Clark Zlotchew | Havana, 1958

A Tale of Two Dictatorships

Do those who live in a democratic state take their freedoms for granted? How does the behavior we exhibit when we travel outside our home country reflect national and cultural values? The following personal history piece is a sketch of life under two brutal dictatorships: François Duvalier (“Poppa Doc)” of Haiti and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Vacationing here in 1961, the author narrowly avoided being shot. “A Tale of Two Dictatorships” records a one-day experience with two very strange American tourists. They should be a lesson on how not to behave abroad.

It was a fascinating adventure in which I just missed being shot to death. I also had the distinct displeasure of meeting a pair of weird American tourists who spread creepiness throughout the Caribbean. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning. 

Airborne

It was 1961. On the rickety twin-engine prop job carrying me from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the pilot announced, in Spanish and in English, that Lake Enriquillo, astride the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was visible from the starboard windows. The port-side passengers excitedly bolted from their seats and stampeded to stand in the aisle and look at this less-than-magnificent sight. To do so they leaned heavily against the seated starboard-side passengers.

The plane suddenly banked sharply to starboard — purposely for a better view or as a consequence of the shifting weight, I’m not sure — resulting in the standees’ losing their balance and sprawling with all their weight on the seated passengers. A crackling voice on the intercom requested the standees to return to their seats immediately, assuring the passengers, in that overly relaxed voice employed to conceal incipient panic, that the craft would circle and place the lake beneath the windows of the port-side passengers. When the plane banked to port side, the starboard passengers, obviously not satisfied with their first look at the lake, emulated the behavior of their opposite numbers. Once more, the warning to be seated was followed by rather reluctant and leisurely compliance. Now, I’m not absolutely certain, but just before the intercom was turned off, I thought I heard the pilot mutter some nasty Spanish words.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti | Photo by Robin Canfield on Unsplash

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, June 1961

No tourists were going to Haiti in 1961 because of fear. I knew this; in fact, I chose to take my vacation in the poorest of all Western Hemisphere countries because I wanted adventure. Passing through Haitian Customs at the Port-au-Prince International Airport was a unique experience for me that summer of 1961. The first of the officials before whom I had to parade was an elderly gentleman with a four-day white beard and eyeglasses the thickness of the bottoms of Coke bottles. His job was to check the names of the incoming passengers against the names on a hand-written list. Apparently, it was critical to ensure that the names of those entering the country agreed with those on the list. President François Duvalier (a.k.a. “Papa Doc”) had enemies. Many of them. He was an iron-fisted, sadistic dictator who maintained tight control over this poverty-stricken nation with the aid of ruthless secret police, familiarly called the Tonton Macoute (Créole slang for “Uncle is listening to me”). Papa Doc was also a fervent practitioner of Voodoo.

The official asked me my name. I stated it. He looked at his list, his eyes, covered by the Coke bottle lenses came to within two inches of the list. He squinted through the sheets on the desk before him without being able to locate my name. He asked me to show him some identification. After peering intently at my driver’s license for a full minute, he turned his passenger list to face me, asking me to point out my name. I did so, and he placed a neat check beside it.

After running the gauntlet of minor officials, I decided to ascertain the value of the local currency, something I had neglected to do in advance. No sense in rushing things. Two Haitian men in their late twenties wearing expertly tailored, no doubt expensive, tropical suits and fashionable wraparound sun glasses, were chatting in Haitian Créole. They faced each other, showing me their profiles. I approached them from the side, and politely cleared my throat to announce my presence. They seemed oblivious of my existence, although I stood but one foot away from them. They chose to ignore me.

I politely said, “Excuse me…” They leisurely continued their conversation while lounging against a chain link fence. I tried French, “Pardonnez-moi, messieurs…” They continued chatting. After several sentences they noticed that, rather than taking the hint, I was still there. They turned to stare at me with supreme indignation, lips curled in contempt, one eyebrow raised on each man’s face, as though I had just committed some egregious breach of etiquette or was giving off an offensive odor. I felt like an insect, but I can be extremely determined.  

“Excuse me,” I repeated, now that I had their attention, “but do you gentlemen speak English?”            

They removed their sunglasses to glare at me, then they closed their eyes, as though wishing me to disappear. One of them deigned to answer me by snarling, “No!” Strangely, I noted that he didn’t pronounce it as the nasal French non; it sounded exactly like the normal English no. Perhaps this was his diplomatic manner of informing me they really did speak English, but were too busy to speak with me at that particular moment, or perhaps at any moment from there to eternity. They immediately faced each other once more and resumed their conversation.

Not to be dismissed so easily, switching to my then very limited French. I said, “Euh, L’argent d’ici et l’argent Americain…. Quelle est la différence?” I was clumsily asking about the exchange rate between the local currency and American dollars. Only it sounded more like, “Uh, the money of here and American money…. What’s the difference?” I noticed that people who were in earshot of this conversation, both officials and civilians, stopped what they were doing to stare at me, eyes wide with alarm. This probably should have given me the hint to cease and desist. I then noticed the shoulder holster under their jackets and thought that perhaps it would have been a better idea to have let myself be dismissed by them. 

One of them, without taking the trouble of turning his head in my direction, impatiently said, “La même chose (“The same thing”). His tone, icily disdainful, suggested that what he really meant was, “Get lost, you impudent American dog!” Incidentally, I soon learned that his knowledge of the exchange rate was sadly off the mark. The Haitian gourde was worth twenty cents. He must have been distracted. Thinking about that episode, the disdainful attitude, the expensive clothing (in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere), their well-fed physiques in a country where the average person is underfed and thin…. Not to mention the not-so-well concealed guns. All this should have given me a clue that they were Tonton Macoute, the brutal Secret Police. The fact that I escaped any physical harm must reflect their concern at the lack of tourism and the government’s efforts to increase that profitable industry. They probably realized that the murder or even torture of American tourists would not be conducive to increased tourism. Anyway, I was there for adventure, after all, and I started the day with a dose of it.

Stepping outside the terminal, I was greeted by a blast of hellish heat, the smell of exhaust fumes, humidity, and dust, as well as a scene of utter confusion. There were soldiers in battle gear beside the exits, brandishing rifles with fixed bayonets. Taxis raised clouds of dust, speeding to beat the competition by breaking into the line of taxis. Actually, there was no real line. Instead, there was a chaotic jumble of taxis at various angles to the curb, cutting each other off, and drivers shaking fists at rivals. All this to the cacophony of shouted curses, the blasting of horns and the squeal of brakes. The noise was unnerving. Everyone seemed both desperate and enraged. This was definitely a change of pace, and I was sure I was no longer in New Jersey. 

