Teaser 376: The Garden of the Dominican


Serena, during one of our regular conversations after I left for Africa and returned to Munich, mentioned that one of her female friends from over the years had talked to her recently and this woman had, somewhat reluctantly, bemoaned the direction her married life seemed to be taking since her husband retired. This woman was barely in her forties and her husband had retired with no real idea of what to do, any of them, including the whole family. The husband was worth millions of dollars, all from his major league baseball career, so it wasn't anything of a panic on the wife's part, but he had retired some years before and they still had no real idea what they wanted to do. They had dreams but we all have dreams. Until you act on your dreams they remain nothing but that, dreams.

Serena had only told me the woman's name which meant nothing to me. “Who is her husband, Serena?”

When she told me his name, I thought, Alberto was a good baseball player and he always seemed to be connected to communities and kids in giving back. “Alberto was an excellent player, Serena, but why are you talking to me about it, other than sharing with me, which I always appreciate?”

“Because Carmela told me Alberto admires you, Al. He thinks what you did in Mali is something everyone should strive toward. He is a big fan of yours.”

“So, tell me, my beloved, since these are your friends. What should I do?”

Serena suggested I should call him and talk to him, but I knew his reputation. Alberto could conduct a short conversation in English when it was related to terms and factors of life with which he was familiar, such as baseball. I had heard some of his interviews. He was typically slow, careful and often made grammatical mistakes in these interviews. I was not going to conduct a conversation with him about something other than baseball without appropriate help. “If you want me to do this, Serena, and I know you do or you wouldn't have mentioned it, you must help me. Arrange a time when we can all talk together and be heard by all and I mean you, too. It will be a three-way call, you, me, and both of them on speaker. I want Alberto's wife on this call so she knows exactly what we're all discussing from the beginning or I won't consider it. Do this for me, arrange it, call me with the day and time and we'll begin.”

...

Alberto was gracious and the women were accommodating and he mentioned I seemed to know a lot about Cardinals' history, but it's not what he wanted to talk about. “Let's get to it then.”

Alberto was originally from the Dominican Republic, not a rich nation on Earth with the corresponding low average yearly income and a high birth rate, too high in truth. It shared an island with Haiti, though, which was much worse. Alberto was proud of his altruistic accomplishments in America and had started a small non-profit in the Dominican focused mostly on medical needs, but it wasn't enough. He wanted to do more.

“What would you like to do, Alberto, or, maybe, what do you think you can do?”
“I'd like to see something like what you did in Mali be done in my native country.”

“Okay. It can be done. I have the funds in my non-profit and you're still a citizen, true?” Alberto affirmed. “It makes it easier to deal with officials, but here's the hard part, Alberto. Yours is a small country in a very attractive setting of the world, the Caribbean, and land, especially the size of Peace Garden in Mali, is going to be extraordinarily difficult to procure and considerably more expensive than what I had to deal with in Mali. You're not going to find a hundred acre parcel for a million and a half in U.S. dollars, my friend. It's not gonna happen.”

“What can we do?”

“We'll have to start much smaller. We'll have to consult with the government, aids groups if we can find any who will actually help and not hinder, and maybe we'll get lucky with one of the agriculture estates wanting to get out of the agriculture business. There's always pressure on them to sell for development. Maybe we can persuade those in the government, individuals and organizations to work with us and negotiate a deal which everyone will accept. What I suggest is you, your wife and I meet there and start talking with people. It would help if you came, too, Serena. You're a familiar, recognized and popular face down there, my beloved.”

“You'll have to come get me.”

“I'll send our German flying colleagues to L.A., pick up our two excellent employees who only work for Michael on a temporary basis now...” I had to wait for Serena to stop laughing. “And they'll come to get you and bring you here. We have to pick up the food servers in L.A., Alberto, because Serena demands food service. She gets very hungry on a long flight.” They all laughed. “When you get here, Serena, we'll all coordinate and meet in the Dominican and bring your kids, Alberto. I'll bring mine. I know what the reputation is there about how dangerous it can be outside the typical tourist areas, but it never stopped me.”

