Notes from an afternoon at Colmado los Dos Hermanitos, northeast corner of Avenida Privada and Calle Leonor Feliz, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
The Server: Ramon, tall and sinewy with graying steel wool curls and an easy smile. He’s a Tigres fan. Don’t come in talking up the crosstown rival Los Leones; baseball is too serious on this island. Ramon has manned the counter of Dos Hermanitos for more than three decades. He says it’s “not just a grocery store.” He’s right. Like all colmados in the DR, Dos Hermanitos is also a date spot, a gambling den, a therapist’s office, a pharmacy, a social club and an executive conference room. It is where boys watch baseball games, housewives buy yucca and toothpaste, businessmen meet for drinks, teenagers gossip, the unemployed linger and pensioners play dominoes. Colmado comes from the verb colmar, which means “to fill up.” Some are nothing more than shipping containers, others are big, permanent. In Spain, a colmado is a grocery store that does not serve alcohol, but in the DR, alcohol, especially Dominican beers and rums, are the draw.
The Flashing Eyes: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat is a novel about the oppressive thirty-year reign of Rafael Trujillo. But Vargas Llosa makes time to also describe the qualities of a typical Dominican beauty: A “brunette with a narrow waist and rounded hips, a sensual mouth and flashing eyes… mischief in her glance, her walk, her talk, the movements of her hands.” Three of these miracles are standing near the lottery window, texting and giggling, giggling and texting. Speakers boom the triple threat of Dominican pop—merengue, bachata and reggaeton—which, if you get past the relentlessness of the beat, are also Vargas Llosa novellas to the lithe mischief of Dominican women.
The Spirits: Presidente beer has such a stranglehold on the Dominican palate you’d think the brewery has an exclusive contract with each individual on the island. Presidente stickers, flags and posters make up a huge portion of the country’s visual real estate. At Dos Hermanitos, even the white dominos on the patio are sponsored by Presidente. The dented industrial refrigerators out front are plastered with Presidente logotypes, even if there’s mostly just milk and eggs inside: daily breakfast, brought to you by Presidente. Also sponsoring Los Hermanitos: Brugal rum, with stickers slapped like a guerrilla marketing campaign on the red plastic chairs of the patio.
The Goods: The shelves of Dos Hermanitos are stocked with Warholian symmetry, everything dusted and color coordinated. Boxes of laundry detergent, bags of peanuts, packs of gum, cylinders of toilet paper, cartons of cigarettes, jugs of juice, clutches of bananas and cans of black beans. A gift of orderliness from Ramon to his loud, fetid, crowded, chaotic city. Colmado as escape.
Cold Beer, Cold War: I move out back to play dominoes, along with a friend who works at the US Embassy. Three tables are nestled near each other, each with four players. At the table next to ours are two older men, business-casual, who rarely look up from their hands.
Even without eye contact, everyone starts talking over the game—dominoes, as a sport, is seven-eighths gossip and politics. The topic: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who is in the news again.
One of the older men: “Chavez has been democratically elected twice.”
One of us: “He jails opponents, he packs the courts with cronies.”
One of the older men: “He is a champion of the poor.”
One of us: “He is unstable, allied with Colombian narcotraficantes.”
And so it goes.
After a time, the two men stand up, wave to Ramon and stroll into the darkness.
Ramon smiles his easy smile. “Those men,” he says, “were the Venezuelan ambassador and defense attaché.”