Sunday, December 26, 2021

Back Home for Christmas

This was it. Our last day. And a full day at that, as our flight was not scheduled to leave until 10:20 pm.

I can sum up the day in one sentence – we received verification of negative Covid tests, went for breakfast, had a long walk, went for lunch, hung out at the pool, Stella played volleyball, Magnus drank coffee and read a book, Ana and I soaked up the sunshine, we played bingo and had drinks, then had supper, and shortly thereafter were transported to the airport, bought duty-free, flew home, breezed through Canadian customs and immigration with no issues, nor any need for Covid testing, drove home, and were in bed by 5:30am.

It had been two years since we last boarded an airplane together, and in two years so much had changed. Magnus is a foot taller, Stella is turning into a lady, both of them have busy part time jobs, both have been through hellish and bizarre high school years, and both Ana and I have had drastic changes to our working environments due to Covid. I had been anticipating this trip for weeks, and when it finally arrived, and we were not stopped by Covid restrictions, I was overcome with happiness and looking forward to a trip similar to the ones we’ve done in the past, which was na├»ve on my part, as not all of us were on the same page. Magnus is really his own person now, on his own schedule, and has his own preferences, so he spent a good part of the trip by himself, and seemed quite happy with that, but we had to accept that he needed his space and didn’t want to be around us all the time. Stella really did seem to have a great time and spent a lot of it with Ana and I, and didn’t seem too distracted by Covid, but did take the opportunity to spend some time by herself. Ana, on the other hand, just couldn’t shake the Covid anxiety and had a hard time relaxing, right up until the end of the trip when we finally got our negative test results and managed to get back into Canada without requiring any testing or quarantine. It didn’t help that I let my guard down at times during the trip and took unnecessary risks with Covid protection. So in the end it wasn’t a perfect trip (an impossibility), but I think it was as good as could be expected in the current environment.

This pandemic has caused a lot of unseen damage, and much of it won’t even be recognized or understood until far into the future. It has changed so much that it is really hard to comprehend, and even harder to remember what things felt like before this pandemic. But I am so very thankful that we took this chance to go away, take a break, and spend one more vacation together as a family. I don’t know what 2022 will bring, but I do know that both of the kids are very close to embarking on their own journeys through life, so I will relish the time we get to spend together, no matter how, when, or where that happens.

So, with that, the 2021 trip to the Dominican Republic comes to a close, and we return home ready to enjoy a wonderful Christmas!

Damajagua Falls and Puerto Plata

Our taxi driver Carlos arrived shortly after 8, and we were on our way to the Damajagua Falls.

We like to do day trips during these all-inclusive holidays as sitting on the same beach chair for hours per day can get tedious. Relaxing, but boring. During our day trip to Sosua we had arranged a deal with that taxi driver to pick us up today and take us to this very popular waterfall destination, and he was able to do it for half the price of what the resort charged for a similar trip.

By this time, the Spanish was really coming back for both Ana and I so we spent the 75 minute trip quizzing Carlos about the country and the progress it had made since we had last been here so many years ago. Based on the little we’d seen, we’d both felt that things had improved here substantially. For example, when we lived here there was litter scattered everywhere you went, the drivers were suicidal, long power blackouts happened every day, there were many brutally poor people on the streets begging for money, and most regular people seemed broke and a little desperate. But during this trip, we had seen very little sign of any of these things. Carlos told us that the current and previous governments had invested heavily in road improvements, the electrical grid, garbage collection and recycling, and many other areas, resulting in drastic improvements across many aspects of society. This was so exciting to hear. We lived here for nearly two years and loved it, but the country just had so many problems, and it seems like progress is so hard to make in poorer countries. If you look at Haiti, the Dominican’s neighbor to the west, located on the exact same island of Hispanola, it is a story of corruption, natural disasters, political anarchy, massive corruption, steady decline, and heartbreak. It’s hard to imagine two countries on the same island on such different paths.

