The Lonely Traveler Bug

Its funny how content I was with traveling alone, until I met the German girl. I met her during an afternoon in the park. I had been enjoying the shade beneath a massive, ancient tree. A light breeze was rustling the tree leaves, and nearby were Dominicans speaking a beautiful version of Spanish. I hadn’t spoken English in the past 3 days, and I was totally fine with that.
Then I heard, “Hello. Do you speak English? Do you know what I’m saying? How long have you been here?” come from over the edge of my book.
I looked up and she was standing there, roughly 5 foot seven, with short brown hair, and several piercings. She had a concerned look on her face, and was not smiling.
I marked the page I had been reading, gave her a friendly smile, and wondered how I could help. I was wondering how I could help her. I told her that I did speak English, and she continued talking hungrily.
“I haven’t traveled with or spoken to anybody in days. People are either going to a resort, or leaving the country when I meet them. I haven’t found anyone to travel with in this country. I feel so alone.”
She paused for a second to catch her breath, and I let her without trying to interrupt. It seemed that she had something to get off her chest.
Then she continued explaining herself, “I travel alone, but not to be alone. Do you know how I mean? The reasons I travel is not just to see new places, but also to meet people. Have you had trouble meeting people? Where are you staying?”
I tried to reconcile all of these questions, and at the same time consider how much I felt aligned with her words. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had just infected me with the lonely travel bug.
“Yeah I guess that’s true.” I said feeling a little bewildered, “I’ve been trying to meet local Dominicans, but its hard when you only understand marginal Spanish. Some of them have been pretty nice, but it definitely isnt the kind of friendship I’m used to on these trips.”
What I told her had stretched the truth just a little. My actual relationships with the Dominican people was more to do with business than anything else. The best I had managed in terms of friendship was a 20 minute bus conversation with a pretty girl from Santo Domingo, two taxi drivers in broken spanglish, and a day of motorcycle tourism with my guide Juan, who charged 30 dollars a day. So at my best, I had found friends for hire at negotiable rates.
I had been fine with this arrangement, until my conversation with the German girl made me feel like something was missing. How could I do a trip, and be fine with having friends for hire? Sure this was the thing that most tourists did during their vacations, but I wasn’t a regular tourist. I was a backpacker. And so was this German girl. If she wasn’t fine with it, then I wasn’t either.
Our conversation slowly came to and end when we realized that our hostels were on the opposite ends of town, and it was getting dark. Neither of us knew how safe the streets were at night, so she wanted to get back before nightfall. We had spent the past half an hour talking about how hard it was to find friends, only to leave each other friendless once again.
I sat under the tree, no longer content with reading, thinking about how my life as a tourist had become like a recurring joke my friends and I had in high school. I felt like I had become the punch line, though looking back I know that this is not true.
The joke was about paying for friends. We would say that the other persons parents were paying us to be their friend, and it was funny. That is it was funny until I realized that I was paying for my friends in the Dominican Republic. Only my parents weren’t paying for the friendships. I was.
I was infected by the influence of her loneliness, and wanted to find new friends with the fervor of a middle school girl. The feeling was like a sickness, and it was growing. I began a new phase of overflowing outgoingness. I tried to find new friends anywhere I could. It was weird.
Like a miracle from the sky, I found a pair of Finish guys who were eating at one of the Fried Chicken places that I liked. They were dressed for adventure, and seemed like the kind of guys I would get along with.
Our conversation was both forced and awkward, because a construction crew was working next door to the diner.
“I said, we were canyoneering today.” Said one of the men in a muffled yell.
“Oh that’s cool.” I said back, “Was it any good?”
“What!?”
“Was the canyoneering any good!?”
“One more time!?”
“Do you wanna get out of here and grab a beer?” I yelled at them over their dinner.
They looked at each other and were silent for a moment.
“We have our bikes here from the hotel. We don’t want to lose them.”
Strike one.
I left them to get deodorant at the grocery store, thinking that a new smell might help my search for friends.
In spite of not seeing any other English-speaking people during most of my trip, I was now finding them everywhere. On my way to the store, there were two people speaking English to one another as they walked down the street, and I found another group in the grocery store.
They were a group of college-aged kids like myself, but with a wonderful twist: They were volunteering their time in the Dominican as dentists.
It hadn’t crossed their mind that people would go backpacking through the Dominican Republic. From what I gathered during our conversation, they were under the impression that any English speaking person would be robbed at gunpoint after 10 o’clock. I couldn’t convince them otherwise, and was sadly deprived of the opportunity to get a beer with them later that night.
Strike two.
I wish I could say that there were a strike three, but I had given up the search after traveling volunteer dentists. Maybe I was too pleased with what I perceived as a very strange way to spend a vacation, or maybe it was because I didn’t want to try and start conversational friendships with strangers who were walking the streets to do errands.
Eitehr way, I didn’t try my luck again.
The next day I was going to tour the mountains with my friend Juan once again, and was meeting him at 8 in the morning. We were going to see the largest mountain in the Caribbean, and I was very excited.
Come by again next Monday to check out the story!