Haiti | Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

A soldier asked, “Taxi?” then asked the name of my hotel. When I provided it, he blew a shrill blast on his whistle, pointed to a taxi and shouted a command to the driver, who shouted back at the soldier. The army man shouted more loudly in a commanding tone that brooked no argument, and the taxi driver motioned for me to get in.

The tires squealed, and gravel rattled against the vehicle as we blasted off in a cloud of dust. As we drove off, the driver let out what I assume was a stream of invective in Haitian Créole.

I asked, “Is something wrong?”

“Ah, ce soldat là est fou!” (Oh, that soldier is crazy.) Then, in a softer tone, “I am not a simple taxi driver; this is a tour car. He could see that. I take people on tours around the city.”

He then turned to look at me. “Do you want to go on a tour?”

I hurriedly pointed out that while he was looking back at me, this vehicle, careening at 70 MPH, was wandering into the lane in which a Mack truck was hurtling toward us, seemingly at the speed of light. After a moment of reflection, which probably seemed longer than it actually was, he faced front — he was very alert — and veered back into our lane as the wind raised by the truck made the taxi sway.  The driver of the oncoming truck smiled good-naturedly and exhibited his middle finger to my driver in what probably was a local gesture of camaraderie among professional drivers. It is refreshing to see that kind of solidarity among the knights of the road. My driver, responding to the brotherly greeting, yelled back something in Créole, which I imagine was a friendly greeting asking after the health of his mother, because I did hear the word maman, which means mother.

“So,” my driver said, turning his face to me yet again while maintaining warp speed, “do you want to go on a tour? I give very good tours.”

Not in a million years, even if you paid me, is what I thought. What I said was, “I need to get to my hotel now and get squared away. Maybe in a week or so.” What I was thinking was, I’ll be sure to contact you on the first of…never! Of course, he couldn’t know I was going to stay for only two more days.   

He then leaned down toward the floor, his head below the windshield and with one hand on the wheel, still maintaining speed. He could not possibly see the road from that position unless he had a periscope down there. He was apparently searching for something on the floor, or, heaven forfend, was feeling faint and wanted the blood to go to his head. I must admit, I was somewhat disturbed by his confidence in his driving abilities, and in the skills of other drivers. He sat up, skillfully swerved past a donkey cart carrying a load of sugar cane, turned back to me and handed me his business card. “When you are ready, we go on tour. Yes?”

“Oh, of course. Sure thing,” I said, crossing my fingers.

I was a bit curious about the hole in his windshield and the cracks radiating from it in a kind of spidery design. I asked him about it. He shrugged his shoulders and nonchalantly replied, “I hit a pedestrian.”

“When was that?”

“You mean the first time, the fifth time, or the in-between times?”

Now, all this was taking place before the invention of seat belts for automobiles. Okay, I wanted adventure. I think this qualified.

***

The Grand Hôtel Beau Rivage seemed comfortable enough. At first. It had a palm-shaded swimming pool. A plus. The absence of tourists in 1961 was evident in that no more than one other room in the entire hotel was occupied. Another sign of the sad economic state the hotel, as well as the entire country, found itself in, was that I was unable to cash a traveler’s check for ten dollars at the reception desk. They didn’t have that much cash on hand. This, of course, was before the advent of the credit card. 

After checking in, I took a stroll around town. Little did I know how much of an adventure this was going to be. A woman who appeared to be in her nineties, walking with the aid of a cane, approached from the opposite direction. Her gait, cane and all, was surprisingly brisk, although she favored her left leg and bobbed up and down as she advanced. She was about five foot two, but seemed considerably shorter because she was bent almost double. 

 When she was about thirty feet from me, she smiled, showing very few teeth and a great deal of gums. She shouted to me, “Eh, vous m’aimez?”

At least this was French, not Créole, so I understood. It meant, “Hey, do you love me?  Now, it could also be used just to mean, Do you like me? 

Either way, the question seemed a peculiar one to ask a perfect stranger. What could she possibly have meant with that question? I found it difficult to believe there were nonagenarian street walkers plying their trade in Haiti. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Perhaps she was a former “working girl” (but when, in 1890?) who was suffering from dementia and believed she was still young? Well, I couldn’t worry about all the possibilities. She was now at twenty feet and closing. I had to give her an answer, because not answering would be discourteous. I knew that if I answered her question affirmatively, I could be getting myself into all kinds of complications with an unbalanced woman. I thought honesty, therefore, was the best policy.  Since I was not feeling particularly amorous toward her, the answer, cruel as it might be, had to be negative. She was now at fifteen feet away. 

Clark Zlotchew | Naval Reserves Training Cruise, 1956

“Non,” I shouted to her, perhaps just a bit too loudly. 

She frowned and indignantly — and vociferously — asked, “Pour quoi? Parce que je suis noire?”

I realized, even with my limited French, that she was stridently asking if I didn’t like her because she was black! Oh, no, no, no! Just what I needed: being accused of racism in the black republic of Haiti, the country which gained its independence in the nineteenth century through a slave uprising. It might be important to mention that during that insurrection the slaves murdered every single white person in the country. I was starting to panic. I had to think of something in French that I knew how to say to show I was not a racist. And I had to think fast; she was now at ten feet. The only thing that occurred to me was the truth.

I yelled back, “Non! C’est parce que vous êtes vielle.” (No! It’s because you’re old.)

Of course, that could be interpreted as somewhat insulting, but at least its target was only one person, not an entire race. But I thought she might strike me with her cane. I was relieved when she smiled a broad smile, threw her head back and began to cackle a prolonged laugh that brought to mind the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” as she passed me and kept going. I smiled back to show I realized she was joking and that it was all in good fun. I still don’t understand the whole episode, but I was grateful it ended so peacefully. The more I thought about it, however, I regretted having to say I didn’t love, or maybe like her, because she was old. Even though she laughed it off, I wondered how it really made her feel. But why did she ask me that question? So many years later, it still disturbs me. And I, at present, am probably older than she was at the time.

Yet, that was a minor event compared with what happened fifteen minutes later. While just strolling around town at random, I found myself crossing a wide street in a quiet neighborhood. On the other side of the street was a tree-lined sidewalk. Past the sidewalk was a high black iron fence enclosing a wide and well-kept lawn bordered by shrubs and trees. Through the trees, I could glimpse part of a very large white house. I started to cross the street and heard shouting. I couldn’t understand the Créole and couldn’t imagine anyone was yelling at me, so I ignored it and kept advancing.

The shouting grew louder and sounded more excited. Then I noticed a soldier behind the iron fence. He was the shouter, but now he was shaking his rifle. At me? Puzzled, I continued. The soldier leveled his rifle directly at my chest. Well, I understood that language. Apparently, he was subtly warning me not to approach any further. I put up my hands and stood still, then slowly turned around and marched back in the direction from which I had just come, hoping this would calm the excited soldier. For a minute or two I was silently praying that my retreat was satisfactory. But I had this weird sensation along my spine, as though the muscles were involuntarily contracting in my back to ward off a possible bullet.

