07 April 2017

No One Told Me About the Sex-Tourism in The DR

My trip to the Dominican Republic last November had been in the planning stages for several years. It was in the Caribbean, they spoke Spanish, and there was that huge baseball connection. What could be better?  

I’d also been paying close attention to all those find-a-home-abroad TV shows. Folks shopping for vacation homes in Punta Cana, Terranas, and Sosúa, gushed about everything the DR had to offer. And although I knew that ex-pat vacation destinations would not be for me, my research indicated that there were plenty of beach areas that would be just as lovely.
     I'd roughly planned for two weeks in the capitol; two weeks in Boca Chica checking out baseball academies and exploring a quaint beach town; and then two more weeks further down the road in Juan Dolio for a more relaxing end to my trip. Somehow, I managed to miss the caveat about sex-tourism in all three of those places.
     On my strolls around the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, I did notice the requisite old foreign geezers with their young local babes. That was nothing new; go to a country where people make very little money and it’s a common phenomenon. My first real hint that prostitution in the DR may operate by a different standard than in other countries I knew, occurred at my hotel in the capitol.
     It was the beginning of November and the big influx of tourists would not arrive for another month. My accommodation was in a large, budget hotel, owned by an ex-pat and his Dominican wife. The owner and staff, many of whom were family, were lovely. At the time, there were only three other solo guests and two, older European couples.
     One afternoon I noticed one of the male guests sitting in the lounge with a young local woman I had never seen before. Prior to this, the man had always been by himself, reading books or checking his email in the common area. I thought nothing of it until two hours later when I saw him and the woman walk out of his room. She left the hotel and he stayed. I never saw her again and the man returned to his solitary pursuits.

     How could a respectable hotel allow hookers in the rooms? I had never seen anything like it in all my travels. In fact, one usually sees big signs stating No one other than paying guests allowed in rooms. It concerned me, but I let it go. Anyway, I’d be heading down the road in a few days.

     I already wrote about my horrible experience in the first hotel I had booked in Boca Chica, which had to do with filth and a shady locale. I stayed a whole five minutes before going to look for somewhere else. And when I found that somewhere else, I thought it was perfect. The lovely owner, a middle-aged European woman, showed me a beautiful, very reasonably priced room, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I headed back to the rat-hole to retrieve my belongings.

     When I returned with my bags, it was hard not to miss the obese 70-year-old German man in speedos sitting at a table with a young Dominican woman. By the next day, it was clear that she was his local girlfriend and living with him at the hotel. I wasn’t overly concerned; these things happen.
     It was during my second day there that I realized something was seriously amiss. Young working girls, accompanied by their handler, were let in through the front, locked gate. They then sat at a table, scrolling through their phone apps, while business was conducted between pimp and hotel customer. The chosen girl would then go up with the man to his room and reappear an hour later.
     It wasn’t like the owner didn’t know about this. She was the one to buzz in the working girls. She was the one who checked their ID’s. She was the one who greeted the pimp like an old friend. And I am sure she was the one getting a kickback from the transactions.
    As it was a small hotel, I could see a good part of the entire property from my room where I generally kept the door open during the day for ventilation. I watched the comings and goings of the men in the hotel. And they were all men. No women; no families. Among them were several other fat, old Germans in Speedos, and a group of three French men who were in Boca Chica on business. The French guys left each morning at 7am and returned 10 or 12 hours later. Two appeared to be in their 50’s and the third in his 30’s. I imagined they might be engineers working on a local project. Well, I thought, at least they aren’t buying hookers.

   The following day, the youngest French man came home with a working girl. In fact, it was a different one every night. One afternoon the man, the girl-of-the-day, and the pimp walked past my room where I was sitting in the doorway. The pimp said hello and I walked inside and left them to exchange money in front of my window.
  At least the older French men were behaving decently; or so I thought. Late one evening, all three returned to the hotel with a girl in tow. The ladies moved right into their respective rooms, there for the long haul.
  Another time, I watched as one of fat German’s in speedos sat at a table, two ladies seated on either side. The women ignored him and kept their eyes glued to their phones. The German kept trying to talk to them, but they would not respond. Granted, he did not speak Spanish and they spoke neither German nor English, but there was no attempt at communication on the women’s part. Several minutes later the owner walked by and the German looked up at her. I don’t know which one to choose, he said, as if deciding on a bottle of wine.
  It was clearly apparent that I was living in a bordello and I needed to get out. Across the street was another budget hotel that I had read about before leaving the States. It had good reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites. I do remember that the reviews had been written by families and couples, and not just men. It was worth a look. Although the rooms were not nearly as spotless and fresh as where I was staying, and they did cost a few dollars more a night, I decided it might be the best answer if I wanted to get away from the constant sex trade going on outside my room.
  After looking at several rooms, I sat down to talk to the manager. I calmly explained that I was staying at the hotel across the way and that I was having trouble accepting the to and fro of the working girls. The manager seemed shocked that prostitutes were allowed to walk into my hotel. He assured me that their gate was always locked and no hookers could come in.

