Just a few days following Georgia and Duncan’s wedding, the rest of the family and I jetted off for our annual #ComptonsConquer family vacation – this year on a home exchange to the Dominican Republic. We knew we would desperately need to slow it wayyyyyy down and recuperate. Now at the end of our vacation, we have finally caught up on some well-earned R and R. The house we traded, Villa Las Ballenas, is situated in Las Galeras on the far eastern edge of the Samana Peninsula, a sliver of land barely attached to the rest of the DR that decided it wanted to have a go at reaching across the Atlantic for Puerto Rico. The village is charming, comprised of local agrarian Dominicans and a substantial smattering of ex-pats barely sustaining European resorts and eclectic dining in the off-season.
Las Galeras is literally the end of the road; if you drive the entirety of the peninsula highway, it just deposits you on the furthest east white sandy beach. The allure for tourists to journey this way is seasonal; much of Las Galeras, from the local hand-made cigars to the namesake of our house, revolves around the whales. From January to March, tourists are drawn here for the annual migration of humpback whales that gather in the peninsula’s protected bay to mate or give birth to their calves. Apparently, these marine mammoths keep a consistent DNA-engrained tradition of congregating in this bay; Columbus noted spotting whales here, where he first touched down in the New World, in his diary back in the 1490s.
I can only imagine what it would be like to barbeque under the gazebo at the edge of the property a few months ago, inserting a breaching humpback to the backdrop of what is already a picturesque view — a jagged, concave precipice, dropping off into a vast sea of relentlessly crashing waves.
The rest of the house is quite luxurious, too; I didn’t discover one of the bedrooms until the third day, and the living area is open-air, catching the sea’s cross-breeze. The focal point, though, is the private pool shaded by the skinny, angled palm trees native to Caribbean paradise. The setting has been conducive to Relaxation with a capital R, and the first week here would most concisely be summed up by a regimen of: sleep, eat, read, swim, sun. Repeat. I did not know I was capable of such hard-core chillaxing. 9 pm bedtimes and 10 hours of sleep?! A few days in I thought to myself, If I had to be on house arrest, this would be an agreeable place for it.
But that’s the vacation narrative. The three pups who also live on the property prove likeable pets, but they’re also guard dogs. Henri, the amiable, on-site maintenance man, may fix electrical outages and come bearing mangos, but he is also ultimately a security guard. Our house, despite its lack of standard American appliances like a microwave and TV, is mansion-like, but it’s also walled and gated. When we drive through town, I sense the separation between the protection of our new, air-conditioned rental car and the locals sitting on their front door-steps. I am an outsider – a white, rich, tourist muchacha –, and the longer I am here, the more I have become entangled in conflicting feelings of guilt and gratitude, paralysis and peace, utter frustration and cultural realization.
The Dominican Republic is still a developing country, but unlike its ultra-poor, blatantly corrupt Haitian neighbors, it has invested in and reaped the benefits of tourism. The government instituted conservation efforts to protect parks and maintain sustainable agriculture. All-inclusive resorts line its tropical beach borders, and cruise ships are beginning to make port of calls. I don’t know the actual statistics to back this up, but I would venture that the bulk of visitors stay in the comfort of their pristine resorts, or are participating in a sect of nonprofit altruism. The independent traveler is an anomaly here, and as one, I feel out-of-place and disconnected.
Gratitude and Guilt
Part of doing life with me is putting up with my go-awry adventures and unintentional antics. Comfortable as our final home exchange accommodation is, not many families could endure the Compton escapade travel style we have developed over the years, and the start of this trip is no exception.
We land in the DR in the evening, so I had booked a hotel in Boca Chica near Las Americas airport the night before. The reviews were average, but it is cheap, right on the beach, and can accommodate five adults.
I didn’t have time to begin reading the travel guide until the flight down. The only shout out the town gets in the book acknowledges the convenience of a last-ocean dip layover to the airport, as well as the in-your-face red light district and congested, ramshackle housing.
