Easy Rider: Learning to drive a motorbike

Before arriving to the Dominican Republic, my experience with motorbikes was limited to a singular weekend of touring Block Island on a rented motor-scooter. That, and listening to my friends’ tales of motorcycle crashes, which mostly ended in “I had three operations to fix my knee,” or “…and he died.”

This didn’t do much to allay my fear of motorcycles or prepare me for life in the Dominican Republic, which requires hopping on the back of a motoconcho to go shopping, get to the beach, or go about your daily business. So, when we rented a motorbike so I could learn to drive it and get around town on my own, my first thought was that the Cabarete Medical Center was going to be seeing a lot of me.

Luckily, I’m married to a very skilled teacher. Ryan patiently coached me through my initial inability to coordinate my right hand on the throttle, left hand on the clutch, left foot on the gears and right foot on the brake until, eventually, it became as second-nature as driving a car. And after that, once I’d gotten my hands and feet to cooperate with my brain, I just had the busy roads and Dominican traffic rules to contend (you know, nothing big). Which was luckily conquered with a little more practice and some mental coaching from Ryan.

Now, I can’t imagine not driving around the Dominican Republic on a motorbike. When I’m out on the road, I can hear, see, feel and smell my surroundings like I’m an integral part of them. I’m aware of every little change in scenery; the sound of cars, birds and cattle; and I get an adrenalin buzz even on a ten-minute ride to the beach.

And, sure, I get scared sometimes, like when I have to stop on a hill or pull out into traffic. But the more I ride, the easier it becomes, the less scary it is, and the more I realize that I won’t get hurt as long as I stay vigilant and make sure I’m aware of other drivers and my surroundings.

The real gift of this new-found skill, though, is a heightened sense of adventure. It’s opened up new possibilities for where we can go and how we can travel on land when we reach a new country. And it’s injected excitement into otherwise mundane chores like going to the store to buy milk. Going anywhere to do anything has become such a sensory experience that now I look for excuses to go out just so I can take the motorcycle.

For sure, motorcycle riding is a lot of things, including potentially dangerous and unpopular with protective parents. But it is anything but boring.

motorcycle travel turf to surf blog

I think my clear-lens riding glasses and helmet say “total badass,” don’t you?

turf to surf motorcycle travel blog

Tommy, my favorite neighborhood dog, seems to like my new look

motorcycle travel cabarete dominican republic

Just riding through Cabarete… like I’ve been doing this my whole life

dominican motorbike travel turf to surf

Isn’t she a beauty? The bike, I mean.

If you enjoyed these “Easy Rider” photos, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Albums on Facebook to see more of Tasha & Ryan’s motorcycle travels.

Overcoming fear at Laguna Dudu

Laguna Dudu, Cabrera, Dominica Republic

As I approached the ledge guarded by a skinny Dominican kid in an orange vest labeled “Rescate,” (Rescue, in Spanish), I wondered if this place called Dudu was comically named for the doo-doo I was about to get myself into. I mean, how the hell was this kid’s orange life preserver ever going to save me if something went wrong with the makeshift zip-line that ran across the canyon below?

rescate dudu dominican republic

Not exactly Baywatch.

laguna dudu rescate dominican republic

“Don’t worry. I have a plastic life preserver.”

The main attraction of Laguna Dudu in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, and the source of my anxiety, was essentially a metal wire tied around two large trees on either side of a massive canyon containing a cavernous pool of blue, brackish water of unknown depth.

As I peeked over the edge of the rock I was meant to launch myself off of, the soles of my feet and palms of my hands tingled, signifying a familiar and overwhelming terror reserved solely for those moments when I’m either about to deliver a speech or drop from an unfathomable height.

In this case, the height was 8 meters or, roughly, 26 feet. Like I said, unfathomable.

Sure, I’d just watched my husband Ryan, our friend Morgan and about a dozen Dominicans drop like stones from their zip-line handlebars into the pool of water below. And, sure, every single one of them had surfaced alive, unharmed and whooping with delight. But, even still, everything in my brain was screaming, “Don’t do it. You have nothing to prove. Step away from the edge.”

Meanwhile, Ryan was standing at my side, using a well-worn motivational tactic. “It’s okay if you don’t have the guts,” he said, smirking.

Which made me twitch, since Ryan was the one who was supposedly afraid of heights and, yet, I’d just watched him jump off the cliff not once, but twice. But I couldn’t ignore my brain, which was screaming in a voice that sounded like my mother’s, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”

Tasha, not happy about this peer pressure.

Tasha, not happy about this peer pressure.

“What are you so worried about?” Ryan asked, interrupting the screaming in my head.

“Dying,” I said.

Which was the truth, even though I knew it was irrational. All the evidence before me, including all the people I’d just watched not die, showed that I definitely wouldn’t die if I jumped off that cliff. Even though I’m pretty sure there’s no park in the entire United States that could get insurance to string a wire across a canyon and charge people to drop themselves off it, regardless of how many waivers they made you sign.

But we weren’t in the United States. We were deep in the Dominican jungle, well off the beaten path, where thousands of Dominicans had dropped themselves off this cliff before me and had the adrenalin rushes to show for it.

“You’re being a wimp,” my brave self accused. “You’ve jumped off cliffs before and you liked it. C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

“I’m not really convinced I liked it,” my wimpy self said. “I’m pretty sure I did it because there was no other way down.”

While I stood frozen at the edge of the rock arguing with myself, a long line of men formed behind me, making me even more nervous. So I backed up and let them go ahead while I continued the internal debate with myself over whether or not it was reasonable to be afraid of dying in a place called Dudú.

When the last guy in line grabbed hold of the zip handle, I knew I’d have to make a decision soon as to whether or not I was going to jump. And every nerve in my body was telling me not to.

