(As written for Passport Magazine)
There I was again, taking another trip to the beautiful island-country of the Dominican Republic. I’ve been there plenty of times, my partner’s parents are from there, but this would be my first time in Santo Domingo without him. I was going to help the LGBT Community and the country as a whole. Exactly how I was going to do that was the question. All I knew for sure was that I was going to take a wonderful vacation with the guidance of ProActividad, COIN, and the US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic
I soon learn about ProActividad (www.coin.org.do/proactividad), an amazing social enterprise by and for Dominican Republic’s youths. It is both a training facility and a commercially run enterprise that reinvests profits back into the community. ProActividad provides youths, and other marginalized groups the opportunity to learn life skills and offers career development assistance. They are making a real difference to those who may otherwise view the sex trade industry as their only option for making a living.
ProActividad created a young and vibrant holiday company named All Included Travel (www.lgbttourismdr.com) that offers unique, tailor-made experiences for LGBT Travelers.
Working under the umbrella El Centro de Orientacion e Investigacion Integral, a group known by the Spanish acronym COIN (coin.org.do), ProActividad aims to use tourism dollars to help the community. COIN (Center for Integral Orientation and Investigation) a Non-Government Organization (NGO) member of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) has a mission.
Their mission is to contribute to improving the quality of life of marginalized groups through empowerment, service offerings, social development, education, information, and communication.
(L-R) Milqueya, Cristina, Elias, Reilini at the US Ambassador’s Residence in Santo Domingo (Photo by Fran Afonso)(L-R) Milqueya, Cristina, Elias, Reilini at the US Ambassador’s Residence in Santo Domingo (Photo by Fran Afonso)
I began my journey on a flight from JFK Airport in NYC heading to Santo Domingo, courtesy of JetBlue (www.jetblue.com). Once I landed, I jumped in a taxi and 40 minutes later I was at the Marriott’s Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel (www.marriott.com). I couldn’t believe the sensational accommodations, and I must add that I’ve returned to this beautiful hotel many times since this meaningful trip. After a quick tour of the reconstructed and revitalized hotel and dinner in their restaurant, I quickly got to my club-level room to freshen up. Once inside, I was greeted by mini-carafe of mabi, fruit, and mini-pastries with a sweet little note saying “Welcome!” I haven’t had mabi (also known as “mauby” or “mavi” as my people call it) in about 25 years. It’s made by boiling tree bark and adding cinnamon, cane sugar, brown sugar, and ginger to the liquid. Most Caribbean and South American countries have their own particular way of making it. You may also buy it bottled with added carbonation ready to drink or as a syrup where you simply add water or club soda. The sweet taste reminded me of my childhood summer vacations visiting my grandparents in Puerto Rico. I had just about an hour to take-in the modern and beautiful room furnishings, unpack my luggage, take a shower in the luxurious bathroom, and get dressed for the welcome dinner. After all, it was the grand re-opening of the hotel and I was to meet some pretty amazing LGBT community leaders, international activists, and the US Ambassador to DR along with his husband. Surely someone at dinner could explain how, by simply taking a great vacation, I was going to help LGBT communities.
I reached the Luna Tapas Bar and Restaurant on the Lobby Floor, where Chef Marco Sanchez treated us to a gastro tour. The sampling of the menu was superb, and I congratulated and thanked Chef Sanchez and General Manager Matt Knights for making it all happen. When you visit the restaurant at the “Jaragua Hotel” as the locals call it, you have to have the platanos rellenos, pulpo a la plancha, and the raviolini, which they stuff with beef short ribs. While enjoying the finest tapas and exquisite wine (they also make an amazing fresh fruit sangria), I met the members of ProActividad and All Included Travel: Dr. John Waters, the Project Manager, and Elias Ramos and Cristina Gutiérrez, both Project Coordinators. They were so warm and welcoming that I felt an instant connection.