We got a very small taste of the traffic misery we remembered from our days in Santo Domingo as we passed through a few busy areas of Puerto Plata. The gasoline fumes from all the black smoke emanating from lorry trucks, tankers, beaten-up cars, and motorbikes were pungent and penetrated the car and my mask, giving me a thankfully short but pounding headache. Once we exited the city, the air cleared and it was back to green countryside and manageable traffic.

The Damajagua Falls are a set of 27 waterfalls and pools linked together such that you can either jump or slide from pool to pool. Depending on the time of year and quantity of rainfall, the number of these that can be accessed varies. Our guide Danny told us that the full set of 27 hadn’t been open for several years due to scant rain, and today we would be able to access 7 of these. After gearing up with helmets, lifejackets, and water shoes, we did a 30 minute hike up some steep paths that left us huffing and puffing. Along the way Danny pointed out many different types of trees, such as guayaba, grapefruit, mandarin, and also a few clumps of gigantic termite homes stuck to trees they were in the process of attacking.

A three metre jump into the first pool got us off to an adrenaline-fueled start. We then slid, jumped, and swam our way through the remaining 6 pools, having a whale of a time, having never seen anything quite like this before. It is absolutely worth the trip if you ever find yourself on the north coast of the DR.

From here we returned to Puerto Plata and our driver took us to the city centre where there stands a huge cathedral and a wide open plaza ringed with restaurants, souvenir vendors, and other shops. We seemed to get lucky with our timing as there were very few tourists around so we practically had the place to ourselves.  We learned that a new cruise ship port called Taino Bay has just opened up the week before, which made it the second one in the area, after Amber Cove. With these sorts of massive investments it’s likely to place Puerto Plata firmly on the cruisers destination map in the coming years, and the substantial economic spinoffs for locals that usually result.

We returned to the resort at 2 pm and Magnus was so famished with hunger that he raced to the snack bar, thinking the lunch buffet was probably closed. The rest of us returned to the room, dropped off our gear and cleaned up a bit, then went to the buffet, filled up a plate with all sorts of culinary wonders, then joined him on the patio by the snack bar. On his place was a half-eaten bun containing one half-eaten dried up hot dog and no trace of condiments, then about 13 cold French fries.

“What the hell’s that?” I asked him.

“What? That’s all I liked from the snack bar.”

“Why didn’t you go to the buffet?”

“I didn’t think it would be open.”

“Why didn’t you at least put some condiments on your hot dog?”

“I was too hungry for that.”

“OK, well why don’t you go to the buffet now and get a decent lunch?”

“I’m full. And I’m going back to the room.”

Teenagers. Magnus is going through this strange phase where he barely eats anything during regular meal times, but tops up on junk and snacks throughout the day. It drives me nuts, especially after we cook great meals at home and he just picks away at them. At least here I didn’t have to cook any of it for him.

After lunch, the rest of us returned to the room and, clearly exhausted by the unheard of level of physical activity for a day at an all-inclusive, we all fell asleep and had huge naps. Ana and I woke up in time for a nice beach walk, and we let the kids sleep as both of them had actually been feeling a little stomach upset. It was back to the buffet for a late dinner then we retired to the room and watched part of a horribly stupid movie on tv (the only channel not in Spanish) – a remake of “Clash of the Titans” with a whole roster of Hollywood superstars, stilted and ridiculous dialogue, and a CGI team they must have recruited right from Ringo Starr’s 1981 film “Caveman”.

