Few people who live anywhere near inhabited areas — towns and cities — seem willing to walk more than a few blocks to get to where they want to go. Instead, they take some form of public transportation.
This is almost a given in any part of the world. If you ask directions to a place in a larger town or a city that is more than a kilometer away you are told to take some form of motorized transport. If you decline, reassert your question, and say that you are going to walk, you will be met by wide open eyes, a hanging jaw, and the words — sputtered out in some language: “It is very far, you can’t walk there.”
Sosua, Dominican Republic — February 7, 2009
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And then I walk there. Often, it is not very far. 15 km is on the edge of “far,” 3 km or a couple dozen city blocks is not far. People who don’t live in the countryside often seem to have an aversion to walking — it is a convention, a sign of class perhaps. In a world with buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis, and auto rickshaws why would you walk? Much of the world have been rendered lazy through the internal combustion engine and the idea of “easier,” it is not conventional to walk anymore than what you have to — especially in the tropics.
Especially in places where cheap public transport flutters around everywhere like moths around a nighttime lamp. The Dominican Republic is such a country: it is so cheap to take public transport, that there can hardly be a reason to walk anywhere.
In the Dominican Republic the cheapest and most common form of public transportation is the motorcycle taxi. They cover the streets in swarms, they sit in gangs at intersections, outside of supermarkets, in front of bars, near the beach. Their costs is cheap — well under 50 cents to 1 USD for most rides — and the service is exceptionally convenient.
If I wanted to take a moto taxi in and around Sosua, I swear that it would never take me more than 15 seconds to flag one down. They are everywhere.
But I seldom take them. I have a baby, and I do not like the idea of little Petra flying around chaotic streets on the back of a dirt bike. My wife likes the idea even less than I do.
I walk a lot, my wife, Chaya, walks a lot, too. Our baby, Petra, likes nothing more than bouncing around in her Ergo, looking at the world as it passes on foot. So there is no conflict. We just walk.
“The legs pump blood through the body,” my friend Andy says. I believe him, the guy is a traveler, he walks all day long.
So when we ask directions to a place that we conjecture may be more than “walking distance” away, we just ask for the general cardinal direction — we just want the person we are asking to point out the way in a relative sort of provenience — rather than to provide us with a step by step tutorial. But they still say, “you can’t walk there, it is very far. Take a moto.”
“It is very far in what direction?” We ask, and then set off in the way of the hand gesture, oblivious to the moto taxi that the person has invariably flagged down for our convenience.
We rode a bus out of Sosua yesterday to Puerto Plata, a larger town that lays a couple dozen kilometers to the west. We could not walk there, it was really not feasible at around 20 km away. So we took a public bus — one of the half sized ones that are known all over this planet to be packed full of people smushed into every stuffable cavity of the interior. I flagged down one of these crowded minibuses as we stood on the highway that goes through Sosua to Puerto Plata.
A bus stopped. The conductor was hanging on its outside. He looked at my baby and said he wanted 200 pesos for the ride to Puerto Plata — a times ten gringo tax. I laughed and informed him that he was crazy, and proceeded to offer him ten times less than the stated price. He jumped back into the bus and drove away.
30 seconds later, another bus drove passed. I flagged it down. They tried to get the same 200 peso fee — some conductor must of gotten this fare out of a tourist once and told all of his conductor friends about it, so this is the price they try on every white face forever after. The racket probably worked 90% of the time — there are a lot of tourists here — I can’t blame the conductors for trying.
We offer 30 pesos each — close to the real price. The conductor shrugs, we get in.
The sun was shinning on the tropical island of Hispaniola on this day — as it does most days. It was a little before noon and the highway was in full motion, which is to say absolute commotion. Dark skinned boys on fast dirt bikes sped through the traffic, weaving between buses, taxis, fruit carts, idle pedestrians on both sides of the road, wearing neither helmet nor any protective equipment: a t-shirt and shorts are, apparently, standard dress for motorcyclists in the Dominican Republic.
“Adonde van?” the bus conductor interrupted my daydreams. He was inquiring as to where we wanted to go in Puerto Plata.
“A la supermercado La Sirena,” my wife answered.
“That is far away, if you want to go there you need to pay more money,” the conductor spoke while clenching a large wad of money.
“Esta bien, podemus caminar,” my wife, with a gentle smile, told him that we would rather walk than give him any more money.
And walk we did.
We found ourselves dumped off on the side of the highway under a big billboard that had the name of the supermarket we were going to scrawl upon it. As we exited the bus, conductor pointed down a road. “That way.”
We walked. It was a beautiful day. We walked some more. It was still a beautiful day. We walked to the beach. We asked where the supermarket was. There was nothing around us, but a boulevard, some palm trees, a beach refreshment stand or two, and a young girl waiting out by the road for a ride from somebody.
She told us that it was a very far walk to the supermarket. She pointed off in the distance. She looked at our baby. She flagged down a moto taxi for us.
