For the past few years my wife Melissa and I have travelled during the Christmas holiday week. It has been a convenient time since it is a bit slower for both of us as clients are busy with their own holiday events. This year we decide to venture to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
It is intriguing and fascinating traveling in countries where language is a barrier in communication. It seems that when we are in familiar surroundings we
can oftentimes become lazy and complacent with our communication. This can lead to being more disconnected from the people your communicating with and ultimately becoming isolated within your own “world”. When you are faced with a language barrier, you can’t help but being totally present with the other person. You have to be thinking in each moment how you can best express yourself so that you will be understood. This might involve a combination of using some of the local language you’ve picked up, facial expressions, body language and of course smiling. Lots of smiling :-).
Traveling has really been a great teacher for the practice of being present, but you don’t have to travel to get this experience. You can “travel” down the street to the local diner or even just going to the grocery store can provide you with opportunities to engage with people who may have some kind of communication barrier with you. Those barriers could be physical, intellectual, learned (like language), or even in emotions or beliefs. Opportunities to be present with others, what they need, and how you might be able to assist are all around us every day.
We booked an AirBnb that was a shared space rather than having the whole apartment or house to ourselves. I was intrigued by this as it reminded me of some hostiles I’ve stayed in and the host sounded like a lot of fun when we initially reached out to ask some questions. In my past travel experiences living in a shared space, I’ve always met amazing people from all around our beautiful planet, and I hoped this trip would be no exception.
One of the things I’ve come to expect with traveling is the unexpected and I try my best at rolling with any issues that come my way. Traveling is always a challenge, even in the best of circumstances. While this all sounds very wise and easy, it really isn’t that way for me. If you know me at all, you know that anxiety has been an ever present part of my life for years and I’ve done a lot of work around expanding beyond this limitation. Traveling, as you may know, can make you a bit anxious at least at some level. For me, it usually starts a few days before the trip and continues in varying levels until at least a few hours after arrival, once I know I’m safe at my destination. For this trip the anxiety dropped off almost immediately after landing. We had arranged with our host to have a taxi waiting for us and sure enough, after we made it through the gauntlet of transportation and tour experience “opportunities”, we found our driver outside holding a sign with my name on it! We were greeted with a smile and immediate assistance with anything we had to carry. Then as if that wasn’t enough, our host was even there by chance and stopped to talk with us about our next steps in getting to her condo!
Getting to know our housemates was one of the best experiences of our trip. We met people who were currently or originally from Russia, Great Britain, France, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Andorra, Switzerland and Spain. And this was just who we met and lived with for a few days! I loved to hear stories of their lives, their goals and dreams, and what they have experienced in their own travels. There is a kind of kindred spirit that develops among travelers that spend even a short amount of time together that can live in you for a long time. The effort you spend on getting to know that person living next door, down the block or on the other side of the planet can change your life and make the world a much better place.
Our AirBnb host was amazing at giving us ideas about areas near the condo that were interesting to visit. Some of them were beaches,restaurants, tours and hiking locations. One of the places we decided to travel to on our own was Macao Beach and to Montaña Redonda mountain. We decided to go on an adventure of our own and explore these places. On previous trips we’ve talked about renting a little motor-scooter and use that to get us around rather than renting a car or using a taxi. So we thought it would be a brilliant idea to rent a scooter for this trip so we headed out from our condo in search of a motorbike. Little did we know what we had in store for us emotionally or physically.
If you’ve ever been to Punta Cana, you will see motorcycle taxis everywhere. They are kind of like vultures buzzing around the unsuspecting prey. If you stop walking too long they will converge and pester you to give you a ride somewhere. “No problem mister. No problem, I will take you.”, they repeat. It can be dizzying at times to stay focused and repeat back, “No gracias!”. But this time we had an especially persistent guy on a motorbike stop and ask what we needed. We tried several times to avoid him but he stayed on us. Finally we said we were walking to find a scooter rental place. He lit up and told us to hop on and he would take us. “No problem. I will take you. Free taxi. No problem.”, he repeated. Finally I looked at Melissa and said, what the heck, should we do it? She said, “Sure, let’s do it!” Much to my surprise we hopped on this tiny motorcycle with three adults and off we went!
It was a bumpy ride, but in a few minutes we were at a little cycle rental place and cigar rolling shop. Don’t ask me how these two things go together, but on this day they did. The taxi driver quickly introduced us to the shop owners and he also began doing a bit of translating for us.
“No problem. I will take you. Free taxi. No problem.”
