Days 6 – 11
Santo Domingo has its bright side, in addition to its gloomy “maybe we can’t handle it” atmosphere. We couldn’t believe all the treasures this city holds. Which was good, because it doesn’t. No wonders or beauties await us in Santo Domingo. For the traveler, there is one (really only one) boulevard street full of shops and restaurants, a few monuments, and in case of boredom, a zoo and botanical garden. A stroll through the local Ikea flashes through your mind more like a joke.
The historic center of town, where the aforementioned boulevard alley is reserved for tourists. Any surrounding alleys offer nothing but a sense of insecurity. We walk through the historic center in half an hour. We turn it around and test how much the alley changes when we pass it from the other direction. Of course, we also venture into side streets and make our way to the nearby waterfront. Perhaps we can find a beach where we can refresh ourselves in the sea. We find a beach. They’re covered in a layer of rubbish. Every now and then, a self-proclaimed local guide offers us his services. The almost incomprehensible English convinces us that this would not be a great experience for us.
At the hostel, we learn that the nearest beach is about half an hour away by bus. As such, the hostel is pleasantly civilised, clean and spacious. Ikea style. Breakfast is included in our room rate. Breakfast is between 8-10am. Later it turns out that we probably misunderstood the range. At 8 o’clock a lady comes to prepare breakfast. When it’s ready at 10 o’clock, it’s time to applaud. The lady is very creative. Fried eggs, yay. I haven’t had those in a long time 😀 The next day, fried eggs, oujeee. Third day, fried eggs, this time in arepa. The next breakfast creativity kept on going, the top surprise was the absence of eggs in the fried salami 🙂
Further browsing in Santa Domingo brings a chance encounter with 2 Czechs, Chinatown and the yellow presidential house.
Surprisingly, the trip to the Botanical Gardens and Zoo was the biggest highlight for us in Santo Domingo. The botanical garden is huge, so we are inseparably sold a train ticket along with our ticket. The Japanese garden becomes the most interesting stop and the least interesting is the approximately one hundred and fifty species of palm trees, half of which the guide calls the national palm 🙂 At the entrance they are not at all afraid to write on the sign that the entrance fee for tourists is more than double that for Dominicans. Still, there are relatively a lot of tourists in the garden. Which of course is not true for the zoo. It’s crowded. In fact, you could say it’s empty of animals. Neither the zoo itself nor the botanical gardens are interesting in the final analysis. But what gets the adrenaline pumping in our left heart valves are the paths to the various buildings.
Trip to the Botanical Gardens
The hostel asks for a taxi to the Botanical Gardens. We are told to wait outside the hostel. 2 minutes later we are in a taxi with a nice Dominican man, I’m sure his name was Arthur. I ask Artur about his favorite food, life in the Dominican Republic, the economy, security and other classic topics. The ride through the city takes a total of an hour. It would have taken longer, but Artur apparently spent too much time watching Formula 1 and action movies when he was a kid. Stupid combination. We drive through a narrow alley and encounter a line of cars trying to turn left at the end of the intersection. Arthur thinks for a moment, swears for a moment, honks for a moment and then his eyes light up. My pupils dilate considerably. I see what he’s about to do.
Arthur shifts into first gear and twists the steering wheel like he’s got his mother-in-law’s head under his arm, pulling into the oncoming lane of a narrow alley. We’re about 500 meters from the intersection, no cars coming towards us yet…. is already there… and another and another… there are several cars coming straight towards us. There’s a big line of cars on the right, so close together that even the geyparada is an organized line for the Ivan Mládek concert against it. No one has the ability or the will to let us back in. Arthur seems to think that all the non-rhythmic songs trumpeted by the cars against and beside him are there to cheer him up. He shows no sign of realising what a stupid thing he’s done or that he’s in trouble. Arthur is not in trouble!
