We boarded the plane in Pittsburgh, on a cold, dark early March morning. We were Dominican Republic-bound, and so were the other 100 or so paunchy white Pittsburghers on board with us. The flight was direct to Punta Cana, and everyone had dressed appropriately for our arrival to paradise, donning Hawaiian shirts, shorts, flip-flops and a smattering of Steelers muscle shirts.
I alternately dozed and looked out the window as we hurtled through the sky towards relaxation and indulgence. About an hour before landing, the flight attendants handed out immigration and customs forms. I set to work filling them out, but the intercom clicked on and the flight attendant cleared her throat and began speaking.
“First we’re going to walk through the blue immigration card,” she said slowly, enunciating each word. I glanced at the card. It was in Spanish and English. I couldn’t understand why it needed walking through. But walk through we did, item by item, cautiously traversing the slippery terrain of questions like Last Name, First Name, Birth Date, and Passport Number. When we got to Nationality, the flight attendant urged us to be careful. “This doesn’t mean you should write ‘Italian’ or ‘Polish’ or ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,'” she warned. “Almost everyone should write ‘American,’ since you’re all US passport holders.” We successfully finished the forms and collectively breathed a sigh of relief as we stowed our tray tables for the descent.
And then there we were, in beautiful, sunny Dominican Republic. We were greeted at the straw-thatched roof airport by a makeshift merengue band cajoling for tips. Throngs of spring breakers whooped and hollered through the baggage claim. We boarded a big bus sponsored by the agency that arranged our trip, and were whisked off to the beautiful, elegant Bahia Gran Principe Ambar resort in Punta Cana. The room was a warm, Mediterranean orange color with cool tiles and a bright balcony. Much to my delight, there was a towel folded into the shape of a swan on the end of our rose-petaled bed.
Man, I couldn’t help but think, what a world apart from the trip I just finished. The slums of India, the rattling trains of Vietnam, the begging street kids of Laos, the empty-eyed hunger of peasants in the Chinese countryside–you’d never believe we were all on the same planet at that moment. Better yet, you’d never believe that just a few miles away from the resort, some of those same scenes play out on a daily basis on the streets of Santo Domingo and in rural farmlands.
I wanted to escape the comforts of the resort for a day to see some of the real Dominican Republic, and so I signed up for a bus trip to the capital city, Santo Domingo. I expected it to be tame and oriented toward elderly, higher maintenance travelers. I boarded the bus at 6 a.m., bleary-eyed and not yet caffeinated, and settled into my seat. The rest of the bus, as I’d anticipated, was filled with elderly couples. Nobody talked to me.
We arrived in Santo Domingo, and I eagerly hopped off the bus to begin exploring the lovely seaside city. It’s larger than I anticipated at about 3.5 million residents. And, surprisingly, Santo Domingo has a fully-functioning subway system. I spent a year living in San Juan, Puerto Rico and have visited Havana, Cuba. I expected more of their Caribbean colonial flavor. Instead, SD presented itself as, well, a real city. I was pleased.
Once we were done ambling around the central part of the old city, our guide rounded us up. I’d thought about making a break for it, but knew that would mean trouble for him and so I stuck with the group. We patiently waited for one straggling couple to emerge from the cathedral. And we waited. And waited some more. The guide ushered us into an awful, tacky tourist shop while he made some phone calls to try to find our lost tour members. The elderly folks complained and browsed, used the bathroom and bought rubber magnets. All told, we spent an hour in the store, and the remaining members were not found.
The guide, visibly distressed and distracted, led us down the cobblestoned streets of Old Santo Domingo. We breezed past various landmarks with little more than a passing comment as to their significance–“Last home of Christopher Columbus,” “Burial place of dozens of conquistadores,” “First Spanish-language library in the New World,” and finally arrived at some massive stone building. By this time, I’d made an elderly Canadian friend named Mary. We stuck together until her husband insisted she walk by him again, and I was alone once more. We were all outfitted with audio guide headphones and sent on our way to look at old maps and ceramic pieces in one giant herd. I couldn’t stand it, and could see outside to the bright blue sea crashing against the walls of the fortress.
I finally escaped. I found some traveling backpacker Spaniards, and we sat around the walls of the old city, chatting and laughing. I bought a straw sun hat for Eric from a street vendor, a toothless dark brown man whose Spanish was so Caribbean it might as well have been another language. When we finally hopped back on the bus, the mysteriously lost couple had reappeared and were calming thumbing through pictures from the day on their digital camera. The guide, feigning delight in seeing them, had trouble disguising his bulging neck veins as he asked politely just where they’d been roaming around all day. Turns out they thought it was a free day and had wandered off to buy some handmade hammocks for the kids back home. The rest of the group grumbled at our lost time, the guide breathed a sigh of relief for his own job security, and I giggled to myself in the back seat.
The rest of the week passed quickly. Days were spent lazing on the beach and sipping endless banana mamas, rum and cokes, and white sangrias. Breakfast, sun, shade, sun, shade, lunch, sun, shade, dinner, drinks was the loose daily schedule. Dinner was usually a fancy affair, and we’d shower off the sun and sand and slip into some fancy but comfortable clothes. Wine was endless, champagne made the occasional appearance, and there was abundant and delicious food to choose from. Eric most often opted for lobster, while I went for red snapper and sea bass. We shared bites and had quiet, meandering conversations at the table and over drinks. Bachata and merengue music wafted across the open-air lobby where high ceiling fans whirred above lavishly upholstered sofas, chandeliers drenched in glittery crystal, and an eclectic mix of Europeans, Canadians and Americans, all releasing their stresses and problems, one Ron Barcelo and Coke at a time.
In the beginning of the week, I felt conflicted and guilty about being at such an exclusive, expensive resort in the face of the six months I spent slumming it and seeing harsh realities. In a way, it felt like a slap in the face to all those street kids and rural farmers. I still feel the conflict and guilt, but a few days into the trip, I finally just had to relax. I was able to let go of the looming thoughts of Asia and its own contradictions and class stratification and enjoy myself in the moment with a person who was bent on making sure I was pampered and enjoying my time. And I’m so glad that I did. It was a wonderful trip, and beside the glowing suntan, I came home with a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for my life in Pittsburgh.