Living in Santiago the past few weeks, our experiences have been limited to the city life here and the beach scene a few hours away. Our horizons were broadened over the past few days as we spent time in the capital city of the Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo.
Entering the most heavily populated city of the Dominican Republic, we immediately noticed the similarities Santo Domingo shares with Santiago. The streets are cluttered with debris- it clogs the sewers, piles the corners, and I watch as a woman finishes a pastry and throws the wrapper to her feet before walking to catch a guagua. In a developing country where poverty is vast, proper waste disposal is of minor concern to most residents. Public trashcans are a rare sight and unfortunately, this provides a breeding ground for disease through the rat population that feeds on the waste. After seeing the creatures scurry around ILAC and the city, I no longer questioned why there were so many public warnings for Leptospirosis, a health issue I would never have to worry about in the streets of my homeland.
Also similar to Santiago is the bustling street life of the inner city. Peddlers and the craziness of public transportation overwhelm the streets. The smell of propane that most taxis and guaguas run on (as opposed to gasoline) sometimes makes it difficult to breathe as the thick, dirty exhaust sputters into the air.
As we moved to the historical district that we planned to stay in, it suddenly became quieter. The streets became narrower, the buildings were of nicer quality, and litter was minimal. Over the next few days, we witnessed the sights most foreigners see when they encounter the Dominican Republic: the tourist zones. We spent our time visiting the shops of Conde street, where larimar and amber jewelry are sold, Haitian art is plentiful, and other handmade trinkets are available through barter. Unlike anywhere else we had been in the country, it was assumed we spoke no Spanish and most street vendors catered to our interests in smiling English.
Touring the streets with our Dominican English-speaking guide, we learned to connect what we have been learning in our EDP class with the historical content of the area. Many of the original architecture remains (or has been restored) including Christopher Columbus’ home, the famous Cathedral, and several court and governor buildings that were the first constructed in all of the Americas. The old original entrance to the city stands as well, along with parts of the huge wall that used to surround Santo Domingo in its entirety. The beauty of such aged constructions brought me into a realm of antiquities. Days of pirates, explorers, and slavery overwhelmed my imagination with the life that once existed here. Was that Jack Sparrow sailing in before making his way to nearby Tortuga? Alas, such fictions plagued me as I attempted to connect all that was before me with something familiar.
At night, we spent our time relaxing in the beautiful plaza near the gate of the city. We dined at an expensive Italian restaurant under the stars and for a moment, became lost in the glamour of tourism. Enjoying my pasta, I found myself people-watching. The crowd around us was posh- men in suits with cigars, women in classy fashions with champagne flutes in hand. The breath and bubbliness of the atmosphere was alluring, exciting. Glancing around, I found my eyes rest on the doors to the entrance. As they opened, an older white man with a young, beautiful Dominican woman waltzed in. With his hand situated on her waist in a possessive manner and a nervous glimmer in her eye, I was suddenly faced with an ugly reality of tourism here: prostitution.
Currently the Dominican Republic is third in the world for sex tourism (behind Amsterdam and Thailand). While most women are looking for a permanent escape to a country outside of their own, others are available for a mere 300 pesos a night, which is roughly $9.00 US dollars.
As I became fixated on analyzing the body language of the pair to justify my intuition, a few people at my table pointed out similar couples in the room. Looking around, we noticed several men of American and European descent with attractive Dominican women.
Before the original couple I had noticed sat down, I caught the eyes of the young woman. At that moment, I was sure of my suspicions. There was some sort of understanding in the fact that we were both women. I could see it in behind her iris: a pain secret to her that I would never know simply because I was fortunate enough to be born in another country. Could I fault her for her desperation to survive? Never. And as a woman myself, a part of me hurt for her; a part knowing that while she remained chained to such a lifestyle, I was free in my country to vote, to have an education, to further myself in ways she never could. Part of me wanted to hug her, as if that would provide any comfort to a woman entangled in intimacies to subsist. I looked away, somewhat ashamed to be a human being.
Later that night, we watched a live meringue and bachata show in the plaza. Different groups performed in costume, coming out into the audience and pulling us out to dance with them as the band played on the stage. We checked out the local night scene, bought some ice cream, and eventually made our way back to the hostel to sleep.
As I laid my head to rest, I said a small prayer of thanks that I was sleeping here alone; that I wasn’t forced into the company of a stranger as a source of income in a country where women’s rights do not exist as they do in my own. I prayed that the woman I had seen would someday be free of the hard choices she had to make in present time. But as my thoughts crossed over in my mind and I began to drift to sleep, I realized that woman, like so many other people I have seen here, was not one I would soon forget. Her pain will occupy a place in my heart for some time, for as I awoke the next morning to visit the haunted lighthouse of Santo Domingo, I knew she was waking up somewhere too. And that somewhere was a place I wished no woman had to call her reality.