January 23, 2007 Santiago Snack

Photo Caption: A schoolgirl peers through a peephole in the school’s front gate as a Skim Ice vendor waits for his next popsicle customer in Santiago.

History: Among the many street vendors peddling the pavement, none are more visible or sought after on a hot day than the Skim Ice seller dressed in a colorful jump suit and cap with the familiar penguin decal. Though they must purchase the uniform and the right to sell the popular snack from the wholesaler, the hawker does not pay taxes. Each time he removes Skim Ice from the cooler bag and uses his scissors to cut open the plastic packaging for a Popsicle patron, he makes a profit of about three cents. Another favorite refreshment on a tropical afternoon is a coconut sliced open by a machete-waving vendor.

Poverty can’t afford private transportation, so it must often take cheap rides in a guagua (minivan), carro publico (public car), or on a motoconcho (motorcycle taxi). Overloaded guaguas, unable to pass safety inspections, have designated routes and stops on vital avenues, where a cobrador leans out of the open sliding door shouting bus directions before extending a hand to the seated or half-standing passengers to collect fares. With its route marked with a large letter fixed to its windshield, a carro publico is a hybrid of sorts. It’s a car that picks up and drops off customers anywhere along its set course. To profit most from a propane tank powering the car, a driver will squeeze four adults with their toddlers and groceries in a back seat designed for three along with two adults in the front passenger seat while operating a stick shift on the floor. At the end of the line, rows of accident-prone motoconchos await to take as many as three adults and a baby for a ride on the back of a motorcycle to taxi them a few blocks further into the barrios. Though foreign tourists are warned to steer clear of these public options, I rode all three many times.

Ranked just below El Salvador and nearly doubling the average among forty-eight Latin American countries, the Dominican Republic has the second highest death rate by traffic accidents. Of the 1,747 people who died on the roads here in 2007 I saw one corpse on January 9th on my way to Santiago. Killed in a hit-and-run on the high-speed Autopista Juan Pablo Duarte (DR-1), the dead pedestrian was encircled by dozens of poverty-stricken locals who walk the highway’s shoulder as if it was a sidewalk. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way in this country, but most will take their chances dodging traffic instead of using the pedestrian overpasses. Though the law forbids using cell phones while driving, everyone who chauffeured me around ignored that rule – except when Farah threw Yuri’s phone out of her passenger window. My hosts disregarded signal lights, drove the wrong way on a one-way street with regularity, passed on blind curves, creatively converted two-lane roads into three-lane highways, and cut street corners between service station islands as they flew past attendants holding gas pumps. Here, defensive driving means standing on the horn.

Journal Entry: Accepting Ignacio’s invitation, I squeezed into a packed public car with my former English student and rode to the end of the line where a row of motorcycle taxis waited to take customers farther into the hilly outskirts of Santiago. Far from where tourists tread, I was the recipient of many stares and glares. Though mundane to local eyes, it was amusing to see a dog waiting patiently on the sidewalk next to a meat stand that dangled fresh beef as well as a cow’s head, proudly held up by the horns after the butcher noticed my curiosity. On a hill above the local bakery, I entered the family home with only a tin roof above my head. Later, sitting on the tiny front porch, caged in by iron bars, Ignacio told me the fate of his father. He had been killed by a car while crossing a street in New York City. Ignacio shares this three-bedroom house with his mother, younger brother and his older brother’s family. When his sister-in-law came home with her two little children, Ignacio hugged and kissed his niece and nephew as if he hadn’t seen them in weeks. That night, while we ate chicken and boiled plantains at the table in the living room, we watched part of a movie on the television that sat next to the refrigerator. When the electricity went off, as it often does, I used my headlamp to help my hosts find a well-used candle and some matches. Following routine, ignoring the danger, the three brothers re-connected the house to the electric lines running above the street. A spark jumped from the illegal, do-it-yourself link as they flipped on the house lights.

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