Friday, February 22 2013
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York State, United States of America
Because of the way my neurological cycles aligned, I awoke without effort at four something this morning, but the slowness of the speed with which I assembled my travel sandwiches (toasted whole wheat with lettuce, jalapeños, fake turkey, fake mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard) indicated a lingering grogginess.
I stoked up the woodstove, we said goodbye to our cats and dogs, and then we got on the road. Gretchen was driving and I was using her smartphone to navigate. Our destination was the Newark airport, and for some reason the phone decided the best route for getting there was on a surface street directly through the center of Downtown Newark. It would have been nice to catch a glimpse of Cory Booker out on a fire escape talking down a suicidal mountain goat, but alas.
Gretchen and I have long been dismayed by New Jersey's highway infrastructure, what with its non-intuitive exits and (when it exists at all) incomprehensible signage. Finding our way to long-term economy parking this morning found us cursing New Jersey yet again. Happily, we'd allowed ourselves a lot of time and there was no danger of us missing our flight.
There wasn't much of a line at security, but when the Homeland Security official told Gretchen she would have to dump out her vegan yogurt and a container of spread because they exceeded the three ounce limit, she nearly blew a gasket. Not wanting to waste those things, she decided to be escorted out to the contaminated side of security, where she snarfed down all the yogurt and then applied the spread to some bread, whereupon it underwent a miraculous transition from suspicious viscous fluid to a component of an item of solid food, a material that then was allowed through security. I should mention that both Gretchen and I submitted to the full-body scanner after I ascertained that it was a millimeter-wave machine instead of the more medically-suspect Rapiscan x-ray scanner (which are supposedly being phased out after much expense and citizen outcry).
Both Gretchen and I took doses of Ambien soon after taking our seats, which were unusually close to the front of the plane (just the second row behind First Class). The female half of a dark-complected couple sat to Gretchen's left and I sat to her right. I assumed the woman was Dominican, but later Gretchen saw her passport and learned she was Pakistani. Though we joked about it afterwards, at no time during the flight did the woman or her boyfriend rip their shirts open to reveal a bomb vests.
After awhile the Ambien made the text of the New Yorker article I was reading begin to swim. At some point I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.
The next time I opened my eyes, I looked down upon a regularly cloud-dappled ocean. Somehow I expected to see more land down there, perhaps an island here and there. But it's pretty much nothing but open ocean between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. The Turks an Caicos Islands are down there somewhere, but they are small enough to hide behind a regular pattern of clouds.
Our destination was Punta Cana, the easternmost point of the Dominican Republic (the part nearest Puerto Rico). As we got out of the airplane via a mobile stairway (no jet bridges here), the warm humidity heralded the pleasant fact that we had definitively left temperate winter behind.
After an effortless immigration (we had to pay $10 each to be allowed into the country), there didn't appear to be much in the way of customs aside from a row of guys sitting at small tables whose job it was to refer us to whatever transportation we would be needing. Our guy also tried to upsell us on "opportunities" at other resorts, but Gretchen smelled the hard sale for what it was and shut the guy down. We ended up in a small van that was eventually filled with a surprisingly uniform collection of American land whales, all of whom were headed to a resort equipped with a golf course and a casino. The resort we'd come for had neither (both those things can be found a lot closer to home).
Our resort had the name of Natura Park Eco-Resort, which suggested a number of things that it really wasn't. It wasn't a park, and there was nothing especially "eco" about it, though it's possible all the casino-golf resorts have big open pit gold mines in them where mercury is cheerfully churned into the aquifer. What's more, the resort appeared to have recently been acquired by an entity known as Blau, which, based on its simple circular Helvetica-based logo (applied in slapdash fashion throughout the resort, including on every single window), suggested a huge faceless international Hotel conglomerate headquartered on the site of a former death camp somewhere in Germany.
We checked in at the front desk, got the blue bracelets that would allow us to take advantage of the all-inclusive features, and were immediately given drinks (though they didn't seem to contain any alcohol). Then a guy showed us back to our room, carrying my bag as he went. He took what later proved to be an unusually circuitous route through ugly narrow pink-painted corridors, bypassing all the picturesque outdoor ponds full of water birds that would have made for a more direct route. I suspect this was all an effort to win a substantial tip, though I don't believe Gretchen gave him any.
Our room was on the top (third floor) of patio III, which was located near the center of Natura Park's generally-linear layout, about half-way between the main building (the location of the main restaurant and bar) and the beach. A good thing about our room was that it looked out towards the unpopulated forest adjoining Natura Park and not into Natura Park's center, where half-drunk, half-naked people streamed back and forth at all hours. Our room came with a balcony that whose view was somehow obscured from all the other balconies around it, meaning we could casually walk out onto it naked. The only people who might see us were the relatively rare pedestrians and electric vehicles using a utility road running along the edge of the resort.
We weren't in our room long before we'd changed into our swimsuits and headed for the thing we'd come for: relaxing next to water. Our first destination was the pool, but it was crowded and some sort of absurd activity was taking place on it involving kayaks and buff young men excitedly shouting Carribean-inflected English into a PA system. One of the selling points of the Natura Park was its all-inclusive nature, meaning we could eat and drink as much as we wanted to. Gretchen had read that there was even a swim-up bar, which sounded pretty damn all-inclusive, since there is no possible way to carry money to such a thing. So our first drink was from the swim-up bar off the side of the pool.
