By Madelaine Dickie
We’ve just finished shopping at the local fruteria. I’m nursing a couple of plastic bags bulging and tearing with pineapples and paw paws, and Tom’s trying, at first unsuccessfully, to kick our rented motorbike to life. The bike has a sinister and contrary attitude. It flatly refuses to start on the mornings the surf’s pumping, but when the wind is funky and the sea’s flat, it roars to life first go. After a few more hearty kicks and curses, Tom the bike gets going, and just as we’re about to swing from the curb, a young muscled Dominican guy, flanked by a couple of mates, sidles past and says to Tom, ‘Ola, hombre pasola.’ The guy’s friends snigger. Hello, scooter man.
I think one of the main reasons for the guys’ derision, is that it’s a lot harder to do a wheelie on a scooter than on a motorbike. In Rio San Juan, you’re not really a man unless, on a Friday night, you can pop wheelies past Laguna Gri Gri, the harbour; past Café de Paris, the expensive French bar that’s the place to be seen; past the gorgeous street murals of hummingbirds and fish; and then, most importantly, past the chicas at the town square. On the weekends you even see little kids doing wheelies on their bicycles. They pedal madly with their front tyres in the air, on a road that sometimes disappears under waves.
The Dominican has almost the highest fatality rate for traffic accidents in the world, and most of these are motorbike stacks. Toward the end of our two months, we are on the way to Playa Grande, when a car hurtling toward us, is overtaken by a Greyhound-sized bus. We have a metre of road. The bus is flying at 80km/hr. A fraction further over and we'd be clipped. And in the end we do crash, badly, but not with a car or another motorbike.
There’s a big northeast swell running and all night we hear it throwing over the outer reefs. In the morning, Tom kicks the bike to life in the rain and we set off slow. It’s cold. I’m in boots and a coat with bare legs; Tom’s in thongs and boardies and a jumper. On the ride, water streams from the limestone cliffs, slicks the road. The silhouettes of the palms harden with first light and they’re thrashing. It’s not a good sign. We pull on to the steep road down to Playa Grande, where the guys at the local surf school allow us to stash our boards. On the last corner, on a 60-degree decline, Tom hits the front brakes, ever so lightly. The front wheel of the bike locks. We fall to the right. And for a few metres, we slide down the hill, with the motorbike on top of us. The damage at first seems minor. We grab our boards, bleeding, and when the motorbike refuses to start, we find a dis-used road through the jungle and make our way on foot to the lookout, so we can check the reefs that might be holding this monstrous swell.
The ocean looks like a winter east coast southerly has chewed it to pieces. The waves break well beyond the shipwreck. The light is eerie. And so we ride back home to the tweezers and obat cina, the bandages and dry antiseptic powder, probably still in shock, not realising how bad the damage. I'm out of the water for two weeks, with various deep cuts, and Tom's out of the water for a month with a torn ligament. Lucky the Dominicans know how to party …
On one night, a couple of friends who work at Playa Grande pile into our tiny bedsit with chicas y ron. Chicks and rum and a sound system, of course, to pump out bachata and merengue. While Tom nurses his foot and a rum, I get a merengue lesson, to shouts of, "More bum less feet! More bum less feet!" We spend several afternoons in the shade at our friend Lenny’s house, talking in Spanish and English with Lenny’s friends. One of them is a former chef and he cooks us Dominican pork in a white French sauce. Then there’s the terror of Dominican motorbikes again, climbing on with our friends to go and check out the campo, the countryside, while our friends steer and drink from long necks of beer. I think the Dominican is one of the only places in the world where you can get drive through cocktails!
A few weeks later we’re in Panama. We’re in an air-conditioned minivan owned by Israelis. The country is drought stricken; there are fields of dead corn. We’re driving away from a wind blasted beach of marginal surf and maximum crowds. A girl in the minivan snidely tells Tom to keep his voice down. And at this moment, I wish I was back on our contrary pasola in the Dominican, speeding toward a long session in the surf alone, followed by a long night of dancing merengue and drinking rum with our new Dominican friends. Instead, it’s onward, and Costa Rica is up next.