Whale Watching in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic

Spring break may be in April this year  in The Dominican Republic, but spring flings have been happening here for awhile. Every January-March humpback whales go rogue—migrating to Samana from Greenland and Iceland over 3000 miles away.   Dr. Ken De Pree, author of Whales of Samana, likens their mating behavior in Dominican waters of Samana Bay, Silver and Navidad Banks to humans cruising singles bars. To attract the ladies, males croon tunes, form bromances to size up the competition, then brawl-it- out with up to nineteen rivals for the most fertile female.   Breaching, tail slashing, body slamming each other– sometimes even drawing blood–there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.   Pregnant moms then carry calves for eleven-twelve months, give birth, and nurse another eleven months  until their babies are strong enough to make the journey back to the North Atlantic.

Whale watching ranked top of my DR Bucket List since moving here in 2016. Thanks to my friend, Sana, who booked Kim Beddall, an English- speaking Marine Mammal Specialist with Whale Samana, and her husband, Steve, who booked a car to get us there, we set sail last Sunday on Pura Mia, a 55- foot custom whale watching vessel.  We loved returning to beautiful Samana Bay.

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Since humpbacks are the most active species of whales anytime, knowing our boat would be a bit bigger than creatures that average 40-50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons (the record is 59 feet and 60 tons) was reassuring. Even so, the traffic of an estimated 1500 whales—400 that congregate at one time in rough waters in Samana Bay– made for some rocking and rolling on the waves. The tour company offers Dramamine, but most, like me, who had never been seasick didn’t take it. A rookie mistake. Thankfully pressure point bracelets, Sprite, and crackers helped as an hour in many of us were turning green.

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Steve and Sana

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The company offers the next trip free should no whales be spotted, but we, thankfully, hit the motherlode—a 45- foot mom and her 15-foot baby girl that rolled and flailed right beside our boat. Mama Crochet, a regular to these parts named for her lace-like markings, shared her offspring (below) with us up close and personal for much longer than is usual.

Humpbacks are in the family of great whales and are named and catalogued by the unique patterns on their tails, or “flukes,” which power them through the water. These tail markings, like human fingerprints, are one-of-a-kind.

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Their heads resemble those of alligators, making them seem prehistoric (the DR was scouted by Spielberg for Jurassic Park after all)  as they peer at strangers with their eyes just above the water.

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They have grapefruit-sized bumps, two blowholes, and an accordian-like gullet, chest, and stomach. Though they can stay underwater forty minutes, they never fully sleep, but take turns resting each side of the brain to avoid drowning.  They have a dorsal fin as keel and body heat regulator. Their flippers are approximately one-third of their body length and their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae means “big wing from New England,” the place where they were first academically described, though there are drawings of them on caves in the DR by aboriginal inhabitants predating Columbus.

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Mothers of newborn whales don’t stop moving but tow their calves in their slipstream because babies do not have enough fat or blubber to float and could sink and drown. Also, until they are ready to swim well, they could be attacked. When strong enough to travel north, the mom has to fight off Orcas. Collisions with cruise ships are sadly too common and should mom die in the first year of a calf’s life, baby will die too because it is still nursing, consuming fifty gallons of milk per day. Adult whales do not eat while in the Caribbean but live off their fat until they migrate home. Their daily diet–1.5 tons of fish and shrimp-like crustaceans during feeding season—is the equivalent of 12,000 MacDonald hamburgers.  It  takes energy to carry 1,000 pounds of barnacles—enough to fill a pickup truck—on their bodies.

I highly recommend Whale Samana. They observe safety regulations and $3 of the fee ($59 adults/$30 children under 12) goes to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

We spied two adult males and tried to catch up with them, but they stubbornly dove deep and reappeared ten-twenty minutes later in different directions farther away.

We were serenaded by a male’s song by way of a recording played on the ship.  Only males sing and can hear each other twenty miles away.  Jacques Costeau called them the “Carusos of the Deep.” Prior to 1952 when the first scientist captured their song on tape, sailors and whalers were spooked by haunting sounds from beneath their ships.  Though that mystery was solved, there are still many unknowns about humpbacks and what lies beneath.

Sources: Whales of Samana by author Ken De Pree, PhD, who has studied humpbacks near Samana since 1987, and contributors  Osvaldo Vasquez, a leader among Dominican scientists in the study of humpbacks and Kim Beddell, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay in 1984-85.   Also special thanks to Kim Beddell for amazing information given at sea.

A Wedding, the United Nations, and Disney

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A wedding. Two unique people become one. A mystery and a marvel. Until recently I’d never attended a January wedding, but starting a new year with a couple committing to share the rest of their lives felt right.

And kind of Disney. Weddings renew hope, reminding us that there is happy-ever-after, not only for the couples, but also for the communities their love creates. Flocked around the lovebirds on an island in the Caribbean were family and friends who’d flown from around the globe to witness, to be…love.

The Magic Kingdom may own ships on which families ride off into the sunset, but they still market their “It’s a Small World” ride as the “Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed.” I went to Disney World as a kid just after it opened, and, shocker, it was my favourite attraction. Three-hundred papier-mâché dolls traditionally dressed dancing and singing in their native languages a simple song of world peace made my soul sing.

Looking at the guests gathered, I remembered again that it IS a small world. Marcus, the priest who married them and the groom’s lifelong friend, called us The United Nations. They’d gone to high school together when Moises moved from the Dominican Republic to the US, and it turns out Marcus now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, the state in which I was born. In fact, when I met his fiancé at the wedding (they got engaged three days after the wedding at this waterfall) I learned she is from Madisonville, Kentucky –35 miles from Hopkinsville where I grew up.

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Maria, the bride, is my coworker. Some of her family and friends flew in from Russia for the celebration. A couple of years ago I’d assisted a coworker, also Russian, in taking student delegates from The American School of Marrakesh to St. Petersburg to the Model United Nations Conference. (I love that in Model UN each student draws a country—not his or her own—to research and represent on global issues. The task is to collaborate with delegates from other countries to find solutions that benefit all.)  Of all the European cities I’ve fallen in love with, St. Petersburg is probably the most beautiful–canals like Venice and Amsterdam lined with art, parks, and more palaces than Paris.

