Saturday, March 3, 2018

Paradise Found, Or Not

The sun was setting behind billowing clouds. The mountains separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic outlined the horizon. Children played on the sandy beach and a young couple splashed in the crashing surf. My waiter brought a locally-made Presidente beer and poured it neatly into a glass. He looked out to the azure sea and smiled when he looked back at me.

“Me gustaria la Cajon Sea Bass, por favor?” I asked, especially proud of the only Spanish phrase I’d mastered. “Si,” he replied, “Would you like French fries, mash potatoes or rice?” I smiled in my head at the familiar punch line. This is a classic tourist joke, a cliché for most world travelers. Speak English and the native will banter you with his language. Speak his language and he will be proud to practice his English with you.

Two days earlier I had arrived in Santo Domingo from a rainy, 48-degree New York. It was the wanting Got-To-Go-To-Hawaii miracle, from freezing hell to nurturing paradise. What’s this? What’s this? The air feels much too warm and the people warm and friendly!

Tourists come here to relax and go slow so the authorities help by starting you out with a two-hour turtle crawl through the immigration line.

My travel consultant recommended I pop for the extra 1000 pesos ($20) and have a taxi from the hotel meet me at the airport. The pleasure and relief I felt seeing my name neatly printed on a piece of paper held by a smart-looking gentleman was priceless. He didn’t speak English and I needed no Spanish. We both knew where we were going. The boutique hotel was airy with tiled floors and beautiful art on the walls. The assistant manager, Balex, greeted me at the door with good English. As I filled out the registration card another young man appeared and presented me with a cold mason jar filled with juice, ice and a straw. “Please, for you….” In the morning, the manager, Ramón, ran the breakfast service on the patio with four female assistants. Meals were custom made, so yes I ordered a fruit pancake, bacon, poached eggs, and coffee with steamed milk. No problema.

Around here paradise comes encircled with iron fences topped with barbed wire. That’s how you know you’re in paradise. Then again, that’s how you know you’re in a prison. The prison of paradise. For details check the story of the Buddha Siddhartha.

The historical area where I stayed is named the Zona Colonial. It’s the tourist bubble which is most likely why Christopher Columbus stopped here. The shopping promenade reminded me of Tijuana. Lots of street vendors, artists, hustlers, shouting taxi drivers, beggars, families, running children, and buskers. 

The first music I heard was Hotel California. Just a wiry guy strumming a guitar and playing the melody on a harmonica. Simple, beautiful and as haunting as the song’s designed to be. I stopped and listened. The words sung in my head as I observed the scene. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face… You can check out but you can never leave.

I tipped him a US fiver and communicated in sign language that I also played the harmonica. He spoke enthusiastically, “En Español decimos tremolo.”  “Tremolo,” I repeated and smiled in my head. Tremolo is the type of harmonica he was playing. I play a diatonic and Ray Charles plays a chromatic. There’s really no Spanish word for harmonica, you just drop the first letter and add an acute accent, armónica. “Tremolo” I agreed, “si, muy bien!, gracias.” As I walked away he shouted, “Mucho gusto!”

I was feeling the “hangries.” That’s when a traveler becomes angry because he/she/they are very hungry. Choosing a restaurant this time was easy: the place with baseball on the telly! …and I’m guessing, also a bar and servers with a bit of English skills. I wasn’t sure so spoke slowly. “Rum?” “Coca-Cola?” “Uhhh, with a lime?…” The waitress responded unsure, “Cuba Libre?” Haha! Of course! I forgot what world I was in! “Viva la Cuba Libre!” I replied dramatically and she danced back to the bar.

Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1492 and on his return trip in1494 he found the island of Hispaniola and founded the town that became Santo Domingo. His son later became Governor and about 500 years later, the fort, palace, cathedral and circling wall still stand—more or less.

Of course Chris didn’t actually discover the Americas. He was just the first imperialist to start doing business there. Poor guy. Revered and hated just for trying to make a buck.

Yes, he never landed in America, if by America one means the terra-firma of the United States. No doubt once in Cuba drinking a Cuba Libre, Chris saw little appeal with Florida. But on his third of four round trip voyages he “discovered” Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela and lots of natives already living there. In Panama he met a shady native hustler who offered a special taxi ride so Chris could also discover a brand new ocean. Mr. Columbus turned him down, even when offered a lower price. Chris didn’t know he was sick with malaria and suspected it to be just another tourist scam, Discover New World and New Ocean! 2 for 1! Special Price for First-time Visitors!

Columbus unknowingly brought disease, but so did every other foreigner. He really didn’t want to hurt anybody; he was no murderer. Judge Judy would find him guilty only of involuntary indigenous slaughter.

People traveling from China arrived in America across the frozen Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago. From Alaska they journeyed 4,000 years to homestead in Peru and raise llamas. And on most every day of their travels, these nomads “discovered” a new land. No records exist but it’s easy to imagine their daily routine. “Hey lookee over there! No one’s never seen that before. I’m goin’ call that new found land Idaho!” “Eyes here! Eyes here! See that big desert? I just discovered Albuquerque!”

The Vikings camped out in Newfoundland in the AD900s. Not much to plunder or trade so most caught the boat back to Iceland—though there is anecdotal evidence that a few Vikings may have actually stayed, eventually settling in the Caribbean.

