An American Abroad

Santo Domingo: The Zona Colonial

My visit to the Dominican Republic was all too short. So as not to spread myself too thin or spend too much of my time in transit, I concentrated on the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first permanent European city in the New World and the only such city founded before 1500. It’s certainly a tourist spot, but it’s also a very real neighborhood that houses the rich, the poor, and those in between.

Since this part of the city was built by the Spanish colonists, it’s not surprising to find monuments and street names honoring Christopher Columbus. Columbus has fallen out of favor in the more developed world for being a plunderer, a colonizer, an initiator of genocide, and an all-around disagreeable person. So it’s ironic that he is still quite popular in the land where he committed the depredations he is so stridently accused of.

One of the things the Spaniards did in pretty quick order was to build fortifications around city to protect it — not from the native population, but from other colonial powers that might try to muscle in on their good thing. This watchtower overlooks the approach to the Santo Domingo harbor. On the day I was there, the watch was kept by a dog enjoying the relative cool of the shade.

The Spanish also brought Catholicism to Santo Domingo, a legacy that lives in the faith of its people and in the ancient churches that dot the Zona Colonial.

Where else could you see Job: The Musical but in a seriously religious country?

Even comparatively recent residential buildings bear a strong Spanish influence.

The Ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco

There are so many ancient churches, convents, and monasteries in Santo Domingo that it seems like the authorities have forgotten about half of them. One such unrestored site is the Monasterio de San Francisco and was located just a few blocks from the hostel. The 16th century ruins were gated and shuttered, but I was able to find my way in.

And then, while I was traipsing around the ruins while wearing nothing on my feet but Teva sandals, I glanced down . . . and every old-brain fight-or-flight neuron blazed on and time slowed to a turtle speed and my vision became sharper and narrower and every muscle in my body tensed and my heart slammed into overdrive. Only then did I realize it was an old shoe, not a snake.

Which raises interesting questions: what is a single woman’s shoe doing there?

Boca Chica

One of the great things about staying in hostels is that it’s easy to meet people who are going out to see what’s to be seen, just like you. I like traveling alone. But I also enjoy connecting with other travelers for short excursions. Which is what happened when I met Shuqiang Ma.

Ma is a 56 year old Chinese man who lives in Riga, Latvia. He is a serious, committed traveler and has visited over 90 countries. I liked him immediately. We chatted about southwest China where I used to live, and I was happy to find that he had been to many of the towns in Yunnan Province that I visited. Though he hadn’t been in Santo Domingo any longer than I, he has already sussed out the cheapest ways to get around. I discovered later that he also has an excellent sense of direction, which is always a good quality in a travel companion.

Over breakfast at the Island Life Backpackers Hostel, he mentioned that he was going to Boca Chica that morning and asked if I’d like to come along. Why not?

Ma had already scoped out a public bus that runs from Santo Domingo to Boca Chica and that costs only a few dollars. We set off to find the bus station together. Ma led us there in fifteen minutes.

The ride out to Boca Chica tracked the coastline as we headed east. The bus was full. I sat hip-to-hip next to a lushly-upholstered Dominican woman named Rosa. Once the bus driver cranked up the salsa, Rosa began singing along and dancing in her seat. Being the nearest available dance partner, I began sit-dancing along with her. We cracked each other up. Across the aisle, Ma look on, bemused.

As we headed out of the city, the road tracked the Caribbean shore. In thirty minutes, we were at Boca Chica, a town whose major attraction is its public beach. The place had a slightly seedy, over-used look to it. Other travelers had warned us that the touts, pimps, and souvenir salesmen there were a constant annoyance, but though we did encounter a few such people, it was hardly overwhelming. And they generally took one firm no for an answer.

We were here:

Ma and I took turns swimming in the warm, calm Caribbean waters.

Lots of Dominicans were out for a Sunday swim too.

One of the more unusual sights at the beach was a children’s play area with a swing set topped with roughly-scuplted airplanes. I was even more surprised to see American and Israeli flags on the planes. I couldn’t decide if this was some sort of political commentary — and if so, if it was intended to be positive or negative.

After a few hours, we walked through the edge of the town to the bus stop and headed back to Santo Domingo.

By the time we were back at the hostel, I was feeling the effects of the sun and sea and took a brief nap before rising to go explore again.

Santo Domingo After Dark

On my first night in Santo Domingo, I grabbed my camera and started walking around the city. Half the time I didn’t know where I was or what I was looking at. Latin American cities have a way of looking especially romantic at night.

