[VACATION PORN WARNING: This post is a summary of what I’ve been up to since I last posted, written on the plane home. It doesn’t have much to do with writing and is mostly an account of a blissed-out and pleasing experience, with many anecdotes. If this isn’t your thing, oh well; the normal posting pattern and tone will resume shortly.]
For the last couple weeks, I’ve been in Playa Bonita, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The country is lush and tropical, and I was about five minutes down a dirt road from the beach, which is gorgeous—and often empty, so I’d have a whole stretch of stunning coast and electric blue water to myself. I was staying at a friend’s house—a small vacation house, roughly comparable in size to a decent one bedroom apartment in New York, plus a big lovely porch—so a huge thanks to my friend PR and her family, who let me use their place, where I had two of the best/most pleasurable weeks of my life. I couldn’t be more grateful.
A lot of people seem to “enjoy traveling.” Apparently this means they like to go to another country and bustle via various modes of transportation to different sites in that country, or from country to country, periodically pausing to pay a guide or instructor to get them through some novelty experience (skydiving, hiking, safari) that involves a lot of sweating and discomfort. They like to see temples and cathedrals and natural wonders—the more the better. I tend to hate this.
I like to go to an unfamiliar place (it just has to be very different from my normal surroundings, although it certainly helps if it’s beautiful) and stay in one area for an extended period of time. (The minimum time, experience has shown, seems to be two weeks.) Settle in, marinate, acclimate, grow accustomed. Have a saturated experience instead of getting a snapshot.
In this case, I stayed in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in, spent the days drinking and eating and floating in the ocean, got tons of writing done at night, read a bunch of books, and spent less than $900 total, including airfare to/from the DR and transportation across the entire country. It was a vivid, overwhelming experience.
Geckos were everywhere, skittering across the porch, dashing up the gatepost, leaping into the grass. They’re like reptile mice, with their thin little tails sticking out behind them in the air as they run.
And there were huge toads. At night I would walk down the path with a flashlight trained on the ground. Every so often it would catch a bulbous beige lump—a toad bigger than my fist. One night I saw something cobalt and spiky. I turned the light back on it—a land crab, larger than my foot. Its enormous claws were upraised challengingly. I nudged it and it ran around madly like a little clicking space beast and then disappeared into the (very wet, very green) underbrush.
After a violent tropical storm, I walked down a nearby dirt road and looked into the yard of a house I passed, which had a small swimming pool. An enormous frog was slowly, athletically swimming back and forth in it.
I’d turn on the porch light and see tiny wet frogs, the size of a thumb, clinging to the wall around the light, like bugs.
Once, standing in the small front yard, I heard passionate snorting. I turned to see big chestnut horses with their heads over the gate, nodding impatiently.
In the afternoon, on bright blinding sunny days, the moon came out. It’s crazy to be in a dazzling blue ocean under a naked blue sky in the middle of the day and see the moon over the palm trees.
For the first week and a half or so I was by myself. ASB came to visit for the last stretch. I had already been there ten days or whatever, so while I wasn’t accustomed to the place yet, I wasn’t floored every time I stepped on the beach, either—so it was a lot of fun to be there when she saw it for the first time. The night before she arrived, a violent storm hammered the peninsula. The next morning, when she saw the beach, every cloud had been eradicated and the sky was stunning blue. You could walk a hundred yards out in the water and still stand. I swam across the little cove in Playa Bonita, and every time I stopped to get my bearings, I was still in water so shallow I could stand up.
I’m tan as fuck. Way more tan that I was after Morocco. I do wish I’d shaved my head before I went. I never burned, although I didn’t wear sunscreen anywhere except my nose. I did, however, get so much sun that after my skin tanned, it actually burned a little—like, as in, not a sunburn but actual blisters, like on Blondie’s face in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly when he’s lost in the desert. I now have some rough little scabs healing on my forearms.
ASB was snow-pale when she got there and turned tan & freckled in about two days. When we weren’t swimming, we mostly just lay on the beach and read books. Watching ASB physically handle a book is like watching a dog try to open a soft-boiled egg with its paws—she destroys them. Bends pages in half to mark her place… leaves books open on the sand… puts them in bags with leaking pens and sweating water bottles. I’ve realized that’s why she reads quickly—she’s got to finish the book before she demolishes it.
