That evening, I joined the locals in their nightly ritual, strolling the oceanfront promenade and patronizing the many food and alcoholic beverage carts. That night, the Red Sox were hosting the Yankees back home, and behind every open door on the side streets, a chorus of cheers and a telltale blue glow showed that the collective attention of beisbol-crazy Dominican manhood was focused about 1,500 miles to the north.
The next morning it was back through bustling Santiago, the D.R.'s second city and tobacco capital, then 15 miles south to the agricultural center of La Vega. With the assistance of anothermotoconcho, I was soon a few miles out of town on Santo Cerro (Holy Hill), a delightful prospect overlooking the fertile valley of Cibao.
Legend has it that Columbus planted a cross here to encourage his men in a battle with the Tainos, who were resisting enslavement in their valley "where gold is born." When an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the cross, the soldiers rallied and the terrified Tainos fled.
These days Santo Cerro is crowned by the 19th century church of Our Lady of Mercies, for Dominican Catholics a site of pilgrimage every Sept. 24. A handful of stores lines the street leading up to the church, offering religious objects to the faithful and cold drinks to the more corporeally thirsty. In the eastern apse lay the Santa Hoya (Holy Hole). The plaque read: "In this very place according to a very old legend Christopher Columbus, on March 25, 1495, planted a tall cross made from medlar wood." Back outside, a tree alleged to be a descendant of the one that furnished Columbus his divine rallying sign provided some much-appreciated shade.
A deceptively long three-quarter-mile walk back down the Santo Cerro eventually brought me to the gates of La Vega Vieja, the Spaniards' gold-mining settlement. (The gold quickly ran out, and in 1562 an earthquake leveled the town.)
The access road to the park was barricaded, and I couldn't get the reason from the gruff guard.
My poor Spanish wasn't up to this challenge, so out came my wallet and a 50-peso note. It was only enough to allow me to look at the site from the parking lot. Adopting the Dominican fashion, I ignored the limitation and walked right in.
La Vega Vieja's ruins are sparse, most of the settlement having been hauled off after the earthquake for other construction needs.
Columbus is believed to have had a residence here too, though it hasn't been identified yet. Or so I gathered from the guide who emerged from his office-home to see what I was doing. The one impressive true ruin is the fort, El Fuerte de la Concepcion, with slits in the walls for artillery.
My return to the modern capital of 2 1/2 million people was considerably less stressful than the resettlement of Columbus' disease-ravaged first outposts from the north coast to the south. Mine was a two-hour bus ride past cockfighting arenas, roadside food stands, the odd campo de beisbol (and the even odder Columbus Billiards Hall); to the west, forested hillsides angled upward toward Pico Duarte, the island's highest peak (10,414), lost in a swirling afternoon storm.
Columbus and his brother and partner, Bartholomew, were not much liked in the new colony of Santo Domingo. They were Italian-born; why should good Spaniards be governed by foreigners? Unrest grew, a Spanish arbiter arrived, declared himself governor and sent El Almirante back in chains to Spain, where he died, impoverished, in 1506.
But he would not rest in peace, thanks to his son, Diego, who petitioned King Ferdinand to regain title to his father's "discoverer's rights" and was made governor in 1509. Across the Ozama River from the first settlement, the junior Columbus (Colon) built his own magnificent--and now magnificently restored--residence, the Alcazar de Colon. Here too were the first university, monastery and hospital in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1542, with Colon still in power, the remains of the explorer were exhumed from his crypt in Seville and shipped to Santo Domingo, where they were reinterred in the cathedral. In 1796, they supposedly were returned to Seville. Dominicans insist that Seville has the wrong bones, and in 1992 the remains in the cathedral were removed to a new mausoleum, an edifice worthy of the "Discoverer of America": the colossal Faro a Colon (Lighthouse to Columbus--so called because it has laser lights on the roof) in the capital's big eastside park.
A Baroque marble sarcophagus topped by bronze angels stands in inside the starkly modern monument. There, I paid my respects to the fearless sailor who is credited and faulted for much more than he ever did. Then I suffered another guagua ride back to my seaside hotel, where it seemed appropriate to toast the great man with a couple of rum-and-colas. For, failing at gold, the Spaniards turned to cultivation of sugar cane, which led to the invention of rum and the Americas' loss of innocence.
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