Backpackers in Paradise

Our minibus is whisking us around flash cards of local color. The Waterfall. The Woman Walking on the Dusty Roadside. The Sulking Men on Motorbikes. The Village Store called “Christo!” The Kids Climbing a Lime Tree. The Fishermen At Ocean’s Edge. The Naked Toddler Jumping Into a Rock Pool. Then, when a massive metal seahorse rears up on the side of the road, the minibus takes a right, and begins winding on private roads through fenced, manicured pastures that ape the English countryside. Here, the riotous tropics have been tidied into carpets of even green grass.

Inside, under the mossy breath of the air conditioning, there are six travel writers: Jodi, Andrea, Melanie, Blaine, Jill, Abbie, and me. We are doing what bonafide travelers do: swapping stories like baseball cards. I’ll match your riot and up it with a runaway camel. I’ll trade one tale of confused Mandarin for two of blundered Thai. I’ll trump your monkey with my wild boar. Fine, your bus breakdown is worth three of my marriage proposals. Three Africa vomiting stories for one India thirty-four-hour train ride vomiting-plus-diarrhea story. We are demonstrating our skill at speaking other languages. We are lamenting the problem of drunk driving in Thailand. We are comparing Chinese hot pot dipping sauces. We are talking about the process of buying land in Central America. We are comparing the relative virtues of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. We are on the “Nature’s Paradise: An Eco-Adventurist’s Dream” Blogger Trip 2010.

We are supposed to write about this for our various media outlets and to employ social media to talk up the lobster and the horseback riding, the villas and the nature, and any cute misadventures (Oops, Blaine got sunburnt! One too many cocktails for Jill!) the trip’s merry overdose of Dominican sun, grub and eco-adventure might bring. We are sponsored by a PR firm that represents Subway and Citgo in addition to the Dominican Republic. It has taken care of our flights from the U.S. and, in my and my husband Jorge’s case, Mexico, and will put us up in villas in an exclusive gated community for a few nights and take us around cascading and climbing and culture-mongering during the days.

Outside, the pastures, conspicuously free of the detritus of Dominican life, are almost silken and dotted with thoroughbreds right out of a little girl’s horsie fantasy: their manes combed and braided; their tails full and shiny; their muscular necks giving way to glossy bodies and sculpted legs with crisp white socks. The villas begin at the pasture’s edge. They are in cul-de-sacs at the end of neatly paved streets fringed with palms. Each is its own unique testament to wealth: there are palatial Greek ones buoyed up by fat, phallic columns and fronted with statues and fountains; there are the Spanish nouveau-bungalows with hipped roofs and tiled patios leading out onto gardens and pools; there are rounded drives for easy chauffer drop-off and pick-up and roofed front porches on which a butler might perch.

Jennifer greets us at Villa #22, our first stop. She is American, in charge of the marketing here, and has hooked us up with our stay at the villas. Jennifer is chubby with baby fat, and wears the pale indulged pout of a sixteenth century queen. It takes her time–la cuesta, as Jorge would say, it costs her–to relate to us, but she manages, chitchatting with feigned interest as she gives us the tour of #22.

I have never been in a place quite like Villa #22. It is an aggressively modern space with ceilings easily thirty feet high, and heavy, glass-paneled doors along the back wall opening out onto the patio, pool, and garden. Island light floods through the doors and gives the white walls and the white and black furniture a rinsed, pellucid quality. The living room hosts immaculate white leather couches, a flat-screen TV, and a stereo system with surround sound. There are three bedrooms on the ground floor, and a dark wooden study with bookshelves that hold copies of Elle Style and GQ, as well as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The DaVinci Code. Upstairs is the suite. It contains a king-sized bed, a couch, a TV, a balcony looking out on the pool and the garden, and a bathroom with a glass-encased shower, his and hers sinks and towels, a separate side room for the toilet and, in a distinct American touch, a scale. The bathroom floors are cool slate. Breezes drift in and nudge the ceiling fans in lazy circles.

“The honeymoon suite,” Jennifer smiles, sizing us up in our worn t-shirts and frazzled jeans. Several weeks ago we had a wedding in Jorge’s uncle’s backyard, with folding chairs on the grass and mole served from a massive pot and little bamboo shooters of mezcal. We danced with a turkey. Now, we glance at each other. Jorge and I will sleep here, and Blaine, Jill and Andrea will stay in the bedrooms downstairs.

