One major problem in the world of travel is the high stakes involved with every adventure. We paint our experiences extraordinary in order to justify the cost, and perhaps to sound culturally sensitive. I think that each travel experience has its value even if some are less picturesque and blissful than others. Hell, I’ve been to some places that are serious dumps and in the end I think I can generally say that I am better for having visited. It’s not the destination after all, but the path we take to get there, right? Some journeys just happen to take us to places it’s best to keep on moving through.
That’s how we ended up in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. After our last stop in Puerto Rico, we were exhausted. We wanted a place where we could settle in to relative luxury. A comfortable apartment, a nice pool, a place where we could spread out, catch up on work, let the kids fall into a groove. I had never been to Punta Cana but I had been to places that I thought were similar, so I figured it would be a good bet. For one reason or another, perhaps the abundance of all-inclusive beach resorts, I expected Punta Cana to have a lot in common with Cancun. I had lived in Cancun off and on while working on my dissertation and had come to love the city. I figured that Punta Cana would be cut of the same cloth and that all the amenities would be close at hand.
The selection of apartments we perused online made the place look altogether cosmopolitan. These are places that are airy and open, artfully decorated, tastefully furnished. The descriptions make mention of the abundance of restaurants and shopping just right around the corner. We decided to settle in to Cortecito, which seemed to be the center of what’s happening. We were only a block from the beach, the map listed all sorts of local establishments. It couldn’t be any better.
The place we rented had wonderful reviews, but no one mentioned the guy with the shotgun. You would think that would come up, right? And, it’s a scary kind of shotgun at that. Pistol grip and carried with casual indifference by the guard posted outside the building every hour of the day. It just looks sinister.
And it’s not as though we are in a dangerous part of town. The guard at the supermarket has one too. And the guard posted at the restaurant we decided not to eat at because I am too uneasy around shotguns carried openly and indifferently to be able to settle in and enjoy a meal. They seemed to be standard issue.
It’s peculiar that somehow the tourists who stay in these places manage to turn off their sensible evaluation of the place they are in. Why in none of the reviews I encountered online was there any mention of the heavily armed security detail?
Well, my guard was a nice enough guy. I fell into the groove of bringing him a cold soda when I would return home in the heat of the afternoon. I ran into him one day on the street and we shook hands. Seemed an affable fellow and I felt relatively assured that he would not get spooked and fire off a round at me or one of my children. Relatively, anyway. But then I thought to myself, what if he did?
My kids didn’t even initially know how to address the gun issue. Their questions started coming up a week or so into our stay. “Dad, that guy has a REALLY BIG GUN.” Statement of fact. “Yes, he does.”
We all got pretty much used to it and we felt more or less comfortable taking walks around the part of town we had shacked up in. But it wasn’t all that pleasant because there was trash everywhere. And broken sidewalks, and dangling power lines, and floodwater that didn’t drain properly and smelt like sewage. And nasty car exhaust. After staying in the heart of Punta Cana for weeks now, my unbiased assessment is that the place is pretty much a dump.
So… we decided to stay in. Simple, easy, and completely world-shattering. For me this was extraordinary. I am a person for the road, one for the trail, always pining for the view over the next bend. I spend a weekend indoors, perhaps waiting out a storm, and I am bouncing off the walls.
Punta Cana is what it is. The beach was not impressive. It was crowded, laced with seaweed and trash and was teeming with really pushy venders. We ended up opting for the pool. None of the restaurants looked particularly inviting. The region is pretty much a food desert outside of the poshest resorts. Never before have a longed so intensely for a salad. The local markets scarcely had vegetables. While there were mangos and platanos available from the truck venders, even the largest supermarkets were disturbingly lacking in fresh vegetables. As an inveterate cook, the dearth of greenery was painful.
But Punta Cana was a gift. For the first time in my life, I looked at my surroundings, sized up the benefits of what I had at hand, took stock in my good fortune and decided that I would simply take it slow and enjoy the pool and my comfortable home. This is a luxury that I have never indulged in. So many lemons we encountered in Punta Cana, but this simple act of being still, this was my lemonade.
I swam with my kids in the afternoon and I got a tremendous amount of reading done. I finally waded through the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring after more than a decade of lecturing on its contents. I caught up on projects. I took time to think without distraction. I realized one day that although music is always a significant element of our household, I had been remiss in teaching my kids about the foundational songs, good and bad. From Buddy Holly to the Beach Boys, we had daily listening parties. I even remembered to share with them Bobby McFerrin.
“Here’s a little song I wrote…”