But just as he grabbed the bar, the guy looked down, dropped the bar and, shaking his head, walked away from the edge and back toward his friends, who were now doubled over laughing at their fearful buddy. And, in that moment, I realized how silly I was being.

So before I could rethink my decision, I stepped up to the edge of the rock and grabbed the zip-line handle.

Moment of truth: real fear kicks in

Moment of truth: real fear kicks in.

And as soon as I stepped off the rock, I immediately regretted my decision.

laguna dudu jump

There’s no going back now.

If I thought I was terrified before, standing on the edge of the cliff, I was absolutely frozen with fear now, flying through the air towards my cavernous, water-filled doom. The only difference was now I no longer had a choice in the matter. I was going to have to drop into that water whether I liked it or not.

So I took a deep breath and let go.

Free fall laguna dudu

Free falling.

When I surfaced, my own laughter was met by the giggles of a dozen Dominican guys standing at the water’s edge. And it took me a moment to realize they weren’t laughing at me. They were laughing at their friend, who had just been shown up by a gringo girl. And now this poor guy would never live this humiliation down unless he grew some cojones and dropped off that cliff. Shame is a powerful motivator, I thought, as I watched the guy turn on his heels and march back up the hill and towards his fate, which was to ride that zip line with courage.

Happy to be alive laguna dudu

Happy to be alive.

By now, the fearful tingling in my feet had been replaced by the lingering thrill of speed mixed with positive elation at still being alive. Followed by a disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction. The kind of satisfaction that only comes from accomplishing something that – even for a brief moment –  seemed impossible.

I had conquered my own Dudu.

laguna dudu dr jump

“That was, like, a thousand meters, right?”

For more photos, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Album for Rio San Juan and Laguna Dudu.

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This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

love with a chance of drowning

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Life after the Bahamas

Sometimes it takes a drastic change of scenery to refresh your perspective on a place. Which is exactly what happened when we arrived to the lush, tropical expanse of the Dominican Republic after 3 months in the quiet, secluded, picture-perfect islands of the Bahamas.

I was thrilled to have arrived to the D.R. after deciding to head south for hurricane season, and not just because the journey there was long and rough and lacked a working auto-pilot. As soon as we stepped foot in Luperón, I was smacked in the senses by loud, Latin music; lively Spanish chatter; jagged mountains begging to be climbed; motorbikes whizzing past carrying women and babies; the smell of overripe mangoes; cheerful, aimless dogs; and delicious food so cheap you could eat out three times a day and barely graze the bank.

It was such an ecstatic contrast to the last three months of tranquility in the Bahamas that it brought on a surprising revelation: as stunning and picturesque as the water and beaches of the Bahamas were, I had gotten bored of them.

Now, if you are a land-lubber or soon-to-be-cruiser, you’re probably thinking, “Boo hoo. It must be torture to spend 3 months on beautiful beaches. Cry me a river.”

I get it. First world problems. I should just shut up. (Except I won’t ‘cause this is my blog.)

Or maybe you agree with “Rum Trouble” (which is his real name, no doubt), who commented on a post I wrote about how little there was to do on Warderick Wells Cay:

rum trouble comment

I get him, too. How dare a faux sailor like myself talk smack about everyone’s favorite cruising destination?

But before you and my Rum Trouble fan club start throwing virtual tomatoes at me for calling the Bahamas “boring,” let me first explain where I’m coming from.

The Bahamas is an absolute boating paradise. You can anchor anywhere, near any island, and everything you could care to see is within walking or dinghying distance from your boat. And you’re always guaranteed a white-sand-and-crystal-blue-water view from your cockpit while you sip sundowners and eat home-cooked meals made with canned goods from Florida. Never mind that you stocked 6 months’ worth of canned beans and tomato paste because the price of eating out in the Bahamas rivals New York City. It’s still lovely to enjoy drinks and preserved food onboard as the sun sets over your private island paradise.

But, as much as I love the tranquility and sense of self-reliance that comes with traveling by sea, not to mention the stunning, secluded anchorages, I felt there was something missing from my travels in the Bahamas that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time.

Then we arrived to Luperón and, suddenly, my beautiful, barren, bird-less surroundings were replaced by deliciously gritty, musical streets full of Dominicans chattering and hanging their laundry from brightly-painted cinder walls, motoconcho drivers shouting offers to take me places, and more animal life in one neighborhood than I’d seen in the whole of the Bahamas. It was sensory overload, and I was so energized by it, I practically squealed with delight as I kicked off my deck shoes, threw my charts overboard and started running for the hills. Well, not really, since we need our charts… and I don’t wear deck shoes. But I did trade my flip flops for sneakers as soon as I discovered how many hundreds of miles there were to explore by car, foot, Guagua (local bus) and motorbike.

luperon dominican republic turf to surf

The hills of Luperon were a sight for sore eyes

After all, we were making up for three months of lost activity in the Bahamas. So as soon as we’d had our fill of Luperon, we hit the road and headed for towns like Cabarete, where Dominicans and expats from all over the world come to go surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, mountain climbing, paddleboarding and motorbiking into the heart of rural towns to chat with Dominicans over cold Presidentes and the soundtrack of Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue. Which, of course, explains why everyone we’ve met looks they belong on the cover of an athletic wear catalog.

In essence, the Dominican Republic is everything the Bahamas is not. It’s dynamic, loud, sporty, tropical and cheap. So cheap you can go out every night, take Spanish classes and kiteboarding lessons and not break the bank. Which also explains why everyone here is so young. It’s the perfect place to come if you love beaches, sports and parties and you don’t have a lot of money behind you.

kiteboarding cabarete turf to surf

This is the kind of stuff I was missing in the Bahamas. Call me crazy.