The other villa, a Spanish colonial where everyone else will stay, at first feels almost drab after the imposing near-religiosity of #22. The bedrooms are cramped and unspectacular, piled one after the other off of a narrow hallway. But the kitchen and dining room look as if they should be featured on a Southern cooking show. The kitchen is large and open, with a long waist-level breakfast bar on the side facing the dining room so the private chef can easily set his dishes out for display. The dining room table is a spread out of Country Living, set for a summer white linen banquet, with glasses for red and glasses for white and large crisp napkins on which to set salad forks and dessert spoons and those little knives for cracking crab. The sitting room, which I label as such because of the surfeit of places on which to sit with a cocktail taking one’s leisure and swapping stock prices, is completely open on the back side, blending seamlessly with the tropical garden and the tiled pool, so that one does not even have to bother opening a door to catch the scent of the orchids. Both villas, of course, come with their own staff: maid, chef, driver, nanny. As we later learn from Jennifer, they don’t come without their hassles.

After we have settled in Jennifer shows us the fastidiously maintained grounds. We drive around the other multi-million dollar villas with their limpid pools and their thousand-dollar patio furniture and their columns and porticos and fountains and sculptures, and she introduces us to Sergio, the tennis boy, who sports a watch the girth of a small tree and looks like he’s just walked out of an Armani ad. She gives him a little cooing glance. He makes eyes at Melanie. Everyone gushes over him in the van.

“Very impressive tennis facilities you have,” we say, and Jennifer turns around and replies, “Aren’t they lovely?” and we all purr a little at the innuendo.

At the stables, we nuzzle the horses. Jorge gets bitten by fire ants taking a shot of a bay stallion whom the staff have polished to a glossy sheen, and he hops around trying to hide the burn. At Villa #1–“Manhattan meets the tropics with a wink of Santa Fe…features full 24-hour concierge, full amenity services (nanny, catering, flower services, spa services, personnel[1] training, yoga, massages)…welcomes you with a spectacular Zen water feature foyer flanked with whimsical modern lighting and impressive contemporary art. The Italian outfitted professional kitchen, handsome 12 person dining area and classical Palladian outdoor breakfast verandah feature enticing yet practical areas for entertaining”–Jorge and I stare out from the patio over a backyard that stretches several hundred meters right up to the sea, a sparkling pool set seamlessly into its lambent green, the whole scene like something out of a movie, a romantic comedy about a prostitute with a heart of gold.

*

In the evening, we gather at the Spanish colonial for dinner. Our personal chef has arrived armed to the teeth for a banquet and goes about preparing it in the cooking-show kitchen. He is a gregarious Dominican man somewhere in his forties, with a generous smile and an innocent whiskered face that reminds me of a burly seal. There is no beer. He understands the gravity of this instantly and, to the slight dismay of the non-beer drinkers in this villa, he leaves his cooking duties to go buy some. Blaine, Jill, Jorge and I thank him profusely, and he opens four cold beers for us when he returns. We have all brought our computers over to this villa since the Internet hasn’t been working in #22, and we have a cocktail hour blogfest as the chef goes about steaming shrimp and lobster. I do not tweet or write anything and somehow equate this with righteousness, as I sit sipping my beer in a sundress on my all-expenses-paid trip.

I tell myself, I am a traveler at the end of the day, and even if I am here at the behest of the Ministry of Tourism, I can extricate its gooey platitudes from my narrative and get to the real. I am not implicated. This is not me. This is just another adventure, another way of exploring the D.R., a much-needed free flight back to the U.S., and I can laugh and scoff at the opulence and its uncomfortable implications because I’ve ridden in my travel-tattered clothes on the backs of treacherous motorbikes, I’ve been pressed close to foreign bodies.

So I told myself when I signed on for the trip, and so I told Jorge when he was reluctant and wary of going on a paid trip with gringos to a poor Latin American country. So we bloggers told each other, and so the blogstars of the travel universe told their readers, and so the aspirant travel writers taking their first giddy press trips told themselves. Our travel ethic, our tribal loyalty to the cheap and the authentic and the local, would shield us from touristic contamination.

