One Island, Two Tales

Hispaniola is anything but the unified, homogenous sort of place one might envision when they here the world “island”. With the Dominican Republic on its right flank and Haiti to its left, this Caribbean landmass has been divided and different for generations. The fate of these two nations began with Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World, when he shipwrecked his ship, the Santa María, to the north of the island. The ensuing incursions that followed and subsequent colonization from two of Europe’s great continental powers – France and Spain – did much to set the countries careening on two quite different paths.

Now, the D.R. ranks towards the middle of the U.N.’s human development index, whereas Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The D.R.’s GDP per capita ranks 106 counties higher and is $14,000 more than Haiti’s, and its lifespan 13 years longer. This degree of disparity is off-putting on paper yet surreal – indeed, almost incomprehensible – in reality.  Port-au-Prince is Haiti’s capital to the western part of Hispaniola and its most prominent city. Punta Cana lies on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, and is an infamous Caribbean vacation destination.  Though I visited Port-au-Prince on a medical trip in 2015 and Punta Cana on vacation this March, the two places feel eons apart in time and space.

Haiti has been a poverty-stricken, chronically mismanaged, and woefully unlucky country since its inception. From the start—as a lucrative French colony turned successful slave revolt—the nation and its people have been in the crosshairs of the West; at the wrath of Mother Nature; subject to the whims and dictates of ruthless autocrats; and exploited by international companies hell-bent on commandeering every ounce of the country’s natural resources.

The D.R. faced similar struggles to Haiti from the outset. Colonized by the Spanish and conquered by the Haitians for a brief stint in the early 18th century, the D.R. fought for independence on two fronts. Like Haiti, the nation was subject to bullying and marauding from foreign powers. However, the D.R. had one-tenth as many slaves as Haiti, thus, Dominicans have lighter skin and the country never became the only de jure black sovereign republic in the world. These two facts liberated the D.R. from the crushing debts and oppressive strangleholds that western powers leveled on Haiti, and gave the former a perverse feeling of superiority that led to conflict and genocide at Haiti’s expense. As Hispaniola’s east has suffered, its western inhabitants have improved their lot.

As American Airlines flight 2277, direct from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, circled to land, I could see many of Haiti’s ills firsthand from a bird’s eye view. Beyond the plumes of dark, black smoke drifting up from the city and a handful of official-looking structures was barren land, stripped of vegetation and deforested long ago for someone to make a quick buck. Corrugated tin roofs and shaky structures stretched across the outer reaches of the city, swallowing up the countryside and crawling up into the mountainside. Upon disembarking from the plane and dragging my flip-flops across the hot tarmac, I inhaled the telltale sign of a third world country: the noxious scent of plastic and other garbage burning.

United Airlines Flight 1520 from Newark, New Jersey, to Punta Cana cruised over a brilliant blue sea, crossed a sandy beach, and descended on a runway surrounded by trees stretching out well into the depths of the island.  The terminals, which were open-air and topped with thatched palm roofs, were filled with cheery tourists and duty-free employees.

Hispaniola’s basic divide immediately began to crystalize as I departed from each airport. In Port-au-Prince, traffic was mind-splitting and the city sounds cacophonous. In Punta Cana, the countryside was much less barren and I could smell and see an air much more pristine. The infrastructure was functional as opposed to ramshackle, building plans were methodical rather than haphazard, and roads were paved and mapped rather than crater-filled and chaotic.

The historical differences between the two countries immediately also began to manifest. American signs abounded in both places. The difference was Haiti had U.S. AID and Clinton Global Initiative markers touting earthquake reconstruction and water relief sites, whereas the D.R. was lined with banners and signposts of multinational corporations making known their waterfront resort or announcing construction for the next big venue.

In Port-au-Prince, our driver, Jimmy, weaved his decade-old Ford Explorer – one that would not pass muster in any other country I’d ever been to – through traffic that included heavy duty, militarized United Nations vehicles. The scenes of Port-au-Prince were supremely ironic and maddeningly chaotic. It would be comical in an alternate universe. In the halls of a hospital, rats feasted on trash accumulating in the corners of a room. In the slums, a man of 40 years or so wore a custom-made shirt, taken from a Goodwill pile, celebrating Jim and Linda’s 15th wedding anniversary. At the top of a winding, well-kept road stood a fort used in the 18th century for the Haitian independent army to look out for European or American invaders.  The structure, a prime opportunity for tourist revenue and national pride, had fallen into mismanagement, was abandoned, and was manned and run by illegitimate squatters.

In Punta Cana, massive all-inclusive resorts hugged the coastline, perhaps one of the island’s greatest natural beauties. The Majestic Colonial, a five-star resort, “fits perfectly into the lush flora and fauna of the Dominican Republic,” the website boasts, along with its 658 rooms, tennis courts, seven restaurants, spa, and ten-plus bars. On the other end of the towering walls, security checkpoints, and mile-long road into the resort were palm trees and a sandy beaches stretching for miles, which backed up against dozens of other resorts. The cultural isolation of the Majestic Colonial hotel and its cordoned-off coast was befitting for an all-inclusive type of vacation. Tourists relax or revel at the resort before being whisked out the airport to depart from where they came. After all, why leave the premises and discover the country you’re in when you have everything you need at your fingertips?

A deep sense of guilt accompanied me on both trips, though it took two very different forms. In Haiti, it is tragic to witness a country without basic necessities like running water, steady electricity, or functioning hospitals. But the worse tragedy is that Haitians cannot afford to reckon with these day-to-day problems in the face of larger, cosmically unjust issues – hurricanes, earthquakes – as well as other sinister problems that America has played a large hand in causing. In the Dominican Republic, I was welcomed warmly but in a distinctly commercial sense. With my knowledge of the island, it didn’t feel right to visit – tour, really – without making any effort to interact with people, explore the area, or experience the culture.

After my first trip to Hispaniola,where I saw such suffering and misfortune firsthand, my second trip to a lush, glib, concocted destination didn’t feel like I was in the same place. It felt like an entirely foreign place, with a completely different story, one that couldn’t possibly fit on the same island as the first.



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