Okay, home free! I later discovered I had been drawing too close to the Haitian equivalent of our White House: the residence of François “Poppa Doc” Duvalier. It was reasonable to assume that while killing the few tourists still loitering around Port-au-Prince was    considered somewhat undesirable for the moribund tourist industry and the economy in general, the soldier would no doubt have shot me if I had not turned back. I can only imagine he would probably have preferred a tongue lashing, or even a literal lashing, over being tortured to death for allowing a stranger to approach the President’s residence. I actually sympathized with the soldier who would have shot me. It began to dawn on me that the freedom I enjoyed back home did not automatically extend to other countries. I was glad I had kept abreast of international news, and understood some basic concepts about travel in many unstable areas of the world. Still, I was learning more through experience. I realized I had to be more aware of my surroundings and circumspect in my behavior.

Papa Doc may have been paranoid, but there actually were a good number of people who would have liked to assassinate him, and for good reason. But he seemed to have a charmed life.  Or maybe he just had body guards who knew that if they failed in their duties to the Chief Voodoo Man, there would be unpleasant consequences. Why do good things happen to bad people?

I did not contact my disgruntled and less than careful tour guide cum taxi driver to arrange a tour for the next day. I wondered which was a more dangerous activity in Haiti: riding with a local tour guide or innocently (and ignorantly) strolling toward the Presidential Palace. No matter; I was seeking adventure, and I was being rewarded for my efforts. I was also learning to take my adventure with a good dose of caution.

I decided to contact the only other guests in the Beau Rivage: two fellow Americans of my own age who, as it turned out, had already arranged a tour for the next day with a former welterweight boxing champion named Sauveur Guerrier. His acquaintances, I learned, called him Ti Guerrier, which fittingly means Little Warrior. They said he would be our guide for a price that I considered reasonable. Dividing the cost among three people would make it even more economical for each of us. The greatest drawback to this deal, I would soon learn, was having to share the tour with these two Americans, who were, shall we say, a bit eccentric.

Duane, a middle school teacher from New Jersey (my home state), was somewhat portly and ruddy-complexioned. More importantly, he was the living stereotype of the loudmouthed tourist. But it went beyond this, as I was to discover. 

Vernon, thin, sallow, dark circles under his eyes, was strangely silent and acquiescent; whatever pleased Duane was perfectly acceptable to Vernon. I don’t think he uttered one word the entire day. I repeat: the entire day. And it was one long day of eccentrically sinister, or perhaps sinisterly eccentric behavior on the part of this dynamic duo. Well, no use getting ahead of myself. 

The next day started with the proverbial bang. I was at breakfast with Ti Guerrier, Duane, and Vernon in a cavernous restaurant on the main street of Port-au-Prince at 7:00 in the morning.  We were seated on a balcony which ran in a circle all around the huge expanse of this establishment. We could look down and observe the tables on the main floor.

Clark Zlotchew | Port-au-Prince, 1961

Duane gave the first signs of a truly eventful day on the horizon. Unless the patrons of that eating establishment — mercifully, there were very few — were stone deaf, they could not have failed to hear Duane’s casual, yet very loud question, delivered in a tone which made it more like an imperious demand. I was convinced everyone in the restaurant could distinctly hear each word. It sounded as though he were communicating with someone hard of hearing at the opposite end of a football field. He leaned back in his chair and bawled out, to no one in particular, “Where are all the whorehouses located around here?” 

I had to hand it to him: he was a free soul, totally uninhibited. But I was mortified, appalled, and pretty uncomfortable. After extricating a piece of toast from my esophagus, I quietly and diplomatically admonished him, almost in a whisper, “Listen, Duane, take it easy. Not so loud. Some of these people might understand English.”

Mistake. Oh, what a humongous mistake!

I had been under the misapprehension that he was loud because he thought no one there understood English. I was wrong.

He answered me at a higher decibel level than his first declaration, “So what?! he bellowed in righteous indignation. “I’m telling you there are f***g WHOREHOUSES around here.” (I thought his adjective was redundant, but no matter.) He continued: “There’s just gotta be, in a messed-up, poverty-stricken, wretched, dirt-poor, down-and-out miserable sh*t ho*e of a country like this.” He actually employed a few more adjectives along the same lines, but much more vulgar. I will spare the reader from having to read them. Then, in a somewhat quieter, almost confidential tone, he added, “I’m just stating the truth here, and if they don’t like it, that’s just tough shit!”

In the tone of a true humanitarian or perhaps philosopher, he incongruously added, “And, damn it, the world needs more truth.” (Maybe not, I dared to think.) When he enunciated this last sentence, a beatific look came over him, his head inclined backward, his face to the heavens, or rather to the ceiling, his eyes closed, presumably to keep out the corruption of this world. At this brief moment, Duane had a distinct resemblance to the saintly martyrs in a Velázquez or Caravaggio painting. All he needed to complete the picture was a shimmering golden halo hovering a few inches over his head.

I decided that in dealing with Duane in a public setting, silence was the better part of valor. The former professional boxer, Ti Guerrier, who, after all, now had to earn a living as a tourist guide, wore a sickly smile. Vernon said nothing and looked at the ceiling. Breakfast was a delight.      

***

We were riding along in a quiet district of low greyish repair shops and stores, unrelieved by green foliage or trees. We saw, a half block ahead on a cross street, a group of brand-new pastel-colored stucco houses that appeared uninhabited. They were small, each one touching its neighbor. They were also a beautiful medley of soft blues, yellows, and pinks that unexpectedly added a bit of cheer into a drab district, like a rainbow in a grey sky.    

 “What are those buildings?” Duane imperiously demanded.

Our guide patiently explained that the government was building them for the destitute people living in tin shacks on the waterfront. It surprised me to learn that this cruel, corrupt government would trouble itself with those unfortunates. This, apparently, was not Duane’s immediate reaction.

“They shouldn’t do that!” Duane had strong convictions.

“Why not?” I timidly ventured, immediately regretting my question, and biting my tongue. I apparently had learned nothing from my experience a short time before when I decided that silence was best when dealing with Duane the Terrible.

Why not??!!” Duane was indignant. His eyes widened, his eyebrows raised, his puffy, round countenance took on the hue of a ripe New Jersey tomato. “I’ll tell you why not. Because they are dirty, filthy, disgusting, revolting pigs! That’s why not.”

I saw Ti Guerrier stare at the road ahead, his jaw muscles working, his knuckles turning white as his hands tightened on the steering wheel, probably wishing the wheel was Duane’s throat. My regret at asking my question did not abate.

