I AM sitting with “una fria” – an ice-cold Presidente beer – taking a rest from a sweaty session of merengue in an open-air restaurant. Around me, couples are enjoying the evening cool, chatting and dancing to the over-amplified sounds of a CD player, while behind me their cars are being restored to a showroom gleam by a team of rubber-booted workers. I am, of course, at the car wash.
That even a car wash is an excuse to enjoy a night out may be all you need to know about the Dominican Republic. Rather than being attached to a gas station, as is the norm in so many – dare I say? – other duller countries, here they come with a bar, restaurant and dance floor. Some customers eat: I have just enjoyed a popular local dish, “La Bandera Dominicana” – the Dominican Flag – a tricolor of stewed beans, white rice and meat. Others passionately follow baseball, the national sport, on a flickering TV screen. But most are grinding hips to the sultry sounds of merengue.
Blasted out on taxi stereos, playing from roadside bars and rising and falling in doppler-effect volume as a party bus goes by, the beat of merengue and bachata, its slower Country-style cousin, has followed me everywhere in the Dominican Republic. The constant soundtrack makes life in this Caribbean tourism paradise seem like one continual party.
“We are brought up on music,” says Jorge, a businessmen at the next table, who is as friendly as every other Dominican I meet. “We hear it in our mother’s arms when we are children, and in school we learn by singing together. We are a musical people. When we go out with a woman, we dance merengue with them and you know you have the right one when you click on the dance floor. Merengue is in our blood.”
It is on the dance floor that I get the real flavor of the Dominican Republic. Going from club to club and from bar to bar is to hear and see its story in music. Merengue is still the dance for respectable professionals, him in a pressed shirt and her in a pretty frock. Bachata is a slower, sexier form – bedroom action in a vertical form and much loved by courting couples. The younger crowd dance reggaeton, an offspring of Jamaican reggae, with an urban style that borrows attitude from hip hop – tuneful Spanish rap.
Fans of it and the homegrown “Rap del Patio” wear baggy jeans, designer-label sneakers and oversize baseball caps, while its lyrics of gangs, drugs and oppression strike a chord with the country’s youth, reflecting the tough life in the shantytowns – or life in economic exile in the inner cities of the US. “They follow basketball, rather than baseball,” says Manolo Diaz, a young teacher I meet in a bar. “Their whole style is borrowed from African-American culture. We call them ‘Yos’ or ‘Yolkies’ which comes from the name ‘Dominican York’ for all the Dominicans in New York.”
That turns out to be a sore point in a country where even the darkest-skinned Dominican claims Indian or Latin, not African, roots, even though 75 per cent of the genes here are from West Africa. One reason is the tension with Haiti, which shares a third of the island of Hispaniola. The poverty-stricken former French colony contrasts sharply with this Spanish-speaking part of the island and there is a history of war and mass killings on both sides during the struggles for slave freedom and beyond. The Dominican Republic’s annual carnival – as well as a religious pre-Lenten festival – is also a celebration of independence from Haiti on 27 February 1844.
Carnival takes over the whole island – as it does most of the Latin American Caribbean region – every February. It is a major event in the cultural center of Santiago and many other towns, with La Vega especially noted for its “Carnaval Vegano” held every Sunday during the month. La Vega is partying hard as I squeeze through the welcoming crowds who line the streets while the pre-carnival parade of church groups, bands and cheerleaders make their way around the center.
Once the main event gets underway, I am at first overwhelmed by the mix of colorful costumes, masks and loud music, but I soon start to understand that there are several distinct groups here too. Most wear bright, bulky padded costumes and large, eye-bulging devil masks – competing against each other in style imagination. But darting among them are dancers more simply dressed just in a swimsuit but covered from head to toe in mud, and others in what looks like used black engine oil. It turns out that is exactly what it is.
“Those are Africans – ‘Los Tiznaos’ or ‘The Stained Ones’“, says local historian Carlos Romero. “They are from Santo Domingo and the Mudmen are from Bonao. If you don’t pay them a fine, they may rub against you and ruin your clothes. It’s a way of raising money to pay for the other costumes. These are poor people and the costumes for each neighborhood group, or ‘comparsa’ cost a lot. There are about a dozen or so people in each of comparsa and they practice for weeks, if not months. Many have been together for years.
