Friday, December 23, 2005

Intrepid travelers

Intrepid travelers
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
From left to right: Mom, me, Luis, Pilucho, Tamara, Gary, and Denny.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Me, guide Yary, and trusty mule Caramelo.

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
It was even greener than you can tell from this picture.

Scary bridge

Scary bridge
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
crossing the raging waters of the Rio Yaque between Manabao and La Cienaga.

Mom & river

Mom & river
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Near La Ballena, the swimming hole in the Valle del Tetero.

Nice sunset

Nice sunset
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
There was a rainbow off to the right of this picture, but it's hard to see here.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Here you can see the view of camp from our tent: grazing animals, the kitchen building, buildings where the guides slept.

Into the mountains

The rest of the week was spent mostly in preparation for our expedition to the mountains. However, we did take a night off to attend a program on Dominican Christmas foods at the Centro Leon – both educational and tasty. Though of course I did not partake of the whole pig roasted on a spit, I enjoyed the arroz moro, arroz navideno, pastelon, various salads, and casabe. Also the beer.

At any rate, Friday (12/16) found us rising groggily out of bed at 4:15 AM, stumbling into the shower, and hitting the road with Luis, our trip organizer, and our other traveling companions: Jorge (better known as “Pilucho”), Tamara, Denny, and Gary. In the dark, and in eery, thick fog, we headed for the hills. I fell asleep for a while and when I awoke the sun was rising and we were just about in Jarabacoa, the largest mountain town on this side of the enormous Cordillera Central range. That’s as far as I’d been before, but I discovered that from there on up it only gets prettier. The road got progressively rougher as we header onwards and upwards to Manabao, a town of about 500. It was mostly paved, though every so often a whole section of pavement had been removed (I was just glad someone else was driving). As it twisted and turned we could see tall foothills rising up on either side, their tops hidden in the clouds. We passed small plots of potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and tayota (a popular Dominican vegetable that grows on arbors like grapes), small hamlets of colorfully-painted wooden houses, and on one occasion, a bunch of villagers slaughtering a pig.

After Manabao, the road got significantly worse – a pitted and steep one-and-a-half-lane dirt path. We came to a rushing river whose only crossing was a singularly frightening one-lane brdge constructed of logs and mud, narrow and with no railing. Much of the mud had washed off of one side of the bridge, leaving open ruts between the logs. The jeep crossed it fine, but it was scarier in the passenger sedan we were traveling in with its narrow tires. Mom and I got out and walked across to lighten the load, while Luis and Gary guided driver Jorge slowly across. About 20 minutes later we arrived in La Cienaga, a village of 200 - the end of the road and the start of our hike.

We parked under pine trees behind the ranger station, where a bunch of mules and our guides were waiting for us. While the mule-drivers strapped our bags and provisions to the pack animals, we went to the office, signed in, and purchased 2 nature guides to the flora and fauna of this national park. Soon we were saddled up and ready to go. I hopped on my trusty friend Caramelo, and quickly ran into a wire when I turned my head to ask the guide to repeat what he’d just said to me. “I said, ‘watch out for that wire,’” he told me. Anyway, we then forded a river, and started heading up.

The first four kilometers were fairly level, taking us past where some of our guides lived and into the first campground/rest stop of Los Tablones (consisting of an empty wooden house for shelter, a small corral, and an outhouse on the banks of a river). Here, pedestrians and riders again part ways so the first can cross a wooden footbridge and the latter can wade through the water. On the other side things really get going. Although our guide told us the next 4-km stretch was the hardest, I perhaps naively thought I’d walk it in order to stretch my legs and give my sore knee a break from the saddle – I could always trade back with my mom and get on the mule again. However, it quickly became impossible to keep together with the mules on the single-file, extremely muddy and Grand-Canyon-grade path and I hiked the whole stretch on foot. One of the guides (Yary) cut me a walking stick, which was the one saving grace. Somehow I made it to the next stopping point, where I promptly collapsed under a tree. From here on out, it was mules for me, my knee let me know.

After a tasty ceviche lunch, Caramelo and I were together once again. The path continued to climb in brutal increments, getting downright scary in some points – even the mules were slipping and sliding in one spot, where wet sand combined with rocks and the narrow walls of the ravine made things precarious. But it was also beautiful: moss-covered gorges, enormous ferns, bell-shaped red flowers, cloud-covered peaks, clear and cold spring water, the melodious calls of the “flute bird,” the sound of waterfalls, and the smell of pine trees. (Now that I’m safely home, I’m ignoring the trees with inch-long spines and the vines that grab your clothes and will cut like a knife if you’re not careful, as Pilucho found out.) Really, it was hard to believe I was still on the same island at all, climbing the tallest mountains of the Caribbean.

About 12 kilometers into the hike we finally reached the Cruce del Tetero, where the path forks into one branch leading up to 10,000-foot Pico Duarte and another leading down into the Valle del Tetero, our final destination. The path was just as steep as before but going down rather than up provided a nice change. As we got down to the valley floor the vegetation changed again – here pines combined with little scrubby fruited plants, like the “Moco del pavo” (turkey’s crest) with its startlingly red stems and the “Berenjena cimarrona” or mountain eggplant, which looks exactly like a small orange tomato on the outside but on the inside is all seeds surrounded by a think layer of chalky white flesh. Another of our guides, Rafael (“Felle”) told us it’s not good to eat but is useful as a medicinal tea for treating diarrhea and other stomach problems. Getting this far put the mules in a much better mood, and we made good time on the last few kilometers.

The first view of the valley proper comes as one emerges from a boggy forested area and suddenly finds oneself on the edge of a vast meadow (or sabana – a Taino word from which we get our savannah). As I came out into the late afternoon sunlight, I had a perfect and beautiful view of one of the teenage helpers running his horse across the far end of the plain, driving along a bunch of free mules and other beasts. All around us peaks rose up in a great ring around the valley, and above us, a perfectly blue sky from which little patches of mist drifted. Unfortunately, many of the trees around us were undeniably scorched from a major forest fire that occurred during Holy Week earlier this year. (Felle later told us he had been there, and that the burning pines made a noise like ten helicopters landing at once. He had been leading a group of 30 in and they had to turn back in a hurry, some mules even catching their tales and manes on fire.) But even so, it was breathtaking.

When we reached camp, it was already starting to grow dark. I had a major headache and nausea from the sun earlier in the day combined with not having drunk enough water, so I laid down for a bit while the kids unloaded the mules and got started on chopping wood for the fire. By the time anyone got around to putting up tents or making food, it was really very dark indeed, but it was also fairly clear and you could see stars all around – at least until the incredibly bright moon rose an hour later (at that point, you hardly needed a flashlight). Cooking took place in a very smoky kitchen building that contained a table, a wooden chair with half a leather seat, a sack for trash hanging from a nail on the wall, and a cement “stove” containing space for three wood fires on which to cook. As I’d already learned on my river trip, nothing cooks very fast in these types of set-ups, so I wasn’t very surprised to find we didn’t eat until nearly 10 PM. The auyama (squash) soup and roasted eggplant on bread was pretty tasty, though, and we made a deal with the two youngest kids – two adorable brothers of about 11 and 13 – to wash out our muddy hiking boots for 50 pesos.

Everyone was exhausted and expecting to sleep like a log that night. Unfortunately, the mules, horses, and the cows that had been brought in for grazing had other plans. One mule with apparent mental problems was tied up near our tent and kept wailing loudly and eerily, banshee-style. After an hour of that I got dressed again and went out to the fire, around which the three young boys were curled, and asked them if we couldn’t do something about it. One of them moved the mule to the other side of camp, which definitely helped, though a calf separated from its mother continued to cry, and in the morning, a white horse neighed repeatedly into our ears. It wasn’t all that restful, but it was such a pleasant morning when at last we got up that we couldn’t be too terribly grumpy about it.

