Dave Russo Art

ScribblesOfDave@gmail.com • 413-320-6250 • ETSYfacebookinstagram

BIOGRAPHY

EVENTS

 

 


NEW RELEASES

Phish 2019 Posters
Kasvot in Lilyhammer
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Tardigrade

DYLAN LYRIC SERIES

PET PORTRAITS

EVENT POSTERS


LANDSCAPE SERIES

Covered Bridges
Dominican Ruins
Northampton MA
Ashfield MA
Brattleboro VT

Mayan Ruins
Niagara Falls
Arizona
Skylines
Phields
Music Venues


PORTRAITS

Main Portait Gallery
Lot Artifacts
Frank Zappa
Les Claypool
PHISH


GREETING CARDS

Christmas

ETSY STORE

Dominican Republic Ruins of Santo Domingo

In May of 2018, I decided to make my next drawing series about colonial architecture in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for two reasons. First, the old Spanish architecture is a great visual subject. Second, I have always been fascinated by history and cultural relativity. To the native Taino people, the arrival of Columbus is psychologically identical to our Hollywood fears of aliens landing on Earth.

Cristobal, Barahona, DR
I was on a social journey in the very place where Europe first “discovered” the new world. With immigration in the news and race/class discussions dominating social media, I don’t want to be one of those white people who regurgitates my wokeness from memes. I hoped to see things with my own eyes. Maddy and I lived like Dominicans in places where tourists are not a common sight, giving us our own direct view. We were stalked by gangs, befriended, and saw how the internet is revolutionizing the 3rd world. All while having our minds blown by concepts that I could only understand on a surface level before this trip.

Spoiler alert, it's 20 pages worth of reading unlike the short blurb I do on most pages. It was worth it to me to document the trip the way it was absorbed and to share it with the one or two people who can sit still that long. Enjoy.

THE SHORT STORY is that we had an Air BnB booked in the city for the first half and then another one booked out in the jungle for the second half. During the city half of the trip, I was really curious about some of the complicated dynamics between locals and tourists. During the jungle half of the trip, a gang was looking for us in Barahona and we had to stay somewhere very unlikly in order to not bail on the jungle all together. By befriending locals, we gained access to things that we never would have found as tourists. By the end, my curiosities from the city were less mysterious. The strangest place I went on this entire trip was back to the US.

My travel buddy and I

 

THE LONGER STORY

PART 1 - SANTO DOMINGO

Our Uber ride from the airport made New York feel like a quiet Midwest farm town. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the traffic. No signals or even stop signs. Just a torrent of cars and mopeds zooming wherever they had a half inch of clearance. Everyone was cutting everyone else off yet the traffic never really slowed. Somehow there weren’t accidents everywhere which made more sense after I learned to drive there. Our Airbnb was on the opposite side of Santo Domingo from the airport, so we got a quick intro of the city’s layout.

OUR SANTO DOMINGO APARTMENT 

Saida, our host, came out to greet us and brought us up the narrow iron stairs to the second floor… Roof? Patio? Deck? whatever you’d call it. Everything was made of cement and slightly sloped for rain runoff. The neighbors just stared. When we waved and said hello, they would wave back. But it was immediately clear that this is not a tourist destination and people were curious what we were doing.

She unlocked the three heavy duty locks to our apartment which was slightly smaller than my American bedroom. In it was a bed, a sink, a gas fire camping-style stove, a giant bottle of water with a hand pump on it, and a mini fridge. A cement wall with no door separated the bathroom. Picture a shower with a toilet and sink in it. When you shower, so does the toilet and sink. The shower drain was just next to the toilet. The toilet paper was way up on a ledge by the window to stay dry. My body was literally too big to sit at the toilet. I could have used a few extra inches in the bathroom but I admired the efficiency of the place overall. There was also a balcony overlooking the street. It had security bars around it so no one could climb up. They were artistically styled to not feel like a cage. This was a common-sized dwelling for one or two people in the city. Saida lived in an identical apartment next door.

Our apartment

The island has parasites in the ground water so they drink bottled water and rainwater. This is something I took for granted at home where my tap water is delicious. In most countries, locals are immune to the local microbiology and so only visitors have to be careful. When I was in Mexico, I had to be extra cautious. Locals will tell you it’s purified when it’s not. Or sometimes you can’t find water when you leave a hotel. But in the DR, there’s bottled water everywhere because it's what everyone drinks. Convenient for tourists, but it made me wonder about the economical ramifications on the whole country.

From that balcony, we watched every day life in the city. Across the street was a park where the neighborhood congregated until about 10pm. Kids ran around freely while adults drank beer and listened to music. There’s a one man fruit stand on the corner. No signs. No cash register. Just some plastic bags to put your papaya slices in if you didn’t plan to eat it right then and there. Spray painted on some of the cement walls was the phrase “don’t put trash here”. They seemed to be very careful about where they put their trash and we learned why later in the trip.

AirBnB Porch

Passing mopeds delivered everything you could imagine, from furniture to people, with balance and coordination that I haven’t seen outside a circus. We learned about taxi’s when Saida was sweet enough to take us on a crash course field trip into the shopping area.

MY SPANISH: We asked her where we could buy groceries and she just said in spanish, “I’ll take you. I have to go there anyway”. Now is a good time to tell you that I don’t speak spanish. I was always ashamed of this. I spent a year with a spanish speaking college roommate who I got along great with, three years in Phoenix, trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, Oh, and a year of Spanish in high school. Not to mention, I grew up just outside of Springfield MA where we only pretend to not be a bilingual community. I had no excuse, or so I thought. I tried to learn but I never actually needed to and so it never stuck. Everywhere I went, people spoke english. And in the very few cases where someone didn’t, I had a very easy time with non-verbal communication. I can usually extract the latin base from street signs. Food usually has a picture in the menu. Merchants have calculators they can type prices on. It wasn’t hard to be a lazy monolingual American my whole life.

I realized part way through this trip that I actually have an auditory comprehension problem. I usually can’t hear what people are saying in English either. I have to visually picture words in my head and often need people to repeat things. It was a revelation that explained a lot about my life. But early in the trip, I still thought that I had no excuse to not have learned spanish by then.

This trip was going to be another example of not needing to speak the language because Maddy was great at it. She grew up with spanish speaking foster siblings. She’s got Puerto Rican culture in her. The Dominican did not speak English. The folks in the tourist areas did (a little), but once you leave the airport, Espanol. She’d brief me about what was happening after the fact. For me, I was navigating obstacles with only facial expression, tone, and body language, which is fortunately something I’m fluent in. My oversensitivity to all things non-verbal became a major character in this story.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Saida and Maddy chatted it up as we walked across the park toward the busy street. I had no idea what they were talking about but I was taking in the sights. It went like this. 100% of people in sight looked at us. 20% would look away once we saw them. The other 80% looked mean and inquisitive but I think it was only resting thought face. When we smiled or said hello, they often lit up with a genuine smile and greeted us back.

100% of men were looking at Maddy’s legs. We weren’t just the only white people for miles, we were very white. Maddy is pink at her absolute darkest. Her legs would go by and people would pause their conversations to look. Drivers, pedestrians, armed soldiers, every man. Roughly half of them politely utilized the corner of their eye instead of simply twisting their heads around and locking on like an owl. Some would even change direction and follow us to get a slightly longer view. I did not get a sketchy vibe from most of them. I could tell they were just looking. Some of them were very curious about my reaction to them staring at her, but no one seemed like they were trying to start trouble. I was very conscious of the fact that we were walking with a Dominican woman and were not likely to be harrassed. The thought crossed my mind that we would be doing this alone later. We shall see. To get this much attention in an American city would bring guaranteed harassment. I don’t yet know Dominican culture enough to know what to expect.

GAUGUA ( taxi but not a taxi ) 

Suddenly Saida turned toward the road. Maddy said something to me and I didn’t quite understand what she said. A small, beat up, rusty, early 1990’s Corolla full of people screeched to a stop while coming towards us. The hood was held down by a rope and the exhaust sounded completely removed. Saida opened the door and the two of them climbed in. I followed, barely able to fit. Saida handed the driver a coin as we sped back into the three lane road with four lanes of cars in it. Twenty seconds later, the car stopped again and more people got in. There were three grown men in the front seat and I never fully counted how many of us were in the back. Mind you this is a car that I generally wouldn’t own because my fat american ass gets clostro in anything smaller than a minivan. It was a small car but it clearly holds as many as my van if you’re willing to forget the concept of personal space.

As we drove up Winston Churchill Avenue, Saida named the places we were passing. I didn’t need it translated. It was clearly the strip. We passed shopping malls, nightclubs, and something that I think was a large music venue. I later got the explanation about the ride. These are not official. These are just cars that drive up and down the same strip all day. It’s 50 pecos (a buck) to pull over, no matter how far you’re going. Sort of like a bus, only it’s just some guy using his car to make a living. I loved this concept.

GROCERY STORE 

We birthed out of the car like circus clowns and entered the grocery store. Other than the lack of unneeded decor that we’re used to, it wasn’t that different from a US grocery store. Here’s the big difference. Two giant isles of exotic fruit that I’d never seen, piles of whole fish, (not fish meat. I mean just simply today’s catch still gasping for air on tables of ice), and only a very small section for candy and soda. That was the difference.

We left the grocery store with a few bags and walked passed the official taxis which were actually labeled as taxis. We followed Saida’s lead in simply ignoring the taxi drivers who were trying to convince us to get in. Another old beat up gaugua pulled over and we piled in, this time with groceries.

COLONIAL ZONE 

I’m gonna tell most of this story in US dollars just so you don’t have to do constant math.

Early on our first full day, we traveled for about $6 in a clean, air conditioned Uber with a very friendly driver. A regular city taxi would cost $20 for locals. They’d try to charge us $60. But Uber is set by a computer, so you don’t have to wonder.

The Colonial Zone is a neighborhood in the city where Columbus’s ruins still stand, many not quite ruined at all. In between them is a layer cake of the following eras and their architecture, almost entirely Spanish. It’s a global tourist destination and is accordingly policed. Tourists are about as safe as they would be in, say, Manhattan. It’s  slightly more common to see white people walking around, so we didn’t stand out the same way we did at our apartment. Still rare. The biggest challenge to navigate in the Colonial Zone was that everyone had the sole purpose of getting as much of your money as they possibly could. As a tourist, it’s assumed that you have too much money, are rude, and are an idiot.

