Left to right: Maggy (my twin), Leanna (the baby of the family), Me
*Sigh* I love Christmas.
Boys and their toys.
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.....the Gleason's were partying! Every year we hang the stockings, trim the tree, and host a hopping Christmas eve party for all my Gleason relatives (most of which who are located in a convenient 5 mile radius of my house since they farm together). My Mom decks the halls with boughs of holly and my Dad cranks up the Christmas music and all of us kids spend the day helping to prepare.
Maggy and Neal stirred the soup
Leanna put the finishing touches on her cheese dip
Dad sliced up oranges for the always delicioius Blue Moon
And then Dad used the knife to take a loving picture with his only son-in-law
Us girls spent a fair amount of time chopping and dicing fruits and veggies
And Mom layed out a delicious Christmas party spread: Sicilian sausage soup, creamy potato soup, chips, dip, cheese platter, and fruit and veggie trays.
And who could forget the dessert buffet? Forget sugarplums, I want chocolate!
My favorite part of the night: the opening of the wine!
The Gleason sisters are back in town!
Left to right: Maggy (my twin), Leanna (the baby of the family), Me
Maggy, chilling with her Blue Moon, waiting for the party to get started
Its the Bracy clan! The Bracy's, long time neighbors and childhood friends, crashed (were invited) to our Christmas get-together several years ago, and have continued crashing every year since. Which is just fine by us since we love them like family anyways :)
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Granddad.
Mingling over hor d'ouvres
Kade, my second cousin (yes, my family is so big that even my cousins have kids now!)
Sammy and Wyatt, being boys and wresting
Catch phrase always gets the party started
Wyatt got a new nerf gun and decided to test it out
Things did not end well for him, lol.
Full, happy, and probably slightly tipsy, almost the entire party relocates to St. Patrick's church in Elkhart for Midnight Mass later in the evening. Then its back to bed to await Santa while visions of sugarplums, (and tomorrow's turkey) dance in our heads.
*Sigh* I love Christmas.
Bright and early on Christmas morning we wake up, rub the sleep from our eyes, smile because its Christmas, and then pack up and hop in the car to head to Pleasant Hill for Christmas with the Hubbard family on my Mom's side.
My Mom's side of the family, although not quite as large as my Dad's, still has enough to pack my Grandma's house. My cousins on that side of the family also have their own children too! (seems like I may be getting a little behind on the whole "having a baby thing.") Little Kate, above, was not happy about getting a bow put in her hair.
Nothing a few tickles couldn't fix though!
Sadie, along with everyone else in the room, was fascinated by her new remote control car.
Once the little ones had opened their presents, and we had all had our fill of Christmas lunch (which I was so hungry I forgot to take pictures of), it was time for grab bag gifts for the adults, usually a pretty raucous occasion with everybody stealing gifts from everybody else. No one is safe, not even Mammer (yes, I call my grandma, Mammer).
Then, in Hubbard fashion, we bundle up in our coats and mittens and head out to the old farm to climb the "Big Hill" and work off those Christmas cookies.
Its a long trek up, and deceptively steep. Walking up will leave you winded, running up will make you feel like your heart is going to thud right out of your chest.
I can't help myself though, I always race to the top. (The others stopped to stare at bald eagle in the distance)
Dad was pretty happy he made it too
Whatever my Mom's side of the family lacks in number, they make up for in size, with all my uncles and cousins towering well over 6 feet!
After a few glorious moments in the chilly wind at the top of the hill, its time to head back down the forested path on the other side. Check out the deer trail. Pike county, where the farm is located, is the deer capital of the world.
We always finish up the trek with a little exploring along the creekbed
And of course, the journey wouldn't be complete without some discussion about farm equipment and machinery.
Boys and their toys.
I'm so happy I made it home for Christmas!
After our great experience at the Salto de Limón on Saturday, we decided that after spending a little time at the beach we should head back to the little town of Limón for the day. We had heard rumors of a natural spring in the center of town that was the city hot-spot on Sunday afternoons. Plus our friend Natha had promised to show us around if we decided to come back. That was all the convincing we needed.
