On the Road: A Journey Through the Dominican Republic

As I began my drive across the roof of the Antilles. I had been in the Dominican Republic for ten days, banging around in a jeep from the capital, Santo Domingo, to the beaches of the east coast and then finally to the north-central interior. Ten days, all in the D. R. - but I had the clear notion that I was now entering the third country of my trip. The first country had been Santo Domingo itself, big and noisy, with its armed guards sitting in aluminum chairs next to Mercedes in the driveways, street vendors hawking bags of peeled oranges, and eager guides best hired as a means of fending off other guides. Sprawling Santo Domingo, simultaneously preoccupied with getting the next meal and getting rich. The second country was the Republic of Tourism, the D. R. of enormous coastal resorts that Americans have somehow not yet found but that haul in German and English vacationers by the planeload, braceleting them so that the dining room staff will know they are on the meal plan. "I found it on the Internet," said a Swedish lawyer I'd met at one of these places.And now I was entering my third Dominican Republic, the one I liked best, the one you can't find on the Internet in Sweden. Up in these mountains I wouldn't have to pay any guides for the privilege of walking too fast beside them down hot streets while they pointed out historic sites. Nor would I be on the meal plan.

Oh, I could have been at the beach, and the beach wasn't bad, but this last Dominican Republic had the whiff of adventure about it. Not "adventure travel," which is sliced off nowadays at the tourism counter like an only slightly spicier variety of lunch meat, but real adventure - the kind where you're a damned fool who doesn't know what the hell you're doing.

I had come to this mountainous central region of the country because of a chance encounter with a young man named Joaquin, who worked at a jewelry store in a spanking-new beachfront resort full of jolly Europeans, where I had fetched up after a harrowing and confused effort to get out of the city of Higüey - to escape its motorbike swarms and gravitational pull. Even out on the highway, the driving had been haywire. Buses would pass on the right-hand shoulder, and every breath I took convinced me that the locals must think that catalytic converters are an order of priests who came over with Columbus.

Joaquin was a likeable fellow in his late twenties who smilingly asked me, in the first minute I talked with him, if I knew where the Dominican Republic was - an obvious reference to the cultural and geographical curiosity level of much of his clientele. But I had been on the island for several days. I'd been to Santo Domingo, and I'd escaped singlehanded from Hig¿ey. Of course I knew the D. R. The question was, where should I go next?

"Go to Santiago," Joaquin said. Santiago, in the northwest, is the country's second-largest city, though smaller by far than Santo Domingo. "And from Santiago you should go south into the mountains, to Jarabacoa and Constanza. I was in Constanza once, and it was like being in a different land in my own country," he went on. "They grow grapes and apples - North American crops."

By the time I had settled in at Santiago after five hours of driving, I was already looking past that city of half a million, saddled between two ranges of mountains. I was looking south to Jarabacoa and beyond.

Ever since I had left the eastern provinces I had been intrigued by what my map showed as a tortuous thread of road that wound south to Joaquin's garden town, Constanza, and then continued as a faint, broken line through the Valle Nuevo scientific reserve before connecting with a paved highway that had access to the southern coast. It crossed the central massif of Hispaniola not far from the highest peak in the Caribbean, 10,417-foot Pico Duarte - and it was by all accounts the worst road in the D. R.

The easy part came first. It was only about 30 miles from Santiago to Jarabacoa - for Santiago burghers, the distance from work to play on hot summer weekends. Jarabacoa is a provincial town with a life of its own, but its mountain setting makes it a popular setting for getaway villas. This resort appeal makes for some ironic juxtapositions. Soon after I arrived, I set off into the outskirts and got lost looking for a scenic waterfall. On the way back to the main road, I passed a kid in front of a tumbledown shanty, knocking a golf ball around with a beat-up putter. I wondered how he had gotten hold of these country club totems - until, rounding the bend, I came upon a perfectly manicured golf course.

From Jarabacoa to El Río the road south was a rutted mess. It stumbled along a ridge for 16 miserable miles, gaining about 1,700 feet in altitude and passing through some of the most heartbreakingly poor villages in the Dominican Republic.

Ni el Malecón was painted on one cinder-block wall: Not the Malecón. The Malecón is Santo Domingo's stylish seaside boulevard, and, no, this was definitely not it.

Another painted sign said, "No Water" in three different phrases: Whoever lived there must have been pestered by innumerable travelers on this godforsaken road.