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Emma, Maria’s longtime friend, came down from New York.
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Maria’s sister Skypes in their mom from Russia.
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Calise, a friend I met at my table of Santo Domingo friends including one couple now living in Brazil, is a diplomat for the DR in India and Argentina.  Her brother, who was abroad, is another close friend of the groom.  

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Maria was one of the first people I met after moving to the Caribbean. When I needed to see a doctor and couldn’t make an appointment or speak in Spanish to the clinic staff, she went with me and translated. She introduced other coworkers and me to Moises. Gregarious and kind, he took us all to Zona Colonial for salsa and dinner and has grilled for us while on duty and  off the best steaks in town.  A chef for big destination weddings across the island, he and Maria decided they wanted their day to be relaxed and fun, which it was, with his staff cooking in the kitchen and serving the feast.

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The best mojitos imaginable
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Coconut water

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Traveling to twenty-five countries on four continents has amazed me with the world’s vastness.  Travel provides wide, open spaces for beauty and adventure.  And sometimes loneliness.  I didn’t speak French or Arabic in Morocco and I barely speak Spanish, but I’ve learned to depend on the kindness, the hospitality, of strangers who become friends.

I am most changed–I think we all are– by the people we meet.  Friends I’ve met on the road. People at home I’ve loved all my life.  I’m no longer a child, but I still believe it’s a small world. That most of us are more alike than different. That God is love and says we must love one another. That peace happens in our world, our country, our hearts through real relationship.  Face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters with people truly change the world…for good.

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Pat’s Palo for a Front Row Seat to the Real Santo Domingo

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Like I said, Santo Domingo takes salsa seriously from Sunday night dancing-in-the-street in the Old Town to Saturday night shaking-in-the-courtyard in the New City.  According to health experts and dance studios, such as Arthur Murray, salsa and merengue burn an average of 400 calories per hour.  Good to know for those who love the pulled pork sandwiches vendors sell at Las Ruinas and the best ribs I’ve ever had at my favourite restaurant in The Colonial Zone just down the street.

Since the days my cousins and I gathered after church at my grandparents’ house for dinner (SouthernSpeak for lunch), I’ve loved a big Sunday meal.  Though I don’t recommended eating the huge portions at Pat’s Palo just before trying to shake it like Shakira, I highly  recommend this spot for Sundays and any day of the week.  An institution with locals, indoors is cave-cool and outdoors the patio overlooks The Alcázar de Colón, Diego Columbus’ home.  There’s also a great playlist, live music, and PIRATES for waiters (who doesn’t love Jack Sparrow and other pirates of the Caribbean???)  Though I support Piantini, my local ‘hood, this is one of the two must-eat places in Santo Domingo (the other being Adrian Tropical).  Here you get fabulous food,  a fun atmosphere, and a front row seat to the authentic Santo Domingo old and new.

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On the plaza

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Pat’s Palo from SouthernGirlGoneGlobal on Vimeo.

 

Piantini Pleasures…Good Eats in Santo Domingo

We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.–David Mamet

I am not a glutton.  I am an explorer of food.–Erma Bombeck

Santo Domingo has surprised me with its wealth of food choices– from mega groceries full of imports to familiar chains and international cuisine.  While many coworkers have cooks and cars,  I have neither, so I try to do a big grocery trip on Saturday or Sunday  as I did in Morocco to make  comfort food–cold salads for lunches and seafood chowder, chilli, Irish beef stew, or jambalaya for dinners–to last the work week. But come the weekend (or sooner when I miss my deck and grill so much I have to find a place to sit, sip, and socialize outdoors), I head up the street in my Piantini neighborhood to an area that after four months here finally feels like home.

Sweet Spot: La Cuchara De Madera

Two blocks from the apartment–dangerously close for sugar overload– is a bakery/brunch/tapas/coffee destination.  A coworker took me to La Cuchara De Madera (The Wooden Spoon) last August promising it “feels like visiting a friend’s house.”  She was right.   On a second visit, I met the owner’s father who gave me a tour.  I have always loved baking, but in the heat (only the bedrooms are air-conditioned) up until the last month turning  on the oven was done on a must-do basis. Knowing cheesecakes and cherry pies are just around the corner is a lovely thing. To locals, La Cuchara is Birthday Cake Central, cozy quarters for a late breakfast, battery recharge station for afternoon coffee, and  gathering spot for evening wine and tapas.

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Taylor and I noticed after first moving here the long lines anytime of the day at the mall for Krispy Kreme, but we fell for this place–especially the Nutella Frozen Cappuccinos.

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Cheese, ham, and chicken croques and empanaditos are popular here. So are bolitos and mini burritos.
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How I love a cherry pie

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The Volcano is their signature dessert–a Santo Domingo legend.

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The pages-long sweet list  includes churros, bagels, muffins, cheesecakes, and ice cream. img_3274 Also on the menu are tea sandwiches, beer, wine, and breakfast.  Above is the typical Domincan breakfast–eggs, fried cheese, grilled ham, and Mangú de Guineos (green plantains cooked with onion and olive oil). They also serve omelets, crepes, pancakes, and waffles and tea sandwiches. 

Piantini Patios: Bravo Forna, Maria Bonita, City Market

A couple of blocks beyond are three patios illuminated by twinkling lights and friends’ laughter.

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Bravo Forna offers Italian dishes, fresh salads (Insalata de Pollo Santa Fe below is my fav), fantastic sangria and great music in a relaxed setting.

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Taylor’s chocolate mousse was amazing.

Next door is Maria Bonita with gourmet Mexican dishes, seafood, and  grilled beef and lamb.  The service here is five-star from friendly and attentive waiters who make solo diners feel welcome.  In fact, the staff allows locals to camp out on laptops here and I’ll never forget the kindness of the  chef who, after I’d had a bout of illness and decided to brave solid food again, made me  plain grilled chicken and rice–not on the menu.

