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Escape to the Dominican Republic

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Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy

 Never book a trip from a foreign speaking travel agent. On second thoughts let me amend that wild statement. Never book your trip out of a country immediately after being rejected at the border and panicking (as well as foreign speaking travel agent who doesn’t understand Kiwi accent). I don’t mind admitting that I was in a flap. U.S immigration had turned me away at the Canadian border (see previous blog). At the last minute they let me in with ten days and told me never to return. I went back to New York with my tail between my legs. My mum was due to arrive in the ‘big apple’ in two weeks for her trip of a lifetime and I probably couldn’t be there. 

"You gotta fly across borders," a girl at my work explained. "Land crossings have a high rejection rate." Being from an island nation, the idea was as alien as I was. Border crossings? Visa? I just wanted to finish my internship and see my mum.

Blindly I rushed out of the office into the street and into the first travel agent I could find. This was Greenpoint, Brooklyn, affectionately known as Little Poland for the vast amount of immigrants and Polish shops.

"Book me to Mexico before Tuesday."

Unfortunately Hurricane Katrina had other ideas about my travel plans to Mexico.

The travel agent shook her head, "the only thing available is the DR."

"Huh? The where?"

"The Dominican."

The Polish travel agent seemed incredulous at my lack of North American knowledge. "In the Caribbean," she prompted.

"Sure,” I said naively (thinking I would look it up later) “Ill go there.” 

Done deal.

The agent called another agency or rather and garbled on in Polish, booking everything on the spot. I paid the $1000 USD bill with my credit card as she printed off an itinerary.

“You’ll love it there,” she gushed. “Over 1000 miles of golden sand and warm waters. The resort I have booked you in is an all inclusive, all the food, activities and alcohol you could possibly want!”

I looked at my ticket and my heart thudded. She had booked me in for the following Tuesday, (the wrong Tuesday! Had I not been clear enough?) a week after my visa expired. I explained this to her yet again.

“I need to leave before this Tuesday!”

“Oh this Tuesday?” She tapped at her desk nervously and looked around for other clients.

“There shouldn’t be a problem, “I pointed out. “I only booked the ticket ten minutes ago. Get it changed”

Reluctantly she got back on the telephone and explained the situation.

Turns out it was a problem.

“I feel terrible, “she said tensely, “but they wont refund the hotel, just the airfare.”

To cut a long angry tirade short, I was forced to accept the refunded airfares (what choice did I have?) and agreed to book my own flights on Jet Blue, the States answer to Jetstar. Time was running short, they only had flights for the following day. I went home, booked a flight to Santiago (where was Santiago?) on the internet. There are many Santiago’s in the Spanish speaking world and the internet had thousands of pages on all of them. I gave up, packed all my belongings into one bag, said goodbye to my flatmates (roommates) and trundled off to catch my 12 o’clock flight.  Unfortunately for me in my panic I read the Jet Blue timetable wrong. The flight was actually at 12am (midnight), which is a ridiculous time for a flight. I couldn’t believe my stupidity and broke into frustrated tears at the counter.

“It happens a lot,” said the woman behind the counter in-between my snuffles. She smiled and printed me off another ticket. I just had to wait another 12 hours at the airport.

As it turns out, there is no immigration for departures in the States. My rejected border crossing at Canada and the subsequent mis-booking to the Dominic (we were on a first name basis now) were all in vein. I could have stayed an extra week or so and nobody would have said anything.

Jet Blue, (bless them) are a great airline. No complaints from me about service or standards, or price even. The flight from New York to the Dominic was just three hours and it was here the adventure really began.

The Dominican immigration officials looked suspiciously at my New Zealand passport. They consulted an atlas. After much finger pointing from me they found it beneath Australia.  The next problem was whether or not to charge me for a visa. New Zealand didn’t come up one way or another on their visa list. After deliberating and a telephone call, they decided that I should pay. Perhaps I was the first New Zealander ever to fly to the Dominican Republic? Or perhaps just to Santiago airport? I duly paid over my USD$10.00 and was free to go.

By the time I exited the baggage claim it was 3.30am, dark and stormy, the open-air building was chilly beyond belief.

I asked some folk where my hotel was, showing them the address.

They laughed. “Punta Cana? You’re at the wrong airport!”

Turns out in my haste and worries the hotel that had been booked for me was a six hour drive away from Santiago airport.

I took a good look around. The airport was closing. There were a bunch of shifty looking men waiting in beat up cars. The rain poured relentlessly.

“How much by bus to Punta Cana?

“Just a few pesos, but no bus until lunchtime tomorrow.”

I gulped. “How much by taxi?”

“$250 U.S”

“Cant I wait here?”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”

I had no choice.

