The Road to Cabañas Princesa
We were driving down the highway at night in a cab with the Caribbean Sea to our left, sex and sangria coursing through our veins. Since leaving the States for the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, I had become more or less like the nuns walking through Plaza Colon, avoiding eye contact with men I hadn’t already befriended, afraid of their appraising stares.
I had given the driver the address, and after ten minutes, he suggested another location. We took him up on his suggestion, and made a left, pulling into a complex of what looked like miniature versions of the houses in Florida residential complexes, complete with attached garages. The cab driver drove away as I pushed the button to lower the door. My curiosity had finally led me to a cabaña.
Cabaña means cabin in Spanish, but here, they’re little rooms for rent where couples—whether properly dating or secretly cheating—go to steal a few hours for themselves. People generally live with their parents until they get married, so they need a place cheaper than hotels for when they get the urge. Regular clients are also known to bed down with prostitutes in the sex motels.
During orientation for my study program, we learned all about cabañas; the program directors were sure to make clear that once you’re there, the assumption is every act happening inside is consensual. In a cabaña, no one can hear you scream. One of my professors told us all about how these little hotels work: when you pay, you get four hours, two condoms, a bar of soap, and two towels. On Independence Day and Valentine’s Day, she said, they’re completely booked.
Yes, the Dominican Republic is stereotypically Latino in its emphasis on love and romance. The fried chicken place decorates its windows with Valentine’s decorations, and almost any man on the street will tell almost any woman that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. Men I met insisted that, while I had a boyfriend back home, I needed one here, too. Without even thinking about it, Dominicans refer to everyone as mi amor, mi vida, mi reina—my queen.
Music pours from every passing car, every bus, every hair salon, every store in Santo Domingo; lyrics about everlasting romance, heartache, and treacherous women (nearly all sung by men) follow you down the sidewalk. Is it any wonder that, at least among many of the younger people, love is they key to it all?
* * *
Preparation for my boyfriend’s long-awaited visit required more than just a pedicure and bikini wax. He was traveling with friends and there was no way I could sneak him into my host family’s home, so I had to find a place for us to reunite properly. This was the perfect opportunity to investigate cabañas.
I questioned the guy friends I had made: what are the best cabañas? Generally open and friendly, they stonewalled. One even went so far as to joke that he was a virgin. The day of The Boy’s arrival was drawing closer and I was worried. I caved; I turned to my host sister. She wasn’t particularly friendly and didn’t seem interested in me, but of the people I knew, I thought she might be the most helpful. She’d been dating the same guy for 14 months, a guy not terribly attractive but with a beach house and a nice car. I swallowed and asked. She gave me a blank look. “I’ve never been.”
“Never?” She shook her head. She probably thought I was una putita. “Well, where do you go when you want to have sex?” Her answer was lost in translation; I’m still not sure if she said “We don’t touch them” or “We don’t touch each other.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask for clarification.
I ended up picking a cabaña from the phonebook one day when my entire host family had left. I checked on prices and hoped I would luck out. An American friend of mine who’d been in the country longer than I described touring the finest sex motels with her Dominican boyfriend. Some had themed rooms like jungle or Asian. Some had Saturday Night Fever floors and stripper poles. I hoped Cabañas Princesa would as nice.
* * *
Travel books and tour guides will extol the beauty of the beaches, the warmth of the people, and the country’s proud history as Columbus’s first sight of the Americas. They tend to leave out that sex is the Dominican Republic’s secondary tourist attraction. After 10 PM on any given night, one is hard pressed to walk down the main streets in the capital without bumping into a prostitute. One of the girls in my program befriended a pimp named Chocolate who told her his best customers were men from the U.S. who went off with two or three prostitutes at the same time. Dominicans have a sixth sense for knowing where the brothels are, to avoid them or not. It’s a shame, they say, that women in this country are so poor they go into prostitution. And they go on.
* * *
On that stretch of the highway in Santo Domingo, the signs are bright, like the casinos in the heart of the tourist parts. It’s like Vegas, but instead of reading “live girls”, they have names like Princesa and Si o No. Music and food service are some of the big selling points; they goes on the sign too.
The same teacher that gave us details about cabañas explained that these sex outposts don’t use explicit names to offer an easy out for a philandering mate or a shy lover. Should you receive a phone call right before or after you’re about to do the do and someone asks where you are, you can give the name of the cabaña and still tell the truth. ‘The Office’ doesn’t sound sexy, but perhaps that’s why it is one of Santo Domingo’s most popular spots.