Even though no one had challenged his opinion, Duane proceeded to defend it. “They don’t know how to live in houses yet. They have to be taught how to live in houses like human beings first.” Yes, Duane was the consummate teacher who took every opportunity to instruct the uninitiated into the workings of the world.

Duane was not shy expounding on his opinions to anyone who would listen. It was not clear to me who the they in They don’t know how to live in houses yet referred to. Did it refer specifically to the inhabitants of the tin shacks, or did it have wider, and therefore more sinister, implications? But I had, by now, learned not to stir up the hornets’ nest by asking Duane to clarify its meaning. I wondered what our ex-pugilist was thinking. I maintained silence but felt deeply embarrassed.

“Cow in a Stable (also known as The Black Cow),” by Camille Corot

Further along the road, Duane made what I considered an unusual request for a tourist. Judging by the expressions racing across the driver’s face in his rearview mirror — surprise, incomprehension, incredulity, horror, resignation, in rapid succession — it must have been the first time he had heard a tourist make such a request. Duane’s eagle eye had spotted the sign ahead reading ABATTOIR at the entrance to a building. 

“Stop the car!” Duane commanded. 

Taken by surprise, Ti Guerrier slowed down and gently asked, “What?”

“Stop the f***g car! Right now, dammit!” Duane shouted. Duane was no shilly-shallier, no wishy-washy shrinking violet. No sir; he was a man who knew exactly what he wanted, and minced no words. He was never ambiguous. When he spoke, you knew exactly where he stood on matters. Unfortunately. 

Ti Guerrier slammed on the brakes. The car came to a screeching halt in front of the slaughterhouse. He turned around to look at Duane. I saw that Guerrier’s brow was wrinkled, his eyes squinting with puzzlement. I, too, was mystified. Vernon stared ahead, a blank expression on his face.

At that point, Duane announced, “I want to see a cow slaughtered!”

Overcome with revulsion and a resistance to believing what I had just heard, I blurted out, “What?” Oh, no, I thought. I could have kicked myself. I had unthinkingly broken my resolve not to ask him anything further.

Duane repeated his request — his demand — as though witnessing the brutal murder of a member of the bovine community was the most normal tourist activity in the world and which our guide, in his dereliction of duty, had dismally failed to bring to our attention. 

Duane looked at me as though I were retarded. “I said,” he patiently explained — after all, he was a teacher — “I want to see how they slaughter a cow.”

Yes, I had heard right. I was horrified. And speechless. My stomach churned and twisted into a square knot. Ti Guerrier’s mouth fell open. He appeared as appalled as I felt. Vernon, inscrutably stared at the car ceiling. Guerrier, not wishing to frustrate a client, I imagine, shrugged his shoulders and got out of the car. I, not wishing to appear a wimp, meekly followed the puzzled guide, the possibly undead Vernon and our determined teacher/tourist into the slaughterhouse, secretly dreading what awaited us.

What awaited us was a miracle. I was tremendously relieved to learn there were no cattle available for slaughter that day. Not one single cow. It was, after all, an impoverished nation. Meat? Forget about it; let them eat rice and beans. In retrospect, maybe the Haitians knew something about the harmful effects of red meat before the rest of us did. I let out a deep breath I must have been holding for some time without realizing it. Duane was profoundly disappointed, poor guy. The corners of his lips turned down and he punched the palm of one hand with the fist of the other. He was desolate, or at least, disgruntled. I looked at my watch: it was still only nine o’clock in the morning. Yes, it was definitely going to be a long day.

Our guide, very accommodating and pleasant, was no angel, either. As he drove, he proudly regaled us with his tales of conquests with the opposite sex, as well as his clever stratagems for success with them. Passing an ice-cream truck, he cheerfully, even proudly, recounted his repeated victories with the fair sex by means of the ice-cream ploy. This ex-prize fighter made it a habit to sidle up to high school girls at the approach of an ice-cream vendor and offer to treat the most attractive one to an ice cream. Now, who would refuse a free ice cream on a stick or in a paper cup? In a tropical climate. In a far from affluent society. You guessed it: no one. When a girl accepted his kind invitation, he would then offer to drive her home. Imagine: a ride home in a tour guide’s sleek vehicle, for free! Wouldn’t her mother be proud? Wouldn’t the neighbors envy her? 

The Little Warrior turned his head back to us just for a moment, winked, and then explained that he — such a clever fellow — would actually drive her to a deserted field or a secluded alley and…well, you know; I don’t have to draw pictures.

“Even if she didn’t want to?” I protested.

He looked at me through the rear-view mirror, his eyes wide in amazement at my question. “Of course. After all,” he indignantly maintained, “she accepted the ice cream, did she not?” He smiled and winked again at the rear-view mirror. “Why on earth would she accept my gift if she had no desire to be with me, eh? Besides, I’m a pretty good-looking fellow. So, actually, every one of them secretly wanted to, no matter what they said. Think about it.”  He said this as if he had just won the prize in a debate. His logic was unassailable. 

Duane nodded in approval. Vernon stared at the roof. I don’t know what was so fascinating about that roof. I thought, What a remarkable group of people I’ve fallen in with. But I still didn’t know the half of it.

We visited a liqueur-manufacturing plant in suburban Pétionville, in the hills outside of the Capital. A plant representative chatted amiably with us about the manufacturing process. We sampled their delicious liqueurs made of banana or pineapple or papaya or mango. At one point, I became apprehensive when I noticed that Duane was absent. Where on earth is he now, and what weird acts can he be engaging in? were the thoughts running through my mind. 

After half an hour, we were leaving the air-conditioned building, clutching the bottles of liqueur we had purchased, when I spotted him just a few feet from the doorway under the blazing sun. He was speaking with a local boy of about eleven years old. Duane was solicitously stooping over the child — Duane was, after all, a middle school teacher — patiently intoning:  “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe.”

The boy dutifully repeated the words as he gazed at Duane, eagerly awaiting more drops of golden wisdom to spring forth from the learned guru’s lips.

Duane nodded with approval, and continued, “Catch a…” 

What the hell are you doing, Duane?” My voice must have betrayed a hint of hysteria. I mean, teaching a racist rhyme to a child? In Haiti? It’s bad enough anywhere. But in Haiti? I was beginning to question his sanity.

Duane indignantly responded, “I’m teaching the kid an American poem, is all. What the hell did you think I was doing?” Then, not to be distracted from his appointed pedagogical duties, he resumed his lesson. “Okay, kid. Now listen and repeat: ‘Eenie, meenie, minie, moe…catch a…’”

I was thinking, No, he wouldn’t really do it. He’ll use a substitute for the offensive word.  I forced myself to be optimistic. No one could be that insane. 

They could, and he was. He did it! And the boy eagerly began to repeat it as best as he could. I couldn’t believe my ears. 

