Under the blue skies of Quisqueya
V. Demenina, K. Sapozhnikov
Tiwy.com, december 2004
(page 1 of 3)
The island, which on December 12, 1492 was «christened» by its discoverer Christopher Columbus, Española, the indigenous population Tainos used to call Haiti (Mountain land) or Quisqueya (Mother land). The present inhabitants of the Dominican republic use the Indian word Quisqueya, when they speak about their country, and call themselves Quisqueyans, as if pointing to their historic roots. This name is more than popular: people of other Latin American countries understand which country is meant, when they take beer “Quisqueya” or listen to the commentary of the national football team match “from Quisqueya”.
The Dominican republic, or Dominicana for short, is famous for its hospitality. Security services and the customs do not bother tourists at the Santo Domingo airport. Although, without a doubt, “the guardians” are invisibly present nearby, graciously viewing multi-colored, vacation aimed crowd. This invisibility is the conscious policy: “not to darken tourists' first impression” of the Dominican republic.
The feeling of friendly “wide open doors”, cordiality and kindness is intensified “by many degrees”, when a generous amount of rum in plastic cups is served to all who arrived. Today the tourists are “welcomed” by the drink of popular brand "Barcelo", tomorrow, in turn, the rum "Brugal" will be given to them, next will be "Bermudez", and etc. It is a good idea of the Dominicans: on the one hand it is “welcome to dear guests” and on the other – is the advertisement of a good quality national product that has been popular since the times, when the pirates and corsairs attacked the island only to get the barrels of “fire-drink”.
We got our first impression of Santo Domingo at the bird's-eye view. Naturally we had to spend money, but the flight over the Dominican capital in silver dirigible was worth it. The proposal to “join the company” came during the breakfast from our neighbours at the hotel "Mercure Commercial" - an elderly couple from France. The invitation “to have a flight in zeppelin” seemed to us a little eccentric, but we accepted it without hesitation. The dirigibles, familiar to us from the pictures of 30-ies, had an elegant “cigar shaped” hull. But our vessel of the latest model “Sky ship 600” rather resembled a big-bellied money box. Before the flight, the stewardess instructed us on safety rules, checked if we correctly fastened the belts and even treated us to “boarding” sweets. The pilots friendly waved to us from their seats and one of them even raised his thumb as if saying, don't worry, everything will be OK.
We took off from the Air Force base San Isidro. Two “Porsche” engines, 930 horse power each, accelerated and the dirigible shadow glided over the take-off strips and airfield hangars. At the bird's view the Dominicana capital resembled the exemplary museum model. And only the constant competition of automobiles in the streets and avenidas and white-foamed tails, left by the vessels on the blue glass of Ozama river reminded us that underneath behind the portholes glass lies a huge beautiful city, the everyday life of which was totally unknown to us
Leisure gliding over Santo Domingo made it easy for us to find our bearings in the complicated city “geography”. The Dominican republic capital – is one of the few capitals of the world that disposes to long dreaming walks. There are no high-rise buildings in the modern, and more over, in the colonial quarters of Santo Domingo and that is why the city looks like “an ancient artifact” of the 80-ies, not claiming to be a typical globalised megapolis of present days. There is no suffocating smog, or crowds on the streets, or long traffic jams. However, in view of coming urban changes (how can one avoid those?) the issue of construction of subway (according to the technology and on the means of Brazil) is being frequently discussed nowadays.
All guests of Santo Domingo necessarily make a pilgrimage to the monumental "Columbus" Lighthouse" (Faro de Colon), powerful concrete structure that embraces the marble sepulchre of the famous navigator. The “Lighthouse” project remained unrealised for decades , but to the 500th anniversary of America discovery, the Latin Americans and Dominicans exerted all their strength and “found the resources” to complete construction. It is worth mentioning, that the subject of Christopher Columbus “last refuge” is a very touchy issue for people of the Dominican republic, as the last point has not yet been put in this age-long argument.
The version that the remains of the Great Admiral are buried in the Spanish city Sevilla is categorically unacceptable for the Dominicans. They are so sure that the “Lighthouse” contains authentic remains of Columbus, that they cheered the news on setting up of a special committee in Spain that will establish the truth as per the Admiral's DNA once and forever.
New versions of the Columbus origin are being fervently discussed in the Dominican republic. One of them confirms the “Italian roots” of the Admiral, but in a totally different, much more sensational aspect. If we believe the researchers, Columbus was not a son of a commonplace Genoese weaver, but a fruit of love affair of a noble rich woman Roman Anna Colonna with Giovanni Battista Cibo - a youth of fourteen who later became a Genoa cardinal and then Pope Innocent VIII. So as not to compromise his father and mother, Christopher had to conceal this great mystery for all his life. According to another one, Columbus was a Spaniard, native of Catalogna, and a corsair. During the civil war “for Aragon heritage” he was among the opponents of King Juan II. But the latter won and his former enemies had to flee from retribution. That was how the “Genoa legend” of Columbus appeared, with which he came to the court of Ferdinand II, son of Juan II asking to “finance” the voyage in search of a new route to India. Should Ferdinand learn about rebellious past of Columbus, the “official” discoverer of America would undoubtedly be somebody else.
