Monday, July 23, 2012

Biking Nations: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Part I

I decided to go to the Dominican Republic because I wanted the opportunity to clone a dinosaur from a mosquito trapped in fossilized amber – and go biking.

Okay, the first part isn't true. I went to the Dominican Republic for the same reason I went to Portugal last year: my wife was going to the Urban Sketching Symposium and I decided to go with her. Parts of the trip involved spending time with her fellow artists, who are among the nicest and most talented people I've ever met – even when I'd inadvertently overhear passionate discussions about pens.

This is the second time I've hung out with the global representation of sketchers, and I must say that as long as the Urban Sketching Symposium organizers pick interesting places to hold their annual event, I'll always have another post for Biking Nations.

This trip was going to be different from that of Lisbon because instead of renting a bike on arrival at Bike Iberia, I was bringing the Bike Friday New World Tourist. I'll save some of the praise and details for Folding Bike Week 2012 (coming soon), but I had a problem before I even left the house: it's such a good road bike in its own right that one can easily forget how that it folds. I hadn't folded my Bike Friday since my trip to Orlando in December.

Here's the problem: if you forget how it folds, you forget how to fold it. If you forget how to fold it, you forget how to pack it in the suitcase. If you forget how to pack it in the suitcase, you are going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when you unpack it later.

I, of course, wasn't aware I had packed it incorrectly. The lid closed easily enough and I checked it at the American Airlines counter without extra fees and a total weight of 42 pounds (my bike shoes, tool bag and a light cable lock were also crammed in the Samsonite suitcase). Later, I passed easily through security, although my Kryptonite New York U-Lock I brought in my carry-on (in addition to the light cable lock checked with the bike) got a TSA agent to hand search my bag and send the big U-Lock through the X-ray machine by itself before I got a friendly 'have a good flight.'

After fewer than four hours in the air, we arrived, claimed our luggage and rode in a small van to Hotel Frances, located in the oldest and most historical part of the city that featured a serene courtyard.

Once we were settled in the room, my wife unpacked her wide and bewildering array of artist supplies (she had even brought a small scanner with her to post her sketches each evening of the Urban Sketching Symposium) while I began reassembling the New World Tourist. It went together easily like Bike Fridays do, but I was alarmed to discover the lightweight pump wasn't putting much air into the tires.

This wasn't good. I had no other means to put air into these tires (I'll eventually write a lengthy post on why Presta valves are stupid) and didn't understand what was wrong with the pump. I finally assumed that months and months of disuse, coupled with temperature changes when leaving the bike and tool bag in a Honda Element baking in the sun, had damaged the seal.

In full panic mode, I managed to coax just enough air into the tires that I thought would get me to Planet Bike, a Santo Domingo bike shop I had looked up weeks earlier, where I would just pray that the mountain bike-loving country would have a pump for my (stupid) Presta valves.

I also had the problem I was alluding to earlier. Upon turning the crank and shifting I discovered the derailleur hanger was bent. Horribly bent. Just-been-in-an-accident bent.

I ended up dealing with that problem in the morning, just after my wife left for her first day of sketching: I removed the rear wheel and derailleur before picking up my U-Lock (seen on the floor below) and banging the derailleur hanger into shape like Tony Stark making the first Iron Man suit. It was early in the morning in the hotel room and I was producing quite a din, but I hoped whoever I may have awoken just assumed it was the construction that was going on in the bar at the hotel's courtyard (which came out really nice, by the way).

After using the Kryptonite Lock in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, I suited up, applied sunscreen, put the heavy lock in my backpack, put the map I had gotten of Santo Domingo in the handlebar pocket, and set off in search of Planet Bike.

I wasn't able to find a whole lot about biking in the Dominican Republic before I left, so I wasn't sure if there was a big reason why more people weren't doing it. When I wasn't crossing my fingers in hopes the tires wouldn't get a pinch flat before I found Planet Bike, I was checking the city out.

There aren't a lot of cyclists there, unlike Delhi. For the most part, I'd see three-wheeled ice cream vendor trikes. As temperatures would be in the nineties all week, I was sure I'd take advantage of them before trip's end.

I found the traffic to be no more or less aggressive than some of the other places I've ridden. I don't ride without my helmet rearview mirror and am convinced I'd be a chalk outline without it. The cars passing me was fine (cars are left-hand drive and drive on the right side of the road!) but the real adjustment was the motorcycles. They come out of nowhere. Some are quiet. Some have bad mufflers and lung-choking fumes. All are fast. They scared me even more than the lurching buses or the cabs that would stop in the road and back up several feet for unknown reasons. If you go to the Dominican Republic and don't look both ways when you cross the street or if you are careless on your bicycle, you may be hit by a motorcycle that looks something like this: the Honda 50 Super Cub, which, with over 60 million sold globally since it was first built in the fifties, is the most popular motorcycle in the world.

Once I got used to the presence of these fast little bikes, I focused more intently on my destination. I made the proper turns mostly by accident since some street signs in Santo Domingo are hard to see or missing entirely, but eventually I found Planet Bike. To my relief, it was open.

I took advantage of the neat little ramp and wheeled my bike right inside. I began to breathe easier when I saw Presta pumps to my immediate left. The repair part of the shop was on a loft area in the rear of the store, where a woman working on a bike smiled at me while she was working on something. The floor associate, whose name I can't remember, came over to talk to me. He spoke good English and I explained the problem I was having putting air in my tires.