It was well publicized, Alberto's trip to the Dominican Republic, but it was a few sports reporters mostly, until it was learned my jet was scheduled to arrive with Serena. Some entertainment reporters showed up, until we all met with Alberto's family at his hotel. Word got out and a whole new set of reporters descended on the tiny Caribbean nation. By previous agreement, when asked what we were all doing there together, we responded that Serena and Carmela were long-time friends and Alberto and I wanted to meet each other when the two friends got together so why not in their homeland? I added, “It's beautiful here, is it not? This is certainly a very pleasing climate in which to live.” We said no more and discouraged any questions, but we were certainly followed by the media and photographers. After our first meeting and enjoying a lunch together, we moved to Alberto's suite.

“What do we do now?” Carmela asked me.

“Has anyone from the government contacted you, Alberto?”

Alberto and his wife answered, in both English and Spanish, and Serena translated some of it, along with Sofia, who refused to miss this. A member of the president's staff had already greeted him as did one of the senators.

“You didn't tell them anything, did you, Alberto?”

“No. Only we were meeting with you and Serena. They want to meet all of us and I was invited to a dinner hosted by Senator Fernandez.”

“Good. Let's have this dinner with the Senator, but with all of us, the kids and our whole group, and let's ask the good Senator if he can arrange some of the other legislators to attend. We'd like to meet them all. We're not stuck up.” Sofia had to translate the last sentence. When she did all laughed.

Because the Senator wasn't expecting to provide a dinner for about fifty or more, it took him a couple days to arrange it, but we all gathered in one of the most ritzy hotels with an equally ritzy restaurant, all in a separated, private dining area. There were four senators, six deputies—the equivalent of congress people—and two members of the president's staff, wives and husbands, and all of our group. It was extremely polite and jovial to start as everyone mingled and drank whatever suited them, while I indulged in some fruit concoction minus alcohol. It was pleasant, cordial, and we all sat at several tables scattered around and conversed congenially until after dinner drinks and coffee were served. Senator Fernandez asked—without being demanding or considering we might be there for some other purpose—what we intended to do for the rest of our stay. He addressed the question to both Alberto and Serena, though he wasn't ignoring me, but he was certainly flattered both were in his company. We had agreed on this direction, too, so I answered for all of us.

“A few weeks back, Senator, I was speaking with Serena, my equal, and many might consider her my wife since I have married five times, but she appreciates it when I call her my equal and my other wives are quite tolerant about it, anyway, she talked to me about Carmela and Alberto, and they both wanted to meet with us and discuss making some plans together. Since I had a fairly open schedule I suggested we meet in the Dominican Republic, enjoy the scenery, the people, the weather and have this discussion in a pleasant atmosphere, and maybe invite some folks from the government to listen in. So, Senator Fernandez, would you and your colleagues like to listen in?”

The Senator's smile was broad and he was intrigued. “If it involves my country I think I must hear about these plans.”

I turned with a big smile to Alberto sitting at the same table. “You see, Alberto, they're already accommodating. At least they want to hear what we have to say.”

One of the other senators asked what we were considering. I turned to the other senator at a nearby table. “How much do you know about me, Senator?”

“I know quite a bit about you, Senor Al-Barrak. You have an international reputation. Almost everyone in the world knows about you.”

“What Alberto, his beautiful wife, Carmela, Serena and I, along with everyone else in our company, are considering is, first of all, not to disrupt anything. We're not going to point fingers at anyone, to claim this isn't working or that isn't working, because when you do so, everyone in some position of political or governmental influence gets a little edgy. You understand edgy, Senator?” There was some discussion so all understood what I meant. “Have you seen the documentary An African Experience?” There were universal head nods and agreement. “I can, Senator, perform the same action here, in the Dominican Republic, but I cannot do so without sufficient and unencumbered help from all affected.” I waited for “unencumbered” to be understood. “Alberto and Carmela first suggested it, and their children are in full support. I know I can depend on their help. Serena is fully willing to put her reputation on the line in support, and I have the funds to achieve a success in such an endeavor, but not if I encounter a large and powerful opposition. Should I encounter such I will immediately pick up and leave and Alberto knows it's exactly what I will do.” I turned to Senator Fernandez, sitting at our large table. “So, Senator Fernandez, I ask you to discuss this with your senate colleagues, those from the Chamber of Deputies and the President how willing you intend to cooperate with us on building a garden of peace and prosperity for the least among you right here in the Dominican Republic, since I have already demonstrated I have the means, the leadership, and the will to see any such project to great success. It only depends on you, the next step you take.”

