2059 A Disturbing Welcome to Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo Travel Blog

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Day 3-027
8 hrs, 8.6 kms

2015 was a slow travel year. So I'm not wasting any time in 2016... on January 5th I speed out the door to begin my adventures exploring and playing music around the planet... Pick up a rental car in Hagerstown... speed down towards eastern Maryland to parkbench a quick town or two before catching my 8 PM flight to Dominican Republic...

110 miles down the road, I stop for lunch and... suddenly realize that my passport isn't in my pocket. As I eat my lunch I get a sickening feeling that I might have left it in the copier while making a copy of it before heading out the door.

Yep. I sheepishly drive 2 hours back home to my wife's taunting (I'll never be able to make fun of her again for forgetting things!) Then drive the stretch from Chambersburg to Washington for the 3rd time.

.. getting to the airport barely in time.

Did a lot of "traveling" today... but I'm not going to count it as an Adventure Day. I'm just going to forget this happened and start again tomorrow...

Waking up in Santo Domingo

Next morning I wake up in Latin America once again: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to be precise. Maybe its my misadventure yesterday... maybe it's the lack of sleep last night... maybe it's the fact I've already been here and pretty much visited every city in the country... but I'm just not feeling that same energy and excitement I felt on my last couple of trips.

Dominican Repubic is an interesting and unique country. Unlike most of the other Caribbean countries, it's a Spanish speaking country with heavy Spanish influence.
However, unlike the mainland countries, people here are a mix of Spanish and African rather than Spanish and Amerindian. So I am eager to discover how this cultural blend works. And although I did do a 10 day trip here back in 2006... that was before my Parkbench Tour--so it was a pretty superficial trip compared to how I travel nowadays.

So this is going to be an exciting trip--just not feeling it at the moment.

However, the real adventure is going to be my crossing to Haiti. Back in 2006, I tried to cross, along with my travel companion Matthew, but the trip fell apart within a matter of hours with crazy border crossing and a kidnapping threat. Even since then, I've always felt I needed to come back and give the country another shot. This time I hope I'm better prepared to experience the most chaotic country in the Western Hemisphere (and perhaps in the world!)

So my first couple days here in DR (I'm tired of having to spell out "Dominican Republic") will basically be warm up for that adventure.

I try sleeping a couple more hours while waiting for sunrise, then I head out to catch the "wa-wa", or public transportation van to the city. I was considering walking the 23 kilometers to the city... but I don't want to do it carrying all my stuff. A Domincan fellow back in the US warned me about the "dangerous" neighborhoods surrounding Santo Domingo, and at the moment I don't want to push my luck.

It wouldn't be a bad hike, actually. You could actually walk right along the top of a coral cliff overlooking the sea most of the way... maybe another time...

The driver drops me off just a couple of kilometers from downtown, it a lower middle class neighborhood, with a very generic, Latin American feel... your typical corner stores, hardware shops and houses, all packed tightly together.
Right off to the side though is the famous "Faro de Colon" monument--one of the "must see" spots of this trip. Cool. I'll go ahead and explore it now.

A Disturbing Warning

As I approach the massive structure, built in honor of the Spanish discovery of the Americas, a security guard calls me over.

"How did you get here?" he calls out, seemingly perplexed.

"I took a wa-wa and then I walked"

He seems utterly aghast "you WALKED?! Don't you realize that there are gangs everywhere just waiting to rob people like you? They watch you the whole time and as soon as the police aren't around they pounce! Never NEVER go outside the tourist zones. YOU WILL BE ROBBED! Don't even think of walking from here to the colonial district!"

He went on to tell about a Venezuelan tourist who tried walking from here to downtown and got robbed on the way.

Now I'm the one that's perplexed. I've had warnings from local people before, but never quite so emphatic and dramatic. At one time I might've just shrugged this off with a "yeah... but I'm a super experienced traveler... nothing's going to happen to me!" But a few hard knocks have taught me a bit more humility.

