a new year from the Dominican Republic
Yes, we did travel to a new country for the New Year celebration. However, the fête was about family spirit.
The Dominican Republic is a country in the Caribbean, in the Hispaniola Island, which it shares with Haiti. (Our thoughts and prayers are with them). Half of the island is Haiti, the other half is the Dominican Republic. (I can’t believe we were there only a couple weeks ago).
It’s really shocking to me how the west side of the island has been suffering with political and natural disasters, resulting in a population with diminishing faith. That’s Haiti. The east side has been receiving an ever growing number of tourists and has been inundated with foreign capital in huge touristic accommodations. That’s the Dominican Republic.
It was the first territory discovered by Christopher Columbus. It’s the second largest island in the Caribbean, after Cuba. By the way, the comparison with Cuba is not limited to size, but also to the quality of their rum and cigars.
Punta Cana, one of the most sought destinies by tourists worldwide (I must mention the Russians… I frequently saw real estate signs in Russian, they must be seeking summer properties), is the typical Caribbean post card – long distances of thin, white sand that lead you to a turquoise ocean with an endless line of coconut trees. It’s eye candy. I could stare at it for hours.
We were just another family of tourists in one of the all inclusive resorts. The great majority of hotel accommodations there work with this system – pay the stay and forget about money in the hotel – it’s all included! I must say it feels great to forget that money exists for some days. To compensate for the rapid and easy gain of calories, the hotels always offer different activities to get you moving: sports, dance lessons, diving, windsurfing, kitesurfing, parasailing…
I must admit that with the all inclusive system and the eye candy Caribbean beach, you are tempted to remain belly up, feet in the air, alternating between mojitos and Presidentes (local beer). But I can’t just travel and not explore. I would hate myself for going to the Dominican Republic and only getting to know the beach and the resort. So I dragged my family to a bit more ‘cultural immersion’ activities.
We visited a cigar factory called Dom Lucas and watched their employees hand craft their cigars in a meticulous and thorough process. We learned about the entire procedure of making a cigar – from picking the leaves, to drying, manufacturing, to storage.
We also visited a quite precarious sugar cane farm which still ploughs the land with cattle and its workers earn a mere US$9 a month. The majority emigrated from Haiti, fleeing the political instability and unemployment.
We then went to a cocoa and coffee plantation which started with a tasting of the cocoa fruit as well as freshly grinded coffee and cocoa (natural chocolate powder) – quite strong. It was interesting because some of our family members are from Bahia, a state well known for its cocoa plantations, while others, despite from Brazil, were tasting the fruit for the first time – in the Dominican Republic! Miles and miles away.
A great tour took us by jeep to gorgeous beaches in the northeastern part of the island, we threw ourselves on a zipline, went horseback riding, got stuck on a jeep on the beach, laughed about the ones who didn’t know how to drive stick shift (myself included), ate delicious poultry cooked in its own blood and held a toucan – up close and personal.
We swam with dolphins.
So a family reunion in the Caribbean doesn’t have to be about beach – restaurant – casino, after all, does it?
It reminded me a lot about home, the Brazilian state of Bahia – sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, sunny days with slow but friendly service with happy, smiley people.
As in Bahia, there is great social disparity and poverty. Driving around the sugar cane plantation, kids would run around and hang from the jeeps asking for a dollar or anything: “dame um dólar, chica, dame algo”.
There was a lot of cultural learning; however the trip was about being together as a family. Life, paths, or who knows what, separated and spread us around the world. Therefore, moments together, as a family, are rare and treasured. The year we were saying farewell as well as the one we greeted, both involved so many changes. There’s nothing like celebrating change with family.
The pinnacle of my new year’s party was when my Ecuadorian brother in law suddenly stopped dancing and asked “Are we not giving flowers to Iemanjá?”
Iemanjá, in the African religion, widely known and spread in Bahia, is a deity/energy force that represents the ocean and motherhood. Many people in Bahia offer flowers and other gifts on December 31st asking for protection.
I smiled, thinking of the cultural exchange, and at the same time thinking of a way I could offer her something. In Bahia, I usually buy fresh roses on December 31st that I put in the ocean as an offering. But there, in that resort, what could I do? Steal a flower from a bush? A lost hibiscus by the beach?
This year things would be different. We would dance a merengue, salsa or even a bachata. We would drink, other than champagne, a mojito and a mamajuana (local drink made of rum, wine and herbs). We would revere together the full moon, which from any part of the planet was nature’s performance for the New Year. However, my gift for Iemanjá would come from Brazil, maybe on her day – February 2nd.