Travels

 

Santo Domingo, the City that's Forced to Sleep

Pedro, my couchsurf host in Santo Domingo, took the $25 cab ride out to the airport to meet me. I anxiously scanned the crowd lining the walkway, and spotted the slight, baby-faced, olive skinned, 24-year-old from the picture in his profile. Though his English was “leetle,” I learned lots fast about Pedro. For one, that he was one of the nicest guys on the planet. 

We arrive at his bachelor pad in a cozy cluster of apartments. I'm a bit shocked to find a teeny-weeny kitchen, bath and bedroom – no couch. It was going to be an interesting night, it seemed, at least for one of us.

But first he and his cousin Marcial would take me out for a night on the town in the Zona Colonial.  I had planned a weekend in Santo Domingo, imagining crazy rum-inspired dancing til dawn, merengue hips and dulce de leche lips (definitely a fantasy given my usual 10:30 bedtime). Instead we found the streets empty, stores closed up, only a handful of bars in action. 10pm on a Friday night.  

“Our president, Leonel Fernandez, didn’t have a childhood,” Marcial explains, as we leave the café for them to have a smoke. “So he passed a law that there could be no party after 11pm (2am on weekends),” he said, flicking his ash. “And no smoking inside either!”

The smoking I could get behind, but to take the party away from the Dominicans, that’s culture-cide! We ended up chilling outside in a small plaza where couples were nestled up and a few drunken youth danced to the reggaeton, bachata, meringue and “mambo violente” pumped from the bar. I was content just to sit here and catalogue all the skin tones – copper, caramel, coffee and cocoa and every milky blend in between. Many of the men have kinky, bristly hair that gives away the intermixing with the slaves brought here, though the Haitians here are much maligned.

The quiet night gave me pause to learn about Pedro’s life. A true renaissance man, Pedro plays basketball and sings opera. He shares my belief that life is too short for TV. He is a man of principle: though he “gun fishes,” he once punched a fisherman for slitting a tortoise’s neck. His father sired 20 children -- “like a butterfly,” Pedro said, flitting from woman to woman. Pedro was a one-woman man, however, and had a girlfriend until recently. She left him for reasons supposedly unknown. “I cried!!” said Pedro.

Pedro is the proud floor manager of a bra factory. Pedro leaves his home at 7am for work, not returning until after 8pm, six days a week. But he loves it, and proudly shows me pix from his work BlackBerry (“Obama’s favorite,” he says). “The bras are #2 quality in the world,” he proclaims, though the name is not one I’ve ever heard of. “Only after Victoria Secret. They cost $200 in Europe!” he says proudly. I’m not quite sure of those claims, but what do I know about Dominican bras? Apparently every employee gets up to three bras as a bonus a year.

“Pedro, Pedro, Pedro… your English, is so bad!” his boss apparently tells him when he has to field calls from their partner in New Jersey. Pedro’s “Funglish” makes me wonder how I sound in languages I only halfway know my way around. “Prove this!” he says, extending a sweet involving coconut and lots of condensed milk, “Dominican apple,” a garlicky savory mash called mofongo, or a home-fried pork rind (chimarron). (Provar is the verb to try, ie, a food. Those false cognates will get you every time. )

We come home relatively early after a rather uneventful evening (gracias, el Presidente!) and it’s time for the moment of truth. What exactly did my sweet Pedro have in mind for a sleeping arrangement? Was all this sweet brotherly love a front for the ladykiller sure that lurked in him, knowing of his genetic makeup?

“I sleep here,” he says grinning and preparing his sleeping bag on the linoleum. 

“NO, Pedro,” I protested, “I can’t take your bed.” 

“YES, April. I am used to it,” he countered. “I sleep here.”

***

Pedro skipped work on Saturday to show me the sights, honoring my request to pay homage to the Dominican boxers. To be sure, not as renowned as their baseball players, but it’s a personal tradition to seek out my fellow pugilists wherever I travel – and have done so everywhere from Amsterdam and Andhra Pradesh to Salvador and Tanzania. 

Training took place at this wonderful public multi-sport complex, with free training in everything from tae kwon do to basketball. (What’s up, America? Why don’t we have such a facility in our nation’s capital?) I was welcomed no less here than elsewhere – me, a standout being white and female, of a different language and culture, but the vocab of boxing being the same worldwide, I could easily jump in and train with these future Olympians. 

Having satisfied my athletic addiction, we moved on to the sightseeing portion of the day – from the first Cathedral to the first fort in the Americas (this being the spot Columbus and his cronies erroneously landed and made home). Our guide did a very thorough job showing us around, boasting “all original” of the brickwork, like a realtor trying to sell a historic home on a walkthrough. The Cathedral was impressive without being overly ostentatious as so many Catholic ofrendas are. 