Don’t get me wrong (and put down those rotten tomatoes, please); I loved the Bahamas and I fully understand why it is such a popular cruising area. What sailor wouldn’t love a playground  of endless beautiful anchorages? And if you’re a water lover, there is enough fishing, diving, snorkeling and reef exploring in the islands to satisfy a mermaid.

But if you love getting off the boat and pushing your body, mind and senses to their limits by diving into the lifestyle of a different culture or taking on a new and foreign sport, then the Dominican Republic wins.

To see the places this country has to offer, though, you have to spend a fair bit of time away from your boat, which isn’t very cruiser-like. But if I’m being totally honest here, after 6 months of living in a closet-sized space with Ryan and our two cats, I am more than thrilled to get off the boat and explore land to my heart’s content.

So, in that sense, perhaps Mr. Rum Trouble’s criticism of me is accurate. As he said, “I would hardly consider you a seasoned sailor.” And though I never claimed I was, I can truthfully say I’m not content with life on the boat alone, which probably means I’m not really a cruiser at heart. Maybe I’m just a traveler who happens to have a boat.

And I’m okay with that. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to combine my love of travel with the new-found skill of sailing. It’s broadened my view of where I can go and how I can get to places that might be difficult for the average traveler to reach. And the Dominican Republic is just the kind of place where I could stay for a while, sink myself wholly into a new challenge like kiteboarding or surfing, and camouflage myself in the fabric of a new and interesting culture.

It has everything I was missing in the Bahamas.

So, if you still want to throw those tomatoes, I’ll understand. Go ahead and let ‘em rip.

27 Charcos Damajagua DR Turf to Surf

We loved the “27 Waterfalls” of Damajagua so much we went twice.

cruisers in the dominican republic turf to surf

This is what happens when you travel the countryside with crazy cruisers you meet in Luperon

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The nightlife in Cabarete makes a visit well worthwhile

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Ryan took to the Dominican “moto” like a pro

To see more photos of the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Albums on Facebook.

7 Self-help Tips (from one cat to another)

Dear New-to-Cruising Kitty,

Let me first assure you, I know what you’re going through.

Your “owners” have decided to give up their land lives and move onto a boat. With you. And, of course, they didn’t ask first what you thought. They just plucked you from your large, comfortable home and dropped you onto a vessel only slightly larger than your litter box, which no amount of revenge pee can transform into Roman Abramovich’s 533-foot yacht.

Unless, that is, you’re Roman Abramovich’s cat. In which case, I’m not talking to you. You and your gold-plated self-cleaning litter box the size of a queen bed can mind your own business. You’re probably fed fresh tuna every day by a team of servants who were also hired to fluff your pillows and bring you live mice to play with. You’re the 1% I’m not talking to. This discussion is for real cats.

So back to the 99%. I know it sucks. But, take it from me, a fellow boat cat: you can’t change the fact that you now live in a floating prison surrounded by every cat’s kryptonite (H2O), but you can become happier by changing your outlook on this new life you’ve been subjected to.

And I, Charlie, queen cat of s/v Hideaway, am here to help you do just that by giving you seven tenets to live by to ensure a happy, fulfilled feline life at sea:

Rule #1: Take charge. Scratch the word “owner” from your vocabulary and replace it with “human servant.” I mean, are you a slave to these people? No. You tell them what to feed you, when to feed you and how often to change your litter. Get it? Servant.

sailing hideaway sailing with cats turf to surf

“A little to the left…almost there…you got it.”

Rule #2: Get to know your boat. Climb into every hole, crevice and opening you can find. All the time. Someone left a locker open? Get in there! Don’t worry about getting stuck between, say, a sack of flour and some electrical wiring. Seize the day! Your servants will fish you out.

boat cats sailing hideaway travel

“What? Did you need to get in here or something?”

Rule #3: Express yourself. You may not have the gift of language, but you can send a message. Litter need changing? Pee in their shoes. Don’t like your food? Scoop it into the bilge (if you don’t know, that’s the hole in the floor I like to call “the garbage disposal”). They’ll get the message.

Rule #4: Challenge yourself. You’ll never know how high or far you can jump until you try. Literally. There’s the boom, the dodger, the docks, the dinghy, etc. The boat is your playground! And if you want to see how far your human servants can jump, try balancing on the lifelines while the boat is underway. That’s always a good one.

Rule #5: Prepare your crew. Life at sea is unpredictable and your crew must be prepared to deal with emergencies at any time. Help keep everyone on their toes by, say, pooping on the bed in the middle of the night, jumping off the boat, or my favorite: pretending there’s a deadly insect on your servant’s face that must be killed PRONTO. At two in the morning. How will you know your crew can cope if you don’t test them?

travel with cats sailing hideaway turf to surf

“Just think of me as a sleeping obstacle to whatever you’re trying to do with this bag.”

Rule #6: Get your beauty rest. This one is important. We can’t be our cute, lovable selves unless we get at least 16-18 hours of sleep a day. Your servants, on the other hand, don’t need half as much sleep, so they may disrupt your continuous napping by trying to, say, move you off a tool box they need to get into or push you away from the winches they’re trying to use. Don’t stir. Tip: If you play dead, sometimes they just give up.

charlie sailing with cats hideaway turf to surf

“See what I mean? The world is your bed.”

Rule #7: Be a distraction. If your human servants are anything like mine, they work too hard. Just remember: you know what’s good for them, so make an executive decision and intervene! They’re doing electrical work in the back of a locker? Crawl into the locker. They spend too much time on the computer? Sit on the keyboard. They may act annoyed at first, but trust me on this one: they will come around to your way of doing nothing with a little persistence. And they’ll thank you for it later.

cruising kitty sailing with cats turf to surf

“Whatcha writin’ there? Wanna play?”

