The holidays are hard for everyone. We all feel it, right? While it is the most wonderful time of the year it also comes with a great deal of stress. For me, it also comes with a great amount of sadness. I recently lost both my mother and father within 13 months of each other. And it sucks. It really sucks. Even after having some time to process it all, I still can’t put into words that, despite being 30-something, I still feel like an orphan. To add to that, my closest family is over 600 miles away. It can make the holidays exceedingly lonely.
I am a firm believer that we are in charge of our own feelings. We can either let life’s circumstances get us down or we can fight back and make the best of our situation. I choose to do the latter. In mid-November it struck me that as a single woman “doing the Mary Tyler Moore thing,” as my financial advisor once described it, I had absolutely no plans for the holidays. I contemplated going home to Virginia to see my sister, but decided that being so close to home was a little more than I could handle this year. I then contemplated going to Los Angeles to see my brother, but thought that the lack of winter weather I was accustomed to wouldn’t make it feel very Christmasy. I considered staying in Tennessee, but that seemed like the worst option of all.
It then occurred to me that I wasn’t limited to those 3 options. I could just skip Christmas entirely and remove myself from what was causing my blues. It was a moment of pure inspiration. I started thinking about where I wanted to go. I had a few considerations: safety (as a solo female); weather; maximizing daylight hours; and being able to make the most of my time off. I knew I had to go South.
A few months ago a friend told me about the Dominican Tree House Villages in the Dominican Republic. Just as it sounds, it is a community of tree houses in the Dominican rainforest. There are no phones and no internet, there was only fun, relaxation, and adventure. My Christmas gift to myself was not having to experience Christmas.
I arrived in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Eve. Between a busy week at work and preparing for the trip I had somehow avoided all things Christmas, and the holiday, which my family heavily celebrated in my youth, barely seemed to register with me. I was both thankful for this distraction and a little saddened by it.
I should pause here to explain that I just resigned from my job, leaving my first law firm behind. A job offer at another firm just coincidentally came in two weeks before I was set to take this vacation. It seemed like kismet and I put in my notice before my trip so I could truly unplug. What was supposed to just be a Christmas vacation suddenly turned into five weeks of #funemployment.
With leaving my job, a switch seemed to flip inside of me. My typically high-strung and high-stress personality went instantly into vacation mode in a way I had not experienced since before undergrad, a period that seems like a lifetime ago. A weight, much heavier than I realized I was carrying was lifted from my shoulders. I had a special kind of freedom. It was not just the joy of being on vacation, it was the type of freedom you can only appreciate after years of being tethered to your desk, email, and phone, and overnight all chains are released.
How does this relate to the story? Well, this freedom awaked a part of me I truly didn’t know I had. I am generally quite the introvert and lost inside of my own head, self-consciously overthinking everything. However, the second I got to the DTHV I felt transformed into an extrovert. I found myself excitedly chatting with everybody I met and willfully (and joyfully) engaging with strangers. The fact that I felt so comfortable with this scenario was a head-trip to say the least.
I flew into Santo Domingo and then had a 2.5-hour drive to Samana to the DTHV over windy and sometimes unpaved roads. When I arrived it was dark, so while I could hear the song of the jungle all around me, I would have to wait until morning to see it. When I walked in, everyone had already sat down to dinner. I joined a family at a large table and went through the general getting to know you type questions.
But as dinner finished and the rum began to flow, the music switched from Christmas classics to Latin rhythmic dance tunes. The tables were pushed aside and the party began. There was laughing, there was mingling, and of course, there was dancing with handsome men. Their aim at DTHV is to have a community atmosphere, and they achieve it. I got relatively little sleep my first night. My brain was not used to shutting off. (I’ll write more on what it is like to live in a tree house in my next post).
I came down early to breakfast the next morning and was the first one there. If you know me, you know that I am never early (or even on time) to anything before noon. It was very peaceful to sit alone and read before the day began. Due to my work schedule, this was the first full book I read in 3 ½ years. (In case you are wondering, I chose Eat, Pray, Love. Cliché, I know, but whatever, shut up, it’s good.). As we ate, White Christmas played overhead. Bing Crosby’s crooning was in utter discord with the warm tropical surroundings.
When I awoke the next morning I was greeted with a breathtaking view of the Samana jungle. It was everything I hoped it would be, but I would later learn it was merely a preview and a minuscule slice of the beauty the region had to offer.
My first excursion with the group was an ATV ride through Samana to sightsee and spend time at the area beaches. I’ll write more on it in a later post since ATVing was a first for me, but I will say that I loved being able to do something truly active for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. The last time I took all day to do something fun was July, and before that was too long to remember.