I could have been putting him on the spot, challenging him, and this is not often a very wise path to take in primarily Hispanic cultures, but we had been invited, both to the dinner, and to discuss our plans, so I wasn't backing down. I laid it all on the line. Senator Fernandez smiled curiously at me and finally responded, “Somehow, I knew you weren't here to only meet and talk. There was something else behind it and I suspected such.” He laughed suddenly. “You want to duplicate the effort you accomplished in Africa here in the Caribbean?” I nodded. “Well, you will need land, lots of it, and not where it can be flooded frequently, and you will need variances and agreements and a whole lot more, too numerous to mention now.” He paused purposely. “I think, with my colleagues' help, it's not something which can't be done. What do you think, Senator Oliva?” He addressed the other senator who had spoken.

“If I recall, Senor Al-Barrak, you built solar generating structures, and wind capturing structures for electricity, and a huge cropland area with greenhouses and a very large living and kitchen facility with lots of room for residents, all working together. Senator, I don't see how anybody could possibly object to it.” He turned serious to me, though. “It's going to depend on where the land is located. That's going to determine everything!”

There was a great deal of discussion over the next two hours and from a large number. What I did note, throughout all of it, was how little anyone engaged Esperanza or how little she contributed. Toward the end I asked, “What do you think, Alberto? Do you think we can accomplish what both you and I envision?”

Alberto needed no translation. He knew what I asked. He simply responded, “I do.”

I turned to the senator at our table. “Senator Fernandez, let you and I and Alberto be in regular contact for the next few days and discuss the potential directions we can take with this, but I want you and your colleagues to always keep one thing in mind. I have an environmental science professor at my disposal,” and finally Esperanza received the acknowledgment she should have been getting all along with the laughter which ensued, “since I married her, although I think a little black cat was instrumental in seeing this marriage take place.” I paused for more laughter. “I should add Esperanza is not at my disposal, since she has a mind, a great mind in my opinion, and will always do whatever she wants to do and always at my encouragement, but without her my experiment in Mali and with all the help I did receive would never have amounted to much and what I appreciate about her the most is she understands environments, the constraints, what each lacks, what each needs, and what each can support. Esperanza understands completely what any environment can sustain or allow and her most consistent concern is what any environment can tolerate with invasive species. We can secure land for a compound and begin growing but we're not going to feed anyone on the compound growing sugar cane. What we can grow year-round which will sustain all of the residents is exactly what Esperanza has devoted her entire academic life to, and I think I can convince her to be involved, in some way.” I smiled at Esperanza while she shook her head lightly, knowing what it entailed.

We congregated at our hotel, one of the most lavish in Santo Domingo, and Alberto commanded the best room of all, though I had several rooms for my flock. In Alberto's suite I asked him, “What do you think, my friend? Is this moving in the direction you hoped?”

Alberto tried to express his feelings in English but he couldn't find the words and gave up, speaking in Spanish. Sofia translated for me, “Alberto said he never dreamed of such a reception. He could never have gotten this far without you, Papi.”

I smiled at Alberto, then to Carmela. “When you've already made an impact, Alberto, people take notice. You don't have to be so persuasive because your previous actions speak for themselves. You know this from your baseball career when you were a free agent and signed for more money and left the Cardinals. You deserved it because you earned it. I deserve a hearing with officials almost anywhere, Alberto, because I have earned it.” He smiled warmly. “And I know how to talk to them, at least most of them. Not one of them is over my head.”