That should be enough to get you through the first few months of your new life at sea. With these tools, you should be fully equipped to transform your aquatic woes to a life of adventure and fulfillment. So, get out there and start pooping on some beds, crawling into holes, and leaping onto foreign docks! Live life to the fullest!

Remember: the only one standing in the way of your happiness is you.

You’re welcome and happy cruising,

Charlie

charlie sailing cats turf to surf

“See? You’ll get used to it…eventually.” (Photo by Justin Dent)

Visiting the E.R. in the D.R.

As I flew through the air Superman-style, arms outstretched and legs trailing behind me a good four feet off the ground, a frantic stream of panicked messages streaked my consciousness. “Shit, don’t land on your knees, your knees are for running, not the knees, this is not good…” then SLAM! I was buried face-down in the sand, unable to breathe and feeling lightning bolts shooting from my left rib down to my calf in a way that had me screaming and hyper-ventilating simultaneously.

It was my third lesson in kiteboarding and my lovely instructor Angel from Spain had been coaching me in a practice exercise where I sat on the beach with knees bent and feet flexed so I could power up my kite using a figure-eight motion, which would pull me up and onto my feet with a gentle force. In total control, I would run forward, de-power my kite, and Angel would explain how, in the water, I would need to turn my body to the side more so the kite could pull me up and forward on the surface of the water.

It made total sense. So I practiced my figure-eights based on the twelve-hour clock of kite positions I’d learned. Eleven to two. UP! De-power. Twelve o’clock. Sit down. Eleven to two. UP! De-power. Twelve o’clock. Sit down…Piece of cake…Hey Ryan’s in the water! I wonder if this might be safer over there…

“Try it one more time and we’ll hit the water!” Angel said. One more time? No problem…

But instead of the water, I hit the beach. Hard. And, after that, everything became a blur.

According to Angel, when he said “one more time,” I didn’t do exactly as I’d done the five times we’d practiced before that. I got a little sloppy and took my kite from 10 o’clock to 3 o’clock, which super-powered the kite on this already windy day, and had the effect of yanking me off the beach like I was a six-year-old walking a St. Bernard who’d just spotted a squirrel.

In a haze, I remember as I screamed, the beach sprang to life and dozens of kiteboarders dropped their equipment and ran to my aid. I was spitting out gobs of sand into Angel’s lap while begging him to get my harness and helmet off so I could breathe. Then suddenly a stranger appeared and shoved a pill in my mouth, telling me to swallow. I think he said “Vicodin,” but I wasn’t sure. Frankly, he could have said “crack cocaine” and I wouldn’t have cared.

For a moment, I thought, “Don’t panic, you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you…don’t bother Ryan…this will pass…once they get this harness off, you’ll be fine…DON’T PANIC.”

But then the harness came off and the pain seemed to intensify. And as I rubbed my hip, I realized I couldn’t feel the skin on my side, while my leg was stabbing me with pains that shot all the way to my skull.

Which brought back memories of lying on a roller derby rink in New York exactly a year ago, after being hit from both sides simultaneously in a scrimmage and hearing a snap so loud in my head I thought I’d broken my helmet. And as I laid on the floor, I put my hand on my right collarbone and realized it was in two pieces. I didn’t know yet that my left collarbone was also in two pieces. I just knew I was terrified and in excruciating pain, and yet the first thing that came to mind was the medical bills. “How much is this going to cost?” was my first question to the medics as they lifted me into the ambulance.

And now I was lying on what Ryan would later call “a Dominican stretcher,” which was a beach lounger that five guys had lifted me onto and now sprinted up the beach carrying. They were yelling at people to get out of the way as they dashed out to the street and flagged down a taxi. Meanwhile, I was wailing in pain and panicking in my head, “Shit, what if I’ve broken something…what about sailing…how am I going to get back on the boat…where is Ryan…HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST?”

Now, if you are an American, or you know an American, then you already know that the subject of medical costs in the U.S. can drive a Yankee’s blood pressure from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond. Our voices grow louder as we recount tragic tales of friends who went bankrupt over, say, a botched appendix operation, and we whine about our monthly insurance bill and the things it doesn’t cover. Or we blurt out a stream of justifications for why we don’t have insurance and probably don’t need it anyway. “Live free or die!” or something like that…

If you are nodding your head, recalling the last annoying conversation you had with an American about our health care system, then I have to ask you to excuse us, please. It’s not our fault. We, as a nation, have endured major, prolonged trauma in the form of the world’s most expensive and unattainable health care. Despite the fact that we spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, we are ranked a dismal 38th in the world by the World Health Organization for quality of care. We’re like those abused children who duck instinctively when a hand is raised, except we immediately bark “HOW MUCH?!” any time we see a doctor.

So, if you think it’s crazy that — as I got wheeled into a private medical clinic in Cabarete and was attended to immediately by half a dozen doctors and given over a dozen X-rays and sonograms along with an IV drip of painkillers in the space of under three hours — all I could think was How much is this going to cost?, then just remember I AM AN AMERICAN.

Which means I pay $1,000/month for my and Ryan’s insurance coverage, and yet that only covers us in three states in the U.S. And even then, after all the money I pay, my insurance doesn’t cover ambulance rides, so my 10-minute trip to the hospital with my broken collarbones last year cost me $1,000. And, still, I was grateful because if I’d had that accident outside of New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, or if I’d not been insured at all, my bills would have cost me upwards of $10,000. No joke.

So with each X-ray my Dominican doctors gave me, Ryan and I anxiously played a real-life game of “The Price is Right,” mumbling guesses back and forth as to how much the bills would come to in the end. Ryan guessed $1,000 after four X-rays. But, after a dozen more tests, we said we’d be happy if it cost less than $3,000.