* * *
Breasts are served on silver platters. Women push them and shove them out. Their breasts don’t bounce; their tops quiver in their ruffled blouses. Weekly salon appointments keep all but the poorest women styled and manicured. Because shorts are only for wearing in the house and running errands in the neighborhood, women squeeze themselves into the tightest jeans, despite the heat. Santo Domingo’s sheets are treacherously cracked and dangerous, but high-heeled slides are the footwear of jevitas, trendy girls, everywhere, even on the way to class. In most clubs, a girl won’t get asked to dance if she wears flats. It was this, the way sex was as much a part of the atmosphere as diesel fumes and piña that confused me. Why wasn’t anyone willing to admit what they knew about cabañas?
At night, it’s hard to tell the prostitutes from ordinary girls. It depends on who’s in the arms of a white tourist or standing under a streetlamp with nowhere to go.
* * *
The Love of Being in Love
More trivia about the Dominican Republic: it is home to the oldest cathedral in the New World. The Dominican Order of monks still thrives, even as other orders have made themselves prominent and as the Evangelical Christian community grows every day. Fifteen pesos will buy you a rosary, ten pesos will buy you a sticker with a Bible verse or saying. Jesus is my Lord and Savior. If God is with me, who can be against me? May God bless you. Jesus and the Virgin stare out at you from bus stops: “Mary is perfect through her love for Jesus.” So even if my host sister washed her hands of the church after Communion, Jesucristo y la Virgen see her waiting for the bus. At night, they see the women hoping the next German tourist they drive off with will give them the money to buy school uniforms for the children, too.
* * *
Our cab driver had chosen the executive suite at a cabaña called Tia Tania. The Boy and I checked it out: there was a bar, a dirty hot tub, and neon lights in the ceiling above the hot tub. The bed was queen sized with only a fitted sheet. There was a huge flat screen over the hot tub, but surprisingly, we couldn’t find any porn. Tia Tania offered a selection of Spanish ballads, but we chose silence. I used the phone by the bed to order a Red Bull and a water. I heard a knock in the wall. The drinks, care package, and a bill appeared in a tiny cupboard. A hand slid through the door to take the cash. I took the drinks and put the money in the slot. The Boy and I sipped our drinks on the side of the bed and realized we were too tired for the romp we’d whispered about over dinner. He set the alarm on his phone for a half hour later, and we stripped down for the spooning we’d missed over the last two months. Once the alarm went off, we rolled over and got started. Our room was decked out in mirrors, allowing us to see ourselves from every angle.
* * *
My host mother has grown out of the her daughters’ music. She prefers listening to jazz standards quietly in her room, her sanctuary. She has a tapestry of the Virgin Mary on her wall and a cross above her bed. Divorced from her children’s father, she does not believe in love. I used to listened while she talked at dinner: “You have to think about your economic situation. Women here, it’s so hard for them to make money, even though they work more than men. If I’ve already been divorced, I don’t want to get married again to a man who might have less than I have. I might have to work hard, but at least my car is my car and my house is my house.” The divorce rate in the Dominican Republic is high; it’s rare to see a middle-aged couple out together.
I let it slip one day that I was upset with The Boy and she gave me a wait-and-see look. “He’s there and you’re here. You can’t be sure what he’s doing.” I was only annoyed that he neglected to call on our anniversary.
* * *
It seems the Dominican love of being in love lets them pretend they don’t care about sex. Only the newer music, the music for the lower classes, is explicitly sexual. And yet, a stranger’s simple, “May God bless you, mi amor” is charged with sex, leaving the listener naked.
The program allowed us to study at El Centro Bonó, a college chiefly for the education of future priests. Carlos was on the priest track. He was slight, beautiful, and aggressive. My phone vibrated constantly with text messages telling me how he thought I was beautiful, how he needed to kiss me to know if his attraction was real, that he would send a taxi to bring me to his house. I patiently explained that I didn’t want to because I was had a boyfriend. It’s just a kiss, he pleaded. Fed up with him for being so persistent and so attractive I told him he didn’t want to kiss me, he wanted to fuck me. He smiled and said no, that wasn’t it. It was a long time before he admitted to having had sex.
Once I was back in the States, I heard Carlos had switched to studying law.
* * *
We needed to get dressed. I called a cab on my tiny Dominican cell phone, somewhat embarrassed to explain where I was. As we started toward the door, I circled back. I stuck the towels, printed with the name Tia Tania, in my purse, as a keepsake.