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October 22, 2007

The Learning Curve of Travel

With every new place visited there is a new curiosity to be fed, the senses are indulged with new sights, smells, foods and people. There is a rebirthing process which takes place upon arrival to each new location and begins the moment we have left the previous destination. Some places require little to no "labor"- these places are relatively effortless and painless to incorporate ourselves into while other places a lengthy and sometimes arduous process ensues. Invariably, our basic needs which must be met are the same as with every newborn - to be nourished and out of harm's way.

Figuring out which way is "up", is part of the adventure and of the unfolding of our journey. Where will we sleep? Where will we eat? How will we get from one place to another? How much is it supposed to cost? Is this person to be trusted? Where are we?...Are just a few of the many questions and unknowns that are a part of our rebirthing process when we arrive to a new place. Hand in hand we find our way, and the ways of a place and its people are learned.

With every passing day, newness falls away and a routine begins to set in. The routine offers small pleasures that would otherwise be taken for granted, knowing where we will sleep and eat leaves much time for deeper exploration and introspection.

When arriving in the Dominican Republic, we landed in Santiago and still needed to make our way to our final destination of Cabarete. We were only able to take a bus as far as Sosua, because the taxi union disallowed buses from going to Cabarete. Conveniently, taxi's awaited the arrival of the buses and pounced on each person who disembarked hoping to get a fare. Not knowing any different, we bit and took a taxi.

We soon learned that there are other much cheaper means of travel around the Dominican. Gua gua's are mini-vans that will stuff as many people in as are willing to get in, no specific stops just wave out your hand and one will surely stop in no time at all.

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Then there's the "moto-conchos" (motorcycle taxis), main streets are lined with all types of 2 wheeled transport, varying from mopeds to motorcycles in all conditions. These too will take as many passengers as are willing to get on, the most I've seen so far is 5, four adults and 1 child. No need to wave out your hand simply walk a few steps and the driver's will whistle when they drive past in either direction - not to be mistaken for the local cat call which is a very distinctive kissing noise. The young Dominican men who usually drive these moto-conchos seem to spray their testosterone in a stream of obnoxiously loud mufflers and drive at crushing speeds, always helmet free as if this display were a measure of their machismo.

Paul had his first ride on a moto-concho the other night. The motorcycle had no headlamp making them invisible on these unlit streets, but this didn't seem to phase the driver one bit, maybe we'll stick to gua guas.

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When arriving to Cabarete, we were initially inundated with locals trying to sell us goods and services of all sorts, one shoe shine boy even tried to convince Paul that he should get his flip flops shined, did I mention that Paul's flip flops are made of plastic?! Another woman on the beach stated with conviction that Paul's hair is long enough for her to braid, thankfully he passed on her offer. As the days passed and we walked the same streets and the same shoreline of beach, the locals began greeting us and chatting it up instead of making a sale their primary objective, inviting us into their culture.

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We have discovered a wonderful bakery with freshly baked bread, the owner greets us with a kiss and open arms, along with the occasional impromptu meringue dance lesson behind the counter.

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One day I ran into Collasa, the woman who cleans our room, she was carrying what to me was a foreign looking vegetable that I have since learned is called guan pan. After questioning her about it, without a second thought she invited me to her home to learn how it is prepared.

On another day when no winds blew, we traveled up into the nearby mountains and joined a canyoning crew for the day. Starting at the top of a ravine, we descended throughout the day to its base across rocks and stream bottoms, over boulders, swimming through pools, rappelled down waterfalls, jumped off cliffs into pools of crisp fresh water. All the while, surrounded by lush vegetation, songbirds and rays of sun occasionally piercing through the canopy.

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These days our routine has us wake after a full restful sleep, we make our way to the beach, do some yoga, go for a swim then return to our hotel where Marsia, one of the owners, has been kind enough to let us use her fridge to store some health filled treats which we bring with us to our favorite breakfast spot. We usually rest until about 1pm, when the winds pick up, beckoning Paul to strap his kite on and be drawn by their power across the ocean - his new sport: kitesurfing (more from Paul later).

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Our routine, our favorite spots and new found friends will soon be left behind only to re-start the learning curve of traveling to new places all over again, but with each destination we bring just a little bit more experience and know more of ourselves as we go.

October 16, 2007

Unseen Side of the Turks and Caicos

Many come to the Caribbean for the idyllic imagery in glossy tour package brochures; And there’s plenty of that on the Turks and Caicos Islands. But we were looking for something else – the Caribbean lifestyle as it exists outside of tourism.

