Cruise Virgins: Voyage to Spain

At this advanced stage in life it’s terribly embarrassing to admit to fellow travelers that we are, in fact, Cruise Virgins. We’d never seriously given the notion of “cruising” any real thought. Not for us … or so we thought until we found we could travel from Miami to Barcelona, Spain on an eleven night cruise for less than the cost of airline tickets, PLUS a balcony stateroom, PLUS meals and then we said, “Sign us up! We are ready, ready, ready to lose our virginity.”

Goodbye Miami!

Goodbye Miami, USA !

This particular ship, The Norwegian Epic, was a repositioning cruise on its last trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Barcelona, Spain;  its new incarnation would be sailing through the Mediterranean. The fifteen balcony room aboard the Norwegian Epicdecks contained a maximum capacity of 4,200 passengers but on this trip there were (just!) over 3,100 onboard, with an average age of 59 years. (It was rather nice to blend in.) The eleven-hundred crew members worked diligently to make sure our time aboard was a pleasurable experience.  The major pastimes of the guests appeared to be eating, sunbathing (in rather chilly temps on the upper deck) and gambling although there were evening shows with a hypnotist, comedians, musical acts and karaoke for those so inclined. There were art auctions, meet and greets for the singles on board and Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy gatherings.  And, of course, outrageously priced booze for the thirsty ship passengers.  However, the star of the show was the F-O-O-D: well prepared, varied and plentiful.  The buffet and food bars were extensive and overflowing. Pushing back from the table, to our consternation, became a major preoccupation.the Atlantic

Since this was our maiden voyage on a modern floating hotel/casino we were comforted by the fact that the ocean – an impossibly deep, dark impenetrable blue – was relatively flat so there was no upset to our overworked stomachs in the area of sea-sickness. At worst, the swells were eight to ten feet so pitch was relatively mild. The constant thrum of the diesel-electric engines underfoot was a bit disconcerting but soon lapsed into one of those background events of which one is only subliminally conscious.Funchal

We had only one port of call to intrude upon our days at sea and, early on the ninth day the island of Madeira, Portugal, began to slip past us on the port side.  Shortly after 6:00 AM bright klieg lights shone through our Silvestreopen balcony windows from the pier dispelling any future notions of sleep. Having purchased our shuttle passes the day before to take us into the downtown area of the capital city, Funchal, we tagged up with Joe, a fellow traveler from Cincinnati and decided to hire a taxi.  Our mojo was good because the first driver we approached, Silvestre, spoke beautiful English and offered his taxi service, a lovingly tended Mercedes-Benz 220D, at a reasonable rate. We discussed the options and sights we wanted to see, struck a deal and grabbed some Euros from an ATM.  (Note – ATMs are ubiquitous and much cheaper to use compared to the usurious exchange rates charged by the cruise ships.)  Overview of island

And a further aside about the present economy of the island which is based primarily on tourism. In an average year over 360 cruise ships will dock in Madeira and disgorge their passengers who, like us, will descend on the place in mobs to eat, drink, buy souvenirs, and take the quaint tram-way to the botanical gardens and see the island’s other sights. A whopping 70% of the euros generated in the economy come from the guests who flock to this magnificent speck of land. The remaining mainstays of the economy are from produce which is cultivated in the coastal areas and ranching in the highlands around the smaller villages. Fishing provides food for local consumption. terraces

Funchal (a Portuguese name for a fennel plantation) and the island of Madeira were first established around 1452 and the fertile lands in the coastal and upland areas provided the impetus for future settlements. It’s a small island but a handful of hours is insufficient to see all it has to offer from its numerous historic churches, museums and markets to the scenic vistas and countryside reached through roads winding their way through the hills. Actually, the entire island was scenic and the wow factor was high. (Of course, now we have to admit that we’re Europe Virgins too!) The homes were immaculately painted, yards and vegetation trimmed. The hillsides above and below the road ways were stacked with terraced fields which had been under cultivation for centuries; testament to the longevity of the settlement.  Life on this island looked to be slow-paced and comfortable.Camara de Lobos

