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Friday, January 2, 2015

The Story of One of the Best Meals I've Ever Eaten: Jay's Adventure in the Dominican Republic Part Quatro

This is the story about one of the best meals I've ever eaten my life. It happened a little over a year ago, but I haven't forgotten the warmth, the flavor, the hospitality, or the way the food truly replenished and rejuvenated my exhausted body and soul. This is the way everyone should experience food when they travel. Well, some of the time, kinda. Seeking out authentic culinary culture can take us out of the hustle and bustle of restaurants, steer us away from seeking out award-winning chefs, and guide us into a pot of beans from a home cook, and that's alright with me.

First, for a quick recap, make sure to check out parts UnoDos, and Tres of my trip to the Dominican Republic.

Santo Domingo Coffee and Panderia Dick
The morning started for us at day break and I still felt the aches as a result of the previous day's activities climbing hillsides and carabining down zip lines at the Monkey Jungle. The #Mancation crew departed our accommodations in Cabarete and convened at Panderia Dick, a small cafe on the main drag through town. We pulled tables together on the patio and watched locals on mopeds whiz by. Dick's Cafe features authentic cuisine, but this breakfast would only be the beginning of my adventure. I scarfed down Desayuno Domincano (Dominican Breakfast) complete with three scrambled eggs with salami and cheese, bread, and butter. Naturally I had a cup of Santo Domingo coffee as well. Then I started to get nervous. Our plans were to go canyoning in the depths of the Dominican Republic. Iguana Mama Tours had the whole trip lined up for us to do the Magic Mushroom Canyoning, but I wanted to back out. I'm not the most athletic fella, and the thought of donning a wet suit while climbing over slippery rocks and repelling down waterfalls didn't seem quite like the adventure I had signed up for, which instead included lounging on more Dominican beaches with non-stop Presidente cerveza attached to my palm.

Jay repels down a waterfall in the Dominican Republic
Jay repels down a waterfall in the Dominican Republic
My body ached already, but our guide assured me that this experience should not be missed. He also made it seem like the physical exertion would not be too excessive.

He lied.

The tour is rated for beginners, but perhaps there needs to be a fat ass clause. We first enjoyed a scenic drive through the jungles and over mountain ranges on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Starting from Cabarete on the beach we headed inland on a paved road. At some point atop a peak overlooking a pristine valley we stopped by a shack on the side of the road. Mama Iguana's base camp is where we were fitted for wet suits, life preservers, harnesses, and helmets. At this point my gut started turning upside down. If I needed a helmet then at some point I might be in danger of hitting my head, which likely would mean that I'm no longer on my feet. I didn't like this plan anymore. However, it seemed like there would be no way to turn back now. Our entire crew traveled in one van, and that one van, already 45 minutes of drive time up a mountain, continued onward until the paved road turned into dirt. The van stopped when the road became muddy at which point we got out and walked down the side of the hill to a house that perched alongside a flowing stream. We got a few lessons about how to avoid rolling our ankles on the slippery rocks. Immediately thereafter Rob and I had a conversation about turning around, walking back to wherever we could walk, hitchhiking back to the base camp, or really anything we could do to avoid rolling head-first down this mountain current. But we couldn't. We couldn't turn back. So I tried as hard as I could to survive.

Most of the canyoning actually proved to be quite enjoyable. There were stretches where we floated downstream and I thought I could use a cold beer in my hand. There were times when we hiked beside the creek in the gorgeous jungle scenery. But the hiking and swimming, the climbing and slipping, took its toll on me. An hour or so in and I was already starting to feel like I had had enough. We approached a fantastic waterfall thundering down into a pool of cold spring water. The stream flowed over a mushroom shaped rock and then plunged several stories to the calm below. The Magic Mushroom. We took turns, one at a time repelling down the side of the mushroom cap until no more footing existed, then pushed off and enjoyed the ride to the splashdown. My turn came and I nailed it. "That was fun," I thought. "And we must be almost done."

I could not have been more wrong.

Jay with the Mama Iguana guide who just may have saved his life
Jay with the Mama Iguana guide who just may have saved his life
That waterfall constituted what felt like the first third of our canyoning adventure. We climbed over many more boulders and carabined down another even higher waterfall where some of the more thrill-seeking members of our group just jumped. Physically exhausted, I grabbed the ropes, leaned back, and tried to let gravity do more work than my tired arms and legs. At one point I slipped on an extremely slick rock and couldn't catch my balance. Flailing, I fell to the rocky creek bed beneath me and slammed my head on the wet earth. Good thing I had my helmet on. We continued on for what seemed like miles through the canyon. For the sake of balance and continuing on at an acceptable pace, I held on to the arm of one of our guides. Sadly I didn't write down his name and don't remember it now, but this man saved my life. We delicately trudged through the creek bed. My legs banged up and bloody from slamming them into underwater rocks, we continued on, stopping to rest when I couldn't take another slippery step. Finally, as I started thinking they might have to helicopter me out of there if I broke my leg or blew out my knee, our guides led us to the path back up to the road. One problem though: the path led straight up the side of a rocky cliff.

One step at a time I followed behind my hero. He showed me where to place my foot and then I took that step, each one as difficult as the hardest setting on any Stair Master complete with insecure foot holds and while toting a 300+ pound soaking wet and worn out frame. Clutching his shoulder, arm, or hand to help pull me up the mountain, I pushed myself to get there knowing that my salvation rested with the van atop the hill. The ground under my foot gave way and I fell, slamming my arm into the side of the rock, but he caught me and kept me from tumbling down to disaster. Blood poured down the side of my right forearm, so he took a first aid kit out of his bag and bandaged me up while the others continued on. Finally, after what seemed like an hour after everyone else had reached the top, my friend and I climbed over the last ridge to freedom. As I ducked through the barbed wire fence and onto the dirt road where the van waited I felt relieved, accomplished, fatigued, grateful, and, of course, hungry.

Lunch awaited our crew at the Mama Iguana Outpost
Lunch awaited our crew at the Mama Iguana Outpost
Bloodied and bruised, I changed out of my wet suit and waterlogged shoes and into clothes that didn't constrain every fiber of my beat down being. I could smell the home cooked meal, and finally managed to smile and laugh again. A motherly figure appeared with her daughter and they seemed ready to feed us... to take care of us in a way that they must have known we desperately needed. Our hosts opened the lids on the pots of real Dominican fare as my taste buds began salivating in anticipation of the end to my stomach growls. We lined up for the feast, famished, and ready to tear into a meal like a bunch of middle school boys after a football practice. Rice and beans, pollo guisado (stewed chicken), and simmered vegetables filled our plates. I had to stop myself in order to take a picture with Rob's phone before I scarfed down my first heaping. Rice and beans have never tasted so good. Comfort overwhelmed me as I shoveled the vegetables into my mouth. There was nothing fancy on the plate, just authentic, rustic cuisine cooked by somebody who cares. And the chicken. Oh, the chicken. Stewed down in tomato, garlic, and who knows what else, the chicken heightened my sense of what non-fried chicken can be. Rich and deep, the chicken filled my heart with warmth. I went back for another round. I still remember the flavors. I remember the satisfaction. I felt alive again, nourished and ready for a nap. I may have almost died earlier that day, and I would have been pissed if I had missed that meal. Everything became worth it. The entire adventure just a means to be so wiped out and starving that a simple plate of rice, beans, and chicken could move me, feed my soul, and remind me what it is that's truly special about food and people.

My Dominican Feast
My Dominican Feast