Well, not sure how the story sharing is going over but I’ll continue because, well, you just never know the fame and glory that awaits.
This is a creative non-fiction piece and much different in tone than the Georgia pieces. I originally wrote it in 2007, immediately after returning from a rather disastrous trip to the Dominican Republic. So funny really, because I knew that some folks were picturing me relaxing at an All Inclusive, soaking up the sun. Ha! Quite the opposite. I had travelled through Europe on my own a few years before and had decided, why not do the same in the DR. Oh, me. Oh, my. What I hope the piece shows – and I spent a lot of time recently re-working it – is not that the DR was the problem, but that rather my naivete was. And then I spend the last bit on the sex tourism. Yikes. Again, copying and pasting is not always my friend so it may not be perfect. Forgive me, wee fan base, forgive me.
The middle-aged scuba diving instructor tells you that he’s an old hand at living in the Dominican Republic. He’s been here for five years, he says, looking bored, like your questions are tedious for him. He went back to Germany for awhile but loves it so much here that he’s chosen to come back for good.
“I can rent a house for 6,000 pesos a month,” he says, “My friend is going to show me some.”
You calculate quickly and loosely and figure out that that’s about $150. He goes on to say that he’s just returned to the DR, which explains why he is staying in the $18/night set of cabins in Las Terrenas. You are staying here because these cabins are the cheapest thing going on the island for a lone traveller and because they are the closest thing to a hostel. You want to meet fellow travellers. You’ve travelled some before – 8 weeks in Europe 4 years earlier netted a whole lot of dodgy accommodations but also a whole set of interesting people. You didn’t mind travelling alone but it isn’t your favourite thing because sometimes it feels, well, lonely. But on the whole it means you can go where you want. And the people you have encountered from around the world intrigue you.
This German man isn’t intriguing though. Rather, he is grossing you out.
“You like it here, eh?” you ask him, probing for a bit more information.
You, you basically hate it here. You know that is a shameful way to feel, typical of a first worlder loping into the developing world. Your left-wing armchair idealism hasn’t prepared you for the chaos, the pollution, the chronic holes in the red dirt roads and the screaming of the motoconchos (motorcycle taxis, many unlicensed) as they whiz past every two seconds, the drivers insisting that they can take you wherever you want to go. You started in a town known for kitesurfing and built around one road. The action on the road never stopped, people honking and screaming in Spanish, a language you don’t know half a word of but because you’d gotten along fine in Prague without knowing a syllable of Czech you figured this would be the same. You were wrong.
You came for the beaches at the suggestion of a co-worker whose friends loved it. What she didn’t tell you until later and really what you should have guessed (uh, duh) was that these friends were well-off and had stayed in one of the all-inclusive resorts you’d seen on the way from the airport. The A.I.’s were well off the beaten track, hidden away from pretty much everything. You’d thought yourself too adventurous, too independent, to go to a resort. Again, you were wrong.
You don’t want to be wimpy. You despise the wimpy, those who go to a different country and do nothing but compare it to their own. But the oppressive heat, the fear of being robbed, the unrelenting chaos and the crappy hotel room that flooded to your knees, is freaking you out. You are alone and you are not coping, simple as that.
Feeling trapped, you leave a day early from the kite town and take a local bus to Las Terrenas, a town only slightly less touristy but with better beaches and this near- hostel. You figure that god might still exist since you meet and cling to two travellers in their twenties – a Czech guy and a Welsh girl. (You are freshly forty, single and have vague notions of finding yourself by wandering around. You are wrong.) The Welsh girl works on oil rigs doing mapping and has been all over the world, including Angola during their Civil War. The pair are calm and unflappable and you thank them profusely for their kindness. The cabins are a half-hour walk out of town on red dirt roads with no signage. You’ve never had a sense of direction and if it weren’t for them, you would never leave the near-hostel. When you do go out with them, the three of you traipse across the roads, watching the motoconchos and cars zoom so close to you that for the first couple of days you are all sure you are going to get slammed to the ground.
These roads are undergoing constant excavation, something a sign warns of in interesting English – “danger of excavation”. A woman old enough to be the Czech guy’s grandmother follows you, looking unfazed. The workers graciously let you pass. Your sense of balance has always been awful and you are more than a little surprised when you don’t fall into the excavating. You figure if you did fall that the men would shout at you in Spanish for awhile and then leave you to yourself, possibly covering you over in dirt the next day. You know that that is primarily a silly and bigoted thought but the heat has gotten to you. The Czech guy is wonderful but he has the stamina of his age and chooses to walk for miles in the heat-stroking heat
The search for food is almost constant. You know better than to drink the water of course, the Dominicans don’t drink it, something proved out by the ubiquutous empty blue jugs outside of supermercados. Supermarket you think, is generally a misnomer here, although in the more touristy areas close to the beach, they are better stocked. Again, you abhor the first-world arrogance that demands the type of food you are used to. You don’t actually, you’d settle for almost anything that would settle and fill your stomach. There is only a tiny store close to the near-hostel which contains mainly some rotting fruit, cereal, the odd diaper, some candy and pizza-flavoured Pringles. Your hunger adds to your self-absorption and you don’t even think about what the locals are able to find to eat. It’s all about how you will fill your stomach.
You choose a few bananas and a pineapple for breakfast each day. Because you are a typically overfed first-worlder, that combination only keeps you in energy for about an hour. Your travelling mates do well without food for most of the day and you don’t want to bother them by requesting an out of the way stop to a grocery store. It’s as if you are losing coherent thought or concern for anyone else but yourself. Why you don’t just leave or at least pony up the money for an all-inclusive or at least a hotel that would be near restaurants are questions you don’t ask yourself. Only later will you marvel at your idiocy.