While everyone is friendly, and the Tiznaos leave me alone, Carlos does have one other warning: “Watch out for the ‘Vejiga’, too – that’s an inflated animal bladder or balloon that the devils hit you with. They especially love to whack girls on the backside. It brings good luck – they say. Their original job was to clear people out of the way so the parade could get through.”
The “Diablo Cojuelo” or “limping devil” reflects the religious roots of carnival, and a similar character is described in the novel “Don Quijote” by Miguel de Cervantes. “He limps because he hurt his leg falling to earth after being banished from heaven because of his mischief,” says Carlos. The holy origins may also explain the lack of women in revealing costumes so dominant in other carnivals such as Rio’s – although the spectators make up for it. The extreme heat of the day means clothes are often at a bare minimum and, no matter their roots or, indeed, because of their varied ethnic make-up, the country boasts many strikingly beautiful people. It is sometimes hard to keep my eyes on the parade.
Anyway, where are we? Oh, yes, devil masks. “It takes one week to make a mask from start to finish,” says noted maker Melvin Marte Almonte, who Carlos takes me to meet in the cramped La Vega workshop that he founded in 1994. “The designs are changed every year by the group leaders and I work together with them to finalize a design. It costs several hundred dollars for the most expensive and I work for six months to make 300 for each carnival.”
The masks are built up with a papier mâché and acrylic polymer base for lightness, formed on a clay mold. Teeth are made from fibreglass and the whole is spray painted in bright colors to match the costume. Originally, horns and skulls from local abattoirs were the foundation of the masks, and you can see still that influence in the devil-like features. When I try one on, it is surprisingly light, which is not to say I would enjoy wearing one with a thick padded costume all day in blazing heat.
Carnival goes on until after dark and the partying even later, when there is little difference between bars and the streets in terms of people drinking and socializing. The seat of a parked scooter serves as a bar to rest beer bottles on for a group who beckon me over to join them with the usual question: “What do you think of the Dominican Republic?” I give the only possibly reply, but also a truthful one: “Su país es muy hermoso – it is beautiful!” I resist saying another thought: that it is very like Cuba – only with better food. The beautiful Caribbean scenery of sunny golden beaches backed by bright green hills, and the intoxicating mix of sexy music and handsome people make for a familiar seductive setting.
The biggest difference between the two countries, of course, is the freedom to come and go. That translates into a much freer atmosphere, a feeling that no one is holding anything back, whether in political conversation or on the dance floor. In a nightclub, as the clock ticks past midnight and far beyond, the music grows louder and louder, and the dancing becomes raunchier and raunchier. Merengue gives way to reggaeton and I learn where the latter gets its Spanish nickname from – “perreo” or “doggie” – as the girls gyrate.
This undertone of sensuality means that, despite its many other attractions, many visitors do come to take advantage of – or abuse – the sexual freedom. It is sadly all too common for both male and female tourists to pick-up a local companion for a two-week holiday, or longer. “A ‘sanky-panky‘ is our local name for the guys who prey on foreign women,” says Manolo. “They seduce them with soft words and charm in the hope of building a financial relationship when they return home. They empty bank accounts and break hearts, while aiming for the golden prize: a marriage visa. Still, with so much poverty on one side and blind optimism on the other, it is hard to say who is exploiting whom. Many of the women know exactly what they want when they come here: the same thing men have been after for years.”
Where there is demand, there is supply and one surprising feature of this Catholic country is the “cabanas”. Looking like gaudy motels, they line certain streets on the edge of town and offer anonymous rooms by the hour for couples who need privacy. In a country where young people live at home until they get married, and even married couples need some privacy from large families, they serve a useful role. “You drive your car into the garage and the door shuts behind you,” says Manolo, who notes that their seedy reputation means no Dominican woman would ever admit to having seen the inside of one. “You can go straight into the room from the garage. There is a small hatch that the manager takes payment through – most people use cash – and deliver meals or anything else you might order, such as ‘adult needs’. The important thing is that no one need ever see your face and even your car is hidden from passers-by.”
