Punta Cana, Dominican Republic: Day 1, Getting there is half the fun!

Flip Flops

These days I’m too paranoid to post vacation photos while I’m actually on vacation for fear that someone will break into my house while I’m gone. Why? Because the last time I posted about being on vacation while I was on vacation someone left a comment saying it wasn’t wise to do that because someone might break into my house while I was gone. CREEPY.

So it’s only now that I am letting you know I recently traveled to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic for a three-night stay at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. While I was there I didn’t post photos on Facebook or tweet about it or anything, which was sort of hard because when you’re in the Caribbean it’s very tempting to brag about the fact that you’re in the Caribbean. Vacation: A great way to make other people feel bad about their lives!

Getting There

The first step in getting there was having a brother who was one of the top salesman in his company, thus winning a free trip along with several of his coworkers. I got to be his plus one, which was nice payback for that time I brought him along on my free ski trip to Breckinridge, Colorado in which I was supposed to report on the oatmeal festival for Quaker Oats who paid for the trip, but was sidelined by the super scary mountain pass of doom. (Total tangent: I still feel bad that I never made it to the oatmeal festival. I did the best I could at the time, but I wish I’d been able to do better.) Not having significant others to bring along on our free vacations has paid off for both of us. Unlucky in love, but lucky in resort credits!

I live in North Carolina and my brother lives in Indianapolis, but we were able to take the same connecting flight in Atlanta to Punta Cana. Little did we know we were boarding the Party Plane!!!! (Quadruple exclamation points totally necessary.) This flight was like no other flight I’ve been on. Damien, the head flight attendant was like a tour guide with a well-practiced comedy routine. There was also a bachelorette party on board and every time I turned my head it seemed that the flight attendant was swiping another credit card to charge someone for the alcoholic beverage they’d just ordered. People were standing up two rows ahead of me chatting with the people behind them. It was kinda crazy. Here’s a bit of Damien’s spiel that I recorded so you can get a sense of his game-show-host delivery style. It also allows you to experience how sad everyone was that the bar was closing:

His best bit was when he told us to check the pockets in front of us because one pair of free travel vouchers was hidden on board. After ten seconds he said, “No one found the prize? Well maybe you did find your own trash which you can throw out as the flight attendants walk down the aisle.” Well played, Damien. Well played. I don’t know if all flights to the Caribbean are like this one or we just stumbled upon the one where the flight attendant was on uppers.

The sky or the ocean?

I specifically requested a window seat because I’d never been to the Caribbean before and wanted to enjoy the view. I loved looking outside and not being able to tell if I was looking up at clouds in front of a blue sky or down at clouds above the blue ocean. The captain came on intermittently to let us know when we were flying over points of interest like The Bahamas. I also happened to see a cruise ship sailing down below. It looked so itty bitty, but I know those ships are essentially floating cities.

Cruise ship

As we got closer to land I saw teeny tiny white specks in the water near shore which I think were much smaller boats. As we got closer and closer to the Punta Cana airport we started to fly over land and it was surprising how much of it is completely undeveloped, just like it probably was 100 years ago. When I’ve flown places in the US every inch of land is typically taken up by farms or buildings or something.

Aerial view

The Airport

After we landed and were taxiing on the runway, I looked out the window to see these things:

Air bridges

The Punta Cana airport doesn’t have jet bridges. Instead they roll the stairs up to the plane and then you take a bus to the main airport terminal. My biggest piece of advice is for those of you with long hair: keep a scrunchie handy! I wasn’t outside in the hot, humid air for more than two minutes before I wanted to dig around in my bag for a hair tie.

I was a little nervous about this trip because the last time I went to a foreign country was five years ago when I visited London and France. I kept imagining scenarios where I forgot my passport or my headache meds were mistaken for cocaine. Surprisingly, going through customs was easy. The line moved at a quick pace and they didn’t ask me any questions like they did when I’d entered London. The official just checked that our passport photos matched our faces and then stamped us in. We had to pay a $10 fee for a tourist visa, but they accepted US money so that was easy to do.