And yet another wall shouted Nuevo Camino, "New Road." Nuevo Camino is the slogan of D. R.'s ruling political party, but I took it literally and decided that a new road here wouldn't be a bad idea.

The population was sparse up in the mountains, but I saw plenty of people in the villages - people walking barefoot with 50-pound bags of rice on their shoulders, people carrying hoes and machetes into the sharply sloped fields where the soil was a vivid brick red. Some villagers were riding the descendants of the small, sturdy horses that the Spaniards brought, and I thought - as they probably did not - about what a fine trip this would be on horseback.

In some villages, where the houses had windows with crisp, colorful curtains and cheery flowerboxes, there were women with pretty starched dresses. In others, ragged children ran after my jeep with their hands outstretched, their voices a cross between a chant and a whine.

The rutted dirt road ended at blacktop in El R¿o, and it was a pleasant, easy drive to Constanza, heading south and climbing steadily past fields of cabbages, plantains, potatoes, and squash. I passed a sign that indicated an altitude of 4,000 feet.

Constanza itself soon appeared, a workaday market town famous for a climate so cool, by Dominican standards, that there is a menthol cigarette named after it. All around lay a green and fertile bowl of land, bordered on the west and south by the mountains of the Cordillera Central.

Depending on whom you talked to, the road south from Constanza might not be passable at all. A priest at the Salesian seminary in Jarabacoa had told me that a four-wheel-drive vehicle like mine might - might, he stressed - be able to make the trip. I met two tourists from Cura¿ao who'd read in a guidebook that a jeep takes passengers on the road once a week. And an American teacher I talked with in Jarabacoa's little supermarket said that someone she knew knew someone who had done it on a motorbike. Good enough, I decided.

But I was nonetheless haunted, that last night in Jarabacoa, by visions of perilous stream fordings, of jungle that crowded the road down to the dimensions of an abandoned footpath, and of hanging onto cliffside trails by shifting my weight to the passenger seat.

All this made the road irresistible. How many times, in a life of drives to the post office and soporific interstate highway trips, do you get to face a road that makes people shake their heads and look down at the ground? A crumbling ruin of a road that runs for the better part of a hundred miles through mountains and forests where no one lives? I'd never pass up such a chance. But I didn't sleep well the night before.

Just before setting off in the early morning, I had a couple of leaky valves tightened on the jeep's tires. I told the mechanic where I was going.

"¿Vaya con Dios!" was all he said.

After a few false starts on roads that ended in dusty front yards, I found the one true route out of Constanza and into those daunting, cloud-enveloped mountains. I climbed past terraced farms, past greenhouses and cattle, past steep hillsides eroded in the wake of massive deforestation. At one point, when I reached a sharp elbow in the road, I looked down and saw Constanza, the cool lofty village of the cigarette ads, impossibly tiny and far below.

Ten miles south the road became so bad that I often had to make sure that my tires rode the ridges of the single lane of gravel and dried red mud. Now the last farmhouses were giving way to wilderness. Just beyond the point where the tilled slopes ended, I came to a guardhouse and a gate. A sign said "Reserva Cientifica." A soldier appeared, and I asked him if this was the route to San José de Ocoa, almost 30 miles to the south, where the paved road resumed on the other side of the mountains.

"Yes," was all he answered.

Guarding a scientific reserve is a fine task for a Latin American army, I decided. But soldiers in the Dominican Republic can still give you the creeps. You always see, standing behind them, the ghost of Trujillo.

Rafael Léonidas Trujillo Molina ran the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. He once renamed the capital city after himself. Late one afternoon, while I was walking along a street in downtown Santo Domingo, I glanced at the sidewalk and read the words cast into an old manhole cover. Ciudad Trujillo_, the iron letters said._

Virtually the only place where Trujillo's legacy is aired today is at Santo Domingo's Museum of History and Geography. The malignant spirit of "El Benefactor," as the dictator styled himself, resides in a gallery that traces decades of plunder, brutality, and self-aggrandizement through exhibits that include even his briefcase, boots, toothpaste, and monogrammed socks. On the museum's second-floor landing stands the most graphic artifact of all: a rusting, flat-tired, bullet-riddled 1956 Oldsmobile, one of the cars used in the highway ambush that finished off El Benefactor.

I raised my hand in a quick good-bye to the soldier, and headed into the forest and the mountains.

Beyond the soldier and his gate, the road entered an evergreen forest. Where the trees were thinenough, I could see mountains to the west, but all

the while I was climbing in a lofty domain of my own. Not a soul was traveling that road, a single-lane gravel path gouged crosswise by the rivulets of the past rainy season. It was a fortunate far cry from my B-picture jungle nightmares but challenging nonetheless in its own mistily eerie way.

