All I Ever Wanted

pg” alt=”All photos by the author” width=”200″ height=”302″ />Photos by the author.

The downturn means I’m broke, not that I’m supposed to stop living. So when my Uncle Carl announced that he’d sign the bottom line for an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic, in January, my self-employed, 37-year-old pride did not get in the way. In other words, I decided to take him up on it, even though I’m hardly a believer in things all-inclusive. List me as still single, still adventurous, you might even say a skeptical vacationer. But, in this economy, you take the holiday you can get.

Flying alone to Club Med–especially the family-friendly, circus-themed, sucrose-beach resort at Punta Cana–felt like being shipped off as a teenager to Jew Camp in the Poconos, only warmer. Somebody was going to try to get me on a dance floor. There’d be communal singing. I’d get cornered by a horsey, aggressive girl, and–why not?–kiss her. The lack of context invited abandon. Similarly, at Club Med, faith in a god (of leisure) and full devotion to it promised celestial dividends. Want to know what heaven’s like? sang the Mediterranean prophets. Then give yourself over to us.

A vow of poverty was scarcely a challenge. And at least Carl’s free ride wasn’t just for me. The usual congregants would be there, too: Aunt Pat and her brothers Mike and Dave, cousin Jon, Aunt Karen, my sister, her British husband and their two girls. Absent: some prematurely-dead kin and the med-school cousin on her way to fight malaria in a rural hospital in Tanzania. Our financial responsibility was to get ourselves there ($370 from JFK–more, really, than I could afford), and get Carl’s money’s worth out of the all-you-can-eat buffets, aerobic and waterborne activities, beach chairs, childcare and mid-shelf liquors. Tobacco and scuba extra.

Carl’s a criminal defense attorney in horse-country New Jersey. To be honest, I don’t know what he’s worth. I know he’s got a decent real estate portfolio, and that he’s generous, kind-hearted, semi-retired and, as he said, “happy to be in a position to do this.” Carl claimed it was his stint as a “high risk/high gain” Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa that taught him to give his money away. That and a few nights of utter destitution on Miami Beach back in college, when he found himself asking a hotel manager if he could work for food. Freeloading, he said from his beach chair, teaches independence. “Having too much isn’t good for you.”

“I agree,” I said.

Club Med Punta Cana might as well have been a French cruise ship in the South Pacific, for its isolation and complete self-sufficiency. Guests are known as GMs (gentil membres), and while on board we’re shepherded by gentils organisateurs or GOs (pronounced zhay-OHs), who teach activities such as windsurfing, and then throttle a motorboat to pick you up when you can’t get back to shore. The GOs are young, polyglot and extremely enthusiastic. It’s the kind of club where goofy unselfconsciousness is prized and pampering means being treated like a dreadless baby. About the actual Dominican Republic, I couldn’t tell you a thing, except that their beer’s called Presidente and they name their kids things like Saturnina, Altagracia and Kelvin, all of whom worked at the Hispaniola Buffet, where on the fifth night, I ate six half-lobsters.

On Tuesday, I found tennis. I borrowed a racket, took a lesson called “advanced” from a Quebecer GO who did an excellent Maria Sharapova imitation, and ended up hitting some balls with a super-pleasant mustachioed Ottowan named Jim. When he asked me, standing in the last shady corner of Court 13, what I did, I told him freelance.

“Must be tough these days,” he said.

I said, “Opportunity.”

He said, “Yeah, well,” and then, wiping sweat, “I lost my job last week.”

A major Canadian telecommunications outfit had let him go after 25 years. The vacation, which he was taking with his two boys, his wife and friends, was too close to cancel, and, anyway, allowed him to almost forget he was out of work. His drenched t-shirt read, “The Unbreakable Human Chain.”

“I’ll hang a consultant sign, teach, become a VP,” he said cheerfully. “See you at water aerobics?”

During the day, I read Robert Bolaño’s 2666, attempted various aerobic offerings, ate, swam, slept, talked about family history with family members, and consumed alcohol. At the Cielo Bar, the mojitos were over-sugared and under-rummed, so I switched to tumblers of Dominican dark and mugs of Presidente before realizing I could request less sugar and more rum. Being able to do whatever you want takes some getting used to. At night, dance music echoed across the sculptured pool from the seaside Celeste Bar: “Hug me, hug me / Kiss me, kiss me / Turn me up, turn me on / You’re going home with me tonight.” No matter what the music (and it was always themed to match the evening’s dress code), French GMs did the pretzel. Unless it was an older woman dancing with a Haitian GO, in which case she stepped rigidly side-to-side while he sashayed his buttocks, which she eventually grabbed.

GOs are encouraged to mingle with GMs. One night my sister and I met Betsy, from Boston, the five-year Circus Director in charge of all things trapeze. My sister asked if staff got propositioned.

puntacana_fishbane_4“All the time,” said Betsy.

The Haitian guys by the older women?

“Have you been to the disco?”

By couples?

“Oh yeah.”

