Dominican landing cheer, hopelessly gringo, the swirl of
passionate conversation, and the rhythm of merengue and
bachata pouring out at tremendous volume
DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - It is now approaching
a week since I arrived here in the Dominican Republic. Already
time is flying and as I stop to think about it, I realize
that, in a certain sense, time is also already running out.
There is a lot to be done.
I have come here to work in collaboration with the Movimiento
de Mujeres Dominica-Haitianas (the Dominico-Haitian Women's
Movement or MUDHA) on two human rights cases currently pending
before the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human
Rights. One of the cases involves the denial of the right
to access to education; the other involves arbitrary expulsion
from this country of undocumented individuals. I have tried
to write up a description of each of the cases and no doubt
the kindly folks who manage the UC Berkeley Web site will
somehow come up with clever, visitor-friendly ways for you
to browse through all of this. (Editor's note: See links!)
Already I digress
I arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican
Republic on May 29th in the afternoon. There was a burst
of applause upon touchdown on the airstrip of the "Airport
of the Americas." Cheering upon landing is a Dominican
tradition, of course, as it is in many countries of Latin
America (and perhaps elsewhere, I suppose
), but in
the wake of the crash of a New York to Santo Domingo flight
late last fall, the celebration seemed particularly robust
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Tim in Santo Domingo.
I have been in the Dominican Republic once before, in December
2000, to visit my friend Monisha Bajaj, who was then working
here on a Fulbright fellowship. I am fortunate, therefore,
to know several people here, including the two women who
inhabit the apartment where I am staying. I haven't had
chance to discuss this online journal business with either
of them yet, so for now they will remain anonymous. Hopefully,
they will agree to allow me to describe them and some of
our collective adventures around the house, since they are
two brilliant, dedicated and unbelievably wacky human beings.
The apartment is located in the Zona Colonial, a neighborhood
situated geographically in the corner created by the Caribbean
Sea on one side and the Ozama River on the other. Historically,
the Zona Colonial is the center of the old, colonial city.
Santo Domingo was one of the earliest and most active centers
of European settlement in the Americas and the Zona Colonial
was at the heart of this settlement.
In a short walk from the apartment, for example, you come
across the oldest functioning cathedral in the Americas
(as a side note, Dominicans often claim that this cathedral
was the first to be built in the Americas, but according
to the Lonely Planet Guide, the Mexicans beat them to it;
it's just that the Mexicans later tore theirs down
the oldest European style university in the Americas, the
home of Diego Columbus (Christopher's son), the former haunts
of Sir Francis Drake, and more. You get the idea.
What you will not see is any evidence of the folks who were
here when the above-mentioned Europeans decided to turn
up. The indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola
- estimated at roughly a half-million people (primarily
Taínos) at the time of Columbus' first appearance
- was wiped out. Nonetheless, for historical interest, convenience,
cultural activities, and night life, it is hard to beat
the Zona Colonial. So I am very lucky.
I picked up my bags and was waived through customs without
even a cursory inspection of declaration, so I quickly found
myself out in front of the airport. It is hot here and ludicrously
humid. For a fellow who sweats a lot as it is and who prefers
to wear shorts whenever I can possibly get away with it,
it could be a long summer. Dominicans are almost always
immaculately and formally dressed and that definitely means
long pants, regardless of the temperature. At the Newark
airport, where I changed planes en route from San Francisco
to Santo Domingo, it was easy to identify the departure
gate by the iron-creased slacks, pristine shoes, and pressed
shirts that come along with a heavy Dominican presence.
In this respect, I'm afraid I am hopelessly gringo: my usual
wardrobe goes no farther than shorts, a well-worn t-shirt
and some aged tennis shoes. However, I understand that dressing
appropriately is an important indicator of respect and with
the help of Boalt classmate and friend Liz Eng's fashion
consulting, I have arrived laden with what I hope will qualify
as appropriate attire.
I took a taxi from the airport to my apartment in the Zona
Colonial. From conversation with the taxi driver, I learned
that the aftershocks of September 11th have been felt here
in a fall-off in tourism, that the current Dominican President,
Hipólito Mejía seems to have his eye set on
re-election, that the most recent legislative elections
would seem to have boosted Mejía's chances given
that his party, the PRD, won in a landslide, and that this
year's Miss Dominican Republic is supposed to be among the
favorites to take the crown of Miss Universe. All of this
news came to me as we swept along the spectacular Dominican
coast, lined with palm trees and short rocky cliffs dropping
off into tranquil, azure seas and on into Santo Domingo.
As we crossed over the Ozama River and into the narrow streets
of the Zona Colonial, chaotic traffic zigzagged around us,
horns wailed, street vendors cried out, and a mixture of
dense exhaust fumes and the odor of trash lingering in gutters
wafted through the taxi window, altogether the classic sensations
of urban life in a tropical, so-called "developing"
The nature of the work I am here to do means that I am likely
to spend much of my time criticizing the Dominican Republic
and in particular, its government. So maybe I should take
a moment a say a few things about what I really like about
this country. Not that my opinion should matter to anyone,
but just so as not to come across as hopelessly negative.
the place is spectacularly beautiful. The coastline is the
stuff of tropical travel commercials - palm trees, white
sand beaches and crystalline waters. The history of this
island, as I have mentioned is fascinating, if not always
terribly uplifting. The Dominican people, as a sweeping
but frequently quite accurate description, are wonderful.
One common and entertaining attribute of Dominicans, as
a Dominican acquaintance was pointing out to me the other
day, is that they are quick to engage in conversations.
For example, a brief trip to the corner market to buy milk
is not complete - in fact, the milk-purchaser would be considered
quite rude - if it did not include at least a short speech
about something or other, perhaps the recipe to which the
milk is to be applied, or maybe a history of the purchaser's
ancestor's involvement in dairy production. Moreover, the
chances are excellent that the speech will inspire soliloquies
on related topics and/or provoke raucous debate between
the clerk and onlookers. The result of all of this is a
nearly ubiquitous swirl of passionate conversation and colorful
language. Dominican music is also sensational. The people
here compose, play, listen, dance, and one could even say
live to the rhythm of merengue and bachata. The music pours
out of homes, cars and businesses, often at tremendous volume,
which might be irritating if bachata and merengue weren't
Having said all of this, I now realize that I haven't even
managed to report any further than my taxi ride from the
airport. The afternoon of my arrival, I unpacked, took a
nap, chatted with my new housemates and took a walk around
the neighborhood. The next morning, Thursday, I awoke and
headed to the offices of MUDHA for my first day on the job.
And that is where I will pick up next time ...