At first it felt good to have someone helping us, but this however went away quickly. The rental fee was a bit more than what we were told to expect by our host and we didn’t have the exact pesos to pay so we needed to exchange some US dollars. We agreed to make the exchange and I handed over a $50 bill.
One of the men took the bill and walked toward a local shop. The taxi driver told us he was getting it exchanged, however he was gone a lot longer than I would have expected. This was the point where my anxiety started to kick in. I thought, we were just taken for 50 bucks and there wasn’t a thing I can do about it. The taxi driver then walked toward the same shop and we just stood watching. A few minute later, they came back holding several bills of the local currency. In the meantime I had done some quick calculations and knew about what I should be getting back. Then the driver started standing closer and talking quickly about the exchange rate and how the shop needed to take some for the exchange. But when I looked at the amount I knew it wasn’t even close to the right amount. I said loudly, I want all of the money back first, then we can rent the motorbike. The taxi driver said something to the guy who did the exchange and then he pulled out of his pocket 350 pesos of our money and handed it over. I gave the money to Melissa and asked her to count it as I couldn’t focus with my anxiety rising quickly. The taxi driver persisted and got closer to me and talked even faster. My mind was swimming with anxiety and anger at this point, but I felt a bit better once she said the amount worked out to be correct.
Feeling a bit more in control with all the money, and hearing the man say, “No problem. You want to rent right? What’s the matter? No problem.” Finally I looked at Melissa and asked, do you still want to do this? She nodded her head and I said okay to the man. Quickly they took the money I gave them for the rental and the taxi driver actually reached over and pulled 200 pesos directly out of my hand saying something like, “And this is for my time.” Free taxi, but I guess no free translation services!
Wanting to get out there as soon as possible, we collected our helmets and found the bike we were to use. Unfortunately, my anxiety was in full blowout mode at this point and I could hardly speak. I waved Melissa to get on the back, gave her some initial instructions on how to be a passenger on the bike and off we went. I don’t remember much of the next 20 or 30 minutes other than stopping to check my directions (thank god for the local SIM card in my phone and being able to use Google maps to navigate!). The road, the drone of the motorbike and the amazingly beautiful landscape passing around us was soothing and meditative. I was focused on our goal to get the Montaña Redonda as our first stop and about an hour and a half later we arrived at our destination. The bike’s tachometer worked, but not the speedometer or trip-meter, so it was a bit challenging to get a sense of how far we had travelled. In checking the maps later, it looks like we traveled about 45 miles. Let me tell you, two people on a small scooter for that kind of distance is not advisable in any way. Take my word for it, rent a car or at the very least two motorbikes!
“To the west we saw a lush valley with more hills, mountains and trees as far as you could see. It was simply beautiful. ”
We were advised by our AirBnb host that the hike up the mountain would cost five dollars each to access, but what she didn’t tell us is that you had to pay rent to park your motorbike and they would relentlessly hound you to pay them in excess of $40 to get a ride to the top! This being confusing, we once again relied on our host for confirmation and advice. She suggested paying the $5 and just start walking and likely someone would come along and pick us up for maybe 100 pesos ($2.00). So off we started walking and sure enough in about 10 minutes a huge truck came lumbering up the washed out, rocky and very steep road. When we stood aside to let it pass and it stopped and the man asked if we wanted a ride. We asked how much and he said, “No problem, no charge, get in.”. Well, fool me once is what I was thinking about this offer, but he persisted and started to open the cab door. We said okay, but decided to ride in the back of the truck. The man shrugged his shoulders and we climbed in the back for what had to be one of the roughest and brutal rides I’ve ever experienced! We should have ridden in the cab because sitting in the very back of a huge rocking truck causes one to be launched up in the air and jostled around relentlessly for what seemed like forever!
In reaching the top, we felt elated to have reached our goal. We got out and offered the man 200 pesos for his trouble, which seemed to surprise him and he looked very grateful. My anxiety was subsiding and the natural surroundings really helped me to calm down quite a lot. We spent about an hour at the top taking photos of the surrounding landscapes. There were lagoons to the east of us and further out we could see the ocean. To the west we saw a lush valley with more hills, mountains and trees as far as you could see. It was simply beautiful. There were little shops at the top, a small cafe and some cool swings you could ride which made you feel like you were swinging out into the vastness of the sky.
We even saw some people with broomsticks that would put them between their legs and then jump while someone took their picture hoping to look like they were flying!
