Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

On my first trip outside of Canada in three years, I find myself in a foreign land learning about Columbus (Colón). Amongst the beautiful Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo is the Alcazár de Colón, lived in by the sorta-Spanish-Italian explorer’s son and his family, with his familial artifacts lovingly presented by the obligatory local guides — an elephant-skin trunk here, a harp there, those tiny beds Europeans liked sleeping in back in the 1500s, all of that stuff. It’s the centerpiece of the tiled Plaza de España, ringed by some ritzy international restaurants.

A few blocks down, past more 16th century buildings — colourful, stately, balconied, and draped in jacarandas — is the Parque Colón, with a proud statue pointing opposite the first (and largest) cathedral of the Americas. It too is ringed by a bunch of ritzy restaurants, including a lovely rooftop rum bar overlooking the cathedral.

Across the Ozama River (lined by a Spanish fortress used as a prison in the colonial days, with a blur of other details I don’t remember) is the Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse), a semi-brutalist…thing with a bright light that could sap all the electricity from nearby for miles if turned on. Championed by previous dictator/president Rafael Trujillo and eventually completed in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, written large on it are Bible verses used to proclaim the virtues of expansionism as a means of spreading Catholicism.

So far, it seems like a great trip to Spain. Oh wait, you mean I’m not in Spain?

It’s kind of a weird sensation. I’m enjoying myself profoundly and the sights, but I’m unintentionally bringing my global-western perspective with me, leaving me scratching my head rather often. Canada and the US have chosen to remember Columbus’s place in history and legacy in their respective establishments without venerating him any longer. Meanwhile, the people here seem to tell the story of the victors, celebrating and extolling the colonisers of a nation who were undeniably cruel to those with skin colours matching the locals.

Complicated, I suppose. Santo Domingo is the first and oldest continuously-inhabited European settlement in the Americas, dating back to 1496. (The name of the country comes from the city.) The country, its culture, and its idea of national pride wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Of course, nor would it be for any other country in the Americas, and that’s something we have to grapple with.

At least the celebrated history goes in a different direction with the Parque Independencia, the local answer to the Lincoln Memorial with statues of the founding figures of the Dominican Republic (notably Juan Pablo Duarte, among others) who led the revolt against the Haitian occupation that occurred shortly after the 1821 independence from Spain. And in another part of national adversity, what I learned (through endless walls of Spanish text, far too much to digest) at the Museo de la Resistencia details the harrowing modern history of the Trujillo era, a long and bloody dictatorship involving routine torture and assassinations of political dissidents in addition to a genocide of Haitians near the border; the revolution that led to a nascent democracy; and of course, a meddling USA overthrowing a democratically elected leftist leader and replacing them with another Trujillo-era figure. You know, the usual.

All in all, it’s pretty fascinating to learn, but I’m still left feeling like there’s a big historical gap. I’m not referring to the long saga of occupation, independence, re-occupation, re-independence, etc, by France, Spain, and the US. Also fascinating to delve into (in another museum that I didn’t have time for), but that belabours my point: there’s basically nothing on the eradicated Taino (indigenous) culture or on the effects of enslaving Taino people and importing African slaves, and yet both of these issues factor heavily into Dominican bloodlines. I wonder if people mind. It doesn’t seem like it from the outside: the Zona Colonial fills up on the weekends, full of locals out to enjoy the sights, museums, parks, restaurants, bars, and line up for the beyond-packed clubs. Even the bros with their fancy sports cars come up, a jarring contrast to the classical streets and the venues playing bachata.

But the Zona Colonial is just a few dozen blocks of a much, much larger city. Walk a little beyond, and things change. On one side, there’s the Malecón, a neat seaside boardwalk that extends forever, even past a little amusement park. On the other, it almost feels like a different world: all the latest reggaetón and dembow hits blare from every other car and every few buildings, traffic clogs up the streets, houses obviously aren’t as pretty, and things are rather more run down and messy. In other words, normal. Colmados (local drinking holes) every few corners have plenty of folks all day, but when the temperature cools in the evenings, people really come out: the colmados fill up, the parks have more people playing basketball, and the street food vendors serve heaps of yaroa — sort of a Dominican answer to poutine, a mass of fries covered in meats, ketchup, and mayo. It’s a whole world that I’d love to immerse myself in further, and I feel like I got the tiniest of teasers.

With only two days though, there wasn’t too much exploring neighbourhoods outside the tourist centre — a bit of a pity, but at the same time without much of note to aim the exploring, and with some safety concerns to take into account. This country’s also known for having some lovely landscapes, and the city usually isn’t a place to see that — except for Los Tres Ojos just a few kilometres east of the center, a set of cenotes (lake caves) beautifully reflecting the rays of light that make it through the trees and the gaps.

And with only two more days before I’m off to a wedding, I’m really not seeing much else in the country outside of the capital! (Or neighbouring Haiti, of course, but with a pandemic, recent natural disasters and a presidential assassination, that won’t be a good idea for awhile.) Beaches, waterfalls, coffee country, everything to the west and to the far north: that’ll all have to be up to the imagination.

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