Sunday, February 18th
My day begins earlier than it needs to, at 1:30 in the morning to be exact. Yesterday the children left in the morning with Ben’s mom and sister and after crying and intensely missing them, I started in on the day’s to-do list of packing and housework and gradually found a relief that the were gone and a confidence that yes, they would be okay and more than okay, very fine and having lots of fun without me.
Ben had to work more overtime yesterday, and by 7:30 at night when he was done working and I was done packing, we were both so tired we got in bed and fell asleep. That’s what old age is going to do to us, I guess—make us unadventurous people who fall asleep at 7:30. It felt so good. No one to keep us up, no bedtime routine to do, just falling asleep.
Now waking up Sunday at 1:30, I’ve already slept enough hours and I’m excited enough about our trip that I can’t fall back asleep. Outside there is snow, but we’re hoping not enough on the roads to make our drive difficult. I keep worrying our car will end up sliding into a ditch and we will miss our flight and our vacation, but now lying in bed I’m actually able to rest and relax for a little bit and think about our vacation with more anticipation than anxiety.
Finally at 4:00 I get up and get ready to go, and we leave at 5:30. Stepping in sandals into the snow feels so incongruous, but it’s going to be an incongruous day. We drive to my parents’ house by 6:00, and my dad has us to the airport by 6:30. It’s so cold in the early morning I’ve kept my heavy coat on, and I almost forget to hand it to him as we leave. I’m so glad I remember, because carrying my heavy coat along to the Dominican would be the last thing I need! Still for a moment in my sweater, maxi skirt, and sandals, in the snow, I feel cold, and we hurry inside to print our boarding passes.
We fly infrequently enough that we’re not experts at it. That’s what I think makes me nervous about travel—we can afford to go on these vacations only once every several years, which means we are constantly amateurs about both flying and vacationing. I like to do things that I can do well and feel experienced about, but for now I’m just going to have to reconcile myself to the mistakes we will probably make, and hope that none of them go too terribly wrong.
As it is, we get through security without losing anything and get to our gate in plenty of time to have a breakfast sandwich, smoothie, and coffee. I save most of it to eat on the plane. I’m grateful this travel day seems like it will be so much easier than our travel to Mexico—that was our last trip just the two of us, a few years but what really seems like a lifetime ago, and our travel there was long and complicated. Today, it’s just one plane flight a few hours long.
On the plane, I read Forever Amber, a tremendously long novel I’m nearing the end of, and eventually eat my breakfast. I’m just getting tired and planning to have a nap when the pilot announces our descent. Apparently there is a one-hour time change between Virginia and the Dominican that I hadn’t taken into account. Anyway, I probably wouldn’t have slept anyway, and I’m glad to be arriving. I can look down and see hills and rectangular plots of flat land, all very green, leading to the deep turquoise of the ocean.
We arrive in Punta Cana. No one seems to be guiding anyone, but we follow the crowd from our flight onto a shuttle that takes us into an open-air building with very weird Day of the Dead-like décor. Here we wait in line and are eventually instructed to pay $10 per passenger. This trip I went to the ATM in advance to have dollars and I’m hoping they will work everywhere and we won’t need to bother with pesos. I’m glad to have them already because the man we pay to doesn’t seem like he has a credit card machine.
We wait in another line and turn in a form we filled in on the airplane and get our passports stamped, then wait in a final line and turn in a last form. Our bags don’t have to go through any kind of security, and still following the crowd we round a corner to very loud pulsating music. We start looking for our driver who is supposed to meet us at the airport.
We’ve always had great experiences with Airbnb, so after trying and failing to find a resort that fit us and our budget, we ended up getting an Airbnb apartment on the beach, and the owner will apparently have a driver for us at the airport. The reviews of the apartment were excellent, but still I’m afraid something will go wrong. I don’t like that feeling of helplessness I have in a foreign country—I don’t speak the language, my phone is turned off, and there is a sea of helpful faces all offering to rent us cars or give us taxi services, all for a price.
We keep walking and eventually recognize our driver by the sign he’s carrying, Apartmentos Florisel. We introduce ourselves and he prints his parking ticket, which takes some time because the machine is broken, but finally we can leave.
We drive through the streets of Punta Cana, past a movie theater, our driver honking frequently and seldom looking over his shoulder as traffic weaves in and out. He points to different landmarks and offers in the coming days to drive us anywhere we might need to go.
Finally he pulls up to the apartment complex, and we stumble out with our bags in the sunny parking lot to meet Gricel, the apartment owner’s assistant with whom I’ve been communicating over email. She is very friendly in her limited English and shows us the apartment, which is just as nice as the pictures.