“What are you using now?” He asked.

I showed him my bruised Presta pump. He took it carefully in his hand and studied with an appalled expression before looking at me with a sincere smile and a certain look. It was a look I had seen on the faces of bike shop employees all over the world, and I found it comforting. The look meant: “The Bike Part or Accessory I am About to Sell You is Superior to the Bike Part or Accessory You Have.”

Wherever you go, people are the same, I thought happily as I broke into a smile of my own.

He showed me to a lightweight Bontrager frame pump, which, for $1,050 Dominican Pesos (About $30 U.S.) was a steal at twice the price. For the first time, I felt comfortable riding in Santo Domingo.

With the friendly Planet Bike employee helping me steady the Bike Friday as I got the tires back up to rock hard status, I thanked him for selling me the pump and a bottle of Gatorade before I set off. The bike was more responsive and livelier, and I felt I could finally open up the throttle.

I swung down into the south end of the city and came upon Parque Mirador del Sur. It was there I came upon a rare sight: someone on a bike.

Following his lead, I meandered through the park peacefully, and at one point came upon a bike rental spot that was closed, possibly since it was a weekday.

I would have meandered around longer, but the U-Lock blacksmithing of that morning and the slow and careful ride to Planet Bike had cost me a lot of time, so I headed back to town to reunite with my wife for lunch. We and a number of her fellow sketchers sat at outdoor tables at a restaurant on the outer edge of Colonial Park, where the statue of Christopher Columbus stands (the first picture on this post). Nearby was a guy making hats out of palm leaves to sell to tourists, and he was churning out a hat every 15 minutes. My picture came out poorly, but my wife's sketch of him didn't.

Soon after eating, my wife headed to her afternoon session and I returned to the hotel to collect the Bike Friday. I noticed that it was quite hot, so I decided to take a shorter ride around the colonial part of Santo Domingo. You could see the history of the area everywhere you went, such as the cannons that were installed on the wall near the 16th century Museo de las Casas Reales - possibly to fire upon cruise ships centuries later.

I also rode north of the colonial area, coming to parts of the city that weren't as economically advantaged as others, and some of it reminded me of Old Delhi. Here, however, the streets were wider, had larger vehicles, and four way intersections with nary a stop sign to be found. I didn't take out my camera as much as I wanted to because I was too busy keeping a sharp eye for dangers.

I soon returned to the colonial part of the city and rode about to get a better lay of the land. This wasn't easy because of all the one-way streets. The map I had didn't show me what directions the traffic moved in (which is information a cyclist needs). Additionally, many of the streets were paved much the same way one applies peanut butter to bread: just like you don't smear the peanut butter all the way to the crusts some of the streets of Santo Domingo don't go all the way to the curbs, so that was an extra hazard that made me wonder if there was a reason I wasn't seeing a single, solitary roadbiker. I saw a couple of purposeful bikes, but my New World Tourist may have had the only road handlebars for miles.

Still, it was nice to see the city, but the heat eventually made me call it quits after a 28 mile first day. That night I found another map of the city that had valuable information on it I copied onto the map I could keep in the map pocket.

The next morning, after more sunscreen and again packing the New York lock and water, I decided to head for the coast, which meant riding on the path set up between the road and the Caribbean Sea.

It's not a bad place to ride, but if you go biking in Santo Domingo just be aware the condition of the path isn't exactly topnotch since large sections of it have been pounded by angry seas.

I also decided during this period that on my next visit to this sort of climate, I'd bring a Camelbak. I packed a bottle cage for the Bike Friday but forgot the bottle, and even if I didn't I'd drink it extraordinarily fast. Even though I packed a 16.9 ounce bottle of water in my pack, I'd always want more and would buy a bottle from somewhere just to have something cold, and I'd drink it all in one motion if I didn't stop myself.

After exploring the path for a while, I decided to head back on the road itself. I was a little worried about the heavy traffic, but the drivers, probably used to avoiding the shoulders because of the peanut butter/crust gap with the pavement, mostly gave me a slightly safer berth than New York City drivers. The pavement was also in fine shape and I was able to really move at a fast clip. In no time, I arrived at the impressive, Caribbean Sea-side statue of Fray Anton de Montesinos, who defended the human rights of the Taino indians in 1511.

With my new knowledge of traffic flow, I returned to the colonial part of town...where I quickly got a flat tire. Thankfully close to Hotel Frances, I wheeled the bike into the room and, after much grumbling, got the tire off. A big-old Adam Savage 'Well, there's your problem!' moment came in seconds when my finger discovered a piece of steel wire, barely a quarter of an inch long and not much thicker than a human hair, sticking out of the tire. Not a serious enough problem to warrant using my one (and only) spare tube, I got out my Park Tool patch kit and sealed the tire. Thanks to my new pump, I reinflated the tube and got it back on the frame without problems.

Between the pump fiasco, the bent derailleur hanger and my first flat tire in eight months I was wondering what would be around the corner on day three. I decided it would be a perfect day without mechanical defects. Having gone just over 40 miles so far, I wanted to wrap up the trip with sixty more. This time, I'd bring plenty of water and have a plan, so I skipped riding the rest of the day to rest and figure out my route. No matter what, I was positive the last day of biking in the Dominican Republic would be both successful and memorable.

And it would be. Sort of. To be continued.

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