After customs, we got funneled out into the main baggage carousel area. My brother and I followed the crowd toward the exit. By this point we’d lost track of the other people from his company that had been on our flight. I hadn’t even been sitting next to them on the plane because I’d checked in at a different time at a different airport. We started to get nervous because we couldn’t figure out how to find the bus that would get us to the hotel, but one of several officials in the area came up and asked us what our group was. I had no idea, but Little Bro showed him the travel itinerary and the guide pointed us to the right place. Thank goodness for friendly staff!

The Bus

Once we got on the bus we had a 30-minute ride to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. There are lots of resorts located on the eastern shore of the Dominican Republic that have been built in the last 20-30 years to draw tourists to the beautiful white beaches and blue waters. These lush, luxurious locales stand in dichotomy with the rest of the country which is much poorer. The resorts have guarded front gates and sometimes barbed wire around the edges to keep the locales out. So it’s only on your ride to the resorts that you get a feeling for the “real” Dominican Republic. I saw people on motorbikes or just plain bikes. There was a billboard for plastic surgery featuring a woman covering her breasts with her hands that was not something I’ve seen in the states. Yellow school buses seemed to be used for general transportation there, not for school kids.

The Hard Rock is one of the northern most resorts, so our bus stopped at two other resorts on the way to drop off other people. I actually liked this because it got us through the gates and let me see what the other resorts were like. It also reminded me of when I rode the bus in high school and was one of the last people dropped off. I knew where everyone else lived, but they had no idea where the bus went after they got off.

The Resort

Once we arrived, a woman literally shoved a mimosa in my hand as I entered the lobby, which really set the tone for what the Hard Rock resort is like. There will be liquor. Lots and lots of liquor. There is also the illusion that it is free because the resort is all inclusive. When you check in they snap a wristband on you that you don’t take off until you leave. As long as you’re wearing it you eat for free at all the resort restaurants and can drink as many mimosas as you want. Of course it’s not really free because you pay to be at the resort, but I guess in my case it really was free because I’m a freeloader.

Wristband

When we checked in the receptionist greeted us as “Mr. and Mrs. Fulda,” which caught my attention because I am NOT Mrs. Fulda. It prompted me to ask, “We have two beds, right?” I earned huge points with my brother at that moment because they were about to give us a room with a king bed, but my vigilance saved us from a nightmare incestuous sleeping scenario and we got a room with two double beds instead.

The Hard Rock is evidently one of the larger resorts on the island, so they have a couple electric cart trolleys you can hop on that are continually driving around the main path. We weren’t completely sure where our room was, so we got on one and waited for our building number to be called out. This is the path we ended up taking:

Trolley tour

We ended up taking an accidental tour of the resort when we could have walked 100 yards to get to our building. I was ok with that because we got a sense for how big the resort was and we got to see lots of palm trees and pools and other stuff you find in paradise. We got to our room roughly 12 hours after I’d stepped out the front door of my apartment. We were both kind of wiped, but after a bit of rest we attended a mixer where I got to meet Little Bro’s coworkers.

And that was how my first day in Punta Cana went. I’ll let you know about the rest of the trip as soon as I actually write about it, hopefully sometime in the next week. These entries take a lot of time, almost as much time as it takes to get to Punta Cana!

JenFul Playlists – December 2013 and January 2014

Music notes

I’ve decided to post playlists every two months instead of every month since they were cluttering the archives. I also suspect these are posts that I care more about than my readers, but I’m going to do them anyway because I like tracking my music listening habits. And if I introduce just one reader to their new favorite song it is totally worth it.

You can listen to the playlists in the Spotify players below if you have Spotify installed. If not, the playlists are listed in text below that. As always, you can follow me on Spotify here and view my other playlists here. I’ve commented on a few highlights below.

