It was just before Christmas, and for some reason I thought the fishing would be good in the Dominican Republic during that time of the year. I had no information to that effect, but a friend, who does not fish, spoke favorably of DR (that’s how many refer to the country). The tarpon had left Florida, and I thought they might be there; at least it would be warm. I had the name of my friend’s friend who runs a dive shop on the north coast. I was not planning to dive, but the fellow was from Missouri, where I live now. He even agreed to meet my evening flight. The plane was late, of course, causing him to wait a couple of hours outside customs. Adding to his wait was our wait for my tube of rods that I had mistakenly checked. They did not arrive for several days.

We left the Puerta Plata Airport and drove to nearby Sosua, where he had fixed me up with a hotel room. The hotel seemed mostly empty, but I was told that, after January 1, it is packed. Still, there were a lot of tourists in town, nearly all from Europe—mainly Germany. I think most were plant workers on cheap one- or two-week all-inclusive “packages.” Pearly in the morning after my arrival, I noticed the Germans were already drinking at the open-air bars. After I walked the few blocks to the dive shop and visited for a while, I returned to find that one of the Germans had another down in the street, banging his head against the stone pavement. Everyone just looked on as if it were a professional match.

I discovered that all local fishing was offshore —not my usual kind, since I prefer the tranquil waters of the mangroves. 1 inquired about passage to Monte Cristi, several hours away, where I understood there were mangroves. The English-speaking expatriates tend to cluster around their own bars, and I got some information there. I finally ended up at a five-stool bar run by an Austrian on the beach. The Americans and Canadians are living down here to escape high taxation back home; I don’t know why Carl the Austrian is here, and I did not ask. At Carl’s, I was put in touch with a Dominican-American who had returned to DR, and he agreed to take me to Monte Cristi. I will call him Paco.

One evening, while Paco and I chatted in the growing darkness at Carl’s, the whores began to come out. Some were already drunk. The authorities have made some effort to stop them from badgering the tourists, since it hurts the sales at the gift shops lining the beach. In the twilight, a form rose behind a dune, threw up, disappeared, then rose again. Everyone just watched, as they had watched the fighting Germans. Live and let die. Finally, the form materialized in a shiny, red dress caked with sand and staggered off down the street. Sex is a thriving business in Sosua, and not solely for men. Very handsome young women get off the planes from Europe and expect to buy their pleasures.

As Paco drove me to Monte Cristi, he told me stories. The young women ask if he has AIDS. The answer for these innocents is a piece of paper run off on a laboratory computer saying he does not. Of course, it is two or three weeks old, Paco, I learned incidentally, had been fired from a dive shop for groping the girls underwater. One or two had complained. He laughingly told me that one of the young German girls told him to “take advantage of me, but don’t hurt me.” Huh?

After several hours, we arrived at Monte Cristi. Founded in 1533, it’s a town of 20,000 people. Paco began to query people near the beach. He stopped one fisherman who was working on his nets. In the course of the conversation, the fisherman-diver told him he had caught a thousand-pound shark. Paco later explained this was on a hand line. The loquacious fisherman also informed him that his partner had tried to kill him while he was in a dive by cutting off the engine on the air compressor, because he had some money on him.

Further down the beach, Paco stops at an American archaeologist’s compound. The archaeologist is working underwater on a Dutch ship that sank in the 17th century. One of his sons approached on a motorcycle. He had tattoos all over his arms, but seeing Paco’s tattoos he was rapt with admiration. Paco pulled off his shirt and offered the full exhibition. The one of the underwater diver with a woman took “best of show.”

The previous stop had given us a lead on a possible guide and boat for me, so we returned to Monte Cristi. As we asked about in the neighborhood, I saw a father and son carefully grooming one of their cocks for a coming fight. They told us where Rojillo—the man with the b oat—lives. We struck a deal to meet Rojillo at my little hotel in town. Paco returned to Monte Cristi, leaving me to pull out every syllable of Spanish I had ever known. No one that I encountered thereafter spoke any English, which was good in more than one way; I got to practice mv Spanish, and no English or German meant no more tourists.

