We woke up this morning - our last day in the Dominican Republic - and decided we'd spent rather too long sitting by pools in all-inclusive hotels. We still had the Dominican Pesos that Brother Edward gave me for Christmas, and decided it was time to spend them on something special.
Our hotel runs a service called the "Dominican Safari", which gives more adventurous tourists an opportunity to take a trip into the "real" country. I think the tour had already left by the time we reached the lobby, but the man there explained that we could, if we wanted, commission a private tour. So that's what we did, and we had an extraordinary time.
It turns out that the Dominican Republic is a fairly astonishing place, particularly when seen through the eyes of Odalis, our personal tour guide for the day.
Odalis does these sorts of tours on a daily basis, which means we'd periodically find ourselves walking into a shop which was run by a mate of his, who'd do the hard sell on some kind of ghastly souvenir, but that's all part of the deal, I suspect. Did we want a bottle of Mamajuana bark? No. Did we buy one for fifteen dollars? Sadly, yes!
But blimey, it was worth it for the exhausting, exhilarating, extreme riot of colour that today became.
As we pulled out of our hotel, we found ourselves following an open-backed truck which was precariously piled high with everything you'd associate with a house move. Wicker furniture, mattresses, even a little potted plant. On the top of the mound, a young lad was trying to keep everything balanced. "Only in the Dominican Republic" said our guide, and we instantly began to understand why...
This place seems to be suspended in the 1950s. Shop signs are hand-painted and little men sit on the edge of rural villages with plastic bottles filled with gasoline. At one point we passed a man on a horse overseeing the resurfacing of a road, and a steam roller going through a car wash!
Our first port of call was a delightful village called Macao, which was situated in the middle of banana plantations, and a series of green pastures on dark red soil, which could almost have been the meadows around Cambridge, but for the odd palm tree! The pastures were the home of an assortment of livestock from horses and donkeys to a strange part-cow-part-buffalo creature which seemed to co-exist quite happily with a white bird with a long beak.
Macao has its own beach, and that's where the Dominican people go to eat fish al fresco and surf. The whole place smelt of wood smoke and a patchouli-like flower. It was a heavy, breathtakingly beautiful aroma, which immediately made me want to drop everything and simply be. "Dominican people are always happy", said Odalis. With beaches like this, it's hardly surprising.
We got back into the car and drifted up into the mountains through a series of ever-larger towns, all of which were one street wide, which, by the time we'd reached a place called Veron, became almost nonsensical. The main street in Veron is more than six kilometres long!
All of the towns we passed through looked fairly similar. The insides of shops tumble out onto the main roads. Piles of pineapples, limes and coconuts, raw meat hanging on washing lines. All houses and shops are a single-storey high, and all are painted in bright colours; blues and yellows with red roofs, or, for the more rural properties, dusty shades of green and pink. In one village we passed a giant Christmas Tree made out of beer bottles. "Why on earth is that still up?" I asked. "Well, they've not yet taken them down from Oxford Street," replied Nathan, sagely, "it's the hot weather which makes it seem so out of place." And he was right.
People buy water in these parts. There are no pipes, believe it or not, so a common sight in the villages is a giant water truck, stationed by the side of a building.
We went off the beaten track into an intensely rural area, where grander Catholic Churches are replaced by little tin shacks where the evangelists on the island go to worship. Here, enormous pink flowers line the roads and scores of insanely bright butterflies dart through the air.
Odalis took us to the house of one of his "friends", a family of small holders, who make honey, vanilla extract, coffee and chocolate. They welcomed us into their gloriously cool, shade-filled home, and gave us a little tour. It was like something from the Grapes of Wrath, with a modern fridge. The sort of thing you'd see in a film about the Deep South of America.
Their garden was stunning; filled with the most beautiful flowers with hummingbirds flitting all over the place. The air was rich with the aroma of coffee and chocolate. It was, in all honesty, a paradise. Plainly, a paradise which is fuelled by the pennies of tourists who turn up from time to time and buy, at wildly inflated prices, the little pots of produce which the family produces, but somehow, to me, this doesn't matter.
We continued further into the mountains, past a little school, where kids were posting their satchels through the windows.
Odalis gave us a lesson in the difference between the three types of dance music they have in the DR. Salsa, Merengue, and something I'd not heard of, which is called something like Bartiada or Barcharga.
Up in the mountains, we pulled up beside a Creole man who was selling coconuts on a truck. Odalis encouraged the man to chop one open, and poured the milk into a cup. It's the first coconut milk I've ever had, and I didn't like it at all. It was slightly fizzy and tasted rather bland. Neither of us were much impressed by the nasty fleshy stuff inside either, but we ate it like the polite boys we both are!
We learned at this moment that the Haitians, with whom the Dominicans share an island, are considered to be a something of a sub-class. They are dark-skinned by comparison and most of them are apparently refugees. If they're walking down a street wheeling a barrow filled with fruit, or begging in the town square, you expect them to be Haitian, apparently.
Our final destination was the curiously named Cuidad de Higuey, or (appropriately) White City. A sprawling 250,000 resident city in the mountains, which was beyond description. Definitely a million worlds away from the White City I was working in this time last year.
Odalis took us first to the market, pouncing upon a Haitian with a wheelbarrow filled with black sugar cane, and insisting we were given pieces to chew. The poor bloke, who didn't speak a word of Spanish, duly cut us off a few morsels and Odalis instructed us to chew only, then to spit it out. It was a remarkable sensation. A little like chewing a lump of candied rhubarb, or a sugar cube soaked in tea. You could almost crunch the sugar crystals inside. It was absolutely divine.
The market itself was insane. Behind every stall, another careworn, remarkable face peered out. Wild dogs and skinny, feral cats wondered everywhere. Honey and preserves were sold in whatever bottles and jars the stall holders could get their hands on, chickens and rabbits sat in tiny cages, huge pigs heads covered in flies lined the walk ways, piles of offal were strewn across the floors, the stench of death was everywhere, mini-warehouses were filled with second hand clothes from the USA, whilst next door, a shop filled with men sitting at sewing machines customised the second hand clothes.
A shambolic 500 year-old Catholic Church in the middle of the mayhem was filled with men on their knees praying and women on plastic chairs softly reading the bible to themselves, broken windows plugged up with pieces of broken concrete...
As you can probably tell, my mind is still trying to filter through the riot of colours, shapes and smells I experienced today, and as I'm about to board my flight home, it's probably best I try to post this before a day goes past without a blog, but suffice to say, today was the day I wanted in the Dominican Republic, and I owe it all to my brother. Without his pesos, we'd never have been able to afford the excursion, or had the currency with which to pay for it.