What a day!
It began with pancakes slathered with local honey, served with a side of scrambled eggs; it ended with pandemonium slathered with exhaustion, served with a side of scrambled nerves. (Wait a minute, I’m jumping ahead of myself…)
After breakfast, we loaded our luggage into the trunk of the Duncans’ car and drove to a local bus stop. Celia, Harmony, Ben, Jessica and I got out and bought tickets for the hour-long ride to Santiago; Jared, Arianna, and our belongings left to take care of some errands before taking us to the airport.
The row of folding chairs that served as a waiting area in the alcove spilled onto the sidewalk, affording us a clear view of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Even after two weeks in the country, the sights and sounds of the street continued to amaze us. Cars and motorcycles performed seemingly reckless maneuvers before our eyes. We politely refused shoe-shining services. I observed an anxiously casual exchange of pesos for a tightly packed, taped plastic bag and hoped fervently that my sudden and deliberate attempt to look sweet, innocent, and ignorant wasn’t obvious. A truck piled high with dusty sacks and equally dusty workers drove by slowly enough that one of the men was able to proudly practice his English by initiating a very short conversation with Ben. Several buses going to locations other than Santiago stopped to drop people off or pick people up.
When the correct bus finally arrived, we surrendered our tickets and climbed aboard. With a quick survey of the interior, I observed the few and scattered gaps in the collection of passengers and realized that we would have to split up. I walked slowly down the narrow aisle looking for a seat. A wiry, older Dominican man with long, curly hair and a long, angular face motioned to the space next to him. I didn’t want to be rude – after one last desperate glance around for a polite way of escape, I sat down and thanked him.
The accommodations on either side of the aisle were ideal for carrying 2 skinny Americans each. This specific seat, however, was now occupied by 1 skinny Dominican who sprawled over 2/3 of the area and 1 skinny American who perched on the edge, braced with one foot against a support across the aisle, because she was NOT about to spend an hour snuggled up against some random Dominican guy! She did, however, manage to enjoy bits of small talk about the bus trip, the mountains, family, and music.
The interior of the public transport was somewhat worn, but also clean and continuously filled with refreshingly cool air. Curtains for each window could be arranged to block the incoming sunlight. In the front section, fold-away seats were available to provide additional places to sit – in the aisle. Whenever someone needed to pass through, everyone in the aisle seats had to get up and pack both the seats and themselves off to the sides. It was kinda crazy!
The voices of a local radio station warbled in the background. Ben noted that radio advertising sounds the same in any language! We amused ourselves by trying to translate the lyrics of a particularly catchy tune; if we were understanding correctly, it was an attempt to define the experience of being in love. We couldn’t even pick out individual words in most of the songs, though. Considering the culture, that probably wasn’t a bad thing…
Approaching Santiago, Celia realized she wasn’t sure which stop would be the closest to our destination, the same indoor mall that Jessica had already visited with the other half of the missions team before their departure last Saturday. She began to ask nearby passengers, and one very helpful lady not only informed us of the correct stop but also personally led us to the place, exemplifying the extreme helpfulness of people in the D.R. that the Duncans had told us about in earlier conversations.
Beyond a gurgling fountain, 2 levels of small shops and stands bristled with souvenirs, mostly jewelry and decorations. Not long after we had started poking through things, several well-dressed, burly Dominican men greeted us enthusiastically. At first, Celia thought they owned the merchandise that we were looking at, but her theory didn’t explain the crowd that materialized and started taking pictures. Come to find out, we had just met the mayor of Santiago, who was probably out campaigning for next-year’s elections!
I had told Celia that my mom wanted a turtle, so she led us to a vendor that displayed carved wooden figures among their wares. One of the guys working there became my self-appointed salesman. First, he showed me every turtle that they had, even after I had obviously chosen one. Then he moved on to other sea creatures, other wooden figures, and so on. Even though I could plainly see the items right there on the shelves, I swear he would have picked up every single one individually and offered it to me for my inspection if I had only stayed long enough!
