses in flashy neighbourhoods. When we die, we leave with what we entered with….nothing! Well, except our hearts, our souls, and our memories! Anything physical ceases to matter.

My plea to all of you, is to give as well as receive. This is the law and order of our universe which transcends race, culture and creed. Don´t look down on others who are less fortunate than you, but rather if you can take a moment out of your busy day to help them out, do so. What goes around comes around! And when you give………even if it is only a smile, you will realise that you have received a gift more valuable than gold!

Dedication: I dedicate this entry to my beautiful friend Laura Vascon, and her equally beautiful daughter Isabella. Alex and I know how much you will relate to what I have written Laura, and I can hear you saying, ” We are on the same page baby!!” We love you both and cannot wait to see you in Europe next year!

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya to…………

Puerto Rico!

As I sat on the plane I thought, “Oh my God, this is really happening, I am really going to the Carribean!” This has been another one of my many travel dream destinations for many years. And now, here I was only hours away from white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and palm trees waving in the breeze….and somewhere in there Alex and I suntanning or frolicking in the water. Besides having seen some spectacular photos over the years, the very thought of the word Carribean conjures up not only such visual images, but a certain atmosphere and attitude, and we were so very ready to experience it.

As we landed in San Juan, the capital, we were immediately overwhelmed by the heat, but more so the humidity. Nothing we couldn´t cope with, however. As we looked around we noticed that we were the only back-packers around…I lie, Alex told me that he saw one leaving. It would not take us long to realise why! Logistics, which I will go on to explain later. But we did see some of those very beaches of my dreams, and although “independent travel” was not easy, we saw some spectacular places and met some phenomenal people.

I can categorically say that I have NEVER traveled in a country where catching public transport, or even obtaining information pertaining to where to catch it, has been so very difficult. Without boring you with particulars, this is what it amounts to: Take into consideration its land mass – Puerto Rico is the most populous country on earth, with some 4 million people, and as I was told, some 2.5 million cars. So, the first obstacle is that most people do not use public transport, as they have a car, or 2, or 3 or….

The other part of the equation is that Puerto Rico is predominantly geared towards package tourists, tourists who who go to resorts and finally the Cruise Ship Set. Excluding the final category, the other two groups either have a car included in their package or hire one. Heaven forgive those of us who want to feel the culture and do it as the locals do…..after many questions, bus changes (including in places we were later told were supremely dangerous!) and long waits, we did finally reach our destination…each time feeling we had made it through another chapter of Mission Impossible!

The highlight of our 10 days in Puerto Rico was without a doubt the island of Culebra, to the east of the ” Big Island”, as it is referred to by the “Boricuas” (Puerto Ricans). Once weaving through the public transport system and arriving at Fajardo, we caught a ferry over to Culebra which took only a little over an hour. The island is quite small, some 7 miles long by 4 miles wide, and as we neared I could see those “cliches” jumping to life before me! Yes, the waters were a cross between turquoise and iridescent green, there were palms swaying on the beach, and of course the sand was a “Cocktail” golden colour.

As usual, Alex was the “Keeper of the Backpacks”, whilst I went in search of a place to sleep…… that was “bueno, bonito y barato” (comfortable, nice and cheap, as they would say in Ecuador). We found an excellent place called “Mamacita´s”, close to the city centre, which was all of only a few blocks in total. The hotel was painted in pastel colours, which really gave it that Carribean feel. Our room had a little balcony and overlooked a little lagoon. Aaaah, just as I had immagined.

People rave about Flamenco Beach, which is deemed one of the Carribean´s best, but we had the good fortune of visiting some other spots on the island that simply blew us away! On our second day on the island, we befriended a guy called Eddie Rivera. Not only did he end up showing us some secluded and breath taking beaches and places on the island, but the three of us forged a truly special friendship. Eddie touched our hearts with his generosity and beautiful soul, and if you read this Eddie, I want you to know that we will never forget you and promise to stay in touch ( Eddie, quiero que sepas que nunca vamos a olvidarnos de ti, y te prometemos de quedarnos en contacto).