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Just beyond is City Market, a  small grocery with fresh produce and a popular deli of cheeses and meats.   Packed into their few aisles are imported foods and wines.   Here locals  gather for lunch or after work for sandwiches and salads.   I stop in here as often as my family did at the minute market just around the corner from where I grew up.

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Some nights there are free samples of food and wine.  My favourite find, the bees’ knees, is this local honey (miel in Spanish and French) which ties for the best-I’ve ever-tasted at La Maison Arabe’s cooking school.  I love it in my coffee.

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On the Grill

Another place I’ve enjoyed my weekly fix of grilled steak is Sonoma Bistro–always full of locals.  They have a deli and wines, cheeses, and Angus beef in the market next door.  But of course the ultimate treat is meat on a grill surrounded by friends under the stars.  For a cookout on our friend’s rooftop terrace, we bought some ribs and Italian sausages at Sonoma and turned them over to our friend, Master Chef Moises.  Between the meat, the view, and Dharma’s hospitality (and potato recipe) it was the perfect night.

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Moises Cordero now caters for Destination Weddings at Punta Cana, Samana and beyond (for catering, call  829-944-1521), but when I first moved here he was the man behind the grill at Shorthorn at Galeria 360 just past Agora Mall–both within walking distance of my street brimming with beautiful (though out-of-my-budget) boutiques.  Below are photos of our feast there last summer with Steve, Sana, Taylor and Mariya, our friend and coworker who is marrying Moises in January.

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Moises also took us to his friend’s seafood restaurant next door, Pier 47 , which was delicious and and just around the corner from the mall’s Margaritaville.

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Cafe Culture

Recently I took Griselda’s advice (below) and checked out Ciao–a great place in our neighborhood not only for healthy soups, wraps, and salads but also a great American-style burger.  And around the corner just before Blue Mall is a popular trio of restaurants where folks frequent for food and drinks at 2 for 1 prices–Francesco Trattoria, La Posta Bar, Julietta Brasserie (beautiful indoors and out).

Everyone here has been gearing up for Christmas since trees sprouted all over town November 1.  It’s almost 11 PM here and outside my window speakers have started blaring from a party in the courtyard next door.  Think I’ll check it out…salsa music calling…

(Added the next morning…So The Who may still hold the title for the World’s Loudest Band by the Guinness Book of World Records for a 1976 concert,  but the DJ under my window  until 4 AM last night blasted that record with speakers we used to call “mind-blowers” (this from a girl whose hearing was maimed by bands like Aerosmith, YES, and Pink Floyd back in the day).  The good news is the rooster that crowed from the same apartment building starting at 4 AM hasn’t been heard since Thanksgiving.)

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Salsa in the City: Santo Domingo Rises from Ruins

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Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order. – Samuel Beckett

For those wanting the ultimate Dominican experience, check out Las Ruinas in Santo Domingo where every Sunday night locals gather to dance merengue, bachata (both invented here) and salsa—the world dance popular from Asia to Africa to Australia.

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Setup before the party explodes

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I love hearing Latin music played daily in taxis, groceries, and restaurants and hearing it played live in the Colonial Zone feels like home. When in Nashville I danced weekly—sometimes biweekly—with people bonded by a shared passion for dance and music. From Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, Spain, India, France, Ethiopia, Syria, and Jordan, strangers became friends and made my life richer by teaching me about cuisine, art, and celebrations from around the globe.  Dancing has always brought me pure joy and freedom. It makes me feel alive.

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Las Ruinas is also symbolic of the spirit of the Dominican people. Flanked by food trucks and under bright, colorful lights, Las Ruinas is a backdrop to a sea of laughing faces and twirling bodies. It is a testimony to tenacity.   Formerly called The Monastery of San Franciso and built by Nicolas de Ovando in 1508, this first monastery of the New World has been battered by nature and war. First it was stormed by a hurricane, then sacked by Francis Drake. In 1673 and 1751 it was shaken by two earthquakes. French troops collapsed its ceiling by placing artillery on its roof and Cyclone San Zenon in 1930  destroyed much of the building.  In 1940 it was converted into an asylum.

Today Las Ruinas is the site of the biggest dance party on the island. The days when Dictator Rafael Trujillo censored bachata are gone and now friends and families gather to sing and see older couples show young ones how it’s done. The weekly ritual is a reminder that despite daunting times the human spirit can rise from ruins.  Together we can celebrate and dance on.

Road Trip to Samana Province: Day One

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I understand now why local friends kept saying they love  vacationing in Samana.  While Punta Cana on the easternmost tip of The Dominican Republic is better known by tourists for mammoth all-inclusive resorts, Samana on the north shore is more a Mom and Pop kind of place–pristine and private.    The beach above, Caylo Levanto, is perfection– an isle off the main island in Samana Bay.

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Griselda (left) whose family is from the DR arranged the weekend for Sana, Steve, and me.  She said we wouldn’t believe how beautiful Samana province/peninsula is. She was right.  Our van took off at 7 AM Saturday and by midmorning we were on a boat headed for paradise.

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Coconut water

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The afternoon I saddled up with my three amigos– all Jersey boys and girls–and we headed to Salto Limon.  The ride was hot and rocky as the horses climbed up and down mountains through forests scented with coffee beans, coconuts, cacoa and pineapples.

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The water was so cold it took our breath…but not as much as what we saw next…

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Knowing all came up safely,  I can now exhale looking at these photos, relax and relate. The last 2+ years have felt like diving headfirst–or on less scary or exciting days–plunging feetfirst into a life far from my comfort zone.  I knew it was something I needed to do and though I’ve been lonely at times, God has never left me alone.  I’ve felt my life is a cliffhanger for awhile now because I am not sure what’s next.  But one thing is for sure.  Wherever I land after this adventure, I’ll never forget these moments that have left me feeling very, very alive.

