After a demanding year relocating back to the United States from the Cayman Islands, starting new jobs, moving back into our old home, the only logical place for a quick vacation was somewhere . . . back down in the Caribbean. Except this time, the kids weren’t in tow and instead another couple joined us at an all-inclusive resort on the sun drenched point of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
In all of our travels, this was the first trip that consisted of simply plantings our butts firmly on a beach with an umbrella drink in hand and gazing out at the waves rolling by. This would mark a stark contrast to our daily grind which consisted of waking up early every morning, firmly encouraging the kids to get ready for school, and then again corralling our kids after school back to the trials and tribulations of teeth brushing, bladder draining, and dinner eating. In between you could throw in actually working our jobs. Yet, the only people we were responsible on this trip were ourselves, a true rarity in the last decade.
To add a little excitement, we arranged our excursion to take place just days after the end of the academic year and literally hours before my departure on my 40th birthday guy’s trip cycling Belgium. We left the two oldest kids with one set of grandparents in Nebraska and followed that with a twelve-hour drive with the two youngest down to stay with my sister and family in Texas. We set out Saturday morning, arrived Saturday evening, and early the next morning flew out of Dallas Love Field at four in the morning for our Southwest Airlines flight to the Caribbean.
Leading up to the trip, and this is quite unusual for Nadine and I when we travel, all of our room and transport arrangements were covered before our arrival to Punta Cana. Traditionally, we buy a plane ticket and figure out the rest of the details once we hit the ground. So this was basically a cashless trip in this modern era of credit. According to our 2011 Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands guide-book that I clearly misread prior to our departure, we wouldn’t need to buy tourist cards as Americans traveling to the Dominican Republic.
Our Southwest Airlines flight safely touched down in the D.R. (from our indirect routing via Baltimore; I never knew there was such an important Baltimore – Dominican Republic connection that would need three daily flights between the two cities). We boarded the bus that transported us those one hundred grueling yards through that punishing 84 degree Caribbean sun. It was now in this moment of excitement to hit the beach and hang out with friends, we first had to glide through immigration demonstrating our travel prowess over the other inexperienced migrants, but all while maintaining a look of calm as immigration stamped our passports.
The reality was quite different. Once inside immigration, indeed in front of the throngs of travel “rookies”, Nadine and I saddled up to a desk where tourists had to purchase tourist cards at $10 a piece? What?!? Surprised but not worried, we opened our wallets to find nothing but open space where currency once lived. Well shit! Nonetheless, we had $0 to pay for our tourist cards. But fortunately, this being Latin America and probably not the first time that this had occurred, I was swiftly directed towards immigration, haplessly leaving my wife behind in political limbo, I headed over to immigration to legally enter the country without that legal ten-dollar document, passed by with a stamped passport, headed directly to a money exchange counter where I took out $20 at the “punk, what kind of idiot travels to another country without any cash on them” exchange rate and swiftly passed under ropes, answered some confused immigration official questions from the opposite direction back through all the amateur travelers to see my relaxed wife chatting it up with the tourist card officials (maybe she wouldn’t actually have to pay that $10), and that long line of inexperienced tourists we were going to beat out of the airport now being nonexistent. At least when we picked up our two carry-on sized bags, compared to the regular five suitcases, stroller, baby bed we usually carry with, we didn’t wait long as all the bags were by now gone, except for our lonely, isolated little bags.
Getting the limited exposure to the eastern end of the island other than our resort, we finally arrived to Be Live property, the least expensive of all the available all-inclusives in Punta Cana. I’m sure the target demographic revolves around university fraternity and sorority students between 19 and 24 years of age. Soon we had drinks in our hands to enjoy the 25 minutes to check in, but hey, the drinks were already purchased, so time to drink up buttercup.
