Milepost 3-11-16 –at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic
Our tropical winter hiatus is about to end, so we rented a quad yesterday to visit our favorite remote beach for one more time before heading north for the spring and summer. Playa Rincon is an unspoiled and mostly undiscovered haven for all but the most ambitious adventurers because it takes a lot of effort to get there. It is thirty miles from the nearest gas pump, and the last few miles of the trail are a disaster waiting to happen for rental vehicles with anything but high clearance and four wheel drive.
We first discovered this beach 26 years ago when we were in the Dominican Republic while teaching at an international school. I was looking for a quiet place to get away from the noise of the city and a friend told us about this secluded spot that was as far away as a person can get in this country and still be on land. With our three daughters, we camped in a coconut grove next to the beach. Nobody came near us the whole time.
This time there was a bit of nostalgia mixed with the crashing waves, the hot sun and the swaying palm trees. We weren’t sure when we would be returning to this tropical paradise, maybe never.
I had been hoping to get some photos and video of the four-wheeler running through the edge of the waves, but the surf was up today and I chose not to chance it, not wanting to risk sending a rented quad out to sea.
We spent our time walking the beach and soaking up sun until we judged we were about to get burned, then headed down the trail to the beach bar for a cold coke and some native cuisine.
After a couple more runs up and down the beach road with the quad, Kaye invited me back on and we waved a reluctant farewell to the beach and took to the rough road back home.
On the way back, we stopped at one of our favorite roadside fruit markets to stock up on produce
So the winter is over and we are leaving soon, heading back to the messy purgatory that is Michigan in the spring.
That will be another beach and another story. The water in Lake Michigan will reach 80 degrees by about… the twelfth of never.
Milepost 2-26-16 -at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic
“Introvert, Know Thyself”. This is my most recent note-to-self. I am experiencing a bit of emotional discomfort in my current setting, and I’m realizing that I over-estimated my ability to find solitude in a highly social culture. For an introvert like me, solitude is essential to a balanced life and healthy emotional equilibrium.
Everybody is different, and it would be easy to assume that the majority of travelers and adventurers are extroverts, loving the excitement and the challenges of far-away places and exotic cultures. I don’t know if that is the case, and I am not about to launch a study to find out.
What I do know is what an introvert like me needs when it comes to adventure – and life in general:
I can enjoy crowds and parties and parades and other highly social settings, but only for a short time, and those experiences need to be followed by a season of hibernation, of being alone so that I can refuel my emotional tank.
On the other hand, if I am inactive for very long, I will get restless and need to get outside and satisfy my adventure quotient.
The best balance of these two factors – of solitude and adventure – is to find adventures in sparsely populated locations. Or to follow my crowded adventures with solo adventures in solitary places.
I don’t like cold weather for very long. I can handle Michigan through Christmas every year with just the right allocation of snow and brisk clear air, but after that, the winter is far too long. This is a third factor that complicates my search for the right balance. There aren’t that many southern destinations that offer solitude. RV parks are notorious for noise and overcrowding. For the solitary soul, they are tolerable when and if there are quiet areas nearby.
Where I ran into trouble this winter was that I chose a tropical setting in the middle of a highly social open-air culture for too long a period of time. 10 weeks of noise, bustling streets, merengue music blasting until after midnight every night… well, I just can’t seem to get away from it long enough to refill my emotional tank. Of course, even the beaches are crowded with bodies this time of year.
I find myself avoiding the interaction with the locals that I love so much – for short periods. I just want to stay home and be alone.
Fortunately, Kaye and I are very much alike in most of these ways, only she likes the northern winters and doesn’t need as much adventure as I do.
We solve this by scheduling what we call Bob-alone times. I can head off on a solo adventure, thus satisfying my appetite for adventure, while both of us get to refresh by being alone for a while.
Most of my solo adventures are short, lasting only a few hours. A bike ride down the nearest rail trail works just fine, and I don’t have to talk to anyone along the way, simply nodding to other cyclists that I meet on the trail. I do this several times a week during the fair weather seasons.
Longer alone times usually involve a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler full of goodies… and my camera, of course. Last summer, I celebrated my birthday by heading up north to the woods with my bike to pedal for miles on end at a beautiful paved bike trail through the woods and dunes of the national lakeshore in northern Michigan. I camped at a state forest campground by a quiet stream where there was hardly anyone else around. Ah, solitary bliss.
I always feel that when I am alone with myself… I am in good company. If you are an introvert, you likely know what I am saying.
Anyway, I am sharing this side of myself for the benefit of other would-be adventures who may not entirely understand what happens to them when they feel stressed while living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. Maybe you are an introvert. Maybe you need to study yourself a bit more and find ways to hibernate from time to time for the sake of your own well-being… and the well-being of those who are traveling with you.
