CABARETE, Dominican Republic -- I have just tumbled, skipped, and skidded across the ocean, harnessed to a giant kite like a dog leashed to a race car. Somehow, I hear my Italian kiteboarding instructor shouting through the radio attached to my helmet.
''Find the balance, Daveeed. FIND THE BALANCE!"
With jangled nerves, I finally settle the kite. Then I work toward shore to discover I am landing on a beach full of overweight European sunbathers. The women are topless, the men wear thongs, and there are enough sunburned bosoms and buttocks to suggest I just missed a nuclear incident.
''Bizarre sight," I think.
But then, so am I.
Waterlogged, I am emerging from a tropical sea dressed in a shimmering black wet suit. A skittish giant kite hovers like a restless genie 100 feet above, an antenna protrudes from my head, and I seem to be talking to the palm trees as my Italian shadow and I discuss ''the balance" through the radio. This is the moment I realize I have somersaulted into the essence of Cabarete.
On the north shore of the Dominican Republic, Cabarete sits somewhere between the first and third worlds, jungles and beaches, expatriates and friendly locals, bargain hotels and five-star resorts. Here, the pace can accelerate from 0 to 30 with the vicissitudes of the wind and its riders.
Cabarete, the new kiteboarding mecca of the Caribbean, thrives on a balance all its own.
Kiteboarding is an extreme sport (high risk, high responsibility, high return) in its infancy that enables participants holding air foils to skim across the water on boards traveling faster than the speed of the wind. Four years ago, it was virtually unknown. Today, more than 70 companies are producing kites, some 60,000 of them sold last year alone, according to Rick Tossi, president of the Florida Kitesurfing Association.
''It is an enormously efficient, exhilarating way to fly," said Tossi, a keeper of records for the sport. ''The accelerator design is superb, but the brakes are terrible." He has documented 17 kiteboarding deaths worldwide since 2000, almost all of them attributed to poorly prepared people launching into hard objects before they ever got their feet wet. With a flick of the wrist, a kite as playful as a daffodil turns into a wood chipper.
''Lessons minimize the hazards," Tossi stressed.
So in December, I flew to Puerto Plata and took a 20-minute taxi ride to Cabarete, where balmy trade winds are supposed to pick up to 20 miles per hour each winter afternoon along ''Robinson Crusoe" beaches. Once the windsurfing capital of the Caribbean, Cabarete has become the place to kiteboard. Why there are not more collisions (I saw two) may say something about the vigilance required for the sport.
As one kiteboarding magazine recently put it, if Cabarete is an omen of the traffic to come, then Cabarete is where congestion problems will have to be solved first. Four schools and a burgeoning village of hotels and apartment complexes border Kite Beach today. In 1999, it was empty.
''Seriously, the only living things I saw when I arrived here were two German shepherds," said Stefan Ruether, a former stunt actor who owns the Kitexcite Kiteboarding School. Kitexcite is the oldest school with the most instructors (12) certified to teach. Ruether is widely credited as being one of the first instructors to give Dominican youngsters a chance to fly; some of them are now world champions.
I checked into Kitexcite for lessons. As dozens of students, instructors, and a few of those world-class Dominicans milled about, one fact became startling: I was twice the average age.
At 55, I am blessed with good health and a proclivity for age denial. I had tried kiteboarding before, enrolling in a three-day course last summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Calm winds, however, had seriously handicapped the learning curve.
''Age is no problem," said Daniele Bonomi after introducing himself as my instructor. ''I even taught a 75-year-old man."
A native of Verona, Italy, Bonomi, 29, has dreadlocks, a goatee, piercings in his left eyebrow and right nipple, and a master's degree in economics.
''But in my heart, only my girlfriend and kiteboarding. But it is terrible. Sometimes there is room for just one," Bonomi says. The smart money is on the sport.
It was early afternoon, and as Bonomi went over rigging procedures, the beach filled with yet more athletes settling down to do what kiteboarders do best: wait for the afternoon wind.
Normally the fresh, seasonal trade winds return to the Dominican Republic in early December, and build into June. This year's weather had not been normal, however. Calm persisted like a tranquilizer. So we waited.
There was Mike Alpert, a Nantucket native who made headlines in November 2002 when a kite line broke and he drifted off the island for more than six hours before a gale washed him ashore. There was Stacey Fonas, 38, an apparel manufacturer from Milford, Conn., who two days earlier had left it all behind and moved to Cabarete to kiteboard. And there was Paul Landry, a Canadian who makes a living leading tours to the North and South poles, and was here to learn how to keep up with his kiteboarding sons.
After a calm day, then another, I began to realize that Cabarete is beholden to neither flight schedules nor the goals of wannabe kiteboarders. Their issue is with the wind. The country's native language is Spanish, its roots harkening back to colonial slave days when Spain and France basically drew a line down the center of Hispaniola. The east end of the island became the Dominican Republic, the west end Haiti, and both became the target of political and economic exploitation by dictators as well as, at the height of the Cold War, US interference. Unlike Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, the Dominican Republic is graced with a far more stable government lately and has been able to capitalize on a burgeoning tourist industry. Cabarete is thriving thanks in part to the wind -- when it cooperates.
''Time to discover a secret!"