When it was time to go, we caught another ride to the bottom of the mountain with some locals in a small club-cab pickup. This ride was much smoother as we were able to sit inside and listen to the man and women in the cab talking amongst themselves. It was curious not to understand a word of their conversation but also to know that what they were talking about was likely no different that what you and I would chat about in the same situation. We gratefully payed the man 200 pesos for the ride and then found our motorbike waiting for us. Since our time was getting short, we decided not to journey further on to Miches to see the beach we had heard about there. We did decide to head back and stop at Macao Beach on the way to have lunch. Our timing needed to be fairly precise as we did not want to be riding a small motorbike on a busy highway at night, so off we went!
Did I mention that riding on this road would be like riding on a two-lane state highway anywhere in the US, except this road was in perfect condition and you were almost completely alone on the road 90% of the time. We were surrounded by the beauty of the rolling hills, mountains and rivers and we felt grateful to be heading home back to somewhat familiar territory. We had been on the road for about 10 minutes when I started to notice the motorbike making some strange noises. I glanced down at the instruments and the gas gauge showed it to be a bit over half full and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then slowly, the motor was running slower and slower and Melissa said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I have no idea, but we are coasting!”. We slowed to a stop on the side of the road and started to assess the situation. We looked all over the bike and could not find a gas cap, but figured it must be under the seat. We poke and prodded around every edge and side and underneath and found no switch or lever to let us open the seat cover. We stood there completely confused and quite speechless.
Just when we were going to have to decide what to do next, a man driving a small motorcycle came driving down the road going the opposite way. We looked up at him but I did not expect him to stop. He apparently had glanced at Melissa and she waived to him and sure enough he slowed down and turned around to where we were stopped. This man looked like a 30’s something professional of some kind.
I only say this because his clothes were a kind of business casual and he wore small plastic bags around each of his shoes (I assumed in order to keep the bugs off) and bound at the ankles. This man spoke zero english so we spent the next ten minutes or more using body language, pointing and trying in earnest to pick out any words we could from what he was saying.
Strangely, he pointed to us and to the bike and at first I thought he was telling us that we needed to push the bike. I assumed at this point he was going to help us and we’d have to push it and follow him, but he insisted that we sit on the bike and then, for some reason, he would stick his foot out in front of him. It looked he wanted us to get on and put our feet up, but this made no sense. Confused, we simply decided to do what he said and get on our bike and put our feet up.
The next thing we knew, he drove up behind us on his motorcycle, stuck his foot out and started pushing us!! I was incredibly shocked that anyone could even do this on a motorcycle, but off we went! Luckily the road was sloping down hill and even the small dirt path off the highway was sloping in our favor (and his). He pushed us for about 5 minutes until we arrived at a very small village where we got off the bike and started pushing (since the road was now going up hill). He kept pointing and saying, “Mecánico, Mecánico”. We looked up the road and started pushing the bike toward where he was pointing. The man yelled at a few other people and they all began to walk by us and pointing to a small home on the side of the village’s main road. When we stopped we could see what appeared to be a birthday party happening for what looked like two twin girls. There were decorations all over the front of the home with Minnie Mouse posters and happy birthday banners with a big number “4” on it. The girls were all dressed up in pink, white and black and the family was eating boiled crab. They looked extremely happy from what I remember.
I messaged our AirBnb host letting her know what was happening and she said were on quite the adventure and that Dominican’s can fix anything! We watched as people gathered around us and the mecánico figured out how to open the seat of the motorbike and verify that we were indeed out of gas. About then, a young girl perhaps 12 years old walked up and asked us in clear English if she could help. This girl’s english sounded like she could have been from Minnesota or many other cities from the US. She seemed pretty relaxed as she ate her crab and translated to us what was happening. She said the man was getting some gas for us and also where we could find the closest gas station on our way back home.
They were able to spare about a 1/2 gallon of gas and when I asked how much I owed, all they asked for was some money to cover the gas. I turned to the man who had rescued us off the road and tried to give him some money, but he refused. When I pressed him to please take it, he looked at me with compassion and smiled his appreciation for me asking, but refused again. I was overcome by emotions and I reached out and shook his hand and repeated, “Gracias, Gracias, Gracias”. I held myself together long enough for us to turn the motorbike around and head back to the highway before I began allowing all the emotion out by crying and taking deep breaths. We drove for another fifteen minutes or so before we had to take a detour off the main road to find the town of “Las Lagunas de Nisibon”, where we found the Texaco gas station and filled up to the very top!
“I held myself together long enough for us to turn the motorbike around and head back to the highway before I began allowing all the emotion out by crying and taking deep breaths.”
