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Food and Travel: History-laden Holiday Island

A RECENT fortnight’s working holiday on the picture-postcard Caribbean destination of the Dominican Republic will clearly be pre-eminently memorable for the catastrophic earthquake, which killed maybe 250 000 in the neighbouring territory of Haiti…and almost threw me off my bar-stool, pecking at my laptop 400km away!

The people, themselves, will always have a fond, warm place in my heart: laid back and ultra-relaxed, but paradoxically anxious to make each visit as absolutely perfect as possible for tourists from every corner of the globe.

Almost every visitor I met was on a repeat visit. One extended Kansas family have been to the same hotel in Puerto Plata the first fortnight in January for 23 years.

The weather wasn’t quite as foreseen, in a January 2010 when the northern hemisphere’s collective teeth chattered with Arctic cold and even citrus and soft-fruit crops in the US’s sunniest state: Florida suffered frost damage and destruction.

It wasn’t cold in the Dominican Republic….is it ever? Can it possibly be? But lovely light, sunny days much favoured by artists, photographers and international film-makers were not always apparent.

Skies were often washed-out grey and it drizzled –– rather than rained seriously ––two or three hours daily of nine of my 14 full days spent there.

Ever looking on the bright-side, this was possibly a bonus, as fairly exhausting and exhaustive exploration of the beautifully maintained or faithfully restored 15th, 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial zone in the capital city would have been even more wearing in 40 degrees Celsius  temperatures often found there.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island he called La Isla Espanola (“Spanish island”: corrupted to Hispaniola) in 1492, thinking he had landed in Japan, rather than the New World.

The Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the land mass still has a strong Latin feel, atmosphere and ambience (Columbus, from Genoa, now in Italy, sailed on voyages of discovery for the Spanish monarchy).

Conversely, the recently earthquake-hit and historically tragic former French colony of Haiti (where the world’s first successful slave revolt occurred) is more redolent of West Africa, where most of the ancestors of the occupants were captured.

In 1805 slaves rose, beating the armies of Napoleon, who was seriously threatening world domination.

In 1502, Columbus and his lesser-known brother, Bartholomew, founded Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic. The first city to be built in the Americas, it was home to the New World’s first cathedral, university and monastery; even the Western world’s first proper street: Calle de las Damas.

These all survive in a pristine condition in an area which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but modern amazingly clean Santa Domingo boasts wide, beautifully-engineered highways with breathtakingly designed and built bridges.

Driving through the capital’s CBD and suburbs I noticed avenues named after John F Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. These and ubiquitous enormous electioneering hoardings which stud roadsides in the green, well-watered, mountainous country suggest a healthy concern for democracy, which was not always evident.

Originally named Isabella –– after the Queen of Spain: Isabella the Catholic –– the city was re-named in honour of St Dominic in the 16th century.

But from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, the capital was called Ciudad Trujillo, after the dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist for over three decades.

Today, it would appear that no one under pensionable age has even heard of the hard-man and ultra-corrupt Rafael Leonarado Trujillo, whereas for 30 years almost every street, square, school, public building and even the capital city bore his moniker, portrait and/or statue. Ahem!

There was some fighting in Santo Domingo’s streets during half-hearted resistance to a US Marines’ intervention in 1965 to head-off a Cuban-style communist takeover. The country had previously been occupied by the US from 1916-24.

From the earliest days of Spanish occupation, it was mainly used as a base for exploration and conquest. From it, the possibly unfortunately named Ponce de Leon sailed to discover Puerto Rico, Herman Cortez launched his invasion of Mexico, Balbao discovered the Pacific Ocean and Diego de Velázquez set out to occupy Cuba.

In 1586, Santa Domingo was itself conquered and almost entirely sacked by Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite master mariner, Sir Francis Drake. Soon after this, the island became the favoured haunt of Blackboard the Pirate (Captain Edward Teach), Henry Morgan and Charles Vane, each keen to plunder treasure-laden ships carrying gold and silver, mined on the island, to the Spanish royal mint and treasury.

In 1697, the western part of the island was officially declared a French colony under the name of Saint-Dominguez (re-named Haiti in 1804.)

In 1844, poet-patriot Juan Pablo Duarte unilaterally declared the eastern two-thirds of the island independent from Spain as the Dominican Republic.

Today it is a major year-round tourist destination due to easy accessibility from major clients’ airports, balmy climate and smiling, welcoming attractive people, its beaches, clear, clean, warm, seas, mountains and affordable “all inclusive” international hotel and resort package deals.

Away from the jet-setters it is a fascinating blend of bright pastel-painted homes varying in design, construction, size and setting from Hollywood-style mansions to the type of pondoki seen on Zimbabwean mining and farming compounds.

A huge variety of tropical fruits, honey, jams, artefacts, freshwater and marine fish are strung up for sale at roadside shacks; coffee beans laid out to dry by the roadside; the unspoilt countryside is lush with timber, crops and sleek farm animals.

Friendly, well-dressed children, smilingly wave welcomes and farewells to travellers and everywhere the local semi-annoyingly catchy “meringue” music can be heard.


Dusty Miller

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