And low and behold, one of our first sights upon touchdown is an afro-haired woman walking down the littered, clay road in Daisy Dukes and six-inch stilettos. Snaggle-toothed men haggle us to pay for free parking, and we skittishly lug our bags into the under-average hotel lobby. We all seriously consider confining ourselves to the apartment room, sufficing dinner with leftover Belivta biscuits and Nature Valley bars we packed for the flight. Our grumbling stomachs cause us to at least ask for restaurant recommendations at the front desk.
“Just across the road, a delicious Dominican-Italian place – La Terraza.”
“Is it safe?” Hoffa asks loudly, overcompensating his lack of Spanish for English volume.
“Oh, yes, very safe, very nice.”
The homeless-looking loiterers we pass by to get to the restaurant 200 meters away do not look so welcoming, but the concierge is right – a half-moon reflects down into clear, calm water, lapping the serene shoreline feet away from our table as we dig in to catch-of-the-day lobster and thin-crust pizza.
The next day was equally as sketchy. Before heading three hours north to Samana, I figure a trip to the Dominican Republic would not be complete without a pit stop in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. Hoffa avidly avoids cities and was not in favor of this idea.
There’s a reason car rental agencies make you buy the highest insurance coverage; Dominicans are CRAZY drivers. Any driving law can, at most, be regarded as a suggestion. The truck and moto with a family of four in front of you will cut you off before you have the chance to signal a change of lanes. As we attempt to make it into the colonial district without a detailed map, we’re just turning down random roads and trying to get beyond the wall. At one point, we drive into traffic on a one-way street. It is terrifying, but oddly, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad of a hiccup here, because all the other driving is so chaotic anyway.
Once miraculously parked, we meet Victor on the sidewalk, who offers to be our English-speaking tour guide. He suggests a restaurant serving tipico Dominican lunch and afterward gives us a humid, informative walking tour through Santo Domingo’s 500-year Spanish history.
His pay is for the tour, but he proves most helpful guiding us out of the twisting city roads, literally driving ahead of us until we make it to the main Autopista Las Americas and free from the near-guarantee of an auto accident. Even there, we are not totally in the clear. We miss the left turn to head north, and there is no consecutive immediate exit. We have to backtrack fifteen minutes almost to the city center where we first departed to right our wrong.
We needed several days’ rest, but we haven’t stayed completely holed up in our bungalow, spurred mainly by the need for a proper supermercado in Las Terrenas, a larger tourist town about an hour and a half west. On the drive over, we pass through the village closest to El Limón, a beautiful waterfall in the area. The blanket tourist swindle of the area is to ride a horse to the cascada and splash about. Going to the waterfall had made it on my excursion bucket list, and we plan on hiking to it on the way back home.
Whether from cutthroat business boldness or a tourist ultra-draught, I know not, but I do not prepare for the countless men speeding up on motos next to our car the moment we near waterfall territory. They hail us down, waving for us to roll the window down to offer a horseback ride. Meanwhile, they are all still driving on the left-hand side of the road, creating a double-blockade down the two-lane pass. Even when we do park that afternoon, another man inevitably approaches us.
“Queremos caminar,” we tell him. He says, no problem, he will be our guide. If we pay him $25, he will cover the entrance fee, which my guidebook informs me costs the equivalent of $1 per person. I tell him this in very broken Spanglish. He says the entrance fee has doubled and that we need a guide. We ditch him.
As we venture onto the clear, wide trail, it is obvious that we so do not need a guide. When we get to the entrance gate, the fee is still $1. It infuriates Hoffa that the man outright lied to us.
And the horseback rides – Dominicans are literally walking behind the gringo-bearing horses, holding their tails. What a racket!
El Punto is another local hike listed in the Lonely Planet book, and, as it is actually common to get lost on this trail, the authors suggest hiring a local guide. I do some research, take a few map screenshots, and decide we should try to do it independently anyway.
Before we even get to the trailhead, Hoffa notices two columns barely still marking the entrance of an overgrown driveway. We follow him through, discovering a grand stone house, structurally intact, but seemingly abandoned near the end of its construction. A frog hides in the opening of a light switch, and a massive natural rock juts out of one wall, perhaps, we infer, for a waterfall within the house. We climb the steps all the way to the roof, where we earn a stunning seaside view without the effort of a hike. This is the Compton way; the wandering and discovering so uncommon to most people, even other travelers.
