It took us a while to find our rhythm in the Dominican Republic. We were conditioned by the mountains and jungles of Ecuador, the space, those long hard drives, the reserve that the locals showed – a remoteness even. They just let us be.
As we travel we are always trying to get under the surface, live like locals as much as we can, pretend we’re not really tourists – even though with our European clothes and bleach blonde kids, it is hard to deny it. The DR has been open for business throughout the pandemic though and here the machinery is well oiled. There is no slipping around incognito here, fronting as an expat.
“Heya mister, you wanna go on a beach tour? Ride a donkey? Buy Cuban cigars?”
Yo amigo, Call dem kids over, you gonna take a real cute picture with my monkey…”
“I got all sorts of crazy pharmaceuticals man, cheapest price!”
Punta Cana is a vast collection of sun-baked white towers, street hustlers and overpriced seafood bars. It reminds me of Cancun and I am keen to get out quick. We have some tasks we need to do first though, so we stay a couple of nights in a low rise bed and breakfast hidden in the back streets, run by Marco, a charismatic Venezuelan émigré, and his formidable Polish wife.
When we struggle to find a cheap car to hire he makes some calls and an ancient Ford Explorer duly rolls up in the driveway half an hour later. Marco escorts me to the bank to provide security while I withdraw a thousand bucks cash to pay down the car in advance. He tells me all sorts of lurid stories on the way. Under his protection I am not held-up or mugged, I make no cash downpayment on a fictitious timeshare, the wads of dollar bills all make their way safely to the eager outstretched hand of Marco’s buddy (and I’m sure a commission made its way back to Marco too, for this is how the machinery is greased in these places). Next day we drive out of town in our new ride, with no contract, insurance or paperwork at all to weigh us down.
Cabarete was more of the kind of vibe we were used to. A messy collection of shacks and shops strung out along the highway under a tangled net of electric cable. Action and noise: Fruit sellers shouting; crowds spilling onto the road in front of Janets’ Super Market; catcalls from the girls hanging out in D’Angela’s Salon as they chew gum and eye up the bare-chested homeboys weaving motorbikes through the traffic. Plenty of dreadlocks, flashing teeth, abdominals, revving and beeping.
The beach is as colourful here as your clichéd Caribbean postcard stand. Sand, palms, sky and sea all a lurid blend of white-emerald-turquoise, with a hundred kitesurfers throwing fluorescent streaks into the mix. The forests around are wild with sudden sunny patches of grassland, full of cicadas and palmchats, wandering troupes of wild pigs.
We find our preferred surf break down at Playa Encuentro – and a sunken bowl too where we can skate in the afternoon when the wind turns onshore and the waves become mushy. There is a driftwood bar and surf shack under the palms where a lethargic Caribbean mood prevails. A collection of surfers, stoners and bare-chested sleepers drape themselves among the trees and call out to each other in lilting Carib Spanish creole. The mood in the water is more competitive here than we are used to, but neither the wave snatching, the snaking nor the occasional flare of localism can put us off.
We know that our year away is coming to an end so and our days become desperately full. Arthur and I go surfing every day at six am while the winds are still light, then we scarf a quick breakfast and cram in an hour or two of homeschool before it’s time to go to the beach, to go kitesurfing, to skate, to do a workout, to go for a walk, do a beach clean, explore some new village, watch the sunset, go for an evening run. We eat extravagant meals, Matilda bakes a cake almost every day, we read books, we listen to Afrobeat at full volume. The TV doesn’t work but we don’t care.
Our ancient hire car breaks down repeatedly (of course) and I spend afternoons traipsing around sunbaked junkyards, haggling with local mechanics, trying to source a new alternator.
Somehow by cramming as much life as we can into every day we feel that we might somehow slow the inexorable march of time, and silence the ticking clock that counts down of our last few weeks abroad. It’s raining back home they tell us, this latest lockdown is hell, you’ll have to isolate mucho longtime and they charge crazy dollar for the covid home testing kits.
“Jah Rastafarai protect I and I from de homecoming!”, I shout out as we walk home along the beach, for I now am truly feeling the Caribbean vibe. Menna tells me to quit with the stupid accent before I get myself beaten up.