The roadside was strewn with daisies and clover. The trees were mostly pines. The vegetation seemed all wrong for that latitude, until I remembered that it was altitude that made the difference here. Fog shrouded the surrounding valleys. The temperature was in the 50s.

It was noon. The radio, which came in clearer up here in the mountains than anywhere else in the country, played the Dominican national anthem. Right after the anthem and the news, the station launched into an hour of Julio Iglesias. I am not one of Iglesias's big fans, but I was happy that at least the station wasn't playing merengue, the ubiquitous and relentless Dominican music that, I had by now decided, must have been invented as a means of removing paint. And besides, Julio and I had something in common.

Down on the southeast coast, in a tiny open-air restaurant in the fishing village of Bayahibe, I'd watched the boats come and go, watched the men filleting kingfish on wooden boards laid over some rocks in the shallows. I had drunk icy Presidente beer and, as the stars came out over the Caribbean, finished off a platter of squid in garlic sauce, when the owner of the restaurant came over to talk.

"You see that chair at the end of the table?" he asked, pointing just past where I was sitting. "Julio Iglesias sat right in that chair." It made me wonder why the singer hadn't taken my seat, which had a better view of the water.

I was deep into cloud forest now. The trees dripped with Spanish moss, that melancholy epiphyte that is neither Spanish nor moss. I wanted to savor the quiet, so I stopped the jeep and turned off the motor in the middle of the road.

The strike of a match made an enormous sound in that unearthly stillness. I lit a cigar. It was a Dominican cigar, a León Jimenes No. 4, from a box beneath the seat.

The rich soil and humidorlike climate of the Dominican Republic produce some of the finest cigars in the world. Earlier in the week, in a big, intensely aromatic room at La Aurora factory on the outskirts of Santiago, I had watched more than a hundred craftsmen transform the long, brown leaves of Dominican and Cuban seed tobacco into cigars.

My guide, Juan Isidro Batista, told me that each leaf is aged for at least three years. Most of the wrappers come from Cameroon in Africa; for the Le¿n Jimenes, Aurora's finest, they come from a place even more exotic - Connecticut.

As Juan Isidro and I spoke, a worker at a nearby wooden bench took filler, which he had rolled and pressed earlier, and applied the smooth wrapper leaf with a few quick, deft motions. Juan Isidro clipped the end from the finished product, a Le¿n Jimenes No. 4, and handed it to me. I lit it on the spot. I have smoked cigars for 30 years, and that was the freshest of them all.

Starting the Jeep again, I followed the ruts and lurched across the deep scars in the road, making no better than 15 miles an hour. Soon the road leveled out to a scrubby plain where, had I been at home in New England, I might have expected to find blueberries. Instead I found two radio towers (the source, no doubt, of such a clearly audible Julio Iglesias), a forlorn little army barracks with no one around, and a strange concrete pyramid, about the size of my jeep, riven at its corners as if its four sides were about to open like the petals of a flower.

The blooming pyramid was the monument that locates the exact geographical center of the Dominican Republic. It stands here on this desolate stretch of road where, unseen by the overwhelming majority of Dominicans, it marks the center of a creation not remotely geographical (Haiti shares this island of Hispaniola, throwing its center off to the west) but purely political, a republic begun as an imperial adventure at the close of the 15th century. However, the true center of the Dominican Republic is Santo Domingo, where men had organized that escapade.

The Alcázar de Colón, down in the old quarter of Santo Domingo, is the oldest seat of European authority in the New World. It was built in 1510 by Christopher Columbus's son Diego, governor of Hispaniola, only 14 years after the founding of the city.

Of all the rooms in the alcázar, which today is a museum, the most evocative is the music room, with its harp and mandolin and dark Castilian furniture. It is no trouble at all to imagine Spanish court songs drifting out across the R¿o Ozama to caravels lolling at anchor on a warm, breezy evening half a millennium ago.

The alcázar is an anomaly in this sprawling city scented with car exhaust and jasmine, studded with ugly concrete towers, and drenched in the frantic, humid sexuality of merengue. While Santo Domingo mimics much of what New York has become since 1960, in the old nest of streets around the alcázar the city still dreams of everything Spain was before 1600.