I think the cook I joke with in Spanish must understand this. I’m not truly one of the people who would stay in these villas, one of these tourists so isolate and above. None of us are. No, if I weren’t here on this trip I’d be chummy with him at a roadside chicken stand. I’d be showing him that I was interested in his country not because I could purchase and cordon off a chunk of it but because I think it is essential and meaningful to stand in smoky shacks and take risks on sketchy transport and eat rice and beans: to understand this place, you see. He must recognize that these intentions distinguish me from Jennifer and the people who rent or own these villas. He must recognize that I want to be on his side, which in some ways is more important to me and my fellow travelers than whether or not I actually am or ever could be.

Jorge puts up a photo essay of the images he has been able to shoot out the minibus window, or at the beach when he wanders off by himself. There is a man on a motorbike whizzing past a tumbledown juice stand backed by a palm tree and a troubled sky. There is a ragtag group of kids, in secondhand t-shirts too big or too small for them, crawling over a skiff with chipped blue paint. There is a couple dressed in cheap red, white, and blue costumes for a merengue performance at a resort. He has a reticent smile; her eyebrows are thin penciled-in arches, her expression haughty and lips pursed. There is a muscled black back, shot from below, and from the trick of perspective nearly half the height of a towering waterfall under which we all swam. No one–not me, not any of the other bloggers–recognizes any of the shots.

When the chef is done and the platters of lobster and fish and pasta and rice and salad have been set out, the wine is opened and the lighting is dimmed around the 12-person table. I sit across from Prudencio: Pruddy, our Dominican guide, who’s been at this for years and who, after the polite initial chatter dissolves into a dozen separate conversations, tells Blaine and I his stories. He tells us the story of a Russian journalist who started drinking vodka at 10 am on a press trip, tried jumping off a boat and face-planted in the sand, then insisted on staying at the bar at Cabarete, and Pruddy, being the ever-accommodating liaison between these invited guests and the Ministry of Tourism, let him do so. The journalist proceeded to get obliterated with prostitutes and wound up in a spectacular motorcycle crash. Pruddy tells the story of the Argentine journalist who looked out at the Caribbean and said with a shrug, “Está bien, but it’s nothing like Rio de la Plata.” Still incredulous and bitter about this, Pruddy does a spot-on Argentine accent that reveals every stereotypical lilting, pretentious tendency of the well-traveled porteño and has Jorge, Blaine and I in tears. He tells us the story of how he was invited to visit Argentina and when he finally saw the gray, choppy, lusterless Rio de la Plata he wanted to shout “que mierda!” (What shit!) He didn’t, of course; he said it was very nice.

Pruddy would not stray very far into the subject of politics, giving only the slightest hint that he thought it regrettable that press trips rarely ever went to Santo Domingo (formerly Ciudad Trujillo). There was nothing surprising about this revelation or his reluctance at pushing it further, and out of respect for Pruddy I dropped it.

The driver, meanwhile, after a bottle and a half of red wine, and after having his advances steadily rejected by Blaine, slurred through his mustache that things in Santo Domingo were getting worse, that it was hard to go anywhere without getting assaulted, that people were getting robbed in broad daylight, that the situation was deteriorating and what the island really needed was un mano duro. I’m not saying it was good under Trujillo, he said, but… and he let the thought linger. His daughter was awaiting a scholarship to go to an event at the White House in Washington D.C., some sort of conference for youth leaders. He was hoping to get DR government funding for her to go.

“La Casa Blanca,” he said with reverence. And the party moved outside to the pool.

*

The next afternoon we piled into the minibus to go watch the final World Cup match between Spain and The Netherlands at a bar on Cabarete Beach. Jorge and I had been following the cup obsessively in Mexico, interrupting the preparations for our wedding and immigration and an international move for 9 am beer breakfasts with fried chipotle salchichas and lots of shouting. I’d convinced myself that I was going to become a soccer writer and for a few weeks neurotically followed bohemian intellectual soccer blogs (which exist in surprisingly significant numbers), making a show of throwing out whatever terminology I’ve picked up and being greatly aggrieved by the Mexican coach’s strategical imbecility.

Jorge became disgruntled and dismissive after Mexico was out, especially as Spain pulled into the lead, but as we parse out our loyalties in the van en route to the game he falls with Spain, as I knew he would. The Netherlands seems to me the most boring country on Earth and the place I can least empathize with on the field: I can get down with the Ivory Coast, Brazil, even North Korea, but Europe I find hopelessly bland, with the exception of the vigorous German team of immigrant upstarts. My sympathies lie, in travel and in soccer, with the far reaches of the old empires.