Pino (an ultra-blissed-out Austrian expat who lives nearby; he used to be in the Austrian Special Forces and now lives in the DR “for the lifestyle”) had fresh bread delivered every morning, which was amazing. I got drinks from his bar and ate mango from a place he told me about in Las Terrenas, a larger town nearby. The mango was pretty spectacular. In fact the mango was probably one of the best food experiences I’ve ever had, comparable to the uni I had a few years ago at Kurumazushi on 47th and Fifth and the foie gras brûlée at Nougatine and, actually, another meal I had in Playa Bonita, which was the food at a shack on the beach that as far as I know has no name.
At the shack, they made plates of shrimp, fried fish, and Caribbean lobster, accompanied by plates of fried potatoes and beans and rice, served with a gigantic beer. It wasn’t as cheap as some things down there, but it was amazing. After swimming for hours in the bright sun you could drag yourself up to this shack and feast on great, fresh seafood. I don’t know what sauces/spices they put on these things (except that a lot of lemon and garlic and onion were involved), but they were fucking delicious. The last meal we had there was pretty much an extended food orgasm, almost a delirium. You have to wait a really long time for the food—service is not a strong point in the DR—and when it comes, you fucking attack it.
ALONE AT NIGHT
Before I went, I was a little concerned about crime, since I’d mostly be staying by myself. The first night, in the pitch dark Dominican night, someone pounded on the door. “WHO IS THERE??” I yelled in my angriest voice (in a German accent for some reason; don’t know why I did that) and they went away. No one bothered me again.
Sometimes the electricity would go out and I’d go outside and listen and read by flashlight until it came on again.
I’d be awake all night writing (before ASB got there) and those were just some very nutrient-rich hours. Much got done. The insects are very noisy and there are animals out there making noises I can’t begin to explain. Sometimes I’d hear something running around on the roof, clambering up and down like a monkey. I don’t know what that was. I’d hear it scrambling around and then I would hear a noise like a quacking duck.
Before we went, PR tried to tell us about this creature, which only increased its aura of mystery.
PR: There's a little animal, it likes to run around on the roof at night, you’ll hear it.
Me: What is it?
PR: Well, it’s—they have them in Vieques, too…
Me: But what kind of animal is it?
PR: Well—they climb around on the roof at night…
Me: Is it a mammal, a reptile, or a bird?
PR: You’ll hear them, you know, moving around up there…
ASB: Does it have fur?
PR: … I believe it has fur.
After a week there, I just pictured it as a little man on all fours with a duck-call in his mouth.
Here’s an anecdote. On the last day, ASB wanted to go snorkeling. I didn’t have any strong desire to do this (novelty experience, etc) and resisted in the early morning because it seemed to be the only cloudy day of the whole trip. But then the clouds cleared a little, so we finally went to the little divers’ shack and convinced them to take us out to Las Islas, which are some big craggy rocks in the ocean.
The ride out was great. It was essentially a rowboat with a motor attached, jouncing and banging about on the waves, which were a little bigger than usual because of the weather’s (relative) roughness. Our captain was a taciturn, pleasant Dominican guy who spoke only Spanish. (ASB speaks it with mild fluency, I only have a few words.)
We got to Las Islas and jumped in the water. It wasn’t that clear—we could see thirty feet down to the bottom, but because the sky was a little overcast, the light didn’t look pale blue and jaunty, like you see on tourism commercials; instead, it looked murky and kind of ominous. It wasn’t that calm, either—the waves weren’t exactly rough, but you could feel them, and you had to fight them. And we were pretty close to these sharp, rocky Islas. ASB was really excited, splashing around and snorkeling, pointing at fish, oohing at little crabs and so forth.
ASB: “Ooh! Ooh! Did you see the yellow and black striped one?”
Me: “Eghhhgghghgh, fuck, FUCK, gagghhh, can’t breathe—”
ASB: “What is the matter with you?”
Me: “Phhllgghhhh, my mask doesn’t work—”
ASB: “God, all you have to do is breathe. Here, trade with me.”
Pretty soon she was the one spitting salt water, because that mask was fucked. But she still seemed to be enjoying herself quite a bit, just holding her breath while peering down at the fish as I continued to kick warily in the waves, trying to stay away from the rocks.
Then she yelped. “Something stung me, OW, OW—a jellyfish stung me,” and so forth.
She seemed to be in quite a bit of pain, so we kicked back toward the boat while the captain stoically watched us. “I felt it brush my side and then it started stinging really bad!” ASB was saying. I was worried she would swell up there in the ocean like a big thumb and die, or I might have to drag her to the boat or something, and then find some sort of emergency services in the area.