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Santo Domingo: Oldest European City in the New World

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The Colonial Zone is the most magical part of Santo Domingo. Last weekend I had 3 wishes, so I asked the area to grant them:

#1 Take me back to Europe.

#2 Give me rest.

#3 Help me remember again why I moved to the DR.

Like a genie, it did.

A huge perk of living two years in Morocco was taking advantage of cheap flights to Europe. Oh how I miss the $60-80 roundtrip tickets to Neighbor Spain. But last weekend I went there again via a staycation in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.

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Never underestimate seeing your city as a tourist. While home last summer, I felt again the excitement found under the Batman building along the banks of the Cumberland River while staying in the center of Nashvegas.

Likewise, last weekend I needed escape. A new perspective. Peace. Weeks go by working in my Piantini neighborhood—a maze of mega malls and stifling traffic– when I never see a wave, monument, or sunset. But then I remembered. Just an Uber ride away from my apartment where car horns and jackhammers deafen and high rise apartments smother is the Colonial Zone with its wide open spaces- -grand plazas surrounded by cathedrals,  museums, and waterfront views.

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Oldest church in North and South America and the Caribbean

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Controversial Columbus
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The old town of the first permanent European settlement in the New World offers a feel of two countries I love—Spain and Italy—perched above what drew me to the Dominican Republic—the Caribbean Sea.

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I opted for my first stay in the Colonial Zone to be at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, built in 1502 as the home of Santo Domingo’s founder, Governor Nicolas de Ovando.

The hotel is located on the Port of Santo Domingo and the first paved street in the Americas, first called the Street of Fortress or Strength.

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Although the name has been changed several times since 1502, it is now called Las Damas, Street of the Ladies, named so because when Viceroy Diego Columbus and his wife doña María de Toledo, the great niece of the King of Spain King Ferdinand, came they brought with them Spanish ladies-in-waiting.  Here these women of high society lived and swished through the streets in gorgeous ballgowns.

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When traveling alone I prefer to be as near as possible to the action.

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Exiting the hotel to the right, I was 150 meters  from Plaza de España and Alcázar de Colón Viceregal Palace—the most visited museum in the Domincan Republic and former home of Ovando’s successor/Christopher Columbus’s oldest son, Don Diego Colón, who became Governor of Hispaniola (now Haiti and Domincan Republic) in 1509.

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Under my window was the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic, built 1714-1746 as a Jesuit church.  In 1956 under order of then dictator Rafael Trujillo, it was remodelled as a national mausoleum.  Trujillo planned to rest here but today his assassins and other heroes of the the country are interred. 

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A highlight of my stay was when Las Damas began filling with beautiful young ladies like days of old.  On the steps of the memorial proud parents photographed daughters for a Quinceañera, 15th birthday celebration. I fell in love with this rite of passage at a friend’s niece’s party in Nashville.  While weddings are known for being the “bride’s day,” since not all women marry, I love that every girl is celebrated on her special day when she is recognized as becoming a woman.  The dress, the cake, the coming together of friends and family–most of all, the speech of respect and affirmation given by the girl’s father and godfather–makes each girl feel cherished.

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Changing directions…Out the front door to the left, past the hotel’s restaurant 70 meters away

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is the plaza of Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest church built in the New World. This area is a social hub so close to the hotel it feels safe for solo travellers to venture there at night.

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As for the hotel,  the romantic in me loved viewing the Ozama River from behind fortress walls as I used to look out from my balcony above the battlement of Essaouira. Perhaps walking in the footsteps of ghosts from Genoa and living isolated much of the time on this island made me feel like The Count of Monte as he looked across the sea wondering about, wishing for life at home.

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Peering down on Andalusian arches and fountains and roaming mammoth hallways with iron chandeliers and candelabras reminded me of palaces and patios I loved in Marrakesh and Seville.

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I enjoyed  the hospitality and modern 5-star amenities of the property—swimming pool, gym, restaurant, lounge, and live music–and thought of how I’d love to fill the pool with friends and family. I took a dip at dusk and another later in the dark–something I haven’t done in years.

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Sunday I awoke in the way I’ve always dreamt of doing when in Italy.  I opened the shutters to only the sounds of church bells, birds’ songs, flapping pigeons’ wings, and horse hooves on cobblestone.

 

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A local sat on a bench reading a newspaper and I sipped coffee in bed and read this:

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They’ll soar on wings like eagles.

Below someone called to a friend in Spanish, breaking the silence, and I remembered I was in Santo Domingo. Downstairs I found breakfast by following the sound of a guitarist and ate in the courtyard.

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I wrote by the pool awhile and took a last walk before calling Uber.

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Again I thought of roots and wings. Seeing families together made me long for my children and a new nest near them. Still, I am so grateful for each day and what it teaches, where it takes us all, and I know wherever I am– uprooted in a hot city of concrete or refreshed by a night swim under a big moon–and wherever they are in Knoxville and Nashville, we three are seen, strengthened, and protected under His wings.

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10 Must Dos When Going Solo To a Caribbean Resort

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1) LET YOURSELF GO…

Long before Pinterest prodded us to create virtual vision boards, Instagram insisted we share in-the-moment bliss, and Facebook fostered travel posts of happy places far, far away, I cut out and saved a magazine photo of a couple walking in the surf of the Caribbean Sea. I was single again, sad, but looked forward to a day I’d be that girl, her cocktail dress blowing in the breeze, as she laughed and leaned into her guy’s shoulder, one arm wrapped around his, the other hand holding a champagne flute.   I longed to share such a celebratory moment in paradise… one day (sigh)… with The One who was meant to be—whoever, wherever he was.

