A rum old (new) world

When I arrived in the Dominican Republic, there was no-one to let me in. Not a soul at immigration, just a large ‘Welcome Visitors’ sign and a poster advertising ‘the best rum in the world’.  Well, if only you’d just let us in..I thought.  A straggle of weary visitors joined the queue for locals instead, but not before an over-heated American behind me nearly exploded in outrage, and tried to infect me with his steaming sense of injustice at it all. I told him I’d rather spend an hour stuck in immigration in a Dominican airport –  with the prospect of rum on the other side –  than in an American one, with the prospect of being arrested for carrying a granny smith apple (potentially infectious organic matter. Nasty stuff).  Not sure that helped.

To a degree destiny is predetermined if you are a Caribbean island. Geography insists you have tropical, palm-fringed pace of life, oozing heat, sun-bleached days and starry nights. History dictates that you suffered sugar plantation slavery, have Afro-Hispanic roots, believe in both Jesus and Vodoo, and share your island with beleaguered and impoverished Haitians.  And culture suggests you have rum, rhythm, tax-dodgers, drug dealers, and James Bond-esque bad guys in white limos.. On the DR’s Lonely Planet site a disgruntled local described his country as ‘drunk, corrupt, and full of people stealing each others wives..’  Bit harsh. I know a couple of other countries that could meet that description.The DR is much more, and less, than this. Five interesting things about it for busy readers with short attention spans..

1. It was the first European settlement in the Americas (1492). Christopher Columbus named it Hispañola and left his bed and chamber pot behind while he went off to discover the rest of the continent.

Colombus woz ‘ere

2.  It’s home to the oldest cathedral in the Americas (circa 1512). Like others in Latin America, it claims to have (some of ) Columbus’ bones under its flagstones. [Clearly the man was either very bony, or just had a lot of doubles..]

3. It is a producer of some of the best organic cocoa in the world. Dark, rich and moody. The locals are so proud of their product they even have a chocolate song… catchy, amusing and rather dubious lyrics such as ‘wave your pretty backside to the people’…

4. Herb-icide on a massive scale.  Otherwise known as the Parsley Massacre. The DR has had a vicious string of murderous and corrupt dictators (and this excluding its past Spanish, French and American occupants..) the worst of whom, Trujillo, (‘The Goat’ to his enemies, ‘El Benefactor’ to those who wanted to live) renamed mountains after himself and ordered tens of thousands of Haitians to be hacked to pieces (in an attempt to cover up the army’s involvement, no bullets were allowed). Haitians were identified by introducing the word ‘parsley’ (perejil) into the conversation. Regrettably for Haitians, this rather unexciting herb was tricky to pronounce, thus identifying them instantly to their enemy. Apart from the horror of imminent death, I can only imagine the poor souls being somewhat perplexed about why a stranger was engaging them in small talk about parsley..

5. Every village in the country has a cockfighting arena (gallera) and a licensed Cock Inspector. (cockfighting comes second only to baseball as a national sport) I met a man in a bus whose father had held this privileged title. ‘He inspected hundreds of cocks a year!‘  he told me proudly.

The temptation to lounge on a beach with a rum-addled brain was high. But I was actually in the DR for work, believe it or not. Three days in a conference centre ‘pathologically collaborating’ on issues of sustainable farming.  Whilst lively discussions were being had on farmer incomes and food security, outside the window, large white American tourists bobbed about on plastic lilos in the pool.  Inside, the producers; outside, the consumers, and ne’er the ‘twain did meet. Herein lies part of the problem.

Lots of interesting conversations were had. I met a Chinese food technologist working for Mars who had been researching blueberry flavinols for ten years and was slowly working his way through the rest of the berry family. (there is only so much conversation one can have on that subject, I discovered) Paul Newman’s daughter was also there (her eyes are just as blue as her Dad’s), representing Newman’s Own. (How does one make Newman’s Thousand Island dressing more sustainable I wonder?)

Ethically sauced?

Finally, it was only on my last night in El Capital, Santo Domingo, that somebody told me that Dominicans believe redheads do not possess souls. Apparently the devil has stolen them and there is little hope for salvation. This came as distressing news. Somewhere, someone was sticking pins into a voodoo doll with red hair. However, I decided that on balance, after 8 months of having pins stuck into my back, a few more couldn’t do me much more harm..

Pins for my sins


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