"I see you have your 'Dominican tattoo,' " Joerg said. He gestured toward my right leg, which bore a dark burn. It was a painful memory of...
SABANETA DE YÁSICA, Dominican Republic “I see you have your ‘Dominican tattoo,’ ” Joerg said. He gestured toward my right leg, which bore a dark burn.
It was a painful memory of what otherwise had been a delightful day trip to the Dominican Republic’s El Choco Protected Area, a huge natural reserve along the north shore of the Caribbean nation. Many Dominicans and many a foreigner have had such burns from riding on the backs of motorcycles, the omnipresent motoconchos, one of the chief forms of transportation on the island. Angle a leg slightly in the wrong direction, or lean the wrong way as the skillful drivers weave in and out of traffic, and ouch! You’ve got yourself a Dominican tattoo.
Mine had come courtesy of a young driver named Santos. We had met in Sabaneta de Yásica, a small town on the north shore of the Republic. Worn out from seven days of surfing and windsurfing in Cabarete, a world-renowned hot spot for boardsports, I had decided to take a day off and do some sightseeing. Joerg, a German expatriot and local windsurfing pro, had suggested a ride through El Choco.
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I had taken a guagua from Cabarete for a half-hour ride to Sabaneta de Yásica. Named for the guaguagua sound made by horns as drivers try to catch the attention of would-be passengers, guaguas are minivans that circumnavigate the country and are the other major form of transportation in the DR.
In Sabaneta, I asked if there was a guagua to El Choco, which I’d been told was a few miles away up in the hills. There was none. Apparently “la calle,” the road, was not suitable for minivans.
That’s when Santos pulled up on his motorbike.
He wore a baseball cap and was wiry and diminutive. Perfect. We would be riding double on a dirt road through the forest, and I figured I wouldn’t want the two of us to weigh down his tiny motorbike too much.
“Cuarenta pesos,” he said, when I asked him how much. Forty pesos, about $1.75. Fair enough, I thought.
We began our journey, and after a few minutes, I got my Dominican tattoo. Something had popped on his exhaust pipe, and when he stopped to take a look, he leaned left and I leaned right and that was that.
Burn attained and muffler fixed, we resumed the trip and began to ride and ride and ride. We climbed steadily up into the mountains. It was a beautiful trip, through verdant pasture lands and small villages. But I began to realize that I would be with Santos for the duration of the trip, coming and going. There was virtually no traffic in the opposite direction. I had thought that maybe I could spend some time at the park and return with another motoconcho. No chance.
In Santos’ hands
Santos’ few words of English and my few words of Spanish worked passably well. Is this El Choco? No, not yet, further on, he said. What are the farmers here growing? Mangos, oranges.
We came to a crossroads, where a boy was perched on top of a horse, a young girl standing nearby. Two large canisters hung from the horse. What a picture, I thought. “Momento, photograph?” I said to Santos. He obligingly stopped. I saw a man, probably the boy’s father, sitting nearby. I wasn’t sure if taking a photo would be all right, so I looked at Santos. “Photograph, no problema?” I said.
“No problema, OK,” he said cheerfully. He went over to chat with the man, who pointed to a hose that was pouring water into the canisters on the horse. He mentioned something about “el rio,” a river. We’d apparently stopped at a local watering hole.
Indeed, this watering hole, as others have since early times, served as a gathering spot for the local farming community. Around the corner was a three-room school, the uniformed children playing baseball in nearby field. They were using their arms for bats.
By this time I understood that Santos, to the best of his ability, would be my personal tour guide. Every so often an open-bedded truck would roll by. “Tourist,” Santos said, as we went by. I could see a large group of tourists, hanging on for dear life as the truck bounced down the road. By this time, I was riding comfortably on the back of Santos’ bike without using my hands.
Santos took pains to point out how farmers constructed their homes from the top portions of palm trees, and he explained that oranges not good for eating were used primarily for juice.
He told me about the tourists from different nations he’d carried on the back of his motorcycle “Mexico, Germany, Guatemala, Minnesota.”
And all the while, lovely El Choco began to unfold in front of us. Bordered by the foothills of the Cordillera Septentrional to the south and the Cabarete Lagoon to the north, the 48-square-mile park contains pasture land, lagoons, jungles and caves. El Choco is one of dozens of natural reserves and parks set aside by the Dominican government nearly one-quarter of the country. While hikers and climbers are drawn to Pico Duarte, at 10,400 feet the highest point in the Caribbean, beachcombers and watersports enthusiasts think they’ve found paradise in miles of pristine beaches. Christopher Columbus did. When he saw the coastline for the first time, he called it the “most beautiful in the world.”
We wandered along through the countryside, enjoying the fertile evidence of spring a burro nursing a scrawny, shaky newborn, a sow and her piglets resting underneath a shade built by her owners. I stopped to take pictures of a group of local children, and after giving one of them a few pesos, Santos helped me explain to them that I wanted the money equally divided.
It was still before noon, and we had been riding for a couple of hours. Finally, I pointed ahead and asked where we were going. The road was taking us back toward Cabarete, Santos said, but it would take a few more hours on that dirt road. I decided to head back toward Sabaneta de Yásica and explore that area a bit, so I had Santos turn around.
Right at home
On the way, Santos stopped at a small house. “Looky, looky, mi mama y papa,” he said. I was in the living room of his family home as his two sisters and cousins stood to greet me. And much to my surprise, his father was suddenly standing up at the kitchen table, making room for me as his mother dished out a delicious lunch of chicken and rice and salad.
It was as if they had been expecting me. One of Santos’ sisters worked at a resort and spoke a bit of English, so we could make some pleasant small talk. I might have looked and felt like a goofy gringo, but this family didn’t treat me that way.
It was time to move on. I didn’t want to keep Santos off the road for too long, since that was how he earned his keep. During lunch, I had mistakenly addressed one of his sisters as his wife, giving everyone a good laugh, so as we rode further along, he said, “Looky, looky, mi bambinos y mi esposa in Sabaneta?” Santos wanted to make sure I would really meet his wife and children. Their tiny house had one large room, separated with dividers. Two toddlers were playing in the living room. “Tres bambinos, no mas,” he said.
Bambino, bambina? I asked. They didn’t know, but yes, they wanted a bambina. “No mas,” Santos’ wife said. I patted Santos on the back.
Finally, it was time to bid farewell. Santos had shown me a river, the Rio Yásica, running nearby. It was midafternoon and a siesta by the river seemed appropriate.
I thought for a moment. When I’d met Santos early that day, we had negotiated a price of 40 pesos, but I gave him 200, all I could spare at that moment. I’d had a personalized tour, lunch, a peek at the “real” Dominican lifestyle and pleasant companionship. And my tattoo made it even more of a bargain.