Knights Impact exploratory trip day 5: Cultural excursion—5 January 2017

I spent the morning today in Amber Cove working on the program documentation and inflicting my Spanish on innocent Dominicans who deserve better. One drawback of this type of travel is that it isn’t an immersive language experience unless you go out of your way to make it more immersive. But I figured out that if I told the Dominican employees at Amber Cove (and elsewhere) that I was practicing my Spanish, they would help me by speaking Spanish to me, slowing down, and also seeing when I didn’t understand and going back to English. As always, people are grateful when we make even a small effort to speak their language. Today I learned how to say “I am learning” (Estoy aprendida) and I learned what rum that isn’t white is called: dorado (golden). I figured café (brown) couldn’t possibly be right! I also learned the word for “ice cubes” but I have forgotten it. Luckily I rarely use ice cubes, so no great loss. Most of all I am proud of myself for successfully asking “Do you have an espresso machine?” which is an important inquiry to be able to make. Tienes una maquina de espresso? (Note to self: learn how to type the upside-down question mark before a sentence and learn what it is called.)

My afternoon today was the “Caribbean Culture” excursion, a visit to a few important sites in Puerto Plata with a guide who taught us some basic cultural and historical information along the way. We began in the town square, which features some Victorian architecture, a cathedral, and statues of two heroes from Dominican history, Juan Pablo Duarte and General Gregorio Luperon. Facing the square is the bright-yellow Neoclassical-style town hall featuring the arms of the city. On the coat of arms appear an F and a Y for Ferdinand and Isabella, a reference to this island’s history as a Spanish colony.

The gazebo in the town square

The gazebo in the town square

The city hall

The city hall

The square from across the street

The square from across the street

The cathedral, San Felipe, is of course vastly different from the elaborate stone edifices seen in Europe but it fits the architecture of the square and the reality of the climate. Our guide mentioned that the cathedral was restored and improved most recently in 2010, including the addition of air conditioning for Sundays when everyone comes to Mass. Today, a Thursday, the A/C was off and the windows and doors were wide open. I did not get to follow my usual practice of lighting a candle at the Sacred Heart shrine (I am not Catholic but I have cultivated a habit of doing this when I visit cathedrals) because this cathedral did not have candles available in exchange for donations. BYOC: Bring Your Own Candle. I will know for next time and proceed accordingly.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

Sacred Heart altar

Sacred Heart altar

Leaving the square we crossed the street to a vendor’s cart; he had fresh coconuts, a machete, and straws and we all got to have fresh coconut water. That was a minor revelation to me: I have had packaged coconut water a few times and don’t care for it because it always tastes, well, packaged. This coconut water had a very mild taste that combined sweetness and a sort of vegetable freshness. I enjoyed it and am convinced that it helped keep me from getting dehydrated during the tour.

Intimidatingly large!

Intimidatingly large!

Cutting open fresh coconuts

Cutting open fresh coconuts

Next step: souvenirs! We visited a large souvenir shop that was about 1/3 jewelry made from amber and larimar. The DR produces a lot of amber and they are very proud of their amber production. We learned that real amber will float in saltwater whereas fake amber will sink. Good to know, right? Larimar is a blue stone that is apparently found only in the DR. I had never heard of it but had noticed it even in the gift shops here on the ship. It is pale blue to deep aqua blue veined with white and the story goes that the person who discovered it named it for his daughter’s name plus “mar” for the sea. To me it really does look like some of the colors I saw in the water as the ship was sailing along.

With souvenirs in hand we went on to Fort San Felipe. The fort is on the coast and was built in the 16th century to protect the entrance to the city and its sugar refineries. It was also used in the 19th century as a jail and Juan Pablo Duarte was imprisoned there at one time. I was struck by how broadly similar the construction was to that of William the Conqueror’s castle in Normandy and Cahir Castle in Ireland, though those structures are not really close chronologically. Maybe there are only so many ways to build a fort if you’re a European? One room inside the fort held a series of placards announcing “firsts” in the Americas that belong to the Dominican Republic: first cities to be awarded a coat of arms, first book written in Castilian, first university. One could argue that those firsts are problematic as they all belong to the country’s Spanish colonial background, but it’s clear that the country is proud of them.

Fort San Felipe

Fort San Felipe

Atop the fort looking toward the ocean

Atop the fort looking toward the ocean

Atop the fort looking back toward the hills

Atop the fort looking back toward the hills

The final stop was a fascinating place called Mares that houses a restaurant, art gallery, gift shop, and a small botanical garden growing beautiful orchids. After a few days’ exposure to more disadvantaged areas it was interesting to see that there is more economic diversity in Puerto Plata than I realized—the area around Mares is more residential and established, with paved streets and larger houses. And after a warm day and a fair amount of walking and looking, it was nice to spend some time in this unexpected oasis. We had fresh fruit and chips with fresh salsa between photographing the orchids and chatting with the artist whose work was on display. It was a pleasant way to end the day.

Inside the botanical garden

Inside the botanical garden

Our route back to Amber Cove took us along a 7-kilometer stretch of beach and past a statue of Neptune that stands on a small island offshore. It also took us through a gas station and past a tire shop because our bus had a tire that was leaking air. Not to worry, though: we got back with no problem in time to have dinner and talk about our adventures. Tomorrow the ship sails at noon and I can’t believe this adventure is nearly over.

One final note: today I tore one of my contact lenses as I was cleaning them! In thirty years wearing lenses this is only the second time I’ve torn a lens. Because I never tear lenses and I was only going to be gone a week, I did not bring an extra pair. To my chagrin I am stuck wearing my battered 8-year-old glasses for the rest of the trip. Be prepared, dear readers! Bring the extra lenses!

Don't let this happen to you!

Don’t let this happen to you!

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