I fetched some coffee from the kitchen and sat on the porch of one of the shelter buildings, watching the mist rising from the steep hills around us and listening to the birds until the boys came back driving the animals back from the savannah. Then I moved on to the second course – bread, cheese, pineapple, and hot chocolate with cinnamon. Entertainment came in the form of three new mules, including a very young one, which the guides had just bought in the south the day before. They provided the kids with an opportunity to work on their roping and bucking-bronco techniques. Finding we needed some more water, mom and I then wandered down to the river to fill our bottles. We followed a path that took us somewhat farther than expected, down to a swimming-hole called “La Ballena” where cold water flowed over rapids into a deep pool around which dragonflies flitted. It looked like a nice place to hang out but we were afraid we’d miss the expedition to the petroglyph rocks and so headed back to camp quickly. Indeed, when we got back we found the others had already seen the rocks, but it was no big deal because they were much closer to camp than we’d known. We went and took a look too, and found a maze-like image carved into a large boulder. When we got back to camp, the men had all gone back to bed! So we went to La Ballena again, where we washed up, read our nature guides, lay about on the boulders, and got bit by bugs. I did, at least – they never seem to bother my mother, damn it all. Then we went to the petroglyphs again. Then we walked out to the sabana to see if we could see Pico Duarte (sort of a vague blue thing in the distance behind the trees) and to look at the plants. Then we read books and rested. Then we had lunch – pasta with salmon in cream sauce – and watched some new campers arrive, including an American geology student with whom we chatted for a bit, and a father with his two young sons – he turned out to be director of a very interesting environment & development foundation in Santo Domingo.

After the sun went down, giving us a beautiful show of golden clouds with rainbows over the misty hills, the kids chopped up a cuaba tree – an extremely fragrant variety of pine – and got the fire roaring in no time. We all gathered around it – our group, the newcomers, and all the guides – and talked. At a lull in the conversation, I asked if anyone had any good scary stories (my favorite campfire activity). One of the new guides offered a true-life experience in which he actually encountered a ciguapa, a classic legendary figure in Dominican folktales. Here in the mountains, they still believe in this creature that looks just like a woman clothed only in her own very long hair, but whose feet are on backwards, complicating efforts to track her. The guide told us that in February of the year before he had been walking around the kitchen at night when he saw a ciguapa walking away from the building with a flashlight. He knew it wasn’t a real woman – besides the fact that she was naked except for her long hair, they also had no women with them on the trip. He got so scared he ran away, since as everyone knows, ciguapas can lure men away and may never let them go unless, perhaps, they get pregnant. The guides then pointed out that the spot she was seen was very near where we were sleeping, and that ciguapas have been known to open people’s tents and go inside in search of food. I asked what I should do if I saw one and they said, “say hello.” But then what happens? I wondered. “If it’s a male one, they might lure you away.” Well, perhaps I better not say hi then.

Dinner got started very late again, and mom and I were so tired that we just ate bread, cheese, and tomatoes on our feet in the kitchen and then hit the hay. Sleep was much easier with the animals farther away, and we all got up feeling rested and ready for another day on the trail. The only problem was that my ankle had started to swell up and look a bit red around all those bites from the day before. The boot felt painful, so I put on only one sock, leaving off the thick woolen one, laced it loosely and hoped for the best.

The walkers (Mom, Gary, and Denny) set off first; next Pilucho, Tamara, and I hit the trail while Luis went for one last dip in the river and the guides prepared the pack animals. We had intended to start on foot but at the last minute Yary decided to send me on one of the mules (not Caramelo but one I hadn’t yet met)– since I had horse experience he thought I could handle the beast even with no guide around. Well, if it had been a horse I would have been better off. It turned out to be more than true about mules and stubbornness. We started off OK, but soon came to a boggy patch, which the old girl simply refused to cross. I tried to lead her around it instead, but halfway along she stopped completely. I got off and tried to lead her by the bridle, but no go. And then I couldn’t even get back on, because the saddle was a bit loose and whenever I put my foot in the stirrup it would slide halfway down her side. At this point I needed a leg up and she required a jump-start, consisting of Pilucho slapping her on the rump with his walking stick. Then we came to a part where we weren’t quite sure which way the path led. Attempting to let the mule guide us (a strategy that worked with trusty Caramelo on the way up) I gave her some rein. Unfortunately, the only way she wanted to go was back to pasture. There was really no getting her to move any way but backwards. Luckily, Luis and Yary came along then, and Yary got things moving again with one or another of his famous mule-moving calls (Hijo de la grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraan puta!! being one of his favorites). A few minutes later, though, I convinced him to give me Caramelo back, and from then on we were fine.

Things went along fine - if slowly - for the first 8 kilometers, which took us uphill back to the Cruce del Tetero and on to La Laguna, where we stopped for a lunch of tuna salad, casabe, and whatever bits and pieces everyone had left – a pineapple here, a Snickers there. We all enjoyed the views, and the coolness once we started to descend again through the clouds. However, once I sat down to check my ankle I saw things were not so fine. A line of blisters had popped up around the worst bites and liquid was coming out of those. Also, it was getting more swollen, the puffiness now reaching down to my toes and up above the ankle bone. No way to go but forward, though, so I painfully got back into the stirrup and continued on.

Soon I forgot about the pain and itchiness, as I began again to feel the pleasure of being in the saddle. (I rode quite a bit as a child but now hadn’t been for years.) I new I could trust Caramelo so I let him pick his own sure-footed way down the steep, rocky and muddy trail. Sometimes he couldn’t quite keep his balance so he just went running and sliding down to the next more level spot. It was fun, and the farther down we got, the happier he got, and the faster he went. By the time he got down to the more level part, he was trotting along happily as Yary and I chatted and sung merengue típico tunes. A little bit before getting to the last “rest stop,” Los Tablones, we came to the compound where Yary, Felle, and family (a big family – 9 brothers!) live. Caramelo and I followed Yary and Josefina (the mule that kicks) across the river to their pink-and-blue wooden house, where we had a quick cup of coffee on horseback, next to a wild pig tied to a tree and a bunch of children playing with hoops and sticks. But it was getting near sundown so we couldn’t tarry.

Arriving at Los Tablones, I hopped down from my mule in a chipper manner that quickly dissipated when my foot hit the ground. Taking a closer look, I found the ankle now of enormous size and the swelling reaching halfway up my calf. It felt itchy, bruised, and so stiff it was hard to walk on. The single bite I had on the other calf was swelling, too. Things looked bad. Certainly, my hopes for walking at least part of the trail this day were looking grim. While I played with a fuzzy caterpillar I found, the guides speculated that maybe the bites hadn’t been from malles (sand flies) at all, but from spiders or some other nasty thing. They guessed I wouldn’t die, but they did think I should get to a hospital for an injection when we got back. But we were still hours away from Santiago.

The last four kilometers from Los Tablones to the parking lot at the ranger station in La Cienaga went fast, especially since the mules were so happy and eager to arrive that Caramelo almost took off without me. When we got back, it was nearly dark. We changed our clothes as the guides quickly unloaded the mules, we got the cars repacked, and we were out of there – hoping to make it to the scary bridge before losing all visibility.