They’re not wrong. Many tourists are rude and bursting money all over the place. We’re only a slight exception. We went there with very little money after finding off-season airfare and mostly ate at grocery stores. But that’s uncommon. Most people flew much more expensive flights and planned on being waited on hand and foot for two weeks. They might not all be millionaires, but in the Dominican they are. But even as poor Americans on a shoestring budget and risking financial disaster by traveling with no safety net, we’re still pretty well off to many of them. Rich in a monetary sense. The game is simple for the locals; get their money. Resourcefulness was an industry. Mugging and pickpocketing weren’t off the table, but most of the business was in overcharging and selling unneeded things. It’s no different from any touristy place in any country but with one interesting twist, which I'll get to.

The Tour Zone

Before we were fully out of the Uber, a man approached us saying that he was with some sort of tourism organization and he was going to give us a tour. We politely told him that we weren’t ready for a tour and just wanted to walk around and take pictures first. He insisted that we won’t be able to see anything without a tour. Maddy continued to be polite and I realized that this wasn’t ending until we walked away. She was stuck. She said “No thank you” very clearly a few times and he wouldn’t stop pitching. I walked away, giving Maddy no choice but to follow me. Some people don’t really give you any other option. I had a strict policy while I was there of only saying “No gracias” twice before ignoring. For experiment sake, I tried telling one person “No, gracias” each time he tried to sell me something and it went on comedicly long. You really do have to walk away while they’re still talking and then they get all butt-hurt. This furthers their stereotype of us being rude. It also furthers our stereotype of them being annoying con artists.

We tried to stand in front of the Cathedral and take pictures of it’s ornately carved golden stone. We were swarmed by people trying to convince us that we can’t find the sights without them. They were literally in the way of it. I had considered hiring one of them to stand next to us and be our tour guide just to get the rest of them to go away. The area seemed dead and the building itself wasn’t even open yet. We decided to keep moving and wait till there were more tourists to distract at least a few of these “tour guides”.

Cathedral of The Americas

THE TOUCHDOWN DANCE Part 1 

From the very first purchase I made, I noticed this strange thing they do after a sale. We bought a bottle of water. It was a very friendly exchange. I approached him. He handed me a water and asked for $1.00. I paid and thanked him. After paying, the man laughed with the other man about how much we just paid for the water. In my head I’m thinking, “Yea I know. I just payed $1 for one bottle. You probably got that whole 12 pack for a dollar. It is worth it to me and I’m happy to pay you for your service. I’m thirsty. Isn’t this how it’s supposed to work? Do you think you tricked me? And why be so obvious about it instead of waiting until after I leave?” I was totally confused by this street merchant behavior.

Mind you, as a musician, I have spent the last decade at festivals where every hippy is rolling around on a skateboard saddled cooler selling everything from water to drugs to rare magical crystals. I gauge the freshness of a burritos based on the angle of the sunburn on the person selling it. I could tell you the exchange rate between a pizza slice to heady nugs to a female puppy pitbull  to a ride home from Bridgeport. I’m no stranger to the wild west economy, in fact, I prefer it. Work becomes product the way energy becomes matter. Old news.

In other words, I am happy to give this guy a dollar for a bottle of ice cold water while my white skin bakes in the tropical sun. Why is this funny to him? This becomes important later.

HISTORY’S LAYER CAKE 

We wandered around exploring the old buildings. They were easy to pick out from far away. The stone was different. I previously had this expectation that they would be kinda roped off. But in reality, it was like the Columbus structures served as anchor points and the rest of the city just never stopped building around it. Attached to the side of an old 1500’s monastery is a building from the 1700’s attached to a hotel from the 1800’s attached to a convenience store that was clearly the carriage house from that old hotel attached to a 10 story cement building built last year.

layer cake

We saw a statue of a Spaniard. Maddy read the plaque and it said “cured the area of natives”. I had the compulsion to walk away from the statue before anyone thought we were paying homage to it. Everyone around me looks part Taino Indian, part African, and only a little bit Spanish. They all know who they are and they all know what the plaque says. I understand why it was built back then. But the fact that it’s still there, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Speaking of Taino, aparently their medical knowlege was far beyond Europe's. In one building, we found a system that the Spanish set up in an attempt to understand native medicine. See the picture. They started categorizing plants and processes into what looked like a library card catolog system. Most of this knowlege never made it back to Europe because... ya know.. I guess the Taino were too distracted by genocide to finish putting the Spaniards through med school.

Taino Meds
Medicine Cabinet

We met a nice woman in an art shop. Maddy talked to her a bit while I browsed the art, again while I had no idea what was being said. But at one point the woman looked at me all excited and I assumed Maddy had told her that I was there on an art expedition. The people we spent a few minutes with were way more enjoyable than the people we spent a few seconds with. Maddy is extremely likable. She’s chipper and smart and fascinated with everything. She learns everyone’s name and does her best in their language. People respect that. I just smile politely and act the role of friendly husband. We tried approximately once to explain, in Catholic land, the concept that we are a man and woman traveling together who are not married and not engaged. Nevermind. Husband is fine. The woman gave me a business card as we left.

THE TOUCHDOWN DANCE Part 2 

We wandered through more of the same old game. “Come into my shop” or “Here, you need this” or “I’m starving, give me money”. If you give them anything at all they walk away cheering out loud that you just overpaid for something. One man made us a fruit smoothie right in front of us (which was incredible). He also taught us how to say some of the fruit names which was cool. When he charged us, we misunderstood the amount. It sounded like he was saying it was 50 cents. We hesitated and said “Wait, how much? That seems low.” He corrected the confusion and it was actually $5. We were like, “Yea, that’s more like it.” As we walked out, one of the coworkers said right in front of us “They don’t know money. You should have charged them a lot more”. The fruit man waved his $5 as if to say “dude, I got five whole dollars from them”. Again with the open display right in front of the customer.

So, I get why it’s a buzz to overcharge or rip off a tourist. I get it. Tourists might as well be millionaires who’ll throw dollars around for one bottle of water. And we are doing business in the shadows of buildings built by the white people that enslaved and killed them for gold and chocolate. I get it. They feel entitled to white people’s money. I would too. I get it get it get it. What confuses me is that they come clean about it every time during the touchdown dance. Why???

Humor me here. When my band was hired to play at the New York Republican convention, I didn’t exactly give them a discount. But I’m not gonna be all, “HA HA these douches just paid us thousands of dollars plus hotel rooms plus food just to play an hour set and sit through their hateful Obama comments” while flipping off the host on our way out the door, “suckaaaah!”. Of course not. I say “Thank you, the food was great” because I want them to call us next year with the same offer. So, in the Dominican, Isn’t it advantageous to all of the merchants for a tourist to feel like they got a good deal? Isn’t that going to help them spend more for the remainder of the trip? I still hadn't understood this until later in the trip.

In most of the shops, we kept seeing Larimar stones. I saw a Larimar pendant about the size of a walnut going for about $70. We knew that Larimar is a light blue semi precious stone that comes from only one place in the world. And we were spending the second half of our trip in that part of the country. We planned to find some stones on the beach.

THE CREOLE RESTAURANT & DELIVERY MIND BLOWAGE 

We were starting to get hungry. Maddy really wanted to see Chinatown. She’s done a lot of traveling and she enjoys seeing how Chinatown compares from city to city. She also really wanted to eat chinese food for the same reason. We didn’t know how to get there yet. As we looked for food we noticed that everything was Italian food or some weird version of American food. I get that we were in a tour zone, but there must have been something more Dominican. We saw something on the map that looked like Creole food. Good ‘nuff! Sold.

The food was perfectly weird and delicious. Just like everywhere, the waitress wanted to know where this little redhead with pink skin learned her unique dialect of spanish. We waited forever for our check because we hadn’t yet learned that Dominicans won’t bring it until you ask for it. But I’m glad we sat there for so long because I saw something that I really dug. The waiter walked out the front door and hailed a taxi, pointing at the curb. A taxi pulled over to that spot while the waiter came back inside. At first I thought he was getting a ride for a customer but then he returned outside with a large bag of take-out food and a paper with the address on it.

Here’s why I was so excited to see this. I used to drive a taxi in the winter months when the band was between tours. I spent a lot of time parked and not making money. Meanwhile, the food delivery guys are slammed during dinner rush and then they park when our taxis are busy. The way laws and permits work in the US is such that it would be illegal for me to deliver food in a taxi. It would also be illegal for the pizza guy to give you a ride on his way back to Domino’s. But here in the DR, where the are less laws, a car is a car. Efficient. Resourceful. Free. The government doesn’t do to it’s workers what the street merchants do to the tourists. The government is like, “If you got a car, use it!”.

I noticed that there were not a lot of parking lots. Not where we stayed, not in the tour zone, nowhere. There were cars everywhere but they never parked. It’s because the cars just never stopped moving. I have a strong suspicion that when a driver finishes his shift, he drops the car off to the next driver who is sharing payments on it. And I have to say with all of my being, “YES!! EXACTLY!” That’s how it should be. America seems absurdly wasteful after seeing how they do things here.

monastary

THE SMARTPHONE REVOLUTION 

This seems like I’m going way off topic but go with me. It’s important later. We were told to not flash our iPhones around. Everyone there (and really in most of the 3rd world) has smartphones, Just not iPhones. They have simple functional touch screen phones. It’s kinda cool to think that smartphones are like radio in the 1930’s. It’s too expensive to lay fiber optic cables to every home and for everyone to have a computer. A small phone is all you need in order to have all the news, education, and communication you’ll ever need. Kinda cool that this is happening for the 3rd world, in my opinion.

iPhones, on the other hand, are a luxury device. I’m gonna guess that the phones they use down there could be bought for $100. But an iPhone is an iPhone. Apple is not going to sell them cheaper anywhere only to have them resold online to americans at a discount. So slinging a $1,000 phone to them is like driving a Mercedes. So not only will the pickpockets see you with it, but really everyone is going to want to over charge you. They don’t know that all phones are the same price where we’re from and most of us can't afford any of them without monthly payments.

THE SCOOTER FIASCO 

We had stopped being generous, at least in the tour zone.When we walk past people who are asking what we speak so they can sell us a bridge, "Engish? Italiano? Espaniol?", I would just answer, "Deutsch" and they'd give up.

