It is day three of orientation week. Today’s theme? Transportation. Today is the day that we are learning how to take public transportation to get to the two local universities that we will be taking classes at, INTEC and El Bonó. Little did I know that this would also be the day that I truly learned what I had signed up for in this beautiful and complex city.
Public transportation in Santo Domingo is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The vans that run routes around the city are known as guaguas, and they hold, I kid you not, 25 people at a time in a space meant for 10 at most. There is a man waiting at the door that you pay (at the beginning of the your ride, the end, the middle, how the man keeps track of who pays and when I will never comprehend) 25 Dominican pesos (the equivalent of about 50 cents, they only take cash) in order to be dropped off somewhere along the route.
“EN LA ESQUINA, POR FAVOR!”
“POR FAVOR, DEJAME!”
“CUANDO PUEDA, COBRADOR!”
These are all ways to indicate that you would like to be dropped off the guagua. You have to shout at the top of your lungs to be heard from the back over the traffic zooming by. Once the car is stopped, you peel your sweaty legs away from those of your neighbor and disembark one of the most hectic rides of your life.
To someone who prides herself in her ability to deftly navigate public transportation in DC, this system reeks of pure and utter chaos. But what is even crazier about this system? It works. As I was leaning my head against the guagua to relieve myself of the stench of a particularly grimy passenger sitting next to me, I remembered the title of a story I had read by Carlos Monsiváis in my Latin American literature class last semester, Los Rituales del Caos, the rituals of chaos. Although the story is written about Mexico City, this title perfectly encapsulates Santo Domingo as well.
There is a method to this city’s madness. When I board a guagua I have absolutely no idea where it came from or where exactly it is going. There is no written map that shows the various paths around the city. There are no designated spots for passengers to be dropped off at. There are no ways to indicate a stop without the help of your own lungs. But at the end of the day, everyone gets to where they need to go, unscathed (as long as you were holding your bag tightly).
This moment shows something important about the identity of Santo Domingo and about why I chose this program. I wanted to challenge myself to be immersed in a nonwestern culture that was different from my own, that has different emphases and values. While here, I want to be cognizant of these cultural differences and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Santo Domingo’s cultural complexity will surely be a theme throughout my time here.