Since starting my pretty much full-time travels in September 2012, I have sometimes fallen behind a bit on my stories. But never did I go totally silent for months like I recently did. Although I wrote about all my adventures on the road, I have rarely babbled about my personal life. But since many people have asked me what was going on, I will make an exception. Here’s what I have been up to in the last couple of months.
First some good news. Just a few weeks after retiring, my mother seized an opportunity and bought a long operating store. Although well established, the store was in terrible condition and the most advanced technology in it was a lightbulb. To give her a hand, I flew straight to Montreal from Puerto Rico and spent a few weeks with her giving the place a new look and hopefully a new life. So far, things are looking great.
After resting for a while, I travelled to a small village near Quebec City, to spend some time with my father. Although himself an avid and very active traveller in his late seventies, he had not left Canada since returning from Europe, at least 6 months prior. I was shocked to see how much he had aged in the months since I had last seen him. Back at my home base of Ottawa, I faced the worst month of the year, April, when Canadians must file income tax returns. Again I never discussed this before, but I have a little business in Canada which in great part allows me the freedom to travel, but which generates somewhat complicated tax returns, especially when I am away most of the year and loose track of things.
Then on a quiet Saturday morning, I was informed that my father had taken a sudden turn for the worst. I got there in the afternoon (a 5 hour drive), and after discussing it with his wife, told him he should go to the emergency room, because it might not be a good idea to wait until Monday to see a doctor. Hospital staff calmly dealt with the situation, made sure he was comfortable and ordered some blood tests. Then they got the test results and all Hell broke loose. Transferred in the middle of the night to a university hospital in Quebec City, he died the next day.
I relate the circumstances because in a way they are the one good news in the tragedy. He enjoyed a nice, travel-filled retirement in the house he loved, with his amazingly caring wife, was weakened for about 6 months and only had a really bad quality of life for a few weeks. I take some comfort in the fact he didn’t go down the long, painful route of never-ending decline I saw other relatives go down.
So, this left me busy with estate matters and zero desire to write about travels. But now I catch up: first more Dominican Republic, and then some other Caribbean adventures.
In my last story, I wrote about the rich colonial history you can discover in the DR if you venture outside the resorts. Another thing you can discover is the wonderful natural attractions. Several are off the beaten path, and I decided to rent a car for the week. This proved to be a mistake. The major sites and cities can be reached by comfortable public transportation and driving in the DR is so incredibly painful, slow, dangerous and unpleasant that I ended up loosing the motivation to visit many of the small places I had planned to go to. To back-up my claim; according to 2010 World Health Organization data, every year 6 Canadian out of 100,000 die on the roads. The world average is 18, and the DR is the second worst on the planet at 41.7, behind only Eritrea.
One place you can’t miss is Los Haitise National Park, close to the north-western tip of the country, far from the resorts. Because of the geography, you must visit on an organized boat tour, usually departing from Las Terrenas, a former fishing village now full of European expats and transforming rapidly the way places like Tulum or Playa del Carmen did in Mexico’s Yucatan region.
The place is sometimes compared to Vietnam’s Halong Bay, due to the similarity of the karst geology. The park is now a great bird sanctuary.
The birds have even taken over the few remnants of commerce and industry, which used to exist before the area became protected in the mid 70’s.
Judging from the pictures I saw online, the mangrove forests of the park are incredibly photogenic. Unfortunately, the guided tours get you there at the worst possible time, with the strong glare of the mid day sun and the rocky boat making photography difficult.
Channels are cut and maintained for boat traffic, as it is difficult to imagine a more awkward place for humans to move around in.
This guy has no problem getting around.
One of the most spectacular species found here is the “magnificent frigatebird”. I was lucky to visit during the mating season, when males inflate their gular sacs to attract females.
Females totally dig this and promptly follow them to the nearest tree motel.
And 30 seconds later the males leave a fake phone number and fly away.
The park also has some nice caves to explore.
Ancient carvings can be found. I am not an expert, but as far as I know the native population of Hispaniola became extinct in the 16th Century (mainly from smallpox), so that would make the carvings at least 400 years old. I use the word “extinct”, but although they disappeared as a culture, recent genetic studies show that a minority of Dominicans have Taíno female ancestors. Not sure how much say these women had in the deal.
If you ever visit, I would recommend going with the small local tour companies. The boats won’t be as comfortable, but you will get to see more of the country and have more impact on the local economy. We had lunch in a small hotel and restaurant where the owners diverted a small creek so that it would flow through the hotel grounds, falling down a series of artificial waterfalls and pools you can swim in. Quite spectacular and this pictures shows barely half of it.
Although not as important as tourism, agriculture and animal husbandry remain big parts of the economy, and this is what much of the country looks like outside the resorts and cities.
And finally, probably the most unique adventure tourism activity in the country, the Damajaqua Waterfalls, better known as 27 Waterfalls or 27 Charcos. Basically, you walk up a nice path with a local guide and along the way back, you cross the river multiple times and either jump in water pools or slide down the falls, erosion having rendered the rocks quite smooth. You don’t have to do all 27 and there is always a way around if you are not keen on doing the higher jumps.
The one thing to know is that most organized tours leave from Puerto Plata and charge about $100. If you drive there, you will pay the entrance and guide fee of 350 Pesos, which is about $8. Additionally, if you chose to tip your guide, he will get the money, whereas the tour agencies collect the tips when they return you to the resorts, promising to share it among the drivers and park guides. Guides assured me they very seldom see any of that money. So even if you are alone, it is worth renting a car for the day, especially since you can arrive early and avoid the buses of tour groups. You can also get there by public transportation, but research this well before heading out.
My guide was a fascinating guy and I learned a lot about the country. Here’s an interesting anecdote. We were discussing landslides, as the geography of the area causes them frequently. I asked him if they killed people. He said that this only happened in Haiti, where poor people build ramshackle houses on the hills. In the DR, poor people build houses on a different kind of undesirable land: on or very near riverbeds. Inevitably, the houses are regularly flooded and sometimes washed away, but people rarely get hurt, as they escape to higher ground when the water level rises. He then went on to say that the government had built houses for these people in much safer areas and either given them away or sold them under very favorable terms. The result? Many of them, used to the hardships of living by the river but gripped by poverty, preferred to sell their new houses and move back where they came from, now with a huge windfall of cash to spend on other things. I didn’t verify his story, but if true, it shows how difficult it can be to help people if you don’t really understand what they want.
A one minute video of me being silly in the falls. A few days later, I flew to meet my girlfriend in Puerto Rico. Next? Barbados.