“Global” the National Gay & Lesbian Chambers of Commerce (Photo by Fran Afonso)“Global” the National Gay & Lesbian Chambers of Commerce (Photo by Fran Afonso)
According to Dr. Waters: “A portion of travel dollars gained at the great excursions you may experience can provide much-needed mental health services, health care, education, and hands-on job training for LGBT and other marginalized groups. Visitors can have an incredible holiday and an incredible impact just by vacationing in the Dominican Republic. Proceeds from these trips and excursions can enrich the lives of many people and LGBT groups. We’re already setup with companies and organizations that provide wonderful services, lodgings, and tours. Simply by enjoying yourself at these vacation spots, you will be making a difference.”
After meeting new best friends over a few cocktails, I headed to my luxurious clubroom. My welcome package let me know that the next five days were going to be filled with exciting activities, delicious meals, and fun events so I wanted to go to bed early.
The following morning, I drove out to the town of Jarabacoa for white-water rafting down the Yaque del Norte River thanks to the services of Rancho 2 Rios (www.rancho2rios.weebly.com).
I was outfitted with a life vest and safety precautions and I was on my way for the white water rafting excursion. One of my favorite experiences was on the flat-bed truck drive to the actual site. I spoke to other guests joining the excursion about the latest LGBT issues & news affecting our communities. We came from differing countries and a few others were from the Dominican Republic. There were guests from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and Peru. It was great bonding with them all and interesting that some things I may take for granted living in the US are the very things others are striving to attain.
The truck stopped and we were put in six-person rafts, two rafts with an instructor at the tail end. It was invigorating. Apart from the great exercise, the beauty of the River Norte was incredible. We were battling through the rapids that had quick turns and steep falls where we had to work as a team. I had a good time but it felt even better knowing that a portion of the dollars spent there would find its way back to others in need. Evening sprang on us and we were starving. We went to El Rancho in Jarabacoa, La Vega for dinner, prepared by the some of the youth groups we were trying to help (www.villaslostrescorazones.com).
(L to R) US Ambassador to DR Wally Brewster, Dr. John Waters, Steve Roth, Bob Satawake (Photo by Fran Afonso)(L to R) US Ambassador to DR Wally Brewster, Dr. John Waters, Steve Roth, Bob Satawake (Photo by Fran Afonso)
One of the volunteer mentors, Chef Martin Gonzalez Mayi, Managing Director at Restaurante La Ciguapa and chef at El Colmado Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/martin.omargm?fref=ts) worked together with members of various LGBT Youth Groups to create a delicious dinner. Chef Martin instructed and gave a hands-on training on how to prepare the elegant dishes we were to feast upon. The mentoring program that COIN operates is an essential component of its operations.
We were treated to arroz con pollo, broiled fresh hens with rice and beans, and a salad created from the Ranch’s garden out back. There were also offerings of stewed lamb and broiled fish. I sipped on natural juices and then came choices of desserts. I had the arroz de coco dulce con frutas, coconut rice pudding with fruits. I was amazed and delighted by the wonderful culinary dishes created by these LGBT youth along with Chef Martin. It felt good knowing that there are people in this world who are willing to volunteer their time to give “tools” to our youth in order to help them better themselves.
After our scrumptious meal, we went to another part of the ranch just through the garden. There we were met with a cocktail reception and were introduced to local LGBT Community groups such as REVASA, Cotravetd, EsteAmor, GAYP, and TRANSA.
“We are honored that you chose these excursions and please to know that you are helping to financially assist LGBT organizations along with our youth groups. All of your meals were prepared by our youth groups who have an interest in cooking, serving, or hosting as a trade. They were mentored by Chef Martin and we thank him for his valuable time as well,” Elias Ramos, Project Coordinator, told us.
The following morning I went to visit COIN’s clinic and Community Projects like “Tolerance Through Tourism.” The services provided to the community are incredible, from mental health counseling to medical treatment. It was a great way to see how tourist dollars affected the entire system. Tourist dollars (#LGBTourismDR) funneled back to ProActividad, so they could provide mentoring & training programs for LGBT groups, then funneled to COIN where that translated into much-needed services for the community. The little hospital / clinic offered many services to all communities including natal care, medicine, therapy, dental care, and mental health services. I was delighted to see that because I know that in the Dominican Republic transgender people, effeminate men, and masculine women can be (and usually are) denied health care.