Swab Up the Nose

I was thinking that the listing of uplifting words and phrases painted on our hotel room wall might be changed up to have more of an impact. There’s no shortage of sources telling us to be more positive (lifestyle gurus), or to exercise more (Peleton ads), to eat healthy (cereal boxes), or to be nicer to people (The Wiggles). Instead, why not hit people right in the face with all the unproductive things they do that makes their lives miserable? Then, instead of going down the list saying to yourself Yep, I should do that, should do that more too, definitely don’t do much of that, and so on, the reaction might be, My God that’s me, why do I do that, no wonder I’m so depressed. Here’s a great listing of phrases to paint on your kitchen wall:













I was up early this morning to do some writing, then spun by the room to collect my peeps for Walking Club but they were out cold so I continued out on my own. And I found the answer to Magnus’s question to me from the previous night, which was Can the moon and the sun be visible in the sky at the same time?. As I walked, the brightly-lit moon was directly in front of me to the west, and it was not long before the morning sun appeared directly to the east, and as it rose in the sky strengthening, the moon slowly began to fade. I walked until the beach slimmed and turned into impassable rock then stopped, did some stretching, took a moment to close my eyes and appreciate the feel of the sand beneath my feet, the salty windy on my skin, and the music of the ocean. These moments which implant themselves firmly in my memory, are what I come back to during the depths of the Canadian winter.

At 9am we showed up at the resort medical office for our PCR Covid tests, which are required to get back into Canada. The doctor took our payment then proceeded to ritualistically shove a swab up each of our eight nostrils to the point where it could go no further in, then gave it some twirls to stimulate the brain core a bit. When he did mine, my right leg started to spasm, and I could see he was pleased as the swab had definitely hit some cranial matter.

After the tests, we went online to attend a virtual funeral service streamed from the UK for our good friend Heinrich Richheimer. He was a career mentor to both Ana and I and had worked with us on several major projects when we lived and traveled overseas. It was an interesting coincidence that we happened to be in the Dominican Republic for this event, as Heinrich, Ana and I had spent so many evenings together in Santo Domingo enjoining wonderful dinners or just hanging out in our apartment. He was a great friend and we will miss him.

The rest of the day was highly relaxing, but quite void of adventure. We stationed ourselves on one of the dreamy four-post beach mattresses beside the pool and played cards, napped, read, jumped in the pool when we got hot, and watched the mosaic of kites flying in the bay as the riders cut through and leaped off waves. Stella and I finished up the afternoon by grabbing a couple of boogie boards and riding the waves. She got rocked and rolled by one wave so badly that her mask popped off and was lost in the swirling and sandy waters.

We had our third and final a la carte meal of the trip at the Italian restaurant La Vela. Determined to not consume twice as much food as we needed, we asked the waiter for advice, and he assured us that, because of the small portion sizes, we would need an appetizer, a pasta dish, a main course, and a dessert, then of course a basket of fresh bread. So we did. I knew I was in trouble when my appetizer arrived and it consisted of two sliced tomatoes, half a shredded lettuce, and a pound of sliced mozzarella cheese. We did our best and consumed as much as we could, but by the end it was all we could do to drag our overstuffed arses directly back to the room.

Exploring Sosua

The morning was warm, windless and the nicest of the trip thus far, so Ana and I headed out at 7am for Walking Club after trying in vain to seduce Stella into joining us. We walked the entire length of the beach to the east, seeing a few of our favourite beach dogs along the way, and a number of people running up and down the beach. I’ve never been much of a runner; walking has always been my thing. Runners always have this look of extreme pain on their face – they never run past you wearing a blissful smile, like many walkers do. When runners do take a moment to look at you, panting, with bulging white eyes, I always get the feeling they are about to say Help, somebody just plunged a knife into my back! or I’ve been poisoned! That’s why I like to take my exercise long and slow.

To break the glorious relaxing monotony of the resort, we decided to take a trip to explore the nearby town of Sosua. We found a nice taxi fellow named Carlos outside the hotel and had a lovely conversation with him during the 15-minute ride. He told us all about the high vaccination rates in the Dominican Republic, low Covid numbers, the escalating price of gasoline, the political situation in Haiti, and we even recruited him to take us to some nearby waterfalls and a tour of Puerto Plata on Wednesday for a great price. As usual, the Spanish was coming back to Ana twice as fast as it was for me, but I was still hanging in there.

