Previously in “Caution! Lazy Stereotyping Ahead”: we arrived from England; we braved “El Tren”; we found evidence of dwarvicide by the main pool; we happened across a frankly disturbing French Canadian Music Quiz. Now read on…
Tuesday 3rd May 2011
Among the sage nuggets of advice dispensed by our rep on the resort-bound coach — including the usual cautions against overdoing the sun and drinking the tap water, plus the rather less common warning that the local 151 rum is so volatile that it has now been banned from being carried on homebound flights — the suggestion that we should stay up as long as possible on the first night to help adjust to the five hour time difference is one that we always follow to the letter. On this occasion it means sitting through the incomprehensible French Canadian Music Quiz, hosted by the bastard love-child of George Melly — “Big applause!” Nevertheless we manage to stick it out until around eleven o’clock before stumbling off to bed. Despite the late hour of surrender, it’s barely five o’clock the next morning when we resurface, ready to renew acquaintance with the Grand Paradise Hotel, Bavaro and all its wonders. Early it may be, but a passing stentorian rumble and the strains of amplified Merengue music tell us El Tren is already up and about, risking ancient life and iron limb to ferry other earlybirds hither and thither. We will join them soon, but first there are some pre-breakfast niceties to which we must attend.
Some holiday rituals are sacrosanct: I, for example, always apply one of those all-day, once-only sun tan lotions before going to breakfast. This is not because I harbour hopes of a deep, lasting tan — to be strictly honest, vampires tan better than I do. My skin type is such that I redden in a highly encouraging way, only to turn deathly white again within days.
Some years ago, on my first ever holiday abroad, I was photographed by my mates surrounded on the beach by a bevy of buxom bronzed beauties from Kent. When these snaps were developed you could see the girls, but I was just a long, thin streak of white solar radiation emanating from their midst. It was a shame because, otherwise, they would have been highly impressive photos to show my jealous chums back home. These days, fatter, older and marginally wiser, I prefer to spend most of my holiday in the shade, creeping out every now and again to take a dip in the pool, before scuttling back under the umbrella. An all-day lotion means I don’t have to fuss with all that applying and re-applying of the gloop — at least until the expensive stuff runs out towards the end.
Thus motivated, I sit on the bed, patiently rubbing the transparent lotion over all my important little places, taking my time to make sure I get it right. It’s the transparency that’s the problem: it’s very hard to know if you have missed an important little place, at least until later, when it turns into an island of raw scarlet among the lilywhite expanse. Having learnt this lesson the hard way, I now follow a scrupulous regimen which involves doubling up on applications, ensuring no inch of exposed skin is unprotected.
At length, I am ready for another day of sun-avoidance. My wife, on the other hand, is deliberating whether to heed the rep’s advice and start out on a high factor cream, or whether just to rub on copious amounts of olive oil and simply sizzle in the searing sunshine. I know it is only a matter of a few hours before I will be asked the plaintive, and oft-repeated question: “Am I brown yet?”
Across from our block is a little thatched shelter where we now head to await El Tren on one of its cometary passes. Every ten minutes or so the tubercular chug of its diesel engine and the beat of Merengue can be heard about half a minute before the contraption itself hoves into view, defying age and most of the laws of Mechanics. In the shelter is a long list of the things you may not do on El Tren: sit more than three abreast; stand while the vehicle is in motion; alight or board before the vehicle has stopped; board from the left-hand side; load it with your luggage; tease the French Canadians; indulge in cunnilingus; refuse to sing along to the Merengue music. We board, obediently, from the right-hand side after El Tren has stopped and sit dutifully, two abreast, with no hint of a suitcase, although we do have a sneaky beach bag. We are the only people onboard. The cheery driver turns up the Merengue music and crunches into first gear. We’re off!
The first port of call is the turnaround point, the apogee of El Tren’s stately orbit of the complex. Then we retrace the route to perigee, back past our bus shelter, taking in the football pitch, the Casino (odds overwhelmingly in favour of the house: if you value your financial security, AVOID!), the Duty Free shop, the Boat Bar, the tennis courts, another sheltered stop, a hundred yards or so of less-than-fragrant mangrove swamp, the Ecological Spa, a rather splendid peacock and, finally, the main hotel where most of the restaurants are to be found, and where, as we saw in Part One, crimes against dwarfkind have been legion in the recent past, if the little black body outlines scattered around its paths are any indication.
We wait for El Tren to come to a complete halt, and wish the driver “¡Buenos dias!” as we disembark. Some years ago, when we first came to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, our attempts to greet the locals were usually the cause of much gentle amusement. It took us a while to realise that, in these parts, the slightly effete sibilants of mainland Spain are widely avoided. Bonath diath, as we were lisping it, presumably made us sound poncy. (In the Dominican Republic they drop the s completely: bon-a-dee-a.) The driver waves us farewell and offers no criticism of our pronounciation, so we head for breakfast to be greeted like long lost relatives by the waiters and waitresses in the buffet restaurant.
Breakfast is a big deal on our holidays. During the working week my wife and I rarely breakfast together, so we look forward to a somewhat larger meal than we would normally contemplate and the opportunity to assess a plan of attack for the day ahead over a leisurely coffee.
The first question that presents itself is the standard one for foreign buffet breakfasts: is there any bacon? If so, is it proper bacon, or is it that stuff that once used to be bacon but is now crispy black grit, as enjoyed, for no discernable reason, by the Americans? I head off to get some fruit juice and bread for us both, and I take the opportunity to scout out the lie of the land, bacon-wise. It turns out that there is no bacon at all, carbonised or otherwise. There is, however, a variety of sausages, including some pretty deadly-looking virulent-red chorizo. There is also grilled ham, hash browns, rosti potatoes, scrambled eggs and an Omelette Station where one can also request fried eggs, sunny-side or over-easy. All of this complements an amazing array of continental breakfast breads, meats and cheeses, not to mention trays laden with fruit, cereals and yoghurts. Oh yes, and there are crepes, pancakes and lashings of maple syrup for those whose day is incomplete without an early sugar rush. One thing is for certain: we will not starve in this place.
Returning to our table with this news, I find my wife in conversation with the waitress, Gertrude, who considers it her bounden duty to keep our coffee cups full to the brim at all costs. The staff here are paid very little, and you could totally understand it if they felt compelled to over-do it with the service in exchange for tips. This may very well be their motivation, but, if so, I have to report that their attention never seems forced or simply self-serving. They appear genuinely enthusiastic, eager to do well and, frankly, could teach many of their British equivalents a great deal about good customer service. This is not unique to the Dominican Republic. Some years ago, in Egypt, we stayed at a small hotel in Taba. Every day the two pool guys would laugh and joke with us, fetch us drinks from the bar (although that was clearly not in their job description) and, as the days went on, we would even arrive at the pool to find they had already laid out sunbeds for us, complete with towels and umbrellas. At the end of the first week I sought them out and attempted to give them a tip. They refused point blank to accept it; indeed they looked mortally offended, as if I had just insulted every last one of their ancestors. I tried again before we went, and met with the exact same response. When we came to leave, the pool guys were at the front of a bunch of hotel staff waving us off. It was genuinely heart-warming. How many British hotels manage to impart that sort of feeling? In my experience, all their good service is usually just a promise on their posters.
We enjoy our leisurely breakfast and decide to spend the first day at the main pool by the beach. As we exit the restaurant, my wife turns to me and asks: “Am I brown yet?”
It’s going to be a long three weeks.
To be continued…