We cruise the beach looking for a spot. Everything is packed to the gills and getting a table is a nightmare. We finally find one at a bar like all the others, full of tourists purpled with sun and booze, the din so loud that we are reduced to exaggeratedly gesturing to figure out who will have to mash their asses together to share the table’s four chairs. No matter. We order beers and nachos, wings, hamburgers, fries: a smorgasbord of bar food on the DR’s tab. The game starts to a deafening chorus of whistles. All of the waitresses are dressed in skin-tight blue-and-white jerseys and carry whistles around their necks to blow at any moment of remote significance and to excite all the strange disciplinary S&M fantasies of the clientele.

There is one waitress in particular whom everyone’s eyes follow. She looks part Dominican, and part something else. She has a small chicory-colored face, with the pert surprised smoothness of a baby doll. Her hair is in tight, light brown curls. She blows her whistle rotely as if keeping track of a line of preschoolers crossing the street. Her expression does not change during the entire course of the game.

The owner, a Canadian in a t-shirt who looks like the middle manager of an insurance company, is hoarse from perpetually yelling “DRINK!” He is somewhere in his early thirties, on the thin side, handsome in a bland Hollywood way, a dulled and diluted version of Ryan Gosling. He runs the bar, coordinates the waitresses, comes to check on each of the customers. Even as he’s whaling on his whistle and screaming “BOTTOMS UP!” he looks simultaneously harried, bored, and distracted.

We order beers, and more beers, and the game goes on tensely with neither team taking a forceful lead. I watch people stroll in and out of the bar. There are plenty of rotund snowbird types, red in face and belly, guffawing and devouring the Dominican waitresses with beady eyes. There are a couple of nerdy Spanish guys in Spain jerseys, and a few young possibly Dominican couples who look rich and drunk and despondent, and two Italians who seem positively steeped in some mysterious sort of sin. They are Versace-ad tanned, almost rusty with color, and he is as sculpted and buff as she is thin and sophisticated. They greet the Canadian familiarly, coming and going breezily from the bar throughout the game. No one occupies their table while they’re gone. She settles casually into his arm and drinks rum and diet Cokes, and he has beers and dispassionately watches the waitresses. They are briefly in a big booth of Europeans, then a big booth of Dominicans, everyone except for them drunk and loud and rowdy. By the end of the game, they have disappeared.

We try to talk above the din but it’s useless; we can’t hear each other or much of anything beyond the rumble of the game’s commentary and the whistles and whoops. But at halftime, suddenly, the bar goes quiet.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the Canadian rasps through a megaphone. The bar turns its bleary eyes upon him.

“We now present the 2010 World Cup halftime show!” He punctuates this announcement with a piercing whistle, all without ever changing his expression from the one of stolid concentration he wore tallying checks a minute ago.

The waitresses jump up onto the bar to rowdy cheers and applause. Some sort of Europop comes on and the waitresses are shimmying along the bar, wagging their asses and blowing their whistles. The sunburnt European men are almost beside themselves, minus the Spaniards, who look like nervous physicists at a frat party. The Italians clap, lightly amused, and our group is videotaping like crazy. As I watch Jodi’s camera pan the booty-jiggling waitresses I notice the signed bras hanging from the ceiling–all of the women from Alberta and Ontario and Belgium and The Netherlands and Florida and New York who’ve bared their breasts on some wild weekend in the Caribbean and then enthusiastically autographed a memento of that moment. “Love the DR!” they read. “JT is the best!!!”

The pretty button-faced waitress jumps down from the bar, and then a German girl, looking almost prudish at first in an army-green pleated skirt and a v-neck t-shirt, hauls herself up. Her long hair is in a tight bun. She’s not wearing any makeup. She starts grinding and dancing jerkily, and suddenly we realize we’re getting graphic glimpses up her skirt.

Jodi turns her camera away in the nick of time. Each time the girl bends over wham, there it is. The screams and claps for her are equally loud but, perhaps only in my imagination, slightly more baffled. When she is helped back down off the bar by the Canadian I realize she’s his girlfriend, and without a moment’s pause she’s adding something up on the register.