I drove on, more or less on level ground, now through forest, now across those improbable Maine-like clearings. Some times I was in the clouds, sometimes above them. Then, just as I sensed that the road finally might be beginning its descent, I came up against a locked gate. Had I traveled all this way only to have to turn around? Why hadn't the soldier at the reserve's northern gate warned me?

At this gate there was no guardhouse, nor any other sign of life. I weighed my options. Even though I could get back to Constanza in daylight, the thought of returning was horrible. But the gate was made of steel, and it was locked. Wooden posts and barbed wire prevented any off-road circumvention of the barrier.

I made up my mind. I would inch up to the gate, put the jeep in four-wheel drive, and give it the gas while I slowly let up the clutch. If that didn't work, I would try the same against the posts and barbed wire. No offense, amigos. Faced with this level of frustration, I would do the same thing at home.

But something held me back. I decided to try one last option. "¿Hola!" I yelled. "¿Hola!" I was sure there was no one for miles, but it cost nothing to holler. "¿Hola!"

In the middle of my third hola, the dense brush shook below the bank to my right, on the other side of the gate. A teenage soldier clambered into view, an assault rifle slung across his shoulder. He took a key from his pocket and unlocked the gate.

"Hello," I said. "It's cold up here."

"Yes," he smiled shyly. "Very cold."

A half mile down the road, I pulled over in the shadow of some moss-draped pines and sat in a roadside clearing where I could look down into a deep ravine. I heard water flowing far below; birdsong was the only other sound. By my reckoning, I was 7,000 feet above sea level.

I took out my lunch - a can of Maine sardines, a box of crackers, and a bottle of water I had bought in Jarabacoa. When I finished eating, I got up from my soft, piney seat on the ground, and as I did so I heard a buzzing around my ankles. I looked down expecting to see an insect, but it was an emerald green hummingbird, drinking from a cluster of wildflowers that looked like little pink bells.

Outside the reserve the forest slowly gave way to cultivated slopes - so steep that an uprooted cabbage would roll a thousand feet - and more hardscrabble villages whose houses seemed all but ready to make a similar plunge. Wood for cooking fuel was stacked outside most of the homes. In a field across from a shack, I saw a girl about 14, wearing a school dress, sitting in an old wooden kitchen chair, doing her lessons with a book and writing tablet in her lap.

San Josée de Ocoa came into view long before I was able to spiral down and reach it. From the dusty heights it looked larger than what it is - a small city with a park full of trees and flowers at its center.

And then, not long after I passed through San José, I was within sight of the blue Caribbean. I looked back the other way and saw a thicket of mountains I would have said were impenetrable, had I not just driven through them.

I was in the arid southwest of the Dominican Republic, a place bristling with cactus instead of clover. I spent the night in the oceanside city of Barahona. My plan was to head from there to Lago Enriquillo, near the Haitian border, before turning back to Santo Domingo and home. I had heard it was possible to boat to an island in the lake, where there are crocodiles.

In the morning I fixed a flat tire (one of the valves had given up here - not, by some kindness of fate, in the mountains, where the road surface was nowhere level enough to operate a jack) and drove west toward the lake. The road ran through cane fields and past the barracklike housing for migrant Haitian sugar workers. Women there were washing clothes in a stream.

I passed through some sizable Dominican towns, the first I'd seen that truly deserved the tired clich¿ "sleepy"; here even the motorbike traffic subsided. Old wooden houses had thatched roofs and wore coats of bright paint with geometrical designs on their doors, like houses in nearby Haiti. At several spots along the road, the Dominican army had set up checkpoints to keep illegal Haitian immigrants - those not needed for the sugar harvest - out of the country.

A few miles outside of La Descubierta stood a national park office, a pavilion open on three sides. Lago Enriquillo was just beyond, a saltwater lake more than 20 miles long. I walked down and found seven men sitting in the shade, three of them with antiquated double-barreled shotguns cradled in their laps.

The men all greeted me, and I asked if one of them could take me over to the island.

"No," answered one. "The man with the boat is over there now. He left at seven. He'll be back this afternoon at one. You can go over then, but the crocodiles will be out in the water, and you probably wouldn't be able to see them."

"It's ten o'clock now," I said. "What would I do for three hours anyway?"

"You could drink beer," he said, pointing to a cooler full of Presidente behind the counter. "Get the man a beer," he told a junior ranger at the counter.

I opened the beer and gave the kid 20 pesos. It was the wrong end of the day to drink beer for three hours, but I hung around for a bottle's worth of time, shooting the breeze with the boys, thinking about what was possible, and what was not, in the Dominican Republic.