Of course, I make us go on the hike anyway. We continue up the gravel road another 100 meters and face the trailhead sign. My online reading warned me these directions are the only informative markers posted for the area. We are on our own from here.
“So, which way do we head from here, Jessica?”
“Uhhh, I think to the right. But I’m actually not too sure. We mainly just want to walk anyway, right?!” I paste my most reassuring smile onto my face. “If we find the lookout, great. If we don’t, we still get some exercise.”
We head off down a side trail that, 20 minutes later, has transformed from a flat, clear pathway to an angled ditch of mud. No Punto for us, but we do encounter a bonanza of mango trees along the way. We cover our heads, on guard for the mango minefield, where perfectly ripe fruit literally thuds to the ground every few seconds. A host of unused mangoes are already rotting, their juices simmering in the sun’s heat to a most unappealing rancid fermentation. I pick one from the freshly-fallen, enjoying a tangy midday snack, and we comment on how incredibly naive we feel for the handful that we purchased the day before.
Being hikers, we return the following morning for another go at the trail. There are still moments of uncertainty abut whether or not to cross this field and that barbed wire fence, but the path remains fairly obvious. This time, we make it to the Point.
I am grateful that my family prioritizes this annual trip, and that they can ride these often sketchy, big-red-question-mark itineraries out with me with a general gung-ho attitude and little complaint.
Our hometown, Mt. Pleasant, carries the nicknames of Mt. Plastic and Mt. Perfect. Its demographic is affluent and image-conscious, and when I leave its sheltered confines, I usually get weighed down with a healthy dose of privilege guilt. Being in this fancy DR house, it is no longer a matter of the abstract, often forgotten knowledge that we, and almost all our other Mt. Pleasant friends, are wealthy. Our southern style bubble has popped. The contrast in our lifestyle compared to most locals in Las Galeras is blatant and tangible, and I become hyper-aware of being a “have” among “have nots.” I do not know what to do about it here, and I feel badly for that difference.
Slowing down to the tortoise pace this vacation has allowed also usually gives way to deep thoughts, deeper anxieties, and eventual restlessness. As the chaos ceases, deeply-buried hurt and heart issues that I thought I had laid to rest bubble to the surface, and I’d much rather they not. I feel guilty that I want to be back in a normal life, because in many ways it is easier to stay busy and not acknowledge those problems. Then, remembering that I don’t have a normal life right now, I feel further guilt at being mentally over funemployment. All these revolving thoughts, while I am currently relaxing in paradise. Add a guilty cherry on top.
Paralysis & Peace
Rosa Marie and I can only go a few days without running. She gracefully strides along, gazelle-like; I, little more than a perpetual plod forward. We have a dilemma though, because we have driven around town; we’re still not so sure about safety, and our options are limited by a lack of roads. The main highway seems like the only choice, and the landlady confirms that it’s as secure as anywhere else.
Morning one, I don’t feel so safe. I’m a friendly southerner; I like to smile and wave at people, recognizing their existence. As I run along this busy street, I only feel comfortable doing that to the women, children, and the tied-up pig. I’m already on my guard from the dogs that have run toward me, barking out of their driveways. The men unapologetically give you attention you don’t want.
Cat calls and forwardness are common in most Hispanic cultures, but this, which already makes me a little uncomfortable, is further exacerbated by something new for me: hissing, the preferred method of getting lovely ladies’ attention here. Sometimes I whisper an acknowledged “Hola” in return when someone says hello, but I don’t make eye contact, and I see their stares in my periphery. The one moto driver who already has a chick in tow, blatantly decelerating and turning his head back several times, is a real winner. I know they’re probably just as entertained by the white foreigner running, an uncommon practice here, as they are by my legs, but I feel totally objectified anyway.
The music strikes a similar chord of paralysis. I hear bachata and salsa everywhere, spilling from rooftop bars and cars with the windows rolled down. I know it will be playing at the club late into the night on Saturday. I want to dance. I love dancing; I am drawn to it, and, like food, it connects people even if they don’t share the same language.