Carlos dropped us off near the main beach area and we were surprised to find a completely calm and sheltered bay with boats anchored offshore and no waves of any sort – such a drastic change from the perpetually crashing surf in Cabarete. After dodging half a dozen vendors trying to sell us banana boat rides, catamaran trips, beach chairs, glass bottom boat excursions, fresh fruit, and hair braiding, we found a great spot, spread our towels over the sand, extracted the masks and snorkels from the backpack, and within minutes the girls and I were in the water swimming out to the nearby reef while Magnus stood guard. It has become abundantly clear that Magnus is not a beach guy; he doesn’t like the sand, hates wearing sandals, and prefers to stay dry. I don’t know what family raised him like that.

As expected, the coral reef was mostly dead, which is inevitable when you allow hundreds of inexperienced snorkelers every day to pummel, stand-upon, and remove items from the reef, but there was a surprisingly large quantity and variety of fish and the structure and size of the reef itself was impressive. When we returned, Ana and Magnus went for a beach walk while Stella and I alternated between lying on our towels getting baked by the hot sun, and dipping back into the cool and incredibly clear water. They returned with two tiny hermit crabs and some shells, which was more life than we’d found the entire time exploring Cabarete beach. After a few more swims, Stella and I did a beach walk to return the hermits to their home, and along the way found some nice pieces of sea glass in the sand.

Our sun-kissed skin was becoming sun-charred so we packed up our stuff and walked through the long stretch of shaded beach bars and restaurants, some consisting of rusted corrugated sheet-metal walls, some with thatch roofs, and others constructed of abandoned wood and various cast-off bits and pieces. What was relatively consistent between them was the abundance of odd couples – 65-year-old white European or American men with 18-year-old Dominican girls. I pointed this out to Stella and we had a discussion on the business of prostitution. She was shocked, and I think saddened.

We found our way to the downtown area and wandered around for a long time before we were able to find a bank machine that would produce some pesos for us, and by that time we were starving so we found a table at Captain Bailees restaurant and had a lovely, long lunch, followed up with a haircut for me and a bit of shopping for Ana and the kids.

We tried to call Carlos to pick us up for the return trip, but he wasn’t answering his phone so we found a different taxi to take us back to the hotel, and there we laid low and recovered from our strenuous day trip.

The Lunch Scam

The rain began overnight and continued into the morning, so I enjoyed a rare sleep-in and Walking Club didn’t get going until close to 9 after the skies had cleared. Even at that departure time I couldn’t interest Magnus, so he hung around in the room while the rest of the walked, then we all met up for breakfast. The breakfast spread was excellent, as each day they had fresh papaya, cantaloupe, and watermelon, as well as yogurt, fresh croissants, then all the greasy fry-up staples such as omelets, several types of sausages, fried potatoes, and lastly, trays of waffles, pancakes, and French toast.

We played around in the pool and did some body surfing in the ocean, and somewhere along the way Stella lost her silver earrings, which bummed her out, but fortunately a new set of earrings was only a short walk away in one of the jewelry stores in town.

Yesterday, we had been approached by two hotel staff – Samwise and Carlos, and they had offered us a free lunch at one of their sister hotels, which was a higher end facility, in the hopes that we might consider booking our next trip there. Upon agreeing, they pulled out a booking form, wrote some information on it, then gave it to us. Look, we knew right away there were some ulterior motives here, which would probably require a time-share presentation or something like this (what did someone once say about there being no such thing as a free lunch?), but on these all-inclusive trips any chance we have to do something out of the ordinary is welcome.