December 2013

January 2014

Highlights

Royal Teeth – Heartbeats
There are two other version of this song I’ve heard, one by the song’s writers, The Knife, and the other by Jose Gonzalez. Strangely enough, it took me years, YEARS, to figure out that Jose Gonzalez was singing the same song as The Knife because that’s how completely different their versions are. This version by Royal Teeth is more similar to the original version, but I almost like it better for some reason I can’t quite explain.

Eminem – The Monster
I’ve only listened to maybe four Eminem songs in my life, but I like this one. (The other three being “Lose Yourself,” “Not Afraid”, and “Love the Way You Lie.”) There’s no doubt he’s a skilled wordsmith, even if he doesn’t always use those powers for good.

Enrique Iglesias – Escape
I know this song came out over ten years ago, and it’s auto-tuned in a non-ironic way, but I couldn’t get it out of my head for a week. So I must mention it here.

Idina Menzel – Let It Go
I don’t have kids and I don’t hang out with anyone who has kids on a regular basis, so the latest Disney movie Frozen was off my radar when it first came out. However I kept hearing things about how good it was, so I finally saw it and it was indeed as good as everyone said it was. The soundtrack is excellent as well, and I hope this showstopper sung by Tony legend Idina Menzel gets the Oscar.

Bruce Springsteen – American Skin (41 Shots)
I love a lot of things about living in America, however one of the things I do not love is knowing I could be shot at any moment for no good reason. This Springsteen song is basically about that fact.

December 2013

Ingrid Michaelson – Parachute (Acoustic)
Royal Teeth – Heartbeats
Kylie Minogue – All The Lovers
Russell Taylor – War of Hearts
Ashley Monroe – Can’t Let Go
Jason Mraz – 93 Million Miles
Hunter Hayes – I Want Crazy – Encore
Skyler Stonestreet – A Little Taste
Bad Books – Forest Whitaker
Mecca Kalani – Feel Me
Danielle Bradbery – The Heart Of Dixie
Mary Lambert – She Keeps Me Warm

January 2014

Eminem – The Monster
Enrique Iglesias – Escape
Walk the Moon – I Can Lift A Car
The Band Perry – DONE.
Idina Menzel – Let It Go
Bad Suns – Cardiac Arrest
Matt Hires – Honey, Let Me Sing You A Song
Vance Joy – Riptide
A Great Big World – Rockstar
Matt Hires – A –> B
Cathy Heller – We Will March On
Anna Kendrick – Cups (Pitch Perfect’s “When I’m Gone”) – Pop Version
LeAnn Rimes – Gasoline And Matches
Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow
The Fray – Love Don’t Die
Bruce Springsteen – American Skin (41 Shots)
Foster The People – Coming of Age
Graham Colton – Mixed Up
Kitten – Kill The Light
The Pierces – Secret
Allie Moss – Late Bloomer
Young the Giant – Mind Over Matter
Hozier – Take Me To Church
Backstreet Boys – Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)

Evidently, I could totally do porn

I was in line at the bookstore in December when a man tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a business card, and said, “Here. They pay money,” and then walked off before I could get a good enough look to identify him in a line-up. This is what the card said:

Voluptuous Modeling: Sexy has no size!!!

Yes, that’s right, I was solicited to do porn while buying Christmas presents for my family. If there is any doubt in your mind as to what this business is about, please refer to this blog entry I discovered when I Googled the email address on the card. In short, the blogger followed up to find out what the deal was and learned that the deal was indeed porn. Notably, at first I thought the email address was “money-CAN-hurt” instead of money-CAN’T-hurt” which was probably my brain’s way of warning me about the situation before I’d even confirmed what the situation was.

