by John Oughton
I’ve been staying at this wonderful place in the Dominican Republic for several days now. My main purpose was to get away from February in Toronto, experience some wonderful weather and scenery, and a new culture, and make progress on two writing projects: finishing my PhD thesis proposal, and completing my suspense novel.
So, up to now, I’ve been conserving my writing energy for those tasks, other than short emails and comments on Facebook. However, some of my pals have expressed interest in knowing more about where I’m staying. My good friend Rachel Larabee, has taught, volunteered, and led college student international learning expeditions here, and is mostly responsible for my knowing about the Eco Village. She asked if I would be blogging about it. I owe her at least one. So I’ll do my best to describe it, and evoke its atmosphere a little… before I log my designated hours of thesis-proposal work.
The Eco Village is along a somewhat challenging twisty road about 20 km up the hills from Puerto Plata, and has been in operation about four years now. It is the creation of Tim Hall, Honorary Canadian consul for this part of the island. This makes him a great person to stay with, because if you get thrown in jail, you just call your host for help. Tim, a generous and far-thinking Montreal native permanently attached to Dominican cigars, had a few goals in mind for this place. One is that it fit the “sustainable tourism” model. This means that the Lodge and its various rooms and cabin/suites are built, as much as possible, by people who live in the village of Tubagua, and constructed with local, replaceable materials — lumber from the native trees, palm-thatched roofs, etc. Energy use is minimal — it has wireless Internet, lights, but no heavy electricity demands It also offers tourists who are bored with typical resorts and prefer some contact with the local people and countryside an alternative place to stay, or use as home base for excursions around here.
There’s no air-conditioning; in fact, there’s no glass in windows, but you’re on top of a sizable hill, almost a mountain, and at this time of the year, it’s never too hot in the shade. The shower has a small on-demand hot water heater, and rather than needing a full enclosure and ventilation fan, has one open side facing down the hills and out to the ocean — with an empty picture frame hung there to compose the scenery. So you can shower while looking out on a wonderful view, knowing that it would take very powerful optics (at least a military satellite’s) for anyone to view your dangly bits. You wake up each morning hearing a chorus of birds, distant roosters and dogs, and a little 125 cc motorcycle or two straining its way up the hill, often with three people, no helmets, and some produce on the bike — not the sound of elevators or canned music.
There’s a Haitian guy down the hill who works as a labourer but is an excellent singer, and sometimes his voice drifts up here as the sun rises.
You can pay for a meal plan or not, depending on your needs, and the food is local and wonderful, put together by Jacquie, a village woman that Tim has helped train, using experience from running a restaurant. Another of Tim’s goals is creating decent jobs in suzhou for local people, so several villagers work here, including a serious boy from an orphanage who is the dishwasher and busboy. Here’s an example of how this is sustainable tourism: in a beach resort in Puerto Plata you’d be eating food that is at best trucked in from the countryside, and possibly imported from other countries. In Tubagua, the bananas you eat (small and sweet) grow on the trees right outside your room.
It’s not a place for those who think that travel to exotic locales requires luxury touches like big-screen cable TV and hot tubs, or who make their major occupation complaining about the quality of the food, service, etc. But if you want to plan your own trips around the DR, Tim and others will help with advice about where to say and eat, what to see, the roads to take or avoid, and so on. It has services you won’t get in a big hotel, like tropical flowers everywhere, and hummingbirds who fly into the dining room. For me, it’s a great writer’s retreat because most visitors head out during the daytime, and it’s just me, the dogs, cats (and a black rooster who appeared from somewhere).
You actually can stay here without a car, as I am doing, renting a bicycle from Jacquie to ride a couple of K’s to the village and stock up on beer and snack foods, and cadging rides or sharing taxis to Puerto Plata or the beach from other visitors or Tim when he goes to the city on consulate business.
Which brings us to the question — what kind of tourist stays in an eco-lodge? First of all, it’s a bargain compared with all-inclusive resorts, because you’re provided with a minimum of facilities for a comfortable stay, and you just need to have a sense of adventure and be a little adaptable to enjoy them. If you’re thinking it’s all sober-faced vegans who try to score points about living more sustainably than everyone else, think again. Last night we had a 40th birthday for the charming Anna, who’s here to do some relaxing and whale-watching with her husband Rene, a Dutch naval officer stationed in Curacao on Coast Guard training duties. Arthur, a head greens-keeper and very practical guy from a golf course in the Okanagan, and an old friend of Tim’s who’s been coming to the DR for 15 years, and his nephew Jason who’s a carpenter on oil sands projects, bought steak, lobsters and a birthday cake and treated everyone … they were also in the kitchen helping Jacquie put the meal together. There was plentiful wine, beer, and laughter. Most people come here with a rental car so they can make day-trips (or longer ones) and then come back for a few more nights. If you think having little lizards and butterflies co-existing with you is a good thing, by all means come here.
The local people are friendly, and cheerfully put up with my very developmental Spanish. Staying here can also shift one’s assumptions about people from the countryside in the Caribbean. There’s an elderly carpenter here … in excellent phsyical shape (Tim’s wife told me, I think — it was in Spanish — that the carpenter still has a really nice butt for a guy of about 70!) although a little short of teeth — who’s building an attached shower for the “honeymoon suite.” Yes, he does it largely with a machete, but as he walked past, a melody went off, and he pulled out his cell phone to talk to a friend.
If all this sounds like your kind of vacation — and, for most of my friends, I think it would — check it out on Google or on Facebook. Just enter Tubagua Plantation Eco Village — and talk to Tim about coming down here. I don’t think you’ll regret visiting here … it’s got the best view and freshest air of anywhere I’ve stayed in the Caribbean, and you can feel good about your food and lodging money going to local people and a good cause rather than some faceless corporation or wealthy local puller of strings.