One of our stops was at Camara de Lobos, a small fishing village where fishing boats had been pulled out of the water in the late morning and cleaned, filleted fish hung in the sun to dry.  Aside from its antiquity and quaint factor its claim to fame was that after the Second World War, Winston Churchill visited to sketch and paint the harbor. A café in his honor still operates near the wharf. The village also houses the church of Saint Santiago, a deceptively small and modest structure from the outside with beautifully painted plank ceilings and a gilded altar to admire upon your entry.Cabo Girao - highest cliff in Europe

Climbing away from the water we topped out at Cabo Girao and the overlook upon the highest cliff in Europe. Past the cliff the small village from which we had just departed could be seen. The entire sweep of that corner of the island came into view with thin gossamer clouds streaked in the sky, contrasting and merging with the ocean from which it rose. Traveling a bit further we stopped at the view-point of Pico dos Barcelos for another vista. We were not alone as buses, taxis and cars lined the parking lots and the tourists, most likely from our cruise ship, waited to get their photos of the not to be replicated panoramas.basket rides at Monte

tobaggan basketSince we’d hired our very comfortable ride in the Mercedes and a knowledgeable driver we decided not to take the gondola cable cars up to Monte, a parish a few kilometers east of Funchal and famous for its botanical gardens as well as the option to make one’s return to Funchal in the 19th century basket sledges.  The baskets are attached to skis and were adopted as a quick way to take the townsfolk of Monte down the winding mountain roads to the city.  They’re guided by two runners, dressed in white and wearing the typical hats known as straw boaters.

The Church of Our Lady of Monte, built in 1741 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1818, was reached by a climb up many stairs.  Although a beautiful church, what made it stand out for us was that it is the final resting place of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg rulers who died on the island of Madeira in exile after the dissolution of the great empire following WWI.The Church of Our Lady of Monte

We discovered that our short time on terra firma was fast evaporating.  Reluctantly we headed down the mountain toward the harbor where we were deposited at the gangway to our ship.  After a quick parting photo of our chauffeur and his Mercedes, we again embarked on our voyage having glimpsed but a fraction of the phenomenal island of Madeira.

"Pride of Madeira"

“Pride of Madeira”

By Richard and Anita

 

The Journey, Not the Destination and “Never Go Back”

in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - common hazzardThe Dominican Republic has three kinds of roads:  paved and smooth, once paved but now potholed and, the third, thinkin’ ‘bout pavement.  The first roads, double-lane and as nice or better than our highways back in the in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - toll road feesStates, are toll roads, distanced every 50 kilometers or so, with three to five little manned (or womanned) booths with the motorized arms that block further access until the toll is paid. We kept the smaller DOP (Dominican Pesos) bills and change in the console of the car for the frequent stops and the fare averaged about one-hundred pesos ($2 USD) depending on the direction.  Signs marking turnoffs and destinations were usually posted right at the turn to the desired road which resulted in the person with the best far-sighted vision playing spotter so that the driver could prepare his racing reflexes to make the correct turn.  Many times, however, we saw the sign too late, sailed by the turn and would have to double back…

Our drive from our temporary home base in Punta Cana followed the shoreline west towards Santo Domingo and proceeded smoothly on the toll road. We turned onto the second kind of road, “the once paved but now potholed” per our directions and headed more or less northwest towards the toll road to the “Amber Coast,” so named because of the huge amber deposits found in the north coast area.  The road lured us along unaware until … our teeth slammed together, our heads hit the roof of the car and our behinds thumped back into our seats. There were occasional grinding scrapes with the bottom of the car dragging as we crept from shallow hole to patched hole to gaping hole to speed bumps.  And this was still a well-traveled secondary road in the DR!