We arrived at the Presidential Suites Lifestyle Cabarete hotel at 12:30 and entered the front door to find a large eating area with no sign of food or guests. A staff member suddenly appeared, asked for our voucher, then led us across the street to a different portion of the hotel and we were directed to a table near the fancy bar and offered a drink. So far so good. Then a slicked-up dude arrived, welcomed us, gave us a party sack which included a mickey of rum, a bottle of Mamajuana ingredients (Dominican’s version of aphrodisiac liquor), and some other trinkets. Then…the sales pitch. He told us all about the model which was absolutely not a time share, but was the next gen version, now called a Holiday Vacation Club where you pay an initial amount (from $25k to $350k) which gives you access to any of their properties in the DR, Mexico, or Dubai. They also allow you to rent out rooms to non-members for a premium over what the member would pay, allowing you to pocket the difference. The salesperson was likeable and pretty convincing, as these guys always are, but we made it pretty clear this was not for us, but we would like to see a room. He took us up to the three bedroom unit, which was simply stunning, as all bedrooms and living areas had ocean views, and it was very modern and spacious. There was one other couple there cornered on a couch getting the hard sales pitch from another salesman, but we kept standing, in fighting pose, as our guy tried again to convince us to at least buy some sort of trial package. We said no, but asked to see additional information or a contract, but we were told flatly that they did not provide any sales information and all deals had to be done on the spot, today, which screamed scam and red flags. We politely declined and hoped we’d then be directed to the restaurant, and he did accompany us to the restaurant, right through it, past the fancy pool and pool bar, then were heaved unceremoniously down a set of concrete stairs to the beach below like yesterday’s garbage.

“So I guess you had to spend the 25 grand to get lunch?” I asked.

“What a scam,” said Ana. “That was a total waste of time.”

“What did you guys think?” I asked the kids.

“I think it was a great deal. I ran the numbers through my head and it makes a lot of sense,” said Magnus.

Stella didn’t have much to say, besides where were we going for lunch.

We had a great conversation all the way back about direct sales, multi-level marketing, our past experiences with these sorts of sales pitches, and how to recognize a scam. I found it the whole thing to be an irreplaceable learning opportunity for the kids, especially Magnus who is a natural salesmen, but also I think inclined to fall for these sorts of things, so exposure to high pressure sales in a safe environment with his parents was probably a good experience for both of them.

Lunch was had in the buffet, which fended off my family’s starvation after the phantom lunch invitation, then dinner was taken in the second of the hotel’s a la carte restaurants – the Asian Fusion. The rest of the day was spent by the pool, and Ana and I went for one more walk later in the day and were happy to come across a group of local kids who had struck up a big game of beach baseball. It was satisfying to see teenagers having fun with each other, being social, being goofy, and getting exercise instead of just standing there silently mesmerized by their phones, scrolling endlessly.

Meet "The Hammer"

Walking Club was slightly delayed as it was pouring outside at 7, but by 8 Ana, Stella and I were walking the beach, amidst intermittent gentle showers, while Magnus the schedule-challenged teenager slumbered. Stella was hoping to find some shells, but there were few signs of life along the beach – no shells, no jellyfish, no perished fish, no crabs, and not even any shore birds. Really, the only living things were a few vagabond beach dogs, one which we recognized from the night before, as Magnus had struck a friendship with it and named him Hernando.

After breakfast we set up shop beside the pool and Stella produced a Sunwing beach ball she had been given on the airplane. It didn’t take long for a few kids to join our pool game of “keep it up” and soon we had overtaken the centre area of the pool with the competitors. A new chatty kid entered the game, and introduced himself to me as Ethan but I nicknamed him The Hammer as his contacts with the ball were vigorous, powerful, and completely directionless. And sometimes he would grab the ball, run around on the deck a bit, then launch himself into the water, laughing wildly, as he hammered the ball haphazardly and belly-flopped, or back-flopped, or face-flopped into the water while the rest of us took turns retrieving the ball from the far reaches of the pool. He took a liking to me and cozied up to me in the pool, then told me his life story which he summarized in about five rapid sentences: he’s from the Bronx, has younger twin brothers, and he suspects his mom might have been born somewhere else as she speaks great Spanish.

