Monday, July 30, 2012

Biking Nations: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Part II

It was the last day of biking in Santo Domingo, and the last day of the Urban Sketching Symposium. I told my wife I wouldn't be able to join her for lunch that day as I was on A Mission: 60 trouble-free miles in a country I barely knew, which, if I succeeded, would put me just over 100 miles over three days.

I knew I needed the right resources to do this kind of challenge safely: I packed three 16.9 ounce bottles of water. I fully charged my 2007 Garmin Edge the night before, and while it didn't have a map feature, the 'breadcrumb trail' would help me find my way back if I ended up off the paper maps. After careful consideration, I decided not to bring the Kryptonite New York Lock (which had been used as a hammer but not as a lock during the trip) and opted to take the lighter cable lock instead to save weight. I brought some Dominican Pesos with me to buy lunch; but where and what I was going to eat I had no idea.

With all my gear, I set off into the sunshine and headed west. I didn't have the whole route mapped out, but my plan was to turn right onto Av. Abraham Lincoln, cutting through Poligono Central, and possibly looping around the Jardin Botanico Nacional before heading north.

Despite the traffic, I soon arrived in a parts of the city that looked, with the chain restaurants and shops, like parts of Orange, Connecticut. A key distinguishing feature was the timers on the traffic lights; an innovation I want to see here in the U.S.

Save for the stoplights, the traffic flowed north easily, but about five miles into the trip I could already tell that my plan to ration my water wasn't going to work. I took shelter under the shade of an eagle's wing to take a few sips...and noticed an IKEA nearby.

Since I didn't travel all this way to buy flat-packed furniture, I pressed on. The traffic thinned out as I passed Jardin Botanico Nacional.

It was during this leg of the trip I saw something incredible: three roadbikers – funny outfits like mine and all. I waved at them with the kind of enthusiasm one would use when greeting a long-lost sibling.

They waved back skeptically.

After the spirit-raising encounter, I continued on until I reached an entrance to Parque Mirador del Norte, where I stopped for more water.

The road I was on was wide and sparsely traveled. Parts of it were hilly but the Bike Friday did well.

Eventually, I reached the Hermanas Mirabal commuter train station, which looked quite new compared to so many other parts of the country I had seen. It was around here the screen of the GPS stopped working, but I was able to turn it off and, more importantly, turn it back on again without a break in the mileage counter.

I also decided to pick a route that would make it difficult to get lost: I decided that instead of turning south and heading back toward the coast, I'd head north and follow the elevated train tracks. Once I made a terrifying series of Frogger-like moves, I turned left and headed north; soon ending up off my map...and into a whole new set of challenges.

The roads had stopped being sparsely populated. Stores, shops and people were increasingly crammed along my route. I kept a sharp eye out for dangers as the traffic got even worse.

Finally, I reached the end of the (train) line, which looked as though it still had a lot of expanding left to do. Still confident I could find my way back, I pressed on.

After a while, the traffic began to thin out again. I could see the mountains off in the distance between the buildings as I pedaled up a surprisingly smooth road.

Once the spedometer hit 20 miles, I stopped at a nearby filling station to drink some water and nearly inhaled an entire bottle before turning south. This involved passing back through the traffic gauntlet and, after passing the Hermanas Mirabal station again, seeing parts of the city I hadn't yet seen.

In addition to the traffic light timers, I saw a couple of great pedestrian bridges that I wish could appear in numerous intersections in the U.S.

On mile 30, I suddenly grew fatigued and realized I was going to run out of water before reaching 60. In a Bon, which is like a Roebek's Juice equivalent in the Dominican Republic, I bought a banana smoothie and a bottle of water. Unable to speak Spanish, a lot of pointing and gestures were involved in getting these items. But the young women behind the counter didn't seem to mind that I wheeled my bike right inside.

Somewhat refueled, I decided to do a loop by the Parque Mirador del Norte once again. It was a predictable route and I wanted the chance to get a better photo of the Isabela River.

This time, after finishing the loop, I headed south immediately and wove my way back toward Poligono Central. I re-entered the same Bon for a second smoothie, and the same hand gestures and pointing I had used before (though for a different employee) yielded a blueberry smoothie rather than a banana one, but I didn't care since I just wanted something cold.

I again bought a bottle of water, and I again drank much of it at a speed that caused me concern. Still on A Mission, I finished the smoothie, stowed what was left of the water, and pressed on.

Amazingly enough, I found another bike shop (Bici Centro) completely by accident. I didn't stop for a visit, that's how much on A Mission I was.

Finally, I was pushing past 55 miles. I put the breadcrumb screen on the GPS and tried pointing myself toward the 'start' as best I could. Instead of following the roads I had been on before, I tried new streets to make the most direct route possible. In doing so, I came upon places I didn't expect to see, like the workings of a market set up, seemingly on a highway overpass. I winced as I pedaled over the debris in the road but did not get another flat tire.

My sun-addled mind wasn't working particularly well at this point as I pressed on, trying to get to a familiar part of the city so I could find my way back to the hotel. I was pretty exhausted at this point and my legs were starting to cramp up. I was covered helmet to toeclip with dust, grime and sweat, but I was happy that I'd soon be able to say I had biked 100 miles in the Dominican Republic. Upon the conclusion though, I really just wanted to be dropped in a bathtub full of ice like Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder.

