30 May 2010

Looking for paradise

What did the land where he landed look like? Why would he have thought that he had got to India even though the landscape looked completely different from any description of India he would have ever heard/read of? Wouldn’t he have known what sort of trees grew in India? Wouldn’t he have looked for any cultural resemblance between what he was supposed to see and that which he found here? Did he ever doubt that he was in India?

The fact that the ‘great explorer’ Christopher Columbus (although having made four successful trips to the Americas) never knew that he hadn't actually found an alternate route to India has always intrigued me.

So while I’m here I thought it appropriate to make a short trip to the north-western coast of the Hispaniola to a region called Samaná in an attempt to answer a few of these questions. It is in this area that Columbus first landed and tried to establish the first European settlement on the island (albeit unsuccessfully) . Samaná is a good four hours away from Santo Domingo and Melisa not only agreed to give me company but also offered to drive me there :-) … The highway to Samaná cuts across some of the most amazing country-side I have see in a while. Barely out of the city and you’re already in a region known for its agriculture – vast fields of crops line the highway with the central mountain range of the island forming a brilliant silhouette at the horizon!Since a portion of this road was relatively new we had to make a slight detour to the village of Monte Plata to get some supplies and boy am I glad that we made this detour for I got a slight glimpse of the post card perfect image of a Dominican Village – complete with streets lined with colorful tropical wooden houses…Back on the highway and after another long stretch of fields we passed thru Los Haitises National Park. As we entered the Park the highway transported us into what seemed like a set out of the movie ‘Lords of the Rings’ - to an unimaginable fascinating landscape made of 100s of almost perfect conical hills covered in lush tropical greenery spread out equally in every direction. Sadly it was already evening and sunset was fast approaching we had to skip taking a halt at this biodiversity hot spot of the island.Another small stretch of fields and finally we were entering the peninsula of Samaná with the spectacular Samaná bay on our right. As we entered the peninsula it sort of started making sense..Why was Columbus convinced that this was India - history books are very clear on what he was trying to do when he set out in search of an alternate route to India.. He was trying to bypass Europe's nemesis the Moors (who controlled much of the Indian ocean) to get to the land of spices to be more specific to get to Kerala. And standing here at the bridge that connects Samaná peninsula to the rest of the island I was awestruck at the similarity between this landscape (covered in coconut palms and bordered by white sandy beaches) and what I'm used to seeing back home in Kerala! In a strange way I had traveled half way across the world to reach back where I began!!! If there is so much similarity between here and Kerala to even convince a person from Kerala (ie Me) that this is might just be Kerala how the hell could Columbus who had never visited Kerala make out the difference! It's almost impossible to write a description of this landscape that won't hold true word for word for the coast of Kerala. The coconuts, the beaches, the greenery, the hills and the bay.. I myself could point at least 3 bay areas in northern Kerala alone what are near clones of this region.. It's sometimes easy to miss out the role that perception plays in determining what we believe - if I were to judge where I stood based purely on my perception and not reason I could have sworn I was in Kerala! As we drove towards Playa Bonita (which literally translates to 'Beautiful beach') where we spend the night the similarities got ever more intense.. The road snaking thru the dense tropical undergrowth was like any sketch of NH 7 that cuts across Kerala. As for my other questions about people and culture I guess back in 15th century the idea of different peoples was exactly that they were different, until quiet recently in history we were all the others (the non Europeans) so it's probably unlikely for Columbus to have figured that the people who inhabited this beautiful island were in fact never Indian!Early this morning and I walked up and down Playa Bonita pondering how it must have felt to set out into the open ocean for months at end in search of a place that you've never seen and eventually finding something else that would change the course of mankind!It was over an hour before I came across the first person on this impossibly beautiful beach. Here's a few more photos from Playa BonitaIn a way Samaná had already offered more insight into Columbus' discovery than what I would have thought possible before I started off yesterday so I decided to stop worrying about him and really soak in the natural beauty of this region.We headed to see El Limón Waterfall deep in the forest...... this involved riding a horse for around half an hour ....... and trekking down a hill for another half an hour but it was spectacular.I've seen many really amazing waterfalls in the European alps and in different parts of India (Himalayas, Western Ghats,Meghalaya..) but none of them quite had the setting of El Limón.and below a few more photos of this enchanting waterfall..After this adventure we headed out to the city of Samaná for a quick look around before heading back to the capital. Here's a few photos of Samaná, it's bay and picturesque colored housesAnd some of the journey back to Santo Domingo ..While leaving for Samaná I had set out to figure out how/why Columbus got fooled and soon realized he never did - Why would he want to find the route to India once he had figured how to get to paradise?!!

28 May 2010

Tracing Santo Domingo

There is no better way to understand a city then thru the eyes of people who live there. As on a few other trips here too I am fortunate to have friends who are kind enough to stop doing whatever they generally do (at least for a while) to show to me around town, share their stories and make me feel like I am a 'local' here..