Dancing with the local LGBT Community “Este Amor” at Casa Blanca (Photo by Fran Afonso)Dancing with the local LGBT Community “Este Amor” at Casa Blanca (Photo by Fran Afonso)
I then took a motorized tour of Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, the historical part of the city. I was mesmerized by the ruins and existing buildings of the area. I saw where Christopher Columbus actually lived among other historic properties. Seeing all the iron work on the Juliette balconies, high flat walls, and plantation-style shudder windows and doors, I remarked to Dr. John Waters how the Colonial Zone reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. I loved all the Spanish-style architecture mixed with French touches.
When you visit, you have to see Ozama Fortress, the oldest fortress in the Americas, the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria la Menor, pronounced the first cathedral in the New World by Pope Paul III in 1542, and the16th-century Palace of the Royal Court. I fell in love with the Historic Colonial Zone and have been back many, many times since this visit. I am so sure you’ll love it too!
In the evening, I was invited to attend a pow-wow of the “Tolerance Through Tourism” project to the North American and Latin American Press. Tolerance Through Tourism is a groundbreaking LGBT project developed by the Center for Integrated Training and Research (COIN) and ProActividad. This project sets out to use the power of tourism to improve the lives of LGBT community in the Caribbean, while advancing understanding and acceptance of LGBT people around the world. The idea for the Tolerance Through Tourism project came about following a September, 2014 meeting organized by Charlie Rounds and Steve Roth on behalf of the Kevin J. Mossier Foundation. In attendance were local LGBT groups, the media, the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Wally Brewster, his Husband Bob Satawake, and a representative of the Government to the Dominican Republic.
COIN Program Manager, Dr. John Waters explained: “Tolerance Through Tourism is a different approach for winning hearts and minds. It’s the confluence of the private and non-profit sectors, culminating in a social enterprise that uses the power of tourism to make positive changes in the lives of LGBT people.”
We discussed current issues that impact the LGBT community and how tourism dollars may help fund services for the island-country as a whole. It was a pretty eye-opening experience. We knew that if we opened the lines of communication with the government in regards to issues affecting LGBT communities and a plausible way on how to fund solutions, we would be on to some much-needed changes. Percentages of the profits from excursions, daytrips, dining, and lodgings will help fund organizations that provide health care and training for employment with LGBT and other marginalized groups. We knew that we may not be able to directly affect laws in the Dominican Republic, but we surely can affect changes in attitudes towards gay communities and thus eventually affect government changes towards those communities.
Madison Parks, Social Media Specialist for Marriott International suits up for the white waters (Photo by Fran Afonso)Madison Parks, Social Media Specialist for Marriott International suits up for the white waters (Photo by Fran Afonso)
Afterwards, I was invited to a cocktail reception at the US Ambassador’s Residence. Having the opportunity to spend some time with US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Wally Brewster and his husband, the wonderful Bob Satawake, was one of the many highlights of my trip. I expected them to be sophisticated and charming and they were, but I had no idea just how funny they are, especially Mr. Bob Satawake. He shared stories that just made my head fall back with laughter. For example, we remarked how lovely the fresh flowers were throughout the residence and Bob told us they were really fresh! Flowers were not delivered as planned and so they ran out to the garden like “chickens without heads” snipping flower to stick in water vases just seconds before we arrived. “Oh yes indeed, the flowers are real fresh,” said Bob Satawake. That was just it, I thought- when something just isn’t “right” we make things happen. They thanked us for our support and for visiting their home. They also told us that they were pleased that we shared their commitment to revitalize tourism to the Dominican Republic in order to help continue support to all communities in the island country.