However, there’s something to be said about leaving the toll highway and slowing down along the bad stretches of secondary road.  We drove through small dusty villages seemingly out in the middle of nowhere scattered between farms and fields.  Many appeared fairly “prosperous” by rural standards, cement homes alongside the road with people sitting on the front porches, flowering bushes and neatly tended dirt yards. in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Further back off the road, houses were scattered between the trees with freshly washed laundry drying on fences or lines with surprisingly little litter to be seen.  But other places were scarcely in the campo - trip to Cabaretemore than shanty towns with shacks of rusting walls and roofs of corrugated metal.  We drove through groupings of sad and desperate hovels where the garbage, plastic bottles and trash had been mounded high alongside the dwellings that lined the road.  We could not avoid seeing the scenes of bleak poverty and decay; people here and there sitting under whatever shade could protect them from the glaring relentless sun overhead.Boca de Yuma - the drive

We referred to this bumpy, rutted roadway as the “Cement Factory Road” for the one industry we saw upon that route and we made a decision to avoid it on our return trip. Eventually we hooked up with the major interior toll road of the DR and drove through countryside rich and lush, beautiful and picturesque: the properties of the wealthy. Living fences of small trees interspersed with wire or intricate walls of carefully piled stones mined from the rocky fields enclosed herds of grazing cows and great horned bulls, horses with foals, goats and kids and the occasional pig.

living fence -wire strung between small, growing trees

living fence

We passed farms of papaya, sugarcane, rice fields and plowed land with mounds of rocks scattered and dug out and cleared for future crops.  Rolling hills, palm trees, beautifully shaped, canopied trees and trees topped with huge orange flowers were silhouetted against the blue sky, all contributing to the beauty of the setting.in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Near the city of Nagua on the northern coast the road opened up to the brilliant and varying shades of blue sea along which we drove for miles watching both gentle waves lapping the seaweed strewn wild beaches and waves crashing into rocky shores of uplifted and long dead coral formations. Back again to the “once paved but now pot holed” roads we made our way through urban Nagua slowly; small businesses perched on the road edge behind parked cars on both sides that frequently necked  the traffic down to one lane at time.  Streets angled out of the narrow main road with more stores and houses, scooters wove their way through the inevitable traffic jams and, everywhere, drivers laid on their horns. It was your typical traffic bedlam.

Cabarete beach

We spent three days exploring the tourist attractions in the popular beach towns of Sosua and Cabarete and then embarked upon our homeward journey to Punta Cana.  The map promised us a road that we hadn’t driven on the western side of Sosua which looked to be a feeder road to the major toll roads. Our selection may have been the correct route, but it turned out to be the third kind of road, the “thinkin’ ‘bout paving” variety. We jounced and bounced past small family farms and homes where people sat in the shade visiting with each other and (probably) commenting on the occasional idiot tourists with their cars scraping along the graveled, potholed, washboarded road.  After about a mile of this abuse and surrounded by a cloud of dust we stopped for directions.  Our elected guide was a grinning fellow, shirtless and washing his car with lackadaisical energy, swigging beer from a long neck bottle.  He pointed down the rutted road and said about an hour more that way would take us to the toll road headed south, explaining that the road was bumpy and slow but that it was better to continue on and saying like a drunken mantra, “Never go back.”  We mulled these dubious directions over and, after some discussion, decided to turn back anyway and take the known road.  And as we passed him, our guide’s look was confused as he gestured again down the road and shouted,”But it’s that way.  Never go back!”in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - bad stretch of road

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Three Road Trips: Three Vignettes in the DR

Okay.  So this first little snapshot isn’t quite the epic road trip we had in mind but it did involve us piling into the little white Kia rental we shared with our friends early on a Saturday afternoon and driving across the touristic sprawl of Punta Cana.  We’d heard there was a parade near the airport named the Carnival Punta Cana. The timing of the event struck us as a bit curious since it was well past Mardi Gras and into the Lenten period when simple living and abstinence are usually observed.  But as guests of the Dominican Republic, who were we to challenge their collective wisdom or rationale? After driving to the event and casting covetous eyes about for a parking spot (no, not on the sidewalk like a few of the bozos we saw!) we drove on and on and, finally, found one on the shoulder of the road not too, too far from the event.

