Dominican Republic

April, 1997

I had been invited to observe the launching of the Space Shuttle SS83, Microgravity Science Laboratory, by my friend Roger Crouch, who was one of the seven crew members of Space Shuttle Columbia. The preparation for this trip would last for days. I would spend a few days just getting to and from Kennedy Space center.. The launch would last about five minutes. But what an exciting five minutes it would be! I invited two of my friends, Joe and Ivora, from Florida to join me to make the trip even more interesting and they accepted without so much as a hesitation..

You may recall that I always look for side trips to add on to main trips, and some of the best ones take place at the last minute. What could I do in Florida? There’s always Disneyland and Epcot. But those are for good tourists. Feeling the need to maintain my reputation as the world’s worst tourist, I began to ponder other possibilities. Let’s see, what is in the area?

One of my favorite ways to plan a tour is to not plan it, but latch on to a resident and let him handle it (assuming you can find such person). This I call the Trolinger Responsibility Hand-off Maneuver (ResHaM) As it happened, my friend and business partner, Cecil Hess, is from the Dominican Republic and I had been to his daughter’s wedding a few weeks earlier. Having met several of his friends and relatives who live in DR, who naturally invited me to visit them, bells started ringing. These are the kinds of invitations that are good only while they are hot. A year later and such people would likely respond with a resounding ........”JIM WHO?” I had been thinking about visiting DR for years and even had been talked out of it last summer because of the heat. Why not add DR on as a side trip?

So with Cecil’s help, I made a plan to visit DR which would begin in Santo Domingo and end in Puerto Plato near his parents home. To further spice up the trip, one of my best friends, Lisa Hellman, was just finishing up a stint in the Peace Corps (or should I say Cuerpo de Paz?) in Salcedo, a small village in DR. After a few faxes and failed attempts I finally got a positive response from her as well.

The first side trip actually took place during an unplanned 24 hour delay of the shuttle launch that left Thursday open. We began looking for something interesting to fill the day. I had always wanted to ride an airboat, clearly, this was a good place for that. Within a half hour’s drive from our Orlando hotel, we found an airboat service who provided us excitement, beauty, nature, and terror, all in a 45 minute ride. Only then did I feel that I had earned my right to a relaxing leisure filled rest of the day beside the pool drinking beer.

After the 24 hour hold, then a twenty minute hold, the spaceship faded out of sight leaving a vapor trail and an applauding crowd with thousands of proud, tear filled eyes. I had worked on projects for NASA for over 30 years, and here the streak trailing across the sky summarized what it was really all about. It was almost surreal knowing that a friend of mine was on board that roaring, fiery blob of metal that disappeared in the Florida sky. The day would have been perfect except for an irate driver who wanted to kill me simply because I bumped him in the tight traffic leaving the lot. After fighting traffic for three hours to get back to Orlando, I felt good just having survived the Beeline Highway.

Miami is one of the airports that leaves me wondering if I really have a country of my own. I felt this strange alienation the same way before on my way to Bogota. Not only the language is different, in the Miami airport, but the culture is also different. Unfortunately so many of our immigrants insist on being hyphenated Americans rather than just Americans. What is wrong with just being an American-American? In the Miami airport, this American-American always feels in the minority.

The plane was stuffed. To make matters worse, everyone seemed to be carrying all of their baggage, I supposed because the DR airport has a reputation for loosing baggage. I never check baggage anymore for different reasons and that is usually not a problem. Seeing every man and woman getting on the plane with an armload of bags that were never meant to be carry-on bags made me realize I would have to use a maneuver known, fortunately, only to seasoned travelers (the Trolinger first available place maneuver, Trolfap). I knew the upper racks would quickly over fill requiring passengers to check baggage, so as I got on the plane, I hoisted my bag into the first empty place I saw, long before I reached my seat. By the time I reached my seat, all bins were full. Several little old ladies had the isles blocked as they struggled with huge bags, much to big for them to handle. I would not have attempted, myself, to bring on what these ladies were hauling, which should not have qualified as carryon in the first place. After about five minutes of waiting, I helped one of the ladies move her bag from the isle. She seemed unhappy with me, and since I could not understand her Spanish, which grew louder and angrier as I attempted to help her, and since I did not want to be arrested for molesting her, I left the bag in the seat and moved on.

