Dominican Republic: A land of dictators, rum and literary genius

I’ve never really been a fan or borders, and when you see an island cut in two by an arbitrary declaration of ownership it brings the flaws of nation states into sharp focus. I guess it particularly rankles given that I live in an Island that is cut into three and in a nation that’s cut another island into two. And so it is that I read about the Dominican Republic with fascination, sharing, as it does, a border with Haiti. The island itself is Hispaniola and thanks to the vagaries of colonialism, one half speaks French and the other Spanish. I first heard about this peculiar situation in Collapse by Jared Diamond, which posits that even from the air you can see the effects of each country’s governance. The Dominican side is dark and green and the Haitian side pale and brown — but the differences don’t end there. The Dominican side is by far more prosperous, but it has certainly had its problems, mainly in the form of the dictator Trujillo, who destruction was so deeply wrought that it has taken decades to recover. One of the many problems with autocratic strong-men leaders, is that they tend to breed more, strange people, who respond to being ruled by evil by wanting to be an evil ruler themselves.

The extremes of Trujillo’s rule are at the heart of this week’s book In the time of the butterflies by Julia Alvarez, which tells the true story of the Mirabel sisters whose lives are turned upside down by the dictatorship and who respond with revolution. It shows how far Trujillo’s systems reached into the country, and reminds me to beware of any system that insists of pictures of the dear leader being everywhere. Perhaps I should be more questioning of the fact that our dear queen’s head sits on stamps, money etc. I tend to think of it as a vaguely amusing personality cult, but I guess it does things to your psyche seeing her all the time. The other Dominican book you must read is the Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao, which also deals with the Trujillo regime. Indeed it seems there are many great books about the Dominican Republic…

…which is why it was so surprising that I couldn’t find a good film, plumping instead for a really bad film, Old, by M Night Shyamalan. The advert looked kind of dodgy, but I thought that any film with Gael Garcia Bernal in it, couldn’t be bad. But it is. Dreadful in fact, I am not sure I have seen a worse film in my life, the acting is shocking and the plot ridiculous. Still, it was nice to see Dominican Republic in all its beauty and we sure did laugh at some of the dialogue. Luckily, just days after watching this calamity, Mubi the arts film people released Liborio, the true story of an Afro-Dominican folk hero who comes back from the grave and founds a new religious movement. I presume it was made on a fraction of the budget and yet we loved it, the acting is superb and the magical realism offers the possibility for some viewers to believe in miracles whilst giving cynics like me clear reason to doubt.

But it wasn’t all books and films, it was also the best damn chocolate I have ever eaten! I mean seriously, if you see Dominican Republic chocolate, please buy it. We tries several vegan and non-vegan versions and none of them disappointed. In fact nothing disappointed, as this is a country of bounteous food, of giant avocados and sweet plantains (this was our breakfast (pan con aguacate)), of rum cakes and lentil stew, and so much more. So much in fact that I can’t find the recipe I actually ended up cooking!

For drinks, as is so often the case, I bought a bottle of rum, Anejo rum, which is fine, not a sipping rum, more of a mixer rum, but still it is a rum. I made it into a rum punch as I was told, to, mixing it with grenadine, orange and pineapple. The book told me you see this bright red drink everywhere on the island, but whilst it was delicious, mine was hardly bright red. Not sure what I did wrong there!

The country’s most famous music is merengue, which was a bit too happy for my style, so I made a tiny playlist of my own which I still need help with if anyone wants to add! And so that’s it for D countries, next week we go to the youthful East Timor!

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Armchair traveller

Armchair traveller

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Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.