“Damn it, Duane…! Are you out of your freaking mind?” I was trying to remain calm and having only mild success. Besides, his speech patterns were rubbing off on me.

“What??!! What’s biting you?” he asked. “I told you, I was just teaching the kid an American poem. You got something against education?”

The boy stared at us uncomprehendingly.

I yelled, “Education?! A poem?! Are you some kind of nut case?” My voice was overly loud.

Just then our former welterweight emerged from the building and must have heard the alarm in my raised voice. He no doubt noticed the tension in the air. “What’s the matter, gentlemen?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” I forced a smile.

***

That incident took place around noon. The rest of the day was certainly…memorable. There are some events, however, that are too painful to remember, too shameful to be recorded for public scrutiny. Let me just say that he finally got his wish; we visited a brothel. After ten minutes, the girl he chose came screaming from the room, disheveled, half-dressed and complaining about the weird demands he made on her. I couldn’t understand enough of what she was yelling about in Créole, but basing myself on the snatches I did understand, I concluded that Duane was indeed an abominable freak. Therefore, I mercifully draw a curtain over the details of this disgraceful episode and proceed to the evening’s activities. 

That evening we enjoyed a truly superb exhibition of Haitian folk-dance. (Ti Guerrier’s Créole-influenced English resulted in an idiosyncratic pronunciation of folk-dance that made me wonder why we would be going to another house of joy.) The National Folk Ballet was performing, and it was a spectacle worthy of Broadway. The spirited singing, the emotional dialogues, all in Créole, and the skillful dancing portrayed Haitian folk stories stemming from West Africa, and vodou religious beliefs. The costumes were colorful, with reds and greens and yellows as well as the black and white tuxedo of Baron Samedi and his wife, Maman Brigitte, in a white bridal gown. These two loas (spirits), had faces painted a ghastly white to resemble human skulls, thereby representing death. 

Vodou scenes from Haiti | Fritz Rudolf Loewa

 Duane, mysteriously, was not with us for the first half of the show. At intermission, he appeared and scornfully admonished Vernon and me for allowing ourselves to be “suckered,” as he put it, into paying the higher price of admission rather than the lower rate that he paid. The higher price, for seats in the first fifteen rows, cost the “exorbitant” price of sixty cents. The second-class seats were priced at only forty cents. No matter that we had excellent seats in front, while the cheaper seats were in the rear, far from the stage. No matter that we had a roof over our heads, whereas Duane’s seat was al fresco, and I think it worth mentioning that it was raining!

No matter that the entire audience, except for Duane, was seated in the high-rent zone, both the very few tourists in town and many of the more affluent natives. Other than the parsimonious Duane, absolutely no one, not one single, solitary soul, save our eccentric companion for the day, was seated in Siberia. Can you imagine this one miserable person seated alone, surrounded by empty (and wet) seats, becoming wetter with each passing minute of the first hour and a half of the show?

“Hey, Vern!” Duane yelled, contempt dripping from his mouth along with a bit of spittle. “What’s wrong with you?” he sputtered. “Paying top price just because it’s closer to the stage? Or just because there’s a roof over your head? Or maybe you want to look like a big shot. You’ve gotta learn to rough it sometimes. You’re not exactly a millionaire, you know.” 

Under the onslaught of Duane’s censure, Vernon looked at the floor in utter silence, properly abashed. He looked as though he might cry. Duane smiled with satisfaction at his wretched triumph.

He turned to me and started to scold me. He got as far as, “And you…. You’re a sucker for…”

I cut him off. I glared at him, put my hand up as a sign for him to cease speaking, and said, in a firm, no-nonsense voice. “No, Duane, don’t try that crap with me.”

He looked puzzled for a moment, then opened his mouth as if to say something. I suddenly got to my feet, my jaw muscles working. His eyes widened with shock and he backed away. He put his hands in front of his face as though protecting himself. “Okay, okay. Take it easy. I was just…” His voice just faded into silence. I could see that Duane was not only intimidated, but was frustrated at not being able to convince me that I had proceeded foolishly in paying for a seat in the high-rent district. He turned away with a sneer.

Perhaps he wasn’t entirely convinced that he had made the right decision. When the second half of the show commenced, even though he had paid only forty cents rather than sixty cents, he took the empty seat directly in front of me. 

He had another chance to scoff at Vernon and me. Just before the intermission ended, a little boy, eight or nine years old, obviously underfed and clad practically in rags, slowly made his way up the aisle. He was lugging a huge wicker basket filled with Chiclets and miniature candy bars. The boy asked six cents for a small bar. I gave him a dollar and told him to keep it. I was repaid with a big smile. Vernon paid exactly six cents. 

Duane looked at us with utter contempt, thinking we both had paid the asking price of six cents. “You guys make us Americans look like suckers,” he declared. “You’re supposed to bargain with these clowns. Don’t you guys know anything?” Vernon cringed, and looked at the ground in shame. 

Duane called the boy over just as the performance was beginning. Duane said to Vernon and me, “Look and learn.” Duane actually haggled with the boy, and the boy finally accepted four cents. I noticed the little peddler grit his teeth and shuffle away. Yes, Duane was a magnanimous soul. A true humanitarian.

It is worth mentioning that Duane had missed enjoying some of the thrilling music and the exuberant dancing, because he gave his full attention to bargaining with the weary waif. That’s when Vernon and I quickly paid the boy, so we could concentrate on the show. Duane, his mouth filled with chocolate, added. “You guys…I got him down to four cents!” He spoke with an air of triumph. Apparently, he was not ashamed of his transaction. He actually bragged about it.

Strangely, even though Duane was the one who mercilessly bargained with this hard-working boy, who no doubt spent hours simply to help put some food on his family’s table, I felt shame, simply because we shared the same country, even the same state. I know this was irrational, but, as I was learning, feelings have little to do with rationality.

After the folk dancing, Ti Guerrier took us to an enclosed amphitheater to attend a “voodoo ceremony.” Obviously, this was not a genuine ceremony, since it was done before an audience of about a hundred tourists for the price of a ticket. Still, it was another truly impressive and exciting display of native song, drum music, and dance. It was supposed to represent a real voodoo ceremony, which is a West African religious rite. There were some rather bizarre aspects of the performance: biting off the head of a live rooster, the repeated taking of mouthfuls of rum from a bottle by the houngan (male priest), as he danced and sprayed the rum from between his lips. A woman wearing a drab brown dress, joined in frantic dancing, wishing the god to possess her. After five or ten minutes she fell to the ground and convulsed, having been possessed by that particular god (a sign of favor). In a few minutes, she stood and danced again, but in a noticeably smoother, calmer manner, a smile on her face. We also witnessed the slaughter of a goat and the drinking of its blood. Perhaps this might have assuaged Duane’s despondency at not being able to witness a cow being slaughtered at the abattoir earlier in the day.