Being Sunday, there was a lot of action on the roads and in the small towns. People seemed to be dancing to merengue típico or to bachata in every colmado we passed, and everywhere noisy little motorbikes loaded down with three people were passing us by (they could avoid the enormous potholes easier than we). It was just twilight when we got to the bridge, and we passed over it with few problems but a big audience. At the next small town, we celebrated with some Presidente while watching the locals getting down. At the next town after that, we stopped again, this time for some homemade Jengibre (a ginger liquor). They were out, but instead we got some other kind of fruity hooch, made from some berry I’d never heard of. I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted though, being that I was a bit alarmed about the increasing size of my leg. But there was no hurrying this hungry group, which next stopped at a roadside restaurant for dinner (I had moro de guandules, tostones, and avocado salad, while feeling slightly mortified by my sunburned, ragheaded, muddy, and swollen appearance).

Finally, at nearly 10 PM, we made it back to Santiago and our homebase of Luis’s house. We still had to transfer our belonging to his car, go home, unload them, shower, and change before we could go to the clinic, so we didn’t get to the emergency room til about 11:00. Luckily, we were attended quickly. The diagnosis: malle. I’m just allergic to them. They decided to give me a shot of cortisone and another anti-allergy drug similar to benadryl, which was suppsed to make me very tired. However, a simple little needle wasn’t good enough for them – they insisted on an incredibly painful IV-type injection in order to get the drugs into my bloodstream more quickly. The first time they put it in, it wasn’t a good vein, so they had to take it out and put it in again even more excruciatingly. Then they had to inject the drugs, which also hurt like hell, besides making me very cold and giving me uncontrollable shivers. So by the time we got out of there I had seen better days, though I was slightly less itchy. For about an hour. Then it came back. I suffered from the Great Itch of the Year 2005 for the next three days and nights, waking up every hour or two having to apply a Vick’s scrub and several medicated creams. (The ankle still doesn’t look too hot.) But it was all worth it, for having seen the Valle del Tetero.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


In case you haven't been following the news, you might be interested to know that I'm on strike. Not in person, but in spirit, in solidarity with the other NYU grad teaching assistants and former UAW members. Here's the latest press on it. I'll post more interesting strike-related links later.
From LA Times:,1,5028183.story?coll=la-headlines-nation&ctrack=1&cset=true
From NY Times:

Busts in prison

Busts in prison
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Busts in prison (Fortaleza San Luis, Santiago)


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
One of my adorable nephews whom I just saw in New York. Doing what he does best.

My favorite picture from Santo Domingo

Hey, kids! Add your own caption!

Hospital ruins

Hospital ruins
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
A view of the ruins of the oldest hospital in the New World (early 16th century)


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
stairways into the Cave of the Three Eyes.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
part of the roots of an enormous tree in the National Botanical Gardens, Santo Domingo

Action turtle

Action turtle
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Sea turtle at the DR's National Aquarium.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Me, my mom, and Dario Tejeda drinking a fría.

Las Guloyas

Las Guloyas
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Brought to you by the Secretaría de Cultura (Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo)

Travels with my mom: E' pa'lante que vamos!

I wrote this on 12/11/05
On Monday (12/5) morning, we waited around a long, long time, first for drinking-water delivery and then for my mechanic, but luckily he was able to quickly resolve the problem of the trunk door that wouldn’t lock and the radio that wouldn’t turn on. So we arrived at the Roman house in plenty of time for lunch. They were anxious to meet mom and so had invited us over to eat before my accordion lesson. Carmen went all out, preparing a pastelon of eggplant, plantain, cheese, and raisins; tostones; rice and beans; fish in escabeche; and shrimp; with avocado and tomato on the side. Everything was absolutely amazing so we stuffed ourselves liberally, and then had difficulty staying awake through my lesson. Still, I was able to review “La Funda,” a tune that had been giving me some trouble, and re-learn “La Pobre Adela,” one I’d learned last year, but imperfectly.

On Tuesday the 6th we left for Santo Domingo, not knowing how my weather-beaten 1984 Civic would take all the ups, downs, and potholes of unusual size we might meet along the way. Therefore, we didn’t stop at any of the roadside vendors we saw, though they looked quite interesting. They come in spurts: first all ceramics, then all wooden dishes and utensils, then all rag rugs, next roasted sweet potatoes, and finally cashews and honey. We only stopped for gas, oil, and water in Bonao, the approximate halfway point. The mechanic gave us the thumbs up to continue, and we made it to the capital around 4:00 with little incident. To celebrate our arrival, after checking in to our hostel in Gazcue, an upscale residential neighborhood near the University (UASD), we cleaned ourselves up and headed down to the Zona Colonial, where we treated ourselves to a fancy fish and pasta dinner at one of the many restaurants near the Alcazar de Colon, Chris Columbus’s son’s old house. In the next room an office Christmas party was going on, with so much drunken frivolity that we could scarcely hear ourselves think. It definitely added to the atmosphere.

Wednesday was our big day of touring. We saw as much of the Zona Colonial as it was humanly possible to see in a day, and still get some gift-shopping in. Unfortunately, the creepiest of the old churches was closed, as was the church of Santa Barbara that Mom had been hoping to visit, but we did see a lot of sights I hadn’t visited before, like the Museo de las Casas Reales, the Panteon Nacional, and the old fort. We also wandered around the ruins of the New World’s first hospital and first monastery, though the latter (rumored to be full of awesome secret passages) was locked up. The big mystery was, how did the pack of stray dogs that seemed to be living in it get in and out? Spooky. All the walking wore us out so we went back to Gazcue for some Chinese food. My friend Dario Tejeda (a Dominican writer/musicologist) met us there and led us to a great little neighborhood drinking hole just around the corner from our hostel, where one had to ring for entry. It was a French-run place that featured an interesting selection of wines and appetizers. They were playing Edith Piaf when we arrived, but since my gift to Dario was a CD of Western Swing (Bob Wills music played by Asleep at the Wheel) he asked for them to put that on instead. It actually went quite well with the atmosphere and made for good conversation.

But I wrote this part on 12/8/05
On Thursday, we got up waaaaay too early for my tastes in order to get to a meeting between my mom (an agricultural librarian by profession) and the librarian at IICA, an international Central American – Caribbean agricultural institute, as well as the director of the Biblioteca Republica Dominicana, a library run out of the national Culture Dept that hopes one day to be the country’s largest public library. So we got a late start on our sightseeing but nonetheless we did follow their recommendation and stopped by the brand-new library of the UASD. The collections weren’t open for use yet but the building was quite impressive. Afterwards, the Museo del Hombre Dominicano. Now that I’m getting a little more familiar with Carnival masks, it was even more impressive to see the Museo’s collection, since you can see both how they’ve changed over the years (there were old masks from Santiago made even from wicker and rope), and the great variety that exists. Some were quite spooky – one covered all in bird feathers, extending all the way down the chest and back with a square head and no visible eyes. We had a quick bite of tapas at the Cinema Café next door, in which they were filming a movie. Meanwhile, just outside people were combing through an enormous pile of confiscated, pirated CDs and DVDs. It’s hard to believe that even this could make a dent in piracy here, since pirated disks are the only ones most Dominicans can afford to buy.