I came to an area where a cruise ship, the Logos Hope, was docked.

I later found out that this ship is operated by a German Christian charitable organization with an all-volunteer crew. It bills itself as a floating book fair and has a 5,000-volume permanent library on board. I didn’t try to go aboard, but I did sneak into some of the on-shore entertainment that was staged for the ship’s passengers.

Nearby was a large plaza fronted by a row of restaurants. I returned to this area the following day and had a superb meal at one of them (not pictured here), Pat’e Palo. Definitely recommended!

Other nearby restaurants were doing a good business.

At the other end of the plaza was an imposing and mysterious old pile of bricks that was built in 1511 as the palace of Viceroy and Governor Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son.

Other members of Christopher Columbus’s family caught my eye that night. This is a statue of Maria de Toledo, Diego Columbus’s wife.

I walked around more, still not entirely sure where I was, but everywhere I looked I saw scenes of mystery and longing.

I had finally gotten oriented and was finding my way back to the hostel when I spied this little guy enjoying the cool of the night just like I was.

Signs of Santo Domingo

I’m a sucker for the written word. At age ten, I went to summer sleep-away camp and quickly became noted (mocked) for reading books, newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes while other kids were out playing. The reading habit has stuck with me throughout my travels. I’ve posted photo essays about signs in Chefchaouen (Morocco), Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Fes (Morocco). I’ve also documented graffiti around the world.

So on my recent trip to Santo Domingo, I took pictures in the Zona Colonial of the written word.

Christianity is abundantly represented in Santo Domingo, from the city’s very name to the names of the streets to the abundance of 500 year old churches that dot the Zona Colonial. There are religious references in many of the city’s signs. But I was more interested in the informal religious signs, like this one that says, simply, “Believe in God.” And I was amused that next to this profound message was a sticker from the Geto Boys’ album “We Can’t Be Stopped.”

A more complex message is delivered by this one that says “If God does not assume it, the people will assume it.” The “it” in this case is presumably responsibility — or power.

Surprisingly, not all the religious signs I saw were Christian, such as this building with a Buddhist symbol (and a translation conveniently scrawled above it) .

Other messages were more political. This one articulates one of my own deepest convictions: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And this one, which is a quote from Juan Pablo Duarte (1813 – 1876), of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic: “It has never been more necessary than today to have health, heart, and judgment. Today men without judgment and without heart conspire against the health of the country.” Appropriately enough, it was painted on a wall outside a health clinic. It sounds remarkably like some of the rhetoric that we hear in America today over healthcare policy.

I was pleased to see this sign on a second-floor balcony near where I was staying. The rainbow flag needs no translation; the caption on it reads “Normalizacion LGBTI Dominicana.”

This plaque above an old building on the Conde, Santo Domingo’s walking street, commemorates “intellectuals and artists” who were exiled from Spain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plaque anywhere in America honoring “intellectuals” as a class. It’s nice to see that in some parts of the world, the term is not a dirty word.

I was also glad to see that honest-to-goodness real newspapers and newspaper vendors still exist in the Dominican Republic. Their headlines are just as dramatic as those of US tabloids. The middle paper’s headline blares, “Shocking Murder of Three Teenagers.” The tabloid on the left is (naturally) a communist paper, whose headline says, “Corruption and Impunity Are Inherent in Capitalism.” And the right-hand paper luridly announces, “Cruelty! Emily Perguero Was Beaten on the Head Until Her Skull Caved In and her Uterus Was Pierced to Induce an Abortion.”

In a residential area, I saw this sign marking the headquarters of the Board of Neighbors of St. Nicholas de Bari.

Nearby was a nice-looking little restaurant that, unfortunately, was closed each time I passed it.

Back at the pool at Island Life Backpackers Hostel, these signs conveyed perfectly the very British sensibilities of its proprietor.

Every Moto Tells A Story, Don’t It?

Some of the battered motos of Santo Domingo have been stripped naked of all fairings and upholstery and now are little more than frames with 50cc motors and wheels. Some have suffered the indignity of serving as pack mules. And some still wear their manufacturer’s clothes, even if they’re going thin at the knees and elbows.

It’s tempting to shoot for a big metaphor here, and if I knew the Dominican people better, I might try. But only three days in the DR doesn’t give me much ground to stand on. So I’ll only say that for each bike, there is a story to be told about what it was like when it was new, who all its owners have been, and what its unique circumstances are.

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: