The United States is supposedly “the home of the brave and the land of the free”, but the Dominican Republic can easily vie for the title. All forms of transportation are a little more spontaneous in that country including motoconchos or motorbikes carrying at least one passenger who is carrying at least one item, which can be anything from a bag of groceries to a huge tank of propane gas or a couple of truck axles. Motorbikes of all kinds outnumber cars and seem to have the advantage, if not the right-of-way. But there is little evidence of bad temper or horn blowing. Horseback riding was similarly mundane to the Dominicans but quite an experience for us.
We were staying in Puerto Plata at a resort hotel with members of our church. After working on our project of painting a Haitian school in the mornings, we had the afternoons free, and decided to go horseback riding. A Canadian outfit had a representative at our hotel and promised well-fed and happy horses. We were picked up by an open bus reminiscent of transportation used by companeros or friends of the revolution, and greeted by a very friendly lady from the Bronx who had come to the Dominican Republic twenty years earlier. She had promised her employer to be back after a few months but was the woman who never returned. First she worked as an English teacher in the hotels, then as an employee for the riding stable. She liked the job so much that she bought property across the street from the stable and took the unlikely position of horse whisperer and marketing agent for the stable.
We indicated in writing that were not too old, too fat, or too infirm to ride, and that we had ridden before. A Dominican lady took our forms and returned with a happy smile saying, “Bueno, bueno, you are good riders. We have horses that like to be in front.” About twenty horses were led out for the large group that had gathered which included several small children. My horse was named Charro and my friend’s horse was named Casa Blanca. We mounted, and were grateful that they were on the small side as they seemed to be the only two horses that had to be restrained by one of the stable boys. The nice employee said Charro liked to play with the bit when he took the bit in his mouth and tried to bolt. All the horses were males we were told, which was supposed to be a plus, but was not reassuring.
A young Dominican male of the two-legged variety, inappropriately named Angel, moved to the front of the group and announced that he was the head guide, but there were several other guides going along, and we would need them. We headed out of the stable and clattered down the paved street with Charro straining for the lead. Angel kept telling me not to get in front of him and threatened to fine me two hundred dollars if I didn’t comply. Although I thought he should be telling Charro, I pulled back on the reins as hard as I could. When this produced no results, Angel said, “Who is in charge, you or him?” This was a question for Mr. Obvious. However we were soon headed up the mountain side on a dirt and gravel road, and Charro seemed to be content with being number two for the moment, although he was jockeying for position. Casa Blanca’s nose was pressed against my thigh as he tried to squeeze through the pack to claim the lead. However I would have bet big money on Charro.
We passed tropical forests and fields of pineapple, sugar cane, beans, corn and guava. It was hard to distinguish individual plants as they flew by. After an hour we stopped for refreshments at a small soda, or store, in the middle of a field of grazing cows and a couple of bulls with very deep voices. “MOOOOOOOOO,” they complained as we invaded their territory. Music and dancing established a lively mood at our rest stop. An extended family of Dominicans from the Bronx were vacationing and visiting their relatives and were among the people in the group. The very small children seemed to think it was great fun, and even the ancient grandmother was loving it. We looked at a variety of tourist items including Larimar, a Dominican stone, which is pale blue like the sky and very beautiful. Colorful scarves, dresses, and carved items such as lizards and turtles caught our eye. A couple of paintings of Michael Jackson seemed a little out-of-place among paintings of horses, Dominican villages and mountain landscapes, but Michael is ubiquitous, and I was glad to see a familiar face.
When we were refreshed and ready to ride again, Angel said we would be taking a different route back. We soon found out that we would also be taking a different speed back. We started off at our fast walk, which became a trot, surprisingly comfortable on these amazing Dominican horses, called paso fino, or fine pace. Then we started to gallop. When I begged to slow down, the guide asked me if I was crying, and I said yes, so we stopped for a minute to let me regroup, and then begin galloping again. I soon learned that I had to balance or else (and the else was not pretty), as we tore around the mountain path, a dragon with many heads. Once on the paved road, we sounded like a group of banditos trying to rob the stagecoach. Shouting and shooting, or as least pretending to, Angel led us at full tilt back through the streets and past the huge houses behind gates or walls, then the smaller houses with little dogs in front, then little shacks with little dogs on the roofs. Accompanied by a cacophony of barking, screaming, and clattering of hooves, we descended from the mountain.
Another guide came galloping up from behind and asked if we were okay. By that time I was laughing hysterically which he took to mean “si“, and said, “Happy people, happy horses, crazy people, crazy horses.” I was both happy and crazy and so were the horses. Townspeople waved as we thundered by. Earlier our guide had pointed out Dominican monkeys and parrots. I had learned that the adjective “Dominican” often meant, “imaginary or not real,” as there actually wasn’t much wildlife, at least not where we were. But the horses were definitely real, and the ride was the wildest and best I’ve ever experienced. Andale Andale, Faster, Faster!