Wise words. I had quite a bit of excitement in Haiti: a military coup, refugees in leaky boats and mutilated bodies in trash cans, and then invasion, US marines and a UN multilateral army. After horrendous trouble and horrendously long hours, I was looking for a respite when George called from the Dominican Republic.
2000 miles from the US, south-east of Cuba is the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, 30,000 square miles. The eastern part of the island, two-thirds, is the Dominican Republic, the western third is Haiti. The whole island has a horrific history of rapacity by Spanish and French invaders: exploitation, slavery and wanton cruelty. When they left, local dictators like Trujillo and Duvaliers took up the mantle and inflicted years of poverty and suffering on their people. Haiti, once the jewel of the French crown, was now the poorest land in the western hemisphere. Dominican Republic, though better, still bore the scars of its past.
When I arrived at George’s home with my wife and two small daughters, his maid greeted me, and I found on the dining table three things: five hundred dollars in the local currency, a list of places to see and the names of good local restaurants. When George and his wife arrived in our suburban home, he found the same three things on the dining table, and a valet in addition to the maid greeted him.
What we did with our week in a new country was very different. George loved our sprawling seven-bedroom house and the delicious Haitian food our maid cooked and our valet served. They sunned on the terrace, ate long, leisurely meals, and had their exercise by swimming in the house pool. They went out occasionally, but used their vacation mostly to relax and rest their bones.
When we arrived in George’s home, an elegant apartment downtown, we noticed that it was ideally located in the very heart of a bustling city, with numerous places and events within easy reach. We enjoyed the breakfast in the morning George's maid served, but after that there was no stopping us. Rain or shine, we went out every day, exploring museums and galleries, palaces and streets, shops and roadside restaurants. The Colonial Zone is a maze of narrow streets, bordered by architectural surprises from the sixteenth century, palaces converted into breathtaking museums, elegant homes turned into shops and restaurants, the ten-block Calle de Conde brimming with cafes and souvenir shops and art vendors, the Casa de Teatro where artists and writers jostle and watch the latest photo exhibits.
I felt like I had suddenly walked back into history, when I flew kites with my brother and friends. I did not just fly them, I dreamed them. We begged and collected money, bought kites of different colors and dimensions, sometimes writing little messages on them. We prepared for kite wars by grinding glass, mixing it with glue and then dipping the kite thread in that hellish mixture, so that the thread could slice the kite thread of rivals. Kites and kite wars were an important part of my childhood.
All the intervening years had suddenly melted. I could just stand in that park and watch other fly kites, but I couldn't. I promptly bought three kites and a reel of threads to fly them. I told Monica with supreme confidence, “We will have great fun.”
Frankly, I don’t quite remember whether we took successful revenge, but at the day’s end we had predictably lost all the three kites. But our heart was full and we really had great fun. Monica used to recount her role in a kite war as her peak experience in the Dominican Republic.
Twenty years later when a young man proposed marriage to Monica, I was taken aback to find that she had decided that she wanted to be married in the Dominican Republic. I was taken aback, but not entirely surprised.