He did eventually find another winner, though – once when I turned around, he placed in my hand a wooden boat that has sails made of what look like varnished sections of gourd. I let out an “ooooOOoo!” (Although I probably shouldn’t have in a place where you’re expected to barter!) After that, I was compelled to endure the procession of every other boat in the vicinity, including one that made me laugh out loud because it looked like “the front fell off,” reminding me of one of my favorite comedy routines. The worker could have saved himself the trouble; he had gotten it right the first time!
After I picked up one last item, a lapel pin with the Dominican Republic coat of arms, I looked around to find the lady with whom I had to argue about the price of my chosen items. She added each amount on a calculator and showed me the total. I silently began to figure – the boat should be about 2/3 of the total, the turtle about 1/3, and the pin negligible. That means that the boat would be about this many pesos, which is about that much in US dollars… do I want to pay that much? How much do I want to pay? How much less can I offer than what I really want to pay without being insulting? And the turtle would be about…
As I stood there pondering, I noticed in the back of my mind that the lady had started to push more buttons on the calculator. She held it out to me, and I suddenly realized that she was offering me a lower price. Wait, what? I wasn’t done figuring! I went back to the beginning and started over, thinking a little faster this time.
I wasn’t fast enough. She dropped the price again!
I think my bottom lip had wriggled itself in between my teeth to hide by this time. I RE-started over, frantically trying to run the computing program fast enough for it to feed data to the decision-making program fast enough for it to output actual words. I was seriously afraid that if I didn’t say something soon, I wouldn’t be able to buy the items at all – because at this rate, she would soon be giving them to me!
At this point, the right hemisphere of my brain stepped in, aborted the calculations mid-synapse, and presented me with an immediate although vague summary of the approximate state of the current offer. My left hemisphere let out a howl of protest; my teeth clenched; my lip winced. The lady looked uncertain and glanced back at the calculator. I caved: “Sí! Sí!”
After that, Celia led us to one of the stores upstairs. The shelves and walls inside displayed neatly arranged wares, among which I spotted additional turtles, boats, and sets of wall vases. Thankfully, I still preferred the ones I had already purchased. The employee here seemed helpful but non-intrusive, much to my relief.
While Ben took a long look at a short machete, I wandered around aimlessly, satisfying my curiosity but not intending to buy anything else. When I finished, I leaned against the counter and watched the human kaleidoscope passing by the front windows of the shop. One of the times that I glanced away, I found myself looking at a little box of transparent yellow stones tucked behind the counter. As I considered the possibilities, my interest level rose considerably.
In response to my inquiry, the clerk readily fetched the container for my perusal. To my great delight, those little gems were not only samples of polished amber, but also the final resting places of a variety of hapless insects! The best specimen of the collection contained a small spider, but I set that one aside with arachnophobic distaste. A stone containing a mosquito and a stone containing both a mosquito and an ant were more to my liking.
I left them on the counter for a moment while I stepped over to one of the shelves and chose a small glass bottle from an assortment I had noticed earlier. I brought it back, removed its tiny cork, and slipped the two stones inside to verify that they would fit. Perfect! As long as the amber wasn’t hideously expensive, I would buy the three items and store them together. We returned to the lower level carrying our selections in small plastic baskets to find the owner of the store so that we could barter and pay. The lady gave a price; I gave a counter-offer; she accepted; we were done. Whew!
From there, we walked to a supermarket, where Celia gathered some things for their family and the three of us tried to look at everything at once as we scurried after her through the aisles; we needed time to eat before Jared picked us up to go to the airport. Despite the rush, we did manage to acquire a hoard of our favorite chocolate bars with our pastor’s wife and three teen-aged offspring in mind.