While I should probably be offended that someone wanted to exploit my body, I was mostly just flattered that someone thought my body was exploitable. I could totally do porn! I didn’t know that! It’s the strangest Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten. I’ve been various degrees of overweight my entire life, so there have been very few years when I’ve been a size that matches the default “pretty” setting of society. Fat women can be beautiful, but it’s a beauty that has to be defended. It’s a beauty you have to convince people about or that you even have to convince yourself about. Like every time you go outside looking good you’re saying, “Why yes, despite all the rumors to the contrary you can be large and attractive!” Pretty thin people never have to defend themselves this way. Everyone knows thin is the default pretty. These days I’m not as fat as I used to be, but not as thin as I used to be either, so my own approval rating of my body is somewhere around 65%. (A lot of that is due to my feet though, not my ass.) Despite that mediocre self-appraisal, someone else thinks I’m masturbatory material. And despite myself, I have to admit it boosted my spirits. I have absolutely no intention of following up on it, but it’s nice that I’m the one who gets to say no instead of being the one “no” is said to.

Granted, porn is not always about being pretty. I don’t know that much about porn, but I know there is some crazy ass shit out there. Literally. I also know an overweight porn star would likely be categorized as a “fetish,” which is kind of insulting in itself. I can understand why other people might be offended by receiving a card like this, particularly if they didn’t consider themselves overweight to begin with. It’s not great to know someone wants to exploit you, even if it’s strangely reassuring to know you’re just as exploitable as the next girl (even if she is a size 0).

What I found most jarring about this experience is that it throws into question a motto I tend to live my life by, which is “You wouldn’t care what other people thought of you if you knew how infrequently they did.” I usually think about this when I’m sweating on the elliptical at the gym or if I’m dashing to the mailbox in my pajamas. “Don’t worry about it, Jennette. No one is watching. You are not the center of the world.” But in this case someone did notice me. They looked at my body and instead of thinking, “She’s fat. I’m going to ignore her,” they thought, “She’s fat. I must approach her!” That bookstore I shopped at must have been in Oppositeville. Or it might be that I am not as invisible as I think. Whether that’s good or bad depends on who’s doing the looking.

But sometimes it’s just nice to be seen.

Reasons for Regain #2: I stopped weighing myself

Scale

I don’t remember when I stopped weighing myself regularly, just like I don’t remember when I stopped cooking. (The recurring theme of my Reasons for Regain series might be “not paying enough attention.”) During the years that I lost weight and maintained it I weighed myself daily and tracked my progress. Originally I used the FitDay program to record my weigh-ins, but at the beginning of 2010 I switched to an Excel spreadsheet. I never installed FitDay on my new computer, so I don’t have access to that old data and thus can’t find the exact day I stopped tracking.

Weighing myself daily forced me to be aware of my weight. When I was losing weight, I was very happy to be aware of my weight. “I’m getting thinner! Weeee! You are so awesome, Mr. Bathroom Scale!” However when I started to slowly gain back weight I was not very happy to be aware of my weight. “Oh, screw you, Mr. Bathroom Scale! Don’t forget who pays for your batteries!” So, it’s not that surprising that all that negative reinforcement around weighing-in made me stop weighing-in.

The Excel spreadsheet shows that I went through fits and bursts of tracking. I tracked all of January 2010, but then dropped off and didn’t weigh-in again until March. After that the next weigh-in wasn’t until August…of the next year. l’m fairly certain I must have stepped on the scale sometime in that 15-month gap, but I wasn’t writing it down, which is probably just as important as the weighing itself. If you don’t track your data it’s hard to see where you’ve been and where you’re going. Instead I was stepping on the scale, thinking, “Oh, dear Lord,” stepping off, and trying to wipe the whole thing from my memory. And it looks like I was successful at that!

In 2013 I had four bursts of weight-tracking, which is the most for any year in the spreadsheet. However each burst doesn’t seem to last more than a month. The ends of these bursts usually end with my weight ticking up several pounds, so I think I got discouraged and gave up, whereas if the weight had continued to go down I’d probably have kept tracking.

I’ve been tracking my weight every day since December 31, 2013 and I’ve been successful in losing several pounds. I plan to continue tracking for the rest of the year, even if I get bad news because ignoring a problem unfortunately does not make it go away.

