Motoring merengue road
My calves burn against the thin plastic separating the scooter's engine from my skin. The midday Dominican sun blazes down on me even hotter. But it would take more than heat to keep me from rigidly gripping the motorcycle between my legs as I manoeuvre the pothole-pocked road toward Playa Rincon, rumoured to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. Fresh sweat forms on my palms as locals speed by at 80kph. Even teenagers piled four to a bike glide past. The men flash jack-o-lantern grins as they graze ostentatiously close-by. Children express a different kind of intrigue as they bounce on the back of their scooters, never breaking eye contact with me: sometimes, they spit.
Road conditions are notoriously treacherous in the Dominican Republic, especially here in the mountainous Samaná Peninsula, a verdant crab claw extending from the nation's northeastern coast. "The streets are filled with amputees who used to be moto drivers," read a message board post I'd seen before leaving New York. "Riding one driven by a 'professional' moto driver is extremely dangerous, however renting one may border on insanity," warned another. The few buses and cars that operate outside cities drive excruciatingly slow to avoid kidney-jarring potholes. Daily afternoon storms erode the dents into craters and, even if there were lanes, drivers would ignore them in order to careen around the potholes. No one wears helmets.
But the abysmal mountain roads also have an advantage: they thwart tourist traffic. To many visitors, the Dominican Republic is its beaches - hard bodies dominate Punta Cana during Spring Break while the starched and moneyed hole up near La Romana. On this warm winter day, a travelling companion and I set out with a rented cherry red 50cc Yamaha to circle the peninsula's 241 rugged kilometres, ending in the region's largest city, Samaná.
Because we weren't guarded by windows or doors we could hear the merengue drifting out of houses, smell the fried fish, let the midday tropical rain showers douse our sunburns, and pull over anywhere we might discover on the side of the road. In the Dominican Republic most daily activities, from eating to socialising, occur outdoors and this is where life really happens. Eventually, dodging potholes becomes as methodical as a video game. Animals prove more unpredictable obstacles. Wild horses, pigs, and chickens wander out from between pastel shacks toward the road. They mostly watch from the ditch, but every once in a while a sickly dog saunters into traffic and just stands there, teats hanging, tongue dangling out like a plátano peel.
The turn for Playa Rincon, or Corner Beach, leads downhill through a forest of coconut palms and almond trees. The pavement loosens into shards of rock and we struggle to keep control as the scooter pulls in every direction. (I later learnt that most visitors arrive by boat or 4x4 pickup.) In the distance a flash of blue cuts through the trees like a blade. Over the next half-mile, the woods thin and the rocks crumble into dusty white sand. When the road ends, a horseshoe-shaped bay of cool turquoise water spans some three miles before me. It is entirely deserted. From the cliffs on the west end to a flat sandy shore at the other tip, not a single vendor or sunbather interrupts my line of vision and I take off sprinting down the beach.
There's a fish shack a mile or so down the shore. A woman inside slices an onion in the palm of her hand. A young couple at a picnic table orders the fish of the day from a waiter. He walks down to the water and tosses in his line. In 10 minutes, he returns with an iridescent fish and throws it straight on the grill. When he carries it over to them, flies begin swarming overhead. By the time he sets it on the table, they're swatting away a winged horde.
I choose the plato vegetariano. Though it arrives fly-free, the plate filled entirely with sliced tomatoes leaves something to be desired. I focus instead on the Presidente and a side of habichuelas. Cuban cuisine often overshadows Dominican - arguably for good reason - but on the peninsula, tuna, parrot fish, and if you're lucky, dorados, are often served within hours of their catch. Down by the water a litter of six rosy-skinned piglets chase after a coconut, tapping it with their snouts and tripping over each other as it rolls in the sand. I take a photo and notice a group of white people in the background. As I zoom in I realise they're setting up lights and microphones.
After lunch we go over to ask what they're doing. They're filming a reality show, they say, a version of Survivor. Rincon, I guess, may not stay a quaint corner much longer. The 45-minute drive from the beach to Las Galeras, a fishing town on the eastern edge of the peninsula, is mostly unmarked by human development, except for a few Haitians farming coffee fields and, of course, roadside lotto stands. (The joke goes that Dominicans treat the national lottery as wilful taxation. "Sometimes you have to buy luck," said one taxi driver who'd pulled over for los numéros, his passengers waiting in the back seat.)
Over the past 25 years the dirt path that once led fishermen to the Las Galeras waterfront has shaped up to asphalt Calle Principal, where open-air cafes now serve pastry breakfasts to French tourists. A new international airport on the peninsula has also increased some European tourism in the area (it does not currently serve any American airlines). Still, there are no resorts in town and the activities - diving along the rocky coastline, trekking to El Limòn waterfall, four-wheeling, or whale watching in the winter, when thousands of Humpback whales migrate to the Samaná Bay - will appeal mostly to active travellers.
Over some fresh pineapple juice at a bar called Coconut Roy's Paradise, I observe an odd mix of second-marriage honeymooners and backpacking post-grads. A dreadlocked waitress from New Zealand tells me she came to Las Galeras as a biology student and never left. We, however, have to leave because we're almost out of cash and there isn't an ATM in town. We consider visiting nearby Las Terrenas. The map shows a direct route into Sanchez on Highway 5, but then the road splinters into a tangle of dubious squiggles, so we settle instead on a long coastal drive to our final destination, Samaná city.
Heading out of town, past the Club Gallistico - a cockfighting ring - we fuel up at one of the thatched-roof "gas stations" on the side of the road. The black-skinned attendant's face is so rough it looks like he scrubs it with steel wool. I ask him in Spanish to fill up the tank. He reaches for a large beer bottle filled with the typical mixture of petrol and oil and responds in seemingly native English, "That'll be 125 pesos." I must've given a puzzled look because he winks, "You drive safe now muchacha."
He was the only English-speaking Dominican that I encountered on the peninsula. When I returned home I read that hundreds of freed African-American slaves settled in Samaná in the early 19th century. Was the gas attendant one of their descendants? I don't know. But this community of black Dominicans with an American background can be found on Sundays at the red tin-roofed church near Samaná's waterfront. It was originally shipped over in parts from English Methodists, but today "la Churcha", as it's popularly known, hosts English-language evangelical services.
We merge onto Highway 5, which loops around the far eastern tip of the peninsula, passing a Texaco where unbuttoned workers dance to merengue in the garage. The first all-inclusive resort on the peninsula, a pink Gran Bahia Principe, is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the water. Drivers pass each other fearlessly along the brink of the coast. I have to speed up just to avoid being clipped from behind. And as the scooter responds to my every move and impulse I almost begin to identify my own body with its power. The speed liberates me from my job, responsibilities, and hierarchy all together. I hurtle past each new boundary until the exhilaration escalates into what feels like concentrated life.
It must be close now, I think. We lean into a curve bending around a vertical cliff. The other side reveals, like a parting curtain, the immense blue bay. Highway 5 becomes Avenida La Marina, leading through waterfront shops and houses built into the foothills. It's a fraction of Santo Domingo's size, but after Las Galeras, it feels like a metropolis. The fish shacks turn into nail salons, the cliffs billboards, the chickens rubbish heaps.
The sun is quickly sinking overhead. The potholes are becoming invisible. It's almost too dark to drive so we pull over to watch the sunset. And it turns out that on this little patch of pavement, held somewhere in the boundless space between the sun - now at half-mast - and the black waves lashing the shore, we seem to have discovered the most perfect view in the world.