Santo Domingo: days of mangoes, days of dread

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I FEARED going to Sto. Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Altagracia Belicia Guzman, a red-haired Dominican woman had admonished me to never go, and with heavy dismay in her voice, recounted how she was robbed at gun point and had her money stolen as she left the airport, victimized by her own countrymen. Shame! The same will happen to you. It is the curse of the fuku! And it will follow you there too if you are not careful. But if you do, she scowled, stay away from men with semi-automatic rifles.

Bueno. So here I am on the last JetBlue out of JFK, along with a ghettowreck crowd of Domies bound for the DR. A fight had earlier broken out midflight when a woman began talking too loud across the aisle, and the crowd had gotten pissy: callate la boca!

Leave me alone! Shut the eff up sucia! At the airport I took extra vigilance, but they say the same thing of all airports anyways: Lima, Rome, Mactan, its all about thieves.

I relax a little bit when the loud woman from my flight finally meets her young daughter whom she had not seen in 13 years, whispers mi’ja que grande your tetas now!

Dominicans. You just gotta LOL.

Within seconds, I fall in love with Sto. Domingo, one of the most vibrant cities in the Caribbean, the first European city in the New World, ground zero of western imperialism. How will I describe to you the ocean as it crashes and gets blasted into the sky through a blowhole? The many albinos and cross-eyed jaywalkers taking naps in the malecon? The traffic that respects no one, the battered trucks and battered cars, and battered motorcycles, and the repair shops that line the streets run by any fool who owns a wrench, as they do in Cebu. And the uncovered sewage, and the shanties, and the poor tigres plying the alleyways hustling for a quick dollar by engaging you in sweet talk. Why does it seem like all third world countries share the same DNA?

I’m on a horse. It is a bad-tempered and skinny animal that reminded me of the ones that ply Pasil. His owner, our tour guide, is a strapping albino from Higüey who promised a tour that will start at the Zona Colonial. He offers us a welcome drink called mamajuana, a mix of rum, red wine, honey and tree bark. It smells of sweat.

He heard me protest that it was for tourists, and so he gives me Brugal on the rocks.

Sitting in the banks of the Ozama river, the colonial zone is the city’s intramuros.

The Spaniards founded the city only six years after Columbus arrived. It is believed that his remains are buried here, and surely, the explorer has left his unmistakable mark. In an otherwise chaotic city, this is a ticket to the 1500s. The days of eating mangoes under the tree, said the albino, pointing to full-bodied trees surrounding the ruins of the first hospital in the Americas. Not only that, it is within these walls that we find the first sewer system, the oldest church and the first paved road in the New World.

Old men in the plaza, playing dominoes, the laughter of sparrows. La negra, making out with el papi chulo, taking cover from the heat. At the seaside, a breeze blowing, from the distant ships.

It’s a nice quaint town. But it wasn’t all fun and games for this country, for now I am going to tell you about its days of dread. (I will mention his name only once, lest I invoke the dreaded curse.) His name was Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Our own Ferdinand Marcos had nothing on this Dominican dictator. He had ruled the country from 1930 to 1961 with a ruthless brutality, controlling all aspects of life with severe violence, kleptocracy and terror. During his reign, all Dominican homes had to have his portrait put up in an altar, or death. In 1937, he ordered all Haitians in the country killed, complaining that they were cattle thieves. Even to this day, Haitians cross over the border (they share the island of Hispaniola with the DR) and endure life as illegal immigrants. And the fuku that all Dominicans fear? He was its ringwraith, unleashing its evil to those who opposed him. The Kennedy family curse? That was Trujillo’s curse for JFK’s complicity in his assassination, a revenge from the grave. Right before John-John’s plane crashed, he was lunching on mofongo and sancocho, my favorite Dominican dishes. Fuku. Dominicans!

Ohh, those were the days. But I only have one day left in Sto. Domingo, and I have not come to this island to be a pariguayo, partywatcher. I tell the albino, I want to crash a party, to dance merengue and thrust my hips bachata style. Ta’to, he snorts.

Luckily, the horse knew where to go, for in the oldest cathedral in the Americas there was a wedding underway. Two Brooklynites of Dominican parentage have come home to the motherland to get hitched. Perfect party to crash.

Sure enough that night, it was the party to end all parties. The band upon the stage was a revelation from the Holy Book of Rhythm, and they killed it with the fastest merengue I’ve ever heard anywhere. The groom, an echt Dominicano, buenmoso and in his finest threads, whirled his beautiful bride like only a macho can. And everyone on the dance floor danced as if they were bidding farewell to death, forgetting to eat dinner. The women strike their best poses, partying as only these folks can, and they tolerate my presence. I danced till the sun rose in the East.

And so I leave you as I look to the sunrise, for it is out in the east of this island that my next destination awaits. They say it is where the real Eden lies, pink sand and lush forests, a paradise within paradise itself.

I’ll see you soon.

*For more photo essays, one may log on to www.dalesantosjabagat.com. (Dale Santos Jabagat)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 12, 2013.

Lifestyle

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