I landed in the capital, Santo Domingo at 1400 and meet Danny. He leads me to the parking lot and we crack open our first jumbo (32oz) Presidente Cervesa in the airport parking lot. We have 2 little plastic cups that they give you at just about every place you can buy beer. Our ride is a gray and black Nissan truck from the 90’s with a 6’ bed, roll bar, and brush guards on the front and back. The truck often misses gear when we accelerate causing us to make quick stops on the side of the road to put the thing in park, then drive, before heading back out on the road. We continue drinking our beer as we pull up to the airport exit (no problems with drinking and driving here). But, we are denied at the gate for not having paid and getting our ticket punched. We back up directly from the toll booth and onto the shoulder. Danny gets out and runs to find the pay station after explaining that this is inconsistent with previous airport trips. I sit in the truck with the door open and finish my plastic cup of beer and I watch as cars pass by and one after another is rejected by the attendant at the gate.
Once we get out, we head west into the city of Santo Domingo and discuss the history of the city. Danny comes to the city from time to time for work and shows me most famous tourist spot in downtown while we’re here. As we pass over the famous bridge that spans the Rio Ozma (river) which divides the city between east and west, Danny explains that the bridge was the location of one of the key battles between the Dominicans and the once powerful Haitian army. Today the river is home to mostly poor families whose shacks littler the banks. The river is brown and dirty and full of trash.
As we drive down along the river the bridge is now a few hundred yards behind us. We are at the mouth of the river where it meets the Caribbean Sea. We park across from a port where large cruise ships dock to allow passengers off to see the city. We are now at the remains of Spanish forts with rusty canons and statues of Columbus and others. We walk up the stone steps and reach the square. The main square is lined with vendors and cafes. The first person to approach us is a pimp who offers us the chance to sleep with one of his 200+ girls. We decline the nice guy and he laughs. We are walking among tourists who have just exited the cruise ship. Danny and I pop into a small café and order two overpriced beers and eat peanuts. We try and figure out where the passers by may be traveling from. Our guesses range from Russia to Argentina but we don’t ask them. But, we are certain that these tourists have just hopped off the large rusty cruise ship that sat docked near the parking lot.
We admire the Haitian paintings across the street and finish our beers. We walk back down to the truck and discuss the Spanish influence in the city’s architecture and street signs which resemble the painted tile signs found in Barcelona. We talk about Danny’s future movie to Madrid for school and my future move to Montreal for Elizabeth’s internship. We realize that there is much to do before those moves and plan to make the most of this weekend. When relaying Elizabeth’s worries and requests which included: don’t do anything crazy like drink too much, or do drugs, or jump off cliffs. Danny reveals that that is the plan.
After a quick walk from the café, we get back in the truck and fill our cups with our now warm Presidente and drive out from under the bridge, and west down the coast. As we drive along the beach, I notice that the traffic resembles that of Mexico City. But, there is a bit more of a friendly island vibe. For instance, when passing a large truck or bus while on a narrow two lane road, it is customary to beep before passing and they will give you a bit more room by taking the shoulder. But, don’t get it twisted, this drive is still very dangerous. There are not only cars and trucks and busses but large gangs on motos. Tigre gangs race up and down the highway in groups of 20 often turning and driving against traffic. There are children and adults walking all over the highway selling nuts, mangos, coconut bread and other tasty snacks. If people on bikes or walking aren’t looking, we give them a honk to give them fair warning. The last thing we need is a 14 year old kid on a scooter to pop out in front of our truck. Danny says that kids get hit all the time.
Our first destination today is Danny’s office in Barahona. Barahona is about 4 hours west of Santo Domingo on the southern coast of the Island and a few hours from the Haitian boarder. After one stop for fresh cold coconut water and a few quick driveby handoffs of snacks from the kids who stand near their town’s speed bumps in order to maximize facetime with drivers, we arrive in Barahona.
The office is a few blocks from the sea in the middle of this small city. The large open office is empty except for a folding table, some plastic chairs, a bookshelf with papers and dishware, a poorly constructed sink and table, and a few futons. The office also has a bathroom, but no running water on this day. They are having a shower installed and we would be meeting with Danny’s plumber tomorrow. Danny checks his email while I look around and lean over the second story balcony peering down at the empty street below. Most of the shops are closed today for some Saint’s day. After a few minutes, we head out and drive another 5 miles south to the shack.
Danny lives in a shack in an area called Jose Estiban. The road that runs along the coast bisects Jose Estiban. Danny lives on the southeast side of the road on the edge of a cliff no more than a stones throw from the water. The shack shares property with two other small homes. Danny tells me that the woman who lives in the first house is his landlord named Giarda and that she is a cunt. She bitches at Danny each time we walk past. Her cunty attitude is due to Danny having acquired a puppy named Luna. She doesn’t like that Danny treats the dog as a companion and allows it in his shack. Dogs are treated like shit and often spend their lives on a short leash. Their function is an alarm system to bark when people walk by.
Giarda has some children and adults living with her. The kids are known as “Cinderella kids”. They have been dropped off by their parent who doesn’t have time or money to care for them. This is much more common that I would have expected, as Danny points out. There are Cinderella kids everywhere we go. After receiving our warm welcome from Giarda, we drop our stuff and walk to grab some food.
There is a small house/restaurant which is serving two food items this evening, fried chicken and fried plantains. Both are fried in soy oil, covered in salt, and served with ketchup on the side. We consume the food along with half a bottle of rum mixed with Sprite. Danny tells me that this is a very Dominican meal. As we eat we sit with some of the staff/residents who are all very friendly. Other restaurant patrons all come up to shake our hands or dap knuckles when they arrive. There are a number of workers loading a brand new dining room set into the house (which has no lights on at the moment). Danny tells me the family was just complaining about not having money, but are now receiving a brand new set of chairs and a table. The lights often go out which Danny tells me is standard. The power grid down here is not very reliable, and most people have a back-up system hooked up to batteries that charge when power is supplied. When it gets dark, we use candles to eat. A giant spider walks along the wall behind me, and a giant beetle or roach lands on Danny. We finish our food and drinks under candle light, and one of the locals laughs as I jump out of my seat when some large insect lands on my foot and vibrates its wings. The guys hanging out all seem really nice and try to speak to me in English. They call Danny Danilo Presidente, which I later learn is the name of the DR’s new President. There are little kids walking around in diapers chasing the insects.
Danny and I make our way back the dark road to the shack and drink more rum. We make it to bed fairly early and listen to a podcast by Dan Carlin on the history of the Mongols.