Next morning, Rojillo showed up needing several dollars for gas. Returning home, he picked up the outboard motor, hauling it and the gas to the beach on the back of his small motorcycle. He came back for me, and off I went on the back of his motorcycle, hanging on to my tackle and the rods that had eventually shown up. A host of drivers prowl the streets of town on motorcycles, looking for fares. They are called “moto-conchos.” Rojillo warns me about the hot exhaust. An exhaust bum on the ankle or leg is called a “Dominican tattoo.”

The boat was anchored out in the water. It turns out this was not Rojillo’s boat, but a friend’s. We retrieved it and set off for the mangroves. They are not very extensive, and the fishing is lousy. In three days, we caught virtually nothing except my first puffer fish, which is a fairly funny animal. When frightened, it puffs up into a ball, extending its many spines for protection. When we released it, it floated off like a balloon. On the third day of unsuccessful fishing, Rojillo finally told me that this is not the season for fishing, as he took out a very small bottle of beer and bit the cap off. To complete the comedy, a large touring boat full of Germans came by, and the video cameras began to hum, capturing two natives fishing.

Back at the hotel, I paid off the good humored Rojillo and made arrangements to get a driver back to Sosua. The desk clerk said it should be about $20. He has a relative. For me, the price is $60.

It was Sunday evening, and I went to the hotel dining room, which has some open-air tables next to the street, in time for the car and motorcycle display. The local young men were displaying themselves to the young women by gunning their motorcycles as loud as they would go. (The one or two who could afford cars turned their sound systems to the max: mating ritual with boom box.) I engaged the man at the next table in conversation over the noise. The topic of Sosua came up, and he said, “Sosua is very, very corrupt.” He was from Santa Domingo and gave me his card, saying, “Now you have a friend in Santa Domingo.”

The waiter brought my dinner and wine. As I began to eat, a truck came by and sprayed mosquito poison, which settled on my food. Experienced people quickly covered their faces with paper napkins. Later, lying in bed as the mosquitoes bit me, I stared at a print of the Mona Lisa on the wall.

Back in Sosua, my friend at the dive shop was throwing a big Christmas party at a nearby hotel. It will always seem strange to me to have Christmas in warm weather, but this was a happy affair. We had Christmas pig and plenty to drink. Santa Clans was a black woman.

Dominicans are a happy people, and I wonder how long it will take tourism to change that. Given the difficulties they live under, it seems a miracle they can laugh. One writer has observed that no form of government has ever worked well in DR. They’re working on their 25th constitution. The per capita income is 31,000 a year, or less than $3 a day.

The government has decided to welcome big-time tourism. Most of the tourists in Sosua will never visit the rest of the country to see, for example, smalltown life in Monte Cristi. Many will never leave their hotel compound. It’s true that the hotel and restaurant business provides normal jobs for people, and it has paid to upgrade water systems and roads in the tourist towns. But most Dominicans cannot afford to go there. It’s especially demoralizing to rural young women and men, who make three to five dollars a day for decent work when they could make a great deal more than that for an hour’s work as prostitutes for European or American tourists. Some people, no matter how good an alternative is offered to them, still choose prostitution. It has a lot to do with laziness, I’ve concluded. But that’s another story.

I did not find the Sosua circus in little towns such as Monte Cristi, or up in the mountains. This is where normal life takes place. Further, there is good fishing at the right time in DR. And DR is not in any way unique in its desire for quick and easy money. In my native state of Mississippi, the general populace was overwhelmingly opposed to casino gambling, but politicians sneaked the legislation through (partly by claiming to protect church cakewalks and bingo from the sheriff). Now, rural towns near the Gulf Coast cannot keep newly trained deputies, because the casino towns need more lawmen to combat the rise in crime, and they can pay higher salaries. In the first eight months after the legislation passed, casinos brought in $44.4 million in tax revenue; in fiscal year 1999, $282 million.

On my last day in Sosua, I found about $20 in Dominican money lying on the sidewalk. I guess it had been dropped by one of the drunks while leaving a nearby bar. Albert Schweitzer remarked that coincidence is the pseudonym that the good Lord uses when he does not wish to be recognized. I felt saintly for a split-second when I walked back up the street and gave the money to a beggar who sat all day by the curb on twisted legs. Feliz Navidad. William Mills is a corresponding editor for Chronicles.