long trip from the Carribean
Wednesday, February 27 2013
location: Room 1336, Natura Park Resort, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Today would be the day we would be flying back to our wintery homeland, and Gretchen headed off to the beach early mostly to take pictures and get her feet wet one last time. I met her down there, and it was the earliest I'd been to the beach. The guys who clean up the seaweed twice each day were just concluding their morning shift, though for some reason they'd elected to leave a lot of it behind. (I've been wondering if they compost it and, if so, if it is too salty to use in a conventional garden.)
Being our last meal at Natura Park, breakfast would be the last opportunity for us to eat a somewhat dreary meal of beans, toast, and hash browns. I didn't figure out the proper formula for this breakfast until this last meal. The key was to leave salsa and toast out of it and just go with beans, hash browns, green peppers, and lettuce (which, at this resort, was exclusively of the iceberg variety). I had a canker sore of some sort nearly healed on the inside of my right lower lip, and there must be weird enzymes in mango because the sore started burning and then bleeding profusely while I was eating a slice.
Later in the main bar, I transitioned from espresso to a glass of Presidente beer (there are no pints of anything at Natura Park). Then we returned to our room, packed everything into our bags, and went to the front desk and checked out. By this point Gretchen was being somewhat generous with tips. The other night she'd seen how appreciative the bartender was being in response to trivial tips paid for free drinks. If you tipped, the bartender was likely to refer to you as "Mi amor" and not make the drinks quite so weak. So this morning Gretchen had altruistically left a $10 bill in our room (quite a windfall in the Dominican Republic), and later she tipped the morning bartender in the main bar and then the two hostesses in the buffet restaurant (one of whom had already taken to referring to Gretchen as "Mi corazón"). Having once been a nursing industry labor organizer, Gretchen tends to be bubbly and outgoing with service employees, particularly Spanish-speaking ones, and at Natura Park the employees generally seem to love that sort of thing. Oddly, given our experience in other Spanish-speaking places, employees at Natura Park tend not to switch immediately to English when faced with our broken Spanish. (Perhaps this just reflects the weakness of their English.) Indeed, they've shown a willingness to correct us when we've used Spanish words or parts of speech that have been a bit off (for example, when I've said "Vino rojo" instead of "Vino tinto").
When we signed out, nobody bothered to remove the bracelets giving us access to the many all-inclusive features of Natura Park, so, while waiting the half hour for our airport van to arrive, we got a last drink in down at the bar. Since Gretchen had freshly-tipped the bartender, the drinks were unusually strong.
Our ride to the airport was with a grumpy fat man and his blind wife. They mostly kept quiet while Gretchen bantered in Spanish about various things with the bus driver, including the good relationship our dogs have with our cats (though we never did learn the Spanish word for "snuggle"). The grumpy fat man piped up now and then with practical questions about the logistics of getting to where he needed to be with a bad knee, a blind wife, and perhaps a bit too much luggage (by contrast, Gretchen and had managed to crunch down all our things, including a large Haitian bowl and two large blue towels, into two backpacks).
At the airport, we learned two unsettling things. Firstly, our flight had been delayed by two hours. Secondly, we were not allowed to carry and food through the airport security checkpoint. So we decided not to go through security until after we'd eaten all the food we were carrying, which included a whole package of Tofurky-brand fake turkey, several small rolls and a peanut butter sandwich taken from the Natura Park buffet, and the two fake-turkey-with-jalapeños sandwiches I'd made back in Hurley but never eaten.
Gretchen was bored and set out on foot to explore the settlement around the Punta Cana airport, but soon returned and said there wasn't much of interest except for a small café across the street that supposedly had WiFi. Still, it seemed like a better place to spend time than in the airport, so that was where we went.
We sat out in front of the café on a bench (the only seating appeared to be outdoors). Nearly all the other customers looked to be Dominican airport employees, though there were also a number of skinny stray cats and grackles with bright yellow irises. The cats weren't hungry enough to eat bread, but they happily devoured fake turkey (which we might have otherwise had to throw away). One of the cats made a go at one of the grackles (perhaps the one who had rejected my offer of whole wheat toast), but he missed. I didn't see clearly what happened, but a little Dominican boy did something to one of the cats that made it flee across the road towards the airport. Perhaps some day he'll be a Dominican Vlad the Impaler; the evil dictators of tomorrow have to come from somewhere and for now the only things they can oppress are starving housecats.
Back at the airport, we found ourselves standing in a very long, very slow line that gradually was making its way through airport security. We still had hours before our plane was scheduled to depart, but there were others in the line who were running out of time and trying their best to appeal to the better angels of the few airport employees who happened by (including a colorfully-dressed young woman whose job was to to get us to pose with her for photographs). Before we reached security, there were numerous displays and messages on overhead flatscreens telling us all the things that wouldn't be allowed, including matches and liquids of any sort (though there was nothing about food). In the end, though, our stuff went rapidly through an x-ray machine, we stepped through a very insensitive metal detector, and that was it. No fuss, no muss. Immigration was similarly painless. From there, the design of the airport forced us to walked through the narrow aisles of a duty free store (interesting, "duty free" in Russian is just a transliteration into Cyrillic from the English, as though neither "duty" nor "free" exist in the Russian language). Finally we were dumped out into area near our gate.