I was almost to the spot where the word 'START' appeared on the GPS, but two unsettling things happened.

The first is I crossed the Isabela River again, the second is I passed a familiar landmark. It's a little sad that this is the landmark I recognized, but you know those annoying, inflatable beings mostly associated with car dealerships? I saw one earlier in the day, far from the hotel, and remembered it. To my dismay, I had forgotten the GPS restarting earlier in the day changed the 'START' of my journey.

I could almost hear Lloyd Bridges' character from Airplane: “he could be miles off course!”

And I was.

Lucky for me, there was another Bon next to the Annoying Inflatable Being so I stopped in for another smoothie. The same hand gestures I had used twice before for two different Bon employees this time yielded...a strawberry smoothie. I didn't mind.

I nearly collapsed in a heap. I had spent so much time pumping myself up for a 60 mile ride the prospect of riding another foot, much less another six miles, seemed impossible. My right leg in particular felt like it was wrapped in razor wire. I had used sunscreen that morning, but I wasn't sure where the suntan began and the 'grimeline' ended. I decided to take the commuter train south toward Gazcue, which would shave several miles from my trip but still put me over 60.

I headed to the train station and took a quick photo so I'd make sure I'd know what train I'd be on.

I entered the newly built train station and saw a pristine floor and an escalator – the first one I had seen so far this trip. I walked toward it, but a security guard walked right up to me and put a stop to my intention. While I had used pointing and hand gestures several times that day to order nourishment, he used pointing and hand gestures that told me loud and clear that I couldn't bring a bike onto the train.

“No bikes on trains?” I asked

He pointed to the Bike Friday again. “No bikes,” he repeated.

On vacation, I don't like to think about the pressures and hassles of home, and one of those things has been an inconsistent and counterproductive view of mass transit problems (which I wrote about for the Stamford Patch). But now, I was thinking about it.

Wherever you go, people are the same, I thought sadly as, defeated, I pushed the Bike Friday out the door and back into the 90+ degree heat.

I would have partially folded the bike and tried to get it past him, but I wasn't sure he'd fall for it. I resigned myself to riding six more miles. I remounted outside of the station. I snarled and mashed the pedals. The odometer hit and passed 60 miles and I didn't even notice until another mile had gone by.

I headed as far south as I could and eventually turned east so I could ride along the Caribbean Sea once again. It was at this time I could feel just enough strength to smile: I had done what I had set out to do even though I got it done in a way I didn't want to do it in.

Before long, I was back in familiar territory, and, as I thought, the total run of the day was to be 66 miles. With both me and the bike covered in dusty slime, I pushed it sluggishly but triumphantly into the hotel lobby a few minutes before 4:00pm. After cleaning the filth from myself and the bike, I packed the Bike Friday – much more carefully this time – into the suitcase.

However, I ran into a problem on the way out of the country: anticipating another 'what is this?' round of questions from airport security about the Kryptonite New York lock, I put it in the outside pocket of my carry-on bag so it could be reached easily. But the surprise came when the young security worker, who spoke little English, told me I couldn't bring the lock on the plane.

“But I brought it down with me as a carry-on,” I said repeatedly, even opening and closing the lock with the key to show them it wasn't anything dangerous. “Why can't I bring it back the same way?”

To everyone's amusement but mine, the worker mumbled something that included the English word 'weapon' and waved the lock in my face like it was a giant pair of brass knuckles. He may not have used the exact phrase “you have to go back and check it,” but that's what was being said.

I protested. The worker wouldn't budge. Frustrated at the prospect of heading back through security and paying extra fees and hassle to check the lock before wading back through the land of X-ray machines and pat-downs once again, I finally told him he could keep it and that it would 'make a nice paperweight' as I wasn't going to let him have it with the key.

My wife, who had enjoyed her sketchcation, was having none of it. She got into an 'I'll handle this' mode and before I could stop her she took the lock and darted back through the metal detector in the general direction to the check-in counters. For about 15 agonizing minutes I waited (unable to see her and with no cell phone I had no way to get in touch with her) but she soon reappeared with a triumphant little smile, explaining that she didn't have to make an additional payment to check the lock, but it couldn't head into the Toy Story 2 luggage maze unless it was in 'a bag with a zipper' so she bought one at an airport shop for $10 to put the lock in.

I groaned, but she reasoned the $10 was a worthwhile price to pay to ensure the lock's return. She also assured me she'd reuse the bag she had purchased. When it finally emerged, after the four-hour flight and an hour wait at the luggage carousel, I wasn't so sure – and was immediately embarassed for the lock.

Yes, my trusty Kryptonite lock had made it home in a bag that looked like someone had vomited tiny flowers over a black tarp.

Still, I was thankful that the lock and ourselves had made it safely back home. I was also glad to have made the trip to the 2012 Urban Sketching Symposium with my Bike Friday and am pleased to report I rode over 100 miles in three days while on vacation. I hope the Urban Sketching Symposium continues to pick interesting places to hold their annual event and that they give Montreal consideration because it would be nice to bring a mountain bike and road bike because it is a beautiful city that is truly sketchworthy. Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy reading about your biking adventures! It was good to meet you and your wife, however briefly, at the closing reception. This post brought back great memories of sketching in Santo Domingo. I also noticed those ice cream vendors on bicycles, and couldn't help sketching them!