This, when reflecting on all of it, was what Alberto appreciated about me more than anything else. The man was not unwilling to work hard to achieve the dream of both he and his wife. He was still uncertain how to talk to politicians and officials. He was educated in the most rudimentary sense and it contributed to his lack of confidence, but with me in the mix, he really began to shine.

With the complete support of the legislature and the President, officially announced, we began analyzing various land opportunities in primarily agricultural areas, which are continuing to diminish on this Caribbean island. The most attractive, and with it, the most willing to sell, was a parcel nearly the size of Peace Garden near Maimon, close to Rio Yuna and Hatillo Dam, and the big reservoir with it. The land was uphill and away from normal flooding, but the owners of this primarily sugar cane operation for decades, if not centuries, wanted to bleed us for the most they could possibly get. There were development speculators bidding against us and I was about to give up. I was not willing to spend twenty million dollars to buy the land for the compound. That's when Alberto went to work.

First, in private discussions with the owners and their attorneys, Alberto reamed them about the history of privation, subjugation and exploitation of the workers and the surrounding community which could be documented for hundreds of years from this area alone. Then he stared with great contempt at the three owners, all family, and their rich attorneys, and declared, in Spanish, “You made your deal with the Devil and staked your future on sugar cane only, expecting those surrounding you to harvest your sugar cane for virtually nothing, but your competition has beaten you severely, so you can do no better than to sell this land. You don't deserve top dollar! Instead, what you deserve is to be whipped until you are driven from this island forever, never to be seen or heard from again!”

Alberto was far more diplomatic in public, as the negotiations continued, but, once again, in private with the many of the legislative group being briefed about our lack of progress, he essentially reiterated what he had already told the owners and their attorneys. Since so many of this group of legislators were quite familiar with the history and were from many of the least in this part of the world, much of it resonated. Behind the scenes, many of the most prominent political members negotiated for us, and the final deal was five million in U.S. dollars with the condition it would all be considered tax free. When Alberto brought this deal to me, since he was doing all the negotiating for us as I had essentially given up, I smiled, something I hadn't done much lately, and asked Alberto, “Well, do you think it's a fair deal or do you want to move on to some place else?”

Alberto knew instinctively I was being facetious. “I think we will have to take their offer. I beat them down fifteen million. I don't think they can survive any more.”

We took the deal, though I didn't put up all the money. Alberto insisted on contributing a million and Will, when he got wind of it, wanted to put in a million, too. When he called me to tell me this, I reminded him, “Your non-profit is called the Africa Partnership, Will. The Dominican Republic, in case you've drawn a brain freeze, is not anywhere near Africa.”

Will laughed outrageously. “Well, this is true, Al. But there are a large number of former Africans living all over the island, in fact, all over every island in the Caribbean. It's a stretch but not one which doesn't make at least some sense.”

Serena contributed a million of her money for the land purchase. My non-profit provided the rest. Esperanza had been recruiting savvy students from all over the island and we had architects, plural, and electrical engineers, plural, and environmental science students, plural, and it was a truly diverse and complete endeavor. For the most part I stayed in Santo Domingo and let everybody else perform their magic. Within ten miles of the place we recruited any who would commit two years to the compound. As long as they agreed to live on the compound all their reasonable needs would be met. I stayed out of it, letting Esperanza, Alberto and his wife decide from the thousands of applications they received. It was truly stunning. No one had ever done this on an island in the Caribbean and received this much enthusiasm. Alberto, at one time, was stunned himself. In his very broken English, he was telling me how he was completely overwhelmed at times and I could see his eyes watering.

I smiled incorrigibly. “Are you feeling like it's all been worth it, Alberto?”

Alberto smiled, then laughed hugely. “There is nothing like it, Al-Barrak. I never felt anything like this playing baseball.”

“Guess what, my cousin.” Alberto looked at me inquisitively. I smiled at him deviously. “It gets even better. Imagine that!”