Update on Reason for Regain #1: I stopped cooking
I’ve continued to cook more of my meals this year. I’ve found that:

  1. I am still running the dishwasher more than I used to.
  2. I am not going to the grocery store nearly as often as I used to, but when I do I’m spending more money. When I wasn’t cooking I’d usually dash to the grocery store for a few small things to eat every few days, mostly because I wasn’t planning in advance. Now that I plan, I can stock up on everything at once.
  3. However, I’m still not planning everything. I’ve been eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches lately because they are quick to assemble and I figure the protein from the nuts offsets the carbs in the whole-grain bread. (And if it doesn’t please let me just live in ignorance, ok?) So, I could definitely work more on the whole “planning meals in advance” thing.

Adventures at Pigeon Forge, Dollywood and the Dixie Stampede

Pigeon Forge

I didn’t have any expectations for Pigeon Forge, Tennessee when I arrived there last September. One of the things I like about taking trips with my mom is that she plans everything and I just have to show up. So when I drove down the main drag headed for out hotel I was surprised to see, well, every damn thing I saw.

Iceberg

There was the Titanic.

Titanic

Complete with iceberg.

Upside-down house

The upside-down mansion.

King Kong

King Kong, of course.

Jurassic Jungle boat ride

And let’s not forget the Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride…

Shark door!

…a shark door…

Indoor Skydiving

…indoor skydiving…

Hillbilly Village

…and Hillbilly Village.

Strangely, I did not see any pigeons or forges, though there were way too many miniature golf courses and go-kart tracks to picture here individually. Basically, Pigeon Forge is a whole lot of WTF. Or as one of my Facebook friends said, Pigeon Forge is like Las Vegas vomited on Tennessee.

We’d ended up in Pigeon Forge because my mom and I had determined that Dollywood was halfway between Indianapolis (where she lives) and Chapel Hill (where I live) which made it drivable for both of us. The carnival atmosphere in Pigeon Forge was a surreal unexpected bonus to our travel adventures.

We stayed at the Clarion Inn, and I don’t normally rave about hotels, but this place was fantastic, especially for the price. The staff was friendly, there was free breakfast, the room was great, and I’m not surprised it’s the #1 rated hotel for Pigeon Forge on TripAdvisor. We even had a balcony with this view:

Jesus

Yep, a big-ass cross sits on the hill behind the hotel, and in the other direction is the Harley-Davidson store, so they’ve got motorcycles and Jesus covered.

Dollywood

Dollywood

Going to Dollywood isn’t something that’s been on my bucket list, but since it was located in the right place geographically I was like, what the hell, let’s go to Dollywood! Whenever I’ve mentioned Dollywood to someone since this trip they always ask, “What’s it like?” which is not something I’ve heard people ask about Disney World or Six Flags. It seems like most people have heard of Dollywood, but they’re not sure what’s there. I’d say there are four types of attractions at the park: shows, shopping, rides, and food.

Shows
When you enter the park you can grab a pamphlet that details what shows are playing at what times. When we went there were at least nine different things you could see, ranging from live musical performances, a couple of movies, and even a birds of prey show.

String band

The string band was my favorite performance because the musicians had good chemistry and cracked jokes during the show. I’m sure they’re sick of telling the same jokes four times a day all season, but I guess that’s how you pay the bills.

Birds of prey

The birds or prey show was great too. We were able to look at the birds close-up before the show perched behind glass in their own booths. Then during the show they flew around above our heads and were generally magnificent as birds of prey tend to be. After the show you could go up to the stage and hand one of the birds a folded dollar bill which he would snatch from your hands and stuff in a donation box. It was terribly amusing no matter how many times he did it. I’m sure it’s also made their fundraising results skyrocket.

