On the Ground, By the Sea

Rita was thrilled that we sailed through customs, even though I was momentarily taken aback when the man asked me – the first in our line – if I was bringing in medicine. Trying to remember the contents of the two gigantic bags on the metal cart in front of me, I hedged. Not medicine, exactly, but medical supplies.

Raising an eyebrow at my hedge, he still let me enter the country.

Through the glass doors, into the smells of the Caribbean: frying oil, warm earth, rotting fruit, diesel exhaust, cologne, something burning. Felt amazing to finally be here. Smiles all around.

And then the disarray of getting 15 or 20 bags into a minivan and into the homemade trailer attached behind. My father – who lived for five years in Africa – would love the ingenious trailer, expertly crafted of sheet metal and pop-rivets.

We met Paulino and Andres, our drivers and helpers. Both immaculately dressed – as per the custom. Andres exchanged a hug with Chris, who has been here before, and shook the hands of the men, grabbing my forearm with his warm palm.

Justin and other members of our group at the hotel.

And then, as Rita went back into the airport to check on Kathy, who was arriving on another flight, I spoke with Andres. We’re not yet in the rainy season. The sun, which first felt glorious, transitioned to being oppressive within the space of 15 minutes. Andres told me of a Dominican saying, when you’ve been out in the sun too long: “I’m not a cacao bean,” referring to how farmers in the interior spread the harvested cacao out to dry on concrete slabs in the sun.

Everyone into the minivan, which struggled with the eight of us and our luggage (Lourdes could not come on the trip at the last minute, and Justin had already arrived at the hotel, on a separate flight). The usual chaos of a Latin American road: cars passing you on both the left and the right, motorcycles doing the same, crumbling concrete walls painted bright colors, kids running barefoot. A stop to buy potable water – and a reminder from Rita to only drink this water, and to brush our teeth with it as well – and then we arrived at our hotel, run by a French expat, who also welcomed us warmly (we are, without a doubt, going to be welcomed warmly everywhere we go).

Dump the bags. Walk around the town as gringos in our sandals. A quick dip in the Caribbean for Justin and Tom. Dinner as a group at the resort nearby. Hours spent on the dock by the sea as the privileged Norteamericanos, eating all of the Latin American dishes I’ve missed: tostones and mofongo (both made with plantains), and for good measure, a whole grilled red snapper, much like the fish I used to get at the beach in Costa Rica in the mid-80s for a buck and a half. The paella, which I suggested people may want to try, took 45 minutes to prepare (the waiter hadn’t told me that).

No matter. We waited and talked and laughed and took photos and talked some more, about trips we have taken, about children, schools, the way we were raised, the Catholic faith, and the Mennonite faith (that’s me), and then the revelation that is paella, and is mofongo.

The view from my hotel window.

Against all odds, I slept soundly, despite the bright lights and the warmth and the occasional barking dog. Yes, I was exhausted – I hadn’t slept much the previous week – but also, it was such a relief to be here. Sand abrading my tender winter feet, the cuticles of my fingers – desiccated by our woodstove all winter – healing within hours of our arrival.

Como te levantaste? they’ll ask me in fifteen minutes, once I go downstairs. How did you sleep?

Bien. Me levanté bien.