New Year in Santo Domingo

It’s my sixth day here in Santo Domingo and I’m slowly getting used to it… In the same way you get used to chronic back pain…. Ha ha, I’m just kidding! It’s really not that bad, just that it’s not quite how I expected it to be. That’s the problem when you have high expectations: The only way is down. I’m reluctant to say that I don’t like it because of that idea that the world is our mirror so if you don’t like something or something is bad then it’s just a reflection of you. The houses and buildings in the Colonial Zone are very attractive but beyond that I’m really struggling to find anything that I like about the place. I travel mainly to see a new culture and how people live, so from that perspective it’s been great and I’m grateful for the opportunity. You hope though at the same time you’re going to like that culture. But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s not a place that I have any desire to come back to.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. Santo Domingo (at least in the Colonial Zone) just doesn’t seem a vibrant and welcoming place. People generally don’t look happy and come across as quite “closed”. The atmosphere is low-key and there are a lot of people just sitting around doing nothing, not talking to anyone, just looking dodgy. Service in most shops and restaurants is at best pretty rude so that just adds to the adds to the overall negative feeling. In other places it’s been easier to make contact with locals and get to hear a bit about their life and so better understand the city and it’s culture. Here it’s been difficult to make any contact beyond the usual pimps and prostitutes so it’s hard to know what the underlying issues are… Obviously, heat, poverty, racial issues and Catholicism play a big part. But even Havana with it’s dire economic situation and Colombian and Mexican cities with fairly high levels of low income earners come across (to me anyway) as vibrant, friendly and welcoming places. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me and I’m just projecting.

I had my first public dummy spit the other night on New Year’s Eve… It’s not something I’m proud of but sometimes these things happen. I take responsibility though and am the first to admit I was wrong.

I went into a bar just around the corner from my place on Calle Mercedes just after the countdown to midnight. I walked into the bar, ordered a drink, just a straight rum. I looked around and the general atmosphere of the place was pretty sad so I knocked back the rum quickly and walked straight out again. As I walked back out the door, the doorman stopped me and asked me why I was leaving so soon. The conversation went something like this:

Doorman: “Hey man, where are you going? Why are you leaving so soon?”

Me: “Because this bar sucks, the customers suck, the music sucks, the staff suck… Actually the whole city sucks, the country sucks, the culture sucks, the people suck and I can’t wait to leave”.

Once again, I admit this was uncalled for…

Nevertheless, the doorman’s reaction came as quite a surprise. After I finished my little rant, he replies, “Yeah, you’re right. This city and this whole country is a f***ing sh*thole and the people are the worst people in the world. They’re f***cking shit”.  

I smile ear to ear

He continues, “But you’re lucky because you can leave this f***ing sh*thole behind very soon. I’m stuck here. I work in this sh*tty bar in this f***ing sh*thole for 4000 pesos a month and the other night going home I was robbed.

“That REALLY f***ing sucks!” I replied. And then he went into the bar and got me a free drink… A Malibu and orange. So it seems the way to score free drinks in the Dominican Republic is tell people how much you hate them and their country. It was very kind of him, but despite the free drink, the bar still sucked. The main problem as I said before is that people seem very closed, even in bars and clubs. They just stand around with their group of friends generally looking unhappy. Not many people here smile or laugh. That’s my impression anyway..

The problem was New Years Eve, the most over-rated and annoying night of the year. I maintain that going out on NYE is only for bogans or amateurs or amateur bogans… It’s overpriced and tacky and it’s just another night of the year. But for me it was either join the amateurs or spend the night alone watching random clips on YouTube. So I opted to go out.

The night started upstairs. Kénol, the guy in charge of this apartment, invited me to have drinks and dinner with his Haitian group of friends. The food was very nice, certainly the best I’ve had since I left Mexico… And the Haitian rum was the best drink I’ve ever had. The one on the left is flavoured with pineapple and mango and is just amazing!  

Without wanting to sound ungrateful, other than the food and drink, the evening was pretty ordinary. There weren’t that many people there and most of the other Haitians were glued to their smartphones, so that was really fun. *Denote sarcasm*. And I’m not meshing with the culture here. In the words of George Castanza, “It’s not them. It’s me”. Some weird guy from North Carolina showed up and the vibe I got was that I was encroaching on his uniquely Afro experience… The good thing about going out on new year’s eve is that you have a built in excuse to leave at 12. And so I did.

