If you haven't guessed, cabañas are basically cheap motels created for the sole purpose of secret rendezvous.
I had the pleasure (shock) of visiting my first cabaña a couple days ago, but don't go jumping to conclusions just yet. We´ll get to that minor detail in a little bit. Primero, let´s talk about the cabañas.
The first thing you should know is that they are set up so that you generally only pay for a small block of time, maybe just a couple of hours, although overnight options are available as well. Second, each room has its own garage. You simply drive in, and the garage door immediately falls behind you, insuring that no passersby will see your vehicle. So you can rest assured that nosy Miss Peabody that lives next door won´t be telling the whole neighborhood where she saw your car parked last night.
Next, imagine your average Motel 8, downgrade it a couple times, and you´ve got yourself a room in a cabaña: a small, sparsely furnished space that could pass for a cabin on the Loveboat in the 70s (I´m told there are some really nice cabañas, but this one didn´t fit the bill) No windows, yellowish walls, burgundy bedspread, brass mirror, and flimsily shaded lamps throwing a sallow glow on the surroundings. These rooms are not without their redeeming factors though, one of which is instantaneous room service (also designed for complete discreetness). Simply select your item of choice from the menu on the bedside table, write your order on the provided notepad, and place it in the little magic turning compartment in the wall. Spin the compartment and wait. Two seconds later elves (motel staff) on the other side of the wall will spin the compartment back to you with your heart´s desire and a small bill. Place the bill in the compartment, spin, and wait another two seconds. Soon it will spin back with your change. Truly magical. And you just know those elves on the other side of the thin plaster wall are not going to listen to a single thing that goes on in your bedroom. Elves wouldn´t do that would they? Ok so I know I said a few redeeming factors, but that´s really the only one I can think of. I´d talk to you about the bed, but I maintained a 10 foot radius at all times.
So how DID I end up in this shady little joint? Let´s call it a miscommunication with Rico Suave. I thought I was communicating a "friend vibe," and he was too busy wrapped up in himself to notice anything I communicated at all. Something about my Americanness also seems to suggest "easy." Come on American girls, stop giving us that reputation!! Long story short, "I know a place where we can go for one more drink," ended up being a cabaña. Now as soon as we pulled in I knew where we were at and what the purpose of this little escapade was to be. And if I had a flair for the dramatic, this would be the point where I might turn and slap a boy. But alas, my curiosity about the shady interiors of these secretive little motels got the better of me and I went inside to check it out. We stayed just long enough to order a beer and then I made him take me home. Needless to say, there won´t be a second date.
The first, ironically, has to do with strong family values. Family is extremely important in Dominican culture. Its not unusual for extended family members (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) to live under the same roof. The regular work day even has a built in two hour lunch break (12 p.m-2 p.m.) so workers and students can go home to have lunch with their families (an ideology I think the U.S. should consider adopting). And leaving the nest? A dramatic experience that may not occur until marriage. In fact, I´d say about 80 percent of my university students still happily live at home and will probably continue living there even after they graduate. But therein lies the dilemma. Where can these young 20-somethings, still living at home, go to spend some alone time with their girlfriend/boyfriend/date/? Certainly not under their parent´s roof.
The second reason for the popularity of cabañas might seem a little more obvious: affairs. The D.R. has an undeniably macho culture. Men are generally praised for their sexual prowess, women generally valued for their physical beauty. So it´s no shocker that faithfulness is a low value on the totem pole. And where better to steal away with your secret lover than a cozy little cabaña where there´s no proof you were ever there?
But the cultural relevance of cabañas doesn´t stop there. To truly understand their existence, you first must understand a little more about the overall culture of the D.R.--- and the best way I can describe that is a strange collision of old world morals and modern day rap music videos.
I know, its weird.
But having been a fairly isolated island under the Trujillo regime until the 1960s, the sudden crash with modern day culture (consumerism, technology, pop music) has left the little island reeling. Throw in a healthy dose of Catholicism (90 percent of the population) and you´ve got a country full of contradictions. And perhaps this is no place more apparent than in the realm of sexuality. On one side you have this conservative Catholic facade, on the other side, overt sexuality. The truly strange part is the arbitrary judgement when it comes to what is acceptable and what is condemned.
Half nude women on billboards. Ok.
Graphic song lyrics. Ok.
Encouraging your three-year-old to booty shake like a stripper (don´t laugh, I´ve seen it, on several occasions). Ok.
Kissing. Only if you are novios (gf and bf).
Having a lot of friends of the opposite sex. Only if you are a boy.
Wearing shorts. Not Ok.
Living together out of wedlock: Ok. (But everyone will just pretend you are married.)
(These are all generalizations of course, but I have witnessed all of them)
I´ve given a few examples below to help you visualize.
Then on the other hand, we have shorts. Even though the weather pushes 90 degrees most days of the year, wearing shorts, even of a good length, is considered by many a sign of indecency and low class. Although it seems completely ok to wear the tightest, most hip-hugging, low rise jeans you can find. Because those are so much more decent, right? (Doesn´t make sense to me either.)
So I have to sit in a crowded concho, listening to Menea tu Chapa and sweating profusely with my sticky hot jeans clinging to my legs because wearing shorts would be too indecent. Anybody else see the irony in this situation?
And so it is with cabañas. They are the low-rise hip-hugger jeans of the Dominican fashion world. The loophole around the sexual liberty stigma. Like the hip-huggers, they´re consipicuous and they seem a bit sleezy, but nobody says anything about either of them.
Sexual liberation? Not Ok. Secret sex behind closed doors? Well, that seems like a nifty alternative.