"Turn it towards me a little."
The steady island breeze was whistling over the mouths of our beer bottles as we sat in hanging lounge chairs at our favorite drink shack on the beach. It was our favorite because it had a small plastic slide and rusting helicopter see-saw thing that entertained the kids while we relaxed with our musical beverages.
"Is that better?"
"Yeah, but it's a minor third," I said, raising my bottle. "One more sip should make it a major third."
We heard a scream just behind us, which turned into a long wail. Apparently the kids' physics experiment to determine how fast a coconut could roll down a slide had gone horribly wrong, yet in doing so had proved Erin's hypothesis that if they kept doing it someone would get hurt. I had warned them that if this were the result, we wouldn't go to the hospital until Mommy and Daddy finished their drinks.
"Are you hearing this?" Erin asked without turning around.
"Yes," I said, "I'm still a little sharp. Let me take another sip."
This was our promised land, the carefree island escape Erin had dreamed of when she first conceived of taking this year off to travel.
In the Dominican Republic, we had arrived at the most beautiful beach in our last four months of beach-hopping, with gentle waves broken by a quarter-mile of coral reef just below the surface of the clear azure water. We could take two steps into the water and put our faces under with a mask on to see a dazzling array of tropical fish munching the sea grass that covered the coral. Oliver loved doing this with Erin.
Locals with snorkels floated around the reefs, picking shellfish from the sea grass or catching dinner with a spear gun. Fishermen congregated on the beach at the end of the day, their small boats tethered to palm trees with long ropes across the sand. Some hauled dragnets onto the beach bouncing with large sardines.
The white sand beach lined with tall palms stretched for miles in either direction, winding around points and into coves. One end terminated at a backdrop of a green hill with tropical vegetation spilling down to the sea, and more distant mountains beyond it. Along the horizon were four large rock formations, dubbed "Piedras Las Ballenas" for their whale-like appearance in the water. The other end of the beach made a sharp turn around a point, where an authentic-looking pirate galleon was moored just off the shore.
Behind the palms was a narrow road lined with small hotels, modest restaurants, and rental homes. There were no high-rise hotels, and not a cruise ship in sight. The road buzzed with mopeds, motorcycles, and four-wheel ATV's, the preferred modes of transportation around the town.
This buzz intensified to a frenzy on the two main roads of our town of Las Terrenas, one leading to the beach and one away from it. Even a Boston driver like me was put on edge as mopeds zipped around the car, leapt out of driveways across the road, and drove the wrong way down the sidewalks. Despite the sense of danger, the energy of the traffic gave the whole place a palpable pulse, and after a while it appeared more like a tense rhythmic dance, like the knife fight in the music video for "Beat It."
We returned our rental car after the first week, opting for less risky and much cheaper taxi service. We couldn't walk twenty feet down the road without a "motoconcho" taxi driver beeping to ask if we wanted to hop on the back of his motorcycle - all four of us. While we had seen it done (mom on the backseat with son in her lap, baby in a back carrier, and dad on the handlebars), we opted for transport in an enclosed vehicle on four wheels. The fact that the kids weren't in their carseats for a ten minute cab ride made it enough of a thrill-ride for us.
The town of Las Terrenas has a satisfying mix of tourist amenities and authenticity of the local culture. We could walk to a cafe, but to get in the door we had to step off the sidewalk around a guy sitting on a five-gallon bucket dangling two large fresh-caught shrimp from his hand. Before turning into the supermarket parking lot, we passed an open-air butcher with a side of beef hanging over the sidewalk. A tourist shop selling wood-carved tchotchkes sits across the street from a wood-carver's shop with the impressive handmade goods the tchotchkes imitate.
This authenticity unfortunately comes with some of the less desirable aspects of life in poorer Latin American countries (reminiscent of our experiences in Panama). The water is undrinkable; fruits and vegetables have to be washed with Clorox to kill parasites; flies and cockroaches may make appearances at dinners out; mosquitoes are feared to carry disease; stray animals are part of the scenery; and too much trash finds its way into the small river through town that drains to the ocean. It's difficult to go snorkeling without spotting the all-too-common plasticbagfish. Condo developments and resorts have security guards with rifles, suggesting concerns about crime, although we didn't see anything that gave us cause for concern. On the contrary, without fail, even Dominicanos with seemingly tough exteriors cracked wide smiles with one "Hola!" from Oliver and Vera.
As an under-the-radar travel destination and affordable place to retire, Las Terrenas has also become home to 5,000 French residents. This has infused the area with a bit of European flair, with palm-thatch roofed restaurants boasting the names of French chefs, boutique clothing shops, a French specialty grocer, and even an honest-to-goodness French boulangerie with sweet pastries and savory breads. Whenever I asked someone a question in broken Spanish, they would respond with a mix of Spanish, English, and French until they figured me out.
