I always find it interesting to see the juxtaposition of travelers on vacation interacting with the locals who are going about their daily life. In larger cities like Paris and London, there are many similarities to life in New York. People are bustling by, on their way to work, to home, to the gym, to dinner. It seems that people are constantly in motion. However, I noticed that in Santo Domingo the way of life was much slower than I was used to.
All around me there were families, friends, even solitary individuals enjoying the warm air, dining al fresco, taking a nap on the warm stones, and just enjoying the view of the history-laced buildings around them. There did not seem to be any sort of rush and it made me smile to see a country that had learned to truly enjoy even the small moments in life.
During my time spent exploring the Colonial District in Santo Domingo, I was solicited by an older man in Colon Park. At first assuming he was trying to sell me something, I brushed him off. Instead he launched into a history lesson of the area, explaining that he worked for the city as a tour guide. He seemed more proud of his country than out to make a buck, and quickly pointed out his favorite spots around the park. His first pick was the Santo Domingo chocolate museum, which immediately piqued my interest.
I stepped inside and the scent was intoxicating. Warm, melted chocolate simmered in cast iron pots, while bottles that presumably held various forms of the dessert were scattered around. As I tasted chocolate in more forms than I knew existed (jam, liqueur, soap, etc.) I realized just how inventive you could be when determined to enjoy something sweet.
My favorite chocolate treat? The cinnamon spiced chocolate liqueur.
On my last day in Santo Domingo, I decided to pull myself away from the sun-soaked poolside terrace and retrace my steps around the Zona Colonial. Whenever I visit someplace for the first time I typically get overwhelmed by the entire scene, drinking in as much as I can as quickly as I can. However, after a couple of days, I was able to relax and discover new corners and details that I had not discovered before.
I turned down a quiet, residential street just off the Colon Park and heard the soft tinkling of a piano. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the door to the house was wide open, and framing the doorway were an old woman and her (presumably) grandson, lost in the music and in the moment. It was such a beautiful scene, that I stood there, frozen, unwilling to leave and knowing that I could not disturb the peace. Finally I shuffled on, the clicks of my camera adding the only sound to the tinkling keys against the stiff heat.
One of my favorite things to happen during a trip is an unexpected stopover. While I used to plan out my trips so aggressively that I had a detailed itinerary for every minute away, I now have a loose idea of where I want to go, and try to just be in the moment. If I like a city more than I expected, I have the time to extend my stay there. If someplace is not living up to its hype, than I have no issues leaving sooner. However, there are those wonderful moments when you discover a place you did not even know existed, and your trip changes its entire course.
That was the story of how I came to visit Chala. During my 2012 trip to Peru, I was at the southern tip of the country, having completed the Inca Trail, and was ready to head back up to Lima. However, after my previous experience with a 20 hour bus ride I knew that I needed to break up the trip. After consulting several bus schedules, and numerous maps I found a tiny village that would give me a 12 hour respite from the stomach churning bus journey. It was Chala.
This tiny fishing village was so small, it is no wonder it escapes the well worn gringo path. The buildings are mostly dilapidated, there are no historic sites to explore, and speaking English is a huge challenge. Yet the quiet of this small town drew me in, and I found myself wandering the beach and admiring the strange patterns drawn by the seaweed washed ashore. The cluster of colorful fishing boats were a beautiful site, looking more decorative than you would imagine from the chief industry of a city. Finally, as I prepared to leave for the bus station on the second leg of my journey North, I watched a sunset so fiery and pure, that it looked as if it had been painted onto the sky.
Indeed, this trip out of necessity had turned into an indelible memory of simple joys.