But when we got into the boat, she seemed more scared than in mortal peril. There was no mark on her side, although from her demeanor I had no doubt that something had stung her. She explained this to the captain, who looked skeptical and begun turning the boat around. “Are we going back?” I said. “I think so,” she said.
Instead, we went around to a different part of Las Islas, where we were surrounded by the rocky outcroppings. This looked like a promising area for brightly colored things, the observation of which seems to be the whole purpose of snorkeling, so ASB decided to ignore her sting and get back in; I fatalistically agreed to join her.
As soon as she jumped in, though, she resurfaced with a prolonged, yipping shriek, paddled back to the boat, and clung to its side with both arms, looking back fearfully into the water.
“There’s one right there!! I jumped in right next to one!!”
From where I stood, still in the boat, I couldn’t see anything.
“Las agua vivas no te pica,” the captain said calmly. (“The jellyfish do not sting.”)
“Algo mi pica! Algo mi pica!” ASB cried. (“Something stung me!”)
To this he responded (ASB told me later) that there might be a few small jellyfish that could sting, but the big ones were not dangerous. She was clearly not at all convinced, if the terror in her face was any sign, but so great was her desire to see brightly colored things that she let go of the boat and began to paddle tentatively back out.
“I’m not getting in the water with anything that can sting,” I said. The captain stared blankly at me. ASB popped up and yelled, “Get in!”
“Okay,” I said. I got back in. As soon as my face was underwater, I saw a pulsating pink jellyfish right near me. Instead of causing consternation by yelling about this, I swam about ten feet in the other direction, so I could tread water there and occasionally glance at the ocean floor until it was time to get back in the boat. Then I saw another jellyfish coming at me from the other direction.
“They’re all over!” I managed to yell, swimming away from that one, and further away from the boat. Nobody paid any attention. I beckoned to the captain but he just stared at me. I floated there, ducking underwater every few seconds to look around and see if any jellyfish were getting closer.
Then ASB started yelling—“Oh, ack, there’s one over here!”—and swimming quickly in my approximate direction. I ducked under again and saw a jellyfish hovering about fifteen feet away in the opposite direction. Because of the waves, visibility changed every few seconds, and I had to keep checking all the time. When ASB reached me, I pointed in the direction of the one I’d just seen: “There’s one over there.”
She ducked under to look. “I don’t see anything.”
I ducked back under and saw it again, blurry but very much still hovering there. “I still see it—right over there.”
She looked again and for some reason didn’t see it. So I looked again and, yes, there it was again, pink and throbbing, just like before. Then she looked yet again and still didn’t see it.
I waited for a wave to pass, and then ducked under one more time—but now, instead of one jellyfish I saw a HORDE of them. Easily twenty of the pink and formless alien blobs hanging in the water like an armada of those spaceships from the original War of the Worlds. I popped back up.
“There’s a huge gang of them! Oh fuck, so many! Arghgblghggh—”
I kicked away. She went under again and this time she saw them too and came up freaking out. We swam frantically toward the boat—now dodging the few loner jellyfish that were bobbing in our way—and waved at the captain, who, in the manner of some inscrutable local in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie who at first pretends to be helping but really wants to kill you, steered the boat toward us PROPELLER FIRST, so when we looked forward we could see the propeller coming to shred our faces and when we looked backward we could see the horde of jellyfish waiting to sting us to death.
I swam sideways to one side and ASB swam to the other side, as she and the captain babbled at each other in Spanish, I grabbed my side of the boat and hauled myself on board using just my arms (this is a lot harder to do, physically, than it sounds, and kind of painful; adrenaline helps), then lay there, gasping, while the captain pulled ASB out.
“I’m not going back in there,” I said.
ASB was still talking rapidly in Spanish with a touch of hysteria, and the captain was saying something very mildly, making gestures that seemed to indicate we could go to another part of the rocks and snorkel more, but ASB was vehemently saying something else, and repeating a single phrase over and over, sometimes pointing at me. Finally the captain shrugged and started steering the boat back to Playa Bonita. As we went, ASB whispered to me, “He thinks we’re such pussies.” The captain said something, and she turned around to say something in Spanish, that same phrase, in a sort of apologetic tone.
We got back to the divers’ shack and unloaded the boat. The captain said something to one of the scuba diving guys, and they chuckled.
When we walked away, ASB whispered, “I’m so embarrassed.”
I said, “What were you saying to the captain?”
“That we didn’t want to snorkel anymore.”
“Yeah, but what were you actually saying?”
She hesitated. “‘He’s so scared! He’s so scared!’”