Go east, young man: Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013


THE island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean looks like a misshapen bean or a mitotic cell that has suddenly stopped dividing. Two countries occupy it, with Haiti, to the west, clearly getting the short end of the stick. The rest belongs to the Dominican Republic, the better-off sibling, the one who made it out of town, if barely, and went to college and got its act together. If there were polar opposites they would be these two countries, and the farther eastward on the island you go, the more you see the disparity.

I chose to drive east for now. It is a cowardly decision motivated by the temptation of luxurious all-inclusive resorts and watered-down cocktails and lazy afternoons at tacky poolside bars. The travel magazines talk of a place called Punta Cana that promises all these, and it could be reached by driving along the DR’s Autovia del Este (Eastbound Highway) until you could no longer go any further.

The capital city, Santo Domingo, has metastasized severely, and it seemed that I could not escape its pseudopods of shantytowns and craggy highways no matter how fast I drove. But in a drumbeat, the urban disappeared and the highway started to take me back in time. It is at that moment that I felt that I was no longer tourist, or anything at all, but perhaps a time traveler. The mise-en-scène dissolved from the present: a T-rex chases its prey; prehistoric Taino Indians forage for food; then learn to cultivate crop. Soon, the time line advanced to the 17th century and I found myself laboring among indentured African slaves in the vast sugarcane plantations that today still cover the vast Dominican landscape.

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Because GPS never works in the Caribbean, it is very easy to get lost here, and I did.

It turns out, the Autovia is in the middle of construction and so I had to intermittently drive on dirt road and mud and highway. I have done this before to find my way back whenever I lose direction: wear my T-shirt inside out. It works. As soon as I did, the enchantment began. All of a sudden the highway rose up before gently gliding down the bend, to reveal this awesome sight: blue and green and mar y cielo merging together to form Macao Beach. I have reached Punta Cana.

I was meeting some friends who have chosen an all-inclusive resort on the very private, exclusive part of town called Cap Cana. I start to question the wisdom of going for too much luxury in a country whose own citizens could probably not afford it. Cap Cana is a private development owned by European investors who have sectioned it off from the real world. Scrawny askals, skinny cows and clapboard shacks are kept outside, while three-story lodges made to look like old Spanish forts are safely tucked inside surrounded by gumamelas. What is the point of visiting a foreign country if you were to hide away in a soulless, exclusive resort? Where foreigners are whisked from the airport in tinted vans? The airport itself is weird. It is the only privately owned international airport anywhere, and it has no walls and is covered by a thatched roof made of nipa.

This is the life

All that liberal guilt dissipates in a heartbeat though, because the hotel turns out to actually be nice. And quaint. The suites had a distinct smell of aging wood that reminded me of my grandfather’s house in Cebu that I used to visit. It triggered memories of many summers and I succumb. The attendants were nice. “What will the señor be drinking?” and “May I light your cigar please, caballero.” It is something I got used to unquestioningly.

We had a choice of four restaurants in the resort complex, all “free” of course. But all of them were a let down. None of them featured real Dominican cooking. There were no fried plantains (tostones), no soup of hen and pig’s feet (sancocho). Ask for a mofongo, that garlicky staple of mashed plantains and chicharrón and shrimp, and the waiters offer this excuse: we’re currently developing a Dominican restaurant. Instead, the food on offer was failed approximations of fine dining cuisine. My grilled halibut once came uncooked and frozen inside. My arugula salad was bitter, but the waiter said it was freshly picked “from the garden.”

To remedy this, I secretly negotiated with the hotel workers to set up trips outside the walls. And that’s how things got interesting: by ditching this so called exclusivity and slumming it up in an expensive town. My friends and I decide on a dune buggy ride though the countryside in the neighboring town of Macao. The hotel sold the trip for 125 dollars. But kulurum style, 60 dollars.

You get what you pay for. We got rinky-dink, really ghetto buggies that conked out every 20 minutes. An ad hoc committee of Haitian operators come a-running to jumpstart it. But they took us to a beautiful countryside dotted with pastel colored huts and beautiful children, descendants of African folk who arrived 200 years ago. The dirt road coursed through farmland and fields of mango trees. I stop to pick mangoes, but a big albino stopped me, “You! I want to talk to you privately,” he said. He wanted to sell some weed. I declined politely. Upon which a revelation: the real Eden is not in Punta Cana but here, in the town of Macao. This is the more authentic Dominican Republic. The folks roll and smoke their own tobacco on their porches. They high five you and call cariño as you pass. They drink rum they themselves brew.

That trip ended at a deserted beach with pink sand surrounded by ragged cliffs. It is una chuleria. As if on cue, a fisherman appeared carrying freshly fished lapu-lapu.
The albino made a fire in the sand, and the rest, as they say, is perfect.

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

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 19, 2013.

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