I smiled with relief once the X-ray and sonogram results came back and the doctors assured me I hadn’t broken anything. The mix of good news with strong painkillers numbed my worries…apart from the ones related to expenses. “How much is this going to cost?” I muttered to Ryan again, as the nurse removed my IV and helped me into a wheelchair.

“Ssshhh. It doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, trying to soothe my anxiety. “Whatever it is, we’ll pay it.”

So, when Ryan returned from the doctor’s office laughing out loud, I knew we’d way over shot with our guesses in “The Price is Right.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Eight thousand,” Ryan said.

“Dollars or pesos?!” I exclaimed.

“Funny you should ask,” Ryan said. “That’s exactly what I said to the doctor. I thought he was going to choke! It’s in pesos.”

“Two hundred dollars?” I asked.

“Two hundred dollars,” Ryan said, laughing. “And this is in a private clinic. If we’d gone to the public one down the road, it would’ve been much less.”

“I love this country,” I said. “I can play sports and hurt myself and I don’t have to worry about going bankrupt.”

“That’s anywhere but America, by that criteria,” Ryan said.

ryan kiteboarding kitexcite cabarete dominican republic

Ryan’s 3rd lesson in kiteboarding was cut short by my accident.

cabarete medical clinic dr

Feeling much better after a few painkillers and once I saw the bill.

cabarete medical clinic

It’s amazing how your medical bills drop when you leave the U.S.!

Ocean World: To go or not to go?

Photo: The dolphins at Ocean World look happy, but is it an illusion?

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Having traveled for over a decade, I’ve always felt that traveling was more like an occupation requiring dedication than some frivolous form of escapism. Though I’m sure my parents didn’t exactly see it that way as I boarded a plane to Russia, citing my “fear of cubicles” as reason enough to flee the U.S.

I learned quickly that traveling is hard work and comes with responsibilities. The responsibility to respect different cultures; to try to speak the language of the country I’m in; to be open to lifestyles different from my own; to eat foods I wouldn’t normally eat out of respect for my hosts; to have empathy for those who struggle to get by; and to consider the practices of other cultures, even those I initially recoil from, and decide how to react to them.

When I lived in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, I got used to wearing long, loose clothing, even in 120-degree weather, and I had to remember never to extend my hand to a man when introducing myself, which took some getting used to. But there were some things I chose not to get used to. Like slavery and camel racing. And so I made the decision not to attend the local camel races so as not to support a sport that depended on child slaves to exist. And after I left in 2004, I felt validated when the government banned the use of child jockeys in camel racing.

When I lived in Seville, Spain, bullfighting was very much alive and popular, boasting Ernest Hemingway’s love for the sport as validation, as well as the fact that it was a tradition. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to attend a bullfight because, to me, it was blood-thirsty, cruel and pointless. And I didn’t understand how Spaniards could call it a “fight,” considering the bull never had a chance at winning.

What was interesting, though, was how my students in Spain reacted to the news in 2005 that the British government had banned fox-hunting in England, a sport which involved people on horseback unleashing trained dogs on foxes, tearing them apart from limb to limb when caught. My Spanish students all agreed that fox-hunting was barbaric, cruel and unnecessary and, of course, it should be banned.

“But what about bullfighting?” I asked.

“Bullfighting? What do you mean?!” they asked. “That’s an art. It’s Spanish tradition!”

“But some could see it as barbaric, cruel and unnecessary,” I said.

“No, no, no, that is different,” they protested.

And I protested in return, challenging their viewpoint and asking my students to examine their own “traditions” with a bit more objectivity. This was a difficult exercise, as it turned out. As it is for many people, including myself, regardless of where they’re from. But through that conversation and many more like it, I began to see that one culture’s tradition is sometimes another culture’s cruel and unusual punishment.

So, when a reader respectfully wrote to me about the moral controversy surrounding animals in captivity and parks like Ocean World in the D.R., after seeing photos of me swimming with dolphins, sharks, stingrays and sea lions, I immediately felt guilty. Had I just unwittingly committed an irresponsible travel misstep?

ocean world dolphins controversy dominican republic

Admittedly, I am in heaven hugging this dolphin.

It had never occurred to me that by taking my nephews to Ocean World, I might be supporting an environmentally harmful cause. In fact, as an animal lover, I was ecstatic to have the rare opportunity to touch and swim with these incredible creatures. But as it turns out, ignorance really is bliss.

So now that I was no longer ignorant, I felt a responsibility to educate myself by consulting the internet, debating with my family, posing questions to a marine biologist, and renting the documentary “The Cove,” which has motivated animal rights organizations to advocate for dolphins and campaign against marine parks.

And the purpose of all this research has been to help me pin down my convictions about marine parks like Ocean World and make sense of the controversy surrounding dolphins and other wild animals in captivity.

If you haven’t seen “The Cove,” it is a film by Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer on the 1964 TV series “Flipper,” who had a drastic change of heart regarding captivity after a dolphin died in Ric’s arms from what he claims was a suicide wrought from despair at living in captivity. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010, criticizes the practice of dolphin culling in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where most of the world’s captive dolphins come from, and where about 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year for meat, as well as to protect the fish stock from dolphin consumption.

In a word, the film is heart-breaking. I can’t deny the emotions I felt while watching dolphins being netted and speared to death.

But, by the time I sat down to watch “The Cove,” I had already read a lot about the centuries-old dolphin-hunting tradition in Japan and countries like the Solomons Islands, Faroe Islands and Peru, as well as the issues with dolphins in captivity. So my inner cheerleader was rooting for the film to offer a solid argument for why I should never visit a marine park again, or support animals in captivity in any way.

Except, instead of filling me with conviction, I came away from the film with more questions than answers, including:

How is the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year in Japan more wrong than the 34 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. every year?