That night, we retuned to the tree houses sore and muddy and ready for dinner. I decided to unwind with a massage (or two) because, dang it, I am here to treat myself.
Over the next few days we had three more excursions that included ziplining through the rainforest, a visit to a bird sanctuary and National Park, and a boat trip Bicardi Island, horseback riding up (and down) a treacherous path to a gorgeous waterfall (even though I’ve previously done a post on horseback riding, this was so different to what I’ve done before that there may be separate post coming on that).
As I spend time in the Dominican Republic, I became more and more relaxed. My first day I tried to straighten my hair to control its craziness. However, it is so humid here that it started recurling while I was straightening it. By day two I gave up on taming it completely and let it go wild with reckless abandon. This might not seem significant, but if you know me you know that this is a pretty huge deal. By the second night I was running around barefoot wearing my new Dominican dress and jewelry . . . and loving it. My structured life was slowly breaking down. Over this same period, my over-packed and very heavy backpack became lighter and lighter as I shed the things I no longer needed. How is that for a metaphor?
One of the best parts was traveling to the different beaches and areas for our excursions. The countryside is awe inspiring and rich with culture, and the buildings are as colorful as the people. There is also no shortage of nature. The animals (horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, peacocks, dogs, and cats) roam free with the autonomy of a newly licensed driver. The plant life does not fail to impress with its delicious offerings (we saw and sampled pineapple, coconuts, mango, papaya, oranges, passion fruit, bananas, plantains, sugar cane, coco/chocolate, and coffee). This, of course, meant that all of our food was incredibly fresh.
Everyone is also very trusting there. You can buy everything around DTHV on credit with the promise that you would pay them later. It was not uncommon for vendors to leave their wares completely unattended. In fact, I really had no concerns about handing over my bags (full of cameras, electronics, and my wallet) to our guides or leaving my bags unattended on the beach—something I would never do in the United States. I even often left the door to my tree house open rather than take the five extra seconds it took to secure the lock.
I read reviews about how DTHV was like a family, and it did not take long to see why. Most of the people there were traveling as couples or as families, but even though I was there alone, I felt as if we were all on vacation together. Spending time with my fellow adventurers Jane, Jordan, Manas, Nathan, Rosie, and Jon (just to name a small few) made the experience feel like a glorious pre-planned group party. They also inspired some future adventures for me. Nathan and his daughter Amelia have the next six years of their own vacations and adventures already listed out, which includes seeing all Seven Wonders by the time she turns 18. Seeing their list motivated me to make my own, something I have been avoiding doing these last few years. With my previous job, and my inability to take a vacation, I resisted making a “To See” list because it seemed so unattainable. But, the new job will (hopefully) bring new life opportunities and I plan to sit down soon and map out everywhere I want to visit in the next 10 years.
One family made my visit particularly special. Cindi and Bruce, and their adult children Justin and Samsara were the family I didn’t have. They were warm and inviting and were some of the most special people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. They left a few days before me and I felt like I was saying goodbye to lifelong friends. I felt very lucky to spend my time with them. Interestingly, their son Justin and I shared a mutual friend. Not an acquaintance or a second cousin three times removed, but someone we had both spoken two within the last two weeks. In fact, our mutual friend had actually mentioned Justin to me on more than one occasion. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I know this unlikely connection is just evidence that I was supposed to cross paths with these wonderful, inspiring souls. (Below is Bruce, Cindi, Justin, me and Samsara posing for a “family” photo observing Bruce’s rule that all of our heads must touch).
I almost forgot to mention the staff here, which would be a horrible disservice to DTHV. Despite being majestically beautiful, the reason the place is so magical is because the people who work here make it that way. Everyone from Pedro my driver (who greeted me with a bottle of Champaign when he picked me up and stopped for coconut bread on our return), to the manager Austin (who went out of his way to make every day perfect), to Alex (who made me a dozen or so mouthwatering rum and juices during my stay), Danielle, Patricia (masseuse and yoga instructor), Leo (our talented chef), Michael, Bebo, our tour guides, and everyone else (I wish I could list every single person because it really was a group effort).
My week at the DTHV was a transformational experience. I do not think I will ever be the same and it will have an impact on me (and my trip planning) for years to come. I now want to have as many immersive experiences as possible and I plan to find places similar to DTHV once I return. I know, of course, that DTHV was a once in a lifetime experience that cannot be replicated.
Next week I am going to Breckenridge for the second half of my vacation for dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling (all New Things with future posts), but after my time here, I am nowhere near as excited as I was when I first planned it. I want to stay in the Dominican jungle forever.