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.