Dan, Felicia and I had sworn to travel this past weekend…to get afuera de La Romana. Lunes being a día feriado—día de Duarte—we had a long weekend looming ahead of us. And we were getting out of town.
We sat down to dinner last Wednesday like elders at council—determined to travel, to take advantage of three days off, and to see another part of the country– a ir para otro lado. Maps strewn across the table, we set our sights on heading north to Santiago.
The plan, however, did not evolve much beyond that.
The word that ruled the day at the outset of our voyage was spontaneity. We had no idea where we were staying, what we were doing, or how we were even exactly getting there— we resolved to hop guaguas to the city and figure it out cuando lleguemos.
We recruited our friend Alex for our blind trek, and like four aventureros we set off after lunch Friday for Santiago de los 30 Cabelleros, segunda capital de la República Dominicana.
The road there was a beautiful one. After passing through Santo Domingo and switching buses, we passed through the mountains toward La Vega, inland and up. The lush mountain ranges, partly obscured by fog and cloud cover, provided a mystifying backdrop that began on the outskirts of Santo Domingo–a completely different scene from the cane-filled lowlands of the Eastern province.
The five hour journey afforded plenty of time to think, to attempt to unwind. I spent the early leg observing the landscape, trying to avoid being preoccupied with the fact that we had not the slightest idea what was awaiting us at the other end of our paseo.
Felicia had been stressing the night before about not having booked a place to stay, and Dan and I had given her a round of flack, como siempre. And of course now here I was, on a bus bound for the unknown, slightly unnerved for the very same reasons. I had to let it go though, and embrace the idea that we were truly traveling, and would figure out things as they presented themselves– espontaneidad. “Down for the tumble,” as Felicia is fond of saying. After all, the unplanned and unexpected is often the most memorable. And Felicia was clearly no longer worrying in the least about any looming uncertainty– she and Dan were already fast asleep in the row ahead of me.
My preoccupations fled soon enough—se me dejó con sueño.
I awoke on the outskirts of the city, welcome signs and other letreros clearly demarcating our arrival en la ciudad corazón.
Three simple words could not have said it more beautifully. Nestled in the Cibao Valley lay Santiago, a metropolitan area of casi 1 million ciudadanos sprawling from the sudeste al noroeste, in line with the mountain ranges both above and below the beautiful city. We could tell we were arriving in a real ciudad, not merely by the immense sprawl and tall(er) buildings, but the look and the feel and the bustle. Not only did it have an entirely different vibe than the capital or La Romana–our homely pueblecito–it was also clean and well kept. The roads were wide and smooth, not ridden with potholes or maniacal drivers, the typical trash and filth we have grown so accustomed to absent as well. There were people about, and plenty of traffic—but it was immediately apparent that this place was more tranquil than the South.
Alex was already at work talking to some locals on the bus, asking about lodging, hotels, things to see, stuff to do. I joined in a little bit in conversation–I was no longer unnerved about not having plans, even when Alex made some remark to the extent that we were all tourists now, since he had never been up north to Santiago in his lifetime (a mutual friend told me a few weeks later its been years since he had been outside of La Romana). But I could not help being still somewhat unsettled—the sun was beginning to set, and I did not want to spend our entire first night looking a room.
So we took the first tip we got re: una habitación, taxied from the parada to a nearby hotel, shed our bags and soon set off into the cool nighttime air of Santiago. We had heard that the hub of the nightlife in the city centered around the monument—a large structure built during the Trujillo era and now called El Momumento de los Héroes de la Restoración. It was a true landmark, visible from all over the city, set atop a hill in the Downtown area.
We made for the Monument, which seemed about a mile or so from where we were staying. Like true Dominicans, however, we got sidetracked for a few hours. We had turned up an alleyway that ascended on a steep grade toward El Monumento, now looming right above us, when we spotted a cozy looking colmado. We ordered a few Presidentes and sat down for what we thought was a quick breather and our first drink of the night.
Soon however (after a few probing questions on our part about the score of the baseball game underway in town), a television was carted out, propped up on milk crates, and prendido. More chairs soon made their way out onto the sidewalk. Game 6 (best of 9) of the finals of the liga dominicana, the Leones del Escogido contra Las Aguilas del Cibao was in full swing, and we spent the next 2 hours watching a real drama unfold. A great game, complete with a walk off win in entradas extras that found us going loco in the street with a bunch of locals.
That night we eventually made our way up to the monument, got some food and a few drinks. We somehow found ourselves in a parking lot llena de gente al lado del Monumento, in what our best guess was some post-game tailgate party for the Aguilas (though this very well could just happen on the reg). We spent an hour or so there before hiking back to the hotel and retiring at a relatively decent hour.
The rest of our trip went by in a flash. Alex knew of someone up in Santiago by the name of Surihen, a mutual friend that he got in touch with Saturday morning. She knew of a good place to stay, and so we migrated from our hotel to a suite situated closer to the monument and charging a much better rate.
Suri was great. She took it upon herself to be our guide, and spent all of Saturday showing us around the city. We trekked a great deal on foot during the day, ate an epic lunch at some crazy pollo place called Provocón XI, and took in a good deal of touristy stuff. That night we made for the monument again, relaxed our tired legs with brugal and presidentes, and drank for awhile before hunting down some late night street food (the famed dish here being yaroa, a lasagna made with chicken, beef, and papas fritas adentro).
That Sunday centered around Game 8 of the finals, which was back in Cibao after a Game 7 loss by the Aguilas in the Capital. They were now on the brink of elimination, and had a chance to force game 9 with a win that day. Dan and Alex and I—being true aficionados de pelota— had to of course go, and we were enormously excited for both the game and the prospect of seeing the stadium. We meet Suri outside the gates at Estadio Cibao, renovated in 2008 for the Seríe Caribe and with a capacity of almost veinte mil personas, double the size of Estadio Francisco de Micheli en La Romana.
The five o’clock game turned into a five-hour marathon as the Aguilas won 9-2, punishing the Leones in a humiliating fashion that of course caused the game to devolve into several bench-clearing incidents (though they would lose the finals to Escogido the following night). The ambiance was absurd, a sea of yellow that did not quiet the entire time, los aguiluchos. It was even more impressive than the Toros games, which are something to behold.
We left the game and made a quick vuelta in the city with Suri, had one last meal of yaroa and sandwiches de pollo and said goodbye to our guía increíble y nueva amiga.
Monday morning we were up early, saying our goodbyes to the Monument, to La Ciudad Corazón, and to the unfamiliar, which we now hungered to make more known to us.