At the same time, if I follow his advice and just spend my trip caged in the tourist zones... well... I might as well pack up my bags and go home. I'm here to experience Dominican Republic, not just sit in some fenced in cage for tourists...

Anyways, lets explore Faro de Colon, and then decide what the next move is.

The Faro de Colon

The "Columbus Lighthouse" is probably the biggest monument dedicated to the guy who opened the way for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, built to commemorate the 500 years since his arrival.
Since Santo Domingo is where the first permenant settlement was built, I suppose this is the appropriate place to build it.

Quite frankly though, it's a horrible looking structure. From the sky it's supposed to look like a giant cross lying down, but from the ground it look like a grim, futuristic city from Judge Dredd or some other futuristic movie. It's like a concrete skyscraper with no windows above the first floor.

Inside it feels even more like a depressing, futuristic city, with a long narrow passageway between long walls of endless concrete panels. You can climb up stairs to the upper floors--but they're empty. Perhaps the plan was to have this be the biggest museum in the world... but it didn't go quite as planned.

I guess if the objective was to depict a cold, cruel imposition of modern civilization, then perhaps the monument succeeded at doing that.

I'm wondering if anything has changed now that in recent years new documents have emerged detailing what an absolute horrible, sadistic guy Cristopher Columbus was, if this changes anything here. Turns out, that even by torture-loving 15th century Spanish standards, Mr Columbus really raised the bar on human cruelty, with mass amputations of natives and anyone who opposed him. Even his supporters wrote about what a cruel, incompetent ruler he was.

You won't find any of this at the museum on the first floor. Instead you'll find small displays from each of the Latin American countries eventually affected by Columbus. It seems ironic that the displays are primarily from Indigenous cultures... the very cultures that were destroyed by Columbus and his followers.

I notice that the display for Haiti is empty.
A little odd considering that Haiti was one of the first landing spots of Columbus.

The religious displays rub me the wrong way. There's a painting of an Amerindian being baptized under a picture of Jesus being baptized--as if it were one and the same. Clearly the message is that it was a wonderful thing that the Indians were converted to Christianity... Oh, never mind that almost all the Indians here were killed off either by disease brought by the Spaniards or being worked to death.

I guess I can understand the desire of Dominicans to have a monument dedicated to the man who made the country what it is today. Unlike Mexicans and other Latin Americans, Dominicans probably don't feel much of a connection with the Amerindian ancestry--since they don't carry much of it in their genes.
Not much of a connection with Africa either, where most of them came from... So Spanish culture is pretty much all they turn to for their identity.

I respect that choice. Although it would be nice if Dominicans could look to another person as their founding father. There is a small display to Bartolomeo de las Casas, a Dominican friar who dedicated his life to exposing the atrocities committed by the Spanish and defending the idea that Indians should be treated with dignity and not exploited and enslaved.

The overall theme here, though, is that the arrival of the Spanish and the imposition of Spanish culture and religion was a wonderful thing for the Americas.

I head outside to take my video clip with the monument as a backdrop. Another security guards calls out "Come back! there are thieves hiding in the grass!"

Good grief.
You guys are really trying to make me paranoid.

The Walk to the Colonial Zone

I do have half a mind to do what I was told and hail a cab to get downtown, just a kilometer or two a day. However, I highly suspect that these "tourist police" are simply doing their job of herding the tourist into "safe zones", and these warning do not reflect reality.

I realize if I let myself become paranoid, it'll set a bad precedent not only for this trip but for other trips to come. Oh.... and remember, I'm going to be in Haiti in a couple of days. If I'm afraid to walk around Santo Domingo, how am I going to handle Port-au-Prince?

A police car goes past, and no one shouts out for me to "run back to the tourist zone!" I stick to a main boulevard, and don't see anybody watching me or behaving suspiciously.
I'm a little nervous crossing the river the downtown area on the other side, but cross without incident.

Mentally exhausted from being constantly on high alert, when I see a wa-wa to San Cristobal, I decide that I'm done with Santo Domingo for now. Let's go to a small town where hopefully I can breathe more easily.

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Santo Domingo
photo by: drsbabyface01