Sometimes Shady Situations Hold the Brightest Possibilities

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Sunbeams worked their way through the small leafy openings in the palm trees that lined the edge of the airport exit, forming shadowy, thought-like patterns on the pavement below. I stood in the shade of the airport terminal with my backpack weighing me down. watching the patterns of sunlight wave back and forth in the breezes against the bleached whiteness of the concrete in front of me, anxiously unsure of what I should do next or how to go about it.
The goal was to travel using the locals gaucho bus system to get a better view of what it was like to be a Dominican, and save some money. For those of you that don’t know, gauchos are essentially privately owned vans that have extra seats added to them to fit more people. They don’t stop picking new people up until every seat is full, and people are literally hanging out of the doors and windows.
While the idea of riding the country in Gauchos felt authentic, and appealing, I was terrified that it might end in a brutally violent robbing.
Let me explain why I thought that.
The night before dropping my father and sister off at the airport and continuing the journey on my own, I had been sitting at the time on the edge of a feather bed at a 5 star resort, which had been aesthetically sprinkled with rose petals to add to the extravagance of this comfortable situation, browsing the internet for information on the Dominican Republic. And it was here, at the moment of my supreme comfort, that I made the grave mistake of reading the U.S. Travel Advisory Page on the Dominican Republic. The results were terrifying.
I may have a yellow belt in Taekwondo, but some of the stuff they were saying sounded like it might exceed my third grader’s knowledge of self-defense. To give you an example, the story that stood out strongest was about a Dominican citizen who followed an American couple home, and murdered both of them in their house with a machete, like a Hollywood psychopath.
How could I feel that this country was even remotely safe, when something like that was happening?
Was a solo trip here going to be safe?
Was I making a huge mistake?
But most importantly, Was I going to get robbed by a machete wielding man?
To top off this pyramid of anxiety, there was the nagging promise of a safe taxi ride. I wouldn’t necessarily be doing the journey justice in taking their offer (as I wanted this to be a more authentic, soul journey), but I would be reassuringly safe taking a taxi across the island. I was so nervous I almost took their offer. But then something different happened.
The palm trees shook violently under a gust of wind, breaking the methodical wavy pattern I had been watching, and freeing my spell of interest in them as a means of avoiding action. The least I could do was try, and then take a taxi wherever I wanted to go on the island.
Tightening the straps on my backpack, I left the safety of the airport’s central area, and stepped into the intense the spotlight of the Caribbean sun. If this country was going to rob me, they would have to do it right outside of the airport.
I approached a group of airline workers on break, who looked like they could help.
As I stumbled over a line of broken Spanish asking them where I could find the bus station, one of the workers peer up from their conversation and pointed me towards the highway with a nod and a smile. It wasnt exactly the most reassuring, or informative set of directions, but I Finally something to work with.
“Gracias Amigos!” I said, and headed across the very long parking area of the Punta Cana Airport.
Bus station is a very loose word wherever you go. It can either mean a large, air conditioned building outfitted with bathrooms and a restaurant, or a tiny roof hovering over a spot of grass on the highway. But in the Dominican, it can also mean anywhere along the highway you are brave enough to stand by with your thumb sticking out. I was lucky enough to have a little roof.
Soon enough a Gaucho came coughing up the road, and we got in. All of my fears were about to be absolved, as this trip was about to change my opinion of the Dominican Republic forever.
When we got into this makeshift bus-van, which was all but falling apart, I couldn’t understand the price. Mistaking 30 Dominican dollars, for 300 Dominican dollars, I began trying to haggle in the most pathetic way possible.
As the money manager was trying to persuade me against ripping myself off, I started arguing that I wouldn’t pay any more than 300. 300 was my final price.
Most of the people in the van were either laughing, or smiling broadly about my incorrectness, as they should. I was being the stock foreigner that it has become impolite to mock in the 21st century. I was completely at their mercy, but these were not bad people.
The man didn’t take my money. He could have. But instead, he helped me correct my mistake.
Annunciating as clearly as possible, he said, “Trenta! Tres, y zero, trenta!” miming with his hands as he talked, showing me that it was 30 dollars, not 300.
I looked like an idiot. That being said, I could not have been happier about my significant mistake. These were kind people. It would have been easy to take all of that money, because I was not only offering it to him, I was refusing to pay any more. He could have taken the money, and I would probably be writing this post about how my first ride wasn’t such a great deal, but that travel in the Dominican is expensive. I’d be ignorant.
Happily handing over the correct amount of money, I seated myself comfortably on a lumpy wooden bench, and looked out to the scenery around me. There were plenty of shady areas near the side of the road where I could get lost in the patterns of possibilities, but I barely noticed them now. I didn’t have time to get lost in the shady uncertainties as we raced along the highway towards the next bus stop. There was sunlight on the land around me, and I knew that as long as I paid attention, I would get where I needed to go.