Though I still wait in hope to meet him, I have learned to cherish the many people with whom THE One, God, has blessed my life. And over the last twenty years, I stopped waiting to be in a romantic relationship to see the world or show it to my children. Money I have spent on traveling with my family, friends, and students strengthened relationships, made priceless memories, and taught us all something.  Likewise, I’ve learned to appreciate solo travel which has given me confidence, courage, and peace I never thought possible. A mentor told me years ago that giving ourselves what we need models self-care to our children and is healthier than waiting for someone else to fulfill us.   Travel rejuvenates and like a class taken to improve mind, body, or spirit, it’s  an investment in personal growth which positively impacts us and those around us.  Yet, though I’d traveled from Moscow to Morocco to Malibu and now live in the Caribbean in Santo Domingo, something inside kept saving the fantasy island resort experience for a hoped-for honeymoon. Until recently…

I gave myself permission.  I let myself go…solo…to Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort.

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Though Punta Cana is known for love connections– the 2014 season of The Bachelorette was filmed here– and this 5-star mega-complex in The Dominican Republic is popular for weddings, family vacations,

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This family reminded me of Florida vacations with Taylor and Cole.  I long for those days but in the words of Disney’s Dori, a family favorite, we have to keep swimming.

and bachelorette/bachelor getaways,

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the Caribbean haven cradles single women travellers with comfort. For those of us with grown children on their own journeys, going solo can provide rejuvenation and even reinvention as we navigate this new season of life.

I was impressed by the 85-year history of the  Barcelo Group, a family  company founded by Simón Barceló in Felanitx (Mallorca, Spain) and later expanded internationally.   After scanning The Dominican Republic by helicopter, owners chose Punta Cana–a then deserted stretch of beautiful jungle and beach.   Because they bought wide rather than deep as many property owners have since, this resort stretches two kilometres along Bavaro Beach rather than behind a small oceanfront area.  The company’s hotel division now has over 100 hotels in 19 countries and its travel division has 685 travel agencies in 22 countries. These figures position it as the third largest hotel chain in Spain, and the forty-second largest in the world.

2)  REST AND REVIVE.

Choosing an all-inclusive resort is the best way to rest before and during your stay since everything–where to eat, drink, swim, sunbathe, shop, be entertained, be active, and find transport–is provided.   While I enjoy researching and plotting my own travel adventures from restaurants to excursions, planning takes energy and time.  For those worn out from home/work responsibilities and constantly making grown up decisions, going with the flow of resorts that offer everything from a bowling alley to a soccer field

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to a casino

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to live entertainment can be freeing.   For those flying into the Punta Cana airport, transfer service to the resort can be arranged as can car rental.  Currency exchange is available and stores carry items you may have forgotten, like sunscreen.   Upon arrival at reception, get a map to see the lay of the land, and if not interested in the buffet, make reservations for some restaurants which require them and any special services–such as spa or tee times (though you can call from your room to set these up later).  I traveled less than three hours from Santo Domingo but was tired and upon checkin rested awhile, then showered before dinner.

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Relaxing shower and pampering products provided

Realize as the New Kid at Camp (seriously, the Barcelo complex feels like an amusement park/pleasure palace for adults), it’s normal to feel excited but also strange not having friends or family there to share the experience.  A trip to the spa and Wellness Center with use of the private pool outside thanks to Premium Level (this upgrade also provides free internet and personal service in the Premium Level Lounge which serves food and champagne and early and late check-in/check-out when available),

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Photos of me by Patirica Fuentes, Community Manager, Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort

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a dip in one of the oceanfront pools,

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or room service, minibar, (courtesy of the Premium Club Suites)

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In my room were local rums.  Mamajuana is a spicy, peppery legend in the area.

and a movie –whatever you need to unwind–will help you relax, recharge and relish your evening and stay ahead.

3)  BREATHE AND DWELL IN POSSIBILITY.

Before dinner at the seafood restaurant where I had lobster on the terrace (the Sante Fe Steak House also has seaside dining), I walked barefoot on sugar sand inhaling the sea air.  I breathed…exhaled… under a full harvest moon.  What would I reap on this trip?  As always, I felt warm knowing those I loved to the moon and back were looking up, too.  I thought of Van Morrison, Emily Dickinson, and the Creator of the most gorgeous clouds I’d ever seen.  Truly, it was a soothing, surreal, “marvellous night for a moon dance,” a time to “dwell in possibility…the spreading wide (of) my narrow Hands To gather Paradise.”

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Though the property is so huge shuttles connect its vast offerings, a solo woman traveler can feel safe walking alone at night.

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4) EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY.

An all-inclusive (see under “Other Important Services”) vacation is NOT where we count calories.  Healthy choices are always available, but dieting?  No way.  And since we first eat with our eyes… the ambience of open air tables set amidst lagoons, lakes, and gardens makes every meal a feast.

I slept later than usual thanks to the blackout curtains, had coffee on my patio where I was visited by a Moorhen, nicknamed the Chicken-foot Coot because its feet aren’t webbed and it steps high like a hen. Rested, I was ready to step out, too, so I headed to the nearest restaurant just around the corner for something I rarely get–a Southern-sized breakfast.   The night before PGA golfers (The Dominican Republic is known for the best golfing in the Caribbean) gathered in the foyer bar –champagne, cocktails, beer and bachata music flowing.  Now hushed except for the tin, hollow sound of clubs hitting golf balls, the course and sky met as a blue-and-green canvas for a new day.

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From Dominican fare to all-you-can-eat buffets to a Buffett-worthy Cheeseburger in Paradise, culinary and beverage choices abound.  My finest meal was at the French restaurant recommended by the concierge upon my arrival.  I had to book for my second night because it was booked the night I arrived.

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Warm Salad with Breaded Camembert and caviar (a first for me).
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Snails A’La Bourguignonne
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The Chateaubriand was rich and tender. Other choices included Beef Wellington, Pork Loin, Chicken Cordon Blue, and Duck Breast a l’Orange.
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Chocolate Fondant
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Berries and cream

5)  LET YOUR INNER CHILD PLAY.  