After I left, I went to “that” bar where I had the outburst and then onto some other clubs nearby. Obviously economics is a big factor. Not a lot of people can afford to go to them so there wasn’t a huge crowd. Most people here hang out at a “colmado” which is essentially a corner store where most of the merchandise is alcohol. The “colmado” puts out chairs in the shop and on the street and plays music and people hang out there and drink. But whether it be a colmado playing merengue or a fancier nightclub playing techno, the atmosphere is the same. People sit around looking miserable and not dancing or talking. The only difference is in the fancier clubs they serve “hookahs” so people sit around in their groups and smoke. I met a couple of other foreigners and they commented the same, that the atmosphere is very sombre. Unlike Havana or Medellin where I felt totally at ease sitting in the gutter, the park or on the sea wall drinking, I don’t feel safe or comfortable in a colmado.   Some scenes from the “colmado”…
Santo Domingo is one of those places … Or again, maybe it’s just me… Where you look around and see other foreigners and the look on the face is the same. You exchange glances and the look says, “You’re not Dominican therefore you’re automatically my friend”. I met a couple of people from Venezuela and Paraguay there and so we all decided to hot-foot it down to the Malecon where there was a free concert. We hung out there till sunrise and then I staggered home back along the Malecon and watched the new year come in over the Caribbean. So, that was pretty cool.

 And now, it’s time to commit social media crime again… as if my rambling isn’t crime enough… Back to… *drum roll*… The lunch photo! I had my new year’s day lunch at this guy’s restaurant: La Meson de Luis, except that the sign on the front of the restaurant is broken so it just says, “La Meson de Lu”… 

Luis and his wife were extremely pleasant and I ordered this little puppy for my lunch: Fish creole style…

It was ok, except that I’ll say that there’s a reason you’ve never been to a Dominican restaurant outside of the Dominican Republic. The sauce was supposedly tomato and onion based… I don’t know if this dish was typical or Luis’ wife is just a crappy cook but the predominant flavour of the dish was just salt. Anyway, it was ok enough and good to try something “local” other than the usual burgers, fried chicken and pizza.

New year’s day being a Friday and me being a sucker for punishment, I contacted the Venezuelans I had met the night before and went back to the same club for more of the same: Grindingly hard and deafening techno music and a bunch of sad looking Dominicans sitting around smoking hookahs. It was a bit surreal. I stuck it out till about 3.30 and then left. I cabbed it home… As I walked out of the club I asked one guy where I could get a cab… “No problem my fren, I get you taxi” he says. Off he scurries and a few minutes later comes back with my cab. And guess who the cab is????!!! ….
It’s the police!

Police are so lowly paid that they do anything for money, including moonlighting as a cab drivers for nightclub goers. And my guess is that cab driving is probably the most innocent of their “side jobs”. So after I left the club I was driven to my apartment in a police van. I got home ok but I’m not sure if getting a ride with the police here is necessarily any safer than hailing a cab on the street.

And that’s about it. The trip and this blog is fast coming to an end. I’m really looking forward to doing some exercise, eating healthy food and hanging out at the dog park again with Benji.

Another day, another toilet

It’s Day 4 since the diarrhoea started. The medicine is working and I’m definitely getting better. Although it’s going frustratingly slowly and between the diarrhoea and the side effects of the antibiotics, I feel pretty crap! The last three days have been spent in my apartment just going between the bed and the toilet or sitting on the balcony staring out to the sky and sea. I’m starting to go a little bit “loco”.

The last two nights I managed to get out of the apartment for a bit… But the furthest I can go and still be within safe sprinting distance of a decent toilet is Cafe Bim Bom at the end of my street on the next block. Despite the name “cafe”, it doesn’t actually serve any coffee, only beer, rum and soft drinks. I saw a whole lot of people sucking on these little 200 ml tetra packs and I thought, “How cute, they’re all drinking juice”…. Turns out it’s rum. The other side of the road is Hustler Central and Cafe Bim Bom is where they come to drink. Across the road on the Malecon Sea Wall (the world’s longest sofa) again, is the same scene but feels slightly less desperate. 

Hustler Central by day with the Hotel Nacional in the background… It’s a vastly different scene by night.

Cafe Bim Bom by day…   

 Again, a vastly different scene at night.

