When I think of the island, I think of coconut oil. Not the cheap, processed kind that you can buy on the mainland, no. Raw, viscous, caramelized-by-the-sun coconut oil. The kind you can sip to stimulate digestion, cook with your dinner, and slather onto your skin before a good tanning session. The kind that crystallizes and melts at temperatures inconveniently close to each other. In a way, this mercurial, multi-purpose commodity is an appropriate analogy for the Dominican Republic itself. The island comes in many forms: foamy ocean surf that cuddles your ankles, glasses clinking in garrulity, feet shuffling on a dance floor, a murky puddle after a torrential storm, or sometimes even a bitter spoonful of perspective.

On the one hand, it’s got everything you would want out of a vacation spot. There are pristine beaches where sunburned tourists can willfully lose track of time. You can go on an exotic excursion to “authentic” Dominican hermitages, where local families eagerly greet you (in English, Russian, Spanish, and French) and parade handmade goods in front of you like a live infomercial (“Special discount especially for you, only today!”). Presidente beer and Mama Juana (a fermented mixture of red wine, honey, Dominican rum, and local herbs) flow freely and limitlessly like the Caribbean Sea. Spas, zip lines, hover boats, year-round golf courses, snorkeling, and many, many other forms of…man-made paradise.

By no means is this place flawless—at least no more than any other place in the world. It all depends on how you choose to see it, as long as you allow yourself to really see it. Drive two miles outside of any hotel, and you’ll find unpaved streets, roofless houses, and too many homeless kids. Since access to electricity is controlled by the government, and the government so often drops the ball, some houses resort to car batteries for regular power. Immigration within the island and emigration out of the island are both huge problems. (The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, its western neighbor, which, last I heard, wasn’t doing so great.)

It’s the third world, after all. Hotel resort-villes make it easy to forget that sometimes.

You can’t help but feel at least a little conflicted. These days, the country’s economy depends on services for its main gross income—services like tourism. So you buy the hand-made jewels, the homemade coconut oil, the locally-grown-and-churned chocolate in hopes that maybe you’re helping. Or, perhaps that’s the just First World citizen’s delusion. (I hope it’s not.)

An American kid raises his hand and asks our tour guide, “Excuse me, sir, who is the president of the Dominican Republic?” This otherwise innocuous question wouldn’t connote so many things back in the States, but it triggers so many follow-up questions in my head. Just because there’s a president, it doesn’t mean that there’s an effective government. Even if there’s a government, it doesn’t mean it ensures fairness or justice, the former international studies major in me whispers. Elections are rigged; promises are broken; taxes are raised; money is laundered.

The amiable tour guide answers, “Danilo Medina, senor,” and quickly changes the topic to baseball.

And that’s another thing: Dominicans love—I mean, love—their baseball. The only thing they love more than baseball are their baseball players, who are demigods in the eyes of their people. No one questions the fact that some of the best American baseball players come from the D.R. Once you cross over to the major leagues, everyone back home claims to have grown up with you and played catch with you in grade school. The Albert Pujol’s and David Ortiz’s of the world aren’t just players on a team; they’re mascots for a country looking for something to be proud of, something to help them forget how hard life can get. The same reason why we tourists come to tan on the beach.

Detroit Rock Lost City

If you’ve ever seen post-apocalyptic movies like Resident Evil or I Am Legend, you can picture exactly what downtown Detroit looks like, without ever having been there.

Windowless, abandoned buildings spy on you as you make your way across empty streets. Trash peppers the sidewalks, and there is barely a living soul in sight. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The one resounding question in your head is, “What the hell happened here?”

Unlike in science fiction stories, there were no zombies, epidemics, or nuclear explosions responsible for the city’s undoing—simply an outdated economy. Detroit was once an industrial hub, a Midwest confluence of rail lines that made it possible for trains to transport goods across the country. The automobile industry thrived—that is, until more and more manufacturing jobs went overseas. Americans fell for European and Japanese cars, soon after abandoning Detroit’s Motor City like a pathetic part-time lover.

It’s hard to believe that Motown (an abbreviation of “Motor Town” that eventually became synonymous with the musical genre) could have ever been born in such a dejected environment. These days, silence permeates the air. In a way, the correlation between zombies and Detroit isn’t so inaccurate; the city’s not quite dead, but it’s not exactly alive either.

I’m riding a bike that I rented for $10 a day from my hostel. At this point, I haven’t heard anything about Detroit’s crime rates or economic drought. All I know is that it’s sunny outside and I want to see whether I can bike to Canada, which is located miles across the water. The only car on the street stops next to me while I’m snapping a photo, and a guy wearing a sideways Tigers cap in the passenger seat yells his phone number at me repeatedly, telling me to call him. I’m neither flattered nor amused.

Sadly, I can’t bike to Canada. I realize that I don’t have my passport with me and give up my dreams of integrating myself into the Canadian public health system (a girl can dream!). Instead, I opt to stake out in front of the water to look longingly across the river. If I can’t go to Canada, I can at least stare at it until it feels uncomfortable.

While I’m trying to enjoy the view, a police car pulls up next to me. Two eyes, a nose, and then an entire face appear above the slowly descending tinted window. “You be careful out here,” the officer says, with ominous cadence. The window rolls back up with a laggard hum, and pebbles crunch beneath the rubber tires as the car rolls away. Odd, I think to myself.

Slightly disturbed by the encounter, I decide to bike back to the hostel, where I’m then warned about the crime rate. Suddenly, the empty streets, fenced-off buildings, and barred windows make perfect sense. Thankfully, nothing had happened to me while I was out. Paranoia successfully peaked.

On my day of departure, I wait for the double-decker bus that will eventually ship me back to Chicago and out of these post-apocalyptic ruins. I’m at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal, newly constructed and surprisingly vacant. My phone is about to die, so I search for an outlet to charge it. After finding one, I sit down on the floor next to my backpack and charging phone. A security guard is standing five feet to my left, so I figure that I’m in a (somewhat) strategically safe position. A woman looks over, approaches me, and iterates (with much sass), “You better put yo’ shit away, girl. They gon’ rob you.” The security guard, who overhears the woman talking to me, glances over at me and gives a conciliatory nod. I stuff everything into my backpack and clutch it against my chest until my bus arrives.

Despite its abandon and otherwise uninspired cityscapes, the poetry of Detroit lies in the optimism of its remaining inhabitants. While most people have opted out of downtown and chased jobs into the suburbs, some hardliners remain true to their city. They hope that Detroit can revive, redevelop and repurpose its downtown area to emulate its heyday. Others stick around because they have nowhere else to go. One wonders, is this level of commitment semblance of sanctimony or proof of parsimony?

Admittedly, my habit of hyperbole might get me into some trouble with Detroit’s tourism department. In Detroit’s defense, I’ve heard that it’s a great place to live if you know where to go and what to do (though, apparently, I neither found these places nor did those things). The optimist in me hopes that Detroit gets back on its feet (or wheels) somehow. Until then, I simply don’t see myself frequenting a town that so quickly triggers the most primal of my survival instincts.