During lunch, Ana noticed that we hadn’t seen a single gecko or lizard yet, which was surprising as they are normally stuck all over the walls and ceilings at these resorts. And they are so much fun to use as targets for spitballs.

“Let’s ask the waiter what happened to all the geckos,” I said. “How do you say gecko in Spanish?”

“I think it’s legato,” Ana said.

As one of the waiters came by, Ana grabbed his attention and asked him in Spanish, “Excuse me, what happened to all the legatos that are usually on the walls?”

He looked at her confused and said, “What?”

“Legatos. Lizards. Geckos,” Ana said as she pointed at the walls and ceilings, and the waiter’s eyes followed her fingers, but was just not getting it, then he said something in Spanish like, “Senora, whatever word you are saying, that lady over there knows all about it, just ask her,” and then he pointed to the hostess.

“She is the legato expert?” Ana asked.

“Si, si, si,” the waiter replied then hightailed it out of the dining area.

Another waiter came by so Ana, never one to give up, tried again.

“Senor, what happened to all the legatos?”

“Ahhh, legatos. Si. Well, since Covid there’s been many fewer of them. Very suspicious. I think something funny’s going on,” he said, shaking his head, with a look of paranoia in his eyes. The pandemic conspiracy theories ran far deeper than I expected. Perhaps Bill Gates and his Illuminati had it in for the geckos of the world too.

We spent the day alternating between beach and pool, playing cards, telling the kids some old travel stories, and soaking up the beautiful sunshine. As promised, the Sunwing rep produced a credit card loaded with $150 compensation for the lost bag, and the bag itself showed up late in the afternoon, after being discovered in Toronto and sent out on an Air Canada flight. Stella was overjoyed, and showed up at our Mexican a la carte meal wearing a dashing outfit and a huge smile. The meal itself was voluminous, delicious, and opulent. After four courses of Mexican food, followed up with tequila shots, it was all we could do to limp back to the room, carrying the heavy load of our overburdened stomachs, and collapse on the bed.

Retail Mission

When vacationing at an all-inclusive resort, Walking Club meets at 7am every morning on the beach. Sometimes it’s just me, sometimes there’s one or two more, depending on who I can cajole into joining me. It is the best time of the day, as there’s enough light to see, but the sun isn’t up yet, so you get this hazy pre-morning atmosphere that is warm but not hot and perfect for walking. For the first Walking Club of the trip it was just me, and I started from the western end of Cabarete Beach where the hotel was located and walked east along the horseshoe shaped bay. The surf was large and crashing and the wind strong, but the further east I walked, the less frenzied the ocean became, and when it hit my risk tolerance level, I threw off my shirt and jumped in for my first ocean dip. Glorious. This is the moment I dream about every year, plunging into that salty, warm ocean water, then bobbing to the surface and floating there on my back, listening to the surf, feeling the water washing over me, and tasting the salt on my lips. There’s something about the ocean water that makes me feel fulfilled, and connected, and present. I love it.

I returned to the room, collected my people, then we headed down to the restaurant area for our first breakfast, which was delicious, with many selections, and outstanding croissants. As we ate, the kids noticed a resort cat prowling around the floor, snapping up dropped morsels, then saw another one perched on the roof overlooking the diners, perhaps enjoying tasty gutter snacks.

With breakfast concluded, the retail mission was on. Ana loves nothing more than a retail mission, and a missing luggage provided an urgent shopping necessity indeed. We walked out the front entrance of the resort and set out walking down the busy main street and were passed by smelly two-stroke motorbikes, dump trucks, construction trucks, busses, beaten-up cars, all spewing clouds of gasoline and diesel vapours into the roadway and lungs of the many locals and tourists walking along the sidewalk trails alongside the roadway. We found an ATM and withdrew a nice wad of Dominican pesos at a rate of about 41 to 1.