We quickly found an electrical outlet to charge our phone and netbook (the latter of which kept spontaneously coming out of sleep and using up its battery), and there was even an open WiFi access point. But for some reason my netbook refused to connect to it and my body was acting like a faraday cage for the smart phone and only Gretchen was able to use it to check her email.
The environment near our gate in the Punta Cana airport could have been pleasant; there was restaurant nearby and airport rules evidently permitted buying beers there and carrying them around throughout the terminal. But the experience was ruined by acoustic noise. A distorted PA ceaselessly blared announcements, repeating the same list of passenger names wanted for something over and over again. Periodically that PA would be joined by another and the blaring cacophony would contain even less discernible information. It was like an bad auditory acid trip and it made me irritable and vaguely depressed. Making matters worse, our plane ended up being even more delayed than the two hours initially reported.
But eventually there came a time when our passports and boarding passes were checked again and bus slowly began to shuttle us, one load at a time, to a distant part of the tarmac where our plane waited for us. After getting out of that bus, they were checking our passports and boarding passes yet another time as we entered the plane, but (as had even been the case with initial airport security), it was just easier to slip past the guy doing the checking and keep on walking. If that happens in the United States, they freak out and rescreen everyone in the airport, but if that happens in the Punta Cana airport, nobody seems to care, perhaps because they figure they'll screen you eventually.
For whatever reason, Gretchen and I had been assigned seat in the one coach row with added leg room (a row that is typically adjacent to an emergency exit, though not on this plane). Further adding to our luck, nobody had been assigned the third seat in our cluster. Across the aisle was another cluster of seats with added legroom, and I just assumed someone would come up and move into it. But then the flight attendant announced that anyone who moved to those seats would be charged $120 extra dollars due to their "premium" nature. Wow, who knew airline nickel & diming had reached this extreme? Evidently the only reason we'd been given our extra-legroom seats was that we were overflow from standard coach and had to be seated somewhere.
We quickly took out travel Ambien but continued reading our magazines and even selecting drinks from the cart when it came by (non-alcoholic beverages are still free, but for who knows how much longer). I remember the Ambien making peoples' faces look increasingly and compelling grotesque, to the point where I found myself staring in rapt awe. And then, finally, I fell asleep. But it didn't work that well for Gretchen. She stayed awake too long and the dose wore off before it could knock her out.
After our plane landed there was some screw-up with the jet bridge, complicated in some way by our plane's not having working auxillary power (though it had nevertheless been clear to fly over 1500 miles of open ocean). I'm not really sure what the problem was, but the pilot made two apologetic announcements about it and we waited for an unexpected half hour on the ground before shit was straightened out and we were allowed to deplane. Starting out from just behind the people in business class, Gretchen and I were able to dash past all the other passengers at an escalator. While they relied on the powerful stair-shaped machine to lift their weary thrombosic bodies, we ran past them up the conventional steps, overtook the one woman further ahead of us, and were the only passengers at the immigration checkpoint when we arrived. The guy who stamped our passports clearly had control issues based on the way he passively-aggressively took my paperwork from me. But it didn't matter; we'd just spent 30 seconds doing something that in the past had taken over an hour. Customs was similarly effortless; on learning that we had no checked baggage, we were simply waved through.
While Gretchen handled navigation, I drove us back to familiar terrain on the New York Thruway and then on home to Hurley. Occasionally I'd find myself behind a large truck and wouldn't be paying attention, and then Gretchen would point out how we were never going to make it home if I was only going to drive 61 miles per hour. That seemed like a valid criticism, but when she yelled at me for driving 65 mph behind a truck for the final three miles before the Kingston exit, I told her she was being absurd, and when she continued complaining I called her crazy, which made her even angrier. But at least our dogs were happy to see us.
All of these pictures were taken today with Gretchen's smart phone. For some reason I could only find these thumbnails when I hooked up her phone to my computer.
Workers cleaning seaweed off the beach. Photo by Gretchen.
Gretchen and me on the beach. Terrible photo by me.
One of Gretchen's favorite hostesses, Elizabeth. Photo by Gretchen.
An Great Egret in one of Natura Park's ponds. Photo by Gretchen.
Flamingos and an egret in the pond near our "patio." Photo by Gretchen.
The main bar in the main building. Note the timber trusswork overhead. Gretchen took this photo because she thought the kid on the right looked like what her friend Marisa's baby will look like when he is eight or nine.
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