Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dominican Republic. Very long story!

I apologize for the extremely long post... I was writing the text for the blog and it just didn't stop coming! Enjoy.

A walk in the woods is always a tonic for my soul. It takes me back to my childhood in Buck Hill Falls, PA where my mother would take me on long hikes through “Jenkins woods” and teach me about the plants and birds. While the “woods” I was walking through today were more of a rain forest, it was just what I needed after a long and somewhat stressful week. I was in the Dominican Republic covering the Cap Cana Championship, the first Champions Tour tournament held in the country. It was Monday morning and my flight home wasn’t until 3PM. I had some time to kill. I enjoy hiking a great deal, especially when I’m not carrying 40 pounds of camera gear! It was just me and my point & shoot.
The path led from the beach into the trees. There was a sign describing the walk as 45-minute loop through the natural terrain of the Dominican Republic. It was called the “Indigenous Eyes Trail”. I assume it was named for the various fresh water springs or “Lagunas” that dotted the route. When I walked under the forest canopy I noticed a sign hanging from a tree, more of a symbol really. It was a large flower with a small skull in the center of the bloom. Hmm. I wonder what that symbolizes?I walked to the first of the “Lagunas” it had a wooden platform where swimmers could climb in and out of the water. It was only about 9am, but the Caribbean heat was already climbing and there was little breeze in the forest. The water looked really refreshing. This one was called “Laguna Yauya” and had a painted symbol/sign hanging over the water. It was a giant eye. I get it now.
I continued on the trail, which was pretty narrow and had many roots and old rock to navigate. I had to keep my eyes on my next step so I didn’t end up face down in the mud! Of course the problem with looking down is not looking up and missing one of the sentries of the rain forest. Banana spiders! These large arachnids are adept at weaving large webs across branches and sometimes hiking trails. Their bodies can grow to the size of a human thumb, and their webs can be several feet in diameter. Walking into one is not a pleasant experience! I knew I was probably going to see a few, and I was right. Fortunately I was able to see the silk of the webs gleaming in the early morning light and could duck under them. The spiders were nonplused by my passing. There were enough small moths flitting around that probably kept the spiders well fed. I couldn’t help but think about how much my wife Beth hates spiders and probably would have had a bit of a panic attack if she had to duck down under a large web!I stopped to look at each “laguna” and saw a few fish and even some small turtles in one. The water was crystal clear and you could see all the rock formations at the bottom. None were very deep and several had the swim platforms I mentioned before.I allowed my mind to wander and began to think about the days I’d spent here in the Dominican Republic.

It was Wednesday morning and I was in Atlanta airport… Again. Life spent working for the PGA TOUR means travel. Travel means airports, and travel from Jacksonville, FL on Delta means Atlanta Hartsfield airport. It’s one of the busiest in the world, and when things get off schedule, it’s a domino effect that ripples all over the country. Things got off to a good start however. I got my upgrade to first class on both segments. Very rare these days since I only have “silver medallion” status. The next positive event was that our flight to ATL arrived at terminal “E” which is the international terminal. Our flight to Punta Cana leaves from “E”. No hiking or trams this morning!
Another TOUR staffer was on my flight and we stopped at the food court for a quick bite to eat, then we walked to our gate. As we arrive in the gate area we see a few more familiar faces on their way to Cap Cana. The Golf Channel was broadcasting the tournament and we ran into some crew and on-air talent. We talked about where everyone was staying and what we’d heard about the area.
We saw that the plane was at the gate, and expected an on-time departure. Not so fast! An announcement was made that there was a mechanical issue with one of the jet’s engines. They were working on it and we should be boarding shortly.
I tend to be fairly pragmatic, and I am certainly more willing to arrive a little late to my destination than to find out if my seat cushion is really a flotation device! So we wait. A couple more announcements later and about an hour past our scheduled departure time, they finally announce that the plane is not repairable at the gate and will be taken out of service. Groans are audible from the 150 or so passengers at the gate. Another plane was on the way in, and we would be moving a few gates down.
After a little more waiting, the plane arrived. Delta staff did a quick turn-around and we were finally on our way!