After finding one beachwear store where the cheapest suit was $75 US dollars, the girls zeroed-in on a second hand clothing store and descended into a crazed shopping frenzy, like deranged and ravenous Great Whites ripping apart a whale. For our own safety, Magnus and I skedaddled out of there and across the street to a coffee shop where we enjoyed some drinks and chatted until the ladies exhausted themselves and the store’s inventory. After this, Stella’s mood was much improved.

From here we continued walking and soon reached the commercial center of town. It had been at least 20 years since Ana and I had been to Cabarete, and it really didn’t seem to have changed much at all. There were shops selling touristy trinkets, some selling surf wear and gear, small grocery stores, booze shops, restaurants, an ice cream stand, some banks, fruit vendors, and a lot of locals and tourists coming and going. Despite the road running parallel to the beach, the solid stretch of buildings made it impossible to see the ocean, other than quick glimpses through the shops with all glass front and backs, or the occasional pedestrian walkway. We found a few more clothing items for Stella, Magnus bought some trinkets, Ana bought jewelry, and I picked up two cigars. Retail mission accomplished!

We cut through one of the walkways to the beach and the world transformed. In place of loud motorcycles was the loud surf crashing up on the beach. Instead of shops selling trinkets, there was an army of vendors carrying wooden cases full of them, approaching each and every tourist trying to sell them a bracelet, or necklace, or box of cigars. And instead of an endless array of commercial buildings, there was an expansive and beautiful ocean before us, with the high winds building up large waves and crashing surf. Diesel vapours were replaced with moist salty air, cracked pavement replaced with soft sand, and instead of blaring car stereos were speakers from the many beach restaurants cranking out the latest Dominican bachata hits and salsa classics. Man, I love Latino land.

We walked back along the beach and soon the restaurants thinned out and were replaced by larger hotels, and in one case, just the abandoned and slightly creepy foundation of a long-ago demolished building, made even scarier by a blasted hole in the high foundation wall leading into darkness, and large enough to walk into, with ominous Spanish words sprayed on the moldy concrete.

“Hey Dad,” Magnus said. “I bet I can guess what those Spanish words translate into.”

“What?” I asked.

“Free hugs.”

We arrived back at the hotel just in time for lunch, where we continued our first day stomach expansion, then the kids returned to the room to relax while Ana and I attended the Sunwing orientation session at 2 pm, which was mostly useless and confusing, but we did find out that Stella would be receiving compensation for the delayed bag. By mid-afternoon the wind had picked up and as we walked onto the beach we realized why Cabarete is called the kite surfing capital of the world – by my rough estimation there were 150 kite surfers tearing through the bay, cutting through the surf, and doing giant leaps off waves then slowly parachuting down with many seconds of hang time. What a spectacle! Especially since the last time we were here, the sport of kite surfing didn’t yet exist, and the bay was full of windsurfers and Hobie Cats. Now, there was not a single sailboard to be seen – it was all kites.

Despite the large and dangerous crashing waves, Stella and I decided to go for an ocean swim, which was less a swim, and more of a game of chicken with the unstoppable cresting waves, which refused to chicken out, and enveloped us and rolled us upside down, sideways, backwards, and forwards across the fortunately sandy bottom, resulting in sand rash, inhaled ocean water, and sand-laden crotches of swimsuits. It was great fun, so much so that Ana even joined us for some aquatic punishment.

We returned to the room for human crevice sand identification and removal, then a chill-out session on our balcony where I enjoyed a fine dark Maduro robusto cigar and a cold Presidente while listening to Bob Marley on the speaker and watching the guests and staff walking back and forth along the pathways. Moments like this are when I achieve a sense of stillness on these trips, so I relish and remember them.

Buffet dinner was excellent, but we did not stay out for any later evening activities as we were wiped from a full day in the sun so I was asleep before 10 and I don’t know what happened after that.