Our feelings exactly!

Our feelings exactly!

Arriving at the parade route we quickly came to the conclusion that this event was another commercial extravaganza gratis of the dreaded All Inclusive Resorts. All the shaded seating areas seemed to be the exclusive domains of the aforementioned rascals and, yep, colored wrist bands were indeed the price of admission for the day.  By then we’d walked quite a ways, so back we plodded past the merry tents serving frothy libations behind barricades that prohibited us from simply crossing the street, to the parade entrance.  We crossed over to the free side of the street which of course was in full sun, found an open spot along the barricades with the potential for some afternoon shade and hunkered down to protect our viewing rights and enjoy the parade.

The festivities themselves were a strange amalgam of young women, many children and several depictions of disproportionally buxom females.  Interspersed were stylized demons in colorful, elaborate costumes designed to strike fear into the hearts of the young or whimsy into the heads of the inebriated; both of which were in abundance that afternoon. We admired the extravagant costumes parading by and noticed that many of the participants in the parade were representatives of the Caribbean Island Nations.  All was well until the Haitian contingent paced by us with an intriguing voodoo float and suddenly there were boos, rude catcalls and objects flying.  Peace was quickly restored and later we learned that, for many reasons good and bad, there is no love lost between the side-by-side neighbors, Haitian and Dominican, who share the island of Hispaniola.Carnival in Punta Cana

A few days later we took a rather nerve rattling drive through the provincial capital of Higüey several miles into the interior to visit the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, which could more simply be said as the “Church of Altagracia.”  Driving in Dominican city traffic is not for the faint of heart, which amply supplies the reason that neither of us was piloting our rental car. That onerous duty we left to our friend Bryce, an aspiring, derring-do, wanna-be Dominican driver. Our quest for the day was buried in the heart of the city and our relieved group exited the vehicle in the near empty parking lot. One of the most famous cathedrals in the country, this modern Basilica was begun in 1954 and competed in 1970.Basilica de la Altagracia

Designed by two French architects, it is a mixture of the sublime and the mundane: towering arches, massive stained glass windows and a jewel-encrusted framed painting of the Madonna of Altagracia as well as the designation as a Basilica in 1970 by Pope Paul VI anchor its upside. But the church structure itself is not regal, it is more compact and angular than the traditional churches and the unadorned, gray cement walls are the dominant theme within the sanctuary.La Basilica de la Altagracia

However, the quiet of the interior, with light streaming through the multitude of stained glass windows and the glow radiating back from the highly polished mahogany  pews, pulpit and the Madonna’s repository with suspended, foot-long, carved leaves encircling it, suffused the air with a tranquility, broken only by our superfluous guide’s uninspired soliloquy.

Ready for more adventure, but heartily relieved that we were still passengers in our rental, we set off again several days later and found ourselves on the eastern side of the Parque Nacional del Este, alongside the Caribbean Sea near Boca de Yuma, a stretch of rugged coast and coral reef that has been lifted by geologic forces from the ocean floor to become an island land form. The iron shore is stunningly beautiful with its ragged imperfections, numerous waterspouts and the quaint village of Boca del Yuma.  Boca de Yuma

Friends had recommended a restaurant, El Arpunero (The Harpoon) which sits regally atop the cliffs, open-aired so that the sea breezes flow in; a palm-leafed, thatched roof shades the whole dining area.  Immediately adjacent to the restaurant is a swimming hole, totally contained within a punch bowl of the old sea bed. It has a sandy beach but also outcroppings of coral rock; the water level fluctuates with the tidal action fed through a hole in the rocks which form the outer rim of the bowl. Boca de Yuma

Following one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been in the DR (langustinos or jumbo prawns and tempura battered shell-fish) and after a little dreamy fantasizing about owning a home in the area, we took a quick hike around the nearby cave, Cueva de Berna, a large cavern with openings blocked off behind warning signs and, unfortunately, graffiti marring many areas.  We returned back to the restaurant, cooled off in its filtered saltwater pool, did a bit of basking in the sun while enjoyed a cold libation as well as a few quick hands of Gin Rummy.