The afternoon was mostly – unintentionally – spent driving as we tried to find a couple of sights on the east side of the river that divides Santo Domingo. First, the Cave of the Three Eyes, which we actually found without too much trouble and was worth seeing – a complex of semi-enclosed limestone caves containing pools of turquoise-colored water and, in some cases, fish, shrimp, and turtles. Also, Tarzan. This guy apparently puts on a show consisting of scaling caveside cliffs and jumping into the pools, when contracted at union prices. (A Tarzan union?) However, when we saw him, he was instead squatting on a rock shaving with a Bic. The most beautiful pool was large and completely round, a sort of a sinkhole that the guide told us becomes a whirlpool in heavy rain. Forty years ago it was open to the public who drank and danced merengue on its shores or floated around it on inner tubes, but now one can only see it through a veil of ferns and broken stalactites (destroyed, like the ex-Taino petroglyphs, during the earlier days of cavorting). The tranquility of our tour was marred somewhat by all the people trying to sell us stuff. The ones at the end, who were hawking replica Taino carvings on miniature stalactites, did a particularly good job of laying on a guilt trip. Though some were actually pretty I’m a skittish shopper during the best of circumstances and their aggressive salesmanship completely scared me off, though guilt kicked in as I drove away. I’m still struggling with the ethical question of how much tourist crap one is obligated to buy as a researcher in a developing country.

Next we planned on visiting the National Aquarium, which should have been close by – and was, as the crow flies, but as the car travels on Dominican roads, not so much. Missing the unmarked turnoff meant we were stuck on the highway to the airport with no exit or hope of U-turn for at least 10km – ten kilometers of extreme annoyance on my part, though there was a beautiful view of the city off in the distance from the road. We turned back, missed another turn, and ended up back at the Three Eyes 20 minutes later. Learning from our mistake, we then got off at the mystery turnoff, but found it sent us in the wrong direction. A couple of U-turns and many swear words later, though, we found it. It was also worth seeing, though not all we hoped for – the manatee promised in the guide book was not present, and neither were the sharks in the large, walk-through tank. Still, many other beautiful things were – sea turtles, rays, puffers, huge fish so silver they could have been made of metal. There were also iguanas outside and a great view of waves crashing on the rocky shore and the sunset over the city skyline.

Getting back into town was much easier than getting out of it, so we were able to return to the hotel to change clothes pretty quickly before heading back to the Zona Colonial once again in the hopes of catching a performance of the Congos de Villa Mella (Afro-Dominican religious music performed by a brotherhood recently designated a treasure of intangible human patrimony by UNESCO). For dinner, we headed to La Creperie, right in front of the Alcazar de Colon. There we chatted with Melvin, one of my waiter fans, and made friends with Charlie, the restaurant’s official cat, who was exceedingly friendly if disappointed that we had no meat. Then, just as we got our dessert, enormous fireworks started going off just across the river. Enormous and LOUD. So much so that every time a new barrage started, all the city’s car alarms started going off in unison. The owners would just get them turned off when it would start all over again. This happened so many times that it became rather hilarious, but eventually the pyrotechnic display wrapped up and we headed off to see/hear/film the Congos. False alarm: the monastery ruins were just as closed off as the day before, and only the resident stray dogs were in attendance. End of day.

Friday turned out to be not such a good day for sight-seeing. We got up at a decent hour in order to make our meeting with Cesar Amado and other documentation center personnel at CEDAF, an NGO for Agricultural and Forestry Development. Unluckily, as soon as we left we had a flat tire and had to pull over. Luckily, two good Samaritans immediately appeared to change it for us and we made it to our meeting only 10 minutes late. Also luckily, the CEDAF folk were quite lovely and interesting. But also unluckily, the tire was unreparable and we had to waste several hours looking for new tires. We ended up buying four since the other three didn’t look so great either. The guy who sold them to us assured they were “the best Chinese tires.” (Elevated import costs put Firestone and Michelin out of our league.) Miraculously, after doing all that we still had time for a lunch of fish in garlic sauce and a quick visit to the botanical gardens, where we took their little train around the beautiful grounds and got out to see the Japanese Garden of incongruously tropical plants. The highlight was the enormous Anacahuita tree, native to Panama and in possession of impressive roots that look something like perfectly vertical walls for a labyrinth.

In the evening we returned to the Zona Colonial to see if there was any more shopping to be done, and there was. There was also, unusually, a 5-man merengue típico group playing on Calle del Conde, the main shopping/pedestrian street, as some company gave away free soda to onlookers. Many people watched, but only two couples danced – I can’t imagine that happening in Santiago. Another onlooker with an itch to dance complained to me that women in the capital were “too shy” while another added that capitolenos don’t know how to dance típico anyway. But the great discovery of the evening was an overstocked art gallery of really great Haitian and Dominican paintings, far different from those sold on the streets. The old colonial house was completely empty in terms of its floor space, but the walls of its one high-ceilinged room were covered floor to ceiling with a great variety of works. The attic too. And also the stairway and several upstairs rooms of a building across the street. It was overwhelming because there were so many great things, and all different – landscapes, paintings of animals, paintings of people, realism, surrealism, naïf paintings. We quickly discovered a preference for a Haitian painter called Chavel Kavenaught, whose works ranged from portraits of impossibly fat families to fantasy, but mostly depicted Haitian village life in great detail and gorgeous twilight colors, with a great knack for capturing lifelike attitudes in human figures without ever showing their faces. Apparently we have good taste, because the gallery owner (a Haitian painter himself, named Franck) brought out brochures to show us that the artist had been featured in several exhibitions in the past few years, including one at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano. But once we went across the street, we immediately gravitated to the small-scale works of another artist…who turned out to be the son of the first, Kavenaught Rockly, now studying at Santo Domingo’s Art Institute and considered quite promising. We debated long and hard but didn’t really have the cash on us anyway to make any large purchases, so we decided to call it a day and come back in the morning. We went on to pizza dinner and a drink with Dario and Abraham (a colleague of his). They took us to Super Colmado Batista, the university student hangout of choice. It was quite the happening, with probably a hundred people hanging out on the one small corner, blasting music from their cars and sitting around on plastic crates while drinking jumbo-sized Brahma and Presidente beers. We did the same.

The fact that the colmado had formerly been simply “Colmado Batista,” only becoming “Super” after receiving a quantity of money from Brahma beer to advertise its product on every available surface, led us into a talk about colmado names. Dario offered one that is simply called CBB. Say the letters in Spanish and you get: Se bebe (one drinks). Another has an even shorter moniker: , . – just those two punctuation marks. Read them in Spanish and you get: coma y punto (eat, and that’s it).

First of all, Dario had asked me the night before to become a formal member/consultant of the non-profit institute he founded, the Instituto de Estudios Caribenos. He brought a letter for me to sign my life away to them. With that done, a truck advertising a candidate for office came by blasting merengue, and we remembered that drinking is always a good opportunity to talk about politics. This particular truck read “Manuel Gomez (or whoever): Tu sindico de 24 horas” – Your 24-hour representative. Dario replied, “well, he’ll sure be tired after four years without sleep.” And then he pointed out that the opposing candidate could easily use that slogan against him by declaring Gomez (or whoever) the candidate that would work for 24 hours only. From there, the conversation turned to other unsuccessful Dominican campaign slogans. For example, when Hipolito Mejia successfully ran for president in 2000, his slogan was “Hipolito acabo con to’” – roughly, Hipolito finished everything off or got rid of everything, meaning all of the bad politics and corruption from before. Yet after his 4 years in office left the country in shambles, people resurrected the old slogan with a new meaning. A merengue was recorded stating, Hipolito sure did finish everything off! And then another, more celebratory merengue appeared when Leonel Fernandez was re-elected in 2004, which declared, “E’ pa’fuera que van” – It’s out they (Hipolito’s people) are going. Leonel picked up on this in his inaugural address, ending it with his now-ubiquitous tagline, “E’ pa’lante que vamos!” (It’s forward we are going!) Yet even this backfired. Hipolito’s supporters connected this with a statement Leonel made earlier in the speech, when he announced that Hipolito had left the country “on the brink of an abyss.” The Hipolitarians gleefully pointed out, “Leonel said it himself – we’re on the brink of an abyss and he’s going to take us forward!” This brought us to the subject of still less successful campaigns. Our companions recalled a senator from Santiago who ran in the presidential primaries some years ago. He spent vast quantities of his own money on TV spots in which he confidently declared, “I know I will win!” No one else was too sure about that, but it was generally thought that he would at least get a respectable percentage of votes. When the results came in, however, his grand total was: two. Him and his wife, everyone supposed. And in another primary, a candidate appeared on TV saying, “Quiero ser presidente, y voy a ser presidente!” (I want to be president, and I’m going to be president!) Yet in the Cibao accent from the north, it came out sounding like, “Quiero seis presidentes, y voy a seis presidentes!” (I want six Presidente beers, and I’m going to have six Presidentes!) Was it a bet, everyone wondered?

