Santo Domingo: Ground Zero of the New World

Santo Domingo Block Party

This post is about Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic.  It’s also about Chocolate.  And Bachata.  Santo Domingo: People are there, Culture is there, Liveliness is there, History is there.  We gathered into a van and took the long journey (3 hours one way) to Santo Domingo, with a couple of pit stops along the way.  There were panoramic views and souvenir stores.  We also stopped at Playa Boca Chica (Boca Chica Beach)--a public beach just outside the city of Santo Domingo.  The water was warmer than Punta Cana---perhaps because of the sheer number of people in the water.  There were a ton of locals in the water and playing at the beach.  There were also hotels and some tourists, but this was a completely different vibe than Punta Cana.  There were lovely little children in every shade of brown.  Teenagers played a game of tag on the beach with lines drawn in the sand.  It seemed like a typical, leisurely Sunday afternoon.

Teenagers playing a game at Playa Boca Chica
Every shade of brown at Playa Boca Chica

Finally, we arrived in Santo Domingo.  It felt like such a long journey--three hours in a minivan.  A giant cruise ship was docked, and I immediately thought about how this seaport once received slave ships.  The first stop for many Africans after enduring and surviving the Middle Passage.  Here is where they were able to stretch their legs for the first time (as much as someone with shackles can stretch) after being packed and cramped inside of a boat with little circulation and no sanitation for weeks---months.  I imagine some were unable to move and died right there.

I also remembered that this was the place where Christopher Columbus landed after a voyage "gone wrong" to India.  1492.  The beginning of new world globalization.  This was Ground Zero.

Walking in Old Town Santo Domingo

I can't possibly go into the fascinating history of Santo Domingo (and all of Hispaniola for that matter).  And since history classes have failed us all, I encourage you to do a little research, or at least read the Santo Domingo Wiki page.

This journey was personal to me.  My great great great grandmother, Mary, and her mother (my great great great great grandmother) arrived in Louisiana from Santo Domingo.  I don't know if they were actually working in the sugar cane fields or cacao fields; but, I do know that they were in Santo Domingo for some period of time.  I imagine that it was a longer period than a simple "layover" from Africa, since Mary named her daughter a Spanish name: Lucy.

Our animated, history-loving tour guide Daniel proudly showed us a street- the first in America, cathedral- the first in America, a university- the first in America.  I’m always intrigued by non-“Americans” using the term “America” to refer to what we call “The Americas.”

We first stopped at the National Pantheon---the final resting place for many of the great Dominican Heroes.  This does not include the tyrannical leader, Trujillo, but due to “the fuku” (an ancient curse) I won’t get into that.  Our tour guide, Daniel, often spoke of the “Hispaniola family,” which was surprising for me to hear due to efforts made by Truijillo to “other-ise” Haitians.

Old Town Santo Domingo
Posing in front of the Supreme Court in Old Town Santo Domingo

We made a detour to do a little shopping.  We drank mama juana—-the “cure all” aphrodisiac elixir made of rum, honey, and red wine marinated in roots and herbs.  The mama juana in Santo Domingo tasted more like a port-ish, mulled red wine---unlike the cough syrup-tasting mama juana we downed in Punta Cana.  A cab driver even told me "Drink the mama juana and you'll have a baby in nine months."

We also stopped at the “Choco Museum”---a boutique-like store with plenty of cacao products to sample, and historical items like a cacao grinder and a giant mortar and pestle.  First, I sampled cacao tea.  Cacao bits are steeped in hot water, making a deliciously-rich, dairy-free “hot cocoa.”  I then sampled various chocolate liquers—-from ginger and mango, to vanilla and coffee.  All amazing.  They also had various cocoa butters and a plethora of other cocoa and cacao products.  I could have stayed there for hours, but alas, my group was ready to depart.

Cacao Nibs at the Chocolate Museum in Santo Domingo
Tasting Liquers at the Chocolate Museum

I was really feeling the heat after all that liquer tasting, and Old Town Santo Domingo seemed even more colorful and vibrant.  Buildings were painted an array of colors.  It felt like the vibrant culture of the city jumped out at me.  The energy was infectious.  There were throngs of people outside, as evening was nearing.

Walking to the block party in colorful Santo Domingo

Our last stop was a quintessential island block party.  My experience with islands has been that people tend to have dance parties outside.  I assume that this is because the weather is mild and pleasant, and you get great air circulation.  Plus, there’s no limit to how big the party can be!  Well, this party was huge.  There was live music, a giant dance floor and Dominicans with small plastic chairs sitting outside chillin, dancing, and drinking.  Music played, and people danced bachata, an Afro-Latino salsa-ish music that originated in the Dominican Republic.  There was a simple, two-step variation of bachata that anyone can do.  It reminded me of Zouk---the two-step dance that is the hallmark dance of the French Antilles (islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe).

So, I danced a little bachata with friends and was ready to hit the dance floor.  It would have been so easy to find a dance partner, but it was getting late and sadly, our tour was ending.  So, the eleven of us piled back into our van and passed out for the three-hour journey “home” to Punta Cana.

Block Party in Santo Domingo
Vendor at Santo Domingo Block Party
Walking the streets of Old Town Santo Domingo