Guiding us back to Santo Domingo after our day at Juan Dolio beach was our Dominican friend Benjamin the sunglass salesman who took a rainy, warm afternoon off to show us around his hometown and to make sure we get back to our hotel unharmed. Before getting on the bus, he had taken us to try yaniqueque at his friend’s eatery near the water. Back in the capital he walked us through Zona Colonial, explaining stuff and occasionally stopping traffic for us along the way. At one point we passed a sugarcane vendor and when he noticed both my friend’s and my eyes shift curiously to the long, lanky stalks he asked us if we had tried them already.
We hadn’t. We had driven through vast sugarcane fields on our way to the easternmost tip of the island and remarked how strange it seemed to see stalks of cane instead of corn. I had remembered the unit on slavery in the Caribbean from my high school World History class and done a few minutes of google research on the current state of the cane industry. I had learned that today 90% of the work is carried out by underprivileged Haitian workers (organized into communities called bateyes) who are welcomed into the D.R. for cheap labor but then granted 0 legal recognition from the state. Low wages, dangerous work, shit living conditions. Some comment that slavery never really ended when it comes to the sticky sweet crop. Others say that these workers are grateful to have any work available to them and that to impose the values of the developed world on a country like Haiti is a practice misguided in principal. I don’t know. I had seen sugarcane everywhere and had wondered what Europe had been like before it. But we had not bought any until Benjamin invited us to some, insisting that we try it.
The vendor had taken a long stalk and chopped it into footlong strips, stripping off the brown husk on the exterior. We decided to take the cane to go, and to indulge in the snack in the privacy of our hotel room rather than calling attention to ourselves on a crowded, rainy street. While one of us showered the other would gnaw absentmindedly on a piece of cane, sucking out the sap and typing sweet messages to our boyfriends back home.
Sugarcane has a fresh and floral dulzor, similar to that of real vanilla bean. It’s diluted like sugar water, not as thick as syrup. Chewing and sucking the stringy, rough fibers to get to the good stuff becomes a somewhat obsessive routine, akin to the peeling of pistachios or the cracking of crawfish. Eyes cloud over and the movement become almost involuntary. Lots of work to harvest, lots of work to eat. And in the end it’s just sugar water. But definitely worth a try.