Here's a selection of images that try to capture the different urban scapes of the city:
Starting with photos along the Malecón (Marine drive)
the Obelisco Hembra - more popularly known by it's cooler name the Financial Independence Memorial - designed in the art deco style by Tomas Aunon Y Juaquin Ortiz
the Obelisco Macho designed by Rafael Bonnelly Garcia

on any sunny day the Caribbean sea even next to the city (with its highly polluted river flowing into it) is the most amazing blue, at least in India this is now an extremely rare sight especially near our big cities!

The rest of this post will focus on the evolution of public architecture in the city (roughly following a chronological order) :

I will start this section with probably the most controversial edifice in the city -
the infamous Faro a Colón on the other side of the Ozama river
This stupidly monumental lighthouse was built in memory of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the new world and is largely based on a design by Joseph Lea Gleave, a British architect who won a very high profile international competition in 1929.
The competition attracted 455 projects from 48 countries which till date remains one of the most enigmatic architectural competitions ever held for the sheer variety of architectural styles of projects submitted. Most noteworthy being the 59 or so Soviet constructivist entries with their daring and challenging proposals.
Nonetheless, a slightly mythical design in the shape of a cross laid on the ground which appears to rise up to a beacon at the centre of the cross that looms above a pyramidal decomposition, generating a symbolic resemblance to Middle American, Maya or Aztec abstraction was chosen as the wining entry as it evoked a type of Pan-American identity.
Although the competition decided a winner in the early 1930s it was only 1992 that this massive project was actually completed and since it's competition it has hardly ever been used as a lighthouse - I've been told that every time the lights were turned on its surrounding neighborhoods (which also happens to be some of the poorest in the city) would plunge into complete darkness!
Now back to the other side of the river, starting with a set of buildings in the Zona Universitaria (the public university) -
(above and below) the Faculty of Medical Sciences designed by Jose Antonio Caro Alvarez (1944)

above is the Dental School designed by Leo Pou Ricart Y Marcial Pou Ricart (1947)
the Architecture Faculty was also designed by Jose Antonio Caro Alvarez (1955)

Next is a couple of photos are of other early modernist works, this time in an area known as Centro De Los Heroes (former Peace and Confraternity of the Free World fair)

the National Congress building above was designed by the father of Dominican Modernism - Guillermo Gonzalez Sanchez (1955), I believe the next building which part of the same complex was also designed by the same architect
After the first major wave of 20th century public buildings between the 40s and late 50s, there was a lull for almost a decade in the creation of any public institutions in the city. However, a second wave of public buildings started in the mid 70s and here's a few of them-

This wave can more or less be represented (both in ambition and style) by this imposing complex - the Banco Central HQ (1978). It is based on a design by Rafael Calventi and his team which were awarded the project thru an architectural competition held in 1972 ....
from this point on the Brutalist aesthetic (similar to works of Paul Rudolph in Boston, USA) would play a major role in the city's skyline..

above is the Juan Pablo Duarte government offices designed by Pedro Jose Borrell (1974) with Calventi's Banco Central HQ in the background.

The next couple of buildings from the Juan Pablo Duarte Culuture square:
above is the Teatro Nacional Dominicano designed by Teofilo Carbonell (1973)
and the Museo de Arte Moderno designed by Jose Minino (1976)
a few more photos of the Museo de Arte Moderno

and here's the Banco BHD building (1978) which borrows very much from Calventi's Banco Central design.

At the same time there are a few buildings which have closer links to modernism in other Latin American countries (like Brazil), for instance the above People's savings and loans Association designed by William Reid Cabral (1978)

the Corominas Pepin Building designed by Leopold Franco Y Jose Mella (1985) - this amazing bit of late Brutalist architecture is popularly known as the 'Transformer' :-)

by this time however the architect who started the wave of Brutalist architecture (although still sticking to a very similar language) changes the scale and materiality of his projects almost reflecting a softer stance.. like in the above Palic building designed by Rafeal Calventi (1986)

Next is a few contemporary buildings:
On Av Abraham Lincoln in a completely different - almost dutch - language from the rest of the city is the delightful Holiday Inn designed by one of most influential contemporary architects in the city - Placido Pina (he is the mentor to most important architects in the city including successful practices like Sanchez Y Curiel)

next is the Suprema Corte de Justicia designed by another distinguished contemporary Dominican architect - Gustavo Luis More
the Santo Domingo Motors building designed by Oscar Imbert on Av Abraham Lincoln built in a strange post modern vernacular style was probably the most intriguing building for me in the city - it's strange mix of the familiar Shed (car showroom) with a tropical roof (although in an odd dome shape) made passing by this street most amusing :-)

Although this post has been largely about public buildings, there are a great no. of amazing private houses and buildings in the city. May be I'll do another post about those later.. I will however make one exception in this post with this new apartment building, it really stood out of most of the awful contemporary (bad post modernism) still being built in the city. Sadly I have no idea who has designed it..

And to end a couple of cityscapes:
This is the generic Santo Domingo street - lots of traffic and post modern buildings
and here's how it looks once you get higher ..In the above photo the tall white building in the centre of the above photo is along Av Abraham Lincoln

As you can imagine since there's a lot of traffic people spend quiet a lot of time stuck in it and traffic lights are filled with all sorts of street vendors selling newspapaers, food, drinks, books, and all sorts of mobile related stuff from top-up cards to car chargers

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