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.
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!”
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.
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.
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. )
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?
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.