But mainly I savored the simple pleasure of observation. The bright, solid candy colored cotton outfits and 
spray-on stretch denim strutted by ladies of all ages. The great affection couples show one another, and even the old men too – one fondling another’s bald head and yanking on his ear as he made a wisecrack. The leisurely pace of sleeping shoe-shiners alongside scruffy mutts, the slap of dominoes accompanied by bachata pumped from one of the player’s car stereos, the doors slid open to let the sound travel to their game. 

I connected with people through my camera lens, which can be one the best or worst conversation starters, depending on your subject - but here people posed without pause. I flirted with bookseller boys and chatted up a half-lit lady sitting with her Chihuahua in ruffly garb (the dog, not the lady), a man looking out from his balcony who cheesed for a shot and then pulled his wife out to join him. Other times what I saw behind the lens was not so endearing: a scene of Haitian street kids playing– one having made a coffin out of a cardboard box, the other holding a toy gun to his head. 

While the president may have shut down the party in the streets, it didn't stop people from taking it to their living rooms. We both slept and woke to some maudlin old bolero and other tunes cranked top volume from a neighbor’s home. It seems to be considered service rather than nuisance to neighbors, or at worse, just a fact of vida Dominicana.

***

Sunday it was my turn to treat Pedro, and show him something new. I found an Austrian who did soft adventure excursions and arranged for a mountain biking trip right outside of town. Pedro hadn’t been on a bike in five years, but he was a young, tough guy. I knew he could make it. He instantly fell behind, but eventually got the hang of it, singing Italian opera as he rolled downhill.

In mere moments we’d left the incessant noise and traffic for green rolling hills and quiet, exchanging pavement for a rocky dirt road. Quiet didn't mean desolate, though, and there was plenty of good people-watching en route: honey-eyed cheerleaders in bee-yellow and white, boys coming home from beisebol practice, hard-bodied laborers coming from the sugar cane fields, a grandma walking the dirt road with an umbrella to shield her from the sun.  I was surprised to even see a few crews of Dominican bikers, looking the part in their spandex biking gear and sunglasses, out doing the same route. We made many pit stops at kiosks en route, dancing meringue with a Coke or Presidente beer before getting back on our hard seats. 

The loop back was more challenging, with bigger rocks and steeper hills; meanwhile, it started to rain, rendering the road precariously slippery, with no traction to start once ,with the tires spinning on the rocks. By this time we were mud-splattered from helmet to sneaker, but crossed a creek where we could wash up. Pedro soaked and smoked, his cigarette-laden hand up in the air with a big grin (what would his president think of that?). Meanwhile a woman was being baptised in the right bend of the creek, while to the left Sunday-goers were partying it up with 40-ouncers, even an old lady in her shower cap chilling with her husband.

Near the end of our journey, Pedro go so winded and achy he had to get off his bike and walk it. But he made it -- eventually, exhausted, and near ready to give up smoking. It wasn't until I saw him reunited that evening with Marcial and heard him talk about the trip in great bursts of excitement and girlish laughter that I realized just how special the trip had been for him. 

And I got my goodbye party, too.  That night, with a beautiful backdrop of some crumbling colonial buildings, we joined hundreds of music lovers packed into the little open-air impromptu stage where a 20-piece band was cranking out every rhythm south of the US border, jamming to crowd-pleasers in their Kangols and fedoras. The bandleader was the coolest cat of all, with his showy conducting clearly as much an act as anything as old hats on the horns clearly knew their cues. 

A small dance floor was packed hip to hip for every number, though custom was to vacate the floor between songs – whether to give others a chance to dance or to simply see if the next number was going to be worth the effort to force your sway against the crowd was unclear. There was infectious glee in the faces of the gathered, the old folks singing and shaking it more than the youth, even. I'd never seen such a truly intergenerational gathering, from toddler to oldster and everything in between, crowded on the old stone steps and others gathered on the little grassy patch with their plastic chairs. 

The little liquor store opposite the action kept everyone happy, mixing rum and cokes in plastic to-go cups. Son, cumbia, merengue, bolero, rhumba… no rhythm was left unplayed. Marcial and Pedro and I crowded in for a few numbers, a neighboring woman taking me up to dance and then insisting I come to her house for dinner one night.

Like clockwork, the party stopped at 11pm (as it had started at 4pm, I thought they’d had a good run of it, but apparently it used to go into the wee hours). The police were there waiting to break it up by force if not, but everyone toddled off happily and peacefully.

Secretly, that was all the better for me – I had a plane to catch the next morning, and wanted to be sharp for the next leg of my journey: Port au Prince.

 


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