After three days in touristy Provo, we were ready to venture towards the local flavors we knew sat in the islands to the east – North and Middle Caicos. There’re several flights a day between the islands, but we wanted to go as the natives would: by small motor boat out of the Leeward Marina. Of course this proved to be an adventure unto itself…

Crossing waters

After days of paying $25 for a five minute taxi ride with the unfriendliest collection of drivers, we’d learned how the locals got around: jitneys. These simple unmarked subcompact cars drove around and gave a quick double honk when approaching people on the road. Wave them down, and hop into whatever seats remain. Ours barely ran, sometimes seeming closer to stalling than running, its driver cheery but not quite able to speak English and he didn’t know where the marina was. Another passenger provided the directions and good conversation and we got where we needed to go.

That’s one of the sweetest parts of leaving the tourism behind. Things haven’t been sanitized, they are raw, unpredictable and always interesting.

Upon arrival at the tiny marina, we asked a few Belongers (native-born) which captains would be heading to North Caicos today. One, with a tiny boat not more than a foot deep and ten feet long was doing a run with seven propane tanks. After calculating our weight and figuring that we and our backpacks wouldn’t sink the boat, we hopped in. Despite his assurances that he’s been moving these tanks for fifteen years without incident, once they started jostling around on the waves, I did imagine a propane explosion that would be the end of PoJoGo, but was shortly distracted by the three foot deep turquoise waters with their white sandy bottoms displaying the constantly shifting patterns projected by the sunlight through the interplay of the waves. I sat transfixed by the simple beauty around us, occasionally refreshed by seawater splashed from the bow of the boat into my face.

One with them all

We landed on the western shore of North Caicos and threw our bags into the bed of the only pickup truck there, hitching a ride into the inland settlement of Kew.

The 300 or so that call this home, like the rest of the island, are made up of Belongers, Haitians and Dominicans. Besides one pair at the island’s fancy hotel and the American road engineer, it appeared that we were the only white people there.

We would always greet passersby with a friendly, “Hello!” which was often met with a shy response, if any at all. This, we learned, was a language barrier. The many Haitians who immigrated here call Creole their native tongue. It is similar to French, which they mostly all speak as well. “Ah!, Bonjour!”, we’d counter with and watch as their surprised faces lit up brightly at the unexpected. Many local doors were opened to us via language. This same pattern played out again and again not only with French for the Haitians but with Spanish for the Dominicans. The language barriers created three distinct and unmixing groups here. At ease with all three languages, we felt warmly welcomed and accepted by them all, something that not even the the Belongers who speak only English could have the pleasure of knowing. How rare to feel so culturally boundless amidst such pronounced distinct cultural lines.

Secluded Beaches and Roads

Together, we passed some days alone on natural beaches along the north shores of both North and Middle Caicos islands.

One day, we walked the deserted road to the beach at Bambarra. Pelican Cay (small island), a 45 minute swim offshore beckoned us. Goggles donned, we swam to its backside and drifted slowly in the ocean current past gorgeous corals teeming with brightly colored fish of all sizes and shapes.

During the swim there, the sky thundered loudly and lit brightly from a storm in the near distance. Although we knew a lightning strike on the water would pass around us as long as we weren't connected with the ground, the thought of electrocution kept us vigilantly watching the storm's movement. Thankfully, it continued away from us, soaking us once again in the bright sun.

Exhausted after the longish swim back to shore, we splayed ourselves out on the footprint-free beach and snoozed the afternoon away.

Other days had us explore other magnificent beaches - the perfect kind you dream of - sweeping expanses of fine white sand bordered on one side by lush green trees swaying, and calm turquoise sea lapping gently on the other. Nowhere were there buildings, not even people, even after exploring the coastline for a couple of hours. It was our own piece of heaven.

Of course, getting from one of the only four settlements on the North Caicos to the coast required some creativity. There are no taxis, no buses and very few vehicles here.

The roads, sometimes hard packed sand, gravel or potholed concrete hosted our flip flopped feet clacking away until a passing car would be met with an outstretched hand. These rides were always interesting - for them since they don't often get outsiders passing through and for us because we got to meet a random sampling of the inhabitants. Some were so taken with the conversation that they'd slow almost to walking pace to stretch out the conversation. And that was fine with us.

Before the Tourism Hits

We feel incredibly lucky to be one of the few who know these sights as nature made them, before they are swarmed by condos and all-inclusive resorts. Hope these secrets are safe with you, shhhh!

October 14, 2007

Photos: Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos

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October 9, 2007

Photos: North and Middle Caicos

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Want more photos? These and others are on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bitstreamer/sets/72157602284573795 or see where they were taken on a map: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bitstreamer/sets/72157602284573795/map (click Satellite for best results)