An American Abroad

Arrival in Santo Domingo

Jesus picked me up at the airport and drove me into Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. We zipped along a roadway with the Caribbean on our left and the city on our right. At some point the road jogged north and we couldn’t see the sea.

We passed by a mile-long row of car wash entrepreneurs. They had industrial-sized plastic water tanks as big as garden sheds, buckets with soapy water, and gasoline-fueled power washers. When cars heading toward us pulled over, whole families of car washers sprang into action. From the look of the finished product – Japanese cars with gleaming body panels and windshield wipers angled up like insect antennae – they did a hell of a job.

Jesus was driving like a cowboy, cutting and weaving and laying heavy on the horn, when a huge grey concrete hulk came into view. A prison, I thought. It was massive and had what looked like large windows, but were actually just blank rectangles recessed into the walls. The walls themselves tilted at a menacing angle. It looked like the kind of place the dictatorship would lock you up in and torture you til you begged to die.

“What’s that?” I asked Jesus. I was fearful of the answer.

“That’s the monument to Cristóbal Colón, Christopher Columbus,” he said. “Built for the five hundred years anniversary of him landing in Santo Domingo. It forms a cross when you look at it from an airplane.”

Maybe it’s beautiful from 10,000 feet with a vodka in your hand, but from the window’s of Jesus’s Toyota, it’s ugly and terrifying. Maybe that was the architect’s point. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looks like this.

Jesus dropped me off at the Island Life Backpackers Hostel in the Zona Colonial. Schumacher the blue Great Dane gave me an enthusiastic greeting when I walked in. No – that’s not true at all. Schumacher barely registered my presence, even when I got down on the floor to take his picture.

The proprietor, Chris, was more convivial. English. From the south. Backpacked here years ago, fell in love with the place, bought some decaying 17th century buildings in the Zona Colonial, worked like a demon to rehab them. Three years later, he opened for business. I chose the bottom bunk in a four-bed room at $19 a night (breakfast included), locked up my satchel, and went down to the bar and ordered myself my first Presidente beer.

It’s the low season and the place was only one third full. I headed to the cool of the courtyard.

A Danish hippie sat at a table looking through a pile of paperbacks and a pretty girl in a long skirt made herself something to eat and sacked out in a hammock. I love hostels. And I was particularly glad to be in Santo Domingo. I was here:

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