Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Very Long Post About My First Adventure

I grew up in a little place called Belfast. Not the big one in Ireland. This was a small community just outside of Goldsboro, North Carolina. We had an elementary school, a volunteer fire department, two store/gas stations and maybe three churches. The two different houses I lived in were on dirt roads that did not have names. Our addresses were Route 7, Box (some three digit number). We never locked our doors and my parents kept their car keys in the ignitions. Dad worked for a tobacco company in town and there were tobacco farms everywhere. Sometime around 5th grade, some larger tobacco company in Virginia paid Dad's tobacco company for his services and those services were for him to go to the Dominican Republic and train people to do something. (I would like to be more specific, but Dad is dead so I can't ask him.) So he would go for several months in the spring and summer. This was different because in his regular job he used to be gone in the winter months (in Kentucky). In April of 1973, he had been gone for a while and the company offered to send us all over there for a visit. Mom had been once and I believe it was the first time she had flown. I had never flown. We all got passports and then there was big deal about me. My birthday was going to happen over there and the flight rates changed for those particular ages, so Mom was freaked about that. Whatever airlines or travel agents or whatever gave me the kid rate as that was my age as of the booking and beginning of travel. (Man that was a stupid sentence!)
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Mom had to do some wheeling and dealing with our schools because we would be gone for almost two weeks and not during a school holiday. Fortunately my brother and I were very good students so it was worked out. I remember my teacher (Oh, Mrs. Howell, how I LOVED you!) said, "The cultural experience will far outweigh those days of basic subjects." Or something like that.

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Mom had just flown the one time I think, and hated it. She was very tense. My brother and I were very excited. I don't remember how we got to the Raliegh/Durham airport, but I remember loving being on the plane to Atlanta. Unfortunately, the "changing of the planes in Atlanta" became a longtime family story. Oh, we didn't miss our plane but one of our suitcases exploded in the terminal. I guess back then you had to cart your luggage from plane to plane. Anyway we were running through a terminal and not with a bang, but a whimper, the suitcase came apart. I remember there was about a 12 foot path of my brother's clothes because we were moving so fast. Mom was mortified! If Mom wasn't already frazzled enough, this was bad. She realized she would have to use a charge card and buy a suitcase in the airport. That was a big deal for her. Oh, if you are young and reading this, they were called "charge cards" back then. We ended up making it to our plane with our new suitcase and boarded a plane to Miami. In Miami we got on a very small plane to go to the Dominican Republic and I'm not even sure if anyone else was on it. My brother and I were running around whooping it up and napping across whole rows of seats while Mom sat in her one seat gripping the armrests. If I had to guess, I believe that was April 19th, because it seems like the very next day was my birthday.

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Dad was very disappointed on my birthday. We were at El Embajador Hotel in Santo Domingo and Dad had planned a big deal with musicians and a bunch of foreign friendly folks to celebrate my birthday by the pool, but it was pouring rain. Of course, I had no idea about any of this, so when my parents called our room to tell us to come to their room, I was surprised to walk into a crowd mashed into their room singing "Happy Birthday" with all sorts of accents. I was ecstatic and as Dad kept apologizing for it not being what he had planned, I kept telling him how great it was.

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The weather cleared on Saturday (the next day) and we did our tour of Santo Domingo. That's me at Alcazar:


Alcazar was the home of Diego, the son of Christopher Columbus and his wife Filipa who was the niece of the king of Spain (Ferdinand). (Was I supposed to capitalize "king"?) This "home" was built in the 1500's and was a museum type place when I visited and it was AWESOME! (Sorry, Jazz, but it really was.) We also visited the oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere (Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor) which is described by Frommer's like this:

The oldest cathedral in the Americas was begun in 1514 and completed in 1540. Fronted with a golden-tinted coral limestone facade, the church combines elements of both Gothic and baroque with some lavish plateresque styles as exemplified by the high altar chiseled out of silver. The treasury has an excellent art collection of ancient woodcarvings, furnishings, funerary monuments, silver, and jewelry.

That's a picture I found on the internet, but it doesn't show the museum quality side rooms or alcoves. I had never been to a Catholic church so I thought they were all like that. You can't begin to imagine my disappointment the first time I went to a Catholic church after that. They also had a fancy golden thing that was supposed to encase part of the remains of Christopher Columbus (although that has been contested). I thought it was all wonderful. I guess we left the next day, Sunday to head to Santiago which is where Dad "lived."

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I fell in love with the Hotel Matum. My brother and I had our own room and were told we could order anything we wanted anywhere as it was being paid for by the company. Dad did warn us not to order eggs for breakfast because they were cooked in peanut oil and we would hate them so of course we did and we learned the hard way that "Father knows best." One of my favorite things was the smell of the place. It smelled so clean. Mom was more of a bleach person so I had never smelled this smell before. Several years later I discovered it was Pine Sol and to this day, it's one of my favorite smells. I Googled "Hotel Matum" and it's still there and this picture was there and no kidding, it looks just like our room!