Remember when you were little and you weren’t afraid to explore, concerned about “getting it right” or impressing others?  An all-inclusive where you don’t know a soul allows you to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: “Do  one thing everyday that scares you.”  Of course, do what you   love.  For me, this was dancing bachata on the beach (Romeo Santos had recently done a concert in Punta Cana).  Golf, tennis, volleyball, soccer, walking, swimming –do what makes you happy– but leave room to discover a new passion.

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Zumba

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Maybe learning to like alone time is what you need.  Or maybe starting a conversation to make new friends and not just because paddle boats take teamwork.

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I loved meeting Patricia who gave me a tour of the property on Saturday and took me out to sea on Sunday.  She assists travel bloggers/media influencers, she’s from Spain, loves promoting community and all the Barcelo brand has to offer, and I liked her instantly.

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And I finally tried kayaking.  It was fun.

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So was meeting Harry Lee and Livvy Turner, Brits below who had just arrived.  They were in the Caribbean for the first time and were looking forward to ten days of bliss.  Harry said they weren’t leaving the property, that he was exhausted by city life.  “I am a broken man,” he quipped, “but will return to London with more energy.”

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6)  LET YOUR INNER CHILD NAP.

Count ships, not sheep, under rustling palm leaves shading you from the sun.  And if you can’t sleep, as my mother used to say, rest your eyes and your mind.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

“Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing’… [it] has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. ”

 Last spring break I’d planned to practice this skill on The Amalfi Coast.  Of course, I planned to write and photograph Positano, but that isn’t work to me.  Circumstances prevented that trip, but I’m trying to learn the same lesson in the DR.  This weekend was a wonderful teacher.

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My favorite–pink and blaring bachata.

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 7)  LOOK BACK IN GRATITUDE.

Recall happy times in the past with thanksgiving.  If I’ve learned one thing from many Dominicans it is to laugh and sing more.

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Too often we’re too tired to remember what day it is, much less yesterday or yesteryear.  As has happened a lot over the last two years of living abroad memories of family flood me.   In Punta Cana I remembered other beach vacations with women who have strongly influenced my life.  The summer in Hawaii with my mom, sister, cousin, and aunt.  Another summer in Florida with Mom and her mother, Mama Sargeant–single women for many years like me.  I toasted to them with a Pina Colada, the drink my grandmother enjoyed when she became ill and mom moved in with her until she passed.  I thought of a month earlier when my daughter, Taylor, and I enjoyed another DR beach together.

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8) LOOK FORWARD IN HOPE.

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As gentle waves lap the shore the clear, calm waters of the Caribbean invite reflection.   Remembering happy times, even hard times, reminds us of all we’ve overcome to get to this place which strengthens us to face, even greet what lies ahead.

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Scan the horizon knowing that good is coming.  In studying Spanish I realized this week the roots for esperanza, hope, and esperar, to wait or to expect, are the same.  Faith says to wait, to expect with hope.

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On this lake is the Barcelo chapel where some couples marry.

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And on this pier, a group of friends waited for the bride and groom.

What are you waiting for?  Some things we can make happen.  Others we can’t, so we must trust, wait, and watch.  Traveling solo helps us figure out what we want and how, if in our power, to get it. What to hold onto.  What to let go of.  The beauty of this gorgeous globe  gives us peace in knowing the One who created it can work  all things together for good.

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9)  SEIZE THE DAY AS THE BEST SOUVENIR.

We must live in the moment.   I agree we can take so many photos trying to capture special times that they truly escape us.  Too much staging can kill just being, breathing the experience.  And yes, people may laugh at your selfies, but deep down most of us want to remember times we recognize as special pieces of eternity.   Even if you don’t typically like to have your photo taken, you will  want to remember that you were once in a beautiful place and felt more beautiful for it.  I promise.  Just as a mom says if the house were on fire and all people and pets were out safely she’d grab baby photos first, one day you’ll want to see yourself in a Caribbean paradise where you grew, changed–even use the photos as your screen saver–so you don’t forget how important it was–it is–to get away and enjoy gifts of beauty and adventure you’ve been given.

While in Punta Cana I read an article in More magazine called, When Looks Fade: An Exercise in Perspective by  Christine Lennon who interviewed “The Professionally Beautiful,” asking them how to age with grace.  Molly Sims, author of The Everyday Supermodel said:

“It’s funny how I used to look at a picture when it was taken and think, Ugh, I look awful.  You look at that same picture five years later, and you think, Dang.  I looked pretty good.”

A friend in her 40s recently had professional photos taken to remember this time in her life.  My mom did the same in her mid-30s.  I get it.  Even if you shy from the camera, the best souvenirs of any vacation are photos which capture living -in- the- now forever.  At a Caribbean resort photo opps are everywhere and you’ll see many taking advantage of it.  Don’t be shy.  Help a solo traveling sister out.  Ask if she’d like you to take her picture and ask her to take yours.  Hotel staff will kindly oblige as well.

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Whatever your age or style–girly girl, Bohemian Babe, or mermaid, wear something–maybe a new frock found in shops on the complex– that makes you  smile.  Though I brought a tropical dress with me–a TJMAXX special–I was thrilled to see new styles of two brands I fell in love with in Spain (Mele Beach in Tarife and Desigual in Vigo) sold at the Barcelo Punta Cana complex.

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Mele Beach

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My inner flower child loves this.

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This brand colors my world.
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Desigual

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The beach is your runway.  Get creative.  Take the plunge.  You’ll be glad you did.

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10)  TAKE A PEACE OF PARADISE HOME WITH YOU.

Peace.  Going solo to a Caribbean resort will convince you of what research shows.  Though too few people take enough time off, those who do vacation return rejuvenated and more productive.  No matter the age.  For some of us, the prime time to go solo seems to be when we are trying to survive, even thrive after the nest empties.  We are “tweeners”and if we can’t take a gap year, a gap week works, too.  Soon–assuming we stay in good health–we may be needed to care for parents and grandchildren. Doing all we can to stay fit–physically, mentally, spiritually–is vital for the ones we love.