Road trips, short and long are entertaining past-times to get briefly acquainted with several of the various locales in any given area. Nothing is in-depth, but all of it is a slice of the life of the country. When added up, these dribs and drabs can fill in puzzle pieces forming a more complete portrait of a complex nation.  Speaking of which, there’s another road trip that we could fill you in on …in the campo  - trip to Cabarete

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

 

Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

“Long Time No See” and Island Hopping to the DR

We left Curacao on a lovely warm day flying in a small passenger Airbus over the teal blue Caribbean above puffy, white cumulus clouds.  We were headed north towards the island of Hispaniola and Santa Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, where we would meet our friends.

A funny story about our friends. We first met B & C in January, 2013, in Merida, a good-sized colonial city (population approximately one million) in the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

We spent our month-long visit walking miles around the city, locating various parks and neighborhood churches, visiting museums, wandering down the lovely wide avenue Paseo Montejo, waiting in the bus station to hop buses to the near-by ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza’, the seaside city of Progresso, the yellow city of Izamal, among other places.  And we kept bumping into the same couple, strolling about sight-seeing.  We’d nod, exchange a few words and a laugh and go on our way.  One night we ran into them again at dinner on Avenida Reforma and carried on a lively conversation, filling in our backgrounds and exchanging travel stories.  At the end of our stay in Merida we moved on to further travels throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and  Chiapas and then on to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and…

Nicaragua. Late December of 2013 found us in Granada strolling the streets when we heard a familiar voice say, “Long time no see.”

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

And there they were. What were they, stalkers? This time we met for a lunch, exchanged email addresses and actually arranged to meet again for a short jaunt to San Juan del Sur in January of 2014.  Again, we went our separate ways but this time we stayed in touch updating each other on our plans and travels until …

Ecuador.  There we were, contemplating a 7-week housesit in Curacao for January/February of 2015, deciding where to go in December (Colombia) and figuring out what to do with the several weeks we had in March/April until we departed for Europe.  A note from B & C said “We’re in the DR for four months – feel welcome to come and visit …” And so we did and here we are in …

Punta Cana on Map dominican_republicPunta Cana, Dominican Republic. After a week of staying with B & C we found an airy condo unit on the second floor of the same complex – because, after all, we’d like to cultivate our friendship not smother it!  We split the cost of a month-long car rental which makes getting around the spread-out, ill-defined area that offers stores, restaurants and other services much easier. The car rental has the additional advantage of simplifying navigating around this island nation to visit other towns and cities, historic landmarks and the rural countryside and coasts.

walled cityAlthough the coastal town of Punta Cana is written on a map it’s hard to encapsulate its location in precise terms since there’s no such thing as city limits for the sprawl.  Large cement letters lining a wide road and spelling out D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N Punta Cana lead to … nothing.  Poorly regulated growth has spawned these place holders for the all-inclusive end-destination resorts that blanket the eastern end of the island. These resorts tend to keep the vacationing guests and their money inside the gated walls and exclude the “others”, be they ex-pats or Dominicans, from the mix. Approaching the resorts from the land side is not an option due to the high walls and sentries at the gates which offer tantalizing glimpses of vast pools and lounges for reclining sun worshippers.

resort map

resort map

Access from the beach is ill-advised as well since the public area is small and the resort areas with their vast stretches of beach, while not roped off per se, hurry to shoo away folks who might decide that their beach stroll would be improved with a cold beverage or a bit of sit on a lounge in front of any particular resort compound.  Colored wrist bracelets clearly identify those who belong versus those who don’t.