What is the criteria for animals we can’t kill for food vs. animals we can kill for food? Is it cuteness? Intelligence? Our sentimentality? Who decides this criteria?

If the dolphin population is increasing in Japan, despite the hunts, doesn’t that make them a sustainable source of food?

The 12 dolphins at Ocean World came from Taiji, Japan, and were spared from the dolphin hunt. Should I not be happy that someone paid good money to spare these dolphins’ lives?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. And though watching the one-sided tale of Taiji’s fishing industry unfold on film was educational, it was equally educational to read some of the negative reviews of the film on Amazon.com. Many of the reviewers asked similar questions to the ones I formed while watching “The Cove,” and some of them offered perspectives from within the Japanese culture, which the film failed to address.

“I think killing animals for meat could be cruel if killing dolphins is cruel,” wrote one Japanese reviewer. “And [the film] didn’t mention the history of dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. In the 19th century, Western whale hunters used to kill whales to get its oil just for fuel for the lamp, and they threw whale meats and bones into sea while Japanese hunted them for food.”

And one American reviewer, Nathan, wrote, “It’s funny how animals with cute personalities get more respect then ones without charm, say cows or chickens. Take a look at Food Inc. and see how we treat animals in this country and around the world. The small Japanese town that has been doing this is a fishing village, they don’t kill for sport. Leave them be.”

So, there it is. After all that research, my self-imposed obligation to be a responsible traveler has brought me here, to this troubled intersection of contradicting viewpoints, leaving me desperate to have a cheat sheet of rules that overrides all sentimentality and offers a universal morality.

But, alas, I am still unclear on whether I think it is wrong for parks like Ocean World to have dolphins and marine animals in captivity. Personally, I was blown away by the experience of interacting with the animals at Ocean World, and I could see from the ecstatic looks on my nephews’ faces, that they were too. And I know those particular dolphins were spared their lives in Taiji because a wealthy man who loves animals paid a lot of money to bring those dolphins to the Dominican Republic.

Does that make the owner of Ocean World a bad person? And I wonder, do zoos and marine parks have no educational value?

I do my best to be a responsible traveler, which requires me to tread carefully and learn from my mistakes as I move between cultures and around language barriers, all the while remembering that my viewpoint is just one viewpoint, which is not necessarily universal.

But in this particular case, I am struggling to work out what my viewpoint is.

I just know that, reflecting on my experience at Ocean World, I don’t regret having gone with my nephews to experience first-hand the power of these amazing creatures. And I have no doubt that some of the little kids who visit these parks are inspired by their love for these animals to grow up and become marine biologists who contribute to the protection of our natural world.

I guess the question is, is that justification enough?

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At Ocean World with sister-in-law Carina and nephews, Xander and Henry.

Photo Essay: Ocean World, Dominican Republic

When I flew back to New York for my grandmother’s funeral, Ryan’s sister Carina and her two boys had just arrived to visit us in the Dominican Republic. And since I had no choice but to leave my visitors, I left Ryan behind to fulfill his role as Chief Entertainer and Favorite Uncle.

When I returned, I only had three days left with my sister-in-law and nephews to make up for lost time, so we decided to splash out (pun intended) and go on a kid-tastic adventure involving a full day at Ocean World Adventure Park, swimming with stingrays, sharks, sea lions and dolphins, and then finish off the day with a family sleepover on Hideaway, which was docked right at Ocean World Marina.

It was an incredible experience to interact with these animals and experience their strength, beauty, agility and kindness up close. I’m not sure who had more fun — me or the kids — but it seemed certain from the pie-eating grins on our faces at the end of the day that this was an experience none of us would forget anytime soon.

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Note: After viewing this photo essay, a reader brought to my attention the issues activists have raised regarding dolphins in captivity, which I wasn’t aware of before we went to Ocean World. Having done some research on the subject, I wrote this follow-up post about the controversy surrounding Ocean World and dolphins in captivity.

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The dolphin swim at Ocean World was the highlight of the day

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Somewhere behind the sea lion stage is our boat in the marina

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Xander, me, Henry and Ryan preparing to feed the stingrays

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“Whoa, there’s a shark on my lap!”

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You vote: who’s face is funnier?!

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“One day, you’ll have a beard like me, little boy.”

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Sea lion doing a handstand while the rest of us look far less impressive

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It was the first time any of us had touched a dolphin, and we were ecstatic.

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“Whoa whoa whoa, where are we gooooiiiingggg?!”

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Xander looked like he’d been swimming with dolphins all his life!

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Henry’s first kiss from a dolphin.

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Dolphin hugs are amazing.

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We’re in the Dominican Republic, so of course the dolphins can merengue.

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Even seeing lovebirds was an interactive experience at Ocean World.

Guests on board: Managing expectations

When we first heard from Ryan’s sister Carina that she and her two boys, Henry and Xander, wanted to visit as guests on board the boat, my first thought was, “Yay, visitors!” My second thought was, “Crap, where will we put everyone?!”

Having guests on board can be a lot of fun if the location is right, the weather is good, and everyone’s expectations are very low. After all, it’s really fun to brag to your friends, “We’re going to spend a week on a yacht in the Dominican Republic…,” but, as we cruisers know, it’s not always as awesome as it sounds. It can be. But it might require some clarification of your visitors’ definition of “awesome.”

When it comes to having fellow boaters visiting, we don’t worry much about managing expectations. Other sailors know what to expect from a 34-foot monohull. But non-boating guests can pose quite a challenge. For one, there is very little space on board, so if your visitors aren’t coming from, say, a studio apartment in Manhattan and/or aren’t used to bumping elbows with someone every time they pick up their drink, they may have difficulties adjusting to such close quarters.