The final act of the halftime show seems impromptu and features a man: a tall, skinny, pitch black Dominican who is pulled up on the bar by the dancing waitresses and rips off his shirt. It is an act more precious than hot, as his chest is slender and smooth as a boy’s. He has long thin arms which he, apparently lost on what to do, flails around above him. The crowd treats him with equanimity, releasing the same raucous enthusiasm at fever pitch. Gaining confidence, he turns around and wiggles his ass–which is lost in jeans that are both adorable and sad in their farmboy earnestness, with a flat pocketed butt and a distinct dorky taper–and the crowd claps in tune and screams a teenybopper scream despite the fact that not a single bit of skinny ass is actually pressing against the too-big jeans. We are filming all of this. The waitresses hop back on the bar and pretend to be slapping his ass as he grinds and jiggles it. Finally, to a volley of adoring cheers, he leaps down, and the Canadian ties it all up by belting through the megaphone,

“Ladies and gentlemen, the 2010 World Cup halftime show!”

Then it’s back to business. The game starts, the whistles blow, the general din resumes. Spain creeps up on the Netherlands and takes the cup, and for a moment we whoop and raise our beers in synch with the Spaniards, but there is no feeling here of camaraderie as there was in the bar in Oaxaca when Ghana beat the United States and everyone toasted and high-fived; there is no real euphoria as everyone stumbles on to the next attraction. We are not here as travelers under the banner of our authenticity, soaking up the scene as truth to be wielded in future clout-building conversations, nor are we fully in the guise of bloggers: this was not on the itinerary, likely not something the D.R. Ministry of Tourism wants to be celebrated with gushing tweets, and yet not fully spontaneous. It was part of an uncomfortable in-between where travel and tourism meet and pretend to have nothing to do with one another, although each lingers on the other like a squirt of unwanted perfume.

The street is hot and sticky, and young boys with rapacious faces are selling cigars. We pass t-shirt stands and expats on cell phones in airy linen weaving their way through the mess, pile back in the van with the ringing in our ears, and begin the drive back to the lofted ceilings and cool white couches of the villa.

*

“That’s it,” I say to Blaine later that afternoon, pulling myself out of the plush embrace of the patio furniture. “I’m going running.”

“Now?” she says. “In this 115 percent humidity in this private villa compound? After beers and nachos?” Her Southern accent is piling on the incredulity.

“Are you coming?” I ask.

“What?” she laughs. “Are you crazy?” And then–

“Gimme a sec, I’m gonna throw on an old t-shirt.”

We slip like sly escapees through a break in the topiary fences onto the silent blacktop. I am wearing my brother’s sixth grade Northwest Kiwanas soccer t-shirt that says JACK! on the back, and Blaine is in a wrinkled white tee. We curve out towards the main road and the guards posted on every corner laugh and wave their guns at us in salutes of encouragement.

“Estamos locas!” she shouts, and they nod in agreement. We take a left to follow the road along the pastures. The horses raise their long tapered necks in the distance, chestnut shadows on the green. A few finely buffed cars pass and their drivers glance at us only briefly, too well-mannered to stare. We take a left on a road that winds between “garden” and “beachfront” villas and are soon immersed, sweat dripping down our faces onto our necks and in ticklish streams across our bellies and thighs, deep in the extravagant fantasies of brokers from Westchester County or Palm Springs. There are wraparound, balustraded second-floor balconies and Mediterranean clay-tiled eaves swooping over wide porches; there are Doric columns lofting up Greek revival mansions and new-agey pueblo homes of stepped levels and stucco siding; there are arched doors and windows and vaulted ceilings and cornices and cherubs in fountains. There are Dominicans clipping bushes and watering lawns and patting down soil around orchids. Some wave, some stare. A few people are getting out of their Jags and their BMW sedans, but they are well shaded by their porticos and try as we might, we can’t glimpse them.

At the end of the line of villas we abruptly enter the jungle, running on a narrow path through low growth at the fringe of the Caribbean dream. This path spits us out at the sea, where we spot a teenaged guard pacing the beach with an assault weapon at what must be the official perimeter of our exclusive gated community. We think it better not to jog through the devious light and shadow of the jungle past this young guy, and turn around, getting confused on the way back in a field of stinging grasses and ending up behind a random villa. After a moment of deliberation, we giggle in fuck-it spirit and jog along the villa’s patio in exaggerated tiptoes. When we emerge onto its front lawn we confront a man washing his Golden Retriever.

“Hello!” I chirp. “We just got lost. Sorry!”

He is not thrilled to have our sweaty, red-faced, t-shirted selves panting on his lawn.
“Hello,” he says. He is wearing impeccably white Bermuda shorts.

