Poverty In The Shadow Of Opulence

As an English teacher, I always thought my only job was to teach children and young people how to think for themselves. Do that, my thinking went, and they will teach themselves all they need to learn to be successful, both in examinations and life.
One of my favourite lessons was one that I titled “Rich and Poor”. The premise was simple. Once the class came in, I would hold up a pound coin and ask if anyone in the class wanted it. The hands would go up and I would, at random, give it to one of the pupils. I would tell that pupil that the pound represented all the money in the world. I had a bag of pennies with me and offered the student a choice: they could either split the pound with the rest of the class or keep it. They always kept it. At this stage I would ask the pupils to write down the feelings that they had about the situation. After that, I would pull out 5 2 pound coins and ask who would like those and repeat the cycle. I would do it once more with 5 5 pound notes, each time asking the pupils how they felt. I would ask the first pupil, the one who had the pound coin if their feelings had changed as the lesson had gone on. The answer was almost always yes.

What I hoped the students gained from that lesson is the idea that a person can only feel rich if they know someone else is poor. The students that had the money enjoyed it because they had something no one else had.

I mention this because I have been on a lot of different types of holidays in the last few years, including a self-catering beach hut, a villa, a backpacking trip and an all-inclusive package holiday. It is the last type that I am going to talk about today, because, try as I might, I can’t help but feel that these all-inclusive holidays play on the exact feelings that made the student with the pound coin feel so happy.

In 2015, I went to the Dominican Republic, a country I had long wanted to visit for its music, food and drink. I stayed at an all-inclusive resort, the kind of place where every photo you take is Instagram worthy. With a poolside bar, 8 restaurants and activities, it was access to total excess, a human representation of the Everything is Awesome montage from The Lego Movie. The workers there were beyond reproach: they all had memorable names (my personal favourite was Mama Juana, a play on a famous local drink), were multilingual, friendly, helpful and always smiling.

Always.

I hadn’t seen it at the time, but their happiness felt like it would have fit in with a Black Mirror episode. I remember thinking it was somewhat odd and decided to investigate. I speak a little Spanish and got to talking to some of the resort workers. At first, they were extremely guarded, as you would expect, but, as time went on, they loosened up and shared with me. There was one worker, Scooby Doo*, who had been a promising baseball player but had blown out his elbow and was resigned to working on the resort because the work was steady. He was from Haiti, but had made his way across the island to pursue his first love, baseball, and then when that dream had been taken, to find regular work so that he could provide for his young family. He took the bus from Higuey, a 90 minute bus ride to the resort in Bávaro.

There was Bobby Brown, a veteran of the service industry, who could you get anything you wanted for “10-15 bucks” I called him the king of the side hustle. He was a realist and said that with the high turnover of staff, he was lucky to have a resort job in his mid-40s. I asked him if he was worried that if he got caught making his side hustles, he’d be fired. His answer: if they paid enough without tips, I wouldn’t need to side hustle. Interestingly, I went back to Dominican Republic two years later on a backpack holiday and went back to the beach in Bávaro. Sure enough, I saw Bobby Brown, working hard, this time on the boats. I didn’t ask him why he wasn’t working at the resort. There was no need to.

I have another 10-15 stories like this, but I want to jump back to 2015 and the last day on the resort. All the workers were around to say goodbye. They also all said the same thing: “don’t forget to mention me in your TripAdvisor review!” It was always said with the same kind of bubble-gum happiness that I associate with a Disney film. I sought out Bobby Brown and asked him why everyone had asked for the same thing in the same way. His response was depressing: the bosses fire those that don’t have enough recognition in the reviews.

How does all of this relate to the title and the teaching anecdote? The great majority of the consumers were white European and white American. The workers were excellent and hard-working. They were also dark-skinned and poor. I think their presence allowed the holidaymakers to feel rich. Because those that served them were poor.

I went back to the Dominican Republic in 2017 and I will finish by sharing something that I wrote at the time.

It’s interesting how less tourist towns look in DR. Higuey could be any 2nd world place in the world with small side streets and people selling bananas etc by the side of the road, while the more successful places have the corrugated tin store fronts.

As you get used to the relative modesty of the place, all of a sudden there is a properly maintained road and two modern municipal buildings for the judiciary and local government. These colonial style buildings look almost supercilious against the modest backdrop of street vendors and beggars, but they are nothing compared to the church building that dominates the skyline…

It is traditionally Catholic (women had to wear a long skirt to be in there). It started construction in the 50s and was completed in the 70s. The amount of money the Catholic church…[made me reflect, and] my mind wondered to what they could do if they used it to uplift the area – the image of homelessness in the shadow of the basilica is enough to inspire lazy but true clichés.

From there, a Dominican tour guide gave me 200 pesos [I had been pickpocketed] for a motoconcho [a motorbike taxi] to the bus station and a bus back. The driver was…[great]. The only problem was he put me on a coach to Punta Cana and not Bavaro. I hopped out by the airport, still 20km from home and with 30 pesos in my pocket, not enough to get anywhere…

An airport worker gave me a dollar and directions home. You would have laughed out loud at the first ‘bus’ I got. It didn’t have a door and all the passengers were integral parts of keeping each other for flying out of the vehicle. It reminded me of the mutatos (literally death bringers) in Kenya [They are called guaguas].

I thought I had seen third worldness before. That bus took me through the third world. Literal favellas. This is the Dominican Republic that tourist money missed. And yet it was some of my favourite views and sounds of the country. I got out in Veron, a sprawling, busy town with some huge buildings and home to a military base…

One wrong bus later and I was on the bus back home. The drive back was like watching a sped up time loop of a country being built. Gone were the corrugated store fronts, road side fruit and empanada traders and beggars, replaced with international brands and businesses. My conclusion: DR is a fascinating country. It reminds me a lot of the Brixton that I remember as a youngster, especially the area around the market. A mix of ages, people selling whatever you’re willing to buy and crazy inventiveness (did I tell you I went to the single best ‘club’ night I’ve been to at a petrol forecourt?) Like Brixton, poverty hangs around the fringes of great wealth and there is a sense of corruption where that wealth lies.

Have a great weekend.

*All names have been changed

 

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