So before Ryan, his sister and our two nephews got too excited about their dream vacation on our “yacht,” only to have their dreams corroded by too much salt water, lack of air conditioning and moldy sheets, I started devising a mental list of things to warn our visitors about before they arrived to the boat:

1) You might not be able to shower. Like, ever. Well, okay, maybe you can have one shower. But it has to be short. And you can’t let the water run while you soap up your hair.

2) You can’t put paper in the toilet (head). Remember the rule, Nothing goes in the head unless you have eaten it first. This is very important if you don’t want to get your hands dirty helping me fix a clogged head.

3) Doing dishes is tricky business. Water is precious and hard to come by, so we use a finely-tuned method of filling the largest dirty vessel with water and soap, using that to soap down the other dishes, then using a slight trickle of water to rinse down the entire load using little more than a drinking cup’s worth. Better yet, just leave the dishes for us to do.

4) We only have one family car (the dinghy). So shore trips for five people in a dinghy that only fits three require some coordination. You may not be able to go to shore anytime you want to, so bring a good book.

5) Our plans to go somewhere may change at any time due to wind, waves, engine troubles or some other factor I am completely unable to predict at this time. Again, bring a good book. In fact, bring a few books.

I guess you could say we got lucky this time, though. I never actually had to send my sister-in-law the weird email I would’ve entitled “Tasha’s Tips for Happy Boat Cohabitation.” At the last minute, she booked her and the kids into an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Plata, circumventing any need for me to worry about whether or not a family of five could comfortably cram themselves into our little boat for a week. And not kill each other.

Now all we needed to worry about was making sure we dragged Carina, Henry and Xander out of their resort to show them a little of the rough-around-the-edges Dominican Republic we’d grown to know and love so much in the short time we’d been here. After all, we couldn’t let our little nephews go back to England thinking the Dominican Republic looked like a massive cruise ship tied to land now, could we?

“But…wait…did you say they have a gym?! And unlimited hot showers?! Never mind. You’ll have to drag me out of the resort!!!

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Jet skis were a new toy for us at the resort, and the kids loved it!

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Carina looks happy to have a whole resort for the kids to run around.

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And I’m sure we couldn’t have fed them nearly as frequently as the resort restaurant did!

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This looked much more inviting for a swim than where our boat was in Luperon Harbor

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“Who’s your favorite uncle?!”

Losing an anchor, remembering my grandmother

Photo: Me with my grandmother in 1981, hanging out on a beach in Florida.

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Sitting aboard Hideaway at Ocean World Marina in the Dominican Republic, I stared across the water at a lavish pool and octopus-shaped bar with little interest. I was lost in a reverie, imagining myself as a six-year-old girl standing inside the door of my grandparents’ bulbous Frigidaire, stuffing candy-red maraschino cherries into my mouth before my grandmother could catch me and shut the fridge. Though I knew she’d let me grab just one more cherry.

I’d just gotten off the phone with my dad, who’d told me my grandmother had just passed away, following a stroke. And I was sitting in stunned silence, alone with my thoughts, feeling a mix of sadness and guilt that I was here in a land far away while my family was there, in the place that still held my roots.

I wasn’t ready just yet to deal with the logistics of flying home to New York from a small town in the Dominican Republic. But I knew in two day’s time, I would be attending the funeral for my grandmother, the woman who’d held my family together for generations with the glue of hard work, selflessness, criticism, love and, above all, the belief that family comes before all else in this world. Unquestionably.

But rather than take action and search for flights, for a little while I just sat still and watched a series of non sequitur vignettes from my grandmother’s life play out from a reel in my mind made up of childhood memories, old photos and stories my relatives told me about the mark my grandmother had left on each of them.

And I thought about the mark she left on me.

Growing up, I didn’t know much about my grandmother’s early life; that her parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark. Or that her parents had traveled and given birth to each of their children in a different South American country until they ended up in the U.S., where my grandmother was born. I also didn’t know both my grandmother’s parents had died before she even reached adolescence, leaving her and her siblings to fend for themselves from a young age.

I just knew my grandmother lived her life like a determined force, organizing, controlling and tirelessly working to make sure the people in her life were taken care of and had learned the skills necessary to take care of themselves.

Knickerbocker Lake, where my grandparents lived, had been the center of activity in my family for as long as I could remember, and for generations before me. My father and his brother and sister grew up there, helping to maintain the expanse of land by mowing the lawn in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn, shoveling snow off the driveway in winter and pulling seaweed out of the swimming area in spring to prepare for The Lake’s annual summer opening to the public. And my grandfather and his siblings did the same for his parents at Knickerbocker Lake.

So, following family tradition, I spent my childhood summers swimming at The Lake, helping Grandpa sell (or, rather, eat) ice cream from the concession stand, raking the beach and picking up trash every day when The Lake closed for business.

But it was my grandmother’s get-it-done-and-quit-yer-whining attitude that organized us all through every family gathering from Fourth of July to Christmas. She was always at the organizational heart of any event, ordering us to paint fences, mow lawns, cut down trees, patch up holes in rowboats, cook food, and how, when and where to do whatever needed doing. And to do it with no complaints. Grandma was a doer, not a talker. And she expected the rest of us to follow suit.

And it was that same get-it-done attitude that also helped my family survive tragedy, like the sudden death of my uncle Walter, my grandparents’ oldest son and my father’s brother. Walter had suffered a head trauma from an accidental fall, which put him in a coma he never woke up from just a few months before his sister Lynda’s wedding at The Lake. And with the family in mourning, everyone doubted whether going ahead with a wedding was really a good idea. But my grandmother drove the family through their grief and out the other side, doling out commands and jobs and nudging anyone who slacked off or wallowed a little too long. Crying wasn’t going to make a wedding happen and, goddamnit, there was work to be done.

