Our tour departed through the gates of our pastel all-inclusive resort and ventured out into the real Dominican Republic.
Our mode of transportation was an open-air diesel truck with ear-splitting brakes. Our Dominican guide didn’t speak to us the first twenty minutes of the tour. He focused on the seedy strip of road we traveled. Our eyes gathered images of buildings guarded by men with shotguns, street- kids not in school, and lottery booths. Our ears heard speed bumps (brakes) and our noses smelled exhaust fumes. The grit of the strip reluctantly delivered us to a Garden of Eden. Spacious and green. We passed coconut groves and lone mango trees. Raul, our guide, came alive and taught us how to tell a coconut tree from a Royal Palm. A coconut tree’s trunk has a relaxed curve like a child’s belly.
Our first stop was a sugar cane and tobacco farm. Everyone in our group climbed out of the truck and received a chunk of raw sugar cane to chew on. The soft woody cane released a sweet syrup as we chewed. When the syrup was all gone we were left with a wad of insoluble fiber to dispose of discreetly. Raul said they still harvest sugar cane with machetes because it provides more jobs for the locals. Hmmm. I pictured glistening, bare backed men singing in the fields. Probably slightly more romantic than the real scene.
We climbed back on the truck and drove up a hill to a tobacco shop and souvenir menagerie. Next to a tent full of painted fluorescent parrots, a buttery brown skinned gentleman introduced us to leathery brown tobacco leaves. He used a primitive wooden box to roll a cigar. Fragrances and oils were added to the tobacco to enhance the taste and smoke. Inside the dim smokeshop we ran sample cigars under our noses and discovered hints of cherry, cinnamon and chocolate.
We drove up into the Oriental Mountain range. I have never been on a rougher road. Raul called it a free mechanical massage. It felt more like a free mechanical bull ride. We drove through a stream and craters that begged to be in a Ford F150 commercial. Raul jovially introduced the truck’s open bar; a cooler with beer, Coca Cola and Mamajuana (mama-wanna). Mamajuana is the Dominican drink made from rum, sticks, leaves and honey. It’s believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Next stop was a farm owned by a woman named Maria. Maria and her five children entertain visitors on their land where vanilla, cinnamon, cacao, coffee and bananas grow. The Dominican version of an apple orchard. I wondered if visitors to the U.S. find soybeans and corn exotic. We watched as Maria wiggled her hips, sang and smashed coffee beans with a giant stone pestle. We sat on wooden benches and drank pure brewed coffee in little glass mugs as the sun winked and flirted through palm leaves. The farm workers placed ground cacao beans mixed with raw sugar in the palms of our hands. We ate the mixture in small pinches, tasting it deeply. I threw back a shot of Mamajuana. I didn’t feel any of its magical powers, but I did fall a little in love with the whole scene.
We drove back down the mountain (same road) and pulled up to a corner. Two Dominican women sat chatting in the doorway of a rundown shack. An Indian woman behind me noted how the Dominicans seem to really enjoy life. They take time to sit and talk. I nodded knowing the heavenly feeling of a good conversation. Another woman piped up, Well, I get anxious if I have too much free time. Even when I go to sleep my mind is just going and going.
Several Dominicans gathered around our truck. We were told not to give the locals money but some of the others passed out bags of airline peanuts to the children. A seventeen or eighteen year old girl with dewy black skin approached our truck carrying two semi-naked babies, one on each hip. She just stood and smiled. A flower by the side of the road. I had a feeling the tour truck was part of her daily routine. As we drove away, she walked back to her tin home. I watched as she picked up one of the toddlers by the arm.
Later in the drive, a moonfaced man ran along side our truck waving his arms above his head shouting Hola! He seemed so happy to see us, like a seven-year old chasing the ice cream truck.
Our last stop was a private beach for tour companies. From a distance it was breathtaking; aquamarine waves kissing the feet of a rocky cliff, playing coy with the sand. Up close the white sand was littered with bottle caps and beach hustlers. I spread a towel on the warm soft sand, grateful to be off the jarring truck. I watched a stray dog nose her way along the beach.
As we departed, I noticed a dirty old Kawasaki parked under a palm tree. Behind it, the pink sun dipped its toe into the light blue water. It struck me as the perfect image to capture the essence of the real Dominican Republic; unnatural grime balanced by natural beauty.
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