By Arya Bari
The bitter, unforgiving Canadian winters are a shared struggle. One day we are trudging through packed snow or shielding ourselves from biting hail, and the next, avoiding puddles and basking in the glowering sun. Here, one can never truly stow away winter clothing. As the temperature fluctuates, some choose to endure and enjoy it, and others that can afford to, seek an escape.
Uncoincidentally, the all-inclusive season in tropical countries falls between December and April. Vacationers swap their snow boots with flip flops, boarding the plane with little more than a sweater. Palm trees replace pines. And frostbitten skin tingles in anticipation of becoming sunburnt. Paradise awaits.
However, as resorts prepare themselves for the annual influx of tourists, at Dreams, a charming resort along the pearly shores of Punta Cana, this season marks its last.
Yuberki Arnaud, the resort’s entertainment manager, sits at the towel kiosk near its network of pools, absorbing the scene before her. Arnaud contemplates where she will work after the resort is bought out. I lean against the counter, making conversation with her. The straw roof shelters us from the scorching Dominican sun, as we talk about everything and nothing at all, bridged by our mother tongue: Spanish.
Yuberki reminisces, looking idly at the horizon. Her family was last together six months ago, she tells me. Like many of the workers, the paycheck that Yuberki earns working at the resort is sent to her mother who takes care of her daughters living in a different city. Hundreds of kilometres from home, it is ironic that she works incessantly surrounded by joyous families: lounging at the pool’s edge united, savouring their coco locos and cocktails, while she lives cities away from her own—a harsh, but not uncommon reality.
With the buzz of an incoming notification, she pauses to glance at the screen of her cell phone. Her nine-year-old twin daughters smile back at her from the home screen, to which she reciprocates with a melancholic smile. Yet another reminder of the vast distance between them. “My daughters have more opportunities there,” Arnaud echoes as if she has told herself this very sentence before.
“I went to university at 15 years old, you know? Around your age. I studied hospitality, and had a passion for human connection,” Arnaud says. “I had to start school really early, when I was 2, because my mother had to work and couldn’t take care of me. At that time, those who couldn’t pay for daycare had to send their kids to school earlier.” She turns back to face me. “Do you plan on going to university?” I only nod affirmatively. Privilege can be a brittle subject, and this is about her.
The ascending sound of pattering flip-flops against the wooden planks near the kiosk interrupts our conversation. Instinctively Arnaud reaches for a towel. Hidden behind a pair of glasses, a boy in swim trunks, not nearly tall enough to reach the counter, asks for a towel. “Can you say towel in Spanish?” Arnaud says amused, holding the towel just out of reach. “To-a-ja. To-aja. Toalla,” she says, instructing his pronunciation. He attempts to mimic each phoneme, unintentionally slaughtering the word. His heavy Portuguese accent elicits a grin from us both. I would later come to know him as Eduardo, the resort’s worst connect-four player.
As the day goes on, salt continues to hang in the humid air, whispering against both tanned skin and uninvited sunburns. The tropical wind billows, making the palm trees dance to the familiar merengue that echoes from the resort’s speaker system. This is the so-called hallmark of paradise.
The poverty-stricken realities behind all-inclusive resorts and their workers have long since been known to the media and the patrons. In fact, considering the average wage of $9.00 US per day, after tax, most travelers bring dollar bills to tip the hardworking staff.
A simple step past the curated barrier, forged by the luxurious resorts, divulges roadside poverty, exposing the bare bones of corruption and, perhaps, a legacy of colonialism; the Dominican Republic, a country with over 10 million people, has a 40.4% poverty rate, and a 10.4% extreme poverty rate.
The adjacent towns to resorts are often bus rides away. Dirt roads pave the streets. Among the tin-roofed houses, and other basic amenities, signs embellished with religious messages, like ‘Christ will save us’ are hung throughout. In the midst of poverty, religion is often the strongest. It is seen to ease the burden, providing stability within a reality in constant fluctuation.
In the circumstances in which they live, despite work days that can last over 15 hours, poor wages, and the socially demanding nature of the service industry, even a mere job working at a resort is extremely desirable. At Dreams, workers fear the inevitable buyout. Their jobs will soon become obsolete. They will be replaced.
Melvin Amrin finishes tying his shoes before rolling back the glittery pants of his costume down to his ankles. Within the hierarchy of resort workers, dancers and entertainment staff are often paid the highest salaries. After all, to many tourists, they are the face that presents Dominican Culture and makes the experience memorable. Painting on a smile, Melvin walks across the stage as Donna Summer’s Last Dance rolls through the speakers.
Working tirelessly to arrange entertainment, the dancers put on a show, with theatrics and numbers upon numbers of new choreography every night. During the day, they practice. At night, they dance. Vibrant costumes, and tasteful ensembles. Music that transports you throughout the continent, and across decades. We all hide behind smiles sometimes, but for resort entertainment staff, a faltered smile or a dampened mood holds their next meal and wage on balance. At times, it can feel like orchestrating a facade.
It is 12 o’clock. Lunch is served. Near the pool, an immense, steaming pot of arroz con pollo has been freshly prepared by the resort chefs, and by the mouth of the beach, burgers and fries shrivel with age since they were cooked two hours ago. The lineup for overcooked burgers and greasy fries is winding, as usual. Few tourists opt to deviate from their rudimentary diets to try the arroz con pollo.
The Coco Cafe is also open, Ana Ramon, the barista sits at the counter, although the caffeine-starved vacationers have already had their morning coffees. She is studying to become a teacher, with few courses left. If she loses her job here, she will take on a less demanding job in order to finish her schooling. “I plan on being a teacher,” she tells me. “So one day I can be the client at someone else’s resort.”
The sweltering heat has subsided. Waves crash rhythmically against the shores. There are no empty lawn chairs in sight. Arnaud continues to hand out towels, working to provide her daughters with opportunities she never had. With talent and calculated precision, Melvin dances. Ana plans her future, an escape from the life she currently lives. People living in spite of the odds stacked against them. This is paradise.