It’s a simple four-bedroom affair—bedroom, bathroom, sitting area, and kitchen—with a balcony. There are no extras—none of the blankets or fluffy cushions or pillows I’ve been accustomed to—but in its bareness it is clean and simple. The bed is soft but only has white sheets, no comforter. The couch is also comfortable but something you could wipe down with a cloth. All the floors are hard, no carpets. Everything is understated, well prepared for a little sand, not prepared at all for any temperature fluctuations.
By this time I’m dehydrated and hungry and my head aches. There’s a big container of water in the corner of the kitchen, since the water here is undrinkable, and I drink two glasses while trying to understand all Gricel is saying about the apartment.
She leaves and, relieved to be there, tired and hungry, we unpack and then take a quick nap. I’m wearing ear plugs, but during my nap I have a drowsy impression that the neighbors are being very noisy. Once I wake up fully and take the ear plugs out, the music seems extremely loud. Ben wakes up and, both of us now grumpy and hungry, we head out to find something to eat.
The beach, true to the advertisement, is just around the corner from our apartment, but when we reach it, we find to our dismay that the pulsating music is coming from a restaurant right on what was advertised as the apartment complex’s private beach. Every beach chair is taken, and the beach swarms with people drinking and dancing.
We walk back the other way to the town, down the dirty streets, wishing there were sidewalks, trying not to lose our way—I’m feeling more than ever how reliant I am on my phone back home. Here neither Ben nor I are using our phones and we’re relying only on our navigational skills to make it back to our apartment.
I find the culture a bit exhausting—I know I’m tired and I feel worlds away from snowy Virginia—but here it seems everyone drives scooters and shouts and smiles and dances and if you make eye contact with anyone they eagerly assume you want to buy something from them.
We stop at a restaurant we had found previously online called Wacamole. It doesn’t look impressive, with a big TV, a bar, and tables squished in the open air between the bar and the street. But when the food comes, it’s my favorite—everything fresh and well-seasoned. There’s a big bowl of chunky guacamole that seems like it was just made, a strawberry mojito filled with chunks of fresh mint and lime, and shrimp tacos perfectly grilled. After eating I feel much more optimistic about this place we’ve come to!
One of the main reasons we do Airbnb is to have an apartment with a full kitchen so that we don’t need to eat out for every meal, so the next stop is to a small grocery called the BAM Market. We walk in and it strikes me like the kind of corner market you would find at a gas station. There are only a few aisles, and they seem full mostly of alcohol and packaged snacks.
My head is still aching and I’m not sure how we can make a meal out of anything here, but we keep looking and eventually pick up canned beans, canned tuna, eggs (just like in Mexico, not refrigerated), tortillas, pasta, and pasta sauce. With our hands full of groceries, we try to make our way back to our apartment, take two wrong turns, but eventually reach it, and put our food away.
It’s only 8 p.m. but I am so tired, and the pulsating music on the beach continues. We both wear ear plugs and are tired enough to go to sleep in spite of it. At midnight I wake up and the music is still going, but I fall back asleep.
Monday, February 19th
After going to bed so early the night before, I wake up at 5:45. Everything is dark and quiet. The music has finally stopped! I’ll be honest that yesterday I was a bit disappointed. Sometimes I feel keenly how introverted I am and it was one of those days—I was tired from travel and wanted nothing more than peace and quiet, but everywhere I turned was unfamiliar and loud and chaotic. We came to this trip primarily for relaxation and I’m wondering how much we can relax if our apartment sounds like it’s in the back of a disco bar.
But for now it is quiet and I’m determined to make the best of it. I work out, listening to my own music, shower, and then get ready for the day, listening to a podcast. Then I make myself chai, without milk because I didn’t see any at the market yesterday, and do my Bible study. Just that little routine helps to ground me.
By this time Ben is awake and we go for a walk on the beach, eager to enjoy it before the music starts up again. This early in the morning, as the sun just begins to rise, there is hardly anyone out. I can feel myself relaxing and remembering why I love the beach—sand against my toes, rhythm of the waves. The water and the air are both the perfect temperature—not uncomfortably cold or hot, and the sea breezes keep everything feeling fresh and new.
We come back to our apartment and Ben makes a charming breakfast considering what few ingredients he’s working with. Then we set out to see if we can’t buy some fruits and vegetables anywhere. Gricel had mentioned a fruit truck. It’s not on the street where it is supposed to be and no one there seems to have heard of it, but as we round another corner we find a man unloading fruits and vegetables from the back of his truck to sell to a restaurant. We ask if we can buy and for seven dollars we pick out a couple onions, a big avocado, a cantaloupe, broccoli, and other produce. He has eggs in flats on the back of his truck too, but we’d already bought some at the market. We stop at a different market on the way back and find a couple oranges, some cheese, and a little bit of milk (boxed and at room temperature, but it will still work for my chai).