The natural spring-fed pool lived up to its expectations as the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. Half the town was relaxing with a cerveza in hand at the small cafés surrounding the pool, and the other half were dancing along the edge and sporadically showing off by diving into the crips waters.
We met up with Natha at the spring, or the arroyito, as it is called in Spanish, and after we had had our fill of wading in the cold waters, he drove us out to a nearby beach to enjoy the sunset.
We ended up renting a room in the one and only hostal Limón has to offer. For a queen size bed and a twin bed along with an attached bathroom, we payed $1000 pesos. Sufficient is the best word I can use to describe the place, but that didn´t matter since we didn´t spend much time there. Hot water would have been nice, but that´s hoping for a lot in such a remote area.
After our cold showers and a little food, Natha took us out to a local pool hall to start the night.
I can´t say I played my best, but I was a little distracted by all the stares we were attracting. We were definitely the only gringas in town, and although I think Limón sees a lot of tourists because of the nearby waterfall, very few ever stay long enough to enjoy the night life.
Which is a complete shame because Limón is like the fountain of youth. The main street that runs through the town is pretty much discoteca central, and there were so many young people around that they didn´t even all fit into the discotecas and bars, they spilled out into the streets and formed a crowd so large, it would have been difficult for a vehicle to pass through. Limón, in my opinion, is probably the most happening town on the Sámana peninsula: an undiscovered treasure.
After dancing the night away to our heart´s content, we rolled out of bed early the next morning to enjoy Playa Marón. This gorgeous beach took us about a half hour to reach by motorcycle on a muddy dirt path through the jungle. But worth every minute.
The beach was gorgeous and there wasn´t a soul around. However, a hotel was being constructed nearby and so this nearly virgin beach will probably not remain that way for too much longer.
A short climb up the side of the mountain, and past the hotel construction site, will bring you to a natural pool made by coral that connects to the sea. (just make sure to wear shoes, because that coral is jagged!)
we splashed around in the waves for a bit until we realized that we were going to be late for our bus, which left from Las Terrenas at 1:00. We rushed back to our hostal, threw all of our clothes into a bag, and then hopped on the back of Natha and company´s motorcycles to race the clock back to Las Terrenas. If we didn´t catch that bus we´d be spending another unplanned night in Limón.
We arrived just as the bus was pulling out of the station. Wheeeww. Now that´s what I call maximizing every minute of a vacation. Lindsay and I giggled over our good luck and reminisced about the awesomeness of our trip for the first 20 minutes of the ride, and then fell into a deep and much needed sleep for the next 3 hours back to Santiago.
Whenever I feel up for an adventure I know I can count on Lindsay to be up for one too. And this time around, the wind blew us to Las Terrenas, a small beach town on the Samana peninsula, renowned for its nearly virgin beaches.
We started our travels early Friday afternoon. Transporte Samana (which you will have to find by word of mouth because of course they don't have any info on the internet) runs buses direct from Santiago to Las Terrenas at 6:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 3:00 p.m. The cost is 300 pesos ($7.50) for a 3 1/2 hour bus ride with one stop about half way through for a bathroom/snack break. Not a bad deal!
Upon request, the bus driver kindly dropped us off at our hostal, Casas del Mar Neptunia, a sweet little hostal with individual bungalows complete with their own bathroom, hot water (often a luxury), a mini fridge, a safe box, free wifi, and complimentary breakfast. Not to mention its just steps from the beach and a conveniently close walk from the heart of town. Our 3 bed bungalow cost us $1750 total per night. A steal in my opinion.
After our trip we were a little tired, so we chilled in the room and waited for our third amiga, Malin, to arrive. She had taken a later bus from Cabarete.