For those not ensconced in the all-inclusive resorts, the people who actually live in Punta Cana or long-term visitors like our friends (who won’t return) escaping from harsh northern winters, the area presents a clean, modernized face with many amenities on its soulless interior. Certainly this is a vacation paradise where the living is easy but the city lacks any authenticity. “There’s no there, there.” aptly describes this urban area. For the sun worshiper it’s a vacation paradise. However, for someone seeking to learn about another country, Punta Cana is an unfair and unflattering representation of the Dominican Republic that is packaged and presented in this pasteurized, homogenized tip of the island.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Housesitting: Parallel Lives in an Alternate Universe

Jokes houseIt’s rather strange to be house and pet sitters when you think about it.  We walk into a stranger’s house and make ourselves at home among their possessions and four-legged family.  We care for their treasures like we would our own, pamper and fuss over the pets, water plants and bring in the mail, converse with the neighbors and sometimes even add some of their friends as our own.  In short, we have a chance to sample and experience an alternative life in a new and unfamiliar city or country without a permanent commitment. How cool is that?

Joke's HouseAt the beginning of our stay in Curacao the security guard at the entrance recognized the vehicle we were driving but not us, and each new guard required the same explanation about who we were and where we were staying.  Shortly, however, a wave and nod and we’d be let back into the gated community with little fuss and a warm smile.  We learned some of the idiosyncrasies of the house:  the lighting system controlled by a remote, the combination stove/oven with the temperature in Centigrade that cooked with either gas or electricity, the washer with controls labeled in Dutch and the on-demand hot water heater.  We never did quite figure out the electronic gate of the fence that enclosed the small property and, if any neighbors watched our comings and Ninagoings we must have provided a small amount of amusement.  One of us would dance around with the control waving our arms trying to activate the “trigger” or light that powered the finicky beast. The gates would part halfway then slam shut and all the time the driver would be gunning the engine waiting to dart through whenever the gate god decided we’d been toyed with long enough.

And there were, of course, the three reasons our presence as house/pet sitters was required:  Grietje, Nina and Simba.  Simba, the big neutered Tom called our competence into question right away when he took off the second day of our stay for some nomadic traveling of his own that lasted Simbaabout two weeks.  He slunk back home thinner, wearing some battle scars and slowly insinuated himself back into the household as though he’d never left.  Nina, a feminine calico, had one eye (the other lost to an infection before her adoption as a small kitten) and loved watching us from her lofty heights on the refrigerator or the top shelf of the bookcases.  She also pounced on unsuspecting toes moving under the sheet early in the morning which was a rude awakening. And Grietja, a tortoiseshell, shed her hair in tufts and was ever mindful of her next meal, falling upon her bowl with famished enthusiasm.  All became our adopted family.

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Instead of a parallel experience during our stay in Curacao we had a rather bifurcated house sitting gig. hikingOne half of our duo, “Immersed”, entered upon a social calendar which included yoga, a charity walk-a-thon, weekly walking/hiking jaunts with a group up and down hills and along the coast and tea or coffee sessions following the outings. The less mobile one, suffering from a twisted knee right before our departure from Cartagena deplaned in hikingWillemstad appearing something like a reincarnated Quasimodo: upper body canting forward and to the right, back and hip in open revolt and the left leg a reluctant appendage at best.  “Twisted” spent the first several days of our stay semi-reclined, leg propped up, alternating the reading of historic tomes with fast-paced best-sellers.  When rest didn’t work we explored medical tourism in phases: a doctor, physical therapist and finally an orthopedic doctor with a magic serum dispensed weekly by a wickedly long needle.  In fact, the orthopedist complimented “Twisted” by casually mentioning that the x-rays showed the knees of a 45-year old patient – Blush! Blush!