We had been haggling people down to the normal local prices, including a scooter rental. We rented a vespa scooter because we thought it would help us see more outside of the Colonial Zone. It did. Here’s the thing. When you’re clearly a tourist and you step outside of the tour zone, people think you are lost. And not like Ccan I help you find your way?” but more like “AAAAA HAAAA, everyone look at the lost people!” We were openly mocked for being stupid and nothing puts a target on your head like being stupid. Others looked at us as though we were trespassing. I did not enjoy this. We found Chinatown. Ok.. real quick, it looked like all the spanish architecture but with all the chinese signs and some chinese people mixed in. Ok, that’s it. Back to concentrating on how to get the fuck back to where we are not intruders.

chinatown

The scooter was not working well. It couldn’t really get us up hills, we sorta had to get some of our body weight off of it or possibly push. The little phone cradle had broken off the handle bars. I had to put my phone back in my pocket. We had no navigation, we’re in a place where everyone is pointing and laughing at us, and if we go down a hill we won’t be able able to come back. I had to concentrate on where the sun and the hills were. And every now and again, maddy had to jump off and push a struggling scooter up to the next spot of level ground. I would push with my feet but I couldn’t fully jump off while throttling an unpredictable throttle. That’s a no no. Watching this tiny pink girl pushing a six foot tall dorky American up a hill did not hinder the laughter or attention.

So, just a side note here. When I mention these moments where everyone was looking at us, I’m not exaggerating. I suspect that most of these people, even the ones laughing or the ones seeming rude, are good people. I doubt that most of these people would hurt or rob us. They just think it’s funny that we’re there. But, like anywhere including everywhere I have ever been ever, someone somewhere is up to no good. I can be as non-judgemental as I want about the dominican people but the fact remains that somewhere in this city is a bad person. A desperate bad person who does not see us as people, only money. That’s why we don’t want to stand out as rich, lost, stupid people. Because that one person is going to notice us.

Let’s file that away for now and judge the angle of that street and the likelihood of being able to pull in front of that truck without coming to a complete stop. I know which direction I need to go. We’re just flanked by one-ways and hills. I don’t know if the guy yelling at me is trying to help or insult us. I just want to go return the sad scooter. At one point, we were going down a narrow street where and old woman and some children were feeding pigeons. She was yelling something at me as I passed. I couldn’t tell what she was saying as I concentrated on slowing down and not running over the flock that had just kinda spilled into my path. I was thinking, “Even the old lady is yelling stuff at me?” Later, Maddy told me she was saying “bless you” for not just plowing over the pigeons.

We made it. It’s fine.

DRESSED IN BODY MUSIC  

As we continued through town on foot, an empty water bottle in my hand became an interesting prop by accident. Anyone who knows me knows that I am constantly drumming on things. I would get in trouble in class because I would be subconsciously tapping and scratching on my notebook and desk while the raver kid start spinning his poi behind me. When walking, I’d commonly have one hand hitting bass beats on my chest while the other hand hits may car keys or change in my pocket. It’s usually a funk or disco groove.

As I walked through the streets of Santo Domingo, I was tapping the corner of the empty water bottle against my keys (the bottle tone was kinda dope) while hitting the usual chest beats on the down. Maddy is used to this as she walks next to me. But because I was hearing Latin music, the body drumming had a caribbean flare to it. The streets down by the river had stone corridors that amplified my sound. There was actual bass and that bottle sounded like a timbali. I would often drag the bottle across metal bars as a 16th beat drum fill. I noticed that people reacted differently to us walking by when I did this. I had their music coming out of me and it was pleasantly confusing to them. At first it was kind of subconscious but when I saw people smiling at me with an element of surprise, not to mention the people who would dance to it a little bit, I continued doing it. It was a refreshing change. People weren’t swarming us with sales pitches. They were just sorta moving their hips while wondering who the big dorky white guy is.

hospital
Inside the ruins of a hospital built in the early 1500's

CHESS 

We saw about 10 men standing around watching people play speed chess. Being in the Caribbean and seeing chess immediately made me think of Joslyn. I taught her how to play chess in the middle of the jungle in Costa Rica and we continued to play in person and on our phones up until the day she died. In fact, her taking 3 days to make a simple move was what started the pit in my stomach. I introduced Maddy to Joslyn and also to chess. We most likely would have had Joslyn on this trip with us if not for November. We didn’t mention it outloud but we both stopped and settled into the chess game happening in the middle of the strip. They were taking one or two seconds in between moves. It was intense.

THE TOUCHDOWN DANCE Part 3

A kid walked up and tapped me on the shoulder. He looked about 12 years old. He looked me in the eyes with this very specific smug vibe. They were silent words that said “I don’t respect you. I’m smarter than you. I’m gonna take you”. I’m very familiar with this look. In the reflection of the window across the street, I could see all of his older friends standing behind me. He pantomimed, “hungry.. 10”. I reached into my pocket and handed him whatever change I had, knowing that it was more than 10 pecos and less than any amount that I would pay to be able to continue watching this game. It ended up being about 50 pecos ($1).

As they walked away, they regrouped and high fived and cheered to try to get my attention. The young one handed the money to the guy in charge. I was deliberately ignoring them. Kinda like “nope, I already paid you to go away. I’m not spending any more attention on you.” We’re like five moves from checkmate here, ya know? Maddy laughed and pointed my attention to them saying “I guess he wasn’t actually hungry”. The next paragraph didn’t happen because I don’t speak spanish.

I went over to the kids and said “Hey! You’re doin’ it wrong. Why does every con man here insist on blowing their own cover? Most tourists wouldn’t have even known you were all together. You could have a different kid come over and get another handful of cash a few minutes later. Not to mention, tourists get less and less generous every time someone takes a dollar from them and you act like they just bought you a house, wait.. You’re like, 'Fuck you for buying me a house, idiot'. That’s what you sound like to us.” And then I stood up on the chess board and yelled to the entire street. “Stop with the dramatic reveals! You’re just conditioning tourists to not spend money. Are you showing off to your friends or something? Does the whole city pool the money at the end of the day and you’re trying to make sure everyone knows you pulled your weight? 'Diego got $20 for a soda! Bless his soul!' You could do so much better if you just acted like it was no big thing. Tourists would leave the resorts more and would be happy to give you their money, even though they know about mark up. But no. You have to have the big reveal. I’ve never seen such lousy street scammers. It’s like you drank con man truth serum.” And then another kid came over and asked me for money and I shit in my hand and gave it to him. “See? That’s because I know you’re just going to do you’re little touch-down dance after I give you money. See how this works? I’m aware that I have more money than you. And I’m happy to spend it here where it makes a difference for you. Why ruin that? whyyyyy?”

But again, that didn’t happen. I don’t speak spanish well enough for that. I just smiled and nodded as if to say, “oh, ya got me. You rascal.” I finally undertood the touchdown dance a few days later and I'll explain when I get to that part of the story.

CHOCLOATE!!!:

After climbing around in the ancient fort on the edge of the river, we walked across the street to the Kakow factory. This is a brand of artisanal chocolate that you can find at high end grocery stores. They take you on a disney-esque history lesson to start. They, like many of the other sites, use language like “Columbus discovered..”. I was interested in this concept. Clearly, they understand that there were already people there and Columbus didn’t exactly discover the island, or chocolate, or anything. But they still say it that way. I have two theories as to why.

Theory 1: Tourism is an industry and the customer is always right.

Theory 2: They are catholic. I remember learning this when I was touring the Mayan ruins of Mexico. The locals there treated the ruins as though they were built by ancestors who just didn’t know better. I wondered if maybe that was why there is still a statue of a man who “cured the area of natives”. Maybe the blood of the Christ is thicker than the blood of the ancestors.

I suspect that both of these theories are partly true.

After the history lesson, they allowed us into a small factory setup where we were able to make our own chocolate bars. I’ve eaten this brand before. This was very exciting. This was possibly my most touristy moment and I was not too proud to be touristy when catching a whiff of that chocolate. The workers and other tourists watched as we geeked out and took selfies in our hair nets.

The FortFort chocolate factoryChocolate factory

STUFF WHITE PEOPLE THINK

After more walking and taking pictures of ancient buildings, we rested in Columbus Park. It’s a plaza between the Cathedral and the touristy restaurants. There was a group of acrobatic Hip Hop dancers forming a crowd about 100 feet away from an older woman with a megaphone yelling about God and our damned souls.

As we sat, a family walked by with a four year old boy. You could tell he had never seen white people before. He stared while being pulled past by the hand, his eyes and mouth wide open. There was no judgement. He did not look up or down to us. He was just fascinated because he probably thought everyone was brown up until then. I was very sensitive to this dynamic because I had been thinking about race and conditioning for the past two days. Everyone is conditioned. Even the most open or woke people have preconceived notions of others. Clearly, Dominicans have an opinion about me, and that is an example of a conditioning that I have about them.

My understanding of race is completely botched. I grew up being told to be color blind and then scolded for using the phrase. I was told that white people need to shut up and not have an opinion about race. Later I heard that it’s an abuse of privilege to simply shut up and stay silent in a racial conversation. Through many experiences, music, and TV, I was conditioned that people darker than me inherently hate me. I was originally taught that we have a history of white people mistreating darker people but it’s over now. And then that ended up being way off. Inclusiveness is now appropriation. I try to stay current with the latest updates on what is right and wrong, but I’ve watched long enough to know that the rules will be different in 10 minutes. People of color would explain things in a way that I understood, and then my white college student friends would get up on a soap box and turn everything upside down. So basically, everything I ever learned about race is inaccurate and the best I can do is be a white guy saying “Hi, I’m completely clueless. I don’t have any problem with anyone. Please forgive me for whatever I’m doing wrong”. And I’m not even sure if that’s appropriate. Do I get nervous around people of color? Honky please. Of course I do. Not because I think they’re gonna rob me, but because I’m conditioned to feel like they rightfully don’t like me.

But here I sit, under a statue of Columbus in a country who ranks class via skin tone, when a child who has not yet received any confusing mixed messages about white people walks by examining me and my even whiter companion. Wait.. rephrase. Maddy and I are specifically someone’s first white people, sitting in the exact location as the proverbial first white people. He was a blank slate. Whatever he sees in me is going to be 100% of what he knows about white people, at least until the next one. Ok, this feels like an actual obligation. I am first contact. I am this kid’s Columbus. Maddy and I smiled, waved, and said “Buenos dias”. He smiled and waved back.  