After getting back on the road, we both were feeling better and more confident. We drove for another 20 minutes until we saw the turn off to go to Macao Beach. The beach was a bit off the highway and we had to drive through a small village and out through some open areas until we reached the ocean. The beach was stunning but very windy that day. As we were walking the beach looking for a place to have our lunch, we ran across our housemates who had spent the day at the beach and were just leaving. They suggested that we walk around to the far end of the beach were the wind wasn’t so strong. It was a nice area to observe people playing in the water and we witnessed a photographer taking pictures of what appeared to be a young couple’s wedding vacation photos.
Since it was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to be home before it was dark, we headed back to the motorbike and observed groups of people in various degrees of celebration. Some were local families at the beach, some were groups having some kind of tour experience, some where couples on vacation and there were also singles just hanging out. It was interesting to think about how in each case we were all in the same exact place, but we were all having very different experiences and will take away vastly different memories. I was especially delighted by a couple young entrepreneurs hanging out where people came off the beach to leave. When they saw that we were trying to clean sand off our feet to put our shoes back on, they rush over to us with little brushes and started to sweep off the sand from our feet. They were laughing and having fun but I also knew this was one of the ways they made money for themselves and likely their family. It was funny, after I handed one the boys 200 pesos (thinking they would split it) the one boy said, “What about me?”. I pointed at the other boy with the money and that boy said (with laughing smile), “No you didn’t work.” and started running away laughing with the other chasing him.
As we got closer to Bravaro the highway became a four lane road (think interstate highway), and the traffic was really building. We had observed many other motorbikes riding on the shoulders so I did the same. As we drove we saw a large vehicle stopped along the road on the shoulder, blocking our path. I started to slow down and was looking in my mirror to see the cars looming behind me in the full lane. I glanced ahead calculating the distance I had and the chances I’d make it off the shoulder in time to miss the vehicle and not get run over by the following traffic. To add to my challenge, there was a pavement ledge between the shoulder and main highway lane that I needed to “jump” in order to go around the car ahead. The time came and I made the turn to jump the curb and the small motor bike tires grabbed onto the ledge and jerked the motorbike to the left and I immediately tried to compensate and not crash. In the next few seconds, I’m not really sure how we survived. The bike jerked from left to right several times as we went onto the lane, then back to the shoulder before we swung around the parked vehicle and narrowly missed it! I mean really, can this trip get any more stressful, holy crap!
As the sun was lowering on the horizon, we rode bumper to tire to bumper on the streets of Bravaro snaking our way back to our condo. When we finally arrived home and approached the gated entrance the security guy jumped out and waved us to drive in and park. I was amazed because, how did he even know who we were, but he smiled and showed us in and where to park the motorbike. As this point were were tired but feeling okay. When we walked through the apartment door, we saw many of our housemates hanging out in the living room all smiling at our arrival. They had heard from our host of some of our adventure and we filled them in on the rest. Their reactions shocked me because I really felt like I’d been raked over the coals that day and was shot. They listened to our story and smiled and said things like, “Wow, you really had an adventure you’ll remember.” or, “You guys are so brave and amazing!”. I was momentarily speechless at their pride for us and how they viewed the same events in a more positive way. As we walked back to our room and cleaned up for the evening, I reset my thinking of the entire day and decided that we are really amazing, and that despite the challenges we did it anyway.
After everything that had happened and being completely out my comfort zone and out of my element, I survived. I was completely bare and vulnerable in multiple situations that day. We were bullied by the motor-taxi driver, nearly had some of our cash stolen by the rental guy, rented a motorbike with no instructions on operation or who to contact if we had issues, drove a very small motorbike almost 100 miles round trip, road up a washed out road to the top of a mountain, ran out of gas, and nearly crashed our motorbike avoiding a car on the side of the road. Any one of these things are challenging, but having them all happen in the same day is insane!
When we ran out of gas we were completely helpless and at the mercy and compassion of one man and his small village. I had no choice but to let go of my control. Keep in mind that this is not an easy thing for me to do and honestly, I’m not sure if I could have learned this on my own in any other way. I now believe this day was hand crafted by the Universe to help me grow and to show me that I can let go and be safe; that being bullied or taken advantage of doesn’t mean I’m weak; and being vulnerable to life can be a blessing. I’d been repeatedly shown compassion by many people and all I needed to do was trust and accept. These were all powerful lessons that I will take with me on our next adventure. 🙂
Time to celebrate our adventure!
Dwight J. Raatz, January 2019