The man next to me is on the bad side of sixty, the whites of his eyes yellowed like butter and his nose ruddy with broken capillaries, both of which are the result of a lifetime of excessive drinking. He’s working on his third 9 a.m. Bloody Mary while he tells me about the laundromats he runs in the Dominican Republic and what to do when I go through their notoriously loose customs. He leans in towards me when he speaks, offering me uninvited life advice like a creepy uncle. I want him to go away.
I am saved by the flight attendant who hands Drunk Uncle a hot cup of coffee to sober him up upon our descent.
“Aren’t you a sweetheart,” he says, smiling through his tobacco-stained teeth.
Aren’t you a drunk.
I hope he doesn’t have children.
We are greeted at the gate by an employee of the airport who asks for the $10 per person “visitor’s fee” that Drunk Uncle warned me about. “Crooks,” he slurred in between peppered swigs of spiked V8 and booze. The man then takes our respective IDs and disappears into some office where our passports are stamped by someone who apparently doesn’t care to ask us questions about the purpose of our visit or personally assess the possibility we are drug mules or prostitutes. Drunk Uncle also told me that the Dominican Republic was essentially just the halfway point for illegal activity, providing a place for coke-laden propeller planes to fill up their tanks en route to Miami and fraudulent South Americans to launder their cash.
The air outside is hot and sticky and decidedly warmer than New York City. A man in a starched white uniform waves at us, a cell phone pressed against his ear. This is Jack’s friend’s driver and manservant. He walks us to a mini-van parked outside and we fly out of Santo Domingo.
From what blurs past my window, the outskirts of the city are grossly impoverished. Houses are shacks made of cinderblock and corrugated metal. Business signs are largely the hand-painted block letters of a failed graphic design student. We pass a grocery store with a sign indicating you are not to bring your guns or your babies inside. The poverty and the heat here feel like the kindling for terrible things under the right conditions. The normal rules of the developing world seem prudish by the island’s standards.
Families of four ride on motorcycles with no helmets. Mothers, fathers, infants, usually some tiny baby wrapped in a dishtowel. Our driver lazily swerves in between puttering mopeds and barreling semi-trucks. He brakes late and hard at red lights. Eva is sitting next to me, grabbing the sides of her seat and muttering “oh my god”s with her characteristic breathlessness. Jack’s sitting up front, having volunteered for the front seat in an accidental act of altruistic martyrdom.
“Did you just…did you just see that car???”
We have narrowly avoided what is likely our seventh car crash in the span of the last thirty minutes. This driver – this happy, smiling man with big ears and a charmingly loose grip on the English language – is likely the worst driver in the Dominican Republic.
Jack is holding onto the space between the roof and the door, talking to either us or the driver, though it’s obvious that the driver sort of sees everything and sort of doesn’t care about any of it. People walk through tidal waves of moving traffic. Cars creep onto roads at the perfect time for cataclysmic carnage. Motorcycles ride towards us in the opposite direction. Half of the time there aren’t even painted lines on the road so as to aid in the flow of traffic by indicating who goes where, which would likely fuck with their incredibly inefficient system called Everyone Goes Everywhere Whenever They Want.
There is a lawlessness here that usually accompanies a haphazard respect for human life. It’s different than the Auto Bahn chaos of Europe or the crazed fury of Mexico. This is the kind of place where if you were to die, no one would care.
After an hour and a half of white-knuckles and held-in breath, we arrive at the gates of the “resort”, which is really an extremely large, extremely isolated community far away from the poverty of the Dominican city centers. We drive through winding, empty streets with natural grass embankments and lush tropical flora, eventually arriving at an ambiguously Mediterranean house with a large glass door and a few security guards in powder blue polo shirts.
The driver takes my bag, wheeling it over the stone and grass walkway and into an over-air conditioned and massive living room filled with kitsch raw silk pillows and glass vases filled with fake flowers. It’s like the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and some Orange County nouveau riche mansion had a one-night stand and this place was the resulting bastard child.
We walk through the house and into the backyard, where trees hang over a narrow blue swimming pool and Spanish tiles. “Your room,” the manservant says, pointing to a guestroom with a giant king-sized bed swimming in white mosquito netting, flanked by bedside tables littered with inspiration self-help books with a vaguely Christian bent. The towels in the bathroom are all monogrammed, as if to remind the guest where they are staying while they dry their hands after using the toilet.
To be continued…