Breath.

PUBLIC MERENGUE 

Around 6pm on Sunday, we congregated outside the Monasterio de San Francisco. It’s the ruins of a monastery, really just the doorways and walls from a 16th century building, on top of a hill. But it’s also the site of a free concert every Sunday night put on by the department of tourism. They play Merengue and Bachata. I’ve always loved Latin music.

I had a misunderstanding about Latin music. I thought that Latin music in Latin America was socially positioned the way Jazz is in the US and Europe. By that I mean, Jazz is something you find in college, DVD menus, and about 3% of live music events. It’s a cultural treasure that is well loved, but not as popular as rock and hip hop. I don’t know where I got this, but I assumed that styles like Merengue and Salsa were for the old folks and real musicians while most of the public was listening to the plastic sounds of whichever pop star seemed sexiest that season. I was wrong. Everyone of all ages and all demographics listens to Merengue and Bachata (bachata is Merengue with a touch of pop) and some people like Salsa. Salsa is still more common there than Jazz is in the States.


The concert was pretty good. I bought a 40oz Presidente just because that’s what everyone else was doing and I felt like I should participate. Presidente is the beer that everyone drinks there. People were gettin’ down. Maddy struggled with the urge to dance vs the fear of, well.. being her and dancing. I mean, fitting in is a nice sentiment but if we thought people were laughing at us for riding a scooter..yea.  We enjoyed the music and the people watching. We stayed until almost the end and then grabbed an uber back to our Air B&B.


People gettin down outside the ruins

BUSINESS PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN Let’s talk about this a minute. Uber, Air B&B, stuff like that… It’s changing the world. In the states we see it as a way to save money and it pisses of the hotel chains and some small taxi companies. But in developing countries where they suddenly all have internet on their phones, holy crap. The ability to leave feedback is the key to a functional free market. The Ubers were clean and comfortable with helpful drivers where the traditional taxis were a guaranteed scam. The AirB&Bs can and should shut down half of the competing hotels I have ever stayed in. In the States, it’s a perk. In the 3rd world, it’s a revolution.

OMG LOOK HOW DOMINICAN I AM 

When we got back to the apartment, we decided to be brave and head out to the mall without a guide. It was Maddy’s birthday. We walked to Churchill Ave and then started looking for a car. We stuffed ourselves into one of those gauguas and got out at the mall. We walked around looking at what is just a normal mall to them. To us, everything was different and exotic. People still looked at us and wondered why we were there. Men still stared at Maddy’s legs. They were curious about us but they had no interest in trying to sell us things or scam us. Just benign glances. It was much more comfortable than being in the Colonial Zone, for me anyway. There’s a big difference between being foreign and being a tourist. We went to a restaurant. It was like any other chain. It’s hard to find restaurants there. People don’t really go out to eat the way we do so we had to settle for an American themed joint that was a cross between Outback and Olive Garden but with pictures of New York on the walls. I wandered off to secretly run into the waitress. I was able to come up with the words “cuplianios” and “fuego” and she nodded that she understood. They came out with a candle lit slice of cake and sang happy birthday to her. It was very sweet. There’s a different Happy Birthday song there. It has a normal time signature and a humaine melody, unlike the Happy Birthday song that we all sing. And no one had to mouth any George Harrison riffs, which is the problem with the only other option. I vote that we adopt the Dominican birthday song.

The next day, we went to a giant sinote in the middle of the city. It was beautiful. Nothing to write about here, but you should see it if you’re ever in Santo Domingo.


Photo by Maddy Leue - https://www.instagram.com/madepiphany

 

PART 2 - LEAVING THE CITY

WHAT IS A FORD FIGO AND WHY: The plan was to rent a car and drive to the city of Barahona where we had an Air B&B reserved for 3 nights. From there we would drive out to the various nature sites that we’d hoped to see. The rental car was a Ford Figo. You don’t see these in the States. They’re a renamed version of Fords that we do have, I think the Ford Fiesta or Mark V. They do this to justify pricing differences. Auto companies set their prices based on what you are willing to pay, not the manufacturing cost. In America where we will take eight year car loans, a car costs $15,000. The same car in the Caribbean (but named Figo) sells for about $6,000. And if you try to import one, you run into legal issues and discouraging tax that cancel out the savings. Again, this becomes important later.

Speaking of auto economy, I also noticed that many of the used car dealerships were named things like “Massachusetts Auto Sales” or “Boston Cars”. Someone said to us, after we told them where we’re from, “That’s where this car came from”. My theory on that is as follows. Massachusetts has strict inspection laws that make it nearly impossible to keep an old car, even when they’re running fine. It’s typical for MA to legislate in a way that “benefits the economy”, or in this case forces you to buy a new car. Personally, I see it as government bullying it’s citizens out of their lunch money. And so when MA cars are junked yet still run, they get put on barges headed to the Caribbean. Similarly, I already knew that school busses are forced into retirement after 10 years (which is nothing for a bus) and they get shipped off to africa. That’s where I get this theory about MA cars. I would bet my 2002 Chrysler that the western coast of South America has a lot of cars from California. But don’t bet me. Even if you win, you won’t pass inspection.

CAVE PAINTINGS 

Not long after we left the city, we stopped at a place where you can see cave paintings that date back 2000 years. We drove off the beaten path and eventually through a limestone mine causing us to question our directions. We even passed a dude with a machine gun. I think he was a security guard for the mine. But we found the cave right where we expected it to be.

The story is that the nativeTaino had to retreat to the cave during a really bad hurricane and it looks like they set up shop in there for a while, probably while they rebuilt.

I don’t think the drawings were meant as art or decoration. I think they were signs and labels. Like, the logo for their sun god marked the exit. There is a bird known for its loud communication  drawn next to a hole that you could speak into and be heard in a different cave. The bird drawing is sort of like a little sign saying “intercom”. Or perhaps the twitter logo.

Caves

Our tour guide spoke zero English. Maddy did a pretty good job of translating for me. But I also had my own knowledge of prehistoric civilization and was able to fill in a lot of blanks. It was a collaborative stroll through the caves. We were very impressed with her knowledge. She didn’t just spit memorised bytes, she was able to answer complex questions. She talked about the Spanish colonizers in a way that you would expect. Not in the white washed tone that we heard in the city. There was a lot of “..and the spanish didn’t listen and ate it anyway. They died”. On a cave wall, in the middle of a cluster of glyphs was Spanish graphiti and a date from the 1800’s. It was written by a Spanish colonizer and It said “They drew these pictures for me”. The tour guide simply said, “No they didn’t.”

THE BARAHONA STORY

As we drove on, we drove two hours through a desert. It looked exactly like Arizona. A small portion of the island never gets rain because of the surrounding mountains creating what’s often called a “Rain Shaddow”. Amazing.

desert

On the other side if the desert, we started going through small cities. Like a wall of water, right back into the tropic humidity. They were crowded and busy streets which were about 8 inches under water in many parts (rainy season). Again, these were not tourist areas. The entire street was often staring at us as we drove through. Eventually we got to the City of Barahona, which was the capital of the Province of Barahona. This was our home for the next three days.

LATIN DOGS: So, every time I go to Latin America, I notice the dogs. They're not quite pets but not quite wild like squirrels. People name them but they don't really own them. They're like.. neighbors, I guess? Anyway, I keep noticing that they have this adorable rubbery lanky bounce to them. Try this. Check out the dog that runs in front of my car. Then, watch Pixar's Coco. Then watch this dog again. Ok, back to the story. A non-busy street in The Provence of Barahona

Our Air B&B was beautiful. We pulled into a gated driveway and they showed us up to the second floor of their beautiful house. The owner, Rafiel, lived in Massachusetts for Eight years before returning. We suspect that he was a contractor and built this house. After staying in Santo Domingo where everything was small, this spacious apartment was luxurious.

AirBnB BarahonaOur Appartemnt in Barahona.

After settling in, we decided to take a walk and look for food. Downtown Barahona was roughly a square mile or two of thick commerce and residential buildings. It was perhaps not quite as wealthy as our neighborhood in Santo Domingo, but it seemed fairly functional and well maintained.

As we walked down the street, shop keepers were trying to invite us into the stores. We humored one of them at a clothing store because I could have used a spare shirt. A teen boy showed us around the men’s section, pointing up at the wall of tshirts. There wasn’t really anything that would work for me, which was obvious to him. He then lead us over to the next wall. His energy suddenly felt different. He tried to encourage me to buy one of the shirts on the second wall but there was something weird about his mannerism. The shirts were all a particular style of sports teams. Perhaps futbal or baseball teams. He looked at me with an almost guilty look and said something along the lines of “do you like any of these?”. I got the feeling that maybe I wasn’t supposed to. More about this later.

As we walked by a bar, a man came out and felt very strongly that we should go inside. I asked if it was a restaurant. He guided us over to the bar and had us wait while he went to his dwelling in the back. He returned with a can of beans. Again, we said thanks anyway on our way out. A group of kids followed us asking for money. It was getting a little tiring. The whole town really wanted our money and seemed almost offended that we weren’t buying everything in site. All we wanted was to take a walk and grab a bite. Again I was convinced that they could improve their tourism by dialing it back a smidge. We read online that Barahona was an unavoidable shitty town if you’re traveling west. I wanted to prove that article wrong. I had another one of those moments where I wanted to be like, “Yo, can you give us an inch to mind our own business and we’ll go online and tell people to not avoid your nice town?” We continued down to the boardwalk where there was allegedly a bunch of food. At this point, we were about a mile away from home.

The boardwalk was pretty dead. May is the off-season because of the rain, and while it was beautiful to us, everyone else was treating it like winter. Stuff was closed. The only food we saw was hard to tell if it was being sold or just cooked for the people living there. It was actually hard to tell if they lived there or if they were homeless. I mean, I guess they live there either way, but I’m not sure if the flesh hanging from the ceiling was for us or not.

Up ahead, it looked like the road fizzled out. I saw a young boy with a green futbal shirt milling around pretending not to stare at us and not much else going on.

