One Island, Two Worlds – Dominican Republic, June 2009
The town of Cabarete in Dominican Republic is one of fascinating beauty and disparity. Although far less of a resort destination than the country’s counterparts of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, where visitors are practically locked out from the outside world, it is a well-traveled destination. The area holds many of the world’s top water sports competitions, due to its favorable wind conditions and beach layout, and trinket and surf shops scatter the main street that you might expect to find in any other beach area. However, integrated amongst these shops are local bars, general stores, and small sports betting parlors that most foreigners wouldn’t dare to venture into. And just a few blocks beyond that, lies a whole hidden world of poverty.
At the Hotel Alegria where we stayed, the environment mimicked that of the gritty town.
The hotel itself is on a beautiful plot of land, with a very friendly staff and pets living on the property. Having only 13 rooms, it felt like more of a large home than a typical ocean-front hotel, and was priced quite affordably. The front “lobby” area was outside under a shade, and contained a small restaurant, television, computer, and chairs where some people relaxed. On the roof, there was a tiny gym and a deck with a hot tub that provided beautiful views, especially at night when thousands of stars dotted the clear Dominican sky. The rooms were a bit of a surprise, compared to those of usual vacation hotels. Small and old-fashioned, there were few amenities, hard beds, and a 1980’s style television set in the room that barely worked.
Surprisingly, the town was quiet for what we had expected, given its party reputation we had read about. There were not very many visitors, perhaps due to it being the “off-season” in late June or the poor world economy that has decreased vacation spending. A small but flashy casino, placed in an unfortunate location a few blocks down the main road from the main area, had only two other patrons when we visited on a Thursday night, despite having over a dozen employees who looked bored, but kept happy faces. And we were major sales targets for the shop-keepers, who would show a variety of goods and ask if we would want them. Showing any interest in a particular item was a mistake; doing so would bring about a sales-pitch about the product, followed by a price and a longing look that made it difficult to refuse.
The beach was an eclectic mix of vacationers and local Dominicans. Visitors relaxed on long beach chairs drinking pina coladas and other rum-infused libations from one of the beach bars, at the same time natives walked on the beach while their children played in the surf. At one point, we were in the ocean throwing a Nerf football with a tri-lingual Canadian child, and two Dominican teens who seemed rather intrigued by the game. While some people would be bothered by the integration of locals like that on a relaxing holiday, we enjoyed the experience.
Outside the hotel, a tall man often hung around. Like many Domincans, he didn’t have an actual career, but would do odd-jobs for money at the hotel or around town. He would also provide tour-guide services around town, or outside the area to foreigners like us. Having pre-arranged our tours in advance, we didn’t need his offerings, especially as he didn’t even have a vehicle and was not licensed. I talked to him anyway, particularly since he had an interest in sports and had been to America for a period of time. He was fluent in both Spanish and English, and was well-known around town.
One day, he offered to show me around the “real Dominican” of Cabarete. At first, I was understandably hesitant, given how I barely knew him and that although safe overall, the country has its seedy areas where foreigners are recommended to use caution. The Confederations Cup soccer championship game between the United States and Brazil I wanted to see was that day though, and I was definitely excited in seeing as much of the town as possible, so I agreed after making sure I had only about $20 on me in case something were to happen.
First we went to one of the many generic-looking sports betting parlors that were located around Dominican Republic towns. I would never have gone in alone, especially as I had no idea of the process and know only limited Spanish. A tight staircase led from the bottom area up to a small, dingy, gray-walled room with about twenty chairs set up and three televisions, each showing a different baseball game. American baseball is extremely popular in the D.R., and many men would devote their Sundays to watching the games. I decided to put $10 on a two-team parlay bet that would pay about $36 back if both teams won. The man seemed visibly shocked, as if I had placed up $10,000; I would come to find that a usual Dominican bet is only around an equivalent of one U.S. dollar. I offered to give him half of the winnings in the event it won, which he then became very excited about.
Afterwards, we went to a local sports bar to watch the soccer game, which had already started. It was run by a middle-aged British man, who moved to the country to live. The bar was upstairs and had an open area to the outside, making it muggy but appealing with the clear Dominican skies behind us. The United States ended up losing, and I bought my companion two large Presidente beers after he hinted that he would like them. A few other native Domincans relaxed in the bar, while the only female at the establishment cheerfully took money behind the counter for the purchases.
As it reached around 6pm, I was ready to return to the hotel, but the man wanted to bring me to one more place. It was to the other side of the road from the beach, where small winding roads were visible, but it was clear where there were no stores or attractions for tourists. After just walking about three blocks, a world opened up that was much different from the stores and up-scale restaurants just a few minutes away. Dominicans sat on wood crate makeshift chairs outside shanties, while children clad only in their underwear played in the street. Women carefully hung clothing on lines and swept the outside area near where they lived. Their homes were much more like shacks than houses, and soon I arrived at the man’s place of residence, which was merely a set of wood walls housing a make-shift bed, and some random pots, clothes, and drain pipes around the place. Here, there was no actual roof, so rain would come in during bad weather, and there was an open space between his house and a neighbor’s. There was very limited plumbing that was hooked up through one of the pipes, and the electricity consisted of one light bulb hanging un-ceremoniously from the ceiling. He talked about plans for what he wanted to do when he got more money, including putting a tarp over the ceiling and improving the walls to prevent looting of his possessions that occurred sometimes while he was away.
My experience in the “Real Dominican” was definitely an unexpected one. Everyone was extremely friendly despite their limited possessions. Despite my concerns, nobody bothered or threatened me despite how seemingly out of place I was. On our last day (despite losing the baseball bet I had placed), I ended up giving the man who showed me around $50 to help him fix up his place. I wished that I could’ve given more to the town people, especially as the value of money is so much more to natives their than in the United States.
During our five days in the Dominican Republic, we did a lot. We swam with dolphins at the made-for-vacationers Ocean World in Puerto Plata (an awesome experience), went to a major run distillery and cigar factory, visited the bustling city of Santiago, and ate everything from traditional Dominican food off a street stand to a fancy seafood restaurant on the beach called “Blu”. But the most interesting experience for me was venturing out and experiencing how much of the country lives. Although the Domincans are very happy and friendly people, it made me really appreciate the conditions that we have, and inspired me to someday be able to help improve the conditions for people around the world that struggle everyday to survive.
I’d highly recommend the more adventurous types of people to visit Cabarete, as both the town and country are terrific and interesting places with great people. And if you are more of the secluded beach resort type, there are always Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, which are both considered beautiful too.