Once she got into town, we figured it was time to russel up some grub. We found a nice little American place, Big Dan's, serving up cheap hamburgers and the best fresh grouper I've ever tasted. There we sat and chatted with Pilar, the rambunctious 3 year-old daughter of the owner, and also talked with the kind managers of the Mexican restaurant, El Huekito, situated in the same little eating nook. Then it was back to the hostal for a little nappy-nap before heading back out at night. Things don't get heated up until about midnight in Las Terranas, so best to squeeze in some rest before then because you'll probably be out til the wee small hours of the morning. We woke up still a little hungry and decided to head into town for a snack before making our way to the party scene. We asked around for where we could find a cheap comedor (Dominican cafe) since we didn't want to spend a lot in the touristy restaurants located in the heart of town. Of course everyone was more than happy to help us and we had no trouble finding two nice young men, off-duty police officers, who kindly offered to take us to their favorite comedor. They payed for our meal and then led us out to one of their favorite spots for nightlife: la bomba Tu Drinks. A "bomba" is a gas station. But many bombas have a small restaurant/bar attached and at night these are converted into swingin' bachata and merengue dance centers. After a few beers and little bachata we decided to head back into another night club, La Bodega, in the town center. I can't say I was super impressed with La Bodega since when we first arrived they were playing old American music that was impossible to dance to. Nevertheless, the establishment was spacious, clean, and quite lovely with indoor and outdoor seating as well as a huge dance floor. And as the night progressed they began to play more Dominican music, luring us out to bust a few moves once again. We made our way home around 3:00 a.m., tired but happy, and immediately fell into a dreamy sleep.
I rolled out of bed around 8:00 a.m., with the morning sun beaming on my face and the beach calling my name. But first, breakfast!
Toasted baguete with all-natual butter from Sosua and delicious tropical jam of unknown flavor. Coffee with milk and honey. Seasonal fruit and a tall glass of oranje juice to wash it all down. Yumm :) I pretty much skipped all the way to the beach after breakfast, I was so happy.
The day was a little overcast, December is the rainy season here, but still, it was a lovely 85 degrees, and the beach was stunning. Absolutely stunning. Soft sand, blue waters, gentle waves, lush palms, and the best part, it stretched on and on for miles. Finding a patch of sand with little to no other people wasn't hard.
After a nice walk and some fetch with two friendly beach-bum strays, I met up with Lindsay and Malin to play in the waves.
Once we had had our fill of fun in the sun, we decided to try for a mini-adventure to El Salto de Límon, a waterfall situated in the mountains not too far away.
After talking with a few of the locals, we eventually ran into a fellow named Leche (milk), who advised us that we could catch a guagua to Límon every 15 minutes for 50 pesos, and who, after some serious bargaining, said that he could get us 3 horses with guides to lead us to the waterfall for only 300 pesos a piece. Let´s put this into perspective: a round trip ride to Limon, plus horseback ride to the falls only cost us 400 pesos ($10 dollars). The excursion price offered to tourists is $45. Now that´s what I call a good deal. Its a good thing we can speak Spanish because a regular tourist would never ever be able to get that price.
P.S. the above photo is of Me, Leche, and Malin waiting for our guagua.
So the guagua turned out to be nothing more than a truck with benches rigged onto the back. Awesome.
The ride took about 15 minutes all in all.
Once we got into Limón, Leche led us to a little stream to wait while he went to round up our horses and guides.
The horses ended up being more like ponies and our guides were 3 barefoot Dominican boys: Jefferson (Jefu), age 12, Adrian, age 11, and Nathaniel (Natha), age 19. Although Natha stopped by a friends place to pick up some boots along the way.
Our little ponies bravely forged through rivers, up steep hills, and over treacherously rocky terrain through the heart of a Dominican jungle. And more impressively, our guides hiked almost the entire 40 minute trip as well, without shoes! The two younger ones hopped on the back of the ponies only a couple times, just to make it a little easier to give them a swat on the rump to motivate them forward.
Finally, we arrived. Beautiful. After tying up our horses we made our way down the path to get closer to the falls.
Adrian and Lindsay
The path led down to the first (and smaller) waterfall. We had to wade across the river to get to the path on the other side that would take us up to the larger fall.
Me and Natha, my guide.