In an instant, once the purchase was completed, all manner of items rolled onto the compound. The architects began drawing the necessary construction. We secured, with help from the government itself, a large solar array and began putting it together. Wind generated electricity was even more abundant here and we built over two dozen towers with three windmills each, all enclosed, attached to each tower, this from the electrical engineers in consultation with the architects, not one older than twenty-four years of age. The electrical station was next, putting all of it together. There was already a reasonably abundant water supply but we dug a well and pulled water from it for much of the irrigation. Greenhouses went up, fences were built to house chickens, goats and sheep, and we added a large barn and pen for cattle, which we would feed mostly from commercial sources but also from the compound itself. I drove out there one day to see how the cattle operation was doing and watched Alberto milk a cow, in fact, all of them by himself. We had no harnesses or electrical appliances to milk cows. It would all have to be done by hand. Alberto told me, after I had watched him for three hours milking the few dairy cows we had, “I don't mind doing this, Al. I like it. I think I'm going to make this my task every day and let others do what they want.”

There was a bit of digging of trenches for water and electric, all written up and documented, as I have always demanded, and all were in agreement. They decided to build two facilities. The first was the kitchen, cafeteria, laundry and shower, bath, toilet facility, and the other was the barracks, but built above the two floors dug into the ground for vegetable storage. It never gets really hot or really cold so we never considered heating or cooling necessary. We had plenty of fans and portable heaters and since we provided most, if not all, of our electricity needs, no one considered either necessary.

Esperanza and her students conducted the soil sampling, which was quite obliging, and they chose the crops we grew at Peace Garden, except for garlic. An island in the Caribbean is not an ideal place to grow good garlic which requires hot, dry summer days. In the summer in the Caribbean, you get monsoons. No, you're not growing good garlic under those conditions, and the same conditions apply to asparagus, so they grew those, to a much smaller extent, in the greenhouses, along with tomatoes, beans, peas, lettuce, on and on. Beets, squash, yams, zucchini, cucumber, eggplant, cabbage, swiss chard, rutabaga, turnip, arugula, mustard, cassava, taro, okra, rhubarb, sorghum, and more flourished in the soil of this little compound and fed all nearly two hundred permanent residents the first year alone. Once the construction was going in earnest and planting had already begun I bid Alberto and Carmela goodbye.

Alberto was, shall I write, a little distraught. “Are you not going to stay, Al?”

I gazed over his entire countenance and I knew there was concern on his part. I had been there for the whole endeavor and I had provided him a sense of composure. I was someone Alberto could lean on and I wouldn't crumble. Yet, other than the initial discussions at the beginning and with the dinner attended by several in the government, I never felt any need to check on anything. I felt it was all running the way it should and it certainly did not need me. In one sense, throughout this whole episode in my life, I wanted it to be this way, to have almost none of it so stubbornly attached to me so it couldn't be separated. I could separate from this endeavor and never once feel a longing for it nor a sense of its inevitable doom and demise. It would carry on because there were many able bodies and minds committed to it and fully.

“I have watched you, Alberto, out in the croplands, day after day, for weeks on end, working and talking with all the others committed to this little garden of the Caribbean and in weeks you're going to start harvesting your first crops and you're all going to eat from this harvest and there will be more, much more. You have the animals and the milk from the cattle. You, my cousin, you have put together this whole garden of sustenance and life, just as you dreamed. True, Alberto?” He merely grinned widely at me. “If I did anything, I helped you get it started. Maybe, it's all you needed, help to get it started. Look what you have done with it since.”

I watched Alberto smile enormously. What he had accomplished so far was more than he ever dreamed, more rewarding to him. It truly meant more to him than baseball ever would, and he had been consistently declining requests from anyone when it had anything to do with baseball. Alberto didn't live in the Dominican Republic and he still doesn't, but once we met there he didn't leave the island for over a year. I looked him up and down one last time before I left to fly to India and leave him to this oasis of life and sustenance. I had been thinking about this, how to end it, since my need to be there ended weeks before. I pulled out a piece of paper from my pocket and slid it across the table to Alberto. “Those are the names of people who are as committed to doing something like this as you are, Alberto, addresses and phone numbers, too. Contact any of them any time you wish and all you need tell them when you call the first time is 'Al-Barrak suggested I talk to you.' They all will take the time and all of you can share information and help each other succeed. It always helps, when things seem to turn against you as they will, when you can talk to others who share your desires: to grow your own food, feed many others, and be proper stewards over all the land you control. They all believe in the same thing you do and they all know what you do now. It's not impossible.”