The rest of the day is reading, sitting at the beach, jumping in the waves, watching Forrest Gump, cooking and eating our own food … so relaxing and beautiful that I’m beginning to love being here. I like not having a car, not feeling like we need to be out driving and seeing and doing things. We keep waiting for the restaurant music to turn on and for the beach to get rowdy again (maybe at lunchtime? Mid afternoon? Definitely by dinner …), but it never does, and we wonder if it was an unusual occurrence or maybe just a weekend thing? The entire day is quiet and relaxing, just what we wanted, and we go to bed early again.
Tuesday, February 20th
This morning we set the alarm for 6:00 a.m., because this is our day to be a bit adventurous and go ziplining and then snorkeling. We booked our excursion online with Scape Park, the company Gricel recommended, and we’ve arranged to meet them at 7:50. They offer multiple hotels as pickup locations, but of course we’re not staying at a hotel, so I found from the list one just beside our apartment complex that we pass every time we walk into town, Whala Bavaro.
After a homemade breakfast and packing our backpack, we’re out the door and waiting at Whala Bavaro early, at 7:40. I feel excited and nervous—at home I would have my phone, I would be in communication with whoever was picking us up, I would know better how to navigate—and I wonder at how much owning a smart phone has become part of my life, and whether it helps anxiety or actually increases it.
7:50, 8:00, 8:10, and the promised transportation does not arrive. Finally a man in a car pulls up beside us and we ask if he’s from Scape Park—no, he works with a different excursion company and would gladly schedule us for something different, had we arranged to meet Scape Park here? They always pick up at the front gate of Whala Bavaro, which is around the block.
We hurry there, but by the time we arrive it’s almost 8:20 and we look around and there is no one there to meet us. We walk back to our apartment and I feel myself pulled toward shame, anxiety, resentment—wishing I had been able to make the reservation better and that we could have met them at the correct gate, wondering if we’ll be able to get in touch with them, if we’ll miss our excursion entirely, if we’ll be able to get a refund?
We don’t have phone service but at our apartment we do have WiFi and a laptop, so we email Scape Adventures and explain what happened. I wash the dishes from our breakfast and work on my attitude. The whole point of this trip is to relax and have fun and reconnect with Ben.
Yes, I was all geared up for ziplining and snorkeling. But, I need to practice responding to disappointment, being flexible together with Ben, gracefully adjusting my expectations. So I might not be able to zipline—that is such a first world problem. So we might lose the money we spent—it is a small loss. So we went to the wrong entrance at the hotel—we don’t have to be experts at everything, there’s no shame in that.
What stretches before me, now that I’ve adjusted my expectations to it, is another day of relaxing on the beach, reading, spending time with Ben, maybe a movie or going out to a restaurant—hardly a day to complain about.
Isn’t so much of our lives like that? We plan for something, we imagine and anticipate it, and then somehow something changes and we find ourselves living something different. Maybe our marriage is different from how we imagined it, maybe our children are, maybe our work is, maybe this life in our 30s or whatever decade we’re in isn’t what we anticipated when we were in our teens and 20s. And we can choose whether to resent that or whether to enjoy the goodness right where we are.
So as it turns out, we have a beautiful day of enjoying the beach, reading, relaxing, and eating good food. In the afternoon we watch The Martian, more for Ben than for me, but I enjoy it just the same, and I slowly work through Joshilyn Jackson’s Almost Sisters, a book I end up loving.
Wednesday, February 21st
After missing our excursion yesterday morning, Scape Park emailed back that we could reschedule for today. So we are up at 6:00 again, which isn’t nearly as hard when you go to bed near 8:30 p.m. Today at 7:50 we manage to be at the correct gate of the Whala Bavaro hotel. Yesterday I felt anxious that something might go wrong, which it did. Today I feel so chill—hey, what’s the worst that could happen? We miss the bus and spend the day on the beach. Been there, done that, had fun.
But the bus is there, and we take an hour drive inland to a big park in the mountains for our zipline adventure. I’ve never zip-lined before and I really enjoy it. It’s definitely not scary or an adrenaline-pumping thrill, but it is adventurous and fun. We spend about half our time ziplining and the other half hiking.
I am so grateful for how I haven’t experienced much Lyme pain on this trip. I’ve felt so healthy. I can hike—including crawling through a little cave and climbing up the side of my rock—and I feel good. I probably felt this way all the time in my teens and 20s and just took it for granted, but now I’m so used to feeling yucky that I get really excited about feeling good.
After ziplining, we feel the good kind of tired and hungry, and we get a complimentary buffet lunch that is probably the best meal we’ve had on our trip so far. You know when there are huge sections of avocadoes piled up on a platter that it’s going to be a good meal. I barely get through the first buffet table with soup and salads before my plate is full; everything is so fresh and delicious.