And here is where our mini photo-shoot began. Natha hopped into the brisk (very brisk) waters and it didn't take too much persuasion to get Lindsay and Malin to follow. I, on the other hand, opted to be the photographer and stay dry since riding home on horseback wet and cold didn't seem like the most favorable of conditions. I was definitely getting my fill of cold water from the spray coming off the falls in any case.
Jefu and Adrian also thought the waters were a little too cold for swimming
Finally, it was time to make our way back, but not before snapping one last picture goodbye. Then we hopped on our ponies and headed home. By this time however, the sun was starting to set, and it was going down quickly. We urged our little ponies to make it down the mountainside faster so we wouldn´t get caught in the jungle after dark. Malin´s pony wasn´t quite as surefooted as the rest though and the previous night´s rain had mad the trail slippery with mud. The little pony ended up slipping and falling! Luckily, Malin and Jefu rolled off without a scratch and the pony was just fine as well. We took it a little easier after that and only just made it out of the jungle before darkness fell. Leche was anxiously waiting for us at the foot of the jungle path with a flashlight, worried that he might have to go in looking for us. All's well that ends well though, and overall it was an amazing adventure! I would do it again in a heartbeat and I would recommend it to anyone, as long as you don't mind roughing it a little with a truly Dominican style tour.
Once we finally made it back to Las Terrenas after our nearly 5 hour tour, we were starving. Hunger has a funny way of making everyone a little grumpy, and we were having trouble finding a place we all agreed on. Once everyone finally had a little food in their tummy though, peace returned to our little group of three. We decided to take it easy for the night, so we bought a bottle of wine and headed for the beach to do some star gazing.
My puppy pals from earlier in the day decided to join us.
A tropical night, the sound of soft waves crashing, a star-studded sky, good friends, and a cold bottle of wine. What more could a girl want?
"La Vega! La Vega! LavegaLavegaLavega!!" shouted a young man hanging out the open side door of a beat up old van whirring by.
And that's how the adventure started.
We didn't really have a plan.
All we knew was that there were waterfalls in Jarabacoa.
And we wanted to see them. '
And well, to get to Jarabacoa, one first must catch a ride to La Vega.
And to get to La Vega, one must find a "guagua" (bus) out of Santiago.
And we had heard rumors that we could find said "guagua" passing by Puerta 1 of PUCMM on a 15 minute basis.
So with our hiking gear on and backpacks sparsely packed with a swimsuit and some bug spray, Lindsay, Malin, and I set out into the wild blue yonder.
We found the guagua swinging by Puerto 1 as predicted, and so after forking over a modest 50 pesos ($1.25) each, we crammed into the back sear for half hour ride to La Vega.
Views from the road.
Above: Lovely little goat farm
Below: The local butcher shop, with today's specialty being leg of goat.
Since we had really no idea where we were going, Lindsay chatted up the nice elderly lady seated in front of us to find out where we should get dropped off. The lovely lady explained that once we got into the city of La Vega, we should get off at El Quinto Parada, another bus station located there.
So we made our way off the guagua without a hitch, but decided to mosey around town for a little bit and scrounge up some lunch, we were in no hurry after all.
We meandered into the local "comedor" (small cafeteria-like restaurants that are super typical here) serving all the traditional Dominican staples: Tostones, French fries, Picapolla (Dominican-style fried chicken), Bolitas de yucca (fried yucca balls stuffed with cheese), a few different types of rice, and Habichuelas (beans in sauce that is served over the rice).
Lindsay opted for the picapollo, fried rice, and a bolita de yucca.
Then it was back to the bus station to purchase a ticket to Jarabacoa. The ticket was 75 pesos and we had to wait about 20 minutes since the bus wouldn't leave until it was full...which meant squeezing almost 15 people into a minibus that in the U.S. would legally only hold about 10.
No worries though, a man came around selling "chicharrones", or fried pork skins, and that kept me entertained for a good 5 minutes.
I shamelessly snapped pictures like a tourist. And then I bravely asked to try a small piece, which he obligingly gave me for free. They were so interesting looking I just couldn't miss the opportunity!