Dragged Out of Hell By Google Maps

 

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As we turned between a set of tall, shady palm trees, greying under the firey sky of sunset and out of the gated entrance of our resort and towards the highway, I was feeling optimistic. They had given us a map at our hotel, and I found myself niavely, but firmly believing that getting from our current resort to the next one was going to be as simple as following a skinny black line on the map. Shakespeare once said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but what he forgot to mention was that google maps will get you back off of that road, and on the one heading to your destination once again. I just hadn’t realized it yet.
I was following our path on the skinny black line that connected our resort with the town. It was easy. Almost impossible to get lost. And then my father said this.
“I just want to drive by the resort row up here.” He said, “Its on the way, and this way we will be able to see more of the area. I want to see them all lined up together.”
And just like that we were lost. Dante and shakespeare would have both agreed, that we were now on our road to hell.
Minutes after turning off the road, I was in over my head in over our heads. There were hundreds of roads that deviated from the main one we were supposed to be on making new black lines that didn’t exist on what now struck me as the small, cartoon depicted joke of a map that our hotel had given us. We were lost in a maze of huge, gated resorts.
Mopeds were deviating around us in swarms, while massive pickup trucks lingered, tailgating our little fiat under their stream of heavy headlights until they had enough marginal room to pass. If the mopeds weren’t passing us, they were so overloaded with people and baggage that they couldn’t go faster than 10 miles an hour, and clogged the road in front of us. We were surrounded by a very active, and hellish traffic that put me in an anxious hell.
My dad didn’t seem to care very much.
“Look at these massive resorts.” He said, “They each have the same setup. A guard station, massive fake walls, tons of lights, and what looks like the promise of a little paradise. Its so over promoting.”
Between my anxiety with the mopeds and pickup trucks, I was barely able to look over and see that he was right. Each resort set itself up like a miniature city state, A sort of modern Sodom and Gomorah that promises every pleasure in life, just on the other side of its massive stucco walls. But the most frustrating thing of all was that we hadn’t reached our own resort yet, and we were lost.
“So where are we George?” my dad asked, as though he had never deviated from our original route, and we werent in the middle of a massive maze of resorts. “Should I keep going down this road? Or where do I turn? Are we close?”
With a smug smile, I Pulled out what I had long ago realized was a joke of a map, I pointed out to my dad how there were 3 black lines we could have followed, and we had chosen to try and make our own, somewhere in the middle of the off yellow ocean that made up the land around cartoon characters.
“Well we must be somewhere between the cartoon guy smiling on a surf board, and the happy lady enjoying the shopping center.” I said, “Or perhaps we are somewhere near this large cartoon building with the very smiley guy standing out front. Do any of these look like they could be a large cartoonish building?”
My sarcasm was not appreciated. “Why don’t you just take your bloody phone out?”
“You know how much that would cost. Data Roaming costs a fortune.”
He looked over at me, and at that moment a pickup truck chose to go roaring past us, narrowly missing our tiny rental Fiat. A flurry of curse words and braking followed followed by me turning my phone back on.
I opened Google maps, like a good son, and everything started becoming better again. We had just grazed against the deepest circle of hell, and were now on our way back towards the lights of our own room and sleep. Or so I naively thought.
We found our way back onto the highway, and towards our resort. The road passed through the lights of resort row, and continued to cary us into the rural area of farmland outside. Our two lane highway slowly turned into one, and then had us turn off onto a conspicuously empty looking road.
“Are you sure this is right?” my dad asked.
“Yes” I said, showing him my phone as proof. I watched him examine the little glowing blue turn from the highway and onto the conspicuously empty space of a palm tree forest. we reluctantly continued.
What I had thought was the deepest layer of hell, wasnt even close to this. As we turned off the main road, things started to get creepy. First we passed a tin hut farm. There were no lights on, and no fire was present. It had only just recently gotten dark, so the lack of activity was slightly unsettling.
Particularly because the next thing we passed was an abandoned hotel resort. The grand structures skeleton was still in place, but everything that had value was taken. Concrete bricks were stacked in piles near the bare poles of what had been a massive sign. All that was left was the skeletal body of a city state.
“They look a lot worse without all of the grandeur and color.” said my dad.
“Kind of creepy.”
Our car pushed through a few branches of overgrowth, and we were once again flooded with the lights of a resort.
“Is this it?” my dad asked.
“Google maps says it should be a little further up. We are almost there.”
We continued driving, passing the gate of another resort very closely situated next to the first, and the road stopped. Well I guess not entirely stopped, but turned into a 4 wheel driving adventure that our little Fiat could not handle. And there was more.
“Good God!”
There were a pair of very rabid looking sick dogs, eating trash that we could see from our car had rotten a long time ago.
“Oh no.” said my dad, “We are done with this road.”
We turned our car away from the final circle of hell, and backed into the light of the resort. I got out and asked the guard, only to find that our resort was the first one we had passed. We checked in, and found ourselves once again within the amazingly relaxing confines of resort life. There was free beers, free food, and beachfront access. We were once again wrapped in the safe arms of resort life.
If you are looking for the road out of hell, turn your phone on and go to Google Maps.