“I have a dog,” I say stupidly. “A German Shepherd.” The man grunts. His kids are riding bikes in circles around the quiet streets.

We run on, back past the same guards who offer bored waves now with their glinting weapons, past our Villa #22 onto a trail that winds between private pools and arcaded back porches to the still rock pools set just before the beach. We pull off our sticky, soaked t-shirts and shorts and jump in, coming up smoothly on our backs in the decorous silence of the afternoon. I feel as if I have reclaimed a part of myself, of my traveler-hood. I wonder, the water kissing softly at the backs of my arms and legs, if Jennifer saw us, and I feel a smirk of triumph, like a teenager caught smoking.

Later, Jorge returned on his own from photographing used condoms and discarded syringes at Cabarete, and when he was dropped off at the front gates the guards at first questioned him, suspicious–he was too brown to be here as a tourist–but then radioed each other to help him find his way through the complex to our villa. He would come to an intersection and a guard, his weapon slung in a diagonal across his chest, would direct him left or right and radio up to the next guard to send the Mexican to Villa #22. There they were on every corner, each armed, each waiting with radioed instructions to point him in the right direction.

*

It is late in the afternoon, and soon we’ll have to meet up with Jennifer for dinner at the community’s restaurant. Back at the villas we prettify ourselves, shower and dress up and put on gloss and mascara, and when we meet again I feel like we are on a big group date. There is an extra charge in the air since this will be our last night together, and some strange bonding has occurred in the group. We follow Jennifer past the rock pools at the beach’s edge as the sun sets, the clouds thin strips of orange lace across white-gray cotton. When we arrive the wine glasses have already been set out on the bar and the bartender is asking, “Red or white?” to each of us before pouring.

The restaurant seems like something out of a dimly lit Sea World for investment bankers. The back wall is made entirely of curved glass and stands only some ten feet or so above the ocean. Waves kaboom against rocks and froth up before the glass like killer whales putting on a show. Rectangular tables are laid out at a spacious distance from one another with their ends nearly touching the glass wall, giving the diners an unbroken view of night and moon and sea. The waiters put out a spread of cheese and crackers and dips on the bar and we munch while sipping our wine.

These situations call for effortless and endless mingling, gliding from conversation to conversation, smiling and ducking politely away when you realize you have nothing in common with your listener and quite possibly would despise him or her if you were anywhere other than this glass-walled room hanging over the sea. They necessitate a seamless and endlessly cheerful ability to slip between groups of people with the same naïve smile and a similar phrase: “No, I’ve never tried kite-surfing! And you?”

And you? The English courses I taught in Japan come back to me: ask-answer-add, ask-answer-add, the formula for an ongoing conversation. “I like sports/do you/yes I like basketball/and you?” Keep talking keep talking keep talking I’d whisper keenly to my students. And you and you and you?

Finally we sit down. Jennifer moves between tables. When she sits at ours she asks us if we want to hear a secret. Yes, of course we do. She giggles as she reveals that her parents own the community. Her father was a banker. He bought this land and built it up essentially from scratch. She says this with pride, her father a pioneer bringing manifest destiny to the Dominican frontier.

Now, she runs the community, and plans to buy up the land next door and build a golf course on it. Development. This is the mantra across the DR: Donald Trump has built a massive complex at Cap Cana, complete with a lodge, a “sanctuary,” villas, a luxury hotel with the slogan “paradise has never been so exclusive,” an “ecological wonderland,” a city–“Ciudad Las Canas is a one-of-a kind residential community designed with an urban style for a delightful life with your loved ones”–a marina, a beach, and a golf course.

In 2006, meanwhile, The New Yorker ran a story about a couple building a 2,200 acre “utopian development” near Cabrera on the island’s northwestern tip. Ben McGrath writes, “Conveniently, a billion-dollar embezzlement scandal, prolonged power failures, and rampant inflation had collapsed the Dominican peso, and brought the country to near-bankruptcy, prompting the IMF to renew calls for the privatization of inessential state assets…”

So, conveniently, Boykin Curry and Celerie Kemble decided to “design a miniature city-state from scratch.”

Jennifer has done something similar in the villa community. She prides herself on the efforts they’ve made to create the type of environment their guests demand: the work they’ve done to get central air, wireless, electricity.

“The clients come down and they ask, ‘You don’t have central air?’” she tells us.

“And I want to say, ‘It’s the DR, you know! It is the third world, even if it doesn’t look like it here!’ But we know that they expect this, so we need to provide it, and we’re getting there.”

