Getting There: Ain’t No Vomit Comets in the DR/You Can’t Hate Elena

The Dominican Republic is just too frickin’ civilized.

In Nicaragua I saw the best bus fight ever. I wasn’t even on that particular bus, I was on a different bus but our driver pulled over to watch. It was Semana Santa, Holy Week – the big vacation time – and all the buses were packed. Apparently a few drunk guys got into a fight on the other chicken bus, the old school buses that are privately owned and operated and usually sketchy but how everyone gets around there. By the time we pulled up cops had waded into the fight bus – which had to be loaded to three times human capacity – with billy clubs and guns on their back and were just chucking people off. Once they got the drunks they beat the shit out of them, shoved them in the back of a police pick-up and got back on the bus to talk to the driver.  The offending drunks, bloodied and bruised, just sat in the back of the police pickup with no handcuffs. The cops there have AK-47’s. No one was going to make a run for it. Probably why there’s very little crime in Nicaragua, too.

It was a hell of a show.

That just ain’t going to happen in the Dominican Republic. I haven’t seen one chicken bus since I left Haiti, just luxury buses. Which is nice in that I don’t have to spend the trip to the surf camp desperately having to pee while someone’s pillowcase full of baby ducks slams into the back of my calves and people take cell phone pictures of my tattoos. It’s bad in that, well, it’s boring.  I always admired the tenacity of Nicaraguan travel. You could take a 1960’s school bus, shoot holes in it, paint “HOLY FUCK, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE” on the side of it in huge letters, plaster the whole thing with St Jude, patron saint of lost causes and people would still spend eighty cents to ride on it. Not that I’ve ever seen one exactly like that but close.

And I’m certainly not going to see one like that in the Dominican Republic. Oh well.

To get to Cabarete, where the surf camp is, you have to take a bus to Sosua and then from there a cab to Cabarete. A nice luxury bus that sets me back a whopping $2. Unlike the one into Haiti, this one doesn’t even have to be watered every few miles. It’s clean with big cushy seats and pretty empty. Stephane and I choose rows across from each other and I put on my iPod and look out the window. I hadn’t realized how well off this country is or how much agriculture it has. The Dominican Republic has done well with everything. The fields were clean, neat and well tended. The cities were pretty and relatively free of litter. This is the third world? Really?

Stephane is the ideal travelling partner. He knocks on the door to my room to get me up to make the bus, gets us a cab to the station, makes sure there’ll be a room for me once we get to the camp. I’m still sick enough to be in various states of out-of-it-ness and when we get to Sosua he haggles with the cab driver.

Sosua is enough of a shit hole that it makes me feel a little less like a candy ass. The streets are lined with cheap hotels and bars. There’s some bakeries and pharmacies that look nice but there also seems to be a big hooker issue. As a result, there’s a big old-gross-expats-who-love-young-hookers issue and you see them wandering around the crumbling sidewalks, the women lurching towards the crappy hotels on enormous heels with paunchy seventy year old European guys glued to their side. Nice.

We throw our stuff in the cab and escape without even walking around. Stephane has been through here before and I am exhausted and have no desire to play explorer in Hooker Central. The cab goes down a long, straight road and I can see glimpses of the Caribbean through the palm trees that line the road. Then we are pulling into Cabarete. It’s all centered along one long strip that borders the beach. There are modern buildings and condo complexes and souvenir stands and shops and realty offices. This is usually not the kind of place I can afford to be. Stephane has the driver drop us at the grocery store and I stock up on water, a few snacks and a cheap bottle of wine. The wine is an optimistic purchase – no drinking until I am off the antibiotics and substantially better. But you can’t pass up a $3 Chilean Cabernet.

From the store we walk the quarter mile down the road, past a guarded gate. The guard greets Stephane by name. They missed him. A couple of moto-taxi drivers hang out around the gate, hoping to catch people coming out but we’re headed in the wrong direction. From there it’s another quarter mile down a dirt road and then another wall and then the surf camp.

The first two things I notice are that everything is painted bright colors and that I really, really want to hate the girl who greets us in the office. She is gorgeous, Russian, wearing adorable clothes and speaks flawless English. I am a woman, we are like this – you either want to be her or hate her. Meet Elena. Who is, unfortunately, as cool and nice as she is perfect and thus completely un-hateable. I will find out talking to her later that she speaks something like seven languages and manages to keep the surf camp from turning into a total zoo, a Herculean task.

Basically the place is comprised of a bunch of little bungalows on a lagoon. All the bungalows have little porches with benches. There’s one big luxury apartment above the laundry area. Then there’s a big villa where Ali, the owner, lives. There’s a couple of multi room apartments there as well. There’s also a covered open air kitchen/bar/dining room where the meals are served. It has one big table that, I’m told, everyone eats around. Visions of junior high school who-sits-with-who dance through my head but I shove them back. This is fine. We are all grown ups. I am not a fat girl with a lisp anymore. These are my people. This will be fine.

