Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to say no to street vendors and human smugglers

Samana is the Dominican Republic’s Daytona Beach. Being there you get the feeling that it’s past it’s prime, Michael Jordan returning to basketball, once bigger and greater than it currently is today. It is faded paint and cracked sidewalks. It’s where Dominican’s go to vacation and still a lure to whale lovers, primarily Europeans, as the humpbacks migrate nearby in Winter months. The infrastructure along the waterfront or Malecon is dilapidated if not bizarre. Along the sidewalk, The City, probably in the late eighties or early nineties installed what can best described as large cement abdominal wheels turned on their side, with a stairway leading up to the “wheel” portion of the platform for people to look out at the water. It fits in with the period of architecture called The Jetsons, when designers must have thought we’d be flying around on hoverboards any day now. About fifteen of these eyesores line the waterfront in a variety of faded orange, purple, yellow, green and blue displaying rusted stairways. Some local graffiti artists have added a special touch to the eyesores. I imagine their illegible spray paint says, “I’m sorry my city installed such ugly features along what would otherwise be a very nice waterfront.”

Behind the water the city rises and falls abruptly with mountains, palm trees and bananas that look like they’re ready to take over the city and reclaim it in the name of nature. The sharp peaks and valleys look like what it would be like to be inside a half eaten jar of peanut butter. As in all Dominican cities motorcycles are everywhere except here the motorconcho taxis feature a rickshaw attached to the bike. Also like other Dominican and Caribbean cities many buildings and home display what I call an “Eventually.” An Eventually is like a porch, a pool or carport but it’s actually nothing at all. If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean without a doubt you’ve seen one. It is when a building or home appears to be under construction but also looks like it’s been there for fifty years. One or two levels of the building are complete but ten foot twigs of rebar stick up through the roof and it is clear someone is thinking, “we’ll get to that, eventually.” But in the meantime it’s just a bunch of rusted metal sticking out of a roof and it looks like the image you’d think of when you hear words like “poor” or the phrase “third world country.” Another Eventually that is very popular in Samana are beautiful cement set of stairs on the outside of the building that lead to nowhere. You could walk up the stairs and be on the second floor of a one story building. A lot of people look at Eventuallys as sad and ugly but to me Eventuallys are just optimism.

Because of the remaining tourist industry the town has a section of small shops occupied by annoying hawkers trying to sell cigars, bad paintings and ugly knick knacks that have nothing to do with Dominican Republic like wooden elephants. Anna’s name for the hawkers is the “Mi amigos,” because whenever you walk by their shop they do say, “Mi amigo, mi amigo, come look inside my shop.” Or “Mi amigo, where are you from mi amigo.” They stop you in the street and do everything but handcuff and mace you to force you into perusing their wares. I enjoyed walking by the hawkers once Anna, taught me to say, “No, amigo, usted es mi enemigo.” and “Por favor dejar de hablar para mí.” or PLEASE STOP SPEAKING TO ME. I enjoyed backhanding them with my new Spanish phrases. It reminded me of one point in my childhood when I found one of my mother’s French books from college. At the top of one of the pages she’d written, “ferme ta bouche” and when she told me it meant, “shut your mouth” my response to everything became “ferme ta bouche.” Anna, though she amused by anything I said in Spanish, preferred a more passive tactic of dealing with the hawkers, walking four blocks out of the way to circle around them.

At the Supermercado, trying to ask for Red Bull sin azucar a large dark Haitian in perfect English offered some help. His name was Willy. He was not handsome, was not fat but had a large belly. We asked him if there were restaurants on the East side of the town, he nodded and offered to take us there. As we’d learned nothing was free in the DR I said you can just tell us how to get there. He insisted it was not a problem to take us and that we’d have difficulty finding the restaurants. We looked at each other unsure, but since this is how we usually found adventure we both nodded okay. Now, following Willy through the city we learned he had a girlfriend who worked for Sirius radio in some state like Idaho and he learned about us, on our sailboat heading to Aruba. Something about how he spoke, he would over complete sentence with excessive explanation and held his hands in front of him like he was holding a grapefruit. It felt as if he was trying very hard to figure something out and even when Anna and I offered truthful answers he’d somehow put together the wrong conclusion.

