Carlos and Us by Ewa Mazierska

Tony met him during his second morning run on the beach near Puerto Plata. They ran in the opposite directions on the empty beach, crossing each other’s paths at half past four in the morning. For the first time, they just looked at each other, not sure whether to acknowledge each other’s presence. But the next day the guy stopped and asked Tony where he was from. Tony explained that he was Scottish, but living in England and was on holiday with his family in a nearby resort. Likewise, Tony asked the guy if he was local, to which he replied, “Yes, you can say so, but this is complicated.”

“Okay,” said Tony and continued running, as he was not particularly social nor has time for complicated things.

But the next day Tony felt compelled to stop running when he met the same guy, as it would be impolite to ignore him. Tony remarked, “Not many people running here.”

“You’re right. People in the Dominican Republic don’t run, unless they have to. This is the Third World, after all.”

Day after day, we learned more about Carlos, but I was never sure if the bits of information he divulged to us were facts or projections, as on several occasions there were inconsistencies. However, I never challenged him, because I didn’t want to embarrass him and because his projections were as interesting and truthful to me as his actual truths might have been.”

Tony laughed and they started to talk. He learned the guy’s name was Carlos and he was, as he put it, a “public figure.” Yet, the conversation was short, because it was getting warm and Tony was anxious to finish his route without breaking into too much of a sweat. He asked Carlos if he wouldn’t mind continuing their exchange in the evening. Carlos didn’t mind–he took Tony’s phone number and in the evening visited us in our hotel room. Tony had to bring him to the building from the beach side, because the security wouldn’t let him enter the resort from the street, while security on the beach was looser.

Over the rest of our stay, Carlos kept coming to our hotel almost every day and sat with us on the balcony of our room, slowly drinking piña coladas, which we got for free in one of the several open air cafés in the resort. We preferred to drink our beverages in these cafés, but he didn’t like to go there, claiming that he would be identified as a local by the staff and thrown out. We didn’t protest, as it would be humiliating for him and for us if something like that happened.

The first day Carlos visited us, Alex called him “ethnically ambiguous.” Indeed, it would be difficult to describe his ethnicity, if we didn’t already know it. He had Caucasian features and brown skin, but not exactly Caucasian and not exactly brown. His eyes and nose were similar to Marco from Bloodline, who was of Cuban descent, but his cheeks were fuller and his face wider, with a pronounced jaw, similar to Robert Redford, yet he was much shorter than these American actors. He wore a carefully trimmed beard and mustache, and his clothes appeared always very fresh, even ironed, rather than taken from a crumpled pile, as it was the case with us. He was slightly hunched and seemed to put more energy into his movements than necessary. My grandmother, who knew many Polish Jews from before the Second World War, would describe his posture and movements as Jewish.

Tony was laughing when listening to Carlos, partly because it sounded like a story of drug smuggling and partly because it amused him when people strove to be multi-millionaires. He couldn’t understand those wishing to transcend middle-classness.”

At first, Carlos looked as if he was in his thirties, but what he was saying suggested that he must have been at least in his mid-forties, to have been able to pack all the experiences into his life that he shared with us. There was also a certain fatigue about him, despite his unusual fitness. He came across as a man who was tired of trying, yet not in a position to give up.

Day after day, we learned more about Carlos, but I was never sure if the bits of information he divulged to us were facts or projections, as on several occasions there were inconsistencies. However, I never challenged him, because I didn’t want to embarrass him and because his projections were as interesting and truthful to me as his actual truths might have been. We learned that he studied law at Harvard and worked in the States for several years in some large firm, before he returned to the Dominican Republic, partly out of patriotism and partly because he believed that his chances there were greater. In the States he had to be a follower and an employee; in his country he could be a trailblazer and his own man, as proved by the fact that in the Dominican Republic he was involved in the production of the first Dominican historical cinematic “superproduction,” a hybrid of a historical epic and a superhero movie. He was also exporting Dominican rum to fifty different countries and stood as a candidate in the parliamentary election. In between, he lived in Spain for seven years because his second wife was Spanish and his second child was born there.

Currently, he was involved in trading different goods between different countries with partners from the States, Columbia and Mexico. This was a multi-million dollar operation, involving leasing several ships, negotiating with tens of governments and employing hundreds of people. The outcome of the operation was uncertain. If they succeeded, they would become multi-millionaires; if they failed, they would become bankrupt. Tony was laughing when listening to Carlos, partly because it sounded like a story of drug smuggling and partly because it amused him when people strove to be multi-millionaires. He couldn’t understand those wishing to transcend middle-classness.

One could sense that Carlos was entrapped in the Dominican Republic and if an opportunity allowed, he would leave. Perhaps, by this point, he’d run out of opportunities.”