Most of the bungalows are connected. Pretty much all of them have private baths but for the first night I’m given the one connected to the office that doesn’t. There’s a  bathroom about ten feet outside the door. There’s a dock that goes out into the lagoon and a few paddle boards to use.

I’ll move you tomorrow, Elena promises, to one with a bathroom. The room has a ceiling fan, a sink, a nice bed, and a mosquito net. My porch overlooks the lagoon. It’s perfect. Stephane has one of the more luxurious bungalows – it’s the room he’s stayed in since he got there months ago and he gets it back immediately. Elena listens to our respective Haiti misadventures with sympathy and points me towards the book exchange in the office, tells me she hopes I feel better.

You cannot hate Elena. She is awesome and sincere. Damn her.

The whole place is beautiful. Obviously budget but beautiful.

Dinner is at 7-ish, breakfast is at 8-ish and lunch, if you want it, is at the beach house down the street. I just pay for two meals a day. I’m barely eating one now as it is and I’m too cheap to pay for optimism. The surf bus leaves at 8.30 and at 2 PM but I’m too tired to even contemplate that.

What 7-ish really means is that everyone shows up at the restaurant at around 7.30 and orders a beer and boo-sheets until 8 PM when they finally drop the food, at which point everyone sucks it down and keeps drinking but I won’t learn that until later. For right now I take my book, my summer-camp trepidation, my gallon of water and antibiotics and tromp off to my room to crash until dinner.

Tonight I have to learn to be a little social again. For right now I nap.

Welcome home.

**A note on title – vomit comet – another term for chicken buses. Also called chicken-and-goat-express.**

Photo notes:  boosted photo of what will probably eventually move to Central America to become chicken bus. Inside of luxury bus. Office at Ali’s Surf Camp as seen from right inside gate.

In Which ‘Scared Shitless’ Is Enough Of A Theme That It Winds Up In The Title.

Don’t just start handing out stuff in Haiti. You can start riots that way. Someone told us that after the whole field incident had happened, after such information would have been useful.

After finding the injured dog I was pretty preoccupied. I had a lot of stuff in my head and living in the group hadn’t let me process things the way I usually do – get as far away from everyone as I can and think. The good thing about fieldwork is that you can put your body on autopilot and make a little brain pod for yourself and go there. That’s what I was doing, give or take my occasional two-word conversations with the little ‘bella/guapo’ boy.  Pull weeds, dig up roots, think. I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. I noticed that we had attracted a crowd of about fifteen or twenty people and some of the women and kids were helping us. There were a lot of people standing around on the periphery watching, mostly older boys and an old woman. I noticed that the two kids that came with us were being annoying – sitting down constantly, arguing with the kids who had just spontaneously decided to help. The male volunteers kept yelling at them which would set them to working for ten minutes again and then they would just sit back down and go back to being rude to the other kids.

Occasionally something would come up – a snake in the weeds, some kid-arguments going on, one of the volunteers putting together seed packets for the women that were helping us, but for the most part I was on Planet Finn.

This was the first project I had been on where I had seen so many people randomly help. Daniele, who owned the field, wasn’t optimistic. They’ll help now because you guys are here, he told us, but once you leave they won’t have any interest, even if I offer them food from this.

Despite this the work output was impressive. Particularly from the smaller kids who had turned up and were pulling weeds despite being argued with and taunted by the boys with us. T., the Mexican volunteer, had a little bag of trinkets – toys, keychains and wooden animals – that he had brought from Mexico for Haitian kids. He decided that he would reward some of the kids that had been working.

Big. Mistake.

Immediately he was mobbed by everyone. All the kids, the older boys who had just been standing around staring, even some of the adults. There was yelling and pushing and shoving. We were trying to figure out who actually had been working but it was futile. Kids who had just been handed something were claiming they got nothing. Other kids were claiming they had worked. A few kids who got something were claiming it wasn’t good enough or that one of the other kids had taken it. No one was working any more. People who hadn’t gotten anything were angry.  The volunteers were annoyed. T. was pissed at the kids. He put the toys away but a lot of the kids who had been working stopped, drifting off to the sidelines to watch.

A bit later we decided to break for lunch. Things were still tense. We still had our crowd of observers but less workers. We didn’t have much food with us – one Tupperware container of pasta, Clif Bars, nuts. It was hot, we had been working our asses off, we needed to eat. Daniele and one of the volunteers left to go to his house to pick something up. Four volunteers – me, another woman and the two men –  and ‘our’ two kids sat down in the dirt between the raised rows to eat.