Even when Walter’s two sons, Greg and Walter Jr., were suddenly left behind without a father or a home, my grandmother didn’t flinch at the thought of taking the boys in and raising them as her own. It was something that had to be done. Simple as that.

And when one of those kids, Walter Jr., was accidentally shot and killed by a friend messing around with a shotgun, my grandmother cried for the first and only time in front of me. I was seven years old and didn’t fully understand death, but I understood that my family, the pillars around me, were stricken with grief. But the family had the next Fourth of July to gather for, the next Thanksgiving, the next Christmas and the next birthday. Life went on at the lake. It had to.

So, as I sat on my boat in the Dominican Republic, remembering all my grandmother did to hold my family together over the years, I realized what had allowed me to live my life so freely, traveling the world with a backpack and now with a boat.

Without knowing it, my grandmother had been the anchor that secured my family ship to a harbor so safe that we could all take flight in our own way, knowing we always had somewhere safe to return. And she passed on her steel strength and iron-clad self-reliance to her children, urging them to pass those qualities on to their children.

Even towards the end of my grandmother’s life, if ever we tried to worry about her or fuss over her, she would vehemently reject it. Her job was to worry about each of us and support us, even when that support didn’t always come in forms we expected. She believed in tough love, generous actions and thick skin. And she loved us too much to let us worry about her.

So, in a way, as I sit here on my boat, in the midst of the unforgettable journey that is my life, I acknowledge that my life is a gift from my grandmother, passed down to my father and mother, and bestowed upon me.

And I remember how lucky I am to have that gift.

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My dad, Grandma and me, building castles in the sand in Florida (1981)

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Me, introducing Ryan to Knickerbocker Lake for the first time after tying the knot (2005)

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Three generations of Hackers, walking together at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

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Grandma and Grandpa, dancing at our wedding reception at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

The Comandante of Luperon, Dominican Republic

As soon as I arrived to Luperon, I discovered why so many cruisers heading towards the Dominican Republic come to Luperon and Luperon only. One word: Bureaucracy.

Entering any port in the D.R. requires a lot of paperwork and sitting around sweating while trying to figure out how to pay the non-English-speaking bureaucrat before you the 411 pesos he is asking for when he has no change for your 500-peso bill.

But then the advantage of clearing in to Luperon, according to my friends who did not clear in to Luperon, is that the chances of being arrested for something bribe-tastic go down significantly. Because the new Luperon Comandante likes cruisers and, presumably, the money cruisers bring to Luperon. Why would he mess with that potential?

But even still, leaving any port in the D.R., unfortunately, requires getting a despacho from immigration, which means you have to go through the customs clear-in process again at the next port. So, it’s not like you can just sail from port to port when you want, like in the Bahamas, with one cruising permit for the whole country. In essence, it’s a royal pain in the ass to move, so cruisers mostly keep their boat in Luperon and travel the country overland until it’s time to depart.

When we arrived to Luperon and after the Navy came to check out our boat in person, I spent two hours making the rounds from office to office, paying one $10 fee after another. And every time I thought I was done, another bureaucrat would appear and say something like, “I’m the officer of Narcotics. Please come to my office…” or “I’m the officer of Agriculture…”

At which point I’d be led to a trailer where a man in sweaty clothes would write down on a scrap piece of paper the same information the last four people had written down: boat name, captain’s name (Yo soy la capitan. Si, mujeres son capitanes in los Estados Unidos…I’m the Captain. Yes, women are captains in the U.S.), boat length, boat weight, registration number, etc. And then he’d ask me for $10 or roughly 400 pesos, which sometimes I’d get a receipt for, and sometimes I wouldn’t.

Despite the annoyance, though, we’d heard the clearing-in process in Luperon was much more friendly since the new, young Comandante had taken over from the old, grumpy guy that cruisers had told us horror stories about. And we were grateful. Because no one likes trouble when arriving to a new country.

But regardless of my “easy” clear-in, I wasn’t looking forward to doing the clearing out with immigration to leave Luperon. And we needed to arrange in advance to get a despacho from immigration to leave after just two weeks there because Ryan’s sister Carina and our two nephews were coming to visit in a few days. So, we were headed for a $1.25/foot dock at the glitzy, touristy Ocean World Marina, just 18 nautical miles around the headland, so we could spend a week with our family.

For that reason, after we returned to Luperon following a short kiteboarding vacation in Cabarete, we went about arranging for our despacho from the Comandante. Which mostly involved asking people when we could arrange for the paperwork to be done and being told to return the following day. And when it finally became the last possible day to get the despacho, we found ourselves waiting for the Comandante in his “office,” which was more like an open-air grass hut on a hill.

After a two-hour wait, the friendly Comandante finally arrived on his motorcycle, wearing jeans and a t-shirt (it was Saturday, after all), and filled out our despacho free-of-charge with wishes for us to return to Luperon soon. And, with documents in hand, we were free to enjoy our last Saturday night in Luperon, as we corralled our newfound friends from our trip to the 27 Charcos, and dragged them out to a local bar, which we’d heard was famous for Dominican dancing and shenanigans.

Unlike the popular Wendy’s Bar and J.R.’s Bistro, though, there wasn’t a single cruiser at the Rancho Tipical. And we were grateful for the Dominican entertainment, for a change. So we sat in the corner with some beers and a bottle of rum, watching Dominicans dance Bachata and Merengue until the Comandante walked in and said to Ryan and I, “Hey! I thought you were leaving in the morning!”

I just held up my drink and nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t worry, Comandante!” I said. “We’ve done this before! We can sail with a hangover!”

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The “office” at the top of the hill wasn’t exactly the picture of efficiency…

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…though the view wasn’t bad

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The Comandante Brian and I, posing after I’d received my despacho