Travel in the Dominican Republic

Note shotgun and machete. 
The trip from the Santo Domingo airport to the Renaissance Jaragua hotel reveals a microcosm of the Dominican Republic.
Immediately upon leaving the airport, poverty and chaos engulfs my ruined taxi.
Burnt-out, mangled cars line the road as frequently as mile markers. Enterprising souls abscond with the mile marker husks, paint them, and continue to service the airport-hotel circuit. I suspect my driver is one of them. Most of the mini-busses in operation appear to have literally “hit the road”. Taxis are invariably Toyota sedans bulging with eight or more passengers. One gets the sense that Toyota shipped its first line of vehicles to the Dominican Republic as a gift when the Japanese started producing cars, and have not done so since. 
After an eternity spent crawling past densely packed, crumbling concrete block homes with rusted currogated rooftops huddling below palm trees, I arrive at 
the gleaming Renaissance Jaragua with its view over the Capitol building. It caters to traveling businessmen and dignitaries, and, like most hotels for foreigners, it is built like a military base. High walls keep out the street people, who nevertheless wait outside for naïve tourists out for a beach stroll. This opulent gem in an iron setting immediately gives me a sense of the social existence of most Dominicans.
I am immediately warned not to go beyond the gates alone. The beach lies tantalizingly out of reach beyond the foot-thick concrete reinforcements. One of my fellow travelers balks at this advice, striking out for a stroll. He returns briefly, shaken. Immediately set upon by merchants of counterfeits, intoxicants, and ribaldry, he ran back to the comfort of the fort.
Not that he needed to leave the hotel for these services. I am told by a more knowledgeable guest to watch the dynamics in the lobby casino. While there are many patrons, only two are not employees. The players at the table are mostly hustlers employed by the hotel to encourage their fellow gamblers to place bigger bets. The women are in fact prostitutes scattered casually to invite the winners to a nearby table to join her friend. Even as I am told this, a man and a woman meet and make their way to his room.
Don’t be dissuaded by the cockroaches living off tourists. Santo Domingo may lie off the beaten path for most travelers to this island nation. Most tourists land in the North, at the resorts and beaches. Such tourists, catered and pampered, will never glimpse the flavor of the Dominican Republic, which is to their detriment. Just as the cigars here are the finest in the world, so too are the sights and sounds of local color.
My most poignant impressions of the country, poverty aside, are the quality of the food and the warmth of the people. I have had every kind of meat from pork to octopus, and each were marinated in exceptional sauces whose origin I could not begin to fathom. Everything except rabbit which, though always on the menu, never seemed available.  Dominican food is a dream in whose slumber I might gratify myself for eternity.
Rolling my cigars by hand. That's service!
As for the warmth of the people – these are a people of near perfect genetic appearance. Their faces are symmetrical, their skin flawless. So it is that when they smile at you, as they do on every occasion, one is filled with the thrill of popularity or the love of friends, even with perfect strangers. And it is not only because I am American. In fact, my heritage prevents me the deference of a kiss. Does this sun breed love? I think so, and if not then I am fortunate to have left before discovering the truth.
The best way to tour the island is to get a driver, or, for the ambitious, to rent a motorcycle. Some of the most picturesque scenery can be found between the villages on the small, lonely roads. I drive past villages amidst the abundant flora, shantytowns really, with people appearing out of nowhere to meet busses, starved dogs crossing the road, and the proverbial half-naked children playing barefoot in the mud.
 Hundreds of roadside stands offer native products. In the North you find squat wooden structures selling pottery, pineapples, bananas, and mangos. In the East it will be coconut juice, sugarcane, butchered meats, live chickens, rabbits, and ducks. Every property beckons with a property sign reading “se vende”.
The primary mode of transportation here is a light motorcycle or moped. I’ve seen up to a family of four seated thus. Since trucks and wild automotive drivers share the roads, the practice of two-wheel transport would indicate a general mass-accepted mode of suicide, even with the slower mopend riding on the side of the road. We witnessed no motorcycle deaths.
Whenever I set foot on land, resisting the urge to kiss it, I am hailed by the “motorcyclistas” omnipresent in every spot of shade. Each region seems to have such specific means of hailing tourists that I might know immediately where I am, even with eyes closed. In La Vega, the boys emit a violent hissing whereas in Higuey they resort to whistles. In the capitol it is vigorous waving, which might give me trouble with my eyes closed. The only universal, however not preferred method due to its commonality, is an address in Spanish. All entreaties are best ignored.
Power outages are a common occurance. Nearly every home and business has backup generators, but this doesn’t prevent lights from flickering out at least once a day, even at the airport. Once, I had to wait in a restaurant for the power to come back on before they could process my credit card. White man’s burden. Somewhere in your suitcase, make room for an ample dose of patience and time.
Nearly every establishment, from the supermarket to restaurants, has an old man with a shotgun on the porch. These security guards are omnipresent. Shotguns are considerably more intimidating than the pistols bank guards use at home. Even more unnerving is the wording on their uniform which reads, not “seguridad” as I might prefer, but “vigilante”. My guide reassured me. “The guards rarely shoot anyone. Management would deduct the cost of spent cartridges from their pay.” Well, now I feel better.
The East is hot. Ant under the microscope hot. Spontaneous combustion hot. The humidity must be 256%. I ride out East three hours to Higuey in a Skoda. Unlike the North, the East is dry, dominated by cattle ranching and sugar cane. Peasants harvest the cane as they must have since its agricultural inception – by hand with machetes, loading the stalks onto wooden carts pulled by oxen. White ducks often accompany the oxen. The sugar cane, when not processed, then moves to the roadside vendors to sell for chewing. I never tried it.
Sanctuario de Nuestra Sra de la Altagracia
Higuey is a dusty provincial town with but one distinguishing feature – the Sanctuario de Nuestra Sra de la Altagracia – a monumental Basilica. I have seen the great churches of Europe, and this is every bit their equal. Cast entirely of concrete, the vaults soar incalculable distances into the heavens. The outside is complex, with rectangular blue frames for stained glass and a massive grid containing bells of every size framed by massive concrete arches. I find the back door open and enter. I am awestruck. My flesh is in goose bumps. I can’t speak. Inside, the cast-in-place columns taper like airplane wings to meet in the darkness high above. Red light filters through stained glass. Immense murals painted in red ink hide in the cool shadows high above. I have never seen anything equaling it in power.
Back in Higuey’s town center, I eat lunch at a thatched roof restaurant. I order octopus, chunks of sliced octopus arm of obviously remarkable size. The sky grows darker, and locals run for cover. I think nothing of it. No sooner does my boot land on the exterior of the restaurant than the rain bowls in, blowing sideways in torrents. The streets flood in an instant. Beneath every alcove, humanity huddles. I drive slowly out of town. The windshield wipers beat at the rain like like a beetle burrowing in wood.
On the flight over, I learned that one of the world’s finest cigars, the Fuente Fuente Opus X, is Dominican, and so I am on a quest. I know it is limited. I might have to settle for a Cuban. On the way back I spot the Fuentes Fuentes Opus X insignia on the side of a building. It is a tourist destination with every manner of average kitsch, but along one entire wall are the best cigars in the world, including Opus X. I found it! I abstain from buying a $900 box of them, opting instead for a single at $30. The man behind the counter takes me to the other side of the store for another surprise. A leather skinned man rests his elbows on an oiled wooden desk, hand rolling leaves of tobacco! “Would you like to smoke one?” he says. Of course! So, free of charge, I smok a fresh hand rolled cigar. The experience… As for the Opus X, I will smoke that 12 year aged tobacco, for my birthday.