I don’t know who started the yelling, I just know it started. Someone from the side of the field wanting our food or the trinkets or something. The two male volunteers politely said no, we work, we eat. The yelling continued. We tried to ignore them but soon there was all sorts of heckling coming from the edges. The gathered crowd, now about twenty younger boys, was getting pushy, obnoxious. The women who had been watching were gone except the one old woman who was yelling now. Looking up I saw the group had moved in from the edges of the field and were standing about twenty feet away in the field. It wasn’t a charge,  just an edging closer. Both of our stronger Creole speakers – Daniele and the other volunteer – were gone.  Supposedly Daniele’s house was just across the field but when we yelled for them they didn’t come back.

All of a sudden everything was very menacing and angry. Next to me I could feel T. simmering and seething, still aggravated over the toys and even more pissed by what was happening now. He wasn’t going to start anything but he wasn’t going to back down either.

Violence has it’s own taste, it’s own smell. We weren’t there yet but the potential for it was getting bigger and bigger.

The crowd was ten feet away now, grumbling and yelling and demanding. I looked at one boy leaning up against a tree close to us. He had a knife, a rusty dagger type thing, and a length of twine. This in and of itself didn’t mean much. In the tropics people carry machetes and knives and use them for everything. But in the context of the growing anger of the crowd it scared the shit out of me. If he had one it was guaranteed some of the other people did, too. Things can get out of hand very, very quickly. Having knives around raises the ante. Particularly when twenty people are angry at six.

What was galling is that none of these people were starving, most of them hadn’t done any work at all. They simply wanted our food, it seemed to me, because we had it. Maybe because we had handed out things earlier and they felt we should hand out our Clif Bars and nuts, too.

None of spoke enough Creole to even understand the situation let alone diffuse it. We were outsiders.

I suggested giving the crowd the food just to end this. We had two people out in the underbrush somewhere, this was escalating, it needed to be resolved. The male volunteers shot me down. They were right – it wasn’t just the Clif Bars, really. If we handed over the food would they want everything in our bags next? The cameras, the water, the first aid kit? It was a bad precedent to set. Besides which there was the incident with the toys to remember. Handing stuff out could just rile everyone worse than they already were.

I cannot say how long this went on but it felt like an eternity. The crowd kept inching closer. We stopped talking amongst ourselves. It was silent and heavy and scary.

Finally when it felt there was no room left for them to come any closer, Daniele and the volunteer walked into the field. We immediately fell on Danielle, explaining the situation. The crowd was yelling at him, too, but they moved back. Not because they were afraid of him but because he was from and of their community. Whatever angry, miserable spell had fallen over us had been broken. A lot of the crowd drifted away. He argued with some of them for a few minutes in Creole but it was over within minutes.

We finished the field essentially without any outside help, pushing through it as quickly as we could. Despite wanting a cigarette and to see if the wounded dog had come back I didn’t feel okay wandering off into the underbrush again. Once my fear wore out I got angry. We had been in a bad situation that almost went terribly wrong. Had it been Nicaragua I would have gone off on Donna (who probably would have kicked my ass for it). Here there was no one to blame. All the volunteers were upset and we bitched among ourselves and talked about what should have happened but there was no solution.

For all my travels and truly stupid situations I had put myself in, this was the first time I felt acutely aware that I was someplace dangerous. All of a sudden a lot of things made sense – the staying on the church grounds, everyone’s shock in Cap Haitian over me being out by myself. It’s my sincere belief that most people are so obsessed with safety that they mistake a foreign situation for a dangerous one.  This actually was a dangerous, volatile situation. I don’t want to think about what could have happened had Daniele arrived ten minutes later, had one person in the crowd thrown a rock, had we decided to hand out the food we had, had someone said something, anything back.

This was not Nicaragua or even the militarized zone in Belfast. There was something in this country – maybe because of the oppressive, violent history of the country, maybe because of the poverty – that was angry and unpredictable.

(A footnote to this whole thing: I do not seek to impugn the Haitian people. Most of the folks I actually met – RoseDanie’s family, the Church people, the woman on the bus, the people who helped me find my way around – were kind and generous. But there was a world outside there that I only saw glimpses of – in the field, in the streets of Cap Haitian. If you are not familiar with the history of Haiti, you might want to look it up. If you are the product of an abusive parent it is far more likely you will be an abuser because this is what was modeled for you. It stands to reason that if you grew up in an abusive society, this is how you learn to solve problems and deal with strife. While I don’t believe you can compare pain, Haiti’s governments have been particularly brutal. The Duvaliers were fond of pulling people out of their homes and assassinating them in the streets for any signs of dissension. Since they have been out of power the UN has essentially become a babysitter, patrolling the country in helicopters, armored vehicles, and tanks, always displaying massive amounts of firepower. That itself is an implied threat, despite all good intentions. While the new government of Haiti is infinitely more humane and democratic, the past does not immediately become undone. Historically situations in Haiti have been resolved with violence, one way or another. I’m not here to offer any solutions. I just want to note historical context. It doesn’t mean every Haitian is scary or violent or the people  I met were terrible. It’s just the way things have been done here. And it’s like a cancer.)