… I need to get back into blogging. There’s just no motivation to be found. Every time I think about my blog, a wave of something about halfway between dread and shame washes over me and I say to myself, “Tomorrow. I’ll blog tomorrow.”
What has been going on for these past two and a half weeks, you ask? One of the highlights, if you will, was a trip through the Zona Oriental (Santo Domingo Este) to see some of the more impoverished neighborhoods, then a trip through the bateyes to the north of the city. What we saw was a stark, unfiltered glimpse of what goes on here when you get out of the “nice part of town” and beyond the resorts, beautiful beaches, and picaresque tropical setting. For the people living in these “barrios calientes” and bateyes, life is hard, dangerous, and there’s little hope of improvement. In the barrios, a couple of pesos here and there is their income: what can be earned selling fruits, windshield wipers, and newspapers on the street corners in Sto. Dgo.; what can be earned by doing 12-14 hours of work a day cleaning someone’s house; what can be earned by providing day-labor to the upper class. But each night they come back to their house in the barrios, close and lock their doors and windows after 6 p.m. because it’s so dangerous, and start over again the next morning because they have mouths to feed.
Compared to life in the bateyes, however, this is a regal existence. A small, pock-marked dirt road led us from the highway into the center of one of the bateyes. To drum up a comparison for those of you who have never seen the Third World, it was very much a scene out of a Save the Children commercial. You remember those, don’t you? Having seen this first-hand now, I wish when I was 12 and my parents told us that they were going to send the money they would have spent on Christmas gifts to one of these funds that my sister and I hadn’t pitched such a fit. In one of the bateyes, their cistern had been broken and empty for 3 months, in the other one, the ground was littered with trash, human and dog waste, and dead rodents. Despite the absolute squalor and lack of any public resource or utility, the residents of the bateyes manage to be friendly, have their faith (Christianity is the rule here), and be thankful for what little they have.
One of the recurring problems here that exacerbates the situation in the bateyes is the old Dominican-Haitian hatred. The majority of the population in the bateyes is Haitian or Haitian-Dominican; as such, they are a people without a country. They, or their ancestors, arrived here to work in the sugar fields, and just stayed on, as Haiti really has nothing to offer them. The Dominican government will not extend them citizenship or permanent resident status, and thus they have no rights to equal protection. Leonel Fernandez’ administration has done some work to improve the conditions, but the general apathy and disdain towards these country-less people prevents anything from really improving. Most of the Dominicans I speak with are aware of the situation, but are scared of these places. The others wonder what can be done when the government is more interested in spending billions of pesos on a (useless) metro system and shiny, new highways than in building out the failing infrastructure which could provide water, electricity, and decent health care to these impoverished areas.
My take is this: until a large, well-known and established Dominican group raises the public’s awareness of the conditions that exist only a couple of kilometers outside of any city here, nothing will change. The people living in the bateyes will continue to be invisible, forgotten, and feared; they will continue to be born, live, and die in ramshackle huts and never escape the abject poverty that is their reality. There are several US and foreign NGOs working here to try to improve things (Peace Corps, USAID, etc.), but without the full cooperation and recognition from the Dominican government there’s not much that can be done.
So, next time you’re traveling in a tropical paradise such as the Dominican Republic, Mexico, parts of Africa, Asia, etc., take the time to see the other side of life – i.e. the hidden side – to get a true feel for what life is like there. Go out of the touristy areas, meet the locals, explore the not-so-nice sections (exercising prudence and caution, of course), and your experience will be that much richer. I’m glad I went on this tour, horrified that these conditions still exist, and looking forward and thinking about what I can do to help.
Until next time – mahalo.