The swim-up bar is better as a concept than as a reality. For some reason one is forced to swim through a thin waterfall at the bar's entrance, and once inside the æsthetic is more like a bathroom than anything else. I ordered a "zombie," which seemed sufficiently tropical and decadent (I forget what it contained, though it soon proved a bit too sweet for me).
We thought about taking up residence by the pool, but it just wasn't very pleasant there, so somehow we found our way to the beach, ultimately finding a pair of chaise lounges (though all the ones in all the good places were either already occupied or marked in some way as taken). The beach was comprised of a flakey beige sand that might have been ground-up coral. The ocean lapping up against it from the northwest was a flat expanse of blue-green with nothing much to look at in the distance except what appeared to be, over a mile away, a detached artificial dock featuring a hut with a thatched roof.
A string of buoys demarcated the limits of where swimming was allowed (never more than about a hundred feet from shore and never as deep as the top of my head). Beyond that, a constant stream of motorized boats plied the water: glass-bottomed skiffs, large double-pontooned booze cruises (blaring, in one instance "Gangnam Style"), and motorboats pulling either parasails or inflatable couches full of screaming children.
Amidst the beach walkers in their swimsuits were a steady stream of fully-dressed salesmen and saleswomen. The former called out "Looky looky!" and tried to catch people's eyes so they they could be convinced to sign up for snorkeling or parasailing. (We already knew that snorkleing wasn't very good on this beach.) Others sold various clothes, hats, or trinkets. As for the saleswomen, their only product appeared to be hair braiding.
Though there were people swimming in the water, it seemed a bit cool for us, and we mostly kept to the beach, reading (or thumbing through) our magazines while basking in the welcome heat of the tropical sun. I was focusing mostly on a copy of the unfortunately-named Nuts and Volts, which is something one picks over and perhaps consults later but hardly reads. We'd applied sunblock, but on the first day of a tropical adventure, one never applies quite enough. It's easy to have amnesia about how bad a sunburn can be. Besides, it didn't seem like I was getting burned at all.
Gretchen, whose only notion of an all-inclusive resort had come from James Bond movies, was a little non-plussed about Natura Park initially, perhaps because of its self-evident tackiness, occasional shabbiness, and general overcrowdedness. But gradually she found things to appreciate about it, starting (perhaps) by how few Americans it seemed to attract. While nearly all the guests were some form of Caucasian, we overheard relatively few speaking English. A large fraction of the guests seemed to have come from Russia, and there were also lots of Germans and French (which I found odd, given that Old World tropical destinations would seem to be more convenient for them). I don't think I heard a single British accent, but there were a smattering of Canadians and Americans, though not anywhere near as many of the latter as one would expect given the proximity of the Dominican Republic to the United States.
We didn't actually have to hear people speaking to know they weren't Americans; American men never wear nut-hugger bathing suits, for example, and non-American women wouldn't be caught dead in a one-piece bathing suit. (I wouldn't know, but Gretchen insisted it was true.) Furthermore, occasionally women simply removed the top halves of their bikinis so as to sun their breasts, a public-beach behavior that is virtually unknown in the United States. We pride ourselves as being the land of the free and the home of the brave, but our Puritan legacy keeps us frightened of our bodies and shackled to an embarrassing past.
Eventually we'd had enough sun, so we found our way back to our room, perhaps stopping for drinks and marveling at the wildlife in the verdant ponds along the way. Instead of lawns, Natura Park has ponds, and in these ponds live schools of fish, turtles, and, most importantly, birds. There were two different species of small herons, White Egrets, pink flamingos, various geese and ducks, gallinules, Mourning Doves, and several varieties of domestic pigeons. Though all the birds looked to be free to leave any time they wanted to, for some reason we never saw the flamingos anywhere but in or beside the pond closest to our patio.
Natura Park has a number of restaurants scattered around the premises, but none of them offered much in the way of vegan-friendly cuisine. Our best bet was the default restaurant in the main building, which was comprised of a series of buffets. Had we had some weird allergy that made it so that we could only eat pork, this buffet would have worked for us. It also would have worked had the allergy instead been that we could only eat beef. Or chicken. But, as Gretchen likes to put it, our allergy is to cruelty, and finding the right food, though doable, wasn't without its little annoyances. Luckily, the buffet was huge and featured a pasta bar with what appeared to be a vegan pomodoro sauce. Protein was a bit harder to scare up, though I think tonight there might have been cold chick peas available. Tonight was "Asian Night," so there was also a huge sushi bar that was useless to us, though the spring rolls were supposedly vegan. I also tried the french fries from the burger station and found them almost inedible (though that didn't seem to be stopping people). As for the pasta, it was surprisingly good. It was prepared almost exactly the way Gretchen does it, a bit al dente and with a trace of some sort of oil (hopefully olive) on every noodle. Presidente (the domestic Dominican beer) was available free from a tap, though I quickly learned that if one waited, a waitress would come around and pour me a glass of wine. (The house white wine was terrible but the red wine was actually pretty good.)
Eventually we made it back to our room, where we read in bed for awhile and then went to sleep early. The Dominican Republic is on Atlantic Time, which meant it was an hour ahead of where we'd come from.
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