Lunch came from a fast-food vendor next door to the supermarket called Pica Pollo. They served various rice dishes, stew-like meat dishes, bone-in fried chicken, chicken breast tenders, fried plantains, and french fries. I decided to try – in the judicial sense of the word – the Dominican version of chicken tenders and french fries. The verdict of the oral jury was unanimous: the chicken tenders were to be highly commended, the french fries were to be banished as vile impostors!
As we enjoyed our meal, we wondered how the restaurant could afford to provide such generous portions for the equivalent of a few US dollars. The plate of moist, tasty fried rice that Ben ordered contained what seemed like a culinary model of the island’s highest peak, Pico Duarte. The drinks, like my bottle of grape punch, cost less than a dollar apiece. We would definitely eat there again if we had the chance.
Jared met us soon after we finished eating and took us all to the airport, where we unloaded our luggage and said goodbye to the Duncans. Inside, we were required to fill out the exact same type of visitor form that we had been presented with upon arrival, which puzzled me considerably. At another point, I had to explain yet again, this time to a curious guard, that Jessica was mi hija, not mi hermana. Other than that, we passed through security in Santiago effortlessly.
As we waited to board our plane, we made several trips to the restrooms. One of the signs there caught my attention. While it had obviously been intended as a reminder about not flushing paper, the pointy silhouette person in the illustration looked to me like he was dropping an entire t-shirt into the toilet. I laughed out loud thinking to myself, “No t-shirts in the toilet. Got it!” The next time I went back, I brought the camera…
I very, very deeply did not want to fly again. Hunkered down in my seat before takeoff, I blindly gazed at the little pattern running down the upholstery in front of my nose as I numbly felt the little droplets running down my face on either side of my nose. Thinking of it now, I wish I could send a note back through time to my anguished self. If I had known not only that God was going to bring us safely home but also that in the coming months He was going to heal some of the deepest wounds of my heart and grant one of my requests above and beyond my wildest dreams… well, I just might have flown home without the plane!
On the way back to Miami, I was thankful that my dizziness seemed somewhat abated. I also took pictures, although the disappointing cloud cover prevented me from obtaining an example of the beautiful, surreal world that I wrote about earlier. Later, the friendly and helpful people across from me passed my camera over to the opposite window seat to capture the sunset for me.
As usual, tangible relief permeated my being the moment we touched down. I was so tired, and so glad that the only thing left between me and an American meal, a hot shower, and a comfy hotel bed was the Miami International Airport.
MIA has grown to such a size that when you disembark, you’re not even actually inside the building yet. We hoisted our carry-on bags onto our shoulders and headed down the concrete path of the human cattle chute that herds the incoming masses to the nearest airport entrance. After finally entering the building, we began to follow the signs directing US citizens that were returning from foreign countries.
The first challenge of the regulatory obstacle course involved passport security. We joined the end of a line, the head of which was steadily fanning out to a very long row of automatic passport verifying machines. When our turn came, we clustered around the kiosk as a family and individually answered a series of questions, scanned our passports, posed for a picture, and collected a receipt containing our mugshot and personal information to hand in later in the process. The indifferent and intrusive efficiency of the sleek, metal forms and their cold, glowing screens introduced a disturbingly Orwellian aura to our evening.
Leaving that room, we proceeded to wind our way through a maze of hallways, pausing periodically to show our passports to various guards. At the next stop, we handed in our receipts. Continuing from there, we found ourselves at the baggage claim area, where we retrieved our aforementioned outdated and somewhat-dilapidated luggage. Carrying, sliding, and dragging these additional burdens, we merged with the stream of humanity winding its way towards the customs checkpoint, which at this point had flooded its banks and backed up into twisting rivulets around the conveyor belts.
The current flowed slowly enough to make continuing on forward momentum impossible, and quickly enough to make resting for more than several seconds equally impossible. Pick up luggage. Step. Set down luggage. Pause. Pick up luggage. Step. Set down luggage. Repeat. Over, and over, and over, and over again, with monotonous and aching regularity. Time stretched like a cat waking from a nap, and still we wandered in the wilderness of the baggage claim area. Big people swore; little people cried. I’m medium-sized. I was tempted to do both.