Arriving in Punta Cana was reminiscent of trips to Bonaire, another island in the Caribbean where Beth and I enjoy scuba diving vacations. The airport was open-air and very tropical. We were herded into the terminal where we were photographed with costumed Dominican girls (a souvenir photo that we could purchase before our departure) and sent through passport control and immigration. We paid a $10 fee and went to collect our bags. My luggage made it! It’s funny how the little things make you happy.
Outside the terminal, tournament transportation waited with signs to take us to our various accommodations. I was staying at the Punta Cana resort, about ten minutes away and the others were at the host hotel, “The Sanctuary”.
The driver spoke no English and my Spanish was just as good. We smiled and tried some basic small talk, but most of the ride was quiet except for the mariachi music playing on the radio. I realized then that the one thing I forgot on this trip was my Spanish-English phrase book. I bought it several years ago when I traveled to Spain for another event. Oh well! Fortunately a lot of people speak English at the resorts, so I was able to get by.
I checked in and was shuttled to my room in a golf cart. (The first one would only drive in reverse, so the bellman had to push it out of the way and get another. Uh oh!)
We go to a building very close to the lobby and we head for the stairs. (What, no elevators?) I’m on the third floor… Great! We get to the room and it turns out to be a 2-story suite. Sweet! Well, almost. The bottom floor has a bathroom and a “living room” with a day bed, a table with 2 chairs, a small bar and a television. The upstairs is the bedroom and was sparsely furnished with a bed, nightstands, a desk and a couch. There was another bathroom as well. The floors were all marble tile and the bathrooms had been remodeled not too long ago. Unfortunately, hot water would prove to be sporadic at best! Everything was a bit worn and there was a musty smell. I look out the window and see the ocean from my 4th floor vantage point. Wait, where’s the balcony? The building has a bunch of them, but not for me. I would have to settle for pulling a chair up to the window. There was also no internet service in the rooms. OK, they had wifi in the lobby and pool areas. I could check email after dinner.It was getting late in the afternoon, almost 5PM. I wasn’t going to the course at this point so I decided to grab my point & shoot and go for a walk. The weather was not too pretty. It was overcast and very windy. The beach was virtually deserted and the sand was blasting across my legs. It stung a bit, but I had been cooped up all day and needed to get some fresh air. The clouds were moving fast through the sky and patches of azure blue opened up occasionally and complemented the other hues of the ocean. I walked around the resort for a while and took a few pictures. After my walk I went back to the room to grab my laptop and swing by the lobby to check my email. For some unknown reason, my new MacBook Pro didn’t like the network and could not connect. This wasn’t good. I hoped that I could get online from the media center, or there was no way I could transmit photos this week! More stress. By this time I was ready for dinner and some sleep. Tomorrow I would go to the course and begin my work.
Thursday dawned with more wind and clouds. This wasn’t what I saw on the resort website! The sea was angry, and whitecaps were visible all the way to the horizon. I got my gear together and climbed down the 4 flights of stairs to walk to the lobby. There were shuttle busses to take us back and forth to the golf course. These busses became a big part of my stress. There was no set schedule and none of the drivers spoke English. We turned left out of the hotel and quickly left the pavement for a dirt road. This was apparently a shortcut that reduced the trip by half. Approximately 20 minutes later we arrive at Cap Cana and the course. I found the media center and got settled in. Fortunately I was able to get online and check email. I logged onto myspace and found this a bit amusing:Today was supposed to be my day to shoot the tournament setup including signs, bleachers tents etc. It was pretty dreary and the wind was really howling on the course. I felt bad for the poor folks who spent all the money to play in the Pro-Am only to get hammered by the 30mph gusts! There are a handful of holes that run along the ocean, and the surf was pounding against the rocks sending huge plumes of water onto the course and occasionally onto unfortunate golfers!Breakfast in player hospitality was a treat with omelets, fresh fruit, breads, bacon and mashed plantains (I skipped the plantains!). I then walked around gathering photos of various tournament setup and got my bearings on where everything was located. The weather got steadily worse and a few rain showers blew in from the ocean. I ran into Willis, the TOUR meteorologist who said that we could be in for more of the same all week. Great!
