West Indies

Dominican Republic
Journal

Sketches and notes from my travels from
Puerto Plata to Punta Cana.

Dominican Republic Map, Handpainted by Erik Gauger

The people at the airport said that we missed our plane. Didn't we confirm our international reservation 24 hours before departure? Didn't we know they changed the scheduled time by three hours?

But why don't you go standby on the flight to Puerto Plata, the airport people said. It's only "three hours away" from Punta Cana, and it would allow us to still make the wedding on the beach.

Fine, we said. We'll rent a car in Puerto Plata and drive to the wedding.

Green Anole in the Dominican Republic Green Anole sketched in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

The car rental people in Puerto Plata said - "three hours, no way...you have to drive across the country. It's ten hours!"

And so off we went. Driving in other countries doesn't normally bother me. But almost instantly in the Dominican Republic, I was grasping the wheel, sweating. This is because the Dominicans are, as I quickly found out, absolutely horrible drivers.

I should remind you that I am also in a very good mood. The new prospect of driving across the country opens up unimaginable exploration that we hadn't intended. I had read about, sketched and studied the endemic reptiles and birds of Hispaniola for months; I wanted to see the high mountain pine forest anyway.

But the longer we drive, the quicker my desire to look for a hispaniolan parrot gives way to pure, mad concentration. The Dominicans are driving on their mopeds and tiny little cars as if this is the last day of their lives.

One fellow is drinking a beer, and eating his lunch, while driving a moped through the thick traffic. When he's done with his lunch, he flings the styrofoam box into the jungle, ,rice and plastic silverware flying everywhere.

Another just drops his beer right there on the road.

The Dominican Republic is known often by its comparison to Haiti; Haiti being the country that shares with the Dominican Republic the island of Hispaniola. Haiti is almost completely deforested, and its various governments have closed themselves off to outside influence, largely because of enduring bitterness about slavery and race relations from other times.

Antillean MangoThe Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has made laws to conserve and protect its resources, and to stay open to the outside world. The dichotomy is perhaps best understood by looking at the Caribbean's second largest island on GoogleEarth or similar satellite images. Haiti's forest cover has been reduced to only 2% of the entire country. Haiti viewed through satellite images reveals a mismanaged nightmare land of dirt and ghettos.

Cuban Dogfish

The Dominican Republic, comparatively, looks like an emerald jewel.

But if you remove the comparison to Haiti, the Dominican Republic still comes out poor and overpopulated. That's a bad combination; and the mess of shacks, and busy, dangerous roads.

Tourism is crucial to the Dominican Republic economy; and that fact is obvious throughout the country. But as we drive through Santo Domingo, the nation's capital, and east towards the Atlantic coast, the landscape is consumed by something very eerie.Solenodon from Dominican Republic

Hotels lie half-built, or just completely abandoned, everywhere. Here is a once beautiful coast, but literally destroyed. Many of the names on these abandoned developments are very familiar - Hilton, Best Western, so many more.

The Dominican Republic has structured its tourism infrastructure on the megadevelopment concept - enclosed, gated developments where all pleasure is offered, even pushed. The style of tourism, which has already died in other parts of the world, rolls on in the Dominican Republic.

It is a shame, because none of the all-inclusives offer any glimpse of Dominican Republic culture: in fact, they are universally plain, with a sort of continental style that could be found in Colorado Springs or Mexico City or somewhere in England.

Green Heron, Dominican Republic Green Heron. I sketched this spectacular heron from a photograph I took in the mangroves of Punta Cana.

Somehow, the Dominican Republic's reputation for all-inclusives has killed any regular hotel sector, which is maybe why so many of these hotels lie empty. Megadevelopments attract bad tourists; all-inclusives attract pigs and bores.

Dominican Republic watercolor sketch Watercolor sketch of Dominican Republican wetlands areas on the north coast.

Maybe this place was an emerald next to Haiti. But its tourism strategy has wrecked the country. There are of course a few wonderful areas, and beautiful places. But those places, like the Samana Peninsula, Los Haitises National Park, the southwestern desert coasts, aren't easily accessible - somehow, the country's reputation has turned it into one big megadevelopment; whitewashing its culture, and making it one overcrowded, messy place, with bad drivers dishing their garbage into the jungle.