Little Barrio, Big Ciudad
Hello again from the land of mosquito nets, diarrhea, merengue, and bucket baths! (I have experience to varying extents with each of those.) Training is keeping me busy, I’ve been hanging out with my fellow Trainees and Volunteers who come to the capital, and I’ve finally explored the city. Life is good.
So, where am I living right now? I’m right down the road from our training center in a little barrio called Los Cocos. I live in a second story apartment with a young couple and their two little kids. Below me live my host mom’s mom and another Trainee, and right next door is yet another Trainee. So many friends! I’ll tell you a little about the conditions here in Chateau Los Cocos. We have daily blackouts that can last up to five hours, but the colmado downstairs has to stay open so my family has a bunch of batteries; our light never goes out! Our drinking water comes in big bottles–the kind you put in office water coolers. Twice a week we pump water up from the tap into the drum on our balcony, and that’s our water for dishes, bathing, laundry, and the toilet. Our toilet flushes with a well-aimed bucket of water, and I’ve gotten pretty good at bucket baths. Basically, buckets do everything. Outside there a lot of chickens and roosters, who crow at all hours of the day and night. There are also some dogs, including Pluto the Chihuahua—we’re buddies. Oh and there are some goats that came out of nowhere. Our roads were mostly dirt and loose rocks up until a few days ago, when one of the presidential candidates came by and inaugurated construction on some BRAND NEW ROADS. There were steamrollers and everything. Thank God for elections.
What my barrio lacks in creature comforts it more than makes up for with the people. Everyone here is wonderful. My house is on a corner, and it seems to me that my family has taken over the entire intersection. I’ve met more than a handful of people who have been described as “So-And-So’s Nephew” or “The Cousin of My Daughter.” This means lots of people coming and going in everyone’s houses, and more children than I can keep track of. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in my family’s colmado chatting with neighbors, playing dominoes, and enjoying the occasional Presidente beer. People are really generous too. A few days ago three Volunteers came to visit, and the family threw them an awesome barbecue with loud music, lots of dancing, and delicious grilled chicken and corn. I was dragged into the middle of the circle to dance with a woman who I’d never met before. My sad attempt at bachata lasted only one song, and I retired to my plastic chair to watch for the rest of the night. At least I tried, right?
Going from the (mostly) quiet barrio of Los Cocos into the big, bad city of Santo Domingo was quite a shock. I spent three days in the past week there, including both weekend days. To get there, we have to take two types of public transportation: guaguas and carros públicos. I will never again complain about the D.C. metro. A guagua is basically a small bus that runs along a fixed route. They are in a variety of conditions from new-ish to seen-better-days, and they stop whenever you want them to, provided you can shout loud enough and you know where you’re going. They often fill up, and I discovered on my first guagua ride that I cannot fit standing up. Tall people problems, I guess. Carros públicos are very small, very old, very rickety cars driven by very, very brave men. They too have their own routes, and stop wherever you ask the driver to stop. Oh, and they fit six passengers—two in the front, four in the back. Just imagine a rusty can of anchovies on wheels with a complete disregard for the rules of the road, and you’re almost there. To get into the city I take a guagua along the highway, then switch to a carro público to get where I’m actually going. It only costs 50 pesos, which is less than $2.00. I can dig it.
So, what does the oldest city in the New World have to offer? A lot! On Saturday I walked around with my neighbor Paul, another Trainee, who had come to Santo Domingo to study Spanish last year and knows the Colonial Zone pretty well. We hit up a bunch of landmarks in the Colonial Zone, and then went up to Chinatown, the Haitian neighborhood, and the Malecón (a highway that winds along the coast). There were lots of open-air markets with people selling produce, which was nice. On Sunday my family was originally going to head up to La Vega, a city in almost the exact center of the country. But the car we were going to take wasn’t available, so I went on the tour that the Peace Corps had arranged for us. The historian who was supposed to give it couldn’t make it, so we toured with her esteemed colleague Mr. Peters instead. He was kind of quiet and tended to speak away from the group, but when I could actually hear him he was really interesting and fun to talk to. On the tour we hit up Parque de Colón, which is dedicated to Christopher Colombus and is full of pigeons; the first cathedral in the New World, built in the early 1500s; the ruins of a Franciscan monastery that Sir Francis Drake let his men use for cannon practice (asshole); the ruins of the first hospital in the New World; the Plaza de España; the house of Cristopher Colombus’ son Diego; the National Vault where important Dominicans are buried; and the Parque de la Independencia, where the three so-called Fathers of the Country are buried. It was a lot of walking and a lot to see, but the tour ended abruptly when the heavens opened and dumped rain on us. We sought shelter in a bar, got some coffee and tostones, and waited out the storm. I slipped down some stone stairs! Mr. Peters told us about the importance of Vitamin C and how he was imprisoned under Trujillo! Fun was had by all!
This city is unlike any place I’ve been before. It’s large, loud, dirty, and full of people, like any other city. But it has a certain special something that makes it feel different. The monuments to the country’s long history stick out brightly against the trash-lined streets and gaudy souvenir stands along El Conde. Maybe it’s my love of history, but I caught myself standing and staring down the coast, and the garbage and graffiti faded away and left me imagining the island as it was in the fifteenth century. I’ve stood at the point where the Spanish first installed their colonial presence in an entirely alien continent. And it felt awesome. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the modern Santo Domingo, but I know for sure that I’ll always feel impacted by the weight of its history.