Ok, so you might consider this delicious if you can get past all the pork fat. I could not. One little bite literally had grease dripping down my fingers in a river. (not my most flattering picture, lol)
So after another half hour ride and some more chatting with the other passengers to find out where to get off (everything is done by word of mouth here), our guagua left us on the side of the road next to a sign for the waterfalls: Salto de Jimenoa
From there we flagged down two motoconchos and haggled over the price: 300 pesos total to take the three of us the rest of the way to the falls.
Malin and Lindsay squeezed onto a motorcycle with Jimmy, their driver, and I got to have a motorcycle all to myself with Davys, my driver. Davys and I got to know each other pretty well during our 15 minute ride, during which he proposed to me twice. Not much one for small talk, lol. I spent the majority of the ride explaining to him why I couldn´t/wouldn´t marry him and bring him back to the U.S. God bless his soul, I can´t fault him for trying.
The ride really was quite lovely though.
The countryside was beautiful and the air was crisp and fresh since we were a little ways up in the mountains. It was a refreshing change from the stuffy Santiago air. Not to mention everything just seems more awesome on a motorcycle.
Salto de Jimenoa is a pretty famous waterfall and it cost 50 pesos to enter the park where it was located. Once inside, we had to make our way across a series of rickety old hanging wooden bridges to reach the actual fall. The creaking boards under our feet certainly did their job in adding an element of "danger" to our adventure.
It wasn't hard too imagine a cable snapping and the whole bridge swinging down towards the river as I bravely clutched onto it, Indiana Jones style, scrambleing to safety just before it plunged into the swirling waters below.
Yes, I realize I have an over-active imagination.
Really though, the whole place was very serene.
Apparently these two lovebirds thought it was a lovely place as well. I couldn't resist snatching a pic from behind the foliage. Voyeuristic maybe? Ok, maybe, but they weren´t really being too inconspicuous.
After chilling at the waterfall for a bit, we made our way down a trail through the "jungle" that ran alongside the river.
We spotted an orange tree and couldn´t resist stopping to pick an all-natural snack.
We didn´t find out until later that these were not oranges at all! They were lemons! Lemons pretending to be oranges! That first bite was a doozy.
Fruit is weird here. Nothing looks likes what it really should be. Oranges are green. Lemons are orange. You never know what you are getting. All part of the adventure.
Eventually the trail ended at a small geenhouse (vivero) before leading back out to the main entrance.
We called Jimmy and Davys to come get us. And then we haggled prices with them for another 10 minutes before they agreed to take us to the next waterfall, Salto Baiguate. The thing is, being obviously American, we really have to fight to not get taken advantage of on prices. So when we found out (from talking to a woman while we waited for the motoconchos to arrive) that we only should have paid 50 pesos a piece for the previous ride, and not 100, we had a little bit of a tiff with our motoconcho friends. We eventually reached an agreement: 200 pesos to take us to Salto Baiguate and then on to the bus station in Jarabacoa.
More views of the local agriculture taken from the motorcycle
View from the top of Salto Baiguate
View from the bottom.
We threw on our bathing suits and waded into the brisk (very brisk!) waters, splashing around and exploring until our toes turned blue. That was our cue that it was time to head out.
But before we could leave Jarabacoa, we had to have dinner of course! A typical meal of albondigas (meatballs), white rice with habichuelas (beans with sauce), and green salad.
We caught the 5:00 p.m. guagua back to La Vega for 75 pesos and then sat at a roadside café to sip some coffee and enjoy the sights and sounds of the busy little city at dusk while we waited for the next bus back to Santiago.
All in all, it was a beautiful day. Adventure accomplished.
So you may remember that upon my arrival in the D.R., I spent my first week in a hostal called The Hub. Little did I know then that this hostal was so much more than it appeared. In fact, to me it has become a little piece of home away from home.
You may remember that the hostal is run by Elaine and Marcos, who also happen to live right above it with their two ridiculously adorable children.