What I wonder is if it is even theoretically possible for a Dominican candidate to come up with a slogan that no one can turn into a joke. My guess is no.

Today: We spent our last morning in the capital visiting the Instituto de Estudios Caribenos, where Dario had called a meeting with several other members. But we really only had time for a glass of juice and the exchange of a few words before we had to run back to the Zona Colonial to collect the Kavenaught Rockly paintings we finally decided on purchasing. While Mom ran over to the gallery, I kept one eye on the car and the other on a performance by Guloyas up the block – the impressively costumed Cocolo dancers. Some of them were pretty old, but they could sure dance and swing those pseudo-tomahawks. The overtone-heavy fife and drum accompaniment was actually very close to the way Santiago’s Ballet Folklorico performs this style, except that the latter haven’t got a fife so they use a plastic recorder instead. They ended their impromptu show on a closed-off block of Calle Luperon (just in front of the ruins of the oldest hospital in the New World) right as Mom returned with our purchases. I’m very pleased with mine – a slightly surrealistic scene of people at world in perfectly square fields, with water from an unknown source pouring into one.

At last we hit the road again. Our new Chinese tires served us well and we had no problems on the road, other than the usual potholes. We stopped at as many roadside stands as we could handle: first for cashews, then for roasted sweet potatoes (prepared streetside in coal-filled tin cans), then for shockingly-colored rag rugs (twice, in fact, once we realized we should have bought some for gifts). We had hoped to encounter the wooden plate and spoon guys too, but for some reason they weren’t out today. Instead, we stopped for lunch and juice at a rather nice roadside eatery in Bonao and pushed on to home. It was an enjoyable trip, but it’s nice to be back here and out of the Santo Domingo traffic. We celebrated with daiquiris and fajitas.

Not much to report today (Sunday), which was mostly a day of shopping and washing. However, I did attend my second Carnival meeting with Los Confraternos, where I learned we will be having our very own security force! They will give us water and protect us from drunken celebrants, so that we can drink our own rum and whack people with our bladders and whips in peace. We also made arrangements to buy fabric, get measured for costumes and shoes, and pick up my mask. Now that they know I play accordion, they are considering coming up with a Confraternos theme song. And I have homework – to draw up possible designs for my own outfit, and to sell ten raffle tickets for 20 pesos each, with which one can win a 5-liter can of Brugal rum! Maybe I should just buy them myself…

Back to business (sort of)

Wow, it seems like forever since I last wrote. I was away for 2 weeks in Atlanta and New York. It was a nice break, but far too cold, so it was a bit of a relief to get back here to Santiago. All the Dominicans think it’s freezing here – about 65 degrees at night.

I returned on Tuesday with my mom, who’s going to spend some time down here working and traveling with me. We had the perfect flight in (other than the half-hour delay in taking off from Kennedy), since it was possibly the world’s most típico flight: on the plane with us were la Kerubanda, Geovanny Polanco, and all their associated musicians. Even better, they were all seated right across the aisle from us. Get a bunch of típico musicians together and things get a little wacky, so they kept me entertained for much of the flight and I had fun talking to Paulino, Geovanny’s conguero and a neighbor of Rafaelito’s. When we got in, the TV cameras were there, waiting to interview our illustrious fellow passengers. (Little did they know that La Gringa del Acordeon was also there.)

That night, we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at an excellent fish restaurant near my place. While there, we met an architect and civil engineer who were friends of some people I work with at the Centro Leon and the brother of the photographer who recently had an exhibition there. Small country! Then I went off to this month’s Fiesta de Palos at the Casa de Arte. The music was great but I was really too tired to dance, and so, other than that, there was little news to report over the next couple of days - we both needed to rest up following our exposure to New York cold and colds. However, we did make it to the Centro Leon to see the museum, my friends, and our email, and we did have one other amazing dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street. All this time I’d been meaning to try it out but didn’t because it looked expensive. Anyway, it was worth it – the owners are from Milan and made some kick-ass pasta, bruschetta, and bootleg limoncello.

On Saturday, after at long last getting my car back from the mechanic, we finally motivated ourselves to get out and see some sights. We went downtown, where we found a craft fair going on at the Casa de Arte, all of women’s cooperatives. Our favorite table was one that featured glass bottles in different shapes, sizes, and colors nicely painted with flowers, fruits, and such. We purchased several, and made arrangements to come back the next day for two more – these filled with homemade guava wine and cherry wine. Next stop was the Hospedaje, the Saturday market where blocks and blocks-worth of fruits, vegetables, and fowl are for sale (we bought grapefruit, mandarins, and pineapple, and exchanged a few words with the geese wandering about). We then attempted to visit the Museo Folklorico Tomas Morel – a bizarre collection of masks, instruments, dolls, and everything else under the sun, and also one of my faves – but it was closed so we just took some pictures with the wooden bull on the porch and decided to come back later. The big cathedral was closed, too. So instead, after leaving our purchases in the car, we checked out the street vendors on the extremely crowded sidewalks of la Calle del Sol; ate Dominican-style pizza; read our email, where we ran into my friend Ivan; and finally ended up at the Fortaleza de San Luis, the old fort on the banks of the Rio Yaque.

I hadn’t been in the fort before, and had no idea about what all was in there. In the back, there are still military and government offices including the drug task force (newspapers have been reporting that Santiago is a center for the drug trade in this country, but this isn’t surprising since it’s the center of transportation and commerce for the whole northern region). In the center is the old prison building, in use (mainly for drug offenders) up until March of this year, we were told. Next to it are some enormous metal statues of Guloyas, people of the Cocolo culture (English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans from the vicinity of San Pedro de Macoris) who dress up in impressive costumes and peacock-feathered headdresses around Carnival time. In the front is a playground, where I was happy to see a merry-go-round, a species now endangered in the US, and the administrative office. To one side is a museum that features a variety of modern art paintings and sculptures, along with some old weaponry presumably once used by the armed forces stationed here. Just outside the museum was a courtyard with an excellent view out across the river.

Pierre, the French Canadian curator of the museum, told us a bit about the place and sold us some folk art we found in a small display case inside. He didn’t think much of its naïve style, but it was interesting and different than the stuff sold in the tourist markets around here, and it was even made by a local policeman. We bought a couple of paintings of lechones – typical Carnival figures of Santiago - wearing miniature, papier-mache examples of the 2 main kinds of masks (Joyera and Pepinera), as well as several little painted wooden cutouts of guitars and Dominican houses that looked like they would make good magnets. Afterwards, we roamed the courtyard for a bit, where we discovered attractively painted trash cans and a caged crow named Chuchi, who talked. He said “Hola” to us a number of times. Apparently, he also says “La Vega,” but he didn’t feel like talking about that town at the moment. Then we peered in the windows of the old jail, through which we could see a bunch of busts looking the other way in an interior courtyard. Pierre came back and opened up the doors for us, leaving us to wander around inside the building, which turned out to be my favorite sight of the day. We found a mentally-ill man painting canvases in one room; another full of detritus that included everything from old computers to a wooden statue of a man in a hat holding fish; a niche with a picture of the Virgin in it; and loads of prison graffiti, some fairly entertaining. (One advised us: you find out who your true friends are in prison and in bed.) Pierre told us there are plans to turn the building into a museum, but I like it just the way it is.

