Hispaniola was one of the first Caribbean islands where Columbus set foot in the new world. The Dominican Republic shares the island with Haiti. In the '70's early in our cruising experiences, we stopped in both countries marveling at how a Spanish speaking people could share an island with French speaking people with vastly different governments and customs. From what we saw then, the entire island was blessed by nature with lush green vegetation and craggy mountains that provided great views. As Haiti suffered under the leadership of the Duvalier family and finally was invaded by us, we could understand why cruise companies stopped visiting there. During our last visit I vividly remember a woman laying in the street with flies crawling on her face; I wondered if she was dead or dead drunk. Life in Haiti was dangerous and the people suffered so, it didn't feel right to come there with our full stomachs to gawk. Cruise itineraries also no longer featured stops in the Dominican Republic, but we were never quite sure why. Our stop today in La Romana was one of the reasons we chose this particular cruise.
While most of our fellow passengers headed off to Los Campos, a resort area built by the rich sugar companies, we headed off to the sugar cane. We hear that the resorts here are lavish and all inclusive and feature golf courses. tennis courts, skeet shooting, horseback riding and beautiful beaches. We've seen lots of nice hotels and beaches and decided that this untour to the cane fields would be more interesting.
We boarded counterfeit hummers and spent most of the morning driving through the cane fields on unpaved roads. While many of them are used regularly and well maintained, there were some bone jarring sections. Much of the cane is processed into rum and at 9:30am our guide pulled over to pour us some. It seemed rude to say no. Thus fortified, we continued on through mile after mile of cane. We hoped our driver knew where he was; we had no clue. The cane grew taller than the corn stalks we are used to at home and were tightly packed. You could walk a few feet into a field and be totally out of sight. Every so often we crossed the railroad tracks that are used to transport the cut cane to the mill. Finally we came to the actual laborers, hacking away by hand with their machetes. Once the cane is cut, it is piled in carts pulled by oxen and brought to a staging area where a primitive pulley loads it into railroad cars. A woman with a jug of water carried it on her head out to the fields to hydrate the cane cutters. Our guide said that Dominicans do not like to do this difficult work and Haitians are hired to get the job done. Not surprisingly, once they are in the Dominican Republic they are not enthusiastic about returning home and over one million Haitians live in the republic today. The work is taxing and living conditions are primitive, but here they can feel safe.
When we got to the Chavon River clean laundry was spread out to dry on its banks, and locals riding donkeys loaded with plastic jugs, came down to the water to fill up since there is no running water at their homes. Most ot the homes in the fields also do not have electricity, but we saw some ingenious wiring systems that must make use of car batteries. Our final stop was at a farm house. The buildings were ramshackle wood covered with corrugated metal roofs, but inside they were as neat as could be. The climate is so pleasant here, that people must spend most of the day outside anyway. We were treated to a cup of local coffee and encouraged to chew on sugar cane stalks - kind of like eating sweet wood. All in all today felt like a glimpse into the past.