The property managers for our rental home were French, and they recommended the services of a good friend of theirs who quickly became our best friend. For the cost of a couple of nice meals out in Boston, we hired a French chef to come to our house every day for a week and cook for us and Erin's parents during their visit - appetizer, entree, and desserts, and usually enough leftovers for lunch the next day.
Each day, the tranquil afternoon air of Vera's nap time was ripped by the sudden roar of an engine that rapidly grew louder. The sound of wheels spitting gravel drew closer to us down the driveway to our house. A shadow flashed through the tropical plantings bordering our yard, then the vehicle careened around the gate into our driveway.
A tall, slender, shaven-headed man was haunched over the handlebars of a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. As it skid to a stop in a cloud of dust, he leapt from it and walked toward us with a long arm outstretched for a handshake.
"Hallo," he spoke, "I am ze Chef Guillame."
The children were mesmerized. The women swooned. The men felt vague pangs of inadequacy.
He reached into a cooler strapped to the front of the four-wheeler and pulled out a long slender fish.
"Tonight I prepare for you... Barracuda!"
"Oooh, barracuda!" we sang.
As he settled into the kitchen, Oliver and Vera sat at the bar counter on the patio and watched him work through the pass-thru opening. He described each each ingredient as he cut it and passed them slivers to snack on. Oliver told him all about his day, to which he nodded and smiled, understanding none of it. English was his third language, after learning Spanish from cartoons when he moved here from France two years ago to live the life he wanted.
After showing the barracuda's teeth to Oliver, he laid it on a large wooden cutting board, raised a blade and unhesitatingly severed it's head.
"HEAD OFF! HEAD OFF!!!" Vera shrieked with rapturous disbelief, and squealed and giggled as he surgically filleted the flesh from the skeleton.
Oliver stared quizzically, processing the stark reality that a member the delightful marine life he had snorkeled with in the ocean that morning was now being deprived of it's life, such that his own life might be sustained for just one more day.
"FISHY HEAD OFF!!!" Vera cheered.
The fact that we could justify hiring a French chef on our restrained budget is just the most outrageous example of the affordability of this place. Our house was a stunning four-bedroom, four-bath timber-framed palm-thatched villa with one of the bedrooms in a separate pool house. The dining table was on a large outdoor patio, which also had built-in couches and a bar open to the kitchen. We had a private pool in an enclosed yard that was immaculately landscaped with lush tropical plantings, thanks to the gardener / pool cleaner who came every morning. The housekeeper came Tuesdays and Fridays, with linen service on Fridays. Another guy came every day just to test the pool water. These luxury accommodations with a discounted monthly rate cost us a whopping $40 a night.
It seemed like we could find someone willing to do any service we could think of at an affordable price.
After returning the rental car, we needed a way to swap out four 5-gallon water bottles. We pulled a piece of packing tape between each pair of empty bottles to make shoulder straps. This would allow me to carry them to the taxi stand at the end of our street with the kids in tow.
A security guard in a neighboring development laughed as we passed and waved us in. He phoned a friend, and in less than ten minutes a guy came around the corner pushing a wheelbarrow with two full water bottles. He dropped off the bottles and asked for just slightly more than the cost of the water itself, although I tipped him as well.
He took back our four empty bottles, but did not return right away with two more bottles as we had discussed. Soon an intense thunderstorm set in, and I hoped he wasn't trying to get back to us in the heavy rain. A while after the storm subsided I checked in with the security guard, who called again and told me his friend was on his way back over. By the time I got back around the corner, it started raining heavily again. I chuckled at the irony and gave up on it until the next day.
Twenty minutes later I heard the roar of an engine coming down our dead-end lane. Sure enough, our water guy turned into our driveway on a motorcycle holding one water bottle on the seat behind him and another in his lap. He was thoroughly drenched. I ran out to meet him and take the bottles, with alternating exclamations of "Gracias!" and "Lo siento!" I directed him to drop the bottles in the driveway, but he insisted on carrying them up onto our porch. I humbly thanked him again and he rode off into the rain.
As I walked the kids to the beach the next morning, I waved to the security guard, then saw his friend coming around the corner towards us. I cringed, and again apologized for sending him out in the rain. He laughed it off and told me to have his security guard friend call him the next time we needed water.
It wasn't all this easy from the start, though. In our first week it seemed like we would not be able to enjoy this promised land until we suffered through our own version of the ten biblical plagues...
Up next - Part 2 - The Plagues of Las Terrenas