Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chickens on the Bus

I have bad luck when it comes to passengers on buses. Always have. If there is an enthusiastically strange homeless guy, someone seriously horizontally challenged or a person allergic to showers guaranteed they always find their way to that empty seat next to me. So today when on the bus from Santo Domingo to Bonao a relatively normal looking young guy sat along side me, I knew it was too good to be true. And it was. He had been seated only a few seconds when the smell hit me, like a vicious assault upon my unsuspecting nostrils. I couldn't figure it out, he wasn't that unclean. He was carrying three sacks with draw strings and I assumed they held his belongings. Perhaps despite his average appearance he was homeless, it would explain the foul stench coming from his direction. He caught me assessing his bags and gestured toward them. I heard a strange noise coming from them and I responded with a curious look. He reached one arm deep into the depths of the bag... and pulled out a live, clucking chicken! His bags were full of live chickens. He sat one on his lap and gave me this goofy grin as if to say "look, I have a chicken!". I couldn't stop giggling the whole bus trip. It definitely explained the smell.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Day Trip to the South Side

Yesterday a group of us took off on a day trip to the South side of the island to visit the area of Barahona, and some other places along the way. I think this post will be more pictures than writing, I went a little camera crazy but I think the photos really capture it better than I could in words. Through friends of friends I came in contact with a local surfer called Marcus. He has turned out to be a god send, not only does he do ding repairs but he also has been kind enough to take my medical student buddies and I on sight seeing trips around the island. He gave me a ridiculously great deal on the repairs to my favorite surfboard, injured in an incident involving bad roof ties and high speed! Armed with my newly repaired surfboard, a convoy of 3 car loads of friends and I took off at 6am on the hunt for some waves. My previous Dominican Republic surf expedition to the North was enjoyable but only produced head height mush, nice to get wet in but not the epic quality surf I have been hoping to find, and I embarked on this adventure with high hopes.

The 3 hour drive along the coast was beautiful. The Dominican Republic has some amazing mountains, I hope to at some point this week to go explore them. They filmed the movie Jurassic Park here. The roads are in good condition and the drive was very interesting. The beach we stopped to surf at was stunning. The coastal waters are an amazing, milky bright blue and the beaches are fringed with palm trees. But damn it, it was windy AGAIN! We were greeted by shoulder to head height wedgy mush, but still we were all eager to hit the water and made the most of what was on offer. Even better than the surf was wandering through the streets of the village. The Dominican Republic is a very poor country, but the small villages are vibrant and colourful, full of gorgeous little shacks and people riding around on donkeys. When we came out of the surf some of the local kids brought us coconuts which was really touching. However when we pulled into the beach I remember seeing a young boy, no older than ten, standing there naked, his face swollen and bruised, clearly beaten. I assume he was unable to buy clothes. I didn't even think to offer him one of my spare shirts, and by the time I did he was gone.

After a morning surf we continued down the coast and went for lunch at a local waterfall. The water was icy cold and refreshing, and the food delicious as always. Typical food here consists of rice and beans with fish and plantains. We drove a little further down the coast in search of waves, but its seems the surf gods were against us. We returned to the previous beach for an afternoon session, the wind died off a little and there were some rideable ones coming through. The break is a left, it's rocky and shallow on the inside but has a really fun takeoff and good shape. I can see with the right conditions it would definitely be a quality wave. The drive back to Santo Domingo was long, by the time we got home it was around 10 at night. Even though the waves weren't epic it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, the only downside was managing to drop my wallet in a Dominican public toilet (EEEW YUCK!).