So here´s a little background info: Elaine and Marcos head up CIEE´s Service Learning Program here in Santiago. The Service Learning Program is something I wish I had known about when I was studying in college. I truly cannot think of a more worthwhile study abroad program. The students that participate not only have to take courses at the University, but they must become involved in and organize their own community service projects, consistently volunteering in the community, interacting in Spanish, and improving the lives of everyone they meet here.
Not only do Elaine and Marcos help orquestrate these community service projects and meaningful experiences between the students and community members, but they also have opened the doors to the bottom floor of their home to provide extremely reasonable lodging for peace corp volunteers, non-profit groups, and wayward travellers passing through the city, who are often on tight budgets.
In addition, (I know, right, is there anything they don´t do!), they also host a non-denominational "church" service almost every Sunday.
This service is the thing that keeps bringing me back to the Hub. It´s usually a small rag-tag bunch of whatever peace corp volunteers are lodging for the weekend and a few core Santiagueros and ex-pats. Someone volunteers to strum out a few songs on the guitar while the rest sing along. We have a moment of prayer and a short lesson or reflection period, usually prepared and presented by one of the group members in advance. Coffee is free and every last Sunday we have a potluck lunch. The whole thing is so cute and quaint that I fell in love with it immediately. But it goes far beyond just being a lovely idea. This little church service has become a safe haven for me. A place for me to center my thoughts, to connect with people, to find peace. Amidst the whir and buzz of falling into a new culture and new way of living, this place has become the one constant in my life, somewhere I know that I can go with whatever burden I am carrying. And I know that many others feel the same. The Hub is truly a blessing for everyone who enters through its doors and a little piece of home for those of us who are so far away from our own.
Exhibit A: Thanksgiving. The Hub opened its doors not only to the CIEE service learning students and interns, but also to any ex-pat missing home on this important holiday. Everyone was asked to bring a dish to pass and something thankful to share. Before long, the table was groaning with the weight of all the food acquired: everything from classic American mashed potatoes to Dominican pineapple pie. And somewhere between the mouthfuls of turkey and bubbling conversation something special happened: strangers, friends, and relatives all became family for one night. That´s the magic that is the Hub.
CIEE Service-Learning Family
Marcos and Elaine had a turkey cook-off. Marcos deep fried his, Elaine went with the classic roasting method. We weren´t allowed to know who´s turkey was whose, and at the end of the meal we were forced to vote, even though they were both absolutely delicious!
The competition was tight, but Marcos scraped out a win by 1 vote.
Elaine and the Service-Learning students. Love them to pieces! Take a good look because these kids are going to change the world.
Annie and Porscha in a tickle fight. We were told to dress "pilgrim chic" for the night. I think Porscha nailed it.
Happy taste buds and tummies all around!
Thanksgiving dinner was Lindsay's first night at the Hub. In her regular email update to friends and family (which I was lucky enough to read) Lindsay described her first experience with the Hubsters. She was kind enough to let me borrow an excerpt to share with you all. This is just one example of how the Hub has become a source of love and support whenever we need it most...and who am I kidding...that is all the time here.
"Too often I wake up feeling like the day is a burden and my first thoughts are work, class, deadlines, and debt. After last night's Thanksgiving dinner, I feel softer, calmer, more humble. One of the most beautiful aspects of last night's dinner was the openness of all of the attendees. One thing that most of us had in common was being away from home on such a family-oriented day. I think that since we were all feeling vulnerable, we were able to show more love, support and kindness to one another last night. Everyone went around to give thanks and I said that I was thankful for the ability to grow, learn, develop and change. I was also thankful for the gathering since I have been feeling rather homesick for a few weeks now. What are you thankful for?"
Joe was thankful to have someone to play with.
P.S. This is just the most adorable picture ever.
Cheers to the Hub!
May God forever bless you and all who enter under your roof
Hola! My name is Molly and I was recently hired through the travel abroad company CIEE as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for the PUCMM, a university located in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Hopefully this blog will give future travelers an insight into teaching abroad, while also helping me log my adventures and stay in touch with friends back home.