I headed back to the hotel around 5PM. The shuttle back from the course was uneventful, but we took a different route than in the morning and although it was still mainly dirt roads, it took a little longer. I gazed out the window at the scenery bouncing by. There was a lot of development going on around the resorts and many new roads were being built to get people around. We passed many small transport trucks that were filled with laborers heading to or from their jobsites. It seems these crowded vehicles were the Dominican version of mass transit. Get on one truck to take you to another truck to go to work/home. There was even a small compound on our route that was apparently some sort of worker’s residence. It was all cinder bock construction with no windows, just openings here and there to let some light and air in. The squat, one-story buildings were painted in a drab seafoam green and had tin roofs. I saw a few men at a sink outside doing their laundry, and once I viewed a few workers gathered around a small open fire cooking something. I can’t imagine what those living conditions are like. Obviously there is a lot of poverty in this nation. The “have-nots” are plenty. It’s hard to see all that and then go to a beautiful resort and not feel a little guilty.
I awoke Friday morning to the sound of a rooster crowing outside and the sun streaming in my window. It was 6:20 AM. By 6:30 the shriek of a powered leaf blower was just outside my building. I was wide-awake now!
We are a bit closer to the equator and it gets light really early. Through the week, I also noticed that the exposure of my photographs needed to be adjusted. Everything was just “brighter” down here. Extra sunscreen was also a must. I’m sure I burned a few more skin cells than usual!
It was still really windy and I could see the ocean was still pretty rough. I’m glad Beth didn’t come with me this year. Any scuba diving or offshore fishing was not going to happen this week At least the sun was out and it was a pleasant day aside from the breeze. I went to the lobby at about 7:30 to catch the shuttle to the course. There were a couple of caddies waiting as well and we all climbed aboard the next “eurovan” out.
When we got to the main road, we went right instead of left. “No, no” we told the driver. “Go left and take the shortcut”. He also spoke no English, but we soon gathered that the other shortcut had been closed for some reason. We went around by the airport and doubled back to Cap Cana. The ride took 30 minutes this time.
I’ve traveled around the Caribbean enough to understand “island time”, and I can almost feel the world slow down when I step off the airplane. These are people who don’t have the sense of urgency that Americans do. Things happen when they happen. If you accept this as the rule and prepare accordingly, you’ll be fine. If you’re a caddie who is running late, bitching at the driver will most certainly not get you there any faster!
At the course, the first round got underway and scores were reflecting the challenging wind. Players were struggling with the firmness of the greens and guessing at club selection. I also had some difficulty holding my long lens steady in the gusts.The beauty of this place is almost immeasurable. The deep-to-light blue hues of the water blending with the sky and its contrasting white clouds is one of my favorite sights. The green shades of the golf course adds a different tint to the natural palette of the land. The coconut palms swayed and rustled in the breeze and he surf continued to pound the coastline. Now I remember why I wanted to come here!The light was still very harsh as the players were in the midday sun. It is always difficult to make good pictures of guys wearing hats in this light. There is always a shadow on their face. Fortunately I can remedy some of that in the computer to make to pictures less contrasty.
Speaking of editing photos. Every day I will transmit a number of photos to our partner Getty Images. The photos are then posted on to be purchased and downloaded by clients such as Sports Illustrated, Golf World,, The Golf Channel and many others. It’s a process that takes some time and a good bit of concentration. I have to dump the files from the compact flash card in my camera, adjust them, caption them and transmit. I need to concentrate so I don’t make any mistakes. That was going to be a challenge this week. The media room was a part of the women’s locker room at the golf club and had hardwood floors. Any sound was amplified. Add to this 50 or so other members of the Dominican media who are very excitable, and you have a din that is almost unbearable. It seemed like there was more socializing than work, and everyone was blissfully unaware that they might be distracting a “gringo” trying to get some work done!
Ok, I’m a guest in their country. I won’t be the ugly American and complain. I reached for my ipod and noise-canceling headphones. Nothing a good dose of rock & roll can’t fix! I posted my pics and hopped on a shuttle back to the hotel. A caddie friend and his wife, who were meeting their player at the host hotel, invited me to dinner. Eager to see something outside of my resort, I accepted. We met in the lobby and even caught a shuttle with no wait!