That evening I was kind of worn out from all the walking, but my obligations were not done, since I’d accepted an invitation to play accordion in El Tiriguillo, our neighborhood watering hole. They were holding a party to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season. Since I hadn’t played for a while I set myself to running through my repertoire, though partway through, my friend Juan Miguel stopped by. He kept us entertained with tales of his year in Arizona, where he lived in Mesa with a Mormon family. Anyway, there wasn’t any hurry because when we eventually got to El Tiriguillo they were still setting up the sound equipment. The band was pretty good, doing covers of popular merengues and some international hits, like “La Vida es un Carnaval.” Unfortunately, they weren’t too familiar with the típico repertoire, so when my time came up we had a hard time finding tunes we both knew. The main problem is I don’t know enough of the words to the songs to be able to sing them myself, and they didn’t know them either. Eventually we came up with four: El Diente de Oro, the old standby; La Chiflera, which I’d never performed before but was able to muddle through well enough; La Cartera Vacia, to which they knew only one verse, but sung it four times; and La Muerte de Martin, a rather difficult one which seemed to pleasantly surprise the audience. We got rained out for a time but the show went on anyhow, and a good time was had by all.

Sunday morning, I woke up too late to do much but went by the Ballet Folklorico rehearsal anyhow, just in time to see a couple dances and say hi to everyone before they took off. Then we picked up my homemade wine and went home since the cathedral was still closed. After an uneventful afternoon spent editing the proofs of my article for Ethnomusicology, I attended my very first Carnaval group meeting! My friend Jose Reyes, a local Carnaval expert, picked me up around 5 and took me to meet the group he’d pre-selected for me (it’s one of the few that has another female member – the leader’s wife). He was pleased I wanted to be a lechona (or pig; the kind of long-snouted devil typical of Santiago’s carnival) since he’s been on something of a mission in recent years to revitalize Carnaval by getting more people to be lechones. Being a lechon is kind of a big deal, since Carnaval is not only a major celebration but also a major source of identity for people in Santiago and other towns with centuries-old Carnaval traditions. It entails investing a fair to significant amount of money in a costume and mask and running around doing a typical kind of dance step while whacking people with inflated, hardened pig bladders and whips. As Jose told us, “when you’re a lechon, you’re in charge. You decide who you hit and when.” But, he also reminded us, a vejigazo (bladder hit) can really hurt, so you have to know how to dole it out. He recommends whacking women in the butt and men in the back.

Anyway, the group is called “Los Confraternos” and is based in the barrio of Pueblo Nuevo. Jose came to the meeting as a sort of advisor, since this year the group (which only started a year or two ago) has decided to change over from the Traditional category to Fantasy. This is a complicated endeavor, since Fantasy costumes are much more expensive and difficult to make. Both are subject to the regulations of the Carnival committee and judges, composed mostly of businessmen and politicians as well as some locally-acknowledged experts. Traditional masks must be painted in particular ways, using the typical styles of the barrios Los Pepines (which have smooth horns) or La Joya (which have gazillions of little horns sticking out of the main horns). Fantasy masks can use glitter, metallic, and other modern paints, and while they too must have the lechon shape they can also incorporate other designs into the horns. In recent years, Pueblo Nuevo has become known for a style in which flowers instead of spikes sprout from the horns. But ours rather have rings of silver spikes separating sections painted with different colors of glitter (I was shown an example and will get my own soon from the local mask-maker). My fellow lechones showed me their costumes of past years – one was a two-piece ensemble in orange and purple with various colors of sequined stripes, appliquéd cartoon characters on the back. Another was a one-piece in red satin with multicolored bows and bells – the leader’s featured a portrait of Che Guevara made entirely of sequins on the back. They also showed me their custom-made lechon shoes. They were a sort of high-top tennis shoe made of a patchwork of differently-colored leather on a white sole. I thought I might just end up wearing mine everyday.

Jose’s advice was that we all make our own, different designs for our costumes this year, even if we choose just one fabric to be the base for all. He tells us the fact that in Santiago most lechones show off individual styles, even when part of a group, is one thing that differentiates Santiago Carnaval from that of La Vega, where each group of devils dresses alike. But with that method, he explains, it’s not as exciting to watch because “when you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all, and so you go on to look at the next group.” The object is for the costumes to be as eye-catching as possible, so they should be different, creative, and use as many clashing colors as possible. Ribbons, bells, buttons, and mirrors all can and should be used for adornment. Group members shared designs they’d drawn and colored during the week and Jose evaluated them as for cost, difficulty of construction, and effectiveness, and all members shared their opinions. They made plans for Jose to meet with us again to show us the lechon dance moves and proper whip usage, and he advised us not to forget about Carnaval during the excitement of the Christmas season and unwisely spend all our costume money on other things. Not to worry – I can’t wait to be a lechona and perfect my bladder-thwhacking technique.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On the road again

It's true - at last I bought a car. It's semi-ugly but not super ugly. So far it runs OK but one never knows. At least, it is an exciting new experience to drive around the pitted, debris-filled streets of Santiago. I am starting to learn my way around. Whenever I get lost, I just keep going until I run across the route of one of the conchos I used to take back in the old days (or rather, last week). I have already had many exciting revelations. For instance, now I know why the A conchos are so much better than the F’s, which are near-literal buckets of bolts. The route the A takes is over one of the only passable roads in the whole city!

In spite of the fun of being able to drive myself to my accordion class and to the clubs at night, listening to CDs on my first ever car CD player (when it’s not skipping because of all the potholes anyway), I’ve also had rather a spate of bad luck since buying the car. Although, I guess these things happen to pretty much everyone here. On the very first day thieves broke a window. There wasn’t actually anything to steal, but they did take a couple of CD cases out of the glove compartment. The CD’s weren’t even in them, I later noticed. On the third day, there was a major rainstorm and I got caught in the middle of a lake that arose around what had formerly been a traffic circle. I felt like I was driving a bumper boat at Golf N’ Stuff rather than a car. It was nothing short of miraculous that the car made it through the water with the motor still running, not shorting out until we were free of it – and, conveniently, right in front of Rafaelito’s house (the accordion teacher). I didn’t think anyone was home, but as soon as I got out to push Manuary and Jonathan ran out to help. We got the car to higher ground in their driveway and bailed water for a time in the dark, since, naturally, all the power was out. Again miraculously, the car started. We let it run for a while as they played stick-and-plastic-bottle baseball and had a few words with some of the neighborhood crazy people who had all come out, apparently called into action by the rain. One of them gave me a fright when she appeared out of the darkness and put her hand on my face, saying, “Sangre! Sangre!”

Once it became clear that (a) the car wasn’t going to die and (b) the lake wasn’t going anywhere very fast, we made an escape plan. Mario, a neighbor, would accompany me in my car to show me the long way around, and I’d leave him on the other side of the water to walk back as I continued on my way. This plan worked and I made it home with little incident, other than having to reverse and change course at several other impromptu ponds.

