We had rented a van for our travels to and from Santo Domingo, and for some reason it turned out to be cheaper to rent the van for an entire week rather than the few days we initially wanted it for. So we decided to extend our trip an additional three days and add a cross-country drive to the Dominican southwest.
In some ways, the southwest region of the Dominican Republic is not so different than the southwest region of the United States. It’s remote, not as densely populated, and home to many of the country’s most diverse ecosystems. Just as I marveled upon the ability to drive from alpine forest to red-rock desert during my initial arrival to the American southwest, I found myself doing the same in this southwestern region of the island nation (though admittedly, the desert was not red and the forest was more of a jungle).
For one reason or another, the tourist industry has yet to spread to this portion of the island (though it is slowly encroaching), and that makes for a much more authentic experience. The further away we drove from the city the smaller the homes and villages became. They also became more colorful – poorer sure, and yet somewhat richer.
As we drove through a seaside town we were waved down by a family with two young children dressed in school uniforms. Just feet ahead of us stood a smoldering van, its previous occupants hugging belongings and clutching their chests at the side of the road. The group explained that the van was the local bus the children had intended to ride to school, but it had caught fire just as it had pulled off the road. The children were very excited. They were laughing because they thought it was funny the way everyone had poured out of the crowded van. “They are cowards,” the little girl grinned as her ponytail swung back and forth with her giggles. No one was hurt, thankfully, and this young pair had a test take at school. Their family waved as we drove away, two blue and khaki-clad kids now added to our load.
What a place this is, I thought to myself, where parents can toss their children into the car of a total stranger with so much trust, even joy. I thought about the recent tragedies back home in the States, about how most American children lived with so much more than the ones sitting in front of me now, and about how most of those same American children would never enjoy this particular luxury.
The kids smiled the entire trip. They delighted us all by repeating a few English phrases and before we knew it, we were at the school. They jumped out of the car as quickly as they had jumped in, but their energy remained in the van for at least a few miles more as we all grinned stupidly down the bumpy road.
In the beautiful, waterfront town of Paraiso we met a white pick-up truck with seats and a canopy built into its bed. This would be our final method of transport to El Rancho Platon – the site of our beds for the night – nestled high in the mountains above us. The road from here on out was too rocky and steep to accommodate our van. So we climbed onto the padded benches and held on tight through a winding road into the mountainous, palm tree jungles of this new and exciting southwest.