A few months ago, waiting for a train on London Underground’s Victoria line, I found myself staring at an oversized advert for the Dominican Republic. The scene was nothing short of idyllic: palm trees, beaches, cocktails, vibrantly attired dancing ladies. “The Dominican Republic has it all”, the poster beamed.
Less than 24 hours after setting foot in the DR, it seemed to me that the country’s tourist board was spot on. During our first day in Santo Domingo we bathed in fabulous sunshine, met a host of friendly Dominicans, ate mangoes and marvelled at swathes of extraordinary scenery.
And this is exactly what most people see of the DR – before they head home with a rich tan and a camera full of Caribbean holiday snaps.
But even after a few early encounters, it’s clear that the Dominican Republic of luxury get-away fame is but one face of this enormously complex country.
Heading West from the capital, on our way to the town of Jimaní, we leave the sprawling city – and some unbelievably erratic driving – behind. And then our commentary begins. We’re travelling with one of Progressio’s local experts – a development worker who knows the Dominican Republic intimately. Having lived in Haiti, she also knows about the problems facing the DR’s neighbour, and much about the often tense relationship between the two countries.
Her insights are far more than we’d get from a guidebook and before long we’re able to find out why the route we take is dotted with the occasional soldier (to control the flow of migrants from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, particularly following January’s earthquake); what the pile of burnt out tyres in the middle of the road is doing there (it’s likely to be from a local protest over the price of electricity or water) and whether the groups of (mostly) men huddled by the road-side are drinking or chatting? (Neither, they’re playing dominoes, the national pastime).
Many of these cultural translations would take a newcomer months to fathom, but less than an hour out of the capital, we are feeling fairly clued up. We know that there are more than a million undocumented (so-called ‘illegal’) Haitians working in the DR – and that they’re the powerhouse of the country’s informal sector. We know that the Dominicans were first on the scene following Haiti’s devastating quake and offered unprecedented material and emotional support, and we know that the DR faces a catalogue of home-grown problems itself – from poor education to lack of opportunities for rural communities. In Jimaní, which is just a stone's throw from Haiti, and from where I am now writing, this couldn’t be more palpable. The major source of income here comes from cross-border transactions – culminating in a weekly market which is known far and wide for its tomato ketchup, large blocks of ice and second hand clothing!
So, there you have it. Is the DR a Caribbean paradise? Yes, in many ways it is. And, well, no. It seems you barely have to scratch the surface and the real Dominican Republic lies exposed. Maybe, in the end, 'having it all' is rather harder than it looks.
Jo Barrett is Progressio's Media Officer