She takes a sip of wine and smiles beatifically as if we were a panel of investors. The cable. The electricity. The wireless. The central air. It takes so long and no one understands how hard it can be here with, as it is implied, these people. But this effort is what makes the community so special. She puts attention into all the little details, even how to fold the sheets, which unfortunately the local people don’t understand.

“You can tell them a dozen times how to fold the sheets and they still don’t do it right,” she says. “Like children.”

Jill and I purposefully avoid looking at one another across the table. Jorge has shut himself down, as he does in these situations, and is looking drone-like out the window.

“I mean really, we train them, and again and again I come home and no, it’s not done right.” She laughs as if they were loveable toddlers who’d just spilled chocolate ice cream on the rug.

In the community, they pay the locals almost three times the local wage, and still, they don’t learn. You have to watch over them all the time, to constantly check everything they do. Jennifer says with an attitude that reminds me of the way Southerners talk in Jonathan Raban and V.S. Naipaul’s books about the South, referring to African-Americans as “our blacks” and professing a sort of fond and demeaning protectiveness of them. We are meant to sympathize with Jennifer: how tiring it must be, and how much patience one must have, to teach them how to fold the sheets day in and day out, to build a bastion of civilization in a primitive country. The New Yorker utopians had this problem as well: just when they’d fly their guests in on private jets, it’d start raining. Boykin Curry was forced to brush his teeth with Evian after getting sick from the drinking water. The streetlights in paradise had a tendency to flicker and go out because of an overworked grid. It’s not easy.

“The problem here,” Jennifer says, “is that there are just so many people. I mean, you go to some of those other little Caribbean islands like St. Johns, and there aren’t any people! But here, we have a population of 10 million!”

“But,” Jennifer adds, “I’m adventurous, you know. I grew up here. I like the challenge of it and I can go with the flow. You have to be like that really, to do something like this.

And those of us living abroad,” she continues, looking pointedly at me, “we’re after a little bit of adventure, you know? After awhile,” she leans in confidentially, “the U.S is just boring. I go back there, and it’s just so easy. Living abroad makes you pay attention, keeps you fresh.”

For as much as I want to loathe her, and even though I know her adventure consists of coordinating central air for four-million-dollar villas, and mine consists of camping in a farmer’s backyard in a remote mountain village, she is right. She is right to look at me, and she is smart because she is calling me out. She knows I do not buy this, I think myself above it, and she is saying: you do this too, you just do it slumming in your ratty sandals. You and I are not so different. We may seem to be polar opposites, the trust fund baby and the backpacker, but at the rarely talked about core of things, where travelers cannot shake off their privilege and the imperialist overtones of their adventures just by virtue of their good intentions, we are similar. It seems so easy on a press trip to distinguish travel, with all of its assumed progressive consciousness and questing for the authentic, from tourism, with all of its attendant exploitation and neo-colonialism. Perhaps this is why increasing numbers of travel writers and bloggers are taking these trips without an ethical flinch: because it seems so obvious to separate us from them, with us always coming out on top. Things may get squeamish, but we know in the end we’re always on the right side: with the staff, with the performers, with the locals, even when they are always serving us.

As Edward Said pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, the border between the constructed self and the other is permeable in only one direction: from the inside out. We construct ourselves as noble travelers whether or not the Dominicans see us as such, whether or not they recognize and appreciate the differences between us and the villa owners and the tourists, and whether or not this distinction makes any difference in the implicitly uneven relationship that allows us to travel and forces them to stay put. It does not really matter, in the end, whether the local people hate or embrace us: what matters is how we see them, our intentions. These will redeem us, will reassure us about ourselves.

“Yes, it does,” I say. “I can’t imagine moving back to the US. I’m dreading it.” She nods, stands up, excuses herself to flit back to the other table.

“Did she really just say Dominicans were like children?” Blaine whispers under her breath.

“Yes, yes she did,” Jill says with furrowed brows. “Wow.” But it is only the beginning. More wine and cocktails are served with the tuna tartar.

Our next visitor is Jennifer’s sister-in-law Melody, who plunks herself down with aplomb at the head of the table.

“Hi everybody!” she says cheerfully, in the way of a suburban mom trying to get cozy with her daughter’s teenaged friends. She has dyed golden blonde hair stiff with expensive product and the look of Southern California wealth. Her features are expansive, exaggerated, and they match her big round speech.