Repeat offenders?

“Reputations travel from club to club.”

One of the hot-to-trot Silverados was on board right now, word had it. Could be anybody. So it’s a free love buffet too?

“Not really,” said the GO. “That’s in Turks and Caicos: less families, more singles.”

Betsy was in a tiny white dress-code dress, and I considered propositioning her myself, right then, this being day six, or maybe five. “Let me buy you a drink,” I said, the running joke of all-inclusives. But Betsy wasn’t fishing for company. She was hiding from a mother who had just checked in, one she knew from previous Club Meds. The kind of taut mom, she said, who skips hello to say, “My kid will star in your circus show.”

“It’s a new era of responsibility,” I told Uncle Carl the next day, this time sitting in a lounge chair off the beach, but still in sight of the sea, in the grassy coconut grove. “I mean, aren’t the Dominicans freeloading off of us? We fly in here on a jumbo jet, and Club Med acts like a dialysis machine, removing our financial impurities before injecting us back into the American body.” Carl said his favorite homemade t-shirt once read: J.D., PH.D., SHORTSTOP, DINNER GUEST. His 24-year-old son Jon had been doing some freeloading of his own lately, living at home since graduating from college a year and a half ago, not doing much.

“People tell me I should kick him out,” Carl said. “What the hell would I do that for?”

Jon had brought The Grapes of Wrath, Running With Scissors, The Gulag Archipelago, and Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, which meant he had 2,390 pages of reading material, minus notes. He mostly played beach volleyball.

“If everyone went topless all the time,” asked my brother-in-law, interrupting, sunglasses pointed down the beach, “would we get tired of it and be nonplussed?”

“They’re only French boobies,” I said. “What’s the big deal?”

That night, depression rolled in. In the reception lobby, a couple with a nouveau-né was reading Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. At the Hispaniola Buffet, I couldn’t stomach any Beef Wellington or salt-crusted fish. In the room, which I shared through sliding faux-tatami doors with my cousin Jon, the AC throbbed like a 14-cylinder diesel marine engine. How’d I get to be nearly 40 and unable to afford my own vacation? And vacation from what? If you’re unemployed, is that even right to call it a vacation? Under the down comforter, I sweat mojitos: head frozen, body drenched. In the morning, I told myself I’d give drinking a pass for a day, until my brother-in-law was standing over my beach chair, piña colada extended, at 11 am. What the hell, I thought. It had a cherry.

As it happens, American routed me back through San Juan on a puddle-jumper, and when I got to Puerto Rico (“Welcome home, sir!” the customs officer said, as if America were one big Club Med), my return flight hadn’t yet left JFK. I found a service counter with three idle agents and, speaking Spanish in as carefree a manner as I could muster, suggested that instead of waiting in the airport for eight hours, maybe lucky to get home at 3 am, why not lodge me right away–I’m alone and I’ve no checked bags–and let me take in the sights? Agent Carmen sized me up, tickled the keyboard for flight status, scrunched her face at the screen and said, “They decided to make pork soup out of it.” What did that mean? She drew up some vouchers, booked me on the next morning’s flight and told me not to tell anyone. “I’m going to put you in the downtown hotel,” she said.

The downtown hotel turned out to be a Marriott Courtyard on a sand-flea- and condo-ridden strip called Isla Verde. I paid the taxi ride with one of the green and tan magnetized airline ticket vouchers and checked in with another, then carefully surveyed my hotel room. Because it was there, I made a pot of coffee in the bathroom, and squirted on some quinoa body lotion to cool my skin’s toasty glow. Yep, I thought, freedom’s just another word for someone else picking up the tab.

After scanning the channels on the mattress-sized flatscreen, and still enthralled by my good fortune, I walked up the street to the cockfighting ring I’d spotted from the taxi window. I felt like a lifeboat had finally landed me on the Caribbean shore. A woman waved me in from behind a glass ticket booth, for no fee. On the fluorescent-lit grass carpet of the ring below, a pair of roosters mauled and pecked each other, hackles up, blood streaming down their head feathers, snapping their wings and jumping to land a talon to the nape. Around them, in concentric rising circles, men signaled and shouted at each other like traders, laying bets exchanged in flat packs of cash at the end of each fight. It was a heathen affair. I bought three beers for $2 each–the first legal tender I’d spent in a week–and watched the blood and money flow. This was a vacation I could believe in.

The next morning, on the approach to snow-blanketed JFK, American Airlines asked the passengers to donate leftover foreign currency to a UNICEF program called Change for Good.

“Six dollars,” said the fuzzy airplane intercom, “pays for a mosquito net to protect against malaria, which kills an African child every 30 seconds.”

I put my tray table up and checked my pockets. Nothing but a MetroCard. Up the aisle came the attendant, jangling an open plastic UNICEF bag.

“Any amount is good,” she said, to no one in particular. “Whatever you can afford.”

Matthew Fishbane writes about foreign affairs, culture and food. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review,, Outside, The Walrus, the Christian Science Monitor and others.