Eventually, we turned around and headed the way we came and stopped at the one spot that looked open. It was a small cafeteria style place with what appeared to be local cuisine. When we entered, the four woman working behind the counter seemed annoyed to have to wait on us. We were as friendly as we could be while looking at the menu and realizing that the dialect was more foreign to us that simply being Spanish. Like, what does “leg” mean? Leg of what? And one of the foods translated to “barn animal”. We tried to ask. They either rolled their eyes or ignored us.

Again, I’m thinking to myself, “I get it”. They probably only ever meet white people who are entitled and looking at them like a zoo animal. And maybe it would take more than polite manners to make them want to jump up and become BFFs with us. But we did our best to just be polite and not annoy them any more than we had to. While Maddy was desperately trying to figure out what was on the menu, I was noticing that same young boy with the green shirt.  He was hiding in the bushes outside the window paying very close attention to us. We ordered some mystery food and sat down on the patio.

Unsurprisingly, that same boy was leaning against the railing next to our table. Maddy, as we usually do, greets him and breaks the ice. He wastes no time moving closer and chatting with us. He asked if we were Italian (I think because I have a quote from Galileo tattooed on my arm). He was very charming and charismatic. I could tell from his shifting eyes that the woman behind us in the restaurant was telling him to bug off and he was ignoring her. The conversation went on for quite some time and Maddy and the boy were bonding.

By the time the food came, she had already taught him a few English phrases. Everyone who drove by rubbernecked to see the white people sitting at the restaurant. Everyone except a moto (moped) with two riders in their late teens or early twenties. They were aware of us but deliberately not looking.

Quick sidestep here. I know I keep mentioning what people are thinking. You might be wondering if I’m projecting or being paranoid and not backing these assumptions up, etc. You’re right that it often sounds that way. Without getting into my whole autobiography, I’m just gonna ask that you trust it. They’re not assumptions. Autistic people are not imagining the details that they notice, dogs aren’t imagining smells that you can’t smell, and I am not imagining where other people’s attention is focussed. I’m an idiot in other regards, but this is where I make up for it. K.

The same moto, a minute later, passed us from the other direction, still not looking at us. I could hear a particular squeak in the chain. Seconds later that same squeak pulled up on the opposite side of us, just out of sight. It had gone around the back of the building and parked.

The food arrived. Maddy kept up the convo with our friend while we dug into what was still a mystery but it was tasty. She asked him if he goes to school. He said he hasn’t in the past few days because he needs a haircut. He didn’t want the girls to laugh at him but he couldn’t afford the barber.

This little guy looked like he was falling in love with Maddy. Huge grin, bright eyes. He was fully amused by her and she was having a great time too.

Another moto with two different guys passed us. This time, the passenger on the back was looking at me up until I made eye contact and then he pretended to be looking past me. Every other driver would maintain eye contact with me, even if I stared back. That moto had a particular rhythm to the popping in the exhaust. After they passed, I heard that same exhaust pull up on the other side of the building, just out of sight from us, and shut off.

Maddy was trying to get me engaged in the conversation. I was nodding along but something told me I needed to keep my ears on the environment. Sure enough, two more motos passed us and then parked on the opposite side of the restaurant.

A slightly older boy came over and joined his friend, inviting himself into the equation. His mannerisms were clear as glass to me. I did not trust this kid at all. Maddy asked both the boys a question and the younger kid answered. The older one was just saying no and I could see lying and discomfort radiating off of him. Maddy seemed confused and let down by his answer. He walked away. She said “Our friend’s name is Paulito but the other boy wouldn’t give his name”. From then on, Paulito wasn’t making eye contact the same way. He had also changed his position so that he couldn’t see the woman who I am 101% positive is standing in the window behind me glaring at him.

Maddy can recognise hunger. She picked up on the way he couldn’t look at her food because it would have been painful to see. She offered him some of her food. He enthusiastically grabbed it and spun around to the sidewalk to eat it out of site. It was already at his mouth before he sat down. That was hunger. Actual hunger. Not an excuse to ask for money. Paulito tore into that food as though he were about to cry. He had the entire half of the sandwich devoured before the other kid returned. He was about to say something to Maddy but he stopped when the older kid got close. My raincoat was sitting on the chair closest to the unnamed kid. I reached a closed fist into my raincoat, pretending to do something. There was nothing in my hand or the raincoat.

I continued to listen as motos congregated just outside our site in both directions. When the older kid walked away, our friend in the green shirt said something quietly to maddy with a body language that told me he wasn’t supposed to be saying whatever it is that he’s saying. While that was happening a teeneger walked onto the deck while examining my raincoat out of the corner of his eye. He continued into the restaurant and out the other door. It’s official. The young boys are working with the older ones.

CONFIRMATION THAT I'M NOT HILUSINATING

She turned to me to again try to update me on what was being said. She said “He says his friend is Mafioso.” And I replied, “Because we are being sized up by a gang right now. We need a taxi outside before we take a step off of this deck.” I saw her eyes react and she simply leaned over to our friend and quietly said “Mi Amigo.. whisper whisper whisper”. He looked extremely uncomfortable and nodded a yes while trying to hide his expression from the sides. Maddy looked back over at me with a special flavor of concern on her face. At this point I’m only assuming that he confirmed our fears while giving into his new bond with Maddy. He admitted to Maddy that his friends were planning to mug us.

Neither of our phones would work in that spot. We turned around and walked back inside. The women immediately pretended they weren’t all watching us. Maddy said, “My phone doesn’t work. Can you help us call a taxi?” The woman said “Is there a problem?” and Maddy replied something similar to, “Yea, we’re getting robbed as soon as we leave here”. The woman jumped into a different demeanor and grabbed the phone. She was baffled as to how the hell we knew that. I don’t think she expected that our little friend turned on his gang like that. And I hope he never forfeits that info either.

We paid our tab and a van taxi pulled up next to the other door. We walked to the van and Paulito appeared right next to us as we were getting in. He looked at me with his own little head spinning. I wish I had some cash to give him but it wouldn’t have looked good to his friends. He was expecting some sort of interaction but Maddy was already in the car. I think he just needed to look as though he was trying not to let us get away. This all happened in a two second connection of our eyes. I said “Gracia” quietly. He gave a slight nod but he fully recognized what he had just done.

As the taxi pulled away, a swarm of motos fired up and vacated the lot and alley. While Maddy was explaining where we were going to the driver, I watched two motos following our cab. This was the point where we realized that we hadn’t gotten away. They were not happy with us. At one point, we pulled into a well lit gas station as though we were changing direction. The motos changed direction to go around the back of the station. We continued on and our apartment was at the next block. The driver pulled up close to the gate and wouldn’t leave until we were in. He clearly understood what was happening.

FLEEING BARAHONA 

The next morning, we told our hosts that we couldn’t stay for the next two nights as planned. We told him we didn’t want a refund and that we would leave a good review. With a bit of a dialect barrier, we tried to explain that this gang had a particular interest in us and it wasn’t going to be hard for them to notice us again. He of course was upset at what happened to us but he tried to explain that they already forgot who we are and no one will notice us walking around.

How do you explain, even in your native language, that this gang had a particular interest in us and they very badly want to settle a score? Poor Paulito probably caused internal drama by flipping on them. The fact that the mopeds followed us to our apartment is extremely unusual, we can tell every time we tell a local about this. But even after learning that, he tried explaining that it’s all in our head. He desperately explained that most people are good people. We only think people are looking at us but they’re not. At this point, I’m thinking thoughts that are dangerously close to “You don’t know because you’ve never been white”. I’m experiencing an overwhelming amount of compassion for every minority or woman ever. I’m trying to explain that I fully understand that NOT ALL BARAHONA PEOPLE are intending to do bad things to us. And as I go down this mental slalom, I can’t help seeing #notall_____ in my head. I can’t have this experience without thinking about every young black man who has ever driven through a white neighborhood. #NotAllWhitePeople #NotAllCops. Or women who are not comforted by the fact that #NotAllMen are going to assault them.

Ok. There it is. The stuff ya understand logically takes on a new form when you actually experience it first hand. Fuck #notall... anything. It doesn’t matter. I understand why people feel the need to say something like “not all ____” and I also understand how infuriating it is to the person trying to make a completely different point. It’s not that I couldn’t put myself in other's shoes before. But I only understood on a logical level. But now I understand it on an emotional level.

We could have stayed in Barahona as planned. We could be careful not to walk too far or just take the car everywhere we go. We could have stayed in the apartment and cooked our own food 3 meals a day. Rafiel even offered to accompany us if we wanted to go out. But what is the point of experiencing a place if you’re going to hide in a room away from the people who are looking for you. That’s not our plan. We’d rather travel further down the coast and find a different crash pad to use as our home base while we explore the jungle.

On our way out of town, we stopped at that restaurant. It was 6:30 AM and the town was mostly still sleeping. Maddy went in and talked to the woman that was there the night before. She left Paulito a note that said, in Spanish, “My friend, get your haircut and go to school. You are very smart. Education is opportunity.” In the note was enough cash for a haircut.

THE NEW PLAN 

The new plan is to find a cheap hotel west of the city we're between the city of Barahona and the Hatian Border), hit a grocery store, and do nature stuff for three days. Wrong.

As we got into the wilderness, we realized that the town where we planned on finding an ATM and store had neither. They had donkeys. We stopped into one of the hotels where they normally cook meals but the owner said she can’t do meals in the off season. We would be the only ones there and so the kitchen is closed.

There was a resort called Casa Bonita right in the center of everything we wanted to see. It had a restaurant that was open all the time. This might be our only way to eat. Plus, many of the things we wanted to do (beach, hikes, etc) were offered as part of their service. It was $275 per night. That’s not bad for a resort, but we weren’t really planning on spending anything like that at all. Our choices were simple. Stay at this expensive resort and get to see the beaches and larimar rivers or drive all the way back to Santo Domingo and spend the rest of our time where we had already done what we wanted. We reached our privileged hands into our privileged pocket and pulled out our privileged credit card because we are from America and we can buy things that we can’t actually afford. It felt like an embarrassing failure for a minute. After all the mental processing of class and submersion into another culture, and here we are hiding from locals in a resort. Damn it.

CASA BONITA

Casa Bonita

It was the best mistake ever.

We only had to stay one night because they didn’t mind us being on the grounds and eating at the restaurant for as long as we wanted after checking out.

We made friends with the staff. We quickly got a reputation as the white people who learned their names. People would constantly ask her where she learned Spanish. We’d sit at the bar with them between meals and just hang, learning phrases, bonding. These were the people who pull out chairs for us and place napkins on our lap. It was an unusual activity for them to be horsing around with us.


