Friday, December 27, 2013

Azamara Quest: An Unexpected Adventure in the Dominican Republic

The sky was dark and threatening when we dropped anchor at Cayo Levantado, just off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  The seas were choppy.  Watch your step! we were cautioned as we boarded the tender.  A few drops of rain spattered down.
The tender bumped and bounced across the swells.  The sky just kept getting darker.
At the little wooden pier, those of us who were going on tours were herded to one side.  At that point, the sky opened and within seconds, we were all soaked to the skin.  Even the people who had umbrellas were getting wet, it was raining so hard. It was like standing under a waterfall. Meanwhile, men in shorts and tee-shirts (also drenched) were yelling something in Spanish, and pointing at a pair of long, white open fiberglass boats that were bobbing alongside the pier.  The boats had molded plastic seats, no awnings or roofs and were rapidly filling with rainwater.
It became clear that we were meant to get in the boats, which would take us to the city of Samana.   But nobody wanted to do that.  The water was at least a foot lower than the dock, and there were no railings or anything to hang onto.  And it was pouring. Some of us decided to give up on the excursion and return to the ship.  But Xingxing and I were already as wet as we could be, and tropical cloudbursts are usually short-lived.  So -- holding Xingxing -- I leapt awkwardly into the heaving boat, counting myself very lucky not to have broken one of my elderly bones.
For a few minutes, it looked as if Xingxing and I were going to be the only intrepid travelers. But as the rain began to ease, more people struggled aboard.  Soon we had a boatload.  By the time we got underway the rain had stopped, although several inches of water were still sloshing around our ankles.  Off we went!  The boats decided it would be fun to race one another through the very choppy sea, slamming and banging against the waves, sea spray everywhere.  It was really rather an adventure, I thought.  We weren't that far off-shore.  If worst came to worst, I thought, we could probably swim for it. Xingxing didn't agree. He hates getting wet. And he swims like a stone. He huddled in my lap, looking up at me as if to ask, Are we having fun yet?
By the time we reached Samana, the sun was shining but we were wetter than we'd been when we started.  It didn't really matter.  It wasn't cold. And by the time we'd visited the tiny Whale Museum and  reached Taino Park, our clothes had dried off.
Taino Park turned out to be a life-sized recreation of the history of the Taino Indians, starting with their arrival in the Dominican Republic (they originally came from the Amazon) and showing scenes from their idyllic daily lives, up to the time of Columbus -- and then not-so-idyllic depictions of their subsequent lives under Spanish rule.  We walked from scene to scene, listening to the excellent, spoken commentary that accompanied the exhibits through individual head-sets.  It was fascinating, and extremely well done. I'm really glad I didn't miss it.
Driving back through the countryside to Samana, we were struck by the lushness of the vegetation. Bananas, sugar cane, mangos, papaya -- everywhere you looked there was something to eat.  Nobody goes hungry, our guide told us. All you have to do is reach out your hand, and there's food. The houses were small and made of cement blocks, but brightly painted.  People whizzed around on motorcycles. Everyone looked happy and healthy and well-fed.  All of the children -- we were told -- go to school. We saw some, wearing their school uniforms.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, Hispaniola.  Both were populated by the Taino Indians.  Both were colonized, Haiti by the French and the Dominican Republic by the Spanish.  When the Taino died out, both were repopulated by slaves imported from Africa.  Yet the Dominican Republic is prosperous, and Haiti is not.  I could not help but wonder how two countries -- starting from more or less the same point with more or less the same advantages and disadvantages -- could turn out to be so very different from one another.

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