...We all flew back to India, except for Esperanza, who wanted to stay and work on Alberto's project, always mindful of enemy movements, with the intelligence which Tanya shared with us especially enlightening. The Germans had produced some extraordinary intelligence operatives, completely outside what the U.S. had managed, and we got some very intriguing glimpses into this whole world of espionage, intrigue, manipulation, and murder which the American intelligence community received second-hand. Jacob, Jim and Lance, too, had their colleagues and networks, most of it outside any intelligence operation and we knew the enemy wasn't ready to capitulate. Far from it. There were a large number of upstanding citizens scattered all over the world whose very standing depended on the activities of scumbags, as long as it was done in a manner which ensured secrecy, always hidden from discovery. This was becoming—since the financial panic had revealed so many of these upstanding citizens in some sort of suspected collusion and, therefor, more suspect than ever—considerably more difficult, and making it a little easier for all of us to get around and do the things we wanted to do. We were always careful, though. All it took was one mistake. Death is a human activity which cannot be undone. Nobody has ever come back from the dead, although Jesus has been purported to do so, but this was reported by friends and family, which lends it an aspect of partiality. No reporter in that tale can claim to be impartial.

Though I had promised Esperanza full-time security, none of us, including Jacob, considered it necessary for something we needed to provide. Alberto was quite familiar with my trials and tribulations, but his vast reputation on the island included many of a more muscle-bound embodiment. He knew, as we had discussed many times, he would have to provide some security for the project and the compound and he arranged with local police and government agencies for a reasonable security arrangement, but he also had friends, many who were actually enthusiastic with what he was trying to accomplish, and they became attached, more or less, permanently and at least one was always with Esperanza no matter where she went, and always with a larger contingent of other men and women, too. Alberto considered, rightly so, Esperanza as an indispensable treasure for the entire project, he knew she had been the target twice of attacks, so he was going to protect her. I discussed it with Esperanza before I left and she advised me, “I feel very safe here, Al. I know I can't let my guard down, I can't just take off, but Alberto's friends take very good care of me and they don't get in my way. I can still do my work while they're always in my presence. I'm in good hands here, Al. I'm all right with you leaving. I'll be fine.”

The Garden of the Dominican, as Alberto likes to call it, was at times something of a circus. It was far more publicized than Jardin de la Paix, until the documentary was released. At times there were more than a dozen current and former baseball players originally from the Dominican Republic who would visit Alberto at the compound and stay, sometimes days, weeks, months, and actually work. You know you've hit a media home run when Sportscenter on ESPN leads with a story about Alberto's ongoing efforts in the Dominican Republic and includes six interviews, some in Spanish and captioned in English, with former baseball players and personal friends. This development seemed to blow Alberto away, that his dream of this compound, now a true reality, was the subject of sports reporters who would never have talked to him about anything other than baseball in the past. Even when we reached India to settle down from all of the travels, to Mali, to Egypt, to Turkey and Iran, to Germany, to the Caribbean, and back, I talked with Alberto, Carmela, Serena, all of us together, and it's what Alberto always related. He was stunned at the amount of attention he was receiving for something other than baseball. “Even sports reporters know a story when they hear one, my cousin. Every one of them knows one truth about their occupation. Whether they like what they do and what they usually report, if they stick to sports only, their audience is small. When they can expand their reporting, far beyond the sports arena, their audience suddenly gets bigger. You may never get one of them to admit it, but they're all reporters, even the former athletes. They're in the reporting business, which is considered entertainment, Alberto, and when you're in the entertainment business, numbers mean everything. Serena and I know this and you do, too, from your baseball career. The more who appreciate what you do, the more attention you get. That's the business they're in and the smart ones know it. The dumb ones you can forget about. Everyone else will eventually.”


- Just Desserts, Segment Forty-Eight Payback” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021

contact me, as always: schussprose@gmail.com