Our favourite place was a beach called Zoni, which was actually far more secluded than Flamenco, due to its accessibility…..when we walked onto this beach for the first time, we were simply blown away (for the umpteenth time!)…….every possible Carribean cliche was surfacing before our very eyes…..all that I mentioned before, as well as several other islands and cays, and we could even see St Thomas (US Virgin Islands) in the distance. On several occasions we had the entire beach to ourselves – to swim in the warm waters, sunbake and crack open coconuts to both drink the milk and eat the flesh.

On the 14th of October (Happy Birthday to me!) we went to another island, called Vieques, which is a little south of Culebra. As Alex and I are always looking for a more quiet spot, rather than flocking to where all the tourists are, we decided to make our way across the island to the little town of Esperanza. Unbeknown to us, that very night, in the little hamlet of….Esperanza!….. there would be a big reggae concert happening, and after much asking, and no accommodation within coo-ee, we made our way back across the island to where we had originally landed only an hour earlier! We were almost ready to return to the mainland, but after chatting to an American couple, who told us that they had just come from Esperanza and could give us the details of a great place to stay…..we called, organized our accommodation, and went back to Esperanza!

We stayed at a place called Acacia Apartments, run by a great Puerto Rican/ American couple called Jose and Doug. Immaculately clean with excellent service, I highly recommend this place to anyone who is thinking of visiting. And the guys are just great – friendly, helpful and down to earth! I had a great birthday, and yes we did go to the reggae concert down the road. You will NEVER beleive who we saw there either……Nicholas Cage (yes, THE Nicholas Cage and his lovely wife!)….with photo to prove it!

Our highlight on Vieques, was definitely doing a “Bioluminescent Bay Tour”. This island is home to the most spectacular bioluminescent bay in the world. Look up for more information. The night trip involves a bumpety-bump bus ride to a place called Mosquito Bay, from which you board a boat and go out into an area which is full of a particular plankton that glows! Of course, it is not actually the plankton that you see glowing, but anything which moves through it! To be scientifically correct, the mysterios blue-green light is created by an organism known as dinoflagellate. Fish flash by in the dark water, and anything that moves lights up. We all got a chance to jump in the water and experience it for ourselves. It was rather freaky to be able to see our limbs moving in the water, but it was surreal and of another dimension to see sparkles running down our arms, as we lifted them out of the water and let the water run down them. I felt like I was somewhere between the world in which I live and whatever lies beyond!

In a nutshell we had some amazing experiences in Puerto Rico, and although we pushed through with the transport thing, I want to make no qualms as to how hard it was. Special thanks to Joe and his lovely wife Raquel, who were on the ferry back to the mainland with us (of course the ferry broke down…yet another story…and of course we had to be on that ferry!), and who drove us back to San Juan in their car! Now, there was an easy travel experience indeed. Puerto Rico is NOT a backpackers haven and nor is it cheap. We found it to be around 10% more expensive than the USA. Still, we had a great time!

Next destination: the Dominican Republic!

Happy Birthday Tia Mariana!

The night before we left Chicago, which as you can see has proved to be a major place of “excitement¨ for us, a group of us went out for Alex´s Aunty Mariana´s birthday. Francisco´s (her husband´s) brother Freddy and his lovely wife, Sharon own a great Mexican Restaurant.

It was our first time meeting Freddy, Sharon and their son Nicky, but all the others whom had been invited were pretty much the same crew that had been invited to the BBQ at Greg and Lorena´s (Alex´s secound cousin) the week prior.

The food was great (thanks for making me up a vegetarian version Freddy), the birtday cake yummy ( we all know how much of an aversion I have to sweets…NOT!!!!), and the company and dancing lots of fun.

Mariana´s speech was touching, and she included saying that she felt blessed that Alex and I could share this special occassion with her.

I would like to say this to you my Tia Mariana:

Thank you for making me feel so much a part of your family, and for treating me with so much love. You made me feel so at home and accepted, and please know that you hold a very special place in my heart.

