The other day the kids and I had quite the adventure. Now, you know it’s an adventure when you have some of the following: galloping horse rides through the jungle; cascading rapids; terrifying, brakeless rolls backwards; a vomit-spewing child; and a complete misunderstanding.
Our first day back at taekwondo practice, Max’s master, Jose, a wonderful teacher (stern and patient) told me all about his ancestral homeland in the central mountain range. We talked for a while about how they camp out there sometimes, enjoying the fresh mountain air, building bonfires and communing with nature. At the end of class, he asked what we were doing the next day. “Um, no absolute plans,” I replied, faithful to my homeschool credo that life is a fieldtrip.
“I’ll call you if we decide to head to the country,” he said, “so you all can come along and check it out.”
“Sounds great!” I answered, not entirely sure what I’d signed up for, but curious nonetheless. Later that evening, I stopped by a friend’s house to see how she was doing and say prayers for her recovery from a fall. While there, I found out why Max’s teacher had suggested an outing on a random Thursday: It was Corpus Christi day. I found it amusing that in asking what the day was for, no one in the crowd could tell me much except that it was a day off, thanks to the nation’s deep ties with the Catholic church. Good enough for me! I love any place where there are so many national holidays that people aren’t even sure what they’re all for.
So, the next morning, we got the call: “We’ll be there at one.” Rebecca helped get some snacks together (she had a previous engagement) and I got us ready for a day in the country (long pants, shoes, a good dousing of bug spray, etc.). At one on the dot, el profe was here, ready to whisk us away in his trusty jalopy. Now, this isn’t just any jalopy, it is the very definition thereof. I was slightly surprised that he would take it out of town, but hey, it’s more fun to just roll with things (more on that later).
We saddled up and headed off through town, across the bridge that spans the Rio Yaque del Norte, and into the great beyond. The highway was surprisingly smooth on the way out, as we stopped to get some pineapple and waters, and even up into the foothills as we made our obligatory halts to let the engine cool off. As we got into some steeper areas, I noticed that he had to put the car into 1st gear, and even then it chugged its way uphill. “Huh, I wonder if it’s possible for the car to just not be able to go uphill anymore,” I thought to myself.
I was distracted, however, once we got into a little rougher, windier territory, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a spray of liquid shoot onto the profe’s arm from the direction of the little girl in the front seat (with mama). It was pretty clear, so I decided I’d hope she’d just choked on a bit of water, when suddenly the rest spewed out, all over his arm, herself, and the car stereo. Eeewwww…I guess she didn’t take any Dramamine.
Luckily I’d bought a bunch of bottled water, so they washed her up, and it was at this point that I first noticed that the little girls we were riding with both had swimsuits on. There was a snippet of conversation up front that I caught saying something about a river being far away, and I began to wonder.
So, we bumped and swerved our way past San Jose de las Matas (St. Joseph of the Bushes I believe, or Trees maybe?) and into the stunning central mountain range, home to peaks such as Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. We began to see more pines than palms and the air took on the familiar scent I associate with ponderosas on a really hot summer day. It was a welcome change from the dirty city air and I gulped it in eagerly as we slowly made our way in the beat up station wagon down a road only fit for SUVs.
We finally crossed a small bridge and pulled off the road, apparently at our destination: the river. I wasn’t totally shocked by this point, but I was feeling pretty dumb for not figuring things out sooner or asking my host what exactly we’d be doing in the country (picnic under the trees?). I’d read that Dominicans love going to the river even more than going to the beach, perhaps because it’s so much cooler under the arching canopy. So, I was excited to be doing something very “Dominican”, but couldn’t put out of my mind the advice of a doctor-friend, who’d lived in Puerto Rico, when I’d made my first trip to the Caribbean 10 years ago: “Whatever you do, don’t swim in freshwater.”
I awkwardly explained that I hadn’t actually realized we were going to the river, and with characteristic generosity he insisted that I use his sandals, then stripped to his boxers and offered me his swim trunks as well. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just go in my chonies too,” I said, and seeing that I wasn’t with a modest crowd, disrobed. The kids did the same, and before they could jump into the nice cool water, I pulled them aside. I racked my brain for useful facts, like “I’m pretty sure that little parasite that swims up the urethra is in South America, and this is technically North America.” Then I looked around for a moment, thinking to myself that if all these people were still alive after years of river-swimming, it must be fine. “Just don’t put your heads underwater, okay guys?” They nodded, and splashed off behind their new pals.
We had a good ‘ol time playing in the sand, throwing rocks, and moving mini-boulders to create a pool and waterfall. Other than the occasional ferocious, biting insect, the spot was idyllic, a small river coursing down the mountainside, sweet-smelling air, and wonderful, wet cool.
After a few hours, as the sun began to sink behind the surrounding hills, we started to get ready to leave. El profe’s cousin came down the path from their little camping hut, navigating his way on horseback between coffee and cacao trees. “Who wants to ride the horse?!” he called out, and Max about peed his Batman undies.
Max has been horse-crazy for years now. In fact, I think if he could transmogrify himself it’d be into a Centaur with Harry Potter’s head. He trotted around a bit, as did Zora, and ultimately got to ride the steed up the hill and out to the road. Jose’s family was just as sweet and welcoming as he is, and we were told to come back anytime for a nice swim and a big bonfire.
We said our goodbyes, and then the day got interesting. It was decided that because of clearance issues, his wife and I should walk up past some of the rougher terrain to make it easier on the car. We got back in and headed up the hill, when suddenly the little engine decided it just couldn’t. Tension mounted, as he was clearly embarrassed. “Do you know how to drive a manual?” he asked me.
“Of course,” I answered, “but I think I should push since you know your car’s idiosyncrasies.”
Not one to have a guest push his car, he insisted I take the wheel. I assented, and climbed in, only to find a surprise. I pushed down on the BRAKE so that I could then safely push in the clutch, when the car started to roll backwards, downhill, fast. I pumped the brake, searched for an emergency brake in vain, then gave the brake everything I had. It stopped! I looked back toward Jose, who had just managed to jump out of the way, and noticed the expensive SUV behind us and the small drop off into the river, realizing just how close I’d taken both of our families to complete disaster.
“You drive, Jose,” I repeated, “you know your car better.”
He admitted it was a better idea, and with a good push and some kind of unbelievable prayers, the car began to sputter up the grade. His wife and I caught a ride with the nice SUV folks behind us and we met him at the top.