That is a big consideration in a country where life really is lived in public. When I explore the rich colonial history of the capital Santa Domingo, the oldest city in the Americas, I find its streets even more interesting. Life spills out of doorways, drivers block roads for a casual chat and sidewalks are thronged. Hawkers make their way through the crowds or besiege drivers at stoplights offering an incredible range of goods – I see everything from cell-phone chargers and lottery tickets to sugarcane and puppy dogs for sale. One man offers me bottles of what looks like muddy water, filled with sticks. This is mamajuana, which is called the “Dominican Viagra”. Made from a base of rum and honey, with various other medicinal ingredients such as herbs and bark, it is based on ancient Taino Indian remedies. A shot can cure colds, cleanse the blood and liver, ease stomach ailments… well, you get the idea. And, of course, its nickname of “el para palo” comes from its reputation for helping men “lift wood”. I imagine the cabanas do a roaring trade in it.
I can’t bring myself to try it but there is another local drink much more to my taste. Morir Soñando – “to die dreaming” – is made from milk and fresh orange juice. This seemingly odd mixture is instantly refreshing and addictive when served mixed with ice on a hot day – the ice stops the acid in the OJ from curdling the milk. Its fresh ingredients and the varied local cuisine are a reminder of the agricultural wealth of the country. While well known for its beaches, golf courses and glorious colonial architecture – Santo Domingo was the first Spanish city in the Americas – the fertile interior is less explored by visitors. A satellite image makes the contrast with Haiti even starker: its side of the border is treeless and eroded while the Dominican landscape is densely wooded and green. An exciting whitewater rafting adventure at Jarabacoa on the Rio Yaque, one of the longest rivers in the Caribbean, gives me an unconscious lesson in one major underlying reason for the difference: water.
The rain-bearing winds here come from the east, dumping water sucked up from the Atlantic on the Dominican Republic, while the Caribbean’s highest mountains shelter the western third of Hispaniola: Haiti. The rain falling in the mountains, which rise to more than 3,000 meters, also runs back down into the Dominican side, as I am discovering as the river throws me about forcefully. We pull hard through a series of plunging rapids that catch the boat behind us, spilling its crew into the foaming water to be hauled aboard our raft like floundering fish.
This power in its rivers has been harnessed for hydro-electricity, while Haitians still cut down trees to make charcoal for fuel. Truly, the Dominican Republic has been blessed by nature, a point made even more forcefully when I visit a farm to see how the rich soil throws up equally rich cacao beans. These are dried and crushed in a long process before the addition of sugar releases the chocolate flavor we are all so familiar with. The country is better known for another bean – coffee – as well as exporting bananas, rice and coconuts, among much other produce. Its two largest crops, however, are sugarcane, of which it is the Caribbean’s second-largest producer – after Cuba, of course – and tobacco.
The Dominican cigar industry is a prime example of the shadows of Cuba that I keep seeing. Seeds, skills and even the names of Cuban cigars have taken root in a new homeland. Now rivaling the originals in popularity, makers such as Pepe Garcia – who owned the H. Upmann and Montecristo brands – fled the Castro regime to found Tabacalera de Garcia in 1971 in La Romana. It is now the largest handmade cigar factory in the world and a tour reveals just how much skill and work goes into producing one.
Vice-president Jose A. Seijas tells me that his company has spent many years in litigation with the Cuban government of Cuba to establish their rights to the brand names but an uneasy truce has ruled since the 1990s. “It will be interesting to see what happens when Cuban exports open up after the American embargo is lifted, as it no doubt will in due course,” he says. “Meantime, we are starting to go our own way. In the 1960s, we were blending something that tasted like a Cuban cigar – and we score 50/50 in blind tastes. Cigar smokers could not really tell us apart. But now we are presenting the option of a different taste, a true Dominican flavor.”
Such self-confidence is well deserved in a country that has so much to offer and a remark of his also sums up for me what the Dominican Republic is all about. “Cigar smokers are a special breed,” he says. “They taste the tobacco; they do not smoke, they do not inhale. Good food, good wine, good cigars – we are all about relaxing and enjoying life.”