  Just to make absolutely sure we were really on the same page I rephrased the question: “No prostitutes are allowed in the hotel, right?”  He responded that none could walk in off the street, but “if a client wants to bring a woman back to his room, that’s perfectly fine.”
  I then quietly and calmly began to explain that poor young women should not be exploited, that in a few years most would be hooked on drugs, dead, or whatever, and that it was a horrible situation.
  His response? “That’s your opinion.”  My response of “It is not my opinion, it’s a fact,” only got a shoulder shrug. Before leaving I asked about the place one block up that I thought was another hotel. Turns out, that one was an actual brothel.
  Although I had wanted to stay in Boca Chica and visit more baseball academies, I had reached my limit. The next day I headed down to Juan Dolio and booked into the hippie hotel.
  Like the other place I had stayed in Santo Domingo, it had only a few guests. I got a real deal on my little run-down room and kitchenette. It felt like a place I could stay for the remainder of my trip. There were five other similar rooms along the one side of the hotel and only one was occupied by a Canadian man who had been coming to the hotel for nearly twenty years. He would be there for six months and told me what a great place it was and that soon all the other rooms would be filled by returning guests to sit out the European and North American winter.  
  The man was pleasant enough and told me about how this time he had finally met an honest girlfriend. Over the next week I learned that he would arrive every year, find someone to fill his days, and then get a new someone the following season. He would be drunk most days and would often arrive back at the hotel, nearly carrying in his drunken girlfriend. She had three kids and the man provided for the family, buying food and other items. It seemed a little more tolerable to me than the nightly prostitutes, but it was still exploitation.
  I had hoped that at least the little town of Juan Dolio would offer a pleasant retreat. The problem was, it was even smaller than Boca Chica; just a few short blocks of restaurants and hotels, running along the beach. At least I was able to stroll on the beach in the early hours of the day.
  Walking along the shoreline in the morning, it was not hard to imagine what went on in the afternoons and evenings. Scores of workers combed the beach raking up mountains of trash; empty booze bottles, food containers, diapers, and much more. It might have lessened their work load had there been garbage cans anywhere on the beach.
  One morning I stopped by a coffee shop and got into a conversation with the owner, a woman who had spent her teenage years in Los Angeles. She told me that the sex worker situation had not been nearly as bad just a few years back. I mentioned the hotel in Boca Chica, the European owner, and the daily prostitute situation. She agreed that it was a sorry state of affairs, but also said that there was nothing that an owner could do about it. I glanced over at a man with a woman eating breakfast. He was in his early forties, obese, talking non-stop about his life in California, all the money he had, and what he could do for her. She smiled demurely, not understanding much of what he said.
  Although I thought I could stay in Juan Dolio at the hippie hotel for the rest of my trip, I had reached my limit of watching drunken men and their purchased companions. I even tried to find a way to change my flight home, but was unable to do so. Whatever the situation, I needed cash, which meant grabbing a gua gua down to New Juan Dolio – a few kilometers away, where there was a bank.
  When I exited the mini-van, I walked in from the main road and the first thing I noticed was a small supermarket. This had been another problem in Old Juan Dolio; there was only a tiny mini-mart. I went in, bought a few things, and asked about economical hotels in the area. I might as well see if it might be better here.
  Just around the bend, the road ran along a wide boulevard. Several massive hotel/vacation rental condos ran along the beach side and blocked most of the view to the sea. Three blocks farther along the road, and on the other side, was the hotel the supermarket lady had suggested. I walked in.
  It appeared to be quite pleasant and extended from the street all the way back to the street behind it. There were two, narrow, four story buildings in the front, and a beautifully landscaped pool and lounge area. Beyond that lay a line of small cottages. I asked about rooms and rates and was shown to a wonderful room on the third floor. From there, I could even glimpse a small spec of the ocean from between the condos across the way. I negotiated a great price for my final two weeks in the DR.
  I thought my only objection to the hotel was the booming music they played by the pool from early morning until late at night. Since I wasn’t up to lying out by the swimming hole, it only proved to be a hassle when I tried to get internet connection. (once again, there was no internet in the rooms.) It was then that I noticed the lady at the pool bar who looked to be a working girl. But the staff and owner greeted her like she was an old friend, or possibly an employee on a break. Once more, my first impression was correct. The hotel apparently employed its own good-time girl.
  It soon became apparent that prostitution was one of the activities provided by the hotel. Only at the end of my stay did I find out that the main security man at the front entrance was also the purveyor of young ladies.
  I wondered how the foreign men knew about the women for hire. I certainly hadn’t seen any sort of mention in Lonely Planet or elsewhere, and there were no signs up around the hotels. Yet within an hour of any man being at any hotel, I’d see them with a working girl.
  More confusing were the families and church groups that booked into this hotel. They didn’t seem to be bothered that little kids were swimming right next to tourists engaged in a lot of groping with rented women.
  When I got back to California, I re-checked all the travel sites I had read before leaving. I did find some bottom-of-the-page mentions of prostitution, but not much. One review on TripAdvisor for a hotel I had passed stated, “…if you don’t mind a little prostitution, this is good for a family…”   And a recent episode of House Hunters International, featured a couple looking for a condo in Sosúa, which is the sex-tourism capitol of the northern coast. The narrator actually said, “This condo is just steps from the bustling center of Sosúa’s nightlife.”  One quick internet check is all one needs to see what type of nightlife is on offer.

  I wanted so much to love the Dominican Republic. It is beautiful and the people are wonderful. But, at least for me, I was unable to ignore or escape the constant reminder of young women being exploited by foreign men.