I always thought that a large portfolio career hides a portfolio of failures and this was also what one could gather listening to Carlos, although he never mentioned that he was fired from a job or that his business operation caused a deficit. Rather, his businesses were unfinished or he switched his interests finding better routes to self-fulfillment. The only thing which he admitted was that he lost in the last parliamentary election. On this occasion, it was because he ran as an “”independent” and in the Dominican Republic one couldn’t be independent in politics. Politics involved dependence–on big business, on clandestine networks of people who already hold power. All Carlos’ failures were the fault of others. For example, in Spain he couldn’t stay not only because he was, in his heart, Dominican and his marriage disintegrated, but also because the Spaniards said he was “too black.” He said this sporting a white shirt and white cotton trousers, and I wasn’t sure if such attire was meant to highlight his dark skin or draw attention away from it.

Carlos’ love of his country was a type of love one can find in books of many postcolonial writers and among some successful migrants from Asia and Africa whom I met in Britain. These people seemed to love their countries deeply and liked to talk about it as though it was at the core of their identity. However, I couldn’t stop thinking that they had to love their countries so ostentatiously to compensate for their lack of commitment, of which the ultimate proof was that they lived abroad and rarely visited their homeland. It was different from the patriotism of Swedes or Danes who didn’t care to talk about it, but believed their country was the best in the world and had no desire to leave it.

There were moments when Carlos was on the verge of becoming a full-blown postcolonial, in the vein of Jamaica Kincaid, accusing the bloody Spaniards or Americans of screwing the Dominican Republic over and over again. However, Alex, who was only thirteen then, prevented such an outburst by adopting an unapologetically colonial position. This Carlos found out when he asked Alex whether he would like to live abroad. The answer was, “Maybe, but only in the West. The West is the best; it has the highest standard of living and the most developed culture. It is only in the West you can say publicly how bad your country is and get away with it. Try to do this in China or Saudi Arabia. Only Western countries don’t blame anybody else for their failures and try to repay for the sins of their past, slavery or so on. Did you hear of any descendants of slave owners in Africa who pay reparations to descendants of the slaves?”

Carlos laughed, but did not engage in any discussions with Alex, only turned to us, saying, “You have a very intelligent child. Beware!”

One could sense that Carlos was entrapped in the Dominican Republic and if an opportunity allowed, he would leave. Perhaps, by this point, he’d run out of opportunities. To this he alluded when he told us that his girlfriend, who was twenty years his junior, lived in Miami, but he couldn’t join her as he had these unfinished businesses around Puerto Plata. Yet, as is the case for somebody with a portfolio of jobs, he had a remarkable amount of time, given that he kept visiting us every day and he did so, as he told us, straight from the fitness club, where he spent up to two hours a day. But this surplus of time might have had something to do with the fact that he was an insomniac; he only slept in the short intervals between long spans of time of strenuous activity.

Every day when he left we smiled at each other, but rarely said anything. It was only Alex who once said that “the guy is a fraud,” to which Tony replied that “somebody who runs at four o’ clock in the morning cannot be a fraud.”

Carlos’ love of his country was a type of love one can find in books of many postcolonial writers and among some successful migrants from Asia and Africa whom I met in Britain. These people seemed to love their countries deeply and liked to talk about it as though it was at the core of their identity.”

Carlos was very friendly but I noticed that he looked at us with a mixture of contempt and jealousy. I remembered such a mixture from the 1980s, when I travelled with fellow Poles to India, China and Russia and we met many Westerners there, who attracted the same emotion in us. There was contempt, because they seemed to be oblivious to the many opportunities such travels offered, like trading goods between these countries or finding good hotels for pennies, and there was jealousy, because they possessed some things which were unattainable to us, such as better passports and direct access to Western currencies. Now we were an object of Carlos’ jealousy, because we had better passports and were unambiguously white, while he was “too black” for certain situations. He treated us with scorn, because we were average, boring middle-class people, who didn’t try to do anything adventurous in their lives, as proved by the fact that for a holiday we chose a resort populated by similarly boring, middle-class people. I could see him arriving in our room with a mental grid, ready to place there everything we said. For this purpose, every evening Carlos asked us what we had done that day and Tony responded with his naïve openness and precision.

At the beginning it all worked well, because there were only stories of the sea, beach and bad meals. Sometimes Carlos stopped us to find out if anything more interesting had happened that day. I knew that he asked not in the hope that such a thing had happened, but to reassure himself that nothing about our lives fell outside his preconceptions, that our facts adjusted to his theories.