The ceremony, or perhaps more accurately, the show, was really exciting, and hard to describe in words. I’m not a professional musician and possess none of the correct terminology, but I’ll try to describe the music. The thunderous beat of various types, shapes, and sizes of the drums with different pitches resonated in a kind of wild point and counterpoint. These sounds accompanied the group’s spirited singing. The singing of the seated drummers was what sounded to me like African chant, powerfully and passionately emitted in order to be heard over the din of the percussion instruments. After about ten minutes of this stirring, almost hypnotic music, the drummer/singers jumped into the ring and performed energetic dances, while singing and drumming with wild abandon. This blend of human voices, the complicated rhythms of the throbbing drums, and the uninhibited dancing of the group created a truly electrifying atmosphere. 

At this point, a rotund woman in her late forties, apparently the mambo (priestess) of this ceremony, entered the arena. Wearing a plain dark blue dress, she solemnly danced to the drums and chants holding a lighted torch in each hand. She made a show of passing the flames repeatedly under her armpits and between her thighs. At the culminating moment of her dance, the drumming and chanting abruptly stopped. She stood stock still. The sudden silence was almost audible, and seemed to announce that something awe-inspiring, even mystical, was about to take place.

The priestess closed her eyes and tilted her head back in ecstasy, no doubt attempting or experiencing communion with one of the gods of the West African pantheon. An expectant hush descended on the entire gathering, both audience and performers. 

Duane, seated in the front row, placed a cigarette between his lips. He stood, leaned over the barrier, and casually lit his cigarette in the flame of one of the priestess’s torches. She snapped her eyes open and turned her head to glare at him with murder in her eyes. Death rays seemed to emanate from her eyes and pierce Duane to his heart. He seemed totally unaware, or perhaps just unperturbed by this. He sat down and puffed on his cigarette, seemingly oblivious of the desecration he had committed.   

***

That night we bid farewell to Ti Guerrier — famed former boxing champion, charming raconteur and kindly ice-cream donor to needy adolescent girls — and entered the grounds of the Beau Rivage. We decided to cool off in the hotel swimming pool. I actually took the trouble to go to my room and change into a bathing suit before returning to the pool. True: Duane the Barbarian, Vernon the Inscrutable, and your humble servant, Clark the Cautious, were the only guests in the entire hotel. True: It was pitch-dark on the hotel grounds. True: There were no women present. Still, I didn’t think it appropriate to swim in what was, after all, a hotel swimming pool, in the nude. I conveyed this thought to the dynamic duo. But, undaunted, Duane chided me for my exceeding formality. It was, after all, 1961, not the Victorian Era.

“What the hell,” Duane commented, “let it all hang out.”

I silently wondered precisely why it should all hang out. And I wasn’t quite sure what the words “it” and “all” encompassed. But by now I had learned it was better not to question Duane.

Duane added, with an arch look, “Hey, we’re all men here, aren’t we?”

During the moonlight swim, Duane confided some of his secrets of successful pedagogy in his New Jersey middle school. One of his methods for maintaining discipline as well as for encouraging a scholarly attitude on the part of his young charges was to have a less-than-diligent student sit on a high stool in the corner, facing that corner, wearing — yes, you guessed it — a conical paper hat: a real old-fashioned dunce cap.

We swam in utter darkness, except for moonlight, which was partially obscured by the palm trees. I became aware of a constant flicking and splashing in the water on all sides of each one of us. Unnerved, we decided that someone ought to ask one of the hotel employees what this nerve-wracking phenomenon was. We noticed, as our eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, that there was what seemed to be a gardener or grounds keeper clipping some hedges. I assumed he was working by moonlight because he probably worked at two or three jobs to make ends meet in the most impoverished country of the Western Hemisphere. Duane started to climb out of the pool, but I stopped him by grabbing his arm, a gesture that seemed to alarm Vernon.  He went so far as to actually pronounce a word! I was stupefied. “Hey,” he shouted. This was truly miraculous.

I pointed out that I was, shall we say, more formally attired than either Duane or Vernon, having taken the trouble to don a swim suit (trunks). I explained that it would be less threatening to the employee if I, rather than Duane, approached the man. Duane shook his head, indicating that he couldn’t understand my sense of decorum, then shrugged and lowered himself back into the pool. I climbed out and asked the employee what the mysterious phenomenon might be.

“Bats,” was the nonchalant reply. 

“What did you say?”

“Bats.” He shrugged. His tone was indescribably insouciant. This irritated me a bit.

Back in the inky waters of the pool, I reported this to the others, and thought about it. I decided that they must actually be bats. I’m no biologist, but I know that these winged mammals “see” in the dark by means of some kind of radar or sonar system. Perhaps this device doesn’t detect water. This would explain why they never collided with us in their flight, since they were able to detect us. Or perhaps they snatched bits of food out of the water (what food?). Probably insects. It was kind of creepy, nevertheless, having bats or whatever flying around you, dive-bombing the surface of the water so close to your body. I was trying to ignore the bats, but having a really tough time doing so. I was beginning to enjoy the swim even less than before. 

The pool was surrounded by palm trees and tropical shrubs, with fronds hanging down right into the water. It was like being in a jungle. I could almost hear, in my mind’s ear, you could say, Tarzan of the Apes yodeling his annoying substitute for a telephone. So, when we partially saw and then definitely heard some shadowy bulk slither from the edge of the pool and splash into the water, we became somewhat unnerved. In that jungle-like atmosphere, palms swaying overhead, harboring perhaps voracious creatures ready to pounce, luxuriant foliage drooping around the edges and into the pool, concealing who knows what kind of wild life, that last touch was just a shade too menacing — perhaps saurian — for comfort. We had our fill of swimming. We scrambled out of the pool and called it a night. 

Dominican Republic | Photo by Michal Marek from Pexels

Flying from Port-au-Prince to the capital of the Dominican Republic, we once more passed over famed Lake Enriquillo. This once again led to the shifting tide of passengers from one side of the plane to the other and back again, a shift that again caused steep banking of the aircraft in both directions, the reiterated warnings from the pilot, followed by muttered cursing in Spanish. 

Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic, June 1961

Santo Domingo was called Ciudad Trujillo at that time, in honor of the megalomaniacal dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The airport was much more orderly than its counterpart at Port-au-Prince. In some ways, it was a bit too orderly. President Trujillo had many enemies, and therefore was wary of who might enter his domains. He was much more efficient about security than Duvalier in Haiti.