We are as young as we feel.  I loved seeing women my mom’s age doing Zumba in their bathing suits on the beach.  And about those photos and the freedom on your face they will reflect…

Christie Brinkley, 62 year-old author  of Timeless Beauty and former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model said, “Aging needs a huge rebranding campaign.  People still think of 60 and picture a granny with a shawl and bun.  We need to stop lying about our ages.  Go ahead and say your number; then you’ll reshape other people’s images of that number.”

Likewise, when people ask in disbelief, You traveled to the Caribbean alone? say, Yes and smile.  They may need to be freed, too.

Special thanks to Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort for an amazing experience.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

 

 

 

Of Seeing and Believing: The Three Eyes

Yesterday I went spelunking.

I was excited when my friends, Sana and Steve, invited me to join.  Though newlyweds, their kindness and inclusiveness from the day we met blessed Taylor and me.  Trusting them as history teachers and adventurers, I did no research but quickly scanned a few photos online and took off.  As I’d been thrilled by Venice last January, I wanted Santo Domingo to share some of its secrets as well.  I wanted to be surprised.  I needed to feel wonder.  For awhile I hadn’t had the energy or desire to explore, but last week I’d begin feeling like myself again.

Located just outside the city, Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) costs a mere 100 Pesos/$2 and is open until 5:30 (though ticket sales end around 4:15).

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As I journeyed into the dark bowels of the limestone labyrinth leading to underground lagoons, thoughts of spiders made me flinch at water drops from stalactites above.  What other creatures might swim and slither within?

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The three underground eyes are Lago de Azufre (Lake of Sulfer) discovered in 1916 , La Nevera (Known as “The Fridge” for its icy cold water) and El Lago de las Damas (“The Lake of the Ladies”) where Taino women–first inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the DR) — bathed their children.

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The second lake was darker than I’d hoped, and Steve and I joked it was the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel.  I remembered a movie about a mutant shark grabbing a victim gazing into an underground river, so though I wanted to take the boat into even darker depths, I was nervous.  Normally I’d take photos with flash, but as we crossed the water I was afraid of arousing bats hidden in holes overhead.  My trypophobia was kicking in and I remembered, Katherine, my role model for adventure in The English Patient, had survived desert storms and a war but died in a cave.

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On the other side,  I crept off the boat, peering down into the dark at the slippery rock beneath my feet.  Determined not to sink into the river we’d just crossed, I carefully groped my way around a corner of the cavern.  Then, as in every miraculous moment of my life,  I looked up and all changed.

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My eyes filled with light. I hadn’t read that here was hidden the fourth lake–discovered after the park was named for the other three.  But unlike the others, this lake opened fully to the sun.  To the sky.  To the heavens.

My eyes filled with wonder and recognition as another heart’s desire was fulfilled.  As I’d dreamt as a girl of exotic Arabian gardens, then saw them come to life in Morocco, I stepped into another secret place I cherished as a child.   I’d watched Tarzan movies my whole life–loving most the black and white Sunday morning Johnny Weissmuller films. But here in living technicolor, realtime, were vines hanging like party streamers beckoning Jane to swing.  Turns out, this lake was a location for Tarzan films and  Jurassic Park. Memories of dying Katherine vanished. Instead I was strong Kate on Lost and smiled remembering my kids’ groans as I’d drag them around Radnor Lake  and tell them to pretend we were on the tv series island scouting for treasure.   This island, too– just outside my new city– was mysterious, unearthly, ancient.  And alive.

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We boarded the boat, left that piece of paradise, and climbed up, then down to the third eye–the most most gorgeous blue water dappled with sunlight.  On a walk around the perimeter of the park,  I marvelled at this tree and its green bean pods fit for a giant.

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The fourth lake, Zaramaguyones, was beautiful from above.  But somehow, discovering it on the other side of a darkness and fear made it much more breathtaking.

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For all my déjà vu movie moments, the expedition reminded me most of a cave of my childhood and its metaphor guiding my second-ever blogpost written so many years ago.  It calls me back to my main mission for writing.

When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave.  While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths… The tour guide seemed so calm.  She had a light to guide us but no map.  She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could  have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.

The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light…

Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight.  God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out.  I still grope but know He’s there.  Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine.  Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years.   I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.

The last few weeks I’m often felt confused.  Disoriented.  Exhausted.  I’ve had health issues and struggled at times to embrace all the changes that have flooded my life this year.  Selling the home we loved, then transitioning from Marrakesh to Nashville to here has been fraught with questions about where I’ll ultimately put down roots again.   Taylor moved back to Nashville and I couldn’t be happier for her as she goes after the life she wants there.  As Paulo Coelho said,  “Love never keeps a person from pursuing his or her destiny.”  We agreed if living abroad wasn’t right for her–as it isn’t for many people–she could be proud of herself for taking this opportunity and return with no regrets. Though I’d hoped we’d have more time together, I’m so thankful for what we shared while she was here.  Letting go again is so hard as all parents know no matter how many times the nest empties, but she and Cole are both in really good places and that soothes my soul.  In a week he flies to Washington, DC to start his new job in Knoxville–something he’s waited a long time for.  I love and miss them both madly.

So in this silent apartment I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with old friends– like Elizabeth Gilbert –who comforted me with these lines from Eat, Pray, Love:

In the end, I’ve come to believe in something I call ‘The Physics of the Quest.’ A force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.

As for this new relationship with the DR, I cling to the Message version of Matthew 6:22-23:  “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.”  I’ve experienced beauty, adventure, and relationship here. And caves.  Big ones.  Beyond my two human eyes is a third one of faith–the door to all things bright and beautiful.  I remain thankful for the One who holds, now and always, my family, future, hand, and heart.