The next day I took a taxi to the city bus station and the bus five hours to the north coast beach town of Puerto Plata. I was nervous to be on my own immersed in the public Spanish world but the locals were always pleased and eager to help. All I needed was lots of Por Favor, Gracias and Mucho Gustos.

Taxiing through the city to the bus station was like one of the best Disneyland rides. Every other moment it looked like we were going to crash into something; cars seem to wander with no lane discipline, scooters weaved in and out, hawkers and beggars stood in the street. A cement truck merged blindly from the right and just then a woman on a scooter zoomed between us, steering with one hand and holding her baby with the other. It must be a cosmic traffic dance because everything flowed without collision or injury.

My driver started telling me about the places we were passing but I didn’t understand. “Habla usted Inglés?” “No,” he replied and continued his guided tour in Spanish.  He seemed very happy to be talking so I supported him with a running commentary, “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” We passed the President’s grand palace—presidente I understood. “White house, white house,” he said and we both laughed. Then he tried some more English, “Where you from?” and got my usual reply, “California, San Francisco.”

He smiled, “California? Hotel California?” Interesting, another native who knows the tune. I replied with a bit of melody, “…many a room at the Hotel California…” He was embolden and sung a verse of the song in broken English with beautiful tone. I joined in. It felt like I was in a screwball comedy.

·       Bus station, loud stinky engines roaring, cackling crowds, foreign signs, long lines at seven windows. My feet wanted to run away so I sat on a metal bench in the shade. A couple deep breaths and I spied the information booth. Scene Two: Man Abnegates Ego and Asks For Help—Don’t Tell Wife. “Habla Inglés?” I asked and got a finger pointing to the booth next door. New agent, same trusted phrase, “Habla Inglés?” She smiled casually, “Where do you want to go?” Thirty minutes later I was on the bus to Puerto Plata and the paradise beaches of the north coast.

The bus’s air conditioning was set to freezing, as I had been warned in my research, so I donned the sweatshirt I had brought along. However, the local man across the aisle from me looked quite content in shorts and a T-shirt.

Two hours into the chilly ride the bus decelerated quickly, then stopped. As the bus slowly crept forward again my woo-woo cosmic dance metaphor was shattered. Police lights, overturned auto, dented truck, downed motorcycle, dead man in shorts on the road, face covered with a torn piece of black plastic. I observed the tragic scene through my portal of safety glass, feeling the comfort of my seat and the hefty power of the purring bus. Soon the dead man’s family will have their hearts broken and children will cry. I shivered in my chilled box, but with no complaints. Sometimes paradise needs to be a bit too cold.

Otherwise, deep breath, the ride was lovely, up over the lush green mountains and then down to the coast. Typical tropical sights except for one: baseball fields! Everywhere. More professional baseball players come from the Dominican Republic than any other non-USA country.

I have played, coached, umpired and watched many baseball games. A baseball field is sacred, filled with hope. Once when I was umpiring a Little League game, an awkward boy stepped up to the plate and swung wildly at the first pitch. “Strike!” I called. He looked back at me, “Don’t worry Blue, I always strike out.” Just eleven years old and convinced he is a failure in life. With the next pitch I saw the batter was closing his eyes when he swung. “Strike two!” He looked at me again, his eyes saying: see, I told you so. With the god-like power that umpires wield, I ordered him directly, “Open your eyes when you swing.” On the next pitch he did and fouled the ball off to the right into the stands. As the pitcher wound up to deliver strike three, I saw my meek batter now standing tall, waving his bat in the air, unblinking. The pitch came and the ball flew away—into center field for a standup double. The boy-failure had transformed into a winner. He danced on second base and gave me a wave. Paradise can be found on a baseball field.

In Puerto Plata a motorcycle taxi driver asked if I needed a lift or if I needed marijuana—both equally dangerous around here. One of the good things about hustlers is that they speak very good English. “No thanks, I have my own marijuana… from California. Where is your weed from?” He got excited and proudly pulled out his cellphone to show me pictures of his product. “Ummm, very nice buds,” I cooed. He asked the standard question, “Where are you from?” “San Francisco.” He then broke into a toothy grin, “Do you know what my American name is?” I tried to remember the names of Giants players from the Dominican Republic, Cueto or Marichal maybe? but I didn’t want to spoil his story, “No, what is it?” He could hardly contain his laughter, “Kruk ’n Kuip!” (the Giants announcers). We laughed together and bonded over baseball. A new friend in the underworld.

The sun set, the Cajon sea bass delicious, the Presidentes inebriating, the air still balmy and the streets now dark with shadowy figures blurring about. A group of motorcycles raced by loudly and my nerves crept in as I tried to find the way back to my hotel. Suddenly it no longer felt like paradise. I had to backtrack twice before discovering my hotel. I’d like to think Christopher had the same problem. A wave of relief washed my worries when I rang the bell at the small gate in the barbed-wire-topped-iron-fence-wall—my portal back to paradise. The skinny dark-skinned guard opened the gate and greeted me with a smile and by name, “Hola, Mister James.” He wore shorts but no shirt, flip-flops and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat. In his right hand he wielded a pistol-grip shotgun, his finger near the trigger. “Buenas noches,” I said and he smiled again, “Have a good night.” 

And I did, safe in my paradise prison. No problema.

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