There were several lines, each one for a different purpose. I was in one of those lines, awaiting my turn to identify myself. The clerk before whom we were lined up, after satisfying himself that the visitor was actually the person the passport claimed he/she was, would then ask the traveler to read a huge poster on the wall to our right. To do this, a normal person would turn his head to the right and read the lengthy instructions for visitors to the Dominican Republic. The man in front of me, a French professional photographer, detected a suspicious glint in a miniscule aperture, practically a slit, in the poster. He must have had an eagle eye. Jacques, the photographer, explained that there was a camera behind that poster, snapping a photo of each person entering the country. I certainly didn’t mind.

Apparently, Jacques was a playful fellow; when the clerk told him to read the poster, he claimed he had already read it while awaiting his turn. The clerk instructed him to read it again. Jacques let his keys fall to the floor. When he crouched to recover them, he read the notice from that position. That position, of course, allowed no opportunity for him to be photographed. The clerk was becoming visibly annoyed. When the Frenchman rose to his feet, the official said, “Take another look at it, please.” In spite of the courtesy of his language, I thought I noticed some signs of annoyance in his voice. I think he was trying hard to remain calm. Jacques sneezed, I think it was a fake sneeze, and covered his face with an oversized handkerchief. He kept that handkerchief over his entire face. Then he ostentatiously blew his nose with it as he faced the poster and was undeniably looking at the instructions. He was certainly a playful sort of guy.

The clerk was gritting his teeth, his face turned purple, his neck veins were bulging. In a voice that seemed to struggle to keep from shouting, he hissed, “Read it one more time, please, sir.” I intuited that the clerk mentally added, “Euro-trash swine!” No doubt, he felt that a photograph of a handkerchief, rather than of the face behind it, would not be appreciated by his superiors, who were not known as a forgiving lot.

I felt that this French clown was carrying his horseplay too far. Unless, perhaps, it was not horseplay. Maybe he had a motive for not being photographed. Jacques looked at the clerk with utter disdain for a full thirty seconds. “I really know it by heart, now,” he innocently confided to the official, but I’ll be glad to read it again if you insist.” Jacques’ tone was mockingly solicitous. His playful attitude in a country ruled by a paranoid dictator was beginning to alarm me. 

The official’s purple coloring was deepening, perspiration dripped from his forehead and ran down his cheeks to soak his collar. I thought he might have a stroke. He clenched his teeth, perhaps to keep himself from making any untoward remarks to a tourist, and glared at Jacques. The fun-loving Frenchman, who had been smiling amiably at the clerk, made a show of turning his eyes, only his eyes, to the right in order to read the momentous instructions on the wall, while his head maintained its position. He even read the words aloud to prove he actually was reading them. Of course, this left no opportunity for the hidden camera to photograph his full face. 

Former President of San Domingo inspects Marine Guard on arrival in Capital. Washington, D.C., July 6. General Rafael L. Trujillo, former President of the Dominican Republic, inspects the Marine Honor Guard shortly after his arrival at Union Station today. On left is Lt. Col. T.E. Watson.

The official seemed ready to climb out of his cage and physically attack this infuriating Frenchman, this blend of Maurice Chevalier and Jim Carrey. The Dominican became so unnerved that he actually gave away the presence of the (insufficiently) hidden camera by screaming, “No, no, no! Not the profile!”   

 I had arrived in the Dominican Republic without hotel reservations. I liked to play vacations by ear in those days. Young men representing various hotels frantically dashed about the airport near the baggage area, seeking guests for the hotels they represented. An energetic young man with an infectious smile persuaded me and several Latin-American traveling salesmen to agree to his taking us to the hotel he represented. It was a no-frills hotel for commercial travelers in the heart of downtown Ciudad Trujillo (Santo Domingo), and the rates were accordingly very reasonable. That type of hotel, of course, had no swimming pool. That was fine with me; I had come for adventure, not swimming. If I had merely wanted to swim, I could have gone to the nearest public pool in New Jersey, or down to the Jersey Shore, which I often did. 

Because of a particularly annoying inconvenience in my room that evening, I found it necessary to call the desk. I heard the phone ring eight times before the receiver was picked up. I deduced the desk clerk was not overly eager to answer the phone. A woman’s voice began the conversation, which was in Spanish, but which I now provide in English translation.

The voice said, “Yes…?” The tone was questioning. She didn’t say, as I would have expected, something like, How may I help you, sir? No, no, there was just that interrogative Yes…?

“This is room 306.” She hadn’t even asked me my room number. But I was bold. I volunteered the information. After all, it could be important if my problem was going to be solved.

“Yes…?” Even now, she didn’t ask what she could do for me; there was just the questioning, Yes…?

“I have a problem.”

“Yes…?” Nothing like, “I am so sorry, sir. What is the problem?” No, no, no. Just that questioning, Yes…? I had to suppose that word indicated something like, Please go on, sir. But I was really becoming annoyed.

I said, “It’s the toilet.” Surely, I thought, at this point she would ask me what was wrong with it. I was wrong.

She reiterated that maddening, “Yes…?”

I felt like saying, What is wrong with you? Are you a robot? Of course, I didn’t. The constant repetition of that diabolical yes, with no accompanying word or two that might show some real interest in my problem was getting under my skin. I felt somewhat like one of Franz Kafka’s characters. Would she ever say anything but that one word?

“Well,” I said, “the seat is broken…”

Now that I had given an exact description of the problem, I thought she would definitely have someone take care of it.

What I heard was, “Yes…?”

What the devil…?! I was dumbfounded for several moments. The tone was exactly like that of all the previous yeses! It implied that I had not yet gotten to the point of my complaint, but was merely leading up to it. Why was this cretin not offering to find a solution to the problem? The tone of that exasperating yes question changed meaning in my mind. It now conveyed the unspoken message, So what? Or perhaps, What do you want me to do about it? Or, What? Are you so delicate that you can’t use a broken seat? 

I wondered if I were interrupting some pleasant activity she had been engaged in, like maybe knitting a bikini, reading a good book, watching a tear-provoking soap opera, smoking something questionable, perchance enjoying, shall we say, her boyfriend’s affection… 

I decided that I had to be decisive with her. I patiently explained, as though to an alien from the farthest reaches of our galaxy, “Well,” I said, “you see…how shall I put this? I can’t use the seat if it’s broken.” This seemed rather obvious to me, but had to be explained, apparently, to this visitor from outer space. Perhaps she would now have to communicate with the mothership for instructions. I felt this explanation was sufficient to elicit some action on her part. I didn’t think it necessary to go into detail about the possible consequences of sitting on a broken toilet seat: discomfort, possible lacerations, conceivable further breakage resulting in involuntary immersion…. The clerk’s response, frustratingly, was less than decisive.

“Oh…?”

Ah, well, at least she used a different word. Did her questioning tone imply a certain encouraging modicum of interest in my problem? Or, conversely, did it merely indicate her shock at learning of the peculiar fussiness of certain overly fastidious guests: me. Hearing nothing but deafening silence after her last non-committal response, I ventured to boldly press on.

