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Santo Domingo, 1992

“Columbus”, you’ll discover when you go to Santo Domingo, is right up there with “ay dios!” and “mierda” as the most popular, all-purpose expletive in the Dominican Republic. It takes just three days in Santo Domingo, city on the verge of a quintecentennial breakdown, before I, too, am tossing the C- word around like a native.

Driving downtown on a migraine-bright Caribbean afternoon, I swerve to avoid a construction site and nearly lose a tire to a pothole the size of a pool. Cristobal! I’m in the shower with a head full of lather, when the bathroom goes black, and the water begins to sputter, then quits.  Colon!

In preparation for the 1992 anniversary of his arrival in the Dominican Republic (and the anticipated arrival of 1.3 million Columbus-seeking pilgrims), the government has been ripping up streets, diverting scarce electrical power, tearing down buildings, reconstructing others, and wreaking general infrastructural havoc for more than five years. All this in an underdeveloped country that can ill-afford the price of the party.  “Columbus,” snarls my filmmaker friend Julio when his electricity (and toilet) go out, as usual, in the middle of his morning ablutions. “Five hundred years later, and he’s still screwing us.”

Seville will have the World’s Fair, and Barcelona the Olympics. The Japanese are sailing replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, and the Chileans plan to float a sculpted hunk of Antarctic ice from Tierra del Fuego to Spain. But the Dominican Republic has prepared the most permanent and ambitious tribute to the five hundredth year of the controversial encounter between two worlds: the Faro de Colon, or Columbus Lighthouse. In the works since the 1930s, a brainchild of former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, the Faro is two city-blocks worth of concrete and Cararra marble, a massive hulk rising from the middle of a Santo Domingo slum, designed to project a million candlepower Christian crucifix into the night sky. The cost of it all is top secret, but estimated in the hundreds of millions. Later this year, with much fanfare and the personal blessings of the Pope, the Faro switch will be flipped by Trujillo’s protege, 86 year old Dominican president Joaquin Balaguer. Dominicans, who are paying the price for this mega-event every time they can’t flush the toilet, nevertheless manage to find the joke in it–Balaguer, lighter of the Columbus torch, is blind.

The Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti) certainly belongs at the center of the quintecentennial hoopla. Though it’s not the first place Columbus sighted (his original landfall was the tiny island of San Salvador) it was the first place where he left behind a party of colonists, the island to which he returned on each of his voyages, and it is where he requested his remains to be sent after he died. Some chroniclers say Columbus was enchanted by the extraordinary physical beauty of this place; Hispaniola, the largest Caribbean island after Cuba, is the only one that has endless miles of palm-lined beaches and spectacular Alpine mountain ranges, lush valleys, even deserts. The more cynical historians believe the admiral saw in the Dominican Republic untold riches waiting to be snatched, a paradise of the most fertile land on the planet. Whatever his reasons, Columbus chose Hispaniola for the Spanish beachhead, and it became the first stage upon which the tragi-comedy of the New World was played. For better or worse, our history begins here.

On Columbus Day, October 12, 1991, I’m rooting around the colonial section of Santo Domingo, the oldest city (founded 1496) in the Americas, hard on the trail of the conquistadores. At first it’s not easy to find them. Santo Domingo has had a rough couple of centuries; hurricanes, sieges by Sir Francis Drake, invasions by Haitians, urban planning by dictators. The surviving colonial streets, which comprise about one tenth of this sprawling, third-world capital, are a weird mixture of neglect and overkill, neither as artfully-restored as old San Juan, nor as magically intact as Cartagena, Colombia. Many of the big government-sponsored restorations seem false. The Alcazar, once the house of Governor Diego Columbus, the discoverer’s son, looks like a replica made for a Spanish Colonial Disney village: Columbusland. But a short walk away, up cobbled streets not on the guidebook map, are haunting sites ignored for centuries. These are the parts of Santo Domingo where you still can breathe the dust of dreams and greed, ambition and decay.