His name is Richard Weber, 29, a native of Rochester, N.Y., who runs Tours Trips Treks & Travel, a backcountry guide service dedicated to introducing visitors to some of the island's lesser-known wonders away from the beaches. I had sought him out because I was still becalmed.
Weber and Buddha, his remarkable Rottweiler, had led me deep into El Choco, one of the dozen national reserves created to protect about one-third of this mountainous country (the 10,416-foot Pico Duarte is the Caribbean's highest peak). We had left the jungle far above, and were now stripped to bathing suits and swimming through a necklace of chambers in a cave that would have been pitch black had Weber not gone in first to light candles.
His expression in the flickering amber light suggested he will never tire of the place.
''Oh, how I love the secrets," he whispered.
The next day dawned sunny -- and calm again.
''Prepare to lose both dignity and grace!"
His name is Mike Braun, owner and lead guide of Get Wet Adventure Company. Braun specializes in canyoning -- or walking, swimming, leaping, and rappeling down waterfalls. Our route, shaded by the thick jungle canopy and walls that occasionally rise 300 feet, was a segment of the Rio Blanco. We wore sneakers, life jackets, climbing harnesses, and wet suits padded with extra cushioning on the rear ends. This is where I spent a fair share of the two-hour journey slipping and sliding through orchid-dappled terrain that stateside would have been designated a scenic wonder long ago. We rapelled down one 70-foot waterfall after another, letting go when the rope ended to fall backward, spread-eagled, into emerald pools below.
Braun has been leading canyoning trips worldwide since 1982 for clients ''from 8 years old to 80, and never with serious injury," he said. This is my first guided adventure where I have not signed a release waiver.
''Liability? Sue me in the Dominican Republic? I don't think so," Braun shouted, as we found ourselves at the end of yet one more rope where trust is part of the balance. Then we let go.
On my final full day in Cabarete, the weather finally changed, the seasonal wind pattern established itself, and the afternoon trades kicked in. The beach seemed to sprout not only experienced kiteboarders, but a host of instructors resembling Seeing Eye dogs for students too focused on kites to watch their step. I was one.
The challenge of flying dynamics is to synchronize the first big tug of wind precisely when your feet are in the board's foot loops and the path is clear. Instructors say a student generally needs a week or two to get the hang of the sport.
As ''kitemare" stories go, my first excursion somersaulting toward the topless crowd would not even qualify, experienced riders said. One boarder (not a student) last year rigged his kite backward and lived to describe a launch that took him 100 feet high and 800 feet sideways across hard ground.
On my second try, I stood, if only for a second. But what a second it was, tickled by an exhilaration of freedom and a union with the wind and water that obviously are driving this sport's phenomenal growth. Then I crashed; someone later asked if I had tripped on ice skates. Try as I might, I could not repeat the feat. Then the wind's velocity built to a point that students had to quit, and my gig in Cabarete was up.
Bonomi immediately sensed my frustration.
''Do not forget: Even when you fail, you are always learning," he said.
It took me a moment before I realized I had crashed into a pretty good metaphor for life. Such are the balances to be found in Cabarete.
David Arnold is a freelance writer who lives in the Boston area. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to get there
American Airlines flies daily from Boston to Puerto Plata via connections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Miami. Continental has just inaugurated nonstop service to Puero Plata from Newark. The lowest round-trip airfare to Puerto Plata at press time is $238 on American Airlines.
Where to stay
Kitexcite Beach Hotel
Hard to beat the location (next to all four kite schools) and the price ($39 for a single, $55for a double). Spotless rooms, few frills, friendly owners who were pioneers two decades ago and now want to sell and retire. The nearby road traffic, however, drowns out the surf and may send you to the white noise of the air conditioners.
Tropical Casa Laguna BeachResort
A 2-mile ride from the kiting beach, right in the center of town yet shielded from much of the street noise. Single rooms start at $50.
Velero Beach Resort
Cabarete's four-star hotel. Standard rooms begin at $96. Velero is on the beach, has a pool, and provides free breakfast. Kiting is more than 2 miles away and the hotel design turns its back on the community.
Where to eat
On the beach at Cabarete
Superb French cuisine (the beef tenderloin and the tuna Asian filet are musts). Miro's charges a pricey (by Cabarete's standards) $10 for such entrees.
A dining experience (no utensils, no shoes), located deep in the hills and serving an Indian cuisine on banana leaves. One large circular sitting where you are likely to meet anyone in the world. Don't miss the sunset. $15 without drinks.
Taxis generally cost a ''few" dollars. Agree on a price first. The cheapest ride, and easiest to find, is on the back seat of the ubiquitous motorbikes, whose drivers charge 10 pesos (22 cents) per trip. Wearing a kiteboarding helmet will ease some of the apprehension.
Lessons generally cost $30-$60 per hour depending on group numbers. Schools also may add fees for gear (kites, life jackets, helmets, harnesses). All schools are a very long walk from town on what is called ''Kite Beach"; most offer nearby accommodations.
The Dominicans are lovely, friendly people who enjoy hearing foreigners try their language. Take a Spanish phrase book. Make mistakes. And laugh, because they do. Very few merchants accept charge cards because of government surcharges. Cash cards and/or traveler's checks are requisite. The government charges $10 for a tourist visa upon landing. Muggings are rare in Cabarete, but not unheard of, necessitating the same precautions at night that you would take in any US city.