Motochonchos and the Cheapness of Life

“Es usted Dominicano?” the guide at Demejagua National Park points to me, a smile on his face. Huh? No, I’m not Dominican.

The Dominicans re-purpose old cars as part of their “public” transportation system. Pictured here is one of the fleet vehicles for “La Ruta Muñoz” which costs 30 Dominican pesos ($0.75 USD) and loops through Puerto Plata and back. (Peaskis Abroad/Jacob Bielanski)

“D’yoo haf t‘e kees of la Republica!” He points at a burn mark midway on the inside of his left calf. I bear a birthmark which looks like just such a burn. This burn is commonly earned when your leg, while riding as a passenger, touches the hot exhaust pipe of a motorcycle.

Previously, I noted that the Dominican Republic has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the known world. Hearing these statistics, and being eyeball-deep in her own research, Jamie wanted to see the breakdown of the WHO data. Of the 42 traffic fatalities per 100,000 in 2012, 58 percent came from two-wheeled vehicles*. You don’t have to be here long to chuckle and mutter, “No kidding.”

The Madness of Glass and Sandwiches

The community center knows “Wilson” quite well, pictured here. (Peaskis Abroad/Jacob Bielanski)

Jamie held a somewhat defeated look on her face returning from the batey on Friday. The project, one for which she and another volunteer were so excited, was to have the kids make their own sandwiches. A single slice of white bread, cut in half. Smear some butter. Smear some jam. Put them together. Tactile learning, yes?

“It nearly became a riot,” Jamie says, no laughter in her eyes.

Jamie would have to tell you the full story – the breakdown in order, an unauthorized adult insinuating herself into the sandwich preparation process and ultimately circumventing the system of control – but the point is, it was another heartbreaking example of that cliché we all think of when we think of helping “the poor.” You can’t give them nice things; they become animals.

First Day in a Haitian Batey

Jamie supervises, to the best of her ability, the completion of English-language coloring pages. (Peaskis Abroad/Jacob Bielanski)

“Just make sure you don’t bring anything valuable with you,” Lena told me in her Belgian accent. The next morning, I removed my colorful bead bracelet. It wasn’t worth much monetarily, but had strong personal value.

Lily and I were at the restaurant early, but she had no shoes on. Lena showed up and apologized for being late for our 9 am meeting time. I wasn’t even sure what time it was. “We don’t have an alarm clock since my phone was stolen,” she told me. I didn’t have the heart to inform her that we were only there looking for our “missing” bug spray and were not quite ready ourselves.

First day in Muñoz.

This would have been a shitty car, even when I was in high school. And I drove some beasts. It didn’t age well. Things were rattling and shaking and doors didn’t open right.

“Mama, where’s my seatbelt?” Lily panicked. From the Santo Domingo airport she was excited to be without a carseat, but here, things were too real for her. I looked around and sighed in exhaustion. “I’m sorry honey, I didn’t know. There are no seatbelts. We’ll be okay.”

This was our prearranged transportation.

Brief Thoughts: Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo

“Oh my god, a stampede of pigeons,” yells Lily; Jacob Bielanski/2013

The Dominican Republic has one of the worst traffic fatality rates in the world. In taking a cab from the airport yesterday, I already have about five or six personal reasons why. Buy me a beer, I’ll tell you sometime.

I forgot that in Latin American/Caribbean countries, there is little denotation between a “neighborhood” and a “district.” I thought our hotel was located in some seedy, working-class, residential neighborhood. We are, in fact, paying $20US/night to stay in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, three blocks from a Hard Rock Cafe.

To the owner of last night’s cafe: the only thing more disconcerting to me than stray cats/dogs begging for food, is the guy hired to kick them away, often literally.

To the Asian gentleman sitting next to us in the cafe: your driver/”friend” probably never felt more imprisoned by the promise of money. Also, buying cheesy tourist shirts is cool; buying them and wearing them while still on vacation looks like a “rob me” sign to pick pockets.

To the city of Santo Domingo: don’t change a thing.

Ready. Set. Go.

We left our bedroom looking incredible. I mean seriously, I want to stay at our place as a guest. It wasn’t littered with toys and books. The bed skirt finally arrived, which hid the ugly box spring and stuff stored underneath. The freshly washed bedding was perfectly made. It was so hard not to climb in and refuse to leave.

Alas, it was not for us. Our Finnish subleasers arrived on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m., after nearly 24 hours of travel. They looked utterly disheveled and exhausted, though adorable 10 month-old Veikko mustered a smile for the crazy American lady pinching his cheeks.

Behind the Scenes of Family Travel: Safety

Lily wants to swimLily’s passport will expire soon, which is a shame; that chubby, eight-month-old face looks so adorable under the super-official “USA” insignia.

I’m in the middle of  a project writing a guide to traveling as a family*, preparing to spend a month on a Spanish-speaking island and, amidst it all, trying not to fail as a father. I put it this way because I think “success” is a moving target. On a good day, success means “fostered her emotional and intellectual growth while providing a calming influence in her exploration of a complex world.” On a bad day, success looks more like, “didn’t let her get killed.” I worry more about failing, especially on the bad days.

These “bad days” come more frequently on the road. If anything, the raw challenge of getting from point “A” to point “B” fosters realizations that look like those stupid inspirational posters coming to life. Live every day to the fullest. Cherish those you love. Wash your hands after every potty break, sweetie, or else you’ll contract cholera.

It’s Not a Vacation

In two weeks we depart our apartment. In three weeks, we will be in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The first few days, we will spend sight-seeing a city we skipped last year. After that, the fun ends. Well, not really.

It started in January. Hating the cold and disappointed about my lack of overseas teaching experience, I presented an idea to Jake. What if we subleased our apartment for awhile and headed someplace less cold, less English-speaking. I wanted to teach, which was what I was supposed to be doing in Spain. I wanted to further my Spanish skills. At the time, I was set on Costa Rica — one more notch on our Central America list and I know someone there teaching.

A Eulogy for My 2nd-most Reliable Travel Companion

As border security in London dismantled my bag looking for drugs, they found another fun piece of contraband: my prized, five-inch hunting knife. I like to think that no one on the Eurostar train 9040 was going to f*ck with me. That was its last gift.

“You’re lucky they didn’t catch you with that out there,” a border agent points towards the rest of the station, “they would’ve arrested you. Knives are a little bit different here in the U.K.

I momentarily got that heady rush of American bad-assness.

Ohne Bananensaft: A Few Notes on the German Beer Myth

So, ran a piece of mine covering German beer mixes. Despite the sardonic tone of the article, it springs from an earnest desire to try, what I feel, is the true, modern drinking culture of Germany.

But, oh god, does it look delicious. (Jamie Peacock/September 2012)

The Germans don’t make “good” beer. They make time-tested styles of beer, and their populace has long come to depend on a level of beer quality and service most cultures care not to maintain. Seriously, even the dive-iest sh**hole in the former East knows how to pour one with a perfect head. (The asian restaurant down the street…well, that’s a whole other story).

But any American who dabbles in craft beer connoisseurship will be utterly “whelmed.” Dare I say, “underwhelmed.”