The oldest houses can be snapped up for a fraction of the cost of a Manhattan apartment,enthuses my friend Jose, an architect who is–along with a handful of other Dominican artists and designers–painstakingly renovating a 16th century ruin into a gallery and home. Unlocking a padlocked wooden door, he interrupts his workmen to show me around. The walls glow golden brown in the morning sun–Jose hasn’t put up a roof yet. “We’ve already uncovered seven layers of tile floor.

This could take years.” Jose tells me. Other homesteaders in the neighborhood, he says, have unearthed dubloons–and bones. We cross Calle Hostos, poke through the weedy, crumbling remains of the 16th century church of San Francisco, which has served as both monastery and insane asylum in the last 500 years. Down a hill, Jose shows me what the 1992 PR committees won’t: remains of the old wall that once encircled the city, where squatter families now sleep and cook in the ancient niches. The government, says Jose, is rushing its cosmetic restoration to “clean up” the old city for the 1992 tourists. “They’ll never make it, thank God.”

Though you’d think October 12 would be a grand occasion in the old city–and, in fact, my guidebooks say that there is a ceremony held every year on this day in the Catedral of Santo Domingo, during which the bones of Columbus are removed from their three interlocking urns and paraded around–nobody I talk to attaches any significance to this date. Columbus Day, it appears, is just another day in Santo Domingo.

Only the plaza of the Cathedral–the major city tourist attraction– is busy with eager guides in guyabera shirts. They all wear plastic IDs that say “Departamento de Turismo,” and they swarm around me when I approach, since the only other people around are a pair of German tourists with a Videocam and their own private guide. So I ask them about the bones.

“Si senora.” A guide holds his arm out to me with the grace of a caballero, and leads me into the Catedral, built in 1514 at the order of Queen Isabella, the oldest in the Americas. Unlike the other major restorations, it’s still authentic; enormous and high-ceilinged, with immense, reddish-brown stone arches. Except for the floor–the catedral doesn’t have one right now. Mounds of dirt are heaped about the sanctuary, and workmen hoisting trowels occasionally peer up from grave-sized holes. It looks like they’re digging for buried treasure without a map, destroying the place in the process, but the guide assures me this is part of the preparaciones for 1992. Finally, we stop before a crypt containing a stern-looking black iron box. Two soldiers, half-asleep at attention, flank either side. “Here they are– the bones of Columbus.”

No, I mean the ceremony, I say to the guide in Spanish. He looks puzzled. Another guide comes over, and they consult energetically.

“No ceremony this year. The bones are not here. “Then what is in the box?”

“That is the box that holds the bones of Columbus.”

“Then where are the bones?”

Guide number one says the bones have already been removed to the Faro de Colon. His partner thinks they’re in a nearby museum for safekeeping during the reconstruction of the Catedral. I ask a third guide, and he says the bones are in the box. Columbus! Mosquitoes are zeroing in on my bare ankles. I flee.

Just as I’m about to give up on my vigil, a phalanx of about 40 small children in school uniforms files into the plaza in front of the cathedral. They encircle the historic statue of Christopher Columbus that stands in the center of the square, and begin to sing and gesture, under the watchful eyes of their nuns. Childish, sweet voices: “All hail the great admiral.” Columbus, in bronze, is pointing his finger boldly to the West, supposedly towards the New World, but in fact towards the gift shop across the plaza. The students mimic his pose, singing “All hail, bringer of light to our world.”

As they march off, their little ceremony over, I notice that every one of the Columbus Day children is–like most Dominicans–black or brown.

I decide I’ve had enough of el gran almirante.

The next morning I rent a car and head for the hills armed with a map, and a machete–Julio’s idea.