Within the historical area of Santo Domingo there is no need of special imagination to plunge into those distant times when Quisqueya was developed by the Spanish crown. There is something cosy and attractive in these ancient quarters, “antique” houses, fortress and church walls made of pink and grey stone. Sometimes ago it was noisy and tight due to predatory crowds of conquistadors waiting for the next voyage to the intractable continent. These paving blocks used to see Diego Velazquez, Alonso de Ojeda, Francisco de Montejo and many other conquerors of the new world rattling their armor. Among these militant troopers there were other Spaniards, who tried to stop the blood shed, appealed to mercy, civilised, as per the requirements of that epoch, norms of behaviour. The monument to one of those - Bartolome de Las Casas – was erected near the Museum of the Dominican person.
From above the colonial area of the capital does not seem big. However the feeling that it is possible to walk around all historical and architectural relics very quickly turned out to be false. In the “old” Santo Domingo the inquisitive tourist cannot leave unseen such monuments as the Fortress Ozama, Museum of the Royal Houses, Columbus Palace, (first in the Western hemisphere) San Nicolas de Bari hospital, Gate of the Count (La Puerta del Conde), San Francisco monastery. Another mandatory place for a courtesy call is the Motherland altar (Altar de la Patria), which contains the remains of national heroes Juan Pablo Duarte, Ramon Mella and Francisco del Rosario Sanchez. The Dominican republic owes them its independence and the present name.
About 50 years ago many architectural “treasures” of that distant epoch used to be abandoned ruins.
Even the so zealous a Master of the country – dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who was anxious about the “showcase” appearance of the country that was called then "Ciudad Trujillo", lacked finances to restore the monuments of antiquity. Much later, during the democratic times, the generous help of the UNESCO and Spain made it possible to restore, to make alive the “infrastructure” of the past.
Recently the Dominican historians and enthusiasts of local lore raise the alarm regarding possible privatisation of the colonial center of Santo Domingo. The draft of law on creation of the “consortium” which will get as a “gift” all the monuments of the past, located within the perimeter of the Colonial city is circulating in the Parliament “on the sly”. It is planned that the rights for administration within the specified area should be handed over to this “consortium”. In other words, the state and capital municipality will refuse from their controlling prerogatives and existence of the inhabitants, traders, guests of the colonial city will be regulated by the privatizers from the “consortium”in the name of the commercial interests. Such a perspective is described in many papers with concern, TV commentators speak of it with indignation. And how can anyone not worry! Even in these conditions the Motherland Altar will become the property of the “consortium”.
The colonial area is pierced through by a busy avenue El Conde. Here, there are a lot of cafes, restaurants, casinos and night clubs according to the “interests”, currency exchange offices, tobacco kiosks (the Dominican cigars are as famous as the Cuban ones among the smoker fans). “Avoid casual acquaintances at El Conde, - we have been warned at the Russian consulate, - it is there when the careless tourists fall victims to different swindlers”. Such warnings can be found in many guide books for Santo Domingo, although in some of them, - the newest ones, - you may come across of such “recommendations” as :
“There are a number of young boys and girls, who would be delighted to make you a company. You can have dinner with them, dance at “Malecon” - the biggest in the world outdoor disco, and if desired, spend a night together. At the Dominican slang such “escorts” are called "aviones" or "avionetas", depending on the sex. They work with foreigners as per their own initiative, as a rule they have a school or university degree and can demonstrate you the city and its suburbs, reveal the backstreet mysteries of the Dominican life and secrets of the Dominican soul. Payment for such services is subject to mutual agreement.”
Don Juan de la Rosa - seller of love-philtre is the character figure of the avenue. His picturesque cart, covered with hanging bottles, jars and vials is “based” at the corner with Santone street and serves unreciprocated lovers, spouses, affected by a “black cat” of faithlessness and those, whose love needs do not correspond to their physical abilities. Local and visiting journalists used to write about don Juan, and he keeps some publications in the “archive box” of his cart and demonstrates those to those who wish.
“They call me the man, who sells happiness, - modestly says don Juan. - I could give happiness free of charge, but I have a big family. That is why for more than thirty years I sell healing tinctures, but not triple the price, like my competitors from the souvenir shops at "Mercado modelo", but at the moderate prices. Even to foreigners. As for me, I don't use the drugs, because I have no complains for my married life”.
To attract the clients, don Juan equipped his cart with speakers and “plays back” the most modern songs, as if competing with music shops, which are many at the avenue. His favourite repertoire is merengue – songs of “sentimental contents” with inflammatory rhythm. The Dominican republic is the native country for this dance and song genre, the roots of which go back to the 50-ies of the XIX century.
One more song genre the authorship of which belongs to the Dominicans. This is bachata! With elements of dramatic effect, lamentations to ill fate, unshared love. Like tango some time ago, bachata used to be considered in the Dominican republic for a long time a “low genre”, reflection of city bottom life and was rejected by “decent” singers. But nowadays this “cry of a disappointed lone sole”, spontaneous protest, resentment and disagreement is heard throughout all Latin America. “Hit” novelty of the season is the bachata of "Aventura" band called "Obsesion". The quartet of swarthy boys that perform under the slogan “We reject all rules” got success in the Dominican republic and overshadowed youth bands in the Caribbean and Central American countries. Now the "aventureros" conquer the US cities inhabited by large colonies of Latin Americans.
Musical talents of Quisqueya residents amazes. Maybe it is an exaggeration, but almost in every Dominican you can feel a “holiday that he carries with himself”. At the airport during passport control the girl read exotic for her Russian names and then sang them to the melody of a popular song. We heard them in so an unusual performance for the first time. We could never guess that they possess so much of poetry and melody.