Photo by Maddy Leue - https://www.instagram.com/madepiphany

After lunch, we drove out toward the beaches. There were resorts being built every quarter mile or so. We took a short drive out to the waterfalls and to Playa La Cienega. It was a manicured beach with huts and picnic tables. The sand was rare because most of the island has rocky coasts. The river flows onto the beach and that’s just awesome. I learned a fun fact by asking one of our new hotel staff friends about the tide. I asked if he knew whether the tide was in or out right now. He was confused. I thought it was a language barrier but according to google, the Caribbean has no predictable tide. It just does what it wants. That also means than any wave can come up the beach as far is it wants at any point which made it funny to watch Maddy playing in the river.

Maddy in her cute hat getting visited by a rogue wave.

When we got back to the car, a guy charged us $1 for parking. I wasn’t going to try to argue with him about the fact that I knew the beach is closed for the off season and he doesn’t really work there. I gave him a dollar. And of course I gave another dollar to the guy who washed our car while we were there. He did that thing again where he made fun of us for paying him. He did the touchdown dance. I was fine with it at this point.

THE TOUCHDOWN DANCE CONCLUSION: It occured to me that maybe they need to do that. Maybe they need to feel like they had a win over a colonozer. They are aware of the history of the island. They know that it’s a shit show of European greed which causes them (and pretty much everything south of the US) to struggle through double standards of having to keep up with a world they didn't ask for. They also can’t simply unwelcome us because we’re one of the few industries left after we started getting sugar from China. They have to sell the use of thier beautiful beaches. They probably get sick of tourists looking down their nose at them at every transaction and this is how they psychologically deflate it. They can still preserve their dignity by being smarter than the tourist. They simply say, “Ah ha. I got your money, fool”. I’m not gonna reply with #NotAllTourists. I’m just gonna accept it. Though I am still concerned, for their sake, that it slows their revenue. But that’s a tricky thing to solve. Maybe the touchdown dance is useful for them and can't accurately judge from the outside.

Driving back to the hotel, we went through a small town that looked devastated. Super poor. Filthy fractions of buildings on the side of the road with unhappy people in and around them. It was not a place we wanted to stop but it was really our only chance to gas up for the rest of the trip. The teens working the gas station seemed friendly enough. It was just a very depressed looking spot in the middle of the jungle.

HIKING WITH SANDY

We hiked up a river to swim in the caves. The water was blue from minerals. This was the river that produces larimar. The water was high and strong because of the rain season, so we had to muscle our way through some spots. The resort supplied us with a tour guide named Sandy. He brought us to a ridiculous swimming hole at the mouth of the caves. Maddy’s chatting with him the entire way turned out to be very educational. We learned about some of the national preservation laws regarding the harvesting of particular types of wood. Maddy is a luthier (builds and repairs wooden instruments like violins and guitars). She saw logs on the ground made of hard wood that costs a fortune in the states. It would be illegal for her to try to take even the smallest piece. We also learned that there are strict limestone mining laws. In a country that builds everything out of cement, it would be tempting to gut the ground everywhere. Haiti (the other half of the island) didn’t have those laws. If you remember the earthquake when Haiti pretty much shattered like an egg shell and fell into the earth, that’s why. These regulations are good.

centipede

As we floated around in the bottom of a waterfall, I once again felt Joslyn with us. Finding waterfalls was her favorite thing to do in Costa Rica. Maddy was conscious of taking in some of the waterfall for her. Sandy stood guard by the side of the river, patiently waiting for us to have our fill and ready to be of service if we needed something from him. Most importantly, he took one of the few pictures we have together. We invited him to take a dip. He hesitated for a moment as if to say “I’m on the clock” and we gave our best translation of “Dude, we’re friends now. You’ll still be on the clock if you want to cool off”. He jumped in and swam around. It was fun.

On the way down the mountain, he explained to us that there are many towns that do not have roads. They use donkeys to get to the main roads where they replenish materials and sell their goods etc. Its hard for me to imagine a whole town cut off from roads but then again, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years before roads. I regret not seeing one of those towns while I was there, but that might have been a little intrusive. What we do know is that they have cell service.  

river

We could tell by the rushing blue water that there would be a ton of larimar washed up on the beach at the end of the river. That was our next destination.

LORENA AT THE FRONT DESK 

We knew we were supposed to be tipping all these people but we hadn’t had cash on us since we left Barahona. We were buying meals on the card and many of the activities were charged to the room. We decided to go talk to the front desk and see if we would use our card to tip people. At the desk was a 21 year old woman named Lorena. She easily helped us with the tipping issue and then they got into an hour long conversation. They were laughing and stuff. It was kind of adorable even though I had no idea what they were talking about. The parts I picked up on had to do with what we do for a living. There was a bunch of talk about music.

While sitting at the front desk I got to meet Enrique, the general manager of the resort. This was the first time I was able to talk to someone in English since we left JFK. He was originally from a place in Mexico that I had been. We chatted a bit about the country. I don’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned that I used to drive a taxi. He looked surprised. It was a similar surprise when Maddy had mentioned to Lorena that her family raises chickens. I got the impression that it was starting to sink in that we were not wealthy vacationers. They seemed to be less confused as to why we were friendly and treating them like people. They overheard some of our situation when we were first checking in and now they were more clear about the fact that we were way out of our element at a resort.

One of the things we learned in that conversation was that a “tiger” (gang member / thug / etc) has a particular haircut and a sport jersey. The kind they were wearing on the mopeds. I now understood why that kid in the store was weird about showing me the wall of futbol jerseys. He had a moral dilemma with the possibility of making a sale but also sending me out into the world reppin’ colors.

Maddy and Lorena giggled for a while longer and eventually, Maddy said to me “She’s taking us to a music festival in her town tonight when she gets off work”. Ha.

THE MUSIC FESTIVAL IN LA CIENEGA 

After dinner, Lorena and a few others all carpooled to the fest. We followed Jenson on his moto. We went up the hill and as we started passing that sketchy looking town that we passed earlier, he turned off the road and directly into that village. Oh. My. God. What are we getting into here? I learned something. The messy stuff is really just by the road. It’s like seeing America from a train. Once you get off the main road, all the houses are brightly painted. There’re cars in the driveway. There’s a park on the beach. Everyone is dressed nicely. It’s just a normal town.

We parked the car where Jenson pointed. I swear I heard a record scratch. People were looking at us like, “what?” They were polite to not stare. But I caught some visual exchanges between the locals and Lorena. They were like, “Seriously? Did you bring tourists from that fancy hotel?” The festival looked familiar as hell to me. It was really no different from the events in which I used to performed every weekend. A rental stage blocking the street in the center of town, a small tent selling beer, a sound system that looks like it had been through several hurricanes, and volume that was appropriate for an event ten times the size. Exactly like the fests I'm used to.

We went to the beer tent and Lorena insisted on treating us to a couple of 40’s of Presidentes. Immediately, someone came over with two chairs for us to sit in. No one else had chairs. I didn’t know what to do.

I loved the band. They looked like any group of urban guys. With the clothes and style, I would expect them to be playing hip hop or reggaeton, maybe reggae. It was strait bachata and merengue. Not gonna lie, they were tighter than the band on the big stage in Santo Domingo. They started the next song and the crowd screamed in excitement. It was a familiar scream that had to do with the song selection. I had Maddy ask Lorena if everyone knew the song because it was a local band that everyone personally knew or if they were covering a famous song. She responded that it was kind of both. It was their song but they are famous all over the Dominican.

THE BEACH AT THE END OF THE STREET 

The next day, after more activities and explorations, we walked down the hill to the main road with the intention of crossing the street to get to the Beach. This was where the river ends and we’re likely to find larimar. As we got to the end of the long hotel driveway, we were walking past the homestead that we kept seeing from vehicles. It was a very poor little hut by the side of the river. Farm animals and naked children ran around. We waved to the residents who gave us a very friendly smile as they tried to figure out where we might be going without a car.

As we were about to cross the street, we noticed that there isn’t exactly a path going to the water. The forest on the opposite side of the street was populated by small houses and yards. Some of which were not even complete, just walls with people living in them. We asked a group of teens standing on the side of the road where we could find an acceptable place to cut through. After “Excuse me” they all looked very uncomfortable and pretended they didn’t hear us, as though they weren’t supposed to be talking to us. Maddy explained that we’re trying to get to the ocean. They sort of laughed and said “It’s everywhere in that direction” (like, duh). And so Maddy reiterated, “Yes, but where is it ok to walk through?” to which they answered “Anywhere”. Apparently it’s ok to just cut through anyone’s property.

We walked across the street and into the settlement. There were families watching us walk through their area. Again, they were very friendly and curious as to why we were there. Maddy would explain “La playa” and they would say “yes of course. Enjoy.” There was a man cooking a chicken over a small campfire. A few dogs barked at us with confusion. We made it out to the beach. Matty was alarmed by the barking. This was where I got to be her translator for a change. I said, “Don’t worry. He’s just saying, ‘Who are you? You’re not from here. You look very different and it’s scary.’ He’s afraid of us. Just act like everything is fine and he’ll calm down”. I reached my hand out to let him sniff me. He was about to sniff me and chill out but then Maddy kind of hid behind me. He saw her fear and started barking again. If that’s not a metaphor of our whole week...

THE DEAL WITH TRASH: Remember when we were in Santo Domingo and we kept seeing signs that said “don’t put trash here”? This was why. The beach was canvassed with a layer of buoyant trash. Mostly plastic bottles and the occasional styrofoam and shoe. The heavy rains tear through the streets of the city and form rivers in the gutter which all streets have. These gutters flush directly into the ocean and there is no way of stopping trash once it sets sail. Floating trash leaves the island temporarily but it eventually washes ashore. Maybe a different part of the island. Maybe on Puerto Rican or Cuban Beaches. Maybe Venezuela. The entire island is surrounded with a ring of plastic. The waves crash with the sound of a bottle redemption center. The Dominican has tried to limit the pollution but not all of it is native. It comes from all over the Caribbean, including Florida and the Gulf Coast.

trashA common sight on beaches worldwide.