Shopping
I was not prepared for the amount of shopping you can do at Dollywood. There is a section of the park called Craftsman’s Valley where you can buy practically anything that can be handcrafted. There was a blacksmith, a glass blower, a wood carver, and more. Most of these shops had someone on display making new products, so you could watch them practice their craft. They even sold huge items like grandfather clocks that you could have delivered to the front gate to be loaded into your car. I don’t know who would go to Dollywood to buy a $2000 clock, but I guess someone must be doing it. Even outside of Craftsman’s Valley there were lots of stores selling clothing and various souvenirs. It could be pretty easy to spend a lot of money beyond your admission price at the park.

Rides
Dollywood has a couple roller coasters and other carnival type rides, but my mom is not the roller coaster type so we didn’t go on any of them. The only one we would have considered was the Dollywood Express train ride through the mountains, but it was closed the day we visited. It seems like Dollywood has enough rides to keep kids entertained for several hours, but if thrill rides are your thing you’re probably better off going to Six Flags or King’s Dominion.

Food
There is food everywhere at Dollywood. There are several sit-down restaurants to break for lunch, but there are also tons of stands where you can grab food and go. A lot of it is typical southern fare. Be aware of the kettle corn mafia though:

Kettle corn mafia

The ducks live in a pond nearby and you will have to fight them for every last kernel of kettle corn.

We spent all day at the park, arriving about an hour after they opened and leaving about 45 minutes before they closed. It was a fun, full, tiring day and I’m glad we went. I don’t feel like I necessarily need to go back, but if an opportunity arose I might.

Dixie Stampede

The day after Dollywood my mom and I climbed a very steep path in the Smokey Mountains. Later that evening we attended the Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction in Pigeon Forge which involved fire and horses and food and did I mention the fire?

Dixie Stampede menu

The Dixie Stampede takes place in a huge horseshoe shaped auditorium that must seat around 1000 people. It’s big y’all. You buy a ticket in advance with a seat assignment, and then every scoots down the bench to their proper spot where a plate and napkin are waiting. Then a waiter runs back forth in front of the table serving food before and during the show. The menu is on your napkin if you’re curious.

Dixie Stampede menu

I must admit the show is rather spectacular just as the poster says. It starts out with a woman riding on the backs of two horses who jumps through several rings of fire. They’re really out to wow you. The show featured several other trick riders, a pig race, and ostrich race (which seemed straight out of Swiss Family Robinson), a lumber jack competition and various other crazy and entertaining feats. All of this while you get to stuff your face with both chicken and pork loin. The show also sets up a competition between the North and the South, represented by the two sides of the auditorium, so you get to root for your side during the races, though not without some hesitation if you’ve got the South and you remember that whole history-of-slavery thing. It ended with a tie when I was there, and I suspect it might always end in a tie so no one feels like a loser.

Even though the fire tricks were amazing, it did cause me slight anxiety because the auditorium didn’t have that many exits and there were lots and lots of people there. So if the place were to catch on fire, I’m pretty sure there would be a massive tragedy on hand, particularly because it was difficult to get out of your seat.

Preshow

While the show itself was enjoyable, I didn’t like the fact that they tried to milk you for every dollar you had. When you’re admitted to the building they make you have your picture taken in front of a fake background and then try to sell you a picture of yourself before the meal. They also have a one-hour pre-show where everyone gets packed into tables in a large room, which wasn’t that comfortable. It’s also a way to make you pay $4 for a small drink served in a tiny souvenir boot cup when you get thirsty. Then on your way out of the show you have to exit through the gift shop. I definitely got the sense that the owners had bills to pay, and they were going to find any way they could to pay them. I’m sure insurance must be expensive for a show where people are jumping through rings of flaming fire.

All in all my trip to Pigeon Forge was a great experience. I don’t think I’d want to live in that hyperbole of a town, but it sure was fun to visit!

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Chocolate & Vicodin: My Quest for Relief from the Headache that Wouldn't Go Away Half-Assed: A Weight-Loss Memoir

Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, chronic headache sufferer, (former?) weight-loss inspiration, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She was formerly known as PastaQueen. You can contact her if you promise to be nice.

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