The loading operation was a zoo what with handling all the bags, explaining to each and every old lady, over strong objections, that their baggage would have to be checked, and just to get them to sit the hell down. These were not seasoned travelers; it seemed all of them had some kind of problem. I watched one of the little old ladies, whose role in life seemed to be to be feeble and need extra attention and time to do each movement. She stood in the isle acting feeble until a flight attendant helped her sit down. After a few minutes, I’ll be damned if she didn’t get back up again and stand in the isle continuing her feeble role to block others who were attempting to find seats. I thought we’d be on the Miami tarmac forever. Just to load the people took over an hour. What a relief to hear the wheels slam into the wells.

Touching down in Santo Domingo, I found myself taking one of the least planned trips ever, and suddenly, it occurred to me that I had not even bothered to buy a travel book on DR, not that I would have read it anyway. Jesus! I suddenly realized I did not even have a map of the country or an idea of where anything is. To be sure, I was not even sure where the Dominican Republic was. More than once during the trip, I came to regret this slight oversight. But there is a certain adventure in not knowing anything about the place one is going. Relying on friends had gotten me into this predicament, but by the end of the trip I realized that it doesn’t really matter though. Reading about a place is a lot more fun AFTER you’ve seen it. In fact, after seeing something new one cannot help reading about it. Suddenly, the things one has never heard of before pop up everywhere.

Leaving the customs area, I entered a large ramp around which half the population of Santo Domingo seemed to be crowded. I hoped I would recognize Yuyo, whom I had met at the wedding. I love for someone to meet me at airports, especially foreign ones. Immediately, a young Dominican latched on to me offering his services to provide anything I needed, for a price of course. I have never figured out a tactful way to get rid of such a person. When I told him I needed no help because a friend would meet me, he then wanted to help me find the friend. Then he gave me lots of reassurance by telling me the friend may not come. He followed me and attempted several times to take over my baggage. I was like some kind of trophy as he warned off all the other hawkers who also wanted to help that I belonged to him. Yugo’s voice was like sweet music.......”Jimmy, Welcome to Santo Domingo!”

On the drive into Santo Domingo, I noted a resemblance to traffic in New Delhi, but at least there seemed to be some order to this. People obey laws; there are dividing lines; no camels or cattle in the streets. Within a few hours, I was concluding that in a pinch, I would be able to drive here, leaving another option for the next four days of my as yet unplanned stay. One of the first things we passed of interest was the Faro de Colon (Columbus’ Lighthouse), a huge architectural structure, honoring Columbus’ arrival in DR over 500 years ago. The cross shaped structure contains spotlights that create a cross in the night sky. I wondered how many people know that DR was where Columbus came first. Did you know that Columbus’ real name was Colon? Also containing a cultural museum and some of the remains of Columbus, this place is extremely controversial because the president of the country spent many millions of dollars building it while the inhabitants of DR were hungry. It is the most visited attraction in DR.

Yuyo had arranged a hotel in the center of town. After checking in, we went to a seafood restaurant where I sampled the first DR Langosta and Dominican rum. With this meal, I knew that Dominican food and I were going to be fine together. I noticed that prices in general were quite low.