At the Texaco station a football field away from our driveway, Latino music blares all day from about 15 subs and amps that have been installed in trunks and and connected to each other. On our way to dinner, we stop by to see what the hubub is about. It is a car show, and though plenty of people are present, it is still too early for the party to get started. Hoffa being Hoffa – unashamedly vivacious and embarrassing – pulls us out of the car and starts shag dancing with Mama. Rosa Marie takes Cain’s hand. I stand there partnerless, awkwardly observing the entertained Dominicans observing us — a spectacle on the periphery of this gathering. We only make a scene for about half a song before heading back to the car and on to dinner, as if this is a normal, planned drop-by.
For me, though, that frozen-to-the-spot, left-out moment encapsulates any dancing opportunity in Latin America. I am an outsider, and I don’t feel like I have permission to step into that realm. I shy away, knowing in my own self-defeat, that I won’t dance-dive into this zesty culture.
When I booked flights back in February, I originally planned on staying a third week and connecting with some kind of nonprofit to help with mission or service work, which I figured I would sort out in the many months still ahead. Despite reaching out to several different groups, they are all ultimately busts, and week two of vacation, I become increasingly anxious (as does my mother) about the unknown of that third week, of soloing this country alone.
As good as facets of the DR are, it’s still rife with corruption, and the looming possibility of danger frightens me. That fear, combined with a general exhaustion from the long line of travel I’ve had this past half year, causes so much stress that I decide to change my flight back home to return at the same time as the rest of my family. I am disappointed at limiting the potential for a reciprocally rich experience, but when the flight is changed, I’m mainly just relieved.
Even in my lounging around the house, an element of fear has hovered over me. I thought I would crank out a lot of writing in these slow days, that the reason I had not written about all my other travels was because I had been too busy. Up to this trip, that was true, but it was also a really good excuse. If I stay away from my blog too long, I get cursed by a double-dose potion of writer’s block and doubt that I don’t know how to string the words together anymore (or, more truthfully, that I am no good at it.)
I avoided writing by plunging all-in to summer reading, hoping other authors’ words would inspire my spirit and my pen. I have plowed through some poignant high recommendations these past two weeks:
-A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
-This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
–Start with Amen by Beth Guckenburger
–When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi
–Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyl
–For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (and the rest of y’all too) by Christopher Emdin
–The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Interestingly, several of these titles carry a pervading theme of compassion for the poor and weak, something I aim to share with others but often worry that, in my selfishness, I let fall by the wayside. The main personal problem with all these books, though, is that they are so provokingly insightful, so exquisitely written, that I am further intimidated to dig back into our shared craft. I try to write the opening to a piece about Patagonia. It feels so forced. I am paralyzed from writing any more than a few paragraphs.
Fortunately, those fine books also share another braided theme of overcoming fear. In my daily devotion and reading, I have been reminded that Jesus did not give me a spirit of fear, but one of boldness – of power, love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7). I am to be light (Matthew 5:14-16), not caught up in darkness or blind to others’ burdens.
If humans really lived in kinship, knowing we belong to each other, we would not be pursuing justice and mercy, but already celebrating it (Boyl). If I lived with more chutzpah, a Hebrew word meaning audacity, gall, or utter nerve, I could speak up or speak out, I could love more people very different from me (Guckenburger).
Light, courage, peace…they are not something I can muster in myself; they flow over from trusting in Jesus and living His way. In my fear, I press into Him, and he replaces my anxiety with an other-worldly peace.
When we first arrive, we are on guard against nearly everything and everyone. We are suspicious about whether the cashier charges us an inflated price compared to the normal customers at the local colmado. Return grocery outings teach us that she does not. Even if we are mistrustful at first, the culture shock wears down; the more time we spend in Las Galeras, the more at-home I feel here. The way people live and the everyday sights grow on me, and I really do like this place. I notice the baseball field where kids practice most every day. We begin to recognize faces, and I am growing ever-fonder of the brightly-painted houses and corrugated tin roofs.
Sometimes the remedy to paralysis is time. I just needed a longer date with a Word document (you can judge its quality, but this post has certainly developed from nothing into something.) In just a week, this place begins to transition from foreign and intimidating to familiar. As that shift transpires, we have all grown more affectionate toward and comfortable in Las Galeras and the DR.