OUR LARIMAR HUNT 

Maddy found a few pieces of rough larimar. As we walked down the beach, we saw a man coming the other way with a plastic bottle full of similar stones. She immediately worried that she was encroaching on his livelihood. They make their living selling larimar to people in the city. As he got closer, she was about to offer him the stones in her hand. He didn’t give her a chance. He handed her his entire bottle as a gift. He wanted no money. He said, “It’s ok, I’m just collecting for my daughter to play with them.” and Maddy replied, “I can’t take those from your daughter.” He insisted that he would find more. She explained that the bottle was too big to fly home with but she would accept two small pieces from the bottle, “for my daughter” she said. He was just really friendly and was excited to be sharing his beach with visitors.

Moments later, a very thin and not so clean man approached us with a similar bottle of larimar stones. This man was in rough shape and smelled like booze. He was trying to sell the stones to us and we explained that we had no cash on us. He desperately wanted us to change our answer and followed us most of the way back. This was just another lesson about generalizing. It’s the same everywhere. Even on the same remote beach, you can find very different people. You can’t say that people are one way in the city and another way in the jungle. They’re not one way in the US and another in the Caribbean. There are endless examples of different personalities and personal situations in every place you go to. There are trends and typicalities, but being a visitor draws out the the extremes. This is why it’s important not to judge people from a limited amount of contact. It’s very difficult not to.

How different would things be if we spent the extra minute to get to know each other? What if travelers and locals made it a common activity to meet and trade stories. I was the kid in school that always befriended the exchange students, but that’s because I was weird and I liked how weird they were. Nevermind visitors, what if we weren’t so sketched out by immigrants? There’s an entire community in the next town over and I never go there because I’ve been taught I’m not welcome there. How much are we missing out on? How much food and music and medicine and ideas… all of it.. How much better would life be for everyone if we pushed past the one bad example and kept going until we felt at home around people who are different. I feel like my entire country has been doing to immigrants what I was doing in Santo Domingo. Simply learning from my experiences and projecting it onto everyone else around them.

"YEA, BUT THEY TALKED TO US" 

After leaving the beach and wandering back through the shantytown, we crossed the main road and headed up the street to Casa Bonita. As we walked past a flock of naked children, we waved. One of them said, “Hola”. We replied, “Hola”. They responded louder and in unison, “HOLA!!”. This went back and forth a while and the kids got closer and louder. It was very amusing for them to be talking to us. They got to the barbed wire fence and gleefully screamed “HOLAAAAA!” with ear to ear smiles and laughter as we continued up the road.

Sitting just inside the barbed wire were two old men. As we walked past them, Maddy had a quick casual conversation. Like, “hello, beautiful day” sort of a thing. One of the men said to the other, “are they going to Casa?” to which the other man replied, “Of course, where else?”. And then the first man said “Yea but they talked to us”.

..Yea, but they talked to us..

When Maddy translated that to me, we walked the rest of the way up the hill in silence. In the thick of everything we experienced all week, it was a moment of disturbing clarity. It’s rare for people from different walks of life to connect. And because of that, Paulito was blindsided by his bond with Maddy. Locals in Chinatown assumed we were lost when we were not. We were surprised when people were hospitable to us when they had nothing to gain. Everyone in the world is wrong about everyone else and it’s because we avoid each other.

LEAVING THE JUNGLE 

We, at our last dinner at Casa Bonita’s amazing restaurant, said our goodbyes to the staff and had a quick conversation with Enrique. We went deep about my appreciation for his staff etc. I felt an energy of some sort coming from my left. It was the entire staff standing there staring at me. It occured to me that I was the quiet one and Maddy was the one who’s personality they could see. But once I had an English speaker to connect with, my personality came out and I think they were a little bit, “Oh hey look, it’s alive”. Enrique was surprised and relieved to learn that Maddy is writing an article for GoNomad.com. He said to his staff, “See? You never know!”

We had our dinner in a take out container so that we would have food for later. This was the plan. Crash at the cheap hotel that didn’t have food and then eat our leftovers on the ride back to Santo Domingo. Once in the city, we will have ATMs, groceries, and a final Air B&B to crash at just long enough to nap before our 5am flight. Not even close.

The first part of the plan worked. We crashed at that hotel and saw the sun rise on the ocean. The food that we had planned on eating was no good. They, for some reason, included the head of the fish. They probably didn’t know how long we intended to keep the rice and Yucca. But now all of it was not safe to eat because it was covered in day old fish. Fortunately, the hotel owner, a really cool swedish lady, made us a simple and delicious egg breakfast. I schooled her in the latest credit card software to help her solve her ongoing problem of incompatible registers. She can now run cards on her phone the same way my band sold merch.

sunrise

We drove back near Casa Bonita to make a quick larimar purchase. We stopped on the side of the road near where we cut through their homes to get to the beach. I had an American $10 and $20 on me. They weren’t precious to me because I knew we would be back in ATM land soon. A man was sitting outside of his shack with a chair covered in small larimar cuttings. We picked out about as many as we could fit in our limited backpack space. He was calling for help from a family member. It seemed that he was stressing out about the fact that he had some potentially big spenders and needed someone who spoke better english. He was getting frustrated that no one was coming to help him. We asked how much for the handfuls that we’d picked. He looked at us with a shy expression as if to say “Sorry, this isn’t my wheelhouse. I don’t know how to haggle” but actually just said “twenty?”. With no argument, I handed him my $20 bill. We way overpayed but that was kind of what we wanted. When he realized that the just made $20, he started throwing in more stones for free. No touchdown dance. As we headed back to the car, he started packing up shop as though he were done for the week. He had just scored big but what he doesn’t know is that we literally couldn’t have found a more preferred way to spend 20 bucks.

Larimar

A LAKE IN A DESERT IN A JUNGLE ON AN ISLAND: 

We continued through Barahona and into the desert. As we were passing through the desert, we thought we were very close to being able to eat again. Maddy remembered hearing about a large lake in the middle of the desert and something about flamingos. We figured it wouldn’t take long to pull off the main drag and find a place to park at the lake. We followed the map to a cluster of roads close to the edge.

A street in Cristobal, Barahona Provence.

As we drove into the town, people were completely confused. This wasn’t even on the way to anywhere touristy. We got to the very bottom of this tiny village and realized that there was no obvious beach front. A large family was sitting on their front lawn laughing at us. We simply rolled down the window and said, “can you help us find the lake?”. They fell over laughing. “It’s that way” they pointed in the general direction, noting that we are on the edge of a huge lake. Just like when we were looking for the beach, we explained “yes but where would you prefer that we walk through.” We weren’t about to cut through someone’s yard. A woman stood up and said “I’ll show you” to which we said, “Great! Come on in!” As she climbed in the car, the entire family is rolling on the ground laughing and trying to catch their breath.

She took us past a dumpster and down a long muddy road. This explains why there’s no beach front. The lake changes size depending on rainfall. Eventually we pulled over because the car was going to get stuck. We walked the rest of the way. She started by talking to us as though we were total weirdos but then warmed up later as we were asking geological questions about the lake and ecosystem. It was clear that we weren’t there to go swimming and wind surfing and the whole expedition seemed less like an accident. We eventually got to the lake. It looked like an endless mud puddle in the middle of a desert in the middle of a jungle in the middle of an ocean. We collected cool shells.

Lake

On the way back to the car, the conversation came up that this was unusual for her. Maddy said, “Dominicans are very nice” and she answered, “Yes, we are.” and then she paused and said very seriously, “But there are also savages. You have to be careful”. I didn’t hear the translation yet but I saw the face and heard the tone. What I translated was, “Be careful driving your white car and your white girl down remote roads in the middle of nowhere with strangers”. I wasn’t afraid of her. I could tell she was fine. But she had a point.

As we drove back from the mud we asked her, “Can we pay you for your time? We really appreciate this.” She said we could but we don’t have to. We explained that the tour was something we would have happily paid for. All I had left was that American 10 dollar bill. I handed it to her and her eyes lit up as though it was $100. In retrospect, I think it was. Given the exchange rate and what most things cost outside the tour zone. I think it pretty much was like a 100 bucks for her hour on the muddy road.

We pulled back up to the house where the family was still in hysterics. To make it even funnier, we never figured out the child safety locks. So I had to get out and open the door for her like a shofer. They were dying. This was the funniest thing that had ever happened, ever in the ever. And she just stepped out with her eyebrows silently saying, “laugh it up, he just dropped a Hamilton on me.” Good. She has a kid. This changed her day. It would have been a cheeseburger where I live. I’d rather it be this.

A BLACK MIRROR NIGHTMARE: 

As we headed through that village looking for the main road, I noticed people coming out of their homes and walking to the ends of streets holding their phones and pointing at us. A man with a bunch of crafts hanging from a stick was running across a field trying to catch up with us. It was a scene from Black Mirror. I did not count on the cell phones and social media taking this day on a turn. The entire town had clearly read on facebook that there are lost white people driving around handing out money. Ok. This is no longer funny. It’s now a little uncomfortable.

We were driving very slowly because there was a taxi van in front of us. I would go around it like I normally do but there are mopeds and such. I don’t want to run people off the road just because everyone is looking at us. There was a moment with no oncoming traffic and I was getting ready to pass. The taxi had sprawled itself across the road to block us. It was barely moving, just enough to go left and right keeping us behind it. I watched the driver watching me in the side view. I’m hoping it’s because he’s in cahoots with the guy trying to sell us stuff. I was trying my best not to be paranoid and judgemental of these people. But there was no denying that the taxi had me trapped behind it while the community watched us like we were OJ simpson on the freeway. People were starting to congregate like a parade crowd.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the woman’s face while she was warning me to be careful. Savages. It’s not impossible that while the entire town is posting the current location of the silly generous white people, the town’s seedier side is also noticing. Does this taxi driver know those people? "Don’t be paranoid", I told myself, not wanting to be a scared white person in a place we were trying to prove wasn't scary. In my rear view, way way down the street, I see five or six motorcycles turn onto our road coming our way. The reason I noticed them out of all the other two-wheeled vehicles is because they were all wearing full face helmets. I have not seen a helmet all week. Maybe I’m paranoid but could it be because they’re hiding their faces? Don’t be paranoid, maybe they’re farmers who work on a really dusty road. A couple of women on the side of the road went from smiling and watching us, to watching the motorcycles with a very serious face. The bikes were moving fast but still pretty far. The women and soon a few more people were looking at the bikes and then at me. I noticed that the bikers were all wearing futbol shirts. Our friend is in my mind saying “savages”.

