Issue 56, April 2006
Behind Native Windows
Snapshots of the Dominican Republic
By Ethan N. Mansur
|In tourism, poverty is implied but never experienced. Credit: www.imunet.edu|
My favorite moments in the Dominican Republic were aboard the guaguas, microbuses that hurtle passengers, such as my twin sister and me, from town to town. Packed to the gills, slowed only by the occasional speed bump, guaguas provide a candid view of the Dominican Republic.
For six weeks, my sister Kate was studying the ecology of the coral reefs as part of a Columbia University study abroad program. But she arrived a week early with me in tow, set on seeing as much of the country as possible.
On the guaguas, we zoomed by baseball fields and Roman Catholic churches and ice cream stands and pale blue Parido Revolucionado Domicano posters plastered haphazardly. The bus traveled at a terrific speed, often passing cars on blind corners or with another car clearly approaching in the opposite lane. The sounds of the Spanish guitar of Bachata, the music of the shantytowns, or the lamenting accordion of Meringue blared constantly from the bus radio and from nearly every store and house we passed. My sister and I sat squashed between our bags, old ladies, and young men, and sometimes missed our stop due to our miserable Spanish.
On the first day, my wallet was pick-pocketed on a guagua while I was napping. But luckily my passport and traveler’s checks were between my journal and the copy of “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters” in my backpack. At Puerto Plato, on the north coast, my sister never got sunburned because she reapplied sunscreen each time she came out of the water the day we spent at the beach. My shoulders were bright red. A man wearing a freckled short-sleeve shirt that hung down to his wrists carved off the scaly skin of a pineapple at photographic Playa Bonita, and we shared it before walking beyond the curve of the deserted beach and marveling at how sunny it was with the storm clouds so close.
I wasn’t accustomed to eating out for every meal. There was fresh juice to drink at the poorly lit restaurant in La Vega, a city in the foothills of the Cordillera Central Mountains, and we couldn’t drink the water anywhere. We ordered fried plantains everywhere and shared a main course of rice and beans because the portions were so generous. We paid around $5 American a meal and $10 to $15 for a room. Even the motel right on the beach in Puerto Plato was very cheap. The nice rooms had mosquito nets and the bad rooms had cockroaches and none of the rooms had proper pillows, just pillowcases stuffed with lumpy strips of foam. None of the showers had showerheads (too easy to steal) or hot water—I bathed always in a rope of frigid water drooping down onto my sweaty face for as long as I could stand it.
I had packed lightly, wearing the same stained cotton shirt and grungy blue swim trunks every day. I had brought a sleeping bag, which turned out to be beyond useless because in the desperate air of the tropics I could hardly sleep without a fan. Dominicans dressed nicely considering the consistent poverty of the countryside—the men in button-up shirts and slacks, no jeans, and shoes, no sneakers, and the women in floral print dresses. Everywhere Dominican men stared blatantly at my sister, sometimes yelling things we didn’t understand. I told her she had mystique and she thought that was very funny.
Through the open window of the bus, I tried to buy a small, yellow mango from a beautiful teenage girl with a long scar on her face. But she wouldn’t accept my pesos like many other Dominicans. The fruit was delicious, and I didn’t know how much I should have paid for one mango anyway. I caught a fleeting image out the window of the bus of a naked toddler squatting alone in the dirt out front of a shed-sized wood plank house with a metal roof that glared white in the sun, and I remember it like a photograph.
In the cities, people tried to sell us things: handmade jewelry, cheap watches, palm tree postcards, taxi rides on dirt bikes. We grew very tired of the men on dirt bikes roaring by and calling out, “Moto, moto, moto” wherever we walked. No one begged anywhere, but shoeshine boys did often beseech me about shining my gray suede running shoes.
Our last stop was the capital city of Santo Domingo where I would fly back from the Las Americas International Airport and Kate would embark for Punta Cana, on the east coast, to begin her study abroad program. I went shopping with the money I had left. On the long commercial street of El Malecon near the charming, old Spanish section of the city, La Zona Colonial, designer jeans were cheap because of the exchange rate, and I took pictures of the soft, pink light from the setting sun as it crawled up the townhouses.
Other articles by Ethan N. Mansur.
Re: Behind Native Windows|
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