However I do have one unfortunate discovery to comment on, a few days ago I found out my plans to reach Cuba from here are unattainable. Flights are unreasonably expensive. It seems the cheapest place to fly to Cuba from is Cancun in Mexico, so i will try to reach Cuba later on in my trip. I have been dreaming of going there ever since I was young, after my parents dragged me off to see the documentary on the Buena Vista Social club. I left the movie theatre inspired, announcing "I'm going to Cuba!". I am taking this set back not as total defeat, simply as a bump in the road. My plans will now change, back to Puerto Rico then onto Central America. But hey, things could be a whole lot worse!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ferries, Cadavers and Santo Domingo

After a month and a half of lovely surf in Rincon it was time to kick my butt into gear and head for the Dominican Republic. Since flying with surfboards can be extremely costly I opted for the ferry that runs between Mayaguez and Dominican Republic. It's more of a cruise ship style than a passenger/cargo ferry, much to the disappointment of my wallet! The brochure and website showed a large cruise ship, with everything from a casino to a movie theatre. The reality was a run down old cruise ship, smelling of stale cigarettes. I chose what was called "aeroplane style seating" in order to save money. Aeroplane seating turned out to be a few plastic chairs scattered around the place, it was shaping up to be a very long and uncomfortable 12 hours! As luck would have it I met a lovely group of American missionaries who took me in and gave me the spare bed in their cabin. This is not the first time in my travels that I have been taken in by missionaries, I seem to find them everywhere, they can be a helpful bunch! It was rough seas and very rocky, but it seems all my time recently spent on boats has been paying off, I didn't feel even a touch of sea sickness. Getting off the boat and clearing customs was mayhem, very crowded, and my lack of spanish doesn't help. It was definitely a relief to have my old housemates cousin picking me up from the ferry dock. My advice for anyone island hopping without surfboards, take the aeroplane!

I have spent the past couple of nights staying with a group of medical students in Santo Domingo, next door to the university. On my first day I was taken into the anatomy lab to get a look at my first dead body and test my stomach. I'm not sure what I was expecting exactly, but it certainly wasn't anything like what I saw. They were so brown! The bodies spend several months being preserved in a brown liquid, so by the time they come out they almost look mummified. I had an initial wave of "oooh wow that's overwhelmingly creepy", but after a few seconds it passed and I found the experience very interesting. The worst was a big pool where three new bodies were soaking, they will stay there for a few months before being used. It definitely looked like something out of a horror movie, I took pictures but I don't think they would be suitable for posting on a blog, some how! They never have a shortage of bodies to study, as the bodies of criminals are given to the university.

Last night was my first proper look around the city of Santo Domingo, it was far more beautiful than I had expected! It has such a rich cultural history, and the architecture is so well maintained. Christopher Columbus arrived in Santo Domingo in 1492, and I think today the city is the oldest European city in the caribbean. The Catedral Santa Maria La Menor was the first catholic cathedral in America. Wandering around the cobbled stoned streets at night looking at the ancient architecture is an absolute pleasure. We went for dinner at a beautiful restaurant and being seated outside we were able to watch live music and dancing being performed in the town square. I have also discovered a new favourite drink, one I tried for the first time in Puerto Rico. It's called Sangria, and is a mix of wine with juice, sliced fruit and soda. The recipe varies from place to place, but its always delicious. I guess coming from Australia our idea of a sangria is some cheap wine mixed with that old orange juice we found at the back of the fridge, but when made the traditional way it really is delicious! The nightlife in Santo Domingo is really upper class, swanky bars and beautiful restaurants, found mostly around the colonial district. It's definitely worth a visit. The only down side of the night was having my credit card eaten by an ATM machine because I left it there too long! Tomorrow I am hoping to go to the North coast and find some waves. A big swell is hitting the islands (Puerto Rico and Tortola too) but the wind is blowing so strong it has been unsurfable. Hopefully the surf gods will smile upon me and tomorrow I can report on the quality of Dominican Republic waves. Well its time for me to go back to bed now and sleep off my morning sangria hangover!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Contests and Bomba