I really do write notes-to-myself that I refer to before scheduling the next outing. It is good to know yourself. The thing is, you can’t always know how you will feel or react in a given situation until you try it out.
Milepost 2-6-16 -We are at a vacation rental in the tropics.
Here’s a tip about travel that first-timers may not discover on their own: The real adventure is often where the realpeople are. I am talking about the backstory that is on the backstreets of your travel destination. I am talking about the true cultural realities that exist outside the walls of the gated resort where you are staying.
Many travelers see a carefully scripted performance when they go on vacation at the all-inclusive resort. Even the cruise lines that claim to visit exotic islands, as it turns out, may have bought the island and designed an elaborate facade that is only a fake reproduction of the real culture that they are trying to depict. But it’s not real.
If you like it that way, fine. If you want to stay within the enclave, you should be comfortable and safe. Hopefully, you will be able to relax and have a good time, maybe even make some new friends. For you, it may be exactly the right thing. But you might be able to ratchet your adventure factor to the next level with a venture outside the walls.
Culturally, the real fun begins when you leave the reservation. When you leave Front Street and venture to Second or Third Street… or even farther to where the street turns into a pathway.
When the waiter comes to your table at the resort, do you ever ask yourself, “Who is this person? Where does he live? Does she have a family? What’s her name?” Better yet, don’t just ask yourself… ask the waiter.
When I was in the Maldive Islands, my scuba diving buddies asked these questions of our guide, a young man named Ibrahim. After 2 weeks of friendly interaction with him, we were surprised when he invited us to come to his home and meet his wife — they were expecting their first child. This sort of encounter is unheard of in the Maldives where the government requires strict oversight of tourists; it just never happens. But for us, it happened. The day before Ibrahim escorted us to the airport, he started crying, and threw himself at us with hugs and weeping as we parted company. I couldn’t believe it. This was unreal. No. This was real.
This sort of rich adventure can be really hard to find when you are on a 10-day cruise where your movements are scheduled and your encounters carefully scripted. It is hard to escape the confines and get to the raw realities of the real culture.
One of the blessings of the traveling life that Kaye and I are now enjoying is the extravagance of being able to stay as long as we want wherever we want. We love to find out where the natives live, and we have been invited into their homes lots of times. Nobody tells us where to be or at what time. We decide for ourselves.
This winter, we are staying 10 weeks in a little town on the beach in the Dominican Republic. We have learned enough Spanish to be able to venture onto the side roads and back alleys to see how these people really live.
In fact, by planning ahead, we were able to visit an indigenous family in the interior of the country just yesterday. We have been sponsoring a kid through an international humanitarian organization that provides underprivileged children with a quality education and health care. Yorgelis is now 15 years old and we got to meet him. We hired a car and driver who was able to find his way through the maze of backroads and the small towns (on the cell phone with the host several times for directions) to find these guys in an obscure neighborhood far (4 hours one way) from the tourist resorts.
What an amazing experience! Their family is actually part of a community of artists and have a pottery factory in their backyard. Did you ever wonder who makes the vases and bowls and cups that you find in the gift shops at the resorts where you stay? We found them.
We got to tour the school where our kid has been educated for the last 9 years, and then his family put on a demonstration for us in the pottery shop. We could not have asked for a more beautiful experience with an authentic indigenous family. Precious.
We now have some pottery to add to our international collection at home. And here’s the thing: We know the people who made it.
That is the stuff of real adventure.
Here are a few more photos from our visit to the interior yesterday:
I hope you are able to get outside the walls on your next adventure!
Milepost 2-2-16 –living in a rented apartment near the beach.
My dad used to say that the real joy of having anything – is sharing it, and I proved him right again today. The joy of artistic expression through photography has been multiplied by the joy of giving as I have been visiting my Dominican neighbors with copies of photos that I took of them 3 years ago.
I have made a project of printing the photos, mounting them on 5×7 rigid foam backings, and then handing them to the folks who are in the photos. Part of the fun for me is experiencing the reactions of people who don’t often get noticed by passersby, let alone being given a memorable gift that will almost certainly become a family treasure.
A lot can change in 3 years, and it has been both surprising and gratifying for me to locate so many of the folks that I photographed last time we were here, although in one case, the horse was the same and the people were different.
The quest to locate these people has created a secondary adventure that is even more fun than the original photo expedition. When I found one young guy at a fruit stand, the place had changed a lot and I didn’t recognize him. When I stopped and showed him the photo asking him, “Where can I find this guy?” he looked at the photo and pointed at it and then himself, exclaiming, “It’s me!”