I took a taxi over muddy roads and dimly lit highways to my resort. We arrived just after breakfast time the next morning.

Now, for anybody who has taken the time to research their vacation properly (unlike myself) they probably would have found out one or two things about the destination before they went. The resort that I was booked into was a top honeymoon spot. (not really suitable for singles) The table placings were set out for twos, couples gazed longingly into each others eyes and all the activities were designed for pairs. Most of the couples didn’t even leave the resort. Turns out the Dominican Republic is one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in the Caribbean and my hotel was smack bang in the centre of smooch-down central.

It appeared that the resort was at a loss of what to do with me. I was an anomaly, a single female in their midst’s. They tried to compensate, I became fodder for the staff as they tried dragging me into every possible activity from water aerobics to karaoke. It was a bad dream. The old British sitcom Heidi Hi but with a Spanish twist and I still had six days to go.

I took walks on the beach. Punta Cana is everything they say it is and more.  Facing the Caribbean Sea the water was warm, coconut trees blew in the breeze, couples strolled along the golden sands hand in hand. Because I had blown my financial plan ($250USD on a taxi didn’t even enter my head when making my holiday budget, and I still didn’t even know how I was going to get back) I  was stuck at the resort. Apparently the water park Manatí Park makes for a nice excusion, as does Plaza Bolera Punta Cana (a shopping mall and bowling center), the Marina and Saona Island, located nearby, is popular for scuba diving.  

Needless to say I ate my way through several buffets, swam at the pool and tried to stay out of the way of over zealous staff.

It wasn’t until I escaped the resort that I discovered just how beautiful the Dominic Republic really was. After much difficulty (yes I really did just want to catch the local bus, no I didn’t want a taxi, yes I really had no money) I got the staff at the resort to book me from Punta Cana to Higuey and from Higuey to Santo Domingo. The bus was old and beat, a funky meringue played as I watched the shanty towns and villages pass by, the locals smiled at me. So this was the real Dominican. I felt sorry for all those ninnys back at the resort.

I don’t remember Higuey. I sat and waited with all my luggage until the bus was ready to go to Santo Domingo.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus, Santo Domingo is the oldest established European settlement in the Americas.   America's First Cathedral, Catedral Santa María La Menor, America's First castle Alcázar de Colón, the ruins of the first monastery in America, Monasterio de San Francisco,  the oldest fortress in America, the Pantéon Nacional and the first convent in America, the Iglesia del Convento Dominic are all found in this fascinating capital. I wondered the squares and plazas, perused the hills and narrow streets, before I got touted by an old local man.

I paid him a few dollars and we went walking while he explained the history and architecture of the old colonial quarters. Arguably, the most vibrant city n the Caribbean, funky boutique shops sit on ancient cobblestone streets, luxury cars park beside beat up old scooters, and hip restaurants trade next to street vendors.

The old man humbly asked me if I wanted to go to the regions most talked about restaurant. I assumed it meant I was paying, but after a week of buffet at honeymoon resort, suddenly that old credit card bill didn’t seem to matter.

We took a taxi to El Mesón de la Cava and descended down a perilous iron stairway. The restaurant was an actual cave and we soaked up the ambiance with an aperitif amongst the jagged stalactites. We ordered sopa de pescado and were not disappointed by the snapper chowder. The menu was extensive, he looked at me hopefully and I shook my head ruefully.

“Never mind,” he said. “Ill take you to Boca Chica tomorrow and you buy me fish.”

“I’m out of money,” I said.

“Just buy the fish and I won’t charge you for the outing.”

What could I say? As it turned out Boca Chica was an excellent day out.

Just 25 minutes away from my hotel, the little beach town of Boca Chica is something more than just a beach or swimming pool. It was actually was the best I found in the Dominic (but I only had the various beaches Punta Cana to compare it to) as there was life there. Plenty of locals, nooks and crannies, bars, restaurants and shops trade their wares on the sandy shores. Apparently the locals can be a little intense, peddling their goods and wares, but as I was with a local nobody bothered us.

We ordered grilled fish which was cheap and ate it on the beach watching the tropical seas. A little way out is a half moon shaped reef, forming a natural salt-water swimming pool. The water is crystal clear, continuously filtered and fed by a series of natural underground springs.

The next day I caught a bus from Santo Domingo to Santiago which was where my flight to New York was leaving from. I was about to test the theory of if flying across boarders was accurate.

As it turns out, it was. I got stamped on arrival with another 90 days.

If you get a chance to visit, the Dominican Republic is a wonderful place to visit. Jet Blue do remarkably cheap flights from New York. My only advice is get out of the resorts and explore the wonderful history and culture that this Caribbean Island has to offer.

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