This weekend saw the arrival of the annual corona surf contest in Rincon, infamous for its perpetual lack of waves and copious amounts of drinking (photo to above is of Rincon, a few weeks before the contest). It is a rather festive affair, offering $2 coronas not only at the contest but also in all the bars around town. It draws a healthy crowd, with people traveling across the island to attend, many pitching tents at the beach. The contest is renowned for its run of bad lack in the waves department, and sure enough as the contest was setting up the waves decided $2 coronas weren't their thing and made a hasty dash for the exit. I enjoyed the first day of the competition, residing for the afternoon in a hammock hanging from a tree, $2 corona in hand. After a day of sunshine and light (though non the less constant) alcohol consumption I rallied the housemates to hit up the Rincon night life. It was packed! Beer tents were set up outside bars and people lined the streets. Day break saw me waking up in the sand at Maria's beach a little worse for wear. A nice morning swim was followed by a bacon and egg sandwich, then after a short rest it was time to return to the contest grounds to start all over again for day two!

That evening I attended a birthday party which turned out to be thoroughly more enjoyable than any night out on the town in Rincon. It was the birthday of Vivian, a lady whos 8 month old son my housemate babysits. This party was my first introduction to traditional Puerto Rican culture and music. Coming from Australia I associate only two things with Puerto Rican culture, salsa and reggaton. While both of these are interesting there are some other amazing styles of traditional music. About four guitars were brought along (including mine) and the men sat around and began to play a style of music called Trova. It has a lovely up beat, latin feel and the "Travador" sings along. He improvises lyrics to the music in a distinctive singing style. After a few drinks things are getting quite festive, and I'm sure his lyrics are getting a bit cheeky because there are shrieks of astonishment and fits of giggles going on around the room. Next the men flip the guitars over to form make shift drums. Vivian, the birthday girl, gets up to dance. She was born in South America and she is beautiful. She's curvy with dark wavy hair and an infectious spirit and enthusiasm. She begins to dance a style called Bomba. The first drummer sets down a beat and she leads the second drummer with the moves of her body. She taps her feet, the drummer simultaneously matches the rhythm on the back of his guitar. Her hips move with a "whump whump" side to side, the drummer matching with a "thump thump". And in a flurry of feet and hips and hair she's off, dancing around the room, leading the drummers in a frenzy of rhythmic percussion. Everyone is cheering and it's so much fun to watch. I am told in this style of dance the woman normally wears a special long skirt made with several layers. I can imagine it would be beautiful. I get a kick out of seeing my guitar being played by such great musicians, and I wonder how many different styles of music and how many hands of musicians it will see before it returns home with me. This weekend I learned yet again that a night with the locals unquestionably and undeniably far surpasses any night on the town drinking!

A Bit of History

I'll try and make this brief as I have been sitting in this cafe using the wireless for around 3 hours now, I'm definitely getting some strange looks. I'm happy that I have finally got around to creating a blog, I should have done this a year and a half ago! I'm full of amazing travel stories and information of the countries I have already been. Perhaps if I find the time I will do some posts on some of my experiences of my past year and half. I began my travels in New Zealand, then after a month went to Samoa. I spent two months living in Samoa where I was taken in by a village and worked in return for my hut and food. I surfed all over both islands of Savaii and Upolu, but if i was to write about all that now it would take up about 5 pages! After my time in Samoa I returned to New Zealand for around 5 months, buying an old car (pictured above) and cruising around both the north and south islands surfing. I then returned home for 2 months to save some money, doing everything from reception work to washing dishes on a mine site. After a grueling 2 months I flew back through Samoa for a few weeks then onto California for a week. After staying with family in San Diego it was onto Costa Rica for my cousins wedding. I stayed in Costa Rica for a few months working as a surf coach. Then I traveled down to Panama and up to Nicaragua. I was then offered a job on a mega yatch so returned to Panama and sailed on the tail of hurricane Omar for 6 days to Tortola, British Virgin Islands. I worked a month on the boat then left, and couch surfed my way around the British and US Virgin Islands for a few more months. I then took a one way flight to Puerto Rico where I have been living and surfing in the town of Rincon for a month. As of Wednesday I am off to Dominican Republic. Phew that was a lot of travel details condensed into a few sentences! Over the next few weeks I will try and post some past journal entries and photos from some of my favourite countries!