Para ti Tia Mariana,en espanol:

Gracias por haber me hecho sentir tanto como parte de tu familia, y por tratarme con tanto amor. Me hiziste sentir como en mi casa y tan aceptada. Quiero que sepas que tienes un hogar especial en mi corazon.

We got to bed super late, as Alex and I had to pack as we were leaving for Puerto Rico the very next morning (October 7th)……the alarm did not go off, and we woke up late. Too many stories and not enough time to tell them all, but the condensed version is (As Alex is always telling me, ¨You CANNOT tell a condensed version Ombi!);we got up, almost passed out when we saw the time, and in an almost super human way, organised ourselves in 15 minutes……OK I did not wash my hair(the Queen of Clean!!!!), but I did manage to have a shower.

Mariana and Francisco drove us to the airport, which was fairly close by. We made it! Puerto Rico, here we come!

Six degrees of separation, of an inter-continental kind!

Well, on the day of our (or I should say my!) accident, we were on our way to see my very dear friend Lisken Sherman, whom I met some 17 yeras earlier. Not to be deterred, we ended up going out to De Kalb the next day. Alex´s cousin Nathaly kindly drove us, and needless to say,I did not offer to drive. Funny about that!

Now, did I here you ask where De Kalb is? De Kalb is a little over an hour west of Chicago, and although it is not a major city, and is set amongst farmland and sweeping corn fields, it IS the place where barbed wire was created. A nice little piece of trivia I thought. Go on, impress your friends and/ or sound intelligent by asking people if they know where barbed wire originated. It´s a great party line!

We only spent a couple of days with Lisken, and on the night we arrived we had dinner with Lisken, and Tex and Barb Sherman, at their place. First of all Tex, we were highly impressed with the Middle Eastern meal you cooked up for us. The tabouli rivalled some of the best I have tried in Australia, and we have a huge Lebanese community, so take that as a major compliment!

Tex and Barb actually lived in Australia over 50 years ago for a year, and have been back several times since, on some occasions with Lisken and her brother. Over the years that I have known her,Lisken has often talked to me about Elaine and Ken Jalland, and always spoken so very highly of them and their three “children”. I was asking Lisken about the “kids” once again, and she suggested that I chat to her parents. As many of you would know, although I struggle to add 2 plus 2 or remember a phone number, my expertise lies in remembering faces and names. Tex and Barb mentioned Mark and Guy, the Jalland boys, but nothing rang a bell. Then there was Lynne, who was now a Ceprow as she was married. Now, I was SURE that I knew that name….I excitedly asked a few questions, and within minutes I knew that we were talking about the same person.

Lynne had been one of our (Inti´s) client´s in Melbourne, and one of our favourites to boot! I jumped onto the internet, and looked up Blue Iris Accessories, Lynne´s gorgeous shop in Melbourne, and within minutes we gave her a call. Lynne sounded so surprised to hear my voice, I mean why would one of her ex-suppliers call her. She welcomed me back, and I promptly told her that we were still overseas. I asked her to guess where….and eventually told her that we were in De Kalb, Illinois. She immediately blurted out something to the tune of, “Are you with the Shermans?” With this we all had a chat to Lynne. I am not sure which one of us was more blown away, but what a truly incredible coincidence….but as I do not beleive in coincidences,I will have to say that it was truly incredible synchronicity. And Lynne, we promise to take you up on your offer, and come and have a meal with all of your family on our return, and as you so aptly put it,complete the circle!

Chicago – Action City!

You may recall that Tom and Camille kindly drove us to Chicago. Actually they drove us straight to my friend Anne Palmieri’s (nee Frazier) house, which is right in Chicago. Anne and I also worked on summer camp together back in ’89. The last time we caught up was when she visited Australia in 1997. She is now married to Scott, and they have a one and a half year old called Maggie. We spent a relaxing afternoon with Anne and Maggie, just catching up and reminiscing. When Scott came home later in the day, we all went out to a tapas bar called “Casa Iberica” in the city centre. Very impressive! Great atmosphere, and excellent food. From what I recall of Spain, way back in the early 90’s, the food tasted pretty authentic.