Eventually we made it out of the baggage claim area into a hallway. Eventually we made it out of the hallway into the customs area. Eventually we wearily answered a few questions about our belongings while a guard looked over the declaration forms we had filled out on the plane. And eventually we emerged from the customs area, only to recognize with resignation that the location from which we would be picked up by our hotel shuttle remained yet in the vanishing distance.
Having escaped the bottleneck of the customs area, our forward momentum resumed its uninterrupted flow, and I reached a point where I could no longer manage both my carry-on and the unwieldy suitcase that I half-carried, half-dragged by my side. Ben traded his carry-on for my suitcase, but even that turned out to be too much for someone with the upper-body strength of a wet noodle. (A wet noodle that had been stepped on, by now!) I removed one end of the strap from my bag, ran it through a metal ring on Ben’s bag, and continued putting one foot in front of the other, dragging the small pile of luggage behind me like a reluctant bulldog.
A meal from the Subway near the shuttle arrivals provided a welcome respite from the vigorous trek, but also allowed time for what felt like rigor mortis to set in. Riots broke out in scattered muscle groups across my body when the news reached them that I intended to require them to work the night shift, too. “Protests noted and logged. Now let’s go.”
Three pairs of eager eyes strained to read the logos of the oncoming buses as soon as possible. The continual parade represented many hotels. The first Days Inn shuttle that we stopped actually ferried people to a different Days Inn than the one we were looking for, another indication of the incredible expanse of MIA. Finally, we flagged down the correct vehicle. Full, they told us. Wait for the next one – about 15 minutes.
While we waited, I admired the architecture of the structure in the center of the pick-up area and the row of flags from all over the world. I spotted the flag of the Dominican Republic on the left. We also dragged our luggage a bit farther down the curb in the direction from which the buses were appearing.
Our shuttle returned. Full again. This time, while we waited, we realized that the pick-up area extended all the way down the block, around the corner, and up the next block. The buses were stopping to pick people up as soon as they got to gate 1 and filling before they reached us. Picking up the luggage yet again, we trudged to the corner and waited for the next ride. We hadn’t gone far enough. The next bus didn’t have room, either.
Only one option, if we didn’t want to sleep right there on the curb. Teeth clenched, softly hissing a cross between a growl and a whimper with each breath, I forced myself to convey my person and my baggage down the sidewalk behind Ben almost all the way to gate 1. Our shuttle appeared. It stopped. Our belongings got in the back, we got in the front.
For some reason, the ride to the hotel felt like we were going about 90 miles an hour and careening through the curves. I leaned over and whispered to Ben, “I think we got a driver from the D.R.!” At the end of the ride, we stood in yet. another. line. This time to check in. And get our room key. For our room. On the bottom floor, but all the way at the end of the building.
As I moved towards that room in a daze, Ben broke the news to us that we needed to get up at 4 AM tomorrow to catch the shuttle back to the airport. I absorbed the revelation with the illusory composure of one who has ceased wasting mental, emotional, or physical energy on anything unnecessary for survival. Once inside, I gave succinct and emphatic orders intended to shorten the amount of time remaining between us and sleep. While I hadn’t meant to be harsh, the perplexing sight of my daughter retreating to the bathroom in tears made me realize that was how she had taken it.
While Jessica got ready for bed, Ben was busy trying to get her one. The reservation we had made included a roll-away bed; the room itself did not. When Ben called the hotel staff, they informed us that we wouldn’t be getting one, either. Time to re-think the sleeping arrangements.
Not long after, I found myself in the middle of the queen-sized bed, wedged between my husband and daughter. I asked Jessica if she would forgive me for snapping at her earlier. She mumbled that she would. The air conditioner in the room produced more sound than air; our shorts and t-shirts grew damp. The room trembled periodically, cowering from the jumbo jets roaring past.
Somehow, we did manage to sleep…