We enter a small path on the left and we join the trees. We wait for a line of cars to pass and then we head off in the opposite direction again. We come to a crossroads. Where were all the cars going, left? Logically, Arthur would go right, otherwise why would he go the other way? No, he wouldn’t. Arthur starts to turn left, honks his horn now and then. I’m waiting for him to try and get into gear, the queue of cars going in the same direction as us is now 2 abreast and not moving at all. The adrenaline is getting into Arturo too, it’s strange that he wants to pull out in front of us. He’s continuing in the opposite direction. Our three-lane road is crossed by a four-lane road in a few hundred metres. It’s only a matter of time before they turn in front of us… they’re here. This time there’s no sidewalk on the right. Arthur hunches his shoulders, stomps on the accelerator. The gas pedal is professionally connected by a narrow wire to my gluteal sphincter switch. Now the cheeks are clenched until it hurts. We’re hurtling against an unstoppable line of cars. Just ahead of them Arthur again, but this time with more caution, pulls to the left of the road and into a gully. We still have half a car on the road, but the oncoming vehicles somehow squeeze in. We high-five each other with our mirrors. A number of cars have passed. It’s our time, Arthur gives us a one, shakes his mother-in-law and I’m at the junction. Arthur believes in God, not traffic lights. They’re for kids, so they don’t feel helpless. The lights don’t change, we turn right at the intersection and merge into the flowing river of cars, overtaking a standing double line of drivers who have just opened a machete in their pocket. Arthur earns praise and the unnecessary question of whether there are any traffic rules in the Dominican Republic. He says there are some.
Trip to the Zoo
Advance notice: The trip to the Santo Domingo Zoo you are about to read about was made by two professional idiots with an overly positive perception of the world. Never try anything like this at home.
The journey on foot to the zoo was no longer, however, an experience that even in hindsight we would have laughed at. It’s more a combination of things we passed rather than a story. While the first 3 km of the resulting four km journey, was a fairly uneventful, sometimes slightly laughable, journey. The only thing that got our attention in this part were the passing taxis that honked at us persistently. The last kilometer, by contrast, turned into a nightmare. Shabby, semi-dilapidated shacks, with street cookhouses, with pots containing meat of suspicious appearance and smell. Garbage everywhere, heat, unbelievable smell. Passing suspicious-looking people with eyes copying and scanning our figures. We try to smile, but the effort and courage soon pass us by. We’re almost at the zoo, the village of terror is behind us, ugh. Ahead of us is the bridge. At the beginning of it is a smoldering half-decayed and rusted barrel in which someone is cooking something. I’m just peeking cautiously, afraid of what I’ll see. Next to the barrel is a burnt-out car, all that’s left is the structure. In front of it, a half-naked man is sleeping on the ground, dressed more in mud than in sweatpants, which somehow cover only certain parts of his body. We pick up our pace, praying not to wake the person. Halfway across the bridge, we dare to look higher than the tips of our feet. That was a mistake. A true unadulterated favela has risen before us. Yes, a favela! These are the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, where a white man from Europe will only go after undergoing the initial stage of lobotomy, with an escort of South American Special Forces in bulletproof vests, with their necks tattooed and beards up to their chests, where they get tangled in their polished machine guns.
Lots of movement can be seen in the favela, with the occasional volley of some liquid flying out the window. Perhaps just water from the laundry. We know we’re not gonna let that happen. What now? We can’t see the zoo at all. All we know is that we’re not going into the favela. But we can’t make it back either. The only reason we made it through the first time was because the locals themselves didn’t expect it, so they let us through by surprise. A subtle hysteria grips us. We decided to try to walk to the end of the bridge and look around to see if we could see the zoo. All we want to do is catch a taxi and go back to the hostel. That’s all, we just want to survive. The zoo itself doesn’t interest us anymore.
Breath… Exhale… I create…
Just after the bridge, we find that we have to pass the favela just by stepping briefly on its border, and we immediately turn towards the zoo. In front of the zoo is a line of very suspicious looking taxis. The normal taxis we had already used, which had been vetted by a police officer and the hostel, were on the verge of falling apart. These taxis looked like they didn’t even have an engine and had to be pulled by ponies into which the driver would whip electric shocks with battery wires. We wouldn’t get in one of these for anything! The zoo’s closed. Suddenly a lady appears behind the zoo fence, I hysterically ask her about taxis, get the reply that the zoo entrance is on the side and that we can get a taxi there through zoo security. We calm down, eventually visit the zoo. After that, the security arranges a taxi, a hostel, we swallow the last bitterness of fear on the floor, if we had valium, we swallow that too. Getting to the Santo Domingo Zoo on foot? NEVER!
Note: all the hysteria and fear described above we have created in ourselves. Nothing happened to us, no one ever attacked us in any way or showed any signs of aggression or violence. Any fear stemmed only from our unfamiliarity with our surroundings and breaking the rule of not venturing where it is not confirmed by someone here as safe. Whether it is dangerous there, whether Santo Domingo is dangerous in general, is difficult to judge objectively from our side. But the subjective impression of constant danger that Santo Domingo has left in us will never change.
In the end, however, I am most dangerous to myself 🙂