We signed up for a dual excursion, which has two parts and was really discounted at a good price, so next we go to a very quiet, beautiful beach. They had advertised snorkeling and I guess there was snorkeling gear there, but there really wasn’t any ocean life to see in the water, and I don’t know if there is anywhere here in Punta Cana—I think you would need to go further out. That said, the beach was beautiful with white sand, gentle turquoise waves, everything the perfect temperature, sea breezes, palm trees, included drinks (hello, piña colada). There were boats that we took out a little, but it’s hard to row against the current, and it was more relaxing to swim. It’s such a beautiful piece of God’s creation that while you’re there it’s hard to think you ever were stressed about anything.
We get back to our apartment at 4 in the afternoon for an early dinner and time to rest. I’m loving our vacation so far. I think of the bad moments—the crazy loud music on Sunday, the disappointment of missing our excursion on Tuesday—and I think if anything those moments have actually helped me enjoy our time here more. After Sunday, I expected to have loud noise every day, and I’ve been happily surprised that it’s been quiet ever since. And after missing our excursion on Tuesday, we got to enjoy a relaxing Plan B and reschedule for Wednesday and it all worked out.
I think my favorite thing about this trip is how relaxed and healthy I feel. I love being home—don’t get me wrong—but this winter has been so hard, even down to the rashes I get on my hands when the air turns cold and dry. My rashes cleared up probably the first day we were here. I love being so casual, eating well, sleeping well, walking everywhere, feeling good. Definitely not something I’m taking for granted, but I’m hoping I can take these good feelings back home and not allow the cold and the stress there to get to me!
Thursday, February 22nd
It’s our last day here, but we don’t need to check out until noon or leave for the airport until 2:30, so we have plenty of time to enjoy ourselves! I don’t set my alarm but I still wake up at 6. Maybe I’ve become a morning person, because I actually love getting to bed early and waking up refreshed, early enough to enjoy the quiet, cool hours of morning. It’s another day of Bible study and chai on the terrace, a walk on the beach, a delicious breakfast as Ben tries to use up the rest of the groceries we bought, and then more reading on the beach and splashing in the waves.
At 11 a.m. we come back to our apartment to make ourselves an early lunch and pack everything up. By noon we’re ready, and while we’re waiting for Gricel to arrive, I ask if he doesn’t mind if I go back to the beach again. I feel drawn there like a magnet—there is no place on earth so relaxing to me, so casual and beautiful and natural, where you don’t feel like you need to do anything, just being there is enough.
I read and rest on the beach for awhile longer, and come back to find that Ben has checked us out of our apartment and is up on the third floor community area, with tables and couches, open to the sea breezes, and a safe place to keep our luggage while we do a bit more exploring. We go out for gelato and coffee, I walk to the beach again, feeling sad to leave it but also happy that I’ll be on a different beach this August.
At 2:30, Gricel says that our driver is here. We say goodbye to her and I’m so grateful for how she’s helped us during our stay. We arrive at the airport at 3:00, and though I expect we will have plenty of extra time until our flight leaves at 5:10, I don’t think we ever do sit down, moving from one line until the other until we get on our flight.
Goodbye, Punta Cana. I’ve had a wonderful time with you and am returning home so much more rested, centered, ready to reconnect with our kids and home life and community. I hope in five years we can do another getaway, and we’ll probably pick a different location where we are once again amateurs and will make mistakes and have adventures.
This trip I’ve been more aware of our privilege in even being able to come here in the first place. It’s certainly not something we can afford every year. I’m grateful for the part-time teaching I can do to give us a budget for vacations. I’m grateful to Ben’s mom for essentially telling us, “We’re watching the kids for a week in February, go somewhere!” I’m grateful that our kids have had a wonderful vacation with Ben’s side of the family while we’ve been here.
I know not everyone reading this blog has the same privileges and opportunities, and I don’t have them every year either. I guess I would encourage everyone, though, insofar as you can, prioritize your health. Your physical health, emotional health, spiritual health. Find away to get away somewhere if you need to, to eat well and walk and sleep well and relax and do whatever helps you unwind.
Prioritize your marriage. I’m so thankful for Ben and how our marriage has grown and adapted over the years. We’ve both changed, our children and home and work and church and life situation ha changed. Our marriage looks different now than it did, but it’s a good different. One of our achievements actually was deliberately choosing not to bring a marriage book or questionnaire or anything like that along on our trip. I know for some couples, reading a good marriage book and talking through it together may be just what you need. For us, beginning back when we were dating, we can be so serious and intentional that it gets exhausting. This trip we left the marriage books behind and just enjoyed each other’s company. I’m grateful to have the kind of marriage where we can do that, where we’ve accepted each other’s imperfections and have chosen to stick it out with each other.
Now … I’m so glad to be back home, back with my kids, back in my busy life. I’m not that excited about cold rain and gray skies, but … spring is coming! And joy awaits.