Back at Anne’s place we were later picked up by Alex’s Auntie Mariana (his dad’s sister) and her husband, Francisco. What a reception…Mariana flew up to Alex and gave him a big hug. Alex had not seen his auntie and uncle in 7 years, which is when they moved from Ecuador to Chicago. I arrived in Ecuador just after they left, so this was my first time meeting them.
As we drove outto their place, there was a lot of chatting and catching up. I feel like I have known Mariana all my life. Alex’s mum told me that we would get along like a house on fire, and we did, it was instantaneous!

We met Nathaly, Alex’s cousin, and her two children Andres (2) and Emily(1). We would meet her husband, Jesus, the next day. The next day we would also meet Nathaly’s sister, Michell, and her husband, Julio. That same night I also met Franklin, for the first time, another one of Alex’s uncles who has lived here for 6 years, his wife Fanny and children David and Gustavo. It was great to be able to see Alex connect with his family, and in my case, be able to meet them for the first time.

The next morning, Alex and I went for a walk. I am still running and walking to keep fit, and Alex sometimes joins me. We had not been back for 2 minutes, when Nathaly came out of the house telling us that Emily had fallen out of her high chair and hit her head. Within minutes, we were all in the car, driving to the closest hospital’s emergency facility. It all ended up working out well, but as you know, these things take time. Little Emily had to have an MRI/ cat scan, but it showed that all was well. You have to see the funny side – two foreigners in sweaty shorts and tops, hanging around a hospital.

It could get worse…and it appears that it did! One day inside a hospital…and another inside a police station; and I was driven there in a police car! We were on our way to visit Lisken, another friend from the USA that I have known for 17 years (more about that later). Alex’s auntie had lent us her car, and we had only just left the house. After picking up a shot of caffeine (USA size…and that’s BIG!!!) at “Dunkin’ Donuts” (don’t you love the names here!), we were about to leave the car park, when I edged out a bit too far, and was hit by an on-coming car! You HAD to be joking! Not to me! This was not supposed to happen, and especially whilst I was borrowing Alex’s auntie’s car.

Without going into too much detail, the other party called the police, as they do here when an accident takes place, and they were at the scene within minutes. When I showed Officer Bobby Smith my licence, he looked at it a little puzzled. Where was my International Driver’s License? Back at Mariana’s house of course! Officer Smith wasn’t even sure if my licence was legal, although I knew it was as I had checked previously. He had to do his job however, and I went back to the police station to fill in a report whilst Alex and his uncle went home to try and find my International Driver’s Licence, as well as try and print some information pertaining to an Australian licence being legal in the USA.

Officer Smith was exceptionally kind to me, and he must have seen my jaw drop, when he mentioneed that had I been a local, or living here, I would have had to have gone to court over this! Not to mention pay a fine! I was not even game to ask how much! Once I had filled in the paperwork, I was free to go, and Alex and Francisco picked me up….but not before Alex asked Officer Smith, “Can I please have a photo of my wife and you standing next to your car. We have to put this on our blog!” Yes, Officer Smith obliged, and you are able to see the photo!

Alex and I have had enough of big cities, and roof top views, so we have not really gone into the city centre. Chicago has really been about relaxing with family and friends, but somehow, some type of adventure never seems too far away!

Next blog entry: our time with Lisken, and Mariana’s birthday!


(Images: 1. Annie Scott, Maggie. Ombi & Alex. 2. Alex, Ombi, Natali, Mariana. Kids Amily & Andres at Navy Pier Chicago. 3. Family and Friends BBQ. 4. Natali. 5. Franklin, Fanny, David, Gustavo & Alex. 6.Car after the “Dunkin’ Donuts” coffe 7. Ombi & Officer Smith. 8. Lake Michigan.)