However, as the days passed, literally and metaphorically we moved further, and I could see that Carlos grew irritated. It started when we said that we went to Puerto Plata that day and visited an amber museum. Without thinking much, I told Carlos that some years previously I visited an amber museum in Gdansk, where there was a large piece of blue amber and the guide had told me that it was a gift to Poland from the Dominican Republic. I fell in love with this stone and wanted to see more of it, so it was great to get my wish fulfilled. I was immensely pleased to find in the museum of Puerto Plata a large piece of Polish amber, a gift to the Dominican Republic from Poland.

“This is a nice story, but museums never show real life,” Carlos remarked.

“Of course they don’t,” I replied. “But it is not real life one looks for in the museum of amber.”

Another disappointment for Carlos was the story of my trip to San Domingo. A bus excursion, organised by the tourist office, it was an embodiment of an attraction for the people who needed a guide, because they weren’t able to guide themselves. I could see Carlos’ eyes sparkle when Tony told him the day before that I was going there, to fill the time when he and Alex went diving. However, I managed to get lost and, as usual, I forgot to take my mobile phone, so I wasn’t able to find the tour bus. After waiting over an hour for my arrival, the bus left and I stayed overnight in a shoddy hotel in San Domingo, spending the following day in the city, before catching the only bus back to Puerto Plata. Of course, this trip made Tony and Alex very worried and Tony didn’t want to meet Carlos that evening as he was spending the day between the tourist office, which organised the trip and the police station in Puerto Plata, which, instead of reassuring him that it was unlikely that I was mugged, raped or killed, told him that it was very likely that one of these things had happened.

Sometimes Carlos stopped us to find out if anything more interesting had happened that day. I knew that he asked not in the hope that such a thing had happened, but to reassure himself that nothing about our lives fell outside his preconceptions, that our facts adjusted to his theories.”

“My wife can make an adventure even from her trip to work,” said Tony, when we met Carlos after this trip. “You understand now why we go on holiday to these middle-class concentration camps. She has to be locked or led on a leash, otherwise she gets lost.”

Carlos was laughing, but I sensed his unease because a physical or mental cripple is, by definition, not a tourist; for such a person the most beaten track feels like striding the Amazon rainforest or trekking in the Himalayas.

Carlos suffered the biggest blow when Tony revealed our main reason to visit the Dominican Republic: to see the house where the Austrian singer Falco lived and the place where he died, because I was a Falco fan. Tony explained that the initial plan was to rent Falco’s villa, which after his death changed hands several times and eventually was bought by some entrepreneur who was renting it to tourists. However, although we were able to locate it on the internet, renting it from the distance proved impossible; the only option was just to find it. In the tourist office in Puerto Plata we were told that it became part of the holiday village “Paradise Holiday.” We signed up to tour this village, on the proviso that we would be shown the “Villa Falco.” A car took us to the village some ten miles from Puerto Plata, where we got into golf carts which took us to the first villa, informing us, “This is Villa Falco.”

“It isn’t,” I said, knowing it from photographs.

“Okay,” he replied and then drove us a bit further, saying again, “This is Villa Falco,” to which I responded that it wasn’t. The situation was repeated maybe twice or three times, by which point we got tired and distressed, as the sterile “Paradise Holiday” village turned out to be one of the saddest places we ever visited. In the end, the driver took us to a villa which was quite a bit larger than the rest and said, “Okay, maybe this is not Villa Falco, but it is a nice villa. It has a swimming pool and four bedrooms and a bar with free drinks. Take it, you will like it here.”

To which Tony replied, “We are not looking for a villa, but the villa. Don’t you understand the difference?”

“I’m not sure he did,” said Tony to Carlos, “but he stopped persuading us and dropped us off at a place where we could get a taxi back to the resort. When our ordeal was over, we were immensely happy to be back here.”

Carlos suffered the biggest blow when Tony revealed our main reason to visit the Dominican Republic: to see the house where the Austrian singer Falco lived and the place where he died, because I was a Falco fan.”

“So you travelled all the way from England not to see the house of Falco?” asked Carlos with a smirk. “What a waste of time.”

It wasn’t a waste of time for me. On the contrary, I never felt closer to Falco than travelling in a golf cart among the nondescript villas. But there was no point in telling Carlos, as it would break the tacit agreement that we remain tourist attractions for each other: fake or at least decontextualised. The situation might have changed had we visited Carlos in his house because houses are more truthful than people. Carlos told us almost every day that we should visit him in this house, which he half-mockingly described as the most beautiful mansion this side of Puerto Plata, and taste the great Dominican cuisine–the opposite of the food we get in the resort. Yet, he didn’t set any date for the visit and we didn’t insist, as every day there was enough for us to do. However, when only two days remained until our departure, Tony told Carlos that the next day was the last chance for us to see his house and Carlos promised to fetch us at six p.m. and take us there in his car. That morning he texted Tony to let him know that he fell ill and had to cancel our visit. We never heard from him again.

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