Most tourists who come to the Dominican Republic explore the capitol’s antiquities, then go straight to the resort enclaves of Puerto Plata or Casa de Campo. They fly home rested and tan, speaking a few words of Spanish, with photos of white, empty beaches–but they’ve seen only a fraction of this huge country the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Thirty minutes north of Santo Domingo the land opens, wild and wide, and so does my mouth; here, the island looks like Montana, or parts of California. Ten-thousand foot mountain ranges  Broad, rich, river-run valleys. Cows snoozing amid scatterings of pine trees. On the radio there’s nothing but bachata, the Dominican Republic’s version of country-western with a Latin syncopation. Mile after mile, the mournful heartbreak ballads crackle and moan in the speakers, sounding like old Hank Williams 78s, redone in Spanish. Out here in the countryside, Real Men call themselves tigueres. I decide I’m a tiguerita. I break open a Presidente beer, take an ice-cold swallow from the long-necked bottle, and try to sing along.

But I still can’t get Columbus off my mind. He’s been here, too. On his second expedition, he led a party of men deep into this region of mountains and green-carpeted valleys. The Taino Indians called the area the name by which it is known today, the Cibao. Columbus thought they were saying “Cipango”, and so believed he had found Japan.

Five hundred years later, I’m confused too. I’ve stopped to watch a slow, friendly baseball game in a mountain town called Constanza, a common enough activity for a Sunday afternoon in the Dominican Republic, where native Juan Marichal is a national hero. But this game is unusual; every single player on the field is Japanese. They shout, they complain, they insult the umpire–all in inflection-perfect Dominican Spanish.

“Welcome to la colonia japonesa,” laughs Shiro, extending his hand. My new friend is an architect, born in Constanza thirty years ago, shortly after his parents migrated here from Japan along with many other families, all of them survivors of Hiroshima. Trujillo, looking to improve his shaky international image, sent agents to Hiroshima after the war with offers of free land to anyone interested in migrating to the Dominican Republic. Thousands of Japanese came, and many left, but the ones who stayed have transformed the Constanza Valley into one of the most valuable agricultural areas in the hemisphere. More garlic is harvested here than anywhere else in the world, boasts Shiro, who informs me that, ounce for ounce, garlic is more valuable than gold. “We have a saying about Constanza: You throw a rock in this earth, and reap a yuca.”

We drive around hills that look like rumpled quilts woven with all the shades of green in the universe, from the dark blue-greens of cabbages, to the electric yellow-greens of ripening rice. Just when I’m starting to hallucinate that I’m in Switzerland, Shiro’s mother greets us at the door of a typical concrete Caribbean house, dressed in kimono, bowing: “Konichiwa.” Shiro’s brothers, dressed in t- shirts and baseball caps, look up from their TV movie and nod, “Hola. Que hay?”

“Our parents’ generation is more Japanese,” Shiro explains. “But we are becoming Dominican. I believe that I myself am very Dominicanized.” To prove this, he grabs me, suddenly, around the waist, and demonstrates his merengue dance technique. Thirty seconds of dangerous hip action later, I am convinced of Shiro’s true nationality. When the dance ends, we eat sushi, drink Dominican rum, and toast this magic island of Columbus, where rocks sprout into yucas. Salud! Kanpai!

After five days on the road, I show up back in Santo Domingo, dust in my hair, cerveza in hand, machete swinging from my belt, humming a bachata.

“Looks like you’re getting Dominican-ized,” observes Julio.

To celebrate my conversion, he fixes me a Cuba Libre, the rum/coke concoction that fled Havana for exile in Santo Domingo after Castro, and–this is my theory–brought Havana’s decadent, opulent, nonstop nightlife along with it for company. (Sidney Pollack, no fool, shot his Havana here.) Since Fidel pulled the plug, and San Juan Americanized, only the Dominican Republic is left to carry on the tradition of reckless, elegant, Latin socializing.  Santo Domingo is the only Caribbean city I go to where I know I’ll need to stuff at least three party dresses into my carry-on, and where I will actually get to use my lizard spike heels. “Traje formal” appears on almost every invitation and announcement.

The rule of thumb, fashion-wise, is this: too much is just right.