So much for the car adventures. Other than that, things have been pretty quiet as I’ve been preparing to leave for the US. I can’t believe I’ve been here two months already. The time has flown and I’ve gotten quite used to things here, potholes, rain, and all. Aside from all the running around involved with buying a car and packing for a trip, this week was pretty much “the usual” – accordion lessons, dancing at La Tinaja, hanging out at El Tiriguillo. I still have to describe the rest of my trip to the capital, but that’s going to have to wait. I leave tomorrow and I still have a million errands to do! The next update will come to you from New York. Will I survive the return to Coldness? It’s anyone’s guess, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mormons & Music

Twothings I found out in Santo Domingo: the Mormons are everywhere (see spaceship-like temple above), and the National Archives of Music are nowhere (see below, their now empty former home).

Everything's a dot-com these days!

Takin' it easy


I sit here in a city once taken over by Francis Drake, writing this blog while listening to the news about the pirate attack on the cruise ship near Somalia. Some things (namely pirates) never change!

I’ve been enjoying a weekend here in the capital, mostly running around the Zona Colonial buying gifts. A couple of them were for myself: some old merengue típico and vallenato LPs (60 cents each- that’s a deal!!), a book, and a monkey playing accordion. This is a new addition to the tourist art offerings here in the DR – there were no primate musicians last year. I really like him, though. He’s carved out of a coconut so is appropriately furry. Also, he’s wearing glasses. Come to think of it, he looks kind of like me, only hairier. I also treated myself to a fancy dinner last night and had crepes at a French restaurant. I figured I might as well have things I can’t get in Santiago while I’m here. But I still don’t think Santo Domingo has as happening a nightlife as Santiago does.

I came down here mostly in order to meet with some university folk. I hitched a ride with a friend, Carlos Andujar, who is the head of the anthropology department at the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo (founded in 1523!). He was on a panel discussion down here on Thursday at the national library, where he, a folklorist, and a singer discussed the characteristics and current state of the Dominican salve, a kind of religious song. The singer had an amazing voice, clear and strong, and I enjoyed hearing her – although to tell the truth, I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been sitting next to this wacky guy who felt like he had to wave his hands around to “conduct” her every time she opened her mouth. Oh well. While there, I ran into a couple of scholars I knew, including one from the US. It’s a small world when you’re an ethnomusicologist of Dominican music.

The next day I got up bright and early – it was just as well, since my hostel, while really quite charming, is not exactly soundproof. (Part of the charm is that the rooms open onto a very pleasant central courtyard, and the doors are all fitted with slatted windows.) I headed off to the University, where I got a tour of the anthropology department. They have an interesting collection of Taino artifacts, unfortunately all in dusty and faded display cases, and a small library of books and journals, mostly on archeology in the region. I spent some time looking through the journals and then went off to meet Jose Castillo, the director of the University’s acclaimed Ballet Folklorico.

When I arrived, he was in the middle of teaching a class on folklore to physical education students in a second-floor, open-air classroom, reached by a rickety plywood staircase. One end was full of instruments and a random assortment of rubble, like dust-covered linoleum floor tiles. The students, in matching Physical Education Department t-shirts, sat on a narrow bench covered in multiple colors of vinyl that ran around the other three sides. At least, they did up until rain started blowing in one side, and then they all ran to crowd onto the bench on the other side. I kept getting the feeling the whole structure was going to start leaning, like on a boat.

I thoroughly enjoyed the class. Mr. Castillo was outlining and giving examples of the different types of folklore. Just after I arrived, he brought up folk beliefs and superstitions, sparking a discussion that lasted the rest of the class. Everyone had something to contribute: one isn’t supposed to talk at all the morning of Good Friday or they will be paralyzed; if someone is buried backwards, family members will die; etc. Some attested that these were absolutely true: one offered the story of a friend’s family in support of the second. People also brought up True Tales of the Weird: a rooster that laid eggs, a two-headed snake, the Man in the Black Hat (seemed to be something like a Dominican version of The Hook). At the end of all this, he had us get up and dance some steps from Ga-ga and the Sarandunga. Then, when the students left, I interviewed him at length on his work with the Ballet Folklorico since 1970, various folk dances, Dominican naming practices, the cultural policy of several administrations, and many other things I won’t be able to remember until I transcribe the darn thing.

In the afternoon, after a nourishing lunch of rice and lentils, codfish, and cabbage salad, and a refreshing nap, I attempted to visit the National Archives of Music. Oops – no longer there. I came to its former home – an interesting 1960s building – and found it padlocked, completely empty, and somewhat moldy, from what I could see through the windows. On the way back to my hostel from there, I had the opportunity to see a Santo Domingo monument not listed in my tour book – the Dominican Mormon church. It looked just like other Mormon churches – austere and somewhat alien, like a UFO (and really, who’s to say it isn’t?) – only with palm trees. At night, after my crepe dinner, I visited the Casa de Teatro, a favorite hangout for capital-dwelling intelligentsia, checked out a photography exhibit and bought a book.

I should be heading off soon to head to tonight’s event: the presenting of an award to a Puerto Rican santera for her work in conserving ancestral African religion. But there were other events this week that were worthy of note, even though much of it was spent trying to see if I could get this dang car I saw the previous week from the mechanic who was fixing it up. Of course, nothing here ever gets done within the time promised. That’s why Dominicans are always saying, “Cogelo suaaaaave!” Take it easy! Well, there’s really no other choice, is there?

To note briefly some of the other events this week, I saw a horror film on Wednesday that was pretty lame but did provide me with the valuable piece of information that 3 PM, the exact moment of my birth, is considered the Hour of Miracles by Catholics. Well, duh! On Tuesday, I stopped by my new hangout, El Tiriguillo (the place where I played accordion with the sidewalk trio a while back), where I was treated to numerous beers, taken to visit someone’s mother, and got useful information on climbing Pico Duarte from a Cuban woman now residing here who has done it several times. On Monday, after my accordion lesson I paid a visit to another friend in el Ingenio, Chiqui Taveras. He and his family just moved to a slightly larger house so I had to check it out. While I was there I got to try yet two more kinds of tropical fruit new to me: limon dulce (sweet lemon – but it still has a bitter aftertaste) and jagua. The jagua kind of freaked me out. It looks like a potato on the outside, a squash on the inside, and tastes like pure weirdness. I couldn’t handle it. But I agreed to try it in refreshment form next time I go by. We had a fun time gossiping and playing accordion, until at about 7:30 PM we were interrupted by a Major Event. We heard a truck coming up the dirt road, and then it stopped and honked for a long while. Eventually, Chiqui’s sister said, “hey – what if it’s them??” and went out to see what all the ruckus was about. I said, “who’s them?” and then the sister came back with the exciting news that it was, indeed, them – that is, the garbage collectors. Apparently they hadn’t been to this part of town for quite some time, so everyone was very happy to see them.

Last Sunday was a big day. I accepted an invitation from my new friends at El Tiriguillo to spend the day at the river, where a friend of theirs had a house they’d offered in loan for the day. It was a gorgeous drive, climbing up into the mountains; traversing a ridge where the land dropped off into Alp-like slopes on either side, covered in spots with grazing cattle; passing through the small mountain town of San Jose de las Matas; and finally arriving at our destination, just above a section of the Rio Yaque del Norte with pools suitable for bathing. It was no mansion, in fact it was really a bohio, the typical house of the Dominican countryside: a modest construction, usually of two rooms, made of salvaged wood on a cinder block foundation. The main house had a tin roof, but since that was only for sleeping we spent our time in the enramada, an open-air building with a thatched roof, suitable for eating and hanging out. There were two other tiny outbuildings. One was of course the latrine. This consisted of an actual toilet on a concrete slab, and sometimes it might even flush, but the water collection tank to which it was attached seemed to be empty at the moment. The other was the kitchen, which contained a wood stove that smoked terribly when lit and no plumbing (there was a sink, but you had to either bring the water in a bucket from a spigot by the front gate, or run a hose out from the same). Next to its entrance was the coffee grinder – a giant sized mortar and pestle – and coffee maker, a mesh bag on a ring mounted on the size of the structure. Also, many bushes and small trees whose leaves are plucked and used to scrub out the cooking pots. Some of the trees were fruit-bearing, but unfortunately the guayabas were still sour and the only passionfruit left were too high to reach.