A lot of fascinating things happened in our week or so at the Hotel Matum. My brother came out to my parents as a cigarette smoker. He was 15, almost 16. We were North Carolinians, Dad was in the tobacco business and it was 1973. What were they going to say? Dad just told him he was glad that he was honest about it. Also he was drinking there. Hell, they tried to serve me drinks! We were taller than everybody. My brother kept ordering Cuba Libres. After I realized they didn't have Pepsi there I tried a Coke and it did not taste right so I drank a local red fruit drink that I remember as being called a "refresca" or something like that. I loved those things.
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One night as I was sleeping, I woke up to what I thought was my brother kicking my bed. I said, "Stop kicking my bed!" He replied, in a shaken voice, "I'm not kicking your bed." He sounded scared, and that totally woke me up. He said, "I think the Cubans are attacking." I thought a volcano was erupting. Yeah, I know now that there are no volcanos there. I was 12! It stopped and we went back to sleep. In the morning we asked our parents about it and it was an earthquake. Mom was the only one that got it right. Dad thought a cab driver had run into the building.
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There were two waiters there that we really liked: Leonardo and Luis. We wanted them to hang out with us and they kept saying they were "on duty" and nervously glancing around. My parents told us later that they were like indentured servants that lived on the premises and worked for food and board and that any extra money was sent to their families. Anyway at the time, we whined and complained that they couldn't hang with us, and suddenly the manager made it their new job to entertain us. Wow, they became so happy and relaxed. Luis was actually a crazy wild contortionist and would go off the high dive all tangled up and almost give me heart attacks. They really loved the freedom to swim in the pool and just hang out. Leonardo gave us little gifts when we left.
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One evening we went to the home of someone Dad was working with or playing poker with, I don't remember. here's what I do remember: To me it was like a MANSION. And they had servants. We went in and sat down in a living room like I had never seen. Now I would say it was like a really fancy hotel lobby. They brought me something in a tiny porcelain little cup (sake?) and I hated it (politely) and then they brought me something else. I don't remember much else about that place except that I wanted to go back to the hotel.
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One day Dad wanted to show us "the real people." Mom was not so much into the real people. We drove around on small roads and saw all sorts of native villager type people. Mom was freaking out but not as much as when we came across a band of musicians. Dad pulled over on the side of the road and Mom was so tense and mad, like "Don't get out of the car!" I remember the music and how fantastic and special it was. But I didn't know what it was. It wasn't until I was in college and was walking across the campus that I heard it again. My ears perked up and I ran over there and it was a steel drum band! I still love the steel drum.
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Dominican Republic has (or had) one day a year that they hate the United States. That is April 28th. I don't know how or why it was arranged for us, but some Dutch people were going into town to see a movie and took my brother and me with them. We were told that it was "Hate America" day and that we should not speak. I remember walking behind them down a sidewalk as they spoke their Dutch garble and my brother and I looking at each other and looking around wondering if we were going to be shot. Worse, the move was Dutch or German with Spanish subtitles and showed an actual live childbirth. I was TWELVE.
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One of the best things about the Dominican Republic? We met the most amazing man, Henrik Ravn. He was Dad's best friend there. I guess he was like a cross between Indiana Jones and Brad Pitt. I'm not a Brad Pitt fan, but I would have found him awesome cute when I was 12. Henrik was Danish and spoke 5 or 6 languages and like 12 African dialects. He danced the merengue with both Mom and me. Years later I asked Mom, "How did you not fall in love with this man?" I've always wondered what happened to him. But at least I have his crazy painting.
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Part of me wants to go back to the Dominican Republic, and the other part says, "Why mess with a great memory?"
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And I guess the really best part of the trip is that it took a little country girl out into the world. My brain was expanded.

10 comments:

Jazz said...

In that case awesome was the perfect word...

I went to the Dominican Republic once in my early 20s. I loved every minute of it. Damn the men were good looking.

Scarlet said...

Yes, why mess with a great memory? Skip the Dom Rep and come to Miami instead. You can have all the mojitos and Cuba Libres and beer (now I'm talking your language!) you want.

I love your brother's line, "I think the Cubans are attacking." LOL

The church in the photo is just beautiful, btw. Thanks for the flashback from your childhood.

Urban Animal said...

Lovely post. That's why I like travelling so much. Because it creates so many nice memories, at least for me.

Carole said...

This may be titled a "long post", but it went much quicker than I wanted. You took me there with you today, and I was 12 too! Clearly, just like Mrs. Howell said, the cultural experience did far outweigh the basic subjects. Thanks for sharing this wonderful adventure!

geewits said...

Jazz,
~~Yes, I had a mad crush on Leonardo!

Scarlet,
~~I'm sure I'll end up in Miami eventually, but I'll pas on the mojitos.

Urban,
~~And the more different the place is than what we're used to, the better, right?

Carole,
~~Thanks. It really was an ideal vacation.

XUP said...

What a great story and memory. It's like a Steinbeck novel - "Grapes of Geewits". It's interesting the things that stick in your mind and the things that you've totally forgotten. It might be fun to go back - especially if the hotel still exists. It won't be the same, but your 12-year-old memories will always be the same and a re-visit will bring back some of those memories and maybe remind you of some you've forgotten. And also, you'll make some new ones.

Big Brother said...

Ah golden memories... don't mess with them. Mrs. BB and I went to the Dominican Republic many years ago and the thing I remember best was how nice and friendly the people were.

geewits said...

Xup,
~~The "Grapes of Geewits?" Hee hee hee. Well both hotels are still there, but now that we have the NC beach hookup, I don't see going anywhere else.

Big Brother,
~~It really was a nice place. Did you see the cathedral?

Jammie J. said...

I actually read this at work and saved it to come back and comment on. Not a terribly interesting comment, mind you, but just wanted you to know that I read it and enjoyed it. Then I sat in wonder at your amazing memory of things that you did when you were a kid.

I mean, I went on a trip to our state capital around the age of 11 or 12 and I don't have the detailed memory of things like you seem to. Is it possible to have memory envy? :)

geewits said...

Jammie,
~~Having a memory like mine also has it's downside in that I also remember all the bad things. I remember being 2 and 3 and on and on and it possibly takes up too much space in my head, which I why I hardly know what day it is.