Class and money makes no difference in this department; in fact, the most spectacular outfits, marvels of polyester lame that cling to every curve, then burst in an explosion of ruffles, usually make their debut in the funkiest working class nightspots, like the wonderful outdoor mambo and merengue dancehall “La Vieja Habana.” Dominican women at these parties are doll-perfect. Hair is brown and waist-long, or tinted blonde, piled high, and just-so, eyeliner is black, applied with a draftsman’s hand. Struggling before the mirror in my hotel room during a power failure, a candle balanced in one hand, a tube of lipstick in the other, I wonder how in the world they do it.

Yet for all its elegance, the nightlife in Santo Domingo has a edgy desperation, at least among the young, mostly upper class Dominicans I know. Every night, even on Sundays, we race, fueled on rum and restlessness, from party to event, from bar to disco to transvestite after-hours cabaret. It’s a bit like Madrid here–dinner at ten, out till 4 or 5 am, siesta every afternoon–but with a dangerous, often violent twist. Everybody drinks lots of Cuba Libres, made with Brugal, the rum they say will induce you to do one of two things: fight, or fuck. Horrible car wrecks at 3 am, tales of black tie shoot-outs with the policia. One night, driving home from another glittery evening at the Hotel Jaragua, Julio mentions matter-of-factly that it was nice to have seen Miguel tonight, because they haven’t spoken since Julio shot his wife last year.

Shot his wife?! I gasp. Julio explains: a 4 am accident, they were all drunk, somebody took out a pistol and it went off, nobody hurt badly. “This is a crazy place,” he shrugs. “Violence is part of our history.”

Though Julio could be referring to the conquistadores, who managed to wipe out a million native Taino people in thirty years, or to the many Dominican dictators and revolutions that even historians have lost count of, or to the U.S. Army and Marines, who invaded the country in 1910 and again in 1965, I know he is referring to Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with terror and Idi Amin-league brutality for thirty years until his assassination in 1961. It is Trujillo, not the official, mythical Columbus, whose presence haunts Santo Domingo still. Though his name will only be whispered at the inauguration of the Faro, and his bones will stay put in their exile’s grave in Paris, the monument Trujillo initiated couldn’t be more his. It’s a piece of dictator’s architecture, gray and vainglorious. Squint, and it could be a housing project in Ceaucescu’s Bucharest.

 

Julio won’t go near it. When I suggest a nighttime visit, he puts up two fingers in a cross, making the sign of the fuku to ward off the bad spirits. He and his family fled Santo Domingo for New York the day before Trujillo’s murder. His best friend’s father led the assassination plot. I have to work hard to change his mind. I go out and buy several Presidentes that are the way Julio likes them: cenizada, ice-cold enough for the frost to form an ashy coating on the green bottle. I have to promise to take him for lunch tomorrow at the Meson Bari, a favorite local bar that serves the velvety red beans, glistening white rice and golden, crisp fried plantains that are the essence of dominicanismo. When I toss in a bottle of Brugal, he gets the car keys.

With Julio at the wheel, Presidente in hand, swerving tiguere-style around ditches and hot- footing through intersections with broken signals, the drive to the Faro takes ten minutes, and we manage not to die en route.

At night, up close, the Faro loses its monstrosity. Floodlit, under the moon, it’s softer. You almost feel sorry for this heavy, ugly duckling nested uncomfortably on a broad, empty concrete slab. I notice for the first time that the structure rises at an angle, like an Aztec pyramid. “That was the original concept,” explains Julio. “The faith of the indians rises, and is converted into a Christian cross. Or is it the crucifix that is being transformed into an Indian temple?” He laughs cynically.

The Faro, future magnet for ceremonies, speeches, and Japanese tourist buses, is as empty now as it will ever be. Just me and Julio, and three Dominican soldiers sprawled across the steps, half-asleep with their rifles on their laps. They wave at us. We wave back. Julio sighs.

“In another year, the Faro will be dangling from our keychains, decorating our ashtrays, and swinging from the mirrors of all our taxis. The people will have completely forgotten how we suffered every day for years so that it might be built. They will be proud of it. They will bring their radios, and dance merengue on its steps.

“And then”–he chuckles, heading for the car –“it will no longer be the Faro de Colon. It will not belong to Trujillo. It will be ours. It will be Dominicanized.”

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