The Sanctuary hotel is a palatial property at Cap Cana. The players and most of the staff stayed there. Yeah, I was jealous. It is a new hotel and they still had rooms under construction. I was a last-minute add to the event and there were no rooms left here. Maybe next year?
The restaurant was nice and there were six of us at dinner. You could tell they were still working the bugs out. Service was not great and the language barrier was still an issue. Two of our parties steaks had to be sent back and one of them was still not right the second time. For $40.00 a plate, I’d expect it to be done right. At the end, there were extra drinks on the bill and it seemed like they were trying to sneak a few bucks out of the wealthy Americans. I hope I’m wrong…
The ride “home” was a bit exciting. Climbing into a tournament courtesy vehicle, we again found ourselves with a driver who spoke no “Englais”. I have to remember my phrase book next time! The driver tried to take the original short cut, as we were told it was open again. Nope. We drive a mile or so down the dirt road only to find concrete barricades blocking our route. Not only that, but as we passed the barricade, we were flagged down by a “security guard” with a machine gun over his shoulder. Uh oh. I can almost read the headline. “Americans disappear without a trace”. While we were wondering if we were going to be robbed, shot or maybe just expected to pay a bribe, our driver explained to the “guard” that we were guests at the Punta Cana resort and just on our way back. I heard that there is some tension between property owners in the area and relations aren’t too friendly. The guard said the road was closed and we had to go back the way we came. Our driver took the “other” shortcut and we came up to another armed guard. This time he didn’t stop and we made it past with no bullet holes in the courtesy vehicle. I’m pretty glad I didn’t try to drive myself around in a rental car!
Saturday’s round went well and the talk around the tournament was the big “beach party” that evening. It was supposed to be a pretty big celebration and everyone affiliated with the tournament would be there. I was invited and decided to brave the shuttle system and go back to Cap Cana.
The party was at the beach club and they spared no expense. The sandy beach was covered by a giant tent under which a stage, huge dance floor, tables, chairs, couches, bars and food stations were set up. There were lights and decorations everywhere. It was open bar and food was everywhere. The entertainment was a combination of American and Dominican music. The first act was a solo acoustic performance full of Jimmy Buffet, Eagles and of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd? Did I really come all this way to hear this? Ok, he was good but not what I was expecting. The next band was it. I didn’t catch the name but it was a latin band that just pumped the place up. This is more like it! The dance floor was packed with locals who really knew how to move. Yes, these folks can party!I was hanging with a small group of TOUR staff and a few marketing partners. We all enjoyed the people watching, but I think most of us were too intimidated to try to mix it up on the dance floor with the locals!
I was able to catch a ride back to the hotel with a co-worker and we got back to the hotel about 1AM. I heard later that the party was rocking until after 4 in the morning. I’m pretty sure no one who had to work on Sunday stuck it out til the end. That was truly the most extravagant and fun parties I’ve ever attended at a golf tournament.
Fast forward a few hours to Sunday afternoon. The tournament is becoming a blowout with Mark Wiebe holding a four-shot lead over the field at the turn. The light is harsh, Mark is wearing a white shirt (The absolute worst for photography!) and he’s not doing anything! Of course he’s doing things, but nothing particularly photogenic. No fist-pumps, no waves, barely a smile. Helluva golfer, but not much of a showman.
Wiebe goes on to win the tournament with only one small hiccup in his game. The trophy ceremony is a bit chaotic, but I get what I need and head inside to edit and transmit. The media room was plenty boisterous and apparently someone was celebrating a birthday and there was cake and much celebration. Poor Mark Wiebe was trying to do a radio interview by telephone and I can’t imagine he could hear a single question! Where are my headphones again?
I love Sunday evenings after a tournament. The pressure just evaporates and I can relax. The week is over. The job done, and all I have left is to pack and travel home. I enjoy a relaxing dinner, a couple of beers and a short walk under the stars before bed. My flight isn’t until 3PM on Monday so I have plenty of time in the morning to pack and maybe take a hike.
You know, a walk in the woods is just what I needed!