Costambar, Dominican Republic
This was no all-inclusive resort.
As I walked with my brothers and parents down the dirt road to buy dinner from a fish shack on the beach, no one chased me to join “activity hour” or drink daiquiris by an overcrowded pool. Not on this beach. Music poured out of the kerosene lamp-lit plank shacks that doubled as cafes. The building's only three walls were painted blue and red like Macaw feathers with white sand floors. The young staff stopped cleaning for a moment to dance bachata together to the crackling of a portable radio droning Enrique Iglesias.
I've been to the D.R. three times and am going back for my fourth trip this year. I was 12-years-old the first trip, 25 the second and third. Everything was as I had left it...per my instructions. Good job guys. The same Mars-red barren hillsides jolting from the earth, craggy sharp pink coral, and dramatic cliffs edging into Larimar-blue waves. The same dilapidated trucks with men hanging out of the flatbed, blaring Romeo Santas on their way to work; the same fish with rice and beans that we cannot replicate no matter how many times we’ve tried. The same rich dampness of the jungle, a fragrant cocktail of decay and new life. The same warm hands of strangers that grabbed my arm while sharing a joke. I don’t know why I came home...three times.
“We love the people!” my mom insists when asked why we keep going back.
Her admiration in part stems from the time we were sitting in the back of a truck (unworthy of the rusty dirt road it straddled), with curly dense jungle for miles. A passenger had to use the restroom, so, the driver pulled up to a stranger's concrete block house to ask if we (a truck full of American and European strangers) could use the family’s restroom. Of course we could! No problem. As we pulled away, my brother pointed out the family’s rigging for cable TV— a coat hanger and some wire tossed over a passing government cable wire. They could give us access to a bathroom; they could give themselves nothing. We go back because we’ve traveled the world and never met people so gracious, so generous.
We go back for the young people paying their way through medical school tips made off of giving tours. Our broken Spanish was enough to get some laughs rolling; some jokes at our expense but we didn’t care. These students were changing their communities and had tales to tell. One group of guides on my first trip saw my blue eyes, and gave a teasing gasp. “Blue eyes?! Hey, you’ll be my girlfriend, amor?” I was terrified because no one had asked me to be their girlfriend before, and I was pretty sure they were older than 12. A gentle pull on my ponytail and a hand up into the truck assured me it wasn't a serious proposal.
We go back for the “do what you gotta do” attitude that doesn’t exist back home. We have been bussed around in the bed of someone’s truck, no seatbelts, no roof, and few traffic laws. No one washed our fruits and vegetables before we ate them on a beach that hadn’t been named yet. We go back for the independence. Like that of the Haitaian immigrant cracking a coconut with a butter knife. She was in her 80’s, leathered by the sun, tripping over her Spanish and Creole, and a full bucket of fruit bowing her head. A chivalrous young man rose to hand her a machete, but she shot him down, hissing through five craggy, broken teeth and rapping the butter knife against the hairy hide of the coconut. “No machet! No machet!” She passed us the sweet white meat, snatched our pesos from our hand, and hobbled down the beach, sans machet.
We go back for the adventure. When 12-year old me jumped off a 14-foot waterfall in the middle of the jungle, there was no lifeguard in a bright cruise-line issued swimsuit to catch me, no guardrail to keep me from slipping, tumbling off the rock and suing someone. There was no one to sue. It was me, a slippery rock, a waterfall, and 14 feet to fall. I was free to explore and do things my culture would insist are unwise, unsafe, prohibited — here have another virgin pina colada, sweetheart. Not in this jungle.
We go back because our idea of a vacation is playing on coral reefs with a bunch of 10-year-olds who clung to my hand to make sure the 25-year-old didn’t wipe out, who named me “Blanca” because my Irish roots were obvious in that merciless Caribbean sun. We go back to the thick, emerald undergrowth, where machetes are still the best way to clear a path, where thatch keeps the rain out of your bedroom.
We go back because we want to see the truth. That this child’s school supplies didn’t come from the store, but were tossed out the back of the truck filled with tourists. That the German man walking down the beach at 10pm with the 13-year-old girl was not her father. That there is poverty, and want, and exploitation, and need here. And we want to fix it however we can, with whatever we have.
We go back because they still invite us to. Because we couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather go. Because the people are amazing. Because its real.