The key to understanding the Dominican Republic is to imagine a country where Jennifer Lopez is the president, Ricky Martin the secretary of the interior, Christina Aguilera the secretary of state, and their backup singers the Supreme Court. An election was taking place while I was in Santo Domingo, visiting my family. They lived in Haiti but had been displaced by the January earthquake. Not speaking Spanish, I couldn’t grasp the political details, but I sensed that whichever party succeeded in putting the most trucks on the street, blaring the loudest Latin music and with the most scantily clad young women dancing on top of them, was going to win.
Before arriving, I had thought of the Dominican Republic as the place you escaped to after Haiti had been leveled, if you were lucky. I was expecting concrete, mosquitoes, a sort of Mexican border town by the sea. But I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a paradise: this is a Caribbean island, after all, and Santo Domingo is the oldest colonial settlement in the Americas, the first place Christopher Columbus landed. The Zona Colonial feels Spanish and Catholic, with cobblestone streets, sixteenth-century piazzas and basilicas, tiny chapels and frescoes and icons of the Madonna, fountains, statues, children chasing flocks of pigeons, and cafés full of happy people drinking beer and listening to merengue.
Unlike Haiti, the Dominican Republic made a series of wise political and economic decisions. It didn’t cut down all its trees, it made the place safer to visit, and when it built up its economy, it focused on growth industries: drug trafficking, money laundering, and sex tourism. It’s impossible to take a photo in Santo Domingo that doesn’t involve a massive pair of breasts. I try, but the damned things are everywhere. They’re clearly the nation’s Number One natural resource. I’m told that to understand the relationship between the nation’s politics and its cleavage, one must read The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about the excesses of the Trujillo regime, but I’m unable to find a copy in English.
The colors especially are lovely: the azure of the Caribbean, the houses painted in turquoise and pink, the street signs in blue-and-white porcelain. The air is warm and moist. I hear birdsong all day long, and everywhere are lush palms and tropical flowers—bright bushes of crimson bougainvillea, orchids with huge ruffled blossoms. I see lizards, iguanas, turtles, and what I think are parrots, but not a single mosquito. Santo Domingo is technically big—about 2.5 million people—but after Istanbul, where I live, it feels sleepy. Most of the taxis have seat belts. The drivers are enthusiastic about their horns but otherwise in no hurry. Despite the narco-trafficking, which is notorious, the streets feel safe, though the papers report a few murders. I assume that the city is mostly a transit point, with the drugs then going through Haiti, which is lawless, up to Miami.
The earthquake feels very close. Knowing that indescribable wretchedness exists just 40 minutes away, that a few months ago I nearly lost my family in Port-au-Prince, and that the island of Hispaniola is still shaking creates an undercurrent of unease. But it’s hard to worry much in the heat.
I like the Dominicans, though I wouldn’t use the word “alacrity” to describe their approach to customer service. I have this conversation no fewer than ten times:
“Hello, may I have some iced coffee?”
“No, we don’t have that.”
“Hmmm. I see you have coffee, sí?”
“And I see you have ice, sí?”
“So what do you think about putting the ice in the coffee?”
We go around several times before I convince them that iced coffee really is just the product of ice and coffee.
Never mind: after living in Turkey, I’m just grateful to be around people who don’t seem driven enough to plot conspiracies or foment coups. I’m aware that the country has seen both, but it doesn’t seem plausible. Perhaps I saw only what I wanted to see, but Santo Domingo will remain in my memory an oasis of heaving bosoms, tropical breezes, brightly colored birds, salty food, beer, merengue, and the happiest-looking German sex tourists I’ve ever seen.