Now, you think that your body will adjust to eating only once a day, in the evening. Even then it is spaghetti with whatever flavour of Ragu sauce is on offer.
Such a diet leaves you nauseous and weaker than usual, fuelling your anxiety. If you had read of someone else behaving in such a manner, you’d think they were crazy. And your mind, in a way, has trapped you into near craziness. To be clear, it’s not the country’s fault but simply the dysfunctional workings of your own brain.
Somehow on one of these no food days you find yourself on the back of a horse for the first time in your life. The horses are accompanied by some DR gentlemen who guide them on foot up a mountain. The mountain is rocky terrain and even the calm Czech man is a bit concerned about horses falling over and broken heads. Because you are an expressive sort, you scream fuck fuck fuckin fuck a whole lot. The guides, who speak both Spanish and some French, laugh and laugh. You learn your other Spanish word – despacio! – slow down – even though you are not going at all fast. Finally, you get up the mountain and shaky, dirty and hot clamber off of the horse. Even the Welsh girl, who so far has seemed inured to the heat,- is finding it warm for the next activity, –climbing down over more rocks to the waterfall. You offer to stay where you are but the guides seemingly cannot go down without you. Johnny, the 17-year-old guide who has not laughed at you quite as much, gallantly holds your hand all the way down. Carlos, a truly wild and crazy guy, chivalrously carries the women over the water to get to the falls. The El Limon waterfalls are beautiful and once you stop shaking you snap many photos. This is the only day you have forgotten to wear your bathing suit under your clothes and you choose to be shy and not dive in naked like some of the others. Your feet though, enjoy the dipping. After about an hour it is time to go back down the mountain and before you go you buy the two types of sustenance on offer – Lays potato chips and water. Going down a mountain on a horse proves more perilous than going up but you live.
The next day, The Czech man suggests a walk to the stunning Playa Bonita and you wade in its waters for a number of hours, looking at the palm trees and realizing that yes, you are now in a postcard.
“It is fucking hot,” the Czech man says to you and you know then that yes, it is fucking hot because the Czech guy has not complained before. He makes the smart decision to stay on the beach until 4:00, when the sun will back off a millimetre or so. He notes the lack of washrooms or drinking water for miles and goes off to take a leak behind a palm tree. Yup, you think, noticing your bladder for the first time in awhile. You walk a few hundred metres because the trees are narrow and there are a few people milling about. The more heavily treed areas are surrounded by a barbed wire fence so you settle behind a tree that’s fallen and pull down your bathing suit, bum cheeks facing the fence and away from the ocean. It’s only after you’ve pulled yourself back up that you see the workmen about a ¼ of a mile behind the wire. You are tired, thirsty, mildly heat-stroked and punchy so are rather pleased you have given someone a bit of a thrill.
You don’t want to be gotten wrong, the beach is the most beautiful you have ever seen, the Atlantic Ocean’s temperature perfect for a little relief from the sweat, sand and red dirt that has lodged itself everywhere, even somehow into your butt crack. But it is not enough to bring you down from your anxiety.
On your last day, The Welsh woman is with you as the German scuba diving instructor tells you a bit more about his way of adapting to the DR.
“My friend told me when I first came here that to really understand the Dominicans, to really get it and to learn to speak Spanish that I should go and live in the slums for a year.” So off he went, he continued, to live with the poorest people on Hispaniola, except of course, for Haiti. He lost 35 pounds in that year and bathed in the river and ate only a little chicken and rice. “The first three weeks were really hard,” he notes. After that, he had no problems. He learned Spanish, he said, oh and also managed to make a son. This son is now five, he goes on, and is still living in the slums with his mother. “That damn woman, she won’t let me see him. And I have to pay 160 pesos a month to keep him in school. That woman. But my lawyer says he’s going to get me custody of him.”
The Welsh girl and you look at each other.
“Well, I must go do paperwork,” he says.
Later that evening, another German fellow comes out of his cabin and locks it behind him, yelling out something to someone inside. The man nods to you and goes to make some spaghetti in the shared outdoor kitchen that has ants crawling everywhere. A few minutes later he puts his plate down to join you and takes the other full plate back to the cabin.
Early the next morning you are looking for the donkey that lives on the property. It is in front of the man’s cabin and so are the man, Dominican woman and her baby. Ugh, his baby too, you note from the child’s face. The man is trying to put his baby on the animal while the woman screams in Spanish. Because the heat isn’t yet fully up in the morning, you are still able to form semi-coherent thoughts. He’s going to put that poor baby on that fucking donkey even though his girlfriend/paid companion/mother of the child is insisting that he doesn’t.
Sure enough, the child is soon atop it.
You have seen more Germans on in two weeks than saw in 8 weeks in Europe. Fair enough, this is the part of the world where they like to spend their money. For North American men , it’s more often Thailand. But here in the Dominican, some of have found their piece of paradise. Another man at this near-hostel is on a long-term vacation and by his side is a Dominican girl who looks all of 15.
“Dominican girls look far younger than they are,” some ex-pats assure you on an online Dominican traveller’s forum you go into after you’ve returned to Canada. “There are no child prostitutes here,” they continue, “that is a lie.” “I’ve lived here for 15 years,” writes one man, “I’ve never seen any underage prostitutes here.”
You think that is one of the most fascinating forms of denial you’ve heard of, since your research has uncovered the number of 25,000 child prostitutes there.
“The whole feminist movement has wrecked Western women,” another expat informs you, “Dominican women are still traditional and we like that.”
“My wife,” a former American military man writes of his Dominican partner, “still bathes me after 10 years. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.”