January 25, 2007 Pico Duarte Camp Cook

Photo Caption: Rafael, the Pico Duarte expedition cook, prepares a traditional chicken and rice meal over an open fire in our first camp at Las Guacaras while a hungry dog waits patiently for his share.

History: Dominicans normally begin their day with a light breakfast of buttered bread with salami and cheese, washing it down with a sweetened cup of coffee, half diluted with milk. Those with more time mash boiled plantains into a puree called mangú and add fried red onions, eggs and white cheese. As in many tropical countries plantains serve as the staple fare as potatoes do elsewhere. Thin slices of green plantains are doubly deep-fried in oil to make tostones, chips that are dipped in ketchup like French fries. For lunch, chicken, beans and rice are proudly consumed five times a week on average. Spicy foods are rarely served, but an abundance of sugar ensures every sweet tooth is satisfied.

Living on an island of sugar, most Dominicans love sweets. Dulce de leche, often sold on buses during brief stops, is a taffy-like roll made from creamed milk sweetened with various fruity flavors. From the change in my pocket, Ada bought a log of dulce de leche for her grandfather, but by the time the long bus trip ended she presented him with the half she hadn’t eaten. On my first visit to the historic center, Yuri treated me to frio frios, cups of fruit-flavored shaved ice that reminded me of the snow cones I relished as a boy after my little league baseball games. A month ago today, Yuri introduced me to yaniqueques, fried pastries that can be filled with a combination of chicken, eggs, cheese, and/or vegetables. Its origin is traced back to the time when flour was rationed as a result of the 1916 invasion by American marines, who dubbed the dessert “Johnny Cake.”

Journal Entry: Before daybreak, below Santiago’s monument, I met my mountain guide and hiking companions, who did their best with limited English to make me feel welcome within this group of Dominican friends. Eleven of us crammed into two SUVs and bounced for hours over rough, paved and dirt roads to the trailhead near San Juan de la Maguana. Registering at the ranger station, we left our heavy packs with the mule team and began a long hike to the top of Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest mountain. During the first day’s seven-hour trek, under a canopy of towering pines draped in hanging moss, my professional friends taught me choice Spanish phrases, such as the curse word attached to the name of Trujillo. As the terrain became tougher and as the stubborn mules turned pigheaded, these colorful expressions were used more frequently. I gained greater sympathy for the mules after we stopped to refill our water bottles at a stream crossing. There in the creek, below a sign that declared the water safe to drink, lay a half-decayed carcass of a mule that had been worked to death. I made it a point to hike most of the way rather than ride. Walking into camp, I quickly bathed in the frigid stream nearby. Warming myself next to the campfire, this tired gringo shocked the group by winning four hands of dominoes in a row. I was in for a shock of my own that night when three of the men joined me in a two-person tent. Being a light sleeper, I couldn’t doze off for a moment due to the snoring in three-part harmony.

A couple of days later, at dawn, men waded through a sea of dewy grass to round up mule-headed creatures of comfort. Near the caboose end of two slow mule trains, I dismounted my trusty steed after the trail’s muddy switchbacks caused a traffic jam, which brought my eyes too close to a muleteer’s cracking whip. Upon arrival at the saddle, my Dominican partners took a lunch break, but I couldn’t wait to reach the top. So I hiked the last kilometer and climbed the final 449 feet to Pico Duarte’s rocky summit. Naively expecting to see the blue waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic encircling this island, I was amazed to behold a seemingly infinite number of mountains and valleys stretching out below me. Before returning to the Valle de Lilís camp at 9,678 feet above sea level, we proudly posed for a group photo. Escaping the sound of clattering dominoes, I set out to explore the mountainside. When I finally noticed my lengthening shadow across the landscape, I frantically scrambled up the rocky slope in a desperate, last-minute search for a sunset vista through a gap in the virgin forest. Stumbling upon a panoramic spectacle that took away what little breath remained in me, I was rewarded with a magnificent vision of the sun dipping into surging waves of clouds beneath my feet. I felt as if I were flying over an ocean of cotton candy. Determined to have an unobstructed view of the sunrise, I planned to climb the summit again before dawn. While my friends warmed themselves with more rounds of Brugal rum, I fruitlessly tried to sleep on the hard wooden floor of the camp shelter as the temperatures dropped several degrees below freezing.

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