Monday, January 12, 2015


OK, so, yesterday, we were at Cayo Levantado, an island off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  We'd cancelled our beach day in Cayo Levantado (because it seemed to cost more than it was worth) and instead tried to get on a shore excursion called "Discover Samana," a bus-based trip in the Samana area of the Dominican Republic itself.

We did get on the excursion, no thanks to the jerk Destination Services employee (but, instead, thanks to the nice, good Destination Services employee).  The excursion was sold out, but we'd been told to go the boarding area (aka The Lounge) and see if there were no-shows.  So, we show up at the boarding area and ask the jerk, who tells us he's sorry but that excursion is totally booked, and pretty much waves us off out of the area.  I ask if everyone has shown up yet and, at this point, the nice employee says they haven't, and asks if we'd like to be wait listed.  We would.  Turns out there were several people who didn't show -- we easily got on.

The tour, however, was not exactly as described.  This is, word for word, the description of the tour, as provided by Destination Services:  "Depart from pier to the Church (approx.10min).  Outside visit of the Church (approx.5min).  Transfer to Whale Exhibition (approx.10min) & visit (approx.30min).  Free time at Las Terrenas for shopping, beach time (approx.1hr40min).  Trip back to Samana Town (approx.45min)."

This is how the tour actually went:  Tender over to pier in open boat while it's raining.  Get on bus with blasting a/c while sitting in wet jeans.  Sit in bus for 15 mins for no good reason, while the other bus on this tour departs.  Ride in bus to church.  Sit in bus outside boarded-up church and listen to guide talk about church.  Drive around corner to another church and park in front of that one for a similar talk.  Continue to ride in bus to whale museum.  Walk around front of whale museum while guide points out different types of trees.  Watch other tour leave museum.  Enter whale museum with tour guide and realize the 15 minute delay (and the introduction to the trees) was to kill time because the two-room whale museum is too small to hold two busloads of tourists at once.  Observe the sole exhibit in the whale museum (a humpback whale skeleton).  Listen to tour guide talk about a group he took whale watching and think (not for the last time on this tour) you'd rather be doing that with him instead of your current tour.  Pause for restroom break (the men's and women's restrooms each had seating for two -- and were surprisingly clean and well-supplied given the looks of the place.)  Reboard the bus.  Go for a drive and listen to the guide talk informatively about the history of the Dominican Republic.  Notice the level of poverty (and sanitation) of the houses you're driving past.  Bus stops while the guide walks up to one of the small, nondescript buildings in a village by the side of the road.  Guide was obtaining several fresh loaves of the local delicacy: coconut bread (made with coconut milk).  Guide passes out coconut bread.  Enjoy hunk of nice, hot coconut bread.  Continue bus ride.  Get off bus at crappy gift shop.  There's a huge step down from the bus to the ground in front of the crappy gift shop.  They've placed a cement brick there to act as a step, which my father proceeds to gash his leg on.  Watch while the guide and the nice people at the crappy gift shop open up a First Aid kit and disinfect the bloody wound.  (Watch, somewhat amused, while the crappy gift shop gives my dad a sip of the local hooch -- some 30% alcohol -- to take the edge off.)  Crappy gift shop is crappy, and we inquire as to whether there isn't better shopping at Las Terranas.  There isn't.  It's Sunday, and everything is closed.  Indeed, our guide had to call ahead to Crappy Gift Shop so that they'd open just for us.  If we want to buy ANYTHING in the Dominican; this is pretty much it.  (And the choices range from local paintings to baseballs with the Dominican flag on them.)  Back on the bus for more stories (continue to think that despite the lack of seeing anything worthwhile on the tour, the guide is really excellent -- it probably would have been better if they'd just invited him on the ship to give us a talk about the country) and ride to Las Terranas, which appears to be a small area consisting of:  a narrow piece of beach (maybe 20 or 30 feet to the water); a church where people were selling local paintings; a local biker bar; and a restaurant.  Guide tells us we'll be here for AN HOUR -- we wonder what we're going to fill the time with.  He takes us to the restaurant and suggests we can get drinks here; also, there are more restrooms (again, with seating for two).  We stand around.  A disabled local comes up to us begging.  Two more locals come up and offer to sell us unidentifiable homemade food items.  We stand around some more.  We continue standing.  Eventually, we get back on the bus.  Bus starts to head back to the pier.  On our way, we pass a small, but new-looking area of shops, which is clearly the "shopping" which had been promised at Las Terranas, but was also clearly closed, as our guide had told us.  Ride the bus through more impoverished towns, although also pass some shiny new four-star-looking resorts (with gates and guards).  Learn that tourism is the number one industry of the Dominican Republic (last year, they had 5 million visitors; their President hopes that will increase to 10 million) and realize that this is one of those places where guests come to be pampered at lovely resorts with all the amenities, while just outside the walls (where the guests NEVER go) there are people who, in our guide's words, "work today to eat tomorrow."  Listen to the guide talk about an excursion he offers called "What Your Eye Doesn't See," where you meet and interact with local schoolchildren, and go to a cockfight ring, and visit a voodoo shop.  (Think again, "Yes, I would much rather have done that.")  Listen to him say that when guests meet with the schoolchildren, it teaches the local kids that the white people aren't rich because they're white, they just have more possibilities.  (Have an "Aha Moment" when you realize how crazy privileged you are to have grown up in a country where nobody ever told you your possibilities were limited.)  Listen to him say that he tells the kids that if their parents saved up all the money the spend on drink every day, they would have enough money at the end of the year to make a visit to our country, as we are visiting theirs.  Listen to him say that, rather than have millions of dollars spent on a memorial to Christopher Colombus in the capital, he'd rather they spent the money on a university or a hospital in Colombus's name.  Listen to the fact that, despite all of the poverty, and the lousy educational system, our guide has tremendous pride in his nation -- and that he wants to make it better and offer a better life to his kids, but that he would never leave it.  Learn about his love for the community and the natural resources of his island home.  Listen to him say that he was among the first to sail around the island to Haiti after the earthquake, and his reports on the initital devastation.  Leave the bus and pile onto a tender racing back to the ship (because you're now an hour late).  The seas are choppy (later reports say the guy who tendered back the folks on the first bus damaged the tender slamming it into the ship) and when you're reboarding the ship, you aren't so much "helped in disembarking" the tender, but "unloaded" like cargo -- people are pretty much thrown on board.  It's messy, but effective.

This was not, in any way, what I'd expected.  A lot of people HATED it, complaining (somewhat rightfully) about the lack of promised shopping (or "beach time" as we generally define the term) and the fact that the tour didn't quite match up with what was on the tin.  I found the whole thing profoundly moving in its own way.  I was just posting about how the absence of recognition of the terror attacks in France (and the coming together which immediately followed) had seemed weird to me.  Here, now, were people who didn't talk about what had gone down in France because terrorist extremist attacks took place in a completely different reality from the world they were living in.  They're worried about food, reliable inexpensive electricity, hot water, a decent standardized education system, and how to pull their country up into First World status.  Leave the "Je Suis Charlie" business to people who don't have to worry about where dinner is coming from.

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