Horseback riding, the Dominican way
We did what we weren’t supposed to do. We paid a local man to take us horseback riding. He was walking up and down the beach, waving papers and shouting, “Horses!” We signalled for him to come over, and we negotiated a price.
This was my sister, her boyfriend, and me. We had been warned by the hotel personnel not to make arrangements with the local people. “They’ll try to sell you anything,” they told us, “but don’t listen. If you want anything, just ask us.”
Our hotel was in a compound with several other hotels. A concrete wall separated us from the rest of the country. There was only one entrance, and the gates were guarded by men wearing guns, stern expressions and camouflage outfits.
I had never ridden a horse before. And I was bored at the hotel. I looked toward the hills—lush and tropical and misted by low-sprawling clouds. “I want to go over there,” I told the man on the beach.
“Oh, we will take you,” he nodded. “We will take you on a horse for six hours. We will show you the beauty of this country.”
He wore a faded red T-shirt, stained under the arms, and his face was greasy with sweat. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and smiled. His black moustache hung over his upper lip and his teeth glistened in the sun.
He asked for ten dollars up front, “to buy the beer and food for your lunch,” and told us to bring another twenty dollars the next morning.
He picked us up early. The sun was low in the sky and a cool breeze blew in from the ocean. He waited for us outside the guarded gates, and as soon as he saw us coming, he became agitated and gestured with his arms that we should get into his van.
His van was large, white and caked with dirt. The inside was gutted of upholstery and carpeting; all that remained were two dusty seats, sticky and held together with masking tape. The smells of dog, sweat and urine mingled in the air.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and held out his hand for his money. He counted it carefully, crumpled it into a ball and shoved it in his pocket. “We are going to have a good time today,” he said. He turned on the ignition; an angry groan sounded as the van lurched into motion. I could see his eyes flashing in the rear-view mirror as he examined us. “The weather is perfect,” he said. “You are going to love it.”
We drove down a busy highway and turned off onto a jagged road that was paved with shattered rocks. The driver stopped in front of a wooden building with no walls, only tall timber pillars and a depleted roof. Several dogs lazed about, and a woman hung laundry on a thin piece of rope. Five horses were tethered to a nearby tree.
Two young men approached the van. The older one had a faint moustache; he was thin and muscular. He didn’t say anything, but smiled without opening his mouth. The younger one wore a bandana to hold back his wild curly hair. His face was round and his cheeks were pink. He smiled openly and walked with a swagger. “Ola!” he said.
Our driver turned to face us. “These are your guides. They will take you to the mountains and the sugar cane; they will show you the beauty of our country.”
We stepped out of the van onto the hardened dirt of the driveway. He called out to the young men in Spanish, and they nodded their heads.
“Goodbye,” he said to us, “I will see you in six hours.” He waved his hand and drove away.
The young men busied themselves with saddling the horses.
“I am Alex,” the younger one said. “That one over there,” he nodded toward the older one, “is Tony.”
We were each given a horse, but they were more like mules: short and thick in the middle, stout and sturdy. They blinked their eyes like cows, as though they had no intelligence or emotion.
“Do not walk behind them,” Alex warned, “or they will kick you.” He helped us into our saddles and led us to the jagged road.
We started uphill: a slow and solemn parade. The horses stepped cautiously. Their heads hung low, nodding in a tired and obedient way.
“They don’t like the road,” Alex explained. “It is too rocky. It hurts their feet. They have walked this way many times. And they know it is long and hard.”
The road was narrow; only two horses could walk beside each other at a time. Occasionally our way was impeded by large pits, formed by heavy rainfalls, and we were forced to keep to the shoulder, brushing tree branches and vines out of our faces.
Then the jungle encroached, overtaking parts of the road. Trees—green, pulsating, leafy—grew up and out and into one another. Vines tangled and flourished in small and dim places. Flowers bloomed like red puckered lips. Everything gleamed with heat and emanated languorous moisture. Dead trees and shrubs littered the soil, and brown, withered vines hung from branches or sprawled on the ground like spectres flung at the feet of those who had vanquished them. The air was musty— thick with the scent of decomposing vegetation.
Houses were fitted onto small plots and set back, half-hidden, a short distance from the road. They were simple, rectangular buildings, made from clay, painted lime green and gaudy pink, faded by the sun and dusted by dirt. Their windows had no panes and their doorways had no doors.
“Do you have children?” Alex asked.
“But you are married?” he addressed my sister and her boyfriend.
“No,” they answered, “we are waiting until the time is right.”
“Ah,” Alex laughed, “I see. Things are different here. The nights are long—we hear the music of the crickets, and it is very dark. There is nothing for us to do, but be together. It is the Dominican way.”
I have heard other people speak of the Dominican way. Just the other night I was caught in a storm; rain came down in heavy sheets and lightning flashed across the sky. I stood under the hotel awning and watched the night flicker like a light bulb. A custodian passed by me. “Dominican storm,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Do you have children?” I asked Alex.
“Yes, I have a baby,” Alex said. “He has three.”
Tony smiled with his mouth closed.
“Really?” I looked at Alex, his round and youthful face.
“Yes,” Alex chuckled. “Of course.”
The road tapered into an uneven trail, leading us out of the jungle and into a maze of sugar cane, which grew tall and wild in thick, twisted masses. It towered above my head and whipped my ankles with its bristly stalks.
“Over there,” Alex pointed. “That is where the women used to weigh the sugar.” A dilapidated shack stood lopsided in the distance; sugar cane poked through its roof.
“What happened?” I asked.
He sighed. “No money.”
A cow with a rusted bell turned to watch us pass by. She chewed listlessly on a piece of sugar cane.
“Soon we will stop and eat a Dominican meal,” Alex said.
We tethered our horses to a wooden fence, walked to a small barn and sat down at a makeshift table. Two women brought us plates of food: roasted chicken, kidney beans, fresh pineapple and rice.
“In the Dominican,” Alex grinned, “we eat a good meal.”
After we had finished eating, the women cleared away our plates and stared at us expectantly.
Tony cleared his throat, and Alex said, “You need to pay for your meal.”
My sister and I looked at each other. We hadn’t brought any money.
“This is ridiculous,” my sister’s boyfriend said. “Our meal was supposed to be included.”
“How much money do you have?” my sister asked him.
“I don’t have what they’re asking for.”
“Give it to them,” she said. “They have children.”
My sister’s boyfriend handed Alex and Tony a few folded bills, which they pushed deep into their pockets without looking. They turned silently, walked toward the horses and made ready for the journey home.
The whole way back, the horses were restless and shook their heads at one another. They were no longer content to walk side by side but competed to be out in front, nipping at each other’s necks and pushing each other out of the way.
“They are anxious to go home,” Alex explained.
The sky was clouding over, and in the distance there were rumblings of an afternoon rainstorm.
No one said anything or looked at each other for a very long time. I concentrated on adjusting to the unsteady motion of my horse as he trotted swiftly along the jagged road.
Suddenly Alex said, “I think it must be very hard in your country. You have so many beautiful things. I would get lost. And I would never get anything done.”
“But your country is very beautiful,” I said.
“I know,” he said, waving his hand in front of his face. “It is my home. It is all I know.”