Cities I know: Washington DC, Freiburg, Pensacola, Mobile, Baltimore, LA, Pocatello. The only way to “know” a city is to spend time living there. The tourist view is so much different than the resident view.
The latest city I’ve come to “know” is Santo Domingo. In the spirit of “learning is life” I decided to learn Spanish this year and so traveled to Santo Domingo for 2 weeks to begin that journey at the Casa Goethe. The vision in my mind was of a tropical paradise with local beaches, interesting architecture and fun food choices. I tend to be naïve and willing to take chances.
I arrived safely, made it through customs knowing only “Hola” and “Adios” and “Cinco de Mayo”. My taxi driver had a nice sign to pick me up and we drove out of a modern looking airport, passing palm trees and beaches. So far, so good. And then 25 minutes later he pulled up in front of an apartment building and stopped. And got out. My dreamy island paradise vision crunched under his feet as he stepped on broken beer bottles to unload my suitcase from the trunk. A little dazed it suddenly occurred to me that everyone was speaking Spanish. I followed him up a flight of steps to a barred doorway. He unlocked the padlock and opened the outer jail door then unlocked a deadbolt and regular door lock on the wooden door behind. . He kindly brought my suitcase in the door and thanked me as I tipped him $20. He then spoke to me in Spanish and I had no idea what he was saying but he made it clear that I should ALWAYS lock the padlock on the jail door when I was IN the apartment. He left. I locked. Fire codes certainly weren’t a priority here I thought glumly as I realized I was here alone for 2 weeks.
My impressions of Santo Domingo days 1-2: It is a pit. “Grocery stores” are barely convenience store-sized with fewer groceries than bottles of liquor. Infrastructure is lacking – sidewalks in disrepair, power lines alarmingly low and tangled, garbage everywhere. Besides no fire codes for buildings there are also no noise ordinances enforced. I have never been in a city so loud – construction, horns, cars, busses, music, banana salesmen blaring their messages over loudspeakers, shrieking campaign slogans broadcast from pickup trucks carrying supporters and banners, sirens of every variety. The noise starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends around 1 a.m. The instructors at Casa Goethe speak Spanish to the students for everything and I have no idea how to tell them that there is no wifi in my apartment and the stove doesn’t work, and I am afraid to purchase food because I don’t know how in these walk-up restaurants.
Finally, at the end of day 2, frustrated and grouchy I go to the school and announce, “I have to speak with someone in English.” Chidingly, Luis says, “Espanol.” “I can’t say what I need to say in Spanish.” I think he sees I might burst into tears and gets the director, Jonathan, who soothingly answers my questions in beautiful English and calms my nerves with reason and logic. Berenice then walks me to the local cafeteria and shows me how to order food. Maria tells me I am a great student and learning quickly. Luis arranges for a taxi to pick me up at 6:30 p.m. to take me to the only Brazilian JuiJitsu school in Santo Domingo to train.
My impressions of Santo Domingo day 14: I don’t notice the garbage or sidewalks or power lines now. I’m used to padlocking myself in the apartment and have an emergency egress plan in my head. My neighbor details cars for a living in front of his house and is always cheerful. He is surrounded by friends every time I walk by. I know which “grocery stores” sell diet coke and have the homemade empanadas and fudge (?) I like. The couple who own the cafeteria know me – they know I want take out and that I like the macaroni salad and that they usually have to say the price twice for me to understand. The people at the school – Maria (my teacher), Luis (all purpose guy), Jonathan (director), Berenice (receptionist) are my friends and I am welcomed in the lunch time conversations. My taxi driver knows I’m jumpy in the Santo Domingo traffic and laughs when I gasp. He has taken me to the BJJ school and brought me home every day that I’ve been here. Machete BJJ is awesome and I got to roll with women my own size (who were great and mostly kicked my butt). The church across the street has outdoor worship and praise on Wednesday and Sunday nights and the music lasts til about 11 p.m. Elections came and went and there were no riots. I feel quite at home here now and I think I will miss it. What changed? How can I look at this city and think it’s beautiful now? People. People make a city what it truly is. Loving and knowing people makes all the difference, every time, everywhere.