We returned to Faro de Colon the next night and waited to watch the lights come on. At 20:00 hours, a single spotlight began to sweep around a circle. I was wondering what to look for, imagining that this light would finally tilt upward and project an image onto the clouds, like the Batman symbol used in Gotham City. Shortly after eight o’clock, hundreds of brilliant spot lights suddenly filled the sky with light. The lights lined the entire top of the cross-shaped building. It was an exciting moment. Any minute I expected God show up in answer to this call. It occurred to me that this president had done a good thing. Of course, he could have used to money to feed more babies, who would have then had more babies and so on. Personally, I would rather see this structural achievement that showed the countries ability and commitment to art, science, history, and tourism than to see more babies. (Don’t expect the WWT to always be politically correct)

DR is a good example of the vast array of possibilities people have available when they set priorities, when they choose what is to be considered necessary and what is to be classed as a nice but unnecessary luxury. DR has an interesting place on the tree of evolution of countries as they make such choices. Some of these choices are outright astonishing and make one wonder how people come to accept them. In India, I was astonished that many of the choices made to accommodate the over population had been found acceptable. My amazement continued to see new heights here in DR.

One obvious, simple example is the handling of the problem of trash with limited resources (limited because something else is more necessary) I am serious. Trash is a big deal, and like the numbers of people in China, it is a fascinating feature to examine in DR. Dominicans are drowning in trash. One day many years ago, someone threw a plastic cup out a car window onto a pristine, palm-lined beach and it was hardly visible against such a magnificent backdrop. Someone else followed suit with such a simple way to get rid of anything no longer having a purpose to its owner. One resource we all have is time. One can save some of that resource by discarding trash at the instant it becomes trash, choosing not to use up the resource in finding a trash can. Today, trash is knee deep along the beaches and roadways almost continuously for a hundred miles. Today, a plastic cup thrown from the car window would not be noticeable........but for a different reason. It took me some conditioning to appreciate this beauty draped in garbage.

No one seems to look for a trash can. Most of them are spilling over anyway, because handling trash here has become of secondary interest.......a luxury. What is necessary are smoke belching, unruffled motorcycles churning up and down the streets offering rides to everyone on foot for five pesos. Avoiding walking has been deemed necessary at the expense of riding through garbage, listening to the noise of hundreds of two cycle engines, and breathing smoke. Of course taxis are available, but much too expensive for the common folk. Subways would have been nice but seem out of the question now. Poor countries do some unbelievable things with high tech to transport people. I am always amazed that more people don’t get hurt.

DR is a place where one can go and experience garbage in every phase of development. One can see the local throw his candy wrapper on the ground, and one can see a twenty year old coke can laying on the beach. Last year, a local radio station attempted to clean up a strip along the beach near the old Colonial Zone of the city. They asked people to bag up trash and sit it along the road to be picked up. The plan backfired with people from every part of the city bringing their trash there hoping to find a way to get rid of it. The project became totally swamped. Within a few weeks the waterfront looked about the same as it had before the campaign.

In all fairness, however, there is much more to write about in DR than garbage. The most interesting part of town is the old Colonial District, having a history that goes back to Columbus. DR has been owned and operated by quite a number of countries, people, pirates, and dictators. The fort in the Colonial district provides testimony of wars and fears of the past. It is a shame that these islands did not become another state like Hawaii so that the U.S. would take a different kind of interest in it. The country seemed to have served as a hobby for some people and it is still being milked by half dozen countries, including the U. S. There does not seem to be much known history before Columbus, because it seems that the Spaniards largely wiped out all of the prior residents (In those days, it was a cool thing to do). The people in DR today seemed to have some confusion as to whether they should honor or dishonor Columbus, since most of the survivors today have their heritage starting with him and apparently he and his troops wiped out most of the originals. 