“No gracias.” We walked away in the direction of the store.
The beach was beautiful here. It was near empty, with only a few strollers, a jogger, a couple older white dudes drinking beer under an umbrella, pretty Dominican girls cooking hamburgers and selling Coca-Cola, and some misplaced white dude with long dreadlocks holding, of all things, a trumpet.
“What is that guy doing with a trumpet?” my wife asked.
I really didn’t want to ask him.
We continued walking as the waves log-rolled into the beach, sizzling out as they spent their load. Petra slept in her Ergo. Her head bobbed along to the beat. I smiled at my wife. The supermarket was nowhere in sight. This was good. We took a break from walking in the shade of a particularly dense canopy of palms and looked out across an empty, blinding bright sand of the beach at the sea beyond. The water was sparking blue. I felt like I was in a f’cking postcard.
“It is pretty nice here.”
We found the supermarket after an hour’s walk. It was big. We bought lots of things. I bought us the most disgusting lunch I had eaten in years.
Now, laden with a load of grocery store bags, a diaper bag full of food, a baby, we had to figure out the best way to get back to Sosua. We did not want to walk all the way back down the beach and up to the highway with all of our groceries and a baby. This would have been ridiculous.
The bus stop in Puerto Plat for minibuses was “far away, too far to walk” up on the other side of a large hill. The cloud of taxi drivers that swarmed us wanted a diamond and some frankincense to take us to Sosua — 700 pesos, $20 — or 100 pesos to take us into Puerto Plata to the bus stop. A grocery store cart boy tried calling up a moto taxi to take us somewhere. Hands flew in my face, “Senor, senor, muy barato, no es expensive.”
We walked out of the grocery store, leaving the swarm of taxi men to swarm again. We start walking back down the beach. This is stupid, I say to my wife. She gets mad and flicks me off. I say, “Fuck you, Chaya.” She storms away from me with a baby on her front and grocery bags in both hands. She looked pathetic.
But I am sure that I looked even more pathetic as I gave chase across the boulevard equally burdened beneath a half dozen full grocery bags and a stuffed fat diaper bag.
We were frustrated. We did not want to take a moto taxi because we feared for the mortality of our child. A moto taxi is just a dirtbike that you ride on the back of through streets with few observable traffic rules. This is the way that people get around here. It is cheap and efficient, though we questioned the safety parameters of riding on the back of some guy’s dirtbike with a baby.
Chaya, Petra, and I sat on a railing of the boulevard, not wanting to engage in any of the methods of locomotion that laid before us. We made up. I said sorry for saying f’ck you, Chaya. Chaya said sorry for being irritable. We sought out solutions.
A mototaxi pulled up in front of us. The driver was a smiling young guy who was probably around 20 years old. His voice was quiet, and his demeanor seemed a little shy. We tried to dismiss him, but he would not go away. He was insistent that we should ride with him, and he knew that he was right.
I told him that we did not want to ride on his motorcycle with a baby. He assured us that he would go slow and drive carefully. He stuck right by us.
I got one of those feelings again. I looked at the guy. It takes an immense amount of skill to know when to trust someone in travel. It is a teetering game, where you never really know what side you are going to fall down on. I squint my eyes and cock back my head inspecting the guy with the motorcycle who may drive my baby. He looked at me blankly without speaking.
30 pesos. Chaya chided him that this was the amount it costs to get all the way to Sosua, and he was just taking us to the bus stop. She offered him 25. He shrugged his shoulders with little care, smiled, and with a snap of his fingers had a second mototaxi by his side.
I jumped on the back of the recently arrived motorcycle and Chaya went with the first. We requested that they stay together in the traffic. They agreed. Petra was wide eyed, not knowing what was going on. We took off. Petra wailed herself into immediate sleep.
The ride was smooth, the mototaxis kept their promises — they drove slow and carefully, they stayed together — Petra slept, Chaya smiled. I was relieved that we were broken out of gridlock while breaking the ice on the standard form of public transport in the Dominican Republic.
Mototaxis are the way of public transport in many parts of the world. Could we take this form of transport with a baby?
Obviously, we could. Would we do this again? Probably. Often? Probably not.
To travel well, I know that I need to be able to decode the ways of the country I am in. To the best of my circumstances, I need to eat what people here eat, sleep where they sleep, and travel the way they travel.
We paid off the mototaxi drivers, thanked them, we hopped on another crowded minibus back to Sosua. The ride was cramped, Petra nearly got sat on by an old man, she squealed; she bumped her head on the bus’ ceiling, she cried; she played with the little Dominican baby in the seat behind her, she laughed. Not every day of travel is walk on the beach, but every day of travel is a precious event in learning, laughing, facing challenges, and honing your supply of wits against a world of infinite variables.
Petra is 6 months old and learning the ways of the world. I am 28 years old and learning the ways of the world, too. It’s a good thing that the road goes on forever.
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