Utter Frustration and Cultural Realization
There is an integral dimension of the culture here to which I am not privy, and it is because I cannot speak Spanish. I love connecting with people – asking often silly, sometimes deep icebreaker questions, seeing what makes them tick. “Hola”s and “Bien”s only offer an acknowledgement, barely an exchange. I search for the words, and most of the time, they’re just not there; I resort to body language, or just disengage back into my white tourist world.
More than muted, I feel amputated, like I’m not whole because I cannot wholly interact with others. I just want to speak to and befriend locals other than the ones taking our meal orders and selling souvenirs. Yes, I bargained down for some larimar jewelry – a light-blue stone common here – and struck a deal on a (likely mass-produced) Haitian-style painting. No, I did not opt for a take-home bottle of Mama Juana, a potent, supposed aphrodisiac concoction of rum, wine, cinnamon, and some other native plants and spices. (I did try it, though, and it could knock anyone off their feet.)
For a moment, that connection I yearn for happens. We are lying in beach chairs at Playa Rincón, one of the most quintessentially tropical, white-sand beaches in the country.
Cain buys a palm-woven hat and, noting his decent English, my father and brother proceed to chat with Daniel, the weaver and salesman himself.
The next day as we drive along the main highway, we pass a group of guys sitting outside a ferreteria.
“Hey, that was Daniel!”
“Really?! You’re sure RoRie?”
“Yeah, he was wearing the same blue polo and everything.”
We reverse 50 meters to the group of men.
“DANIEL!! My brother! Hola!” Hoffa exclaims, pointing at the blue polo man.
When he turns his head, it is so not Daniel.
But he has been greeted with such enthusiasm that he returns it two-fold. “Hola, hola!!” All the men wave as we laugh and continue driving on.
It is a 3-second transaction, and a mistake at that, but a bridge is traversed. Stone-faced strangers become warm and welcoming.
A few days later, we boat out to the calmer waters in Cabo Cabrón so I can utilize my newly earned scuba-dive certification.The three guys helping on board are all in their late teens and early twenties, friendly and happy to have a job that allows them to snorkel and fish. Breaking from our typical house or restaurant family isolation, this is my first time spending several hours with locals. They are probably the same ones that cat-call on my runs, but here, I don’t feel threatened.
Sitting next to me on the boat, they are just nice guys earning a living. As, I suppose, are most Dominicans. Rosa Marie had a similar experience when she went to visit the housekeeper’s kids. Despite the language barrier, they played games, and she spent time soaking up a regular day in a Dominican’s life. The longer I am in Las Galeras and the more comfortable I become, the Us versus Them mentality breaks down, and I sense that I am seeing people’s lives here more accurately.
There is absolutely poverty in the Dominican Republic; there is under-education and sex trafficking and corruption, and we are not in the poor part of the country; I have not seen the worst of it. But people are providing for themselves. They don’t see themselves as poor, they are just living their lives and enjoying the community around them. Men play endless games of dominos on plastic tables. Women kill a chicken for tonight’s dinner and walk their children to school. Picked-this-morning fruit is sold at roadside stands, and people bustle about, though still running on laid-back island time, completing their own errands.
A two-week vacation cannot reveal the full picture, but there is no single narrative of life in the DR (or, indeed, of anyone’s life, anywhere). I can go on a run and it will probably be safe, but there is still a chance of danger. I can feel guilty about the wealthy lifestyle we enjoy, but everybody else is still living and finding joy. Some similarities – eating, working, playing – span cultures and history.
I am ready to go back home. But even if I cannot really engage here, and even if I have become restless and antsy to move on to the next adult chapter of my own life this fall, I am glad I have had two weeks to recharge and catch wafts of the everyday in Las Galeras. It is fun to dabble in a life that contrasts so drastically with one’s own – both the breezy, poolside tempo and that of the motorcycle-riding villager.
It is also a good reminder that the lifestyles of people here, rather than mine, are actually more closely aligned to the majority of the world. Seeing others’ lives moves me beyond the tunnel vision of my own “normal,” towing the tension between gratitude and guilt, frustration and understanding. Life, I discover again, is brokenness and beauty together.