The Malecon by night…

I spent the last two nights sitting in Cafe Bim Bom drinking water and chatting. As a single non-Cuban sitting there by yourself, you’re pretty much a freak magnet. The scene there runs the range from low-life drunk and desperate to freak show (we’re talking face tattoos) to regular decent people who are just doing a job to support their families. Some of them have their sales pitch firmly set on “repeat” while others, when they realise you’re not interested in their goods and services, will drop the act and chat about their families and the sorry state of the economy. Some have day jobs… I met one person who worked in a factory making sanitary pads for women by day and hustler by night… I thought that was pretty funny! Others don’t have any other job and don’t see the point. “If I doctor only makes 40 CUC in a month, what’s the point in working?” It’s really sad that a government degrades it’s people to the point where being a street hustler is a viable career option.

Anyway, hanging out in Cafe Bim Bom by night can best be described as a “character building exercise”

Meanwhile, Lisi keeps trucking in loads of fried rice, beans, lentils, pork and chicken. She doesn’t want to accept the reality of my situation that as nice as her food is, I just can’t eat it in my current situation. I tried to explain in my bad Spanish that I come from a long line of eaters so if I turn down food it’s because there’s something seriously wrong. I tried to educate her on the “less is more” approach so for at least two meals she made soup… But somehow she still managed to cram half an animal and a sack of potatoes and carrots in each bowl. The taste is very good… It’s mum’s classic hearty home cooking… Just not appropriate at this time. 

I think she is a genuinely very kind person but a large part of it is self serving. It’s her business and I’m her little cash cow. I’ve been agonising over what to do about this situation. I hate wasting food but I just can’t eat it. It’s too much and too heavy. Last night I ate her fried rice, beans and chicken and was on the toilet all night. This morning it was fried rice with lentils, fried pork and fried onions. I know she has a family to support and people are very poor here so I thought about giving her money NOT to bring me food, but that would just be too rude.

Cubans generally are into really ginormous portions of food. Even when you go to a restaurant, one serving of food in any other part of the world would easily serve a family of four. I guess it comes from being poor and not knowing if and when you’ll get the next meal. One person told me that because most Cubans can’t afford to go to a restaurant very often, that when they do go they want to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth. I would have thought half the portion at half the price would be the way to go because it’s impossible to eat that much food comfortably in one sitting.

So anyway, regarding Lisi, I decided that the best solution in order to maintain “face” with her, support her family, preserve my sanity and stomach, was to simply accept the food, pay her the money, toss it in the bin, return the plates an hour later with a big smile on my face and say, “Delicioso!!!!! Estoy llenisimo!!!” I hang my head in shame that I’m doing it and it’s not something I would do under normal circumstances but… desperate times call for desperate measures. I just need to find somewhere to dump the evidence because the lady who cleans the apartment also lives in the building and I’m sure she’ll blab to Lisi if she discovers it. 

Getting to know Vedado

Vedado is not the main tourist area in Havana. It’s the modern city, mainly for local people and isn’t as pretty as Havana Vieja. I intentionally chose it though over Centro or Vieja because I wanted a more local experience away from the tourists. It’s also where the good nightlife is located and I figure it’s easier to walk to Centro or Vieja in the day than it is to take a cab to and from Vedado in the night. Taxi drivers are notorious the world over for gouging tourists and Habana taxi drivers are a hard-assed bunch. It would be easier to talk down a hired assassin than to negotiate a reasonable price with one of them. The only downside of staying outside of the tourist zone is that choices for food are much more limited and harder to access. All I could find in my hood yesterday was this hole in the wall selling burgers, so that’s what I had for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Since then I’ve discovered a few other places with a bit more choice including this place which is open 24 hours.  

Anyway, Havana Vieja is only a thirty minute walk away so it’s no big deal.

The other thing that’s difficult to buy around here is large bottles of water. There’s beer and rum coming out of your ears, but no water. The other night I had to hot foot it over to the Centro and lug back three large 2 litre bottles. The plastic bag they were in broke on the way back… and one of the bottles fell into a drain. I managed to retrieve it but it meant that I had to carry three dirty two litre bottles in my arms while power walking home. It felt like one of those challenges they do on The Biggest Loser.

One thing that is really refreshing is that because there’s limited access to the internet, there’s also limited access to Facebook and Instagram. Some people have smartphones but still there isn’t the “smartphone culture” … You know, people with the screen of their smartphone permanently attached to their face. It’s by default rather than design and I’m sure most Cubans are frustrated by the lack of progress and don’t get the same kick out of it that I do. But it’s cool… People actually talk to each other and live real lives.  

Finding out which clubs to go to the other night involved hanging out down by the Malecon and talking to the locals to get the information. It reminded me of what life used to be like before the world of internet and social media.