And so, in between semi-reclusion and endeavors, the few house sitting activities and the care of our three feline charges we interspersed swimming, sightseeing jaunts by car exploring the island and ultimately on-foot wanderings around the barrios of Willemstad.  With the offending knee working as it should “Twisted” was upright and mobile, ready for future rambles.  In fact, the big downside to our house and pet sit in Curacao was ….

Leaving!Simba in the birdbath

By Richard and Anita

The Two Queens of Curacao: One Swings, One Soars

Queen Emma Brdge

Queen Emma Brdge

Step onto the Queen Emma Bridge and you feel a moment of vertigo as it shifts slightly beneath your feet.  You’ll sway a bit and it takes a moment to realize that what appears to be a simple, conventional bridge with fixed points on either end is actually floating upon pontoons, sixteen to be exact.  Nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady” this permanent floating bridge spans the Sint Anna Bay and connects the two sections of Willemstad: Otra Banda and Punta districts.Queen Emma Brdge

The city of Willemstad dates back to 1634 and the shoreline of the older section of the city, Punta, had structures crammed cheek to jowl by the time a bridge between the two parts of the city was contemplated.  To have constructed a conventional bridge would have required the expropriation and destruction of a significant portion of the old colonial city. Entrepreneur and US Consul Leonard B. Smith came up with an elegantly simple solution that allowed the existing buildings to remain by designing a hinged bridge that swings out laterally from the Otra Banda side.  The original bridge, completed in 1888,  opens several times a day to allow passage of watercraft of varying sizes (up to and including the modern mega-sized cruise ships) from sea to the port and vice versa.a portion opens

partially open for small boat

partially open for small boat

When a ship wants to enter or exit the natural harbor, known as Schottegat, a flag either orange (for a short duration) or blue (for a longer duration) is hoisted alerting people.  A bell sounds shortly thereafter and an operator sitting in a small cabin operates the controls for two diesel engines that allow the bridge to swing on its Otra Banda axis in an arc parallel to the shore, a process that takes a surprisingly short amount of time.  During the time the bridge is open two ferries (ponchis) shuttle back and forth between Punta and Otra Banda transporting passengers for free.

bridge opening completely - pedestrians barred

bridge  preparing to open completely – pedestrians barred

opening

opening

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

Named after Queen Emma of the Netherlands, the bridge was originally a toll bridge; two guilders were charged for pedestrians wearing shoes, ten guilders for horses and, in the 20th century, 25 guilders for cars.  Since the poor citizens without shoes were allowed to cross for free many people would remove their shoes and walk across barefoot to avoid the toll.  Others considered free transit a form of charity and would save both their shoes and their money for the special occasion of crossing the bridge, proudly paying the fee.  After 1934 the toll was abolished and the issue of shoes became moot.

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

Over the years the bridge was renovated and enlarged but increased shipping traffic through Sint Anna Bay to the Schottegat harbor resulted in longer and longer waits for cars wishing to cross.  Construction began on the second bridge to be named after a Netherland’s queen, Queen Juliana Bridge, which is now the highest bridge in the Caribbean.  Built to provide passage for the enormous ships entering the harbor, at its apex its height is 56.4 meters (185 feet) above the sea water which also makes it one of the highest bridges in the world.  After the opening of the Queen Julianna Bridge on Oueen’s Day in 1974 which replaced the original structure, vehicular traffic on the Queen Emma Bridge ceased.

Queen Juliana Bridge- view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana Bridge view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana  Queen Emma

Queen Juliana and Queen Emma

The view of both bridges from the commanding summit of Fort Nassau emphasizes the dramatic difference in the relative heights of these two complementary structures and underscores the important role these bridges have played in unifying the city of Willemstad. For the very practical Netherlanders the bridges they’ve built reflect radically different personalities. The old lady, Queen Emma, undulates slowly while pedestrians cross from one side of Willemstad to another then swing dances open to allow the passage of the harbor traffic.  And the regal Queen Juliana from her lofty height is the soaring beauty of the urban island skyline. crossing Queen Emma

By Anita and Richard

 

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