Saturday morning I headed to the beach Playa Caribe for a day of relaxation with “Este Amor,” a local HIV/AIDS service organization. It was a beautiful beach, but to be honest it didn’t look much different than Miami’s South Beach in Florida. It was virtually the same vibe, same energy, same looking buff hunks splashing in the water and sun-bathing on the sand (except there was with no humidity). I enjoyed watching beautiful guys and gorgeous women sunbathing and swimming while local food vendors sold their goods on the beach.
I’ve enjoyed eating fresh coconut and drinking coconut water with my new friends from Este Amor. I’ve also had homemade chicken empanadas and beef kippers. For a refreshing treat, I had “limbe” a frozen concoction made from fresh coconut milk and pineapple juice. It’s like having an iced piña colada in a cup—a shot of rum with it costs extra. We then went off to Casa Blanca Guayacanes in the same region known as Juan Dolio for lunch. This venue was beautiful and may be rented for weddings, parties, and can accommodate overnight guests as well. It was a wonderful afternoon bonding with my new Dominican brothers and sisters.
White water rafting down the Yaque del Norte River (Photo by Fran Afonso)White water rafting down the Yaque del Norte River (Photo by Fran Afonso)
Back at the Marriot’s Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel I was treated again to an amazing evening—poolside this time. The Hotel’s Chef, assisted by yet another youth group, prepared grilled colossal shrimp and swordfish. From other grilling stations came succulent pork and from another came grilled vegetables. Freshly prepared mashed avocados, rice and beans as well as simple salad of tomatoes and cucumber rounded out the meals. The handsome waiters kept pouring wines and bringing fresh cocktails to everyone. It was a lovely evening with warm tropical breezes cascading over from the nearby ocean to the magnificent pool area.
Later, ProActividad’s All Included Travel invited me to K de Café, an affiliate of theirs where a percentage of those profits go back to COIN and other community organizations. This café in the Colonial Zone was a cool place to hang out. The coffee and drinks and even the little nibbles of food were sensational. A moment later, I saw pictures of my excursions and adventures on the wall of the beautiful K de Café. I’d forgotten that Photographer Fran Afonso was everywhere snapping away on his camera (www.franafonsofotografia.carbonmade.com), and he caught some amazing moments of me and other guests enjoying themselves.
I vowed to return and less than two months later I did. I gave some workshops to LGBT Youth groups and gave hands-on training on social media public relations and search engine optimization (SEO) to further spread the word of all the LGBT groups, excursions and activities.
It felt so good standing there with this group of beautiful people that I decided to go out for a night of dancing in the Colonial Zone. As I mentioned, Santo Domingo is one of the sexiest Caribbean cities you can find. I was not about to let the opportunity to pass me by. In fact, all of us decided to hit the town for some crazy, sexy, cool nightlife. We were told by the hotel staff to just use caution and we should be all right. I thanked them for the tip and told them that I was from New York. I know all about “caution” and we laughed. I was invited to attend a fundraiser at a club anyway, and so a bunch of us decided to go out to the gay clubs afterwards. I have never seen so many beautiful guys all in one place before. The music was bumping and pulses were racing. We all had a great time and a few of us even walked back to the hotel. No one bothered us. The only danger I’ve encountered was eating too many fried plantains in the street at 4 A.M.
We Are Family!! Group Photo with the local LGBT Community “Este Amor” in Casa Blanca (Photo by Fran Afonso)We Are Family!! Group Photo with the local LGBT Community “Este Amor” in Casa Blanca (Photo by Fran Afonso)
As I departed for my flight back to the US in the morning, I couldn’t wait to tell my partner of 17+ beautiful years together, all I had learned from his ancestral motherland. To truly experience the beauty of the Dominican Republic and share in the joy of its people, book a vacation of a lifetime that provides help for LGBT people and other marginalized groups across the island.
For more information about these great vacation opportunities visit All Included Travel (www.lgbttourismdr.com) and who knows, you may even find me there as your host and on-site tour operator. (www.hluizpresents.com/holidays) Happy Travels!