Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Where History, Culture and Travel collide -- Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic from the footsteps of Columbus to today

Portrait of Columbus in Alcazar de Colon - Santo Domingo
"In fourteen hundred and ninety - two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue". "The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria".  Was I in first grade?  Fourth, fifth?  Sometime in grade school we all learn about how Columbus 'discovered' America and proved the world was round.  (like with most things historical , exaggeration - he landed in the Caribbean on an island he named Hispanola - today home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti).  Words on page in a book.  Things to be committed to memory, regurgitated for a test and then forgotten as new information comes along.  Sadly not only my education but many out there as well.

Statue of Columbus - Plaza Colon - Madrid
Colombus, (my good friend Dr. Gary Scavnicky always reminds me his name was 'Cristobol Colon, the Columbus thing is an English re name) he's still a national hero in Spain.  From the harbor in Barcelona to his plaza in Madrid - he is very much a part of everyday Spanish life. In addition to a huge obelisk at Plaza Colon,  a huge mural in Madrid shows a map of how he departed from Barcelona and all the trials tribulation and down right agony he and his crews faced to end up in modern day Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic.  At the end of Barcelona's busy Las Ramblas pedestrian avenue, before you arrive at the very harbor that Ferdinand and Isabella waved him off from, Colombus sits high upon an obelisk, literally pointing to the new world.  This was no guy on a page in a history book - this was someone who through  wit, determination a little bit of flim flam charm and a lot of bravery - got on the Santa Maria and left that harbor and headed out for places unknown.  I saw where he left - I had to see where he ended up.
Port of  Santo Domingo - Ozama River

To get the whole picture of Santo Domingo took two visits.  The first time was a guided tour with 45 other tourists and the second with only my mom and I and a private guide.  We arrived in Santo Domingo both times exactly like Columbus, following the Ozama river into the city.  However, instead of being greeted by curious and friendly Taino Indians, our welcome was traffic almost as thick as the early morning smog.  This is a hustling and busy capital city - the river Ozama feeding directly into the Caribbean sea.  

Visit one found us following our guide, a 60ish former Dominican Navy Seal turned tourist escort, through the cobble stone streets.We were literally walking in the footsteps of the explorer.  From the banks of the river Ozama through the ancient colonial city we saw how Santo Domingo changed from a Indian settlement to the bustling city it is today. Winding our way through the city we stopped at the 16th century Museo de las Casas Reales (administrative offices of all the Spanish colonies in the Americas) and the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic(national symbol of the Dominican Republic and final resting place of its most honored citizens). But for me personally, it was at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor and the Alcazar de Colon where Columbus’ story went from the pages of a schoolbook to right before my eyes.

Alcazar de Colon - Santo Domingo
Ferdinand and Isabella cross. Santa Maria la Menor, Santo Domingo
The Alcazar de Colon built by Diego Colon, (son of Christoper Columbus) is the oldest viceregal (governor's) residence in all of the Americas. The palace over looks the same Ozama river that Diego’s father first traversed from the Caribbean sea to arrive in the new world.  What I found most impressive about the ‘Casa de Colon’ was that unlike other famous residences where the family’s possessions were lost to looting, sale or simply time and decay, the palace’s furniture was all original to the family.  A medium sized non-descriptive chest in the corner of the dining room, was not only the highlight of the tour for me, but my Dominican Republic visit.  As almost an afterthought as we headed to another room the guide pointed to the chest – “Oh, that chest?  Cristobel Colombo’s from the Santa Maria – he kept his maps in there”.  WHAT????  That chest right there in the corner?  Sailed across the ocean with Columbus?  And since the maps were in there, he probably touched it a hundred times a day. ...and 30 minutes later as we crowded into the cool, dark interior of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor (the first cathedral in the New World), my mind was blown again. " See friends in this chapel?  That wooden cross on the wall?"  I took in the darkly stained crucifix. "On the day of his departure, Ferdinand and Isabella gifted Colon with this cross for a church to be built in the New World".  SERIOUSLY?  While I doubt I&F actually touched the cross, they might have.  And regardless this cross was loaded on the Santa Maria on Columbus' voyage a gift from the King and Queen of Spain.  That, readers is history come to life. 

One of the lakes of Tres Ojos - Mirador Este Park - Santo Domingo
Almost exactly one year later, I visited Santo Domingo for a second time.  The city's past had definitely come alive for me the previous year.   This time rather than have the history of our hemisphere laid out before me, I got to experience Dominican natural history and people just living their lives. Our first stop was the Mirador Este park - to specifically visit the Tres Ojos.  I followed the park guide down 39 steep steps into what seemed to be cave. The guide explained it was actually a centuries old depression created when caves collapsed and filled with water.  The lakes were used from the time of the Taino Indians (the native people inhabiting Hispanola when Columbus arrived) right up to the beginning of the 20th century for bathing and diving. The Tres Ojos (literally 'Three Eyes') are actually underground lakes - with the fourth 'eye' (lake) actually outside the depression but connected to the other three by an under ground river.  The stalagmites and stalactites as well as the walls are an eerie white sulphor which makes the water appear either extremely blue or pure black depending on how much sunlight reaches the lakes.
Mirador Este Park - Santo Domingo


Woman with bananas - Santo Domingo 
After our visit to the park, we continued on to the historical city center - the colonial quarter. My Spanish isn't perfect, but it was good enough to buy some baby gifts for Punta Cana friends who are expecting, pick up some local beer at a grocery store and have an amazing lunch in a 500 year old building's interior courtyard - shaded by a mango tree that was obviouslyolder than that as the courtyard had been built around it.( I have to admit, I do need to continue my Spanish studies   When a young woman walked past me with a rubber basket of bananas on her head, I confidently said "Es possible tocar una pintura de ti".  I thought I said "Is it possible for me to take a photo of you",  but actually said "Is it possible for me to touch you with a painting" - sigh).  The day ended with a quick visit to the Presidential palace and obligatory photos with the Presidential guard.
Presidential Guard - Resident of President, Dominican Republic

It took two very different visits to the Dominican capital to really understand Santo Domingo.  This is true of most places we may vacation. For those who know me well, shopping, eating and chatting are all within my wheelhouse, but the idea that I would willingly go down a bunch of steep, slippery steps in a cave that I later found out was full of fruit bats is probably amusing. However, if I have learned nothing else during my adventures,  while a 'top 10' or 'must see' list is important to understand a place's historical significance... you must take some time to wander, to learn and like Columbus to simply explore.  



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