We dropped off our personal belongings in room 121 complete with a moldy stained bathroom wall located directly on the central plaza where all the nightly karaoke and dance events take place. We promptly slipped on our bathing suits and joined Greg and Metta out at the pool with our second rum and Coke in hand watching today’s daily 4:00 pool competition, kayak racing. As is customary at an all-inclusive, you sandwich meal times between your drinks. That only meant dinner would soon follow. Life was good.
During high traffic times, as the masses to fill their bellies between drinks, touts in light brown guayaberas attempt to sign up guests for a tour, or even more enticing, listen to a pitch about a time share. In general, I tend to talk these guys up before they have a chance to start their pitch and through them off a bit. With Mario, I mentioned that I would check it out if he promised me a taste of the best Dominican rum (a popular drink across the Caribbean) and it would last, at most a few minutes.
“Por supuesto amigo, unos minutos en la oficina, un traigo de Brugal Añejo, y pueden irse. En seguida.”
As he walked us towards the office, he also mentioned the “special” powers of Mamajuana, the aphrodisiac drink with powers to restore life to all domains of our lives, especially those under the belt. Also, we would receive t-shirts. That was the clincher.
As we sat there in the air-conditioned room with clear bottles full of dry anamú roots, solely anticipating drinking our Brugal Añejo, grab some t-shirts, and heading back to the beach (I should have known better having lived before in Latin America that a few minutes could easily turn into a couple of hours) Mario lead us to our designated table and introduced us to Jorge who then lead us into the super air-conditioned room flanked by a fully stocked bar.
“Would you like something to drink?”
A bit overeager, I confirmed I would indeed love to some Brutal Añejo. These drinks served in this exclusive room were higher quality than the beach bar. In between small talk about home, life ambitions, and local anecdotes, a waitress carried a fake smile and real samples of Mamajuana, a delicious mixture of rum, red wine, and honey. Apparently it helps erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, and anything else that ails you, but I was more interested in its taste.
Once Jorge arrived to the business of selling us a time-share, he started his pitch with, “I’m sure you noticed how long it took you to check in and the quality of your rooms may not be what you expect, but with a small one-time deposit of $10,000, your V.I.P. membership will allow you to skip those long, slow lines, and have a real V.I.P. check in!” I may not have earned my M.B.A., but I am not sure the pitch for earning return business would be, “I know our non V.I.P. product is pretty crappy, but for the price of a new car, you can have a quicker check-in and rooms without mold in your bathroom. We promise!” We all thanked him profusely for his help, but mentioned we were going to leave and enjoy the beach.
One of the advantages of not being a V.I.P. are the people you meet. Be Live is not a clothes optional resort, despite the number of butt checks hanging out from the thongs around the pool and beach (there are lots of Europeans here). Yet walking past the buildings, perched out on their third-floor balcony sat a middle-aged English couple having an animated conversation that required frequent standing and jumping, they just happened to be completely naked from their perch. I knew Nadine’s reaction would be priceless, so I made a point to stop and talk with Nadine directly in front of their balcony direct in her line of sight. Initially she didn’t notice, but I then mentioned the free wheeling couple over my right shoulder. She blushed and quickly decided it was time to head to dinner.
Our last morning in Punta Cana, all four of us jumped on the multicolored resort kayaks and headed offshore to a unique island we had seen the previous days from the beach. It didn’t look so much as an island itself, but a random grouping of poles and netting, but not necessarily fishing either. As we cruised closer, we came to find out it was Stingray Bay, a massive pen with four smaller pens located inside the reef and full of stingrays. This allowed tourists to safely swim and play with stingrays without the fear of currents and tides pulling them out to sea. Near the dock of Stingray Bay was a set of stairs that lead to eight personal massage stalls. After tourists swam with stingrays, they could follow it up with a massage overlooking the Caribbean Sea!
As I sat in one of the most efficient and unique airports that I have seen or visited in the Caribbean, and set to leave from Punta Cana, I was left with more questions than answers about the island of Hispaniola, the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, what is daily life like in the D.R., but the visit definitely left me in a more physically relaxed state. Next time, I need to delve into the character and personality that makes the Dominican Republic.