Ok. No more worrying about being paranoid. If I’m being paranoid than you can go ahead and find me guilty. But I got my Maddy in the car. I doubt anyone is going to harm us while we're on parade but I don't want them following us out of town. It’s time to drive like a Massachusetts taxi. A moped passed us from behind and then started to pass the taxi. I swung out behind the moped and used him as a pick to go around the taxi. The taxi would have to run over the moped to stay in front of me. I gave the quick double beep which in DR means, “I’m not stopping” and the rest of the pedestrians got out of the street. I had to kick up a lot of dirt going around speed bumps and slower vehicles, digging into the shoulder of the road. We reached 100kph (about 60mph) through the farmland without GPS. I just defaulted up hill whenever there was a choice because up hill seemed logically the opposite direction from the lake.

We found the main road and sped up even faster. As we slowed into the next small town, no one was looking at us. Well, they were, but only the way they normally do.

SAFE-ISH 

At this point, we had spent way longer in the desert than we had intended. We were hungry. That’s only annoying to me but more serious for Maddy. She left her meds at home and had been without them for a week. She needed food soon or she was going to start having trouble functioning. Her adrenalin from the situation wore off and she passed out. I was not anticipating this.

I stayed calm as I drove through the countryside waiting for the next town where they might have an ATM or at least be able to transform a credit card into some sort of calories. This was taking a long time. As we started to pass places that might look like food, I tried talking to her and I couldn’t get a useful response. Stay calm.

I passed what looked like a vending booth on the side of the road. I did an Elwood Blues parking job across the street. I’m thinking the whole time, “ok. I can do this with minimal verbal communication. And if I can’t, I have a drawing pad and a marker. But the food part is doable. It’s the paying part I’m unsure of. I found two single dollars in my bag, locked Maddy in the car, and ran across the street.

I said to the teen, who had the expression of all the teens who have been giving us the hardest time, “Disculpa porfavor. No Hablo Espaniol”. He visually responded that it’s ok, he seemed used to it. I looked at the wall of candy behind him and tried to sign that I was looking for food. We pretty much just played the game where I pointed up down left right while he moved his hand around on the shelf. It was all garbage but I found a soda and a guava juice that seemed like the most useful sugar available. He put them on the counter and then I said, “Y no pecos.” He looked at me like “dude..” and the friends sitting next to the stand looked over, thinking I was trying to ask for the drinks for free. But I held up my two American dollars and said “US?”. He nodded yes. I had two items, I figured they were probably a dollar each and I handed them both over, thinking, “Please don’t haggle with me, I don’t have time to explain that she needs sugar immediately.” I put the two bills on the counter and grabbed the drinks before he could try to charge me more. I was about to just run across the street. He said “No”. He grabbed the dollars from the counter and handed me one back. “One only.” I looked at him as if to say, “seriously?” And he kind of rolled his eyes and smiled as if to say, “I know what kind of trip you’ve had. But not with me, amigo” I looked over at the spectators and pointed at the clerk as if to say “This guy, am I right?”. They chuckled and nodded yes. I thanked him. He could tell that something was urgent.

I ran back to the car and woke maddy with a cold wet bottle of sugar. It immediately helped. She came to and started apologizing about not helping me navigate, as if she hadn’t been a total hero all week. We got back on the road and went about 100 yards down the road, around a turn, and right into a giant complex with an extensive buffet and fruit and every kind of road snacks. ha. They took cards. So, lunch was awesome.

THE DEFORMED FINAL NIGHT 

We drove through Santo Domingo in rush hour. Wow.

HOW TRAFFIC WORKS: So, a few days ago, I kept trying to drive politely. I would wave people to go ahead and they would look at me like I’m crazy. People were beeping and annoyed with me, even the ones I was allowing to go first. But by now I had learned that they don’t want that. You have to drive the way they drive or it throws off their whole rhythm. I started cutting people off and squeezing my way into other lanes like a total ass. They seemed to respect me when they saw that. When in Rome.

The traffic in the Dominican doesn't rely on management. There are no signs and lights telling you when it is your turn. The drivers themselves self regulate this and it works really well. The traffic slithers through town like a snake. It will expand and contract with the width of the road. There is no "right of way" there is only "got there first". In order for this to work, everyone has to be paying attention. No sittling back and texting while waiting for a light to tell you what pedal to press. That causes traffic. Drivers drive and that's it.

At one point when we were in grid lock, a guy came up next to Maddys window the way people all try to sell stuff. Maddy jumped and screamed. I thought she was just startled by a face outside her window. I found out later that he had zapped her window with a taser. It was an advertisement to sell his taser to her.

The plan of taking a pre-flight nap at an Air B&B fell through when we realized that the host wasn’t going to give us the address. She was a French woman who didn’t speak Spanish. She just started getting pissed and yelling at Maddy. We were already near the airport and had to return our car. We pretty much had no choice but to book a room at one of the hotels in Boca Chica (touristy land). It wasn’t too expensive. The Avis car people as well as the front desk guys all told us we had to schedule a cab because Uber takes too long and we’ll miss our flight. At this point, we knew bull shit when we heard it.

We got into our room and then walked to the boardwalk to find one more meal before sleeping. By the way, prostitution is legal in the DR. And while legalization might make the sex workers a little safer, it didn't help the race and class rift at all. It was a gross meat market. The twenty minutes that we saw was pretty much this.. Beautiful black and latina women milling around while old white guys call them over to their table as though they were ordering a round of drinks. I even saw one man get annoyed that the wrong girl walked over when he meant to point to the one next to her. Everyone was asking us for money or trying to hand us a menu. We found Chinese food and brought it back to the room.

MARIACHI 

On the way to the room, I passed a Mariachi band who had been wandering the street playing for tips. They were done for the day. One of them let me use his guitar and we connected a little bit through the universal language. They were impressed at my spanish guitar, which I couldn’t resist playing due to the style of the instrument itself. As we jammed a little bit they said, “Ahhh Yankee”. That’s what they call Blues. They said they know thousands of songs but all anyone wants to hear is La Bamba. I feel your pain Amigo. It was a good final interaction with the locals. We went back to the room and ate our chinese food and took a nap.

When it was time, we ordered an Uber and it showed up immediately. The Avis and Hotel guys were totally full of bologna.

THE CULTURE SHOCK OF BEING HOME

As we flew back into JFK, we went through the new automated customs robots. A machine reads your passport and gives you a pass or fail, telling you which line to get in. It was confusing enough for me and the instructions were in English. There was a whole plane full of people who were very intimidated by the robots.

My passport passed and so I was in the short line. I only waited about 15 minutes. Maddy had helped a few people figure out the machines. This caused her to speak spanish at the machine, resulting in a fail. She stood in the line for an hour and a half with the rest of the Dominicans. She witnessed very scared visitors awaiting the front of the line. Two small kids had to use the bathroom and the mother told them they can’t. She said, “You have to behave in this airport because there are police and we could all get arrested for no reason.” She wasn’t wrong. The front of the line was the same as the line I was in. A single American officer who doesn’t speak spanish stamps their passport and then they’re free to enter the country. Welcome to America.

JFK

As I drove through New York City in rush hour, it felt calm and spacious. It was NY rush hour. Bumper to bumper and practically stopped. Look at these wide roads and magic dotted lines keeping other cars away from me. Of course, no one is paying attention to the road because we've learned not to. I assume these cars would have been moving faster if we were all dominican drivers.

I thought about the price of the cars around us and how they cost double the same cars in the DR. I thought about how our $800 cell phones and $100 per month plans were the cheapest option available to us. I thought about the insane money we spend to build things and get licensed to work, the markup on education and insurance, etc. Most of what we spend as Americans is not exactly voluntary. Things are marked up so high, the government (in tandem with corporations) decided it’s better to give food stamps and free healthcare to the bottom chunk of the population rather than simply lower the price to what is realistic for our nation’s average income. After centuries of bringing in huddled masses of labor, we suddenly mechanize or export all the jobs. We work around the clock and our quality of life is not much better than a lot of people in the third world. They have community around them. They have healthy food. They have free time to spend with their neighbors and family. And we look down our noses at them because they're poor.

We have things to be thankful for too, and I’m not denying that. But when I looked at those little houses in La Cienega and remember Lorena explaining that “life is outside”, it makes me see our way of life differently. We are being shaken down the same way tourists are. For what? To have a larger home where we can sit alone and isolated from our neighbors? If we didn’t have winter, would we need expensive homes? If we had food growing out of the ground and fish jumping out of the ocean, would we need isles of junkfood and sugarwater? If we used the same medicines that the Spanish found the Taino using, would we need a bazzillion dollar pharmaceutical industry which is proven to make us more unhealthy? Is our first world better for the average person or is it better for the people robbing us monthly? Even if it’s twice as good, is that worth ten times the price? And in order to continue paying for this, will we need to continue colonizing and destabilizing places that have the resources that we overuse?

Contrary to my upbringing, I now don’t feel much luckier than the 3rd world I just returned from. I know. There are worse off countries. But the Dominican is one of those places I've heard described as poor and unsafe by people who say, "Don't leave the resort". I wasn't any less safe than a Dominican would be in the United States. In fact, Dominicans are far safer in their own country than we are in ours. Yet, I would never know that by sitting at home watching TV where people can just blurt "40% of murders are by immigrants" and I have no way to fact check it.

CONCLUSION: It’s not that I haven’t thought of this stuff before the trip. It’s just that now I can’t not think about it. The other thing I can’t unthink is that we are all stuck in inaccurate stereotypes. Not just white vs brown people, but gay and straight, rich and poor, wooks and cops, everyone. And this will continue to get more reinforced as we avoid interacting. It's not as simple as just saying, "Don't stereotype" because people who pretend not to are full of shit. It's involuntary. You can't undo it in large sweeping generalizations. You have to make actual connections with individual people. I don’t know what my suggestion is. I guess I can only try to do better for myself. And perhaps I can write about it as thoroughly as I can in hopes that someone reads the whole thing, but I can’t fit it into a meme.

It’s time to go home and draw these buildings as I would any other place I’ve been. I don’t think my drawing chops could possibly capture their haunted nature, at least not in this cartoony style. But when I look at them, they will remind me of the lessons I am so privileged to have learned.