“How do you guys like Sea Horse?” she asks, leaning in with a toothy grin.

There is an awkward moment of silence before Jill says, “It’s beautiful.”

Melody nods approvingly. “I just love it,” she says, bubbly and overly warm. I am beginning to notice she’s on the far side of tipsy. “It really is paradise, isn’t it?” She says it as if it were a line in a movie, when the heroine meets up with the hero on a boat and they stare at the sunset cradling dewy flutes of champagne.

There’s a pause.

“So what do you girls do?”

We tell her one by one. “Oh, that’s fantastic!” she exclaims. “How great. Wow.” When I tell her I’ve lived in Mexico for the past several years she says with prolonged emphasis, “Wow! Good for you! How exciting!” Someone asks her what she does.

“Oh, well, I’m raising our children here, you know,” she says. “I was home-schooling them but it was just too boring. I couldn’t deal with them all day! I had to hire someone else to do it!” She giggles conspiratorially. “My son is a tennis pro, you know; he’s playing in Central America right now. He practices right here in the community everyday. He’s much more into tennis than he is into school.”

The gazes are flying around the table, from Jill to Blaine, Blaine to me, me back to Jill. Jorge has gone catatonic. The waiter fills up our wine glasses.

“So I’m reading this book,” she says. “Have any of you read The Help?” We shake our heads.

“Oh, it’s great!” she raves, “I mean, it’s so interesting. They’re talking about these servants and how they gossip about their masters, and it’s just so fascinating, to see what they’re thinking and what their lives are like. It makes me think about all the help we have here at the community, and what I say around them! I’m really enjoying it. You should read it.”

She goes on.

“You know here, in the DR, the great thing is you’ve got it all. I mean, you’ve got like, the top tier of people, and then you have, like, the shittiest of the shitty.” She laughs, sips her wine. “It’s never boring. Although the shopping’s not great. You have to go to Miami to really go shopping. We’re working on changing that, though.”

There’s a pause.

“So what do you girls dance to these days? Britney Spears? C’mon, I want to know! I can be hip like you all! I’ve still got it!”

She takes another big sip of wine and leans in confidentially.

“Let’s dance, girls!” she says, and Jennifer comes over to monitor the situation. She and Melody exchange little sorority girl hugs and giggle and head over to the CD player to change up the music. The tuna tartar is wet meat in my mouth. Jorge is silent.

“Vamos,” he mouths.

“We’re out of here,” I tell Jill and Blaine, and they nod knowingly. “We’ll be there soon,” Becca says.

We stand up abruptly and push in our chairs, and when Jennifer and Melody look over we say, “We’re really tired, we’re heading back to bed,” and Jennifer knows we’re not on board, but we play it off like it’s been a grand old time, yes, great, wonderful, thanks and Melody is on a roll now sashaying in her khaki shorts and doesn’t even notice.

The rock pools are still against the night. We walk back to #22 on subtly lit pathways, the villas set back around us on their green lawns like distinguished fathers observing their children. They are stoic and cold, isolated from the barely restrained riot of the jungle nearby. Once back, we strip off our nice dinner clothes, wriggle into our still-wet bathing suits, and paddle around the lukewarm pool.

“Can you believe them? I mean really, can you believe them,” I say.

Jorge floats with his arms wide, looking up at the starless sky, at the heart-shaped alocasias climbing the palms.

“Beer?” I ask. He shakes his head. “C’mon,” I say. “Tomorrow’s our last day.”

“Uno,” he says. “That’s it.”

I pad into the kitchen, the tiles cool beneath my feet, and open the fridge as if this were my casa and I were leaning over the plates of cantaloupe saran-wrapped by my maid in search of a late-night drink to have on my patio. I pluck two beers from the back of the fridge, and in the quiet of our last night in the DR Jorge and I bite the hand that feeds us with ice-cold Presidentes on the trim grass of our perfectly manicured villa.

 

Photo © Jlsantiago

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About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is the founder of Vela. She recently completed her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh. Before returning to the U.S. for graduate school, she spent six years living, teaching and traveling abroad. She is currently at work on a book of narrative nonfiction about Mexico's returning migrants. Read her full bio here. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMenkedick.

Comments

  1. Great storytelling, Sarah, and as persuasive an argument I’ve ever seen for why most organized group press trips blow heaping chunks of visceral bodily fluids.

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