“So where are you from.”

“El mar” I’d say

“What do you mean el mar, I think you do not know what that means. El mar means the sea you cannot come from the sea.”

“Si, el mar.” Anna would affirm

Willy puzzled repeated “You come from the sea?”

“On a boat” I’d offer

“Oh so you came here on a cruise ship. I see that is different than what I understood you to mean”

“No we came here on our boat”

“So you came here and bought a boat, that is not what I was understanding before, when you say that you are from the ocean and that you live in the harbor that is not what I would expect you to mean.”

And on it went….

Paying more attention to Willy try to reach a conclusion and listening to him explain the difficulties in balancing a U.S girlfriend and Dominican lovers we didn’t realize he’d taken us right into the heart of Calle de la Hawkers. Here he said, "I just have to run into my store for a moment." Willy was a hawker. His English a huge advantage for his business his store was sad and depressed me. Willy disappeared into the back of the store. Anna and I sat outside drinking our Dominican Cider, Benedicta, waiting for Willy to do whatever it was he was doing. As we sat outside the store I imagined other people were probably thinking we were hawkers I saw a couple and was about to come approach them with my best “mi amigo, mi amigo come into my store” when another hawker intercepted them. After ten minutes of waiting on Willy, our ciders gone we both decided we no longer cared what restaurants were east of the town and left.

Between where our dinghy was docked and Calle de la Hawkers was a newly built development of tourist shops and a bar. It was a plaza of shops that would have looked lovely in a small American town but the cracker style architecture looked strikingly out of place in Samana. At the bar we sat down at an outside table, I ordered a Presidente and Anna a vodka grapefruit. Before our drinks arrived Willy did. Like the neighborhood kid you’re forced to play with he took a chair and asked why we left. Not understanding that this is what people do when they don’t care for your company. We apologized and blamed the heat for making us ditch him. He asked if we’d still like to see the restaurants to the east, we said yes but not now. While Willy and I shared my Presidente he began to inquire what it was like going from country to country in a sailboat. I told him about all the things that were wonderful like the water, the people, the different cultures and the joy of arriving in a new place. But what Willy was actually trying to uncover, what he wanted to know was the literally the technicalities of going from country to country, immigration.

“Is it difficult to go from one country to another?”

“Well that depends, but no, not really” I said

“Would it be difficult to take people with you?”

“To where? No, not really.”

“Anywhere, the U.S. or the Bahamas.”

“I am not going to the U.S. or to the Bahamas.”


“I don’t want to go there.”

“But you could?”


“What if I could pay you $5000 per person? I could have twelve people on your boat tomorrow. And another twelve more every time you return. I could do this for you. You could be a very wealthy man. I could do this. You would have to take me for free. But you’d get $5000 for everyone else. Would this be possible?”

“Yes, it’s possible, it’d be easy to do, but I cannot do this for you.”

Willy went on for about an hour explaining that it would be no problem for me. That’d I’d have all the easy money I ever needed and since he was Haitian, he knew many people both in the DR and back home to fill the boat. I suggested he steal one of the boats from the harbor and fill it with passengers and drop them off in the Bahamas.

“But you see I was trying to help you become a wealthy man and my plan makes everyone happier if I were to do that you’d be left out”

He made it sound like it was a small favor like lending him a gallon of gasoline. Weary of saying “no” and afraid I might say yes just to see what happened I wanted to say, “Por favor dejar de hablar para mí.” Finally, Anna and I indicated it was time to go. Willy offered me his cell phone in case I changed his mind.

A few days later Anna and I hiked east of the town into the mountains. Here the jungle thickened and we found there were no restaurants. The lights we saw were not places to eat but only smallish cinderblock homes decorated with Eventuallys.

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