Zona Colonial

Nicolas de Fer, 1723 Map of Hispaniola, Brown University (via Wikimedia)

A Circular View | By Hoyt Rogers

Hoyt Rogers

En route to Hispaniola, you fly over smaller islands that gleam like scraps of tin, scattered on the ocean. The pieces weld together in the light, as though the fragments of your life had found their wholeness. The approach to Santo Domingo from the airport completes the mending. The sea unrolls a patchwork of blue and green, from midnight to pale aqua. In pockets where no barriers dull their force, waves surge against the low escarpment. From blowholes in the rock, columns of foam geyser up, falling back in rags of mist. As you round a bend, you catch sight of the Zona Colonial on the opposite shore of the river. The city dozes like a dwarf with legs of coral-stone: its ancient quarter wedged along the Rio Ozama, its long torso of suburbs sprawling against the hills. Mountains mass behind them to the west, fading into a haze as dense as fog; to the north, palm-oil groves and pineapple-fields braid the horizon.

After you settle in, you go for a walk in the “Zone.” Even if you’ve never been here, you’ve always lived in this place. Why else would everyone greet you with Hola! or Que tal? Grins slant across a crazy quilt of faces that seem to reflect the entire world. You feel like you’ve strolled past these same buildings for decades—with their whorled facades of blue faded to gray, ochre bleached to white. They’ve been fissured and stained by centuries of torrid suns, hurricane winds, and hell-bent rains; ferns sprout from cracks in the half-ruined roofs. Here and there, a cast-iron balcony dangles, tipsy as the locals on the streets below. Pocket grocery stores spill from crooked passageways, clogging the sidewalks; their formica counters double as makeshift bars, where the neighbors shout jokes to the blare of Caribbean tunes. Salsa, son, bachata, merengue—all give their kick to a planter’s punch of sound.

Leaving the crowded lanes behind you, you enter Duarte Park, the oldest square in the Americas. Among the stumpy colonial buildings you notice a Belle Epoque extravaganza, topped by a high round tower. A Dominican poet you’ve just met tells you he’s renting that bizarre turret, though he owns a house down the street. He calls it his “study,” but all he does up there is dream away the hours. Would you like to see the view? Be my guest. He yanks at a door in the wedding-cake façade and hands you a worn, silver key. You step inside, and he goes back to his friends. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the dimness. You climb flights of stairs that angle off oddly, as in a Piranesi print. Finally you reach a cramped landing:  a turn of the key, and you stand in a circular room. Moonlight seeps through a ring of portholes; you open one of the windows and lean out.

Beyond the tree-lined plaza, the Caribbean glimmers darkly, taut as a ribbon of navy-blue foil. A yellow quarter-moon has just popped up, and now it floats on an even keel like a primitive boat. You’re reminded of the three simple caravels, from half a millennium ago. At this height, the noise from the bars subsides to a muffled surf. Before you slumbers a toy-size Rome, drowned in bougainvillea and trumpet-vines. You anticipate the arches and vaulted naves you’ll see tomorrow; but also the wooden shacks, stuffed with plastic flowers. All you have to do is pause at a threshold, and someone will invite you in. Are you back here on a visit? Or did you never leave?


NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Hoyt Rogers’s most recent translation, Second Simplicity—a collection of verse and prose by Yves Bonnefoy from the past two decades—was published by Yale University Press.