 

 

First Two Weeks in The Dominican Republic

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First Weekend in DR on Juan Dolio Beach

It has been awhile, too long since I’ve been able to write.  Summer was a six-week cyclone spent in the US–(to be read aloud in one breath) half of the time spent getting medical appointments, fingerprints, birth certificates, and other pieces of a 39-page work visa document stamped by government and federal authorities sent to the Dominican Republic Consulate…  the other half  waiting for approval while trying to see friends and family spread across 250 miles while packing up to take off again.  Each step of the Visa process demanded we wait for paperwork to be returned before sending sealed envelopes to the next checkpoint. Our target date to leave was August 1 because my job started on August 4, so I prayed the Visa would be approved giving us the signal to book flights and get “settled.”  For those writing to ask if we are “settled” yet, the answer is we are unpacked (except for the fifth bag we were told at the airport we had to leave behind because of a summer embargo which American Airlines didn’t tell me about when I called the day before to confirm the cost of adding another bag.  It would now cost at least $500 to ship the contents so, as we say in the south, we will “make do.”)

Waiting all summer for the Visa decision left no head or heart space to process saying goodbye  to the people, the city of Marrakesh I loved NOR a proper pace to say hello, connect deeply, then say goodbye to friends and family before leaving.  There was also no debriefing for integrating back into  US culture as some businesses and churches provide after sending people overseas.   (When did gas pumps start streaming video?   When did Panera become a drive-through?  When did chip technology take over the quick swipe at some stores but not at others?  I always managed to swipe when I wasn’t supposed to or pull out my card before the chip technology accepted the payment, causing those in line behind me dismay as I had to start over.  Everything moved so fast.  When did rent-a-cars replace key fobs and cameras show you how to back out of the driveway? Keep in mind I drove a 2002 Nissan before moving abroad.  When did traffic in Nashville whip from lane-to-lane and tailgate at such high speeds and close proximity?  My kids said I scared them to death driving with my slow reflexes. When did a hotel room in Music City cost more than one in just about any city in Europe? When did politics peak in craziness?  When did news cover only the most horrific events, dissecting violent acts bone- by- bone,  day- after- day until we all pay in a pound of flesh called profound fear?   When did Animal Kingdom, a series I found while channel surfing, become filled with shocking camera-closeups of graphic, sadistic  human sex scenes rather than a Discovery Channel tutorial on  meerkats? ( I paused on the series while channel surfing in a hotel because I saw Ellen Barkin was in it and I’d always liked her.  After two years where kissing was censored from television I couldn’t believe when I happened upon a scene of two guys, seemingly enemies, punching each other and then…) And when, can someone tell me, did Jimmy Kimmel become so thin, darken his hair and grow a beard?  With no time to ponder, Taylor and I flew to the Caribbean and began the business of trying to assimilate into another culture.

Although I have always considered Latin culture in many ways “home” and share with my daughter a lifelong love for the ocean, I knew moving to a new country, apartment, job, life would be challenging for us both–Taylor who has never lived abroad and I who have done so only once.  Vacations have return flight dates.  Moving abroad happens on a one-way ticket.  I knew we needed to celebrate the small victories (learning how to turn on the hot water, light the stove, get internet and phone service, order water , negotiate a taxi…where to wash clothes, dump trash, buy groceries) because if you don’t stay positive and make room for play–wherever you live, but especially when trying to navigate new territory–so much new information can disorient, deplete, depress.  So that first week, to escape the humid heat (in apartments due to electricity costs,  AC units are in bedrooms only and used at night for sleeping)  we checked out the local scene starting with lunch at Adrian Tropical, recommended by a new friend.  The whole fish fried Boca Chica- style (named for a nearby beach) was amazing…enough for two.

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The second week we went to the same restaurant in our area.  Though it isn’t on the sea waterfalls and fish ponds make it a cool oasis.  I also made my first pot of shrimp chowder at home.  We love the food here.

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Later that week we went to the J.W. Marriott for sunset tapas and a panoramic view of the city.  Photos by Taylor because I couldn’t walk out on the glass terrace. 🙂

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George is a hospitality pro.
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The fresh fish tacos and cheese stickes were amazing.

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Taylor said a highlight of the week for her was seeing the mountains against the skyline.  She likes the big city (capital of 3 million people–largest by population in the Caribbean) and the bonus of the beach on weekends.

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For the first weekend, I booked us a night at Emotions, appropriately named given all we are feeling with this move.  Ranked #1 by Trip Advisor on what many consider the best beach near Santo Domingo, Juan Dolio, it is 38miles/50 minutes from our apartment. Saturday was spent watching waves of storms move down the beach; at the first raindrop all knew to run for cover.  By night all had cleared for the animation (dance show) and fireworks.  Sunday was sunny sky perfect.

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Love the rain catchers.

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As we checked in a crab literally led the way to the front desk.  This one was just off our terrace.

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It is hurricane season here, appropriate given our charged feelings as we try to absorb all the change.  As I write this, again lightening flashes and the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard signals another  downpour that will most likely turn the streets into lakes again.  We’ve come to love the storms that cool and calm us–such a change from remembering no more than five times it rained in the two years I was in Morocco.  We’ve had some great discussions–now adults, roommates–each finding our own paths and learning how to respect our differences in doing that.  We both trust God has lessons and blessings for us here.

When I asked Taylor her best memory so far she said the day we walked to the store in the rain.  Despite umbrellas we came home soaked, laughing all the way.  We’ve laughed and cried. Sharing this experience is something we will never forget.  We both struggle with the heat during the day and our inability to speak Spanish but are determined to learn as much as we can and allow life to unfold.    I asked her about surprises here. She said she likes all the open air places and that we have to walk to get what we need.  This morning, Sunday, was cooler and quiet–no jack hammers or honking cars (driving is crazy here–the only rule of the road seems to be to pull out and take your chances.)  “Walking forces us to be connected.  When you walk you see things you miss when driving.  It keeps us in the mix, in the moment.”

Yesterday was a good day.  Our Russian friend, Maria, took us back to Juan Dolio–this time by public bus– with Sana and Steve, a couple from New Jersey we’ve met.  On the commute, under the palm trees, in the water, and around the delicious dinner at El Mason we bonded over this new experience we share.  Truly, no man nor woman is an island.

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Photo by Taylor McCain
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Photo by Taylor McCain

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