By Madelaine Dickie
The Dominican Republic sure isn't short on a cooked chook. At around 11 o'clock in the morning, at hundreds of little comedors along the north coast, BBQs are flipped open and aromas emerge; charcoal and thyme and lemon. Happily, this usually coincides with the time when Tom and I have finished our second session in the water. Even though we've been away a month now, after living on the waveless edge of the desert for three and a half years, the hunger for waves hasn't softened. We're veering around crazy dogs on the motorbike in the early morning cold, with boards tucked under arms - there are no board racks here. We're paddling out in the dark. If a beginner looks like they're hesitating, then we're burning them. Not a second is lost. For the most part we've been surfing Encuentro, a kilometer and a half strip of about nine different reef breaks. The good news is, when a proper groundswell hits, the waves, especially Destroyers and Coco Pipe, are seriously powerful. The bad news is, Encuentro is by no means a secret spot. There are four or five surf schools spread along the strip. And it’s blown out by eleven. Which isn't really such a big deal, because when the trade winds start to howl, ravenous and rashed up, we're ready to hit some dirty Dominican bird.
I wonder if it’s true that the more you travel, the more you compare places you’re at, with places you’ve been. The Dominican has touches of Indo in the fresh soapy smells from the lavanderias (laundries), and touches of the Philippines in the window trays of over-salted pork and chicken adobo. It’s got Spain in the siestas and the language, though the Spanish here is lispless, and it’s got a dash of America in the roadside hot dogs and tourist shop price tags. But what is it that distinguishes it? Superficially, for me, it’s the loud music on every street corner, the partying and the way people dress. Especially the way the women dress. The women here wear high heels and lots of gold bling, have great hair, show their thighs, let their breasts spill from their tops, and are a stunning and strange mix of Spain and Africa. After travelling so much in Indo, the South Pacific, and working in northern Australia, where work specifically requested that no skirts above the knee were to be worn to the office, it’s a relief and exceptionally liberating to be in a place where women are comfortable in their bodies. In the Dominican, surfing in a bikini is not a problem. My only issue is that I’m not surfing in a G-string bikini!
In Cabarete and Sosua, however, the towns on either side of the surf mecca Encuentro, so much Dominican beauty has become a market in itself. The prostitution is on par with Patong in Thailand; only perhaps there are four women to every bloke. This makes for some pretty racy dress and high heel shopping, though there’s also a seediness—sublime Caribbean coves are packed with pimps and drunks and hustlers and whores. And then at Encuentro, despite a serene walk to the beach under palm trees and through cow paddocks, there’s hustle of a different kind . . . the kind that comes with package-surf infrastructure. Tom and I both wanted hard to like it, but with between fifty and a hundred people in the water every morning, we knew there must be something better. We checked out Puerto Plata, the closest city to the west. It was both picturesque and gritty, tucked at the foot of a mountain range. The street art was unreal, the wave, a heaving peak in front of a fortress, wasn’t working. We knew it wasn’t here, either, that thing we were looking for, that special Dominican magic.
And then at eleven one morning we were tucking in to a cooked chook in the vibrant fishing town of Rio San Juan. In Rio San Juan there’s a deep green natural harbour walled by mangroves and filled with turtles; there are public plazas of mosaic tiles, and street art to rival Puerto Plata’s. I’d just surfed a wedgy reef off the white sand of Playa Grande with only two local guys and Tom had just surfed the powerful Preciosa at four to five foot on his own.
Ravenous and rashed, we knew this was it. We knew we’d found it.