2021 Dominican Republic - Arrival in Cabarete

The heavy door to the airtight cigar tube opened and the sweet and moist Caribbean air flooded into the space occupied by masked Northerners, Omicron molecules, and lingering people smells. We waited patiently as those at the front of the plane gathered their things and slowly filtered out. The wait was excruciating, but we were now so close, and a successful start to our first overseas vacation in two years was imminent. I had kept my hopes purposely low in the weeks leading up to our departure as the fourth wave of Covid in Canada courtesy of the Omicron variant (successor to the Delta variant, the UK variant, and the original Covid Classic) was underway and cases were riding the exponential curve up, resulting in new travel restrictions and potential border closures. Fortunately, our departure date arrived before any new drastic measures were introduced, and on Thursday, December 16 we stepped off the plane and into the Dominican Republic, a place we hadn’t visited for ten years.

After successfully passing through customs and immigration, we proceeded to the baggage area to find the bags were already unloaded off the carousel and arranged on the floor, awaiting their anxious owners. Bag number 1, check. Bags 2 and 3, check. Bag number 4. Bag number 4? Where the hell is bag number 4? We raced around the carousel, looking for it, but found nothing, so scanned the other passengers to see if they had mistakenly picked it up, which was very possible as it was the most generic black roller bag you could imagine. No dice. I called over an airport worker who helped us with a brief search, then had us complete a missing bag report. The missing bag was Stella’s, and her heart and spirit had plunged, as our precious fashionista had meticulously packed it with carefully curated evening outfits, clever accessories, and Insta-worthy beachwear, and all her imagined glamour parades down the runway leading to the buffet were now in serious jeopardy.

We completed the paperwork and Ana exchanged phone numbers with the contact so she could keep us informed of progress. We left the Puerto Plata airport and found the Sunwing rep who pointed out the bus that would be taking us to our final destination of Cabarete, and as we walked over Stella shed a few tears, despite our promises of generous compensation from the airline, shopping opportunities, and surety that the bag would be found at some point. None of that mattered - she was completely deflated. Me, not so much, especially after discovering that the obnoxious wedding party of 40 that had taken over the departure gate with strollers, endless bags of gear, and bratty, unvaccinated kids running all over the place without masks spraying youthful germs everywhere, were in fact not going to our resort. One of the dads in particular, thought it was perfectly acceptable to walk up and down the length of the airplane throughout the journey unmasked and drinking beer while carrying his phlegmy baby. All we could do was tighten up our N-95 surgical masks and breathe shallowly.

After 40-minute ride which included a brief stop in Sosua to drop off guests at a different hotel, we arrived at the Viva Wyndham Tangerine hotel at 11pm and after being strangled with a check-in bottleneck, we were finally presented with keys to our rooms and began the heroic Victory Walk. This is the initial triumphant journey from reception to your room, as you are wearing your winter boots, carrying jackets and gloves, dragging suitcases, and covered with the funk of the airplane, but feeling overjoyed at the miracle of actually being here and imagining the all-inclusive week to come.

Our ground level rooms were excellent and had an adjoining door between them. Especially appealing to me was the instructive and inspirational mural painted on the wall of our room which had artfully painted word such as THINKPOSITIVE, RELAX, EXERCISEDAILY, EAT HEALTHY, WORRYLESS, WORKHARD, LIVE, LOVE. It was a pleasant change from the typical wall propaganda we are used to seeing in Cuba, such as PATRIA O MUERTE (Country or Death), LA HISTORIA ME ABSOLVERA (History Will Absolve Me), SOCIALISMA O MUERTE (Socialism or Death), MUERTE AL INVASOR (Death to the Invader). Positivity, amigos.

After a rapid unpacking we searched out the midnight snack bar and sat down for a plate of crab croquettes, hot dogs, and French fries, and ate it up greedily. I washed my food down with a plastic cup of cold Presidente beer which was inspiring and marvelous. As it was late, we had a very quick look around the resort, which was smallish, well-kept and nearly empty of people, then retired to our rooms for the night, anxious to begin our first full day tomorrow.