We picked up Lisa at the local Cuerpo de Paz office. Our Monday objective was to set out from Santo Domingo and proceed to the bay of Saman on the Northeast tip of DR where we could cross by boat while a less fortunate driver, Lisa’s friend, Rubin, would take the road around the bay and meet us on the opposite side. Our first stop along the way was a large sugar factory, where Lisa and Rubin negotiated a special tour by offering one of the guards a few pesos. They took us through every phase of sugar production and the workers inside seemed to enjoy our presence, offering us tastes of sugar in all its forms, from raw cane to syrup to crystals, which were piled in mountains on the plant floor. The plant was self contained in that the energy to run the plant came from burning the cane after the juice was removed from it. The tour was extremely interesting and the machinery was mind boggling. We passed a dozen places where a slight misstep on a syrupy staircase could have resulted in a quick death or mangling in machinery or a boiling vat of syrup. JEEZ, what the lawyers could do with a factory like this in the USA! It’s easy to see how the cost of sugar will go up fast if a safety and sanitation engineer ever gets authority in this plant.

We found out the hard way that assuming there is a road to everything in DR is a bad thing to do. Seeing a road on a map does not mean it is drivable. I was somewhat amazed to learn that no one had known that what we were originally planning was impossible. We had made several mistakes here that would be hard to mend. Upon stopping at the Park Headquarters, a small run-down house near the middle of town, we discovered that the last public ferry across the bay had gone, it was too late to begin a normal boat tour of the National Park, and that the drive to the other side of the bay would take about 8 hours.

At that point we were either aided or exploited by the locals. I am not sure which. For a sizable sum, about $150 a local man named Ernesto, who was hanging out at the park headquarters, agreed to take us by boat through the park and across the bay to Samana. After considerable discussion we accepted his offer. I began to worry when he needed some money up front to go on his motorcycle to arrange everything and to buy gas. After about 20 minutes he returned carrying a gas tank for the boat and asked us to follow him to the boat dock. I did not know whether to be relieved or worried by his return. The boat dock was a rickety structure that protruded about 100 meters into the bay. The half rotten dock had planks missing, making it somewhat difficult to carry luggage. Getting into the boat, called a “Jolla” was even more of a challenge. The fiberglass boat was quite small and had seen much better days. The bottom was patched in various places and the seats, which normally also serve as floatation devices were cracked and full of holes. By the time we were half a mile into the bay, I realized not only that we had no life preservers, but that also the boat would not float if we took on too much water.

This odyssey began to get even more shaky as we moved further into the bay where we began to crash over 6 foot waves with the boat slamming into the water, creating a spray that had us all drenched within minutes. We drove West along the coast for about five miles before turning inward to the park and to the park headquarters, which could be reached only by boat. For the next two hours we explored caves and mangrove forests along the coast. Magnificent birds and other animal life thrived everywhere around us. The caves were laden with what was advertised as petroglyphs and sculptures of pre-Columbian Indians. The sculptures were convincing but the petroglyphs appeared suspiciously new, with high contrast black on light stone walls. If I had to guess, I would say that they may be preTrujillian, if that old. The caves were beautiful, whether or not the relics were genuine. (Within weeks after returning home, a group of archeologists made a major discovery in this park, finding a lost Indian city that had once been home to over 10,000 residents. Unfortunately, Ponce de Leon and his buddies slaughtered most of them in a one day massacre)

After a few stops along the coast we headed full speed across the bay towards Semana, which lay about 17 miles East of where we were, the bay being about 10 miles wide. By the time we crashed our way to about the one third way mark over a sea that seemed even rougher and much wetter than earlier, Ernesto, standing barefoot at the front, holding to a rope as though riding a bronco, came to a new realization. Stopping the boat to an idle, he informed us that Semana was too ambitious in this little boat, even though this very boat had taken defecting Dominicans all the way to Porto Rico so they could sneak into the United States. We began to examine other options, one being to cut directly across the bay to a highway, where we could flag down a ride into Semana. This cut off about an hour of the dangerous crossing at the expense of the problem of being in the middle of nowhere, with bags and a lap top computer. I remembered the life guard’s warning on Bolsa Chica beach a few days earlier when he told us not to stray too far away from the crowded areas, since it was not safe.