“Well…. Can it be repaired?”

“Oh…” This reply was not pronounced in a questioning tone. I took that as a positive sign. It indicated she was considering the problem. After a brief silence, in which I assumed she was pondering the matter, she reached a decision.

“Certainly,” she said.

I was overjoyed. But since she said nothing more — she was a woman of few words — I realized the ball was in my court once more. I tried to show appreciation.

“Good!” I said.

I heard nothing from the other end of the line. So, I dared to press my luck. “When can it be repaired?” I ventured to ask.

“Ah….” Obviously, she was seriously considering the matter. Another favorable sign. Then again, silence. She was either making calculations or consulting with someone else over this complex problem. She finally reached a decision.

“Tomorrow morning.”

I couldn’t believe this ridiculous conversation. Was I on Mars or in some alternate universe? I was starting to get hot under the collar, especially since there was no air conditioning in this outpost of Hell. Was I hearing correctly?

“Tomorrow morning?” I wanted to be sure of what I heard.

“Yes.” She did not ask if that was inconvenient for me. Once more, the ball was in my court. 

I heroically controlled my temper and limited myself to pointing out that it was now about three in the afternoon, even though this conversation had started an hour and half earlier, and that there was a distinct possibility of my needing to utilize that seat even before morning.  And, of course, “morning” could mean one minute before noon. 

My stated preference for having the seat repaired or replaced as soon as possible momentarily stunned the employee. When she recovered from her initial shock, which took an entire ninety seconds of silence, she had discovered a more feasible solution to the problem.

“Would you like to change rooms?” 

I diplomatically suppressed the urge to counter with the rhetorical question, Does a dog bark? I even discarded the possibility of arousing her empathy by asking her, Wouldn’t you? I limited myself to the courteous and sober response, “Yes.”

After repacking all my stuff and dragging it to a room down the hall that some flunky led me to, I once more unpacked. A flimsy hanger (there were two in the closet) broke under the unreasonable weight of my tropical sports jacket. The bathroom sink collapsed when my knee brushed against one of its spindly, hollow tin tubing legs. But I got in a lot of sightseeing that afternoon, walking all over the downtown area.

While walking around town, I noticed something that gave another clue to the ego of el Sr. Presidente. I was struck by the fact that all public buildings and monuments constructed during the reign of Rafael Trujillo bore two different dates incised in stone or concrete: the year of construction plus the letters, A.D.; for example, 1948 A.D., which, of course, is what we’re accustomed to. But in addition, they showed the date, 18 A.T. I was mystified, until I realized that the second date recorded the year of Trujillo’s reign in which it was built (Año de Trujillo). He ruled from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, later in the same year I had been there. So, 1948 A.D., 18 A.T. would refer to his eighteenth year in power. The man must have had an ego the size of Mars. 

This revelation was completely in synchrony with the fact that he had changed the name of the Capital from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City). Okay, I figured, so modesty and humility were not his greatest assets. (The city’s name has since reverted to the original.) He was not only an egomaniac, but a ruthless ruler as well. In October of 1937, on Trujillo’s direct orders, 20,000 ethnic Haitians were murdered by the Dominican army. They had illegally crossed the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. 

That evening, I passed some time in a bar. This gave me the opportunity to talk with some of the locals, one of the best ways to get a “feel” for the culture, as well as to become familiar with the local dialect of Spanish. While in the bar, I mentioned that I had seen election posters all over town promoting just one candidate for some low-level post. The candidate’s photo was in color, but in light grey behind him, I could see the faint impression of Trujillo. This, of course, would tell even illiterate voters that El Jefe (the Boss), as he was familiarly called, backed that candidate. But naïve young American that I was, I said I couldn’t see any posters promoting other candidates for the same position, and wondered why. My interlocutors looked truly puzzled by my question. One of them said, “But Pérez is a good man. Why would anyone want to run against him?” This was my earliest introduction to politics in a dictatorship. 

While in that bar, I noticed a TV commercial for a luxury hotel on the outskirts of town, with a swimming pool and all kinds of accommodations for affluent vacationers. I was amazed to find that the price was the same as that of my commercial hotel in center of town. Because of the unstable political situation, the Dominican Republic at that time was not exactly a tourist mecca. Hotels were desperate to attract guests. Accordingly, this one had lowered its price to that of the cheaper hotels downtown.

Now that I had acquired a reasonable familiarity with the city, I checked out of the commercial hotel the next morning and transferred to that luxury hotel that I had seen advertised on the bar’s TV. The Hotel Paraíso was equipped with a host of conveniences for vacationers, including hangers sturdy enough to bear the weight of my tropical sports jacket, and functioning bathroom appliances. 

Dominican Republic, 1961

However, I found that the ghosts of Duane the Magnificent and Vernon the Meek haunted this hotel. While chatting with a German tourist at poolside, the only other guest in this hotel, I discovered he had made the acquaintance of a pair of very eccentric Americans several days before! Hmmm, could it be…? I cringed, knowing that the dynamic duo had been in the Dominican Republic just before arriving in Haiti. As he continued, I realized these accounts could refer to no one else but the two infamous travelers, besmirching the good reputation of Americans wherever they went. 

The Teutonic tourist methodically presented me — with barely repressed glee — with a detailed report of the odd couple’s social, financial, and even sexual peculiarities, insofar as he could observe them. He, unlike myself, was not diplomatic enough to mercifully draw a curtain over this last part of his account. The German’s report of my compatriots’ behavior prompted me — treacherously but patriotically — to suggest: “They must have been Canadians.” I was reduced to prevaricating in the cause of American honor. Sorry about that, northern neighbors.

Herr Steinhauer’s lengthy presentation of the ubiquitous American ambassadors of good will — Canadian! I insisted — Duane and Vernon, was interrupted — mercifully — by the poolside loudspeaker. It relayed the message that diplomatic relations between the Dominican Republic and the United States had been severed that day. 

Now, granted, Duane and Vernon surely were not exactly the kind of people who would promote friendly relations between our country and other nations, but I don’t seriously believe this rupture in diplomatic relations could in any way have been their fault. I think.

Be that as it may, I concluded that this event was my cue to bid farewell to the Isle of Hispaniola. Amazingly, just as had happened in Haiti, it was again time for me to climb out of the pool. I was on the first available plane heading for San Juan, Puerto Rico, and from there, after a few days of fun, back home.


Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and literature in Spanish language, Emeritus. Zlotchew has had 17 books published, 14 of them in his academic fields, but 3 of them consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort Publishing). Newer work of his has appeared in literary journals of the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, India and Ireland from 2016 through 2020. Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America, while over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents. Zlotchew’s non-fiction account of life in Cuba in 1958, a year before Castro’s revolution gained victory, “Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958,” appeared in Soft Cartel, 5-15-2018.

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