This morning I woke up bright and early for an eight am orientation meeting. While last night got me off to a rough start, the meeting this morning turned everything around! We left orientation with a Croissant de Jamon in hand, equipped with a schedule and the promise of a few hours of free time to enjoy the sun on our pale city-dweller skin. The first item on the itinerary was a tour of the Museo De Archeologico. The museum was small but it was led by a very friendly and informative curator. We learned all about the early civilizations of the region. The people used a lot of root plants in their cooking that are actually very poisonous. I find it interesting that the people figured out ways to leach the poisons out, methods such as mashing the roots and straining out the acidic juices before leaving the pulp out to dry and ferment for bread. The acidic juices were not wasted either, they were used on arrow tips as well as in fishing to hinder fish for catching. We learned many different stories but I found the stories about their deities to be most interesting. It was told that in order to become closer to the gods, the people would grind up the seed shells of a plant similar to tobacco. They would then inhale the powder and hallucinate. The curator told us that the people would have to fast anywhere from two to seven days beforehand because the powder would make them so ill that they would vomit profusely. I find it quite obvious that this is clearly a sign that the powder is not good for you but apparently the ancient people believed that the longer you fasted the stronger the hallucinations were. This part does make sense to me I suppose.
Finally the time came for some respite and a little relaxation in the sun. The pool here at Altos De Chavon is made of coral and overlooks the river. My group and I laid out in the sun for an hour and then ventured to a restaurant to have “the student special”, which is always rice and beans with a daily selection of meat for two hundred pesos, or about five dollars. Today it was pork ribs! They came in a tangy, sweet barbeque sauce. What a treat for me.
All I knew about the afternoon was that we were supposed to meet for a shuttle bus at 1:30 to take us for a tour of Bayahibe, one of the 15 national parks. The hike was a two-hour walk and at first I thought it would be pretty boring since most of the land is composed of low-vegetation and dried out plants. However, it turned out to be really interesting! We mostly learned about each of the different plants and what their holistic medical purpose is. The guide pointed out aloe plants for burns and ferns that can be used to cure headaches. He told us stories about the leaves of a certain tree and how if they fall on the ground face down, they can be brewed to make a tea to raise blood pressure, or if they fall facedown they can lower blood pressure. The tour guide was a lively immigrant man named Richard from Holland who enthusiastically explained to us that he moved here fourteen years ago because he got sick of the rules and regulations of his county. He now makes and lives off of much less money but has an infinitely richer life full of adventure. Richard specifically seems to love photography of wildlife, and diving. Scuba diving yes, but also cave-diving. This leads me to talk about the incredible experience that I had today. This afternoon I climbed down into the abyss of a cavern and went swimming in the crystal clear waters of an underground cave; in nothing but my skivvys!
We made our way down into the dismally dark cave, feeling our way along the slimy carved out stairs. It turned out that there were already two divers swimming around at the bottom so their light gave us a clear view of the turquoise water. None of us had swim-suits and hadn’t anticipated the opportunity to go swimming so we were surprised when Richard mentioned that we should all jump in. Everyone was hesitant. It would be a very uncomfortable ride home in our wet clothes and it was dark in there! Do not despair, of course we live in the year 2014 so naturally there was that one person who screamed YOLO!!! (look it up) and jumped right in. A few other girls stripped off their outer layers into boy shorts and sports bras and joined in. Eventually all that was left were the few of us who had unfortunately worn extremely inappropriate underwear and didn’t feel comfortable baring all to a group of almost-strangers.
And then it happened. We decided we didn’t care. It was hot. It was humid. We’re in the Dominican Republic standing amongst stalactites in a deep underground stone crypt. Everyone is enjoying themselves. I refuse to let this moment pass me by. Soon all of us were basically bare-bottomed and joyously swimming around in the refreshing waters of the spring. It must have been quite a surprise when the two divers came up from down below and saw the view at the top.
On our way home we stopped at a local grocery store called Jumbo to buy extra food supplies for the next nine days. It would get very expensive dining out every day so I stocked up on fruit, peas and tuna, yogurt, cereals and nuts. Unfortunately I went a little bit overboard as I always do in grocery stores and ended up spending about 3,000 pesos once I encountered certain items such as fresh coconut water and frozen sliced kiwis. When we got back into the car we were bombarded by a hoard of pre-teen boys, asking for money or a bite to eat. I hadn’t anticipated the ambush and was unprepared for what to do. I felt like an ugly American as I piled into the car with the others, unsure of how to react. One of the girls in my group gave her box of mixed nuts to one of the little boys and they all walked off together with the container. As we pulled out he stood on the street corner, I made eye contact with him, he winked and blew me a kiss. That boy is gonna be trouble.
I finished off the evening with a glass of wine with a few of my group members at a nearby restaurant. I attempted to order the pineapple chicken wings but of course I somehow made a mistake and was eventually presented with an elaborate, gigantic entrée composed of grilled chicken and pineapples; a dish that doubled what my appetite called for and tripled what my wallet could bear. I take it as a lesson and blame my faulty language skills. I am posting this now from the courtyard of our campus, the one place with WiFi access. I’m sitting on the rough limestone with a chilly breeze that brings with it the sounds of bachata from a bar close-by. It is time for bed because we will arise at six am to take five hour bus ride, to where I am not sure, but I do know that it will be another adventure.