Approaching the coastline provided relief from crashing onto the seat each time we passed over a wave, and knowing that we were at least within swimming distance. Ernesto promised he would not abandon us until we got a ride. Not long after we made it to the highway, we flagged down a motorcycle, whose driver agreed, for 20 pesos ($1.40), to take us into Semana, which was 15 kilometers away. At this point, Lisa and I and all our baggage joined the motorcycle driver on one bike and headed down the highway. It’s too bad I don’t have a picture of this unbelievable scene to convince even myself that it actually happened. Just before we headed off, Ernesto, to my amazement, shouted to us that if we wanted to tip him we should do it now. Incredulously, both Lisa and I pretended that we did not hear him. Not only were there no helmets, the whole thing was so shaky and off balance that within a few kilometers, the front wheel of the bike began to make a funny noise. I was about to die in pain, holding a bag on my spread out leg, when the driver pulled over, because he too was exhausted. We rearranged the bags and headed out again. This scene seemed quite normal to the Dominicans since we often saw entire families with two or three kids and a grandmother riding on a single motorcycle. I don’t know which was more terrifying, the boat ride or the motorcycle ride, but I was so exhausted by the time we pulled into Semana, that I did not even ask the price of the hotel when I found that they had rooms available.

What a wonderful relief to be back in civilization, to get dry, to know that I would live a little longer, and to feel secure. After a brief rest we took one of the local taxis, a kind of motorized rickshaw like the ones I had had enjoyed so much in India, around the town for 10 pesos and we enjoyed a fine Dominican meal. At this point we found a jeep rental office and discovered we could rent a jeep that could be used for local safari as well as for means to get to Porto Plata and the airport. The only other alternative seemed to be the public transportation system, comprising a pickup truck, loaded with people in the back end. Seeing one of these “buses” flying down the road loaded with people made me realize how much I take safety for granted. It seems that when countries like DR are availed to high technology, safety is not one of the considerations applied in choosing how to most efficiently employ it. I remembered the buses in India, packed inside and covered on top with people. The transportation directors of the two countries must be related.

The Suzuki Samari gave us a new freedom. The rental people gave us maps of the area and encouraged us to go into some places that I was truly amazed they would want their car to go. One of the several trips took us to remote Rincon Beach, which lay at the end of a 16 kilometer dirt and rock road, which looked more like a creek bed at times than a road. On the way, we passed through two or three villages, which became more and more primitive and (from my perspective) more and more beautiful as we got further from the main highway. The largest was the village of Rincon, which had a few houses, a store and a school. By the time we arrived at the bay, there was no sight of corrugated metal and cardboard. Houses were made solely of palm tree components.  We pulled the Suzuki up to the beach and had lunch under a palm tree. I had not seen water so beautiful since Kwajalein, an atoll I had visited in the Marshal Islands.

We had the beach all to ourselves. The pristine beach was so clean that Lisa and I decided to leave it perfect. We picked up all of the trash, just a few bottles and cans, along a 100 meter stretch of beach leaving it perfect for the next visitor. . I could hear God saying “Muchas Gracias” through the wind in the palms.  I really did not want to leave this beautiful place, but I also did not want to be here after dark, so we headed out. The locals had told us that a large Spanish consortium had bought the option to this entire beach and had planned a huge hotel resort and was waiting on a nearby government promised airport to bring the tourists. Although millions had been poured into the airport, the new government had ceased work, putting on hold prior plans to make this the Jewel of the Mediterranean.

When we passed through the village of Rincon, we stopped to make a few photos, which attracted the attention of a group of men sitting outside the town bar. They all wanted to say something to us, and one in particular really got interested and wanted to practice his English. He even attempted to sell us his house next to the bar for what we could figure was about $10,000, actually, not what seemed like a very good deal, considering its condition. The drive out seemed much shorter. We headed over the mountains on another rocky road for Portillo, which lay to the Northwest of Semana.

