Monday, April 15, 2013

Notes from Punta Cana

We disembark in bright sunshine and walk towards the welcoming thatched roofs of the Punta Cana airport in the Dominican Republic. A chaotic scene unfolds inside as five flights have arrived almost simultaneously from the US and Canada and there appears to be only two functioning staff at the immigration desks. A long line snakes slowly through the airport under the thatched roof and ceiling fans. Time takes on a different dimension.

A large and obnoxious American in line behind us loses patience. "Who the hell's in charge here?" he shouts (in English). 

After a few anxious minutes searching through the many hundreds of bags we find ours standing alone by the airline desk – perhaps someone has taken it by mistake and returned it to this spot. 

As we drive into town we chat with our cheerful driver. He ran his own business until the economic downturn. Now he runs a cab for the real estate company and hopes for better days.

Along the road, in between the many beautiful all-inclusive resorts, there are quite a number of half-finished constructions, evidence of a tourist-driven real estate frenzy which has stalled.

Our "home away" condo is part of a quiet and attractive development just ten minutes walk from the beach. This walk requires negotiating a road full of buses, vans, scooters, mopeds and motor bikes (the favored form of taxi). The sidewalk is under construction which makes the short journey an adventure.

We make our daily base camp on the beach in front of a restaurant away from the main resort areas. The owner supplies us with Dominican food of red beans, rice, and goat – enough for two meals. By the end of the week he says we have become friends for life. Along with dinners of paella and seafood we get special side dishes and small shots of Mama Juana, a Dominican concoction of rum, red wine and honey(to aid digestion!) Our waiter says he spent 19 years in Toronto. We agree that the weather here is better.
After many entreaties from the owner of the neighboring gift shop we purchase a necklace and a carving. The manager says next time we are to visit his home in Santo Domingo. His daughter is in the US.

Slightly removed from the resort area we are able to get some glimpse of everyday life. The tourist industry has generated considerable employment. Many have come from Haiti, an eight-hour bus journey, to find work here.

Relations between the countries have been strained for many years. Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for two decades in the 19th century and Dominicans still celebrate their independence from Haiti as well as that from Spain. In 1937 Dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the killing by Dominican troops of thousands of Haitians living and working in the border areas. Their bodies were thrown in the aptly named Massacre River. The history of the massacre was largely ignored until last year when members of the Haitian and Dominican diasporas living in the US led a ceremony at the border to remember the massacre and address its legacy. Hundreds of Dominicans and Haitians met on opposite sides of the river and floated candles in the water.

Yet prejudice remains. Recent policy changes have classified Dominicans of Haitian descent as foreigners rather than citizens. One observer writes of a “deep-seated racism in Dominican society which affects dark-skinned people in general and Haitians and Dominico-Haitians in particular.”  

It is interesting to see how tourists interact with the local population. Some national groups have gained a reputation for rudeness. When the sun goes down and the Europeans and North Americans retreat to their all-inclusive resorts, we see the Dominicans enjoy the beach and the water. Our days here are too short for anything but superficial impressions. But we are glad to connect with a few people and to discover something of the warmth, hospitality, and humor of this country. We are sorry we don’t speak enough Spanish to discover more.

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