One of the funnest reunions was when we finally located a little old grandma — after several stops to ask where she was, each stop getting us a little closer to her. She was on the porch of a house with her granddaughters mixing a big bowl of cake batter. When we handed her the photo her eyes got big and she threw back her head and started laughing. They passed the photo around with excitement and then she told us the old house had fallen down, and she pointed to an empty slab next door. Yes, there had been some changes in 3 years.
Photography is a wonderful traveling companion. Feeding my artistic appetites has brought me a lot of satisfaction over the years. And in giving it back to my subjects and enriching their lives in this small way, I have found a way to feed my soul as well.
The real joy of having a photograph is sharing it — not just with the cyber world, but with the people who shared their beautiful faces to make it what it is, a work of art.
I love the people of the Dominican Republic. They are gorgeous, inside and out.
Read Kaye’s beautiful account of this adventure on her blog here.
Milepost 1-25-16 -at a VRBO in the Dominican Republic
Our list of reasons to leave the northern winters is a short list for good reason. Who needs more than a couple of good reasons to leave misery behind?
Physical well-being. For many of us it goes beyond the discomfort of a chill running down your spine when the north wind blows. The lack of sunshine and the short days in Michigan in the wintertime have a noticeable debilitating effect on human beings that becomes even more bothersome as they age. Joint aches, muscle pain, and an overall lethargy that makes you want to go to bed right after supper all combine to make life dark and depressing. Not to mention that if you do actually venture outside for a walk or a trip to the store, you may well slip on the ice, split your head open and end up at the hospital for stitches. Winter is actually life-threatening for highway travelers, as indicated by traffic death statistics for the winter months. Every snow storm ends up being the last one for some unfortunate travelers as their car slides off the road and hits a tree.
Emotional well-being. There is a reason why February is the month when the most suicides take place, and I am sure the long winter’s night of the soul has something to do with it. Cabin fever may sound entirely benign until it goes beyond restlessness and brings on bona fide depression and a sense of hopelessness. A feeling of being trapped in a dark place is not a healthful mental state for the human soul. There is a sense that you are wasting away while hunkering in a human hibernation mode until spring.
Financial well-being. Winter can be expensive when you are paying to heat the house. You end up caught in a mental and emotional tug-of-war as you shiver while the thermostat is pinned at 65 degrees to save money. 75 would be a lot more comfortable, but the utility bills will rise exponentially. And the lights are on longer as the days are shorter, so the electric bill takes off as well. Instead of being out in the yard in the evening, you are sitting in front of the TV… and consuming even more electricity. And that means more popcorn and potato chips.
That’s enough. Who needs more than 3 reasons to head south in the winter? Is self-preservation not enough?
(Note: I realize that I am not speaking for winter sports enthusiasts. Go out and sled, ski and skate while you are young, and have fun.)
So What Do You Do With Yourself?
Having escaped the northern winters and living as the proverbial snowbirds, we have been asked this question a few times. Those who have not retired yet wonder the same thing. What do we do to occupy our time?
It is a question that no one can answer for you, because the answer rests entirely on your personality and interests and physical state. If you can’t think of something to do, maybe you shouldn’t retire. A former co-worker of mine is still teaching school in his 70’s because he can’t imagine what he will do with time on his hands. He says he will die teaching – and I believe him.
Lots of folks will move to retirement communities that surround golf courses or marinas. That is perfect if you love golf or boats.
For Kaye and me, having open spaces for walking and biking is important. We hope to stay physically active as long as we possibly can.
As a photographer, I seldom land in a place that is without visual opportunity. When it does happen, I have always been able to find something within a short drive.
As a musician, I have been a little bit more frustrated as my piano is heavy and not very mobile and presents certain logistical challenges. Still, I have found ways to express my musical self in almost every place we have stayed. A couple of years ago I found a fellow musician who had set up a recording studio in a tent next to his motor home in a campground in Alabama. We collaberated on a song or two. Cool.
Escaping to Margaritaville
This winter we flew to the tropics where we are renting a vacation house near the beach in a small fishing village. Our daily walks consist of sauntering downtown to the French bakery for a croissant or a pizza, or a short walk in the other direction to one of several palm-lined beaches. A swim in the ocean is always available – and the water is 80 degrees.
In the apartment, we are able to stream movies to our laptops while lying on the bed or chatting with the kids and grandkids back home through social media or FaceTime. We read books that we download for Kindle. We journal about our adventures. Kaye and I are both actually writing books this winter.
Adaptation is necessary for a successful migration in the wintertime, but every new place offers its own smorgasbord of opportunities.
If boredom sets in, we look for ways to change things up a bit.
And remind ourselves that at least we are not shivering in the northern snow and wondering how we will stay warm if the power goes off during a winter storm.
If we have a worry here it has more to do with blowing out a flip flop or stepping on a pop top. We are not wasting away this winter.*
And just so you know, we are not on vacation either. For us, this is life.
Travel will entirely change your world view. And part of that is that very often it just offers really unusual sights that are not on the itinerary. My experience has been that nary an adventure transpires without bonus stuff thrown in, little surprises that add interest to the story.
We have moved to the Dominican Republic for the winter, one of our favorite and most affordable tropical destinations, and our biggest surprise so far was the sighting of a pirate ship that ran aground on the beach next to the restaurant where we were having lunch with our French hosts.
The beach-going vacationers were called on to help free the heavy old vessel and they were eager to dive in and help. Well, actually, diving wasn’t necessary as the water was only a meter deep.
Their efforts were futile, and the seamen decided to try towing their ship off the sand using a motor boat. Alas, they couldn’t find enough rope to reach to deeper water where the boat was waiting so they had to give that up.
When we left they were attempting to push the ship seaward with a backhoe. I don’t know if they were successful with that; I think there is a limit to how far into the ocean you can drive a backhoe.
So we had some pretty amusing dinner entertainment – and an unanticipated photo op.
The surprises that the travel life offers are not always fun. I am sure the ship’s owner was not amused by his predicament.
Our motto for travel has always been, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take what comes.”
Because you never know for sure what you are in for when you set sail on life’s sea.
Milepost 2-2-13 Have you ever met someone for the first time and felt like they were an old friend? Did you visit a new place and immediately feel that you were home? That’s what happened when Kaye and I arrived at The Cove in the Dominican Republic last winter. We were renting a VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) apartment on the beach on the Samana Peninsula at the east end of the island of Hispanola, and as soon as we started to meet the locals, we knew we had come home – at least for the winter.
Coco was the first to welcome us as our taxi driver dropped us at the front door of our home. He was the manager of the complex and immediately started taking care of us, first with a tour of the house and a how-to-start-the-air-conditioner demonstration. The next morning came more info as he delivered a 5-gallon water bottle and told us how to hire the local women to come in and cook a full meal of chicken or fish and rice and salad. And a whole lot more. Coco smiled a lot and his default reply to every question was, “No problema!” He told us where we could buy provisions and cold Coke at the nearby colmado (general store) only a five-minute walk from the house.
When we arrived at the colmado we were welcomed with quick smiles as we brushed the cobwebs off our Spanish and dove into the indigenous mode, ordering flour and sugar and milk and eggs… and banana chips. Processed foods simply weren’t available. Behind the counter grandma reached for this and that as we pointed at the stuff we wanted, and the grandkids scrambled to help. We discovered later that the tourists who stayed at The Cove rarely shopped at the local store and in fact, didn’t cook for themselves much, choosing to eat out more often than not. So, seeing our willingness to engage the local culture and support the neighborhood economy, we made ourselves popular very quickly.
We saw even more surprise and pleasure on the faces of the neighbors when we showed up at the bus stop to board the guagua for a trip to the nearest town. The guaguas are beat-up vans and small pickups with benches built in the back for passengers. They come by every half hour and charge about 70 cents for a ride to town. They were often crowded, but people would quickly scoot over to make room for the Americanos every time. It seems that the foreigners rarely ever ride the guaguas because they all have rental cars. Except for us. We like to get as close to the culture as we can. Believe me, in a guagua, the culture is very close!
The camera was the next thing that promoted our welcome with the neighbors. The Dominicans love to have their pictures taken. I rarely shoot a photo of a stranger without first making some introductory small talk, but these folks were eager to smile and pose for the camera. Sometimes, when I was standing near someone, they would get my attention, point at the camera and then at themselves, and smile real big. Man, this is easy! Even teenage guys would pose when they saw the camera without the slightest hint that there was anything uncool about it.
One day I grabbed the camera and headed out for a walk through the neighborhood of El Frances near our house. The first guy I met on the street motioned me toward the path around behind the colmado where we took a shortcut through the baseball field and ended up standing in front of his house. Next he took me to the school which was in session, disappeared inside and came back out with the principal so I could take her picture. From there I continued on down the street where kids were running around naked while their moms hung up laundry in the yard. Some guys invited me into their kitchen to share some freshly fried fish – right out of the pan. I love these people!
I tell you, at the end of our stay as we said farewell to these great neighbors, it was like parting with family members.
I love the Dominican Republic. It’s a beautiful land with splendid beaches and forests of coconut palms. But the biggest draw to this gorgeous tropical paradise is its beautiful people with their unpretentious grace and easy smiles.
On my next visit to The Cove at El Frances I’m hoping to stay longer if I can possibly do it. It’s like home after all.
See my gallery of 250 photos of the land and the people of the Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic, at my online gallery and photo store here.