Monday, June 02, 2008

Confessions of a Gulity Tourist

This is what I wrote on Saturday, a fragment that will be part of a larger paper:

I'm writing from the balcony of room 1406 in the Majestic Colonial resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Here for my brother's wedding, I can't help but notice that the name of this resort is both apt and honest. It is undoubtedly “majestic.” I lack the vocabulary to discuss the lush beauty around me. From my deck on the fourth floor I can see not only the opulent architecture of this resort and its immediate neighbor, but also the natural splendor of the coconut trees, the various palms, and the wealth of natural beauty for which I simply lack words. No doubt those who visit Kentucky, the only state in which I've lived, are struck by the natural beauty of our hills and mountains, our valleys and rivers, and of course our famous bluegrass; but life in Kentucky has not equipped with with the vocabulary to describe this very different natural splendor. Staring at the turquoise water, with its gentle, rolling waves, the white sand beaches, and the lush greenery full of plants whose naves I've never heard, the aesthetic is almost enough to make me drop to my knees in prayer, begging for forgiveness for ever doubting the majesty of God.

And the natural beauty is not the only beauty. My room has magnificently tiled floors and a cathedral ceiling. The local art hanging from the walls speaks to the deeply human beauty in this place. And, of course, the people here, those few locals who my fledgling Spanish has allowed me to meet, exude a grace and beauty which almost shames me. Add to these beauties the freely flowing food and drink, the nightly shows, and the largest pool I've ever seen, with a bar you can swim to, and I cannot doubt the “majestic” in the name here.

But I'm not staying at the “Majestic.” I'm staying at the “Majestic Colonial.” And, as noted above, the name is both apt and painful honest. It is impossible to ignore the fact that here I participate in what can only be described as a neo-colonial economy. The opulence of this resort contrasts so painfully with what little I could see of the surrounding area on the bus ride here from the airport. Outside this splendor I saw shanty towns. Houses made from cinder blocks, yards made of gravel. Such makeshift dwellings stood within eye shot of grand vacation homes, an unpleasant reminder of the extreme distance between the rich and the poor.

While most of the signs along the road to this resort were, of course, in Spanish, I also some familiar signs from home, from Realtors such as ReMax and Century 21. These signs, which offered to sell pieces of this gorgeous land to those lucky enough to be able to afford it, were almost all in English.

None of the many tourists here can be blind to this, it is so striking. And the creeping awareness of this dynamic no doubt makes many of us uncomfortable. I know this is the case for the many family and friends gathered here for my brother's wedding. At one point or another each of us have offered up some awkward apology for the resort, and especially for our presence here. And, not just our presence, but especially at the fact that we enjoy it here. This is a great place to be a tourist, surrounded by freely flowing food and drink – I can vouch especially for the local beer, Presidente, offered to me constantly and free of charge – and entertainment without end. While here we live a life of leisure, waited on by locals almost all hours of the day. The wristband labeling one a guest here serves as an admission to royalty. Here there are no demands on us guests – we make the demands on others.

Our awkward apologies are also honest, at least to a degree. My grandmother, a preacher's wife her entire adult life, grew up poor in rural western Kentucky. Having spent most of her life hosting and serving others, she was visibly uncomfortable at breakfast this morning. Reconciling herself to this new situation of luxury, she noted – probably rightly – that if it weren't for this resort, many of the people working here would have no jobs. And, even if they could find work, she mused, what work they could find would not pay nearly as much as their jobs here. Such apologies are common among the my friends and family, and began to appear months before we arrived here. And they speak to at least one truth about the situation here: the economy in and around Punta Cana depends on tourism. But that is not the only truth of this situation.

Another truth is this: In my time here, though I've trotted out my feeble Spanish and seen it met with a more than adequate English, I've not yet really met a person who lives here. Sure I've seen the faces that they show me, those who serve me and the other guests here. I've heard their voices, seen them laugh politely at my poor jokes. We've danced the familiar dance wherein I say, for instance, uno cerveza, por favor, receive my complimentary Presidente, offer a heartfelt gracias coupled with a smile and sometimes a tip, which is then met with denada (Amy, feel free to correct my spelling!). But the moves are choreographed. This dance has been danced many times before. And many of its performances through history have been, frankly, disturbing. This dance is not unlike those danced on many an American plantation, where black women and men, held in servitude by physical and psychological chains, would perform for their slavemasters, my cultural ancestors. In that dance as in this one, smiles often adorned faces, compliments were often offered, service rendered as though it were the greatest joy. Slavemasters, confident in their knowledge of their “darkies,” knew nothing whatsoever of the lives and culture of those women and men held in slavery.

Like those antebellum slaveholders, here I receive service from those I know nothing about. I came to the Dominican Republic filled only with stories of shoeless children playing baseball with neither gloves nor a field, armed only with a stick and a ball. In such contemporary folk legends shown often on ESPN and other American sports television stations, those exceptional children, athletic prodigies, get noticed by some adventurous scout for this or that Major League baseball team, and are offered a chance at salvation in the form of a Minor League contract. They then lie about their age, sign the contract, move to the United States and become rich and famous. Such stories reinforce the myth of America as a classless society into which anyone can enter, where all – no mater how humble their origins – can succeed beyond their wildest dreams if only they have the talent and the work ethic. They may be more or less factual, but they are dishonest, telling the truth about neither America nor the Dominican Republic, nor anything else.

Now as I type this from the deck of my luxurious hotel room, looking out over this majestic resort, one last cerveza in hand, I still know nothing of the Dominican Republic, save for another sort of myth. I've seen here nothing of the people nor the land save those bits that the proprietors of this resort think that I want to see. I've seen a land full of splendor, a gracious and joyous people who live to serve and entertain me. I've seen enough food to keep me stuffed, enough drink to keep me happily buzzed, enough entertainment to keep me from thinking about the existential crisis that began the moment my flight touched down. I've seen luxurious restaurants and swimming pools, handsome men and beautiful women, all of whom are happy to see me, and a natural beauty that I hope stays burned in my mind until I die. But whatever I've seen, I'm sure I haven't seen the Dominican Republic. Not as the many people who live here experience it, anyway.

That Dominican Republic, the one whose economy depends in part on the money I and others like me have spent here, is like so many other cogs in the wheels of neo-liberal economic globalization, global capitalism, characterized by a vast chasm between the rich minority and the poor majority. And – despite the apologies I've offered in chorus with my friends and family – most of the money I've spent here will undoubted line the pockets of the rich rather than the stomachs of the poor. Whether Dominican, American, European, or from anywhere else, the people who own this resort are rich. The people who own the land around, also rich. The people who own the vacation homes sold by those Realtors whose English signs stand next to the Spanish roadsigns, are rich. In fact – especially as the tourist trade booms here – the rich serve more and more as gatekeepers to the beauty here. Beauty that, like any other commodity, is bought and sold, or in my case, rented. I may ease my guilt by telling myself how much good this resort is doing for the local economy, but if I'm honest I must note that, most likely, here as elsewhere, that economy serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful. And, despite the protests of my brother, the student of mathematical economics whose wedding brought me to this tourist's paradise, the health of the economy as a whole is a poor indicator of how any particular person within that economy is fairing: no one makes the per capita income.

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