On the map, Portolla looked like a fairly large city and the car rental people had told us that we would have no problem getting a room this time of year. The road was really bad and it took us over an hour to go about 10 miles. The scenery on the way was always interesting, with beautiful jungle and even a large waterfall. In this part of the country there is no electricity, but we did delight in seeing a TV antennae mounted on a tall bamboo pole poked through the roof of a small palm wood shanty. It was about sunset when we reached Portolla, a tiny village which apparently comprised about three houses and one bread and breakfast place along the beach. We pressed on to the next town which we knew to be a little larger. We stopped along the way to admire the sunset. The beaches were almost as beautiful as Rincon, but population had taken some toll. Noone was in sight in any direction. I was not sure if this was a good sign or bad, but I felt a little more at ease when we entered the village of Las Terresses.

We stopped in the most modern looking motel to inquire for a room. To our surprise the owners spoke only German. Fortunately, my German was sufficiently adequate to get a room and food. In the little village, we were surprised again to find a French restaurant where only French was spoken. Las Terresses is a much cleaner, more beautiful town than anything we had seen on the South Coast. Except for the layer of smoke, hovering over the beach, from the forests being burned nearby, this would be a paradise.

The rest of the trip was more civilized and seemingly harder to write about after having gone through the first part. Even so, we could never tire of viewing the beautiful coastline. The inland jungles and mountainous terrain were equally beautiful. Within sight of the roadway, were banana groves with full stalks of green bananas. The fences were made from green posts that had become live trees after the fence was constructed. These living fences were a true work of art themselves. We drove along the North coast of DR stopping along the way at various beaches for lunch and rests. Clearly the North coast had not been subjected to the same kind of pollution seen by the more heavily populated South. Our final stop was Sosua by the Sea, a town that was heavily influenced by German immigrants, mostly Jewish, who had escaped Hitler’s treachery. My primary focus in Sosua was a visit to Luis and Anna Julia Hess, parents of Cecil. I had met the Hess’ many years ago, but for the first time would visit with them in their home.

The Hess home lies precisely in the middle of town on a main street, which is now lined with restaurants, night clubs, and tourist shops. I noticed some of the South American flavor here with unbelievably noisy music that for some reason people have learned to enjoy even while they have dinner. We walked over a good part of town with Don Luis fondly providing a historical perspective. He seemed to be known by everyone we met. As I shopped for souvenirs, he persuaded one of his jeweler friends to sell me some of the famous DR amber at a nice discount.

Lisa had persuaded a construction workers to peel a coconut she had picked up from the ground. Using a machete, he hacked at it with amazing dexterity, leaving a place to drink the milk and a layer from which the flesh could be peeled to eat. I was surprised by how good the milk and nut tasted. Don Luis was worried that we would not have room left for dinner. Donna Anna Julia and her housekeeper prepared a classical meal that had all of the Dominican favorites. I ate about twice as much as I should have eaten, but I wanted to try everything. I found the stories of Don Luis to be extremely interesting, stories how he as a young German man had fled Germany and started a new life in DR, how he and Anna had first met. The Germans had come to DR with virtually nothing. Trujillo, the dictator of the day was one of the few leaders in the world who would allow the Jews to enter their country. Clearly it was a smart decision. They had left a positive mark on this part of DR.

After Don Luis had been in the DR for several years, one of his friends who thought he should have a woman at his side invited him to a dance. His friend being a real match maker had someone already lined up with a guarantee that she was beautiful. When introduced to her, Louis was stunned not by how beautiful she was, but quite the contrary. Realizing that he was in somewhat a trap, he looked around the room for another lady to whom he could escape. He saw Anna Julia and it was love at first sight. Not only did she help him escape the first introduction, he married her a year later.

It was still dark when I left for the nearby Puerto Plata airport at 6 AM the next day. I lucked out and was able to bump up to first class for the entire trip home. For some reason, the traffic going in the US direction was much less confusing, or maybe I had just become more seasoned.