We wandered around a bit to see the sites of this bend in the river, which included a rather nice hotel built up the side of the hill and a rather dilapidated “bar” consisting of a rusted-out stove (what for?), a formica countertop and a weathered sign. I didn’t swim (I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, but it was just as well since the water was kind of cold for me) but I did put my feet in and I did get bitten by the evil little gnats that live at the river’s edge, leaving a lovely bruise later on. They’re called “malle” here, I don’t know what they are in English but in any language these bugs are just NASTY. I don’t know which is worse, the little transparent ants or these guys.

In spite of the bugs, we had a nice day waiting around the hours and hours it took to cook rice over the wood fire. We played some accordion, drank some rum, ate some casabe, got visited by the town drunk – in other words, a typical Dominican day at the river. Then, I got home just in time to go and perform again at La Tinaja. I tried out 2 new (to me) merengues this time - “El Refran” and “La Cartera Vacia” – to great acclaim. The best part was that when I ended the tune, the tambora player kept going. He wasn’t paying attention, I guess. Everyone got a big laugh out of that.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Country Living

Scenes of rural life. That's the kitchen and the very, very smoky "stove." Papito demonstrates how to grind coffee, while Juan Carlos shows how to filter it. Maria Teresa and friend prepare lunch, which only took half the day to cook over the woodfire.

River Trip

Here are some scenes of my trip to the river at San Jose de las Matas on Sunday with some friends. I'll write about it later. For now, just remember that pictures are worth a thousand words. Anyway, you can see here the very rustic house we hung out at and a really nice bar on the banks of the river.

burnt - noisy - tasty


I had a fun accordion class on Monday, getting a couple of more songs ready for next week’s performance. Afterwards, I got to feeling guilty that I still hadn’t visited a couple of friends in the old neighborhood, so I decided to drop in on El Buty, the güira maker. To get there, you have to go down a little narrow alley next to Rafaelito’s house, up a rubbly hill, down a narrow gravel path lined with small houses, and duck between two of them, carefully avoiding the underwear hanging out to dry. You can usually recognize El Buty’s house by the parrot sitting on the barbed-wire fence (careful- he’s cute, but he bites) and the stump used for hammering out güiras next to the front door. But this time, everything looked different. The stump was there, but the parrot was gone, and the house was kind of … bigger.

I thought for a moment that El Buty had moved, or I’d come to the wrong house, but the neighbors assured me I was in the right place. El Buty wasn’t in, but a bunch of women and children standing around the kitchen area, old men in rocking chairs, and a small cat with a large voice were all in. I thought maybe they’d decided to rebuild the house. This one was larger than the old two-room deal, and was made of cinder block and cement instead of wood. A tile floor had been started in one corner of the living room. Some of the windows had persianas, or the slatted coverings typically used here, but some had only boards. When I asked about El Buty’s wife about the parrot, though, I found out that this wasn’t a planned remodel – the old house had in fact burned down some months ago, taking the parrot and most of the family’s belongings with it. The partially melted yet still functional stereo in the corner stood as proof. Luckily, no people had been hurt, though, and friends came together with donations of bricks and other materials. But it will be a long while before they have a fully functional house again. It is sad to see someone who had little to begin with lose it all and have to start over. I asked if there was anything small in size (so it could fit in my bag) that I could bring him from the US, but the only thing he’s thought of so far is a remote control for the semi-melted stereo.

On Wednesday, I headed down to my friendly local Argentine empanada shop and had an entertaining chat with the owner. Apparently, she came to this country in the 80s with her husband and dance partner. They both had been hired to perform a tango show. However, paralleling tales I’d heard from some típico musicians, the empresario left them high and dry – they were stuck here with no money. But they made friends, got some work, and ended up staying. While I was talking to her, Alberto Jose, one of the first friends she made here came in for a salad and a glass of wine. I couldn’t stay much longer because I had to get down to the Casa de Arte for a fiesta de palos; Alberto Jose decided to go, too.

Palos is a kind of Afro-Dominican drum music that is played for all kinds of religious events. The occasion this time was San Rafael’s day. I don’t know what’s so big about San Rafael, but I’m glad he gave us all an excuse to party. The drumming was great, the setting was beautiful by candlelight, and I got some palos dancing instruction from a new friend, Denise. I’ll be sure to go to the next fiesta on Nov 30. And there will be a full two days of palos in December!

The next day, I got my long-awaited first Dominican cooking class from Carmen, my accordion teacher’s wife and an expert on cocina criolla. She started me off with Dominican-style red beans and fish in escabeche. I got stuffed, needless to say. They tell me later there will be a test in which I will cook what I have learned unaided and they will eat it, because everyone wants to see what Dominican beans from the hand of an American will taste like. The next class is slated to be on pastelon, or a kind of cheesy casserole that can be made of either plantains or eggplant. From there, I went on to the Centro de la Cultura to catch a lecture by Silvio Torres Saillant. Less exciting from a blogging perspective, but I was happy to finally meet a guy whose works I have frequently cited.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Fiesta de Palos (10/26/05)

Pictures from the Fiesta de Palos last Wednesday. There I am with friends Alberto Jose and Denise, who taught me how to do some palos moves!

food and percussion

Here are pictures of me and my tambora teacher Pablito playing the tambora, and of the final results of my cooking class: habichuelas and pescado en escabeche.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rockin' La Tinaja, 10/23/05

There's me at the bottom, and General Larguito at the top (accompanied by Pedrito Reynoso).

strikes, poets, little hats, and drag queens

I found I had to take it easy last week after all the Andy Ranch excitement. So I went about my usual business, and nothing eventful happened until Wednesday. As I left the house that morning to go catch a concho to my tambora lesson as usual, my landlady stopped me to tell me two things of interest. Firstly, that we now have water! Running water! All the time!! This whole time I’d been wrestling with the question of which is worse: frequent electricity outages, like last year, or frequent water outages, which was the main problem I’d had since arriving this year. The water would frequently stop and start several times during a five-minute shower, making it difficult to get the soap out of my hair. And washing dishes was sometimes completely out of the question, unless by using the bucket-and-cup method, since rinsing with the pathetic trickle I usually got would have taken about a year. Everyone had told me this was because the city’s water treatment plant was having difficulties and under repair, necessitating something like rolling blackouts but for water. (Is there a word for that?) However, it turns our that the main problem was not there, but right in front of our own house! A broken pipe no one knew was there until the landlady brought up the water situation with a neighbor, who said hers was "fine." Well, they fixed it, meaning all you who are still planning on coming to visit can enjoy the miracle of continually running water.

The second thing of interest was a strike. I couldn’t understand what this had to do with me, who, as a foreign ethnomusicologist/accordionist am clearly not unionized. I asked, "who’s on strike?" The answer was, "Everyone!" Apparently it is a not uncommon thing for the whole country to go on strike in order to tell the government that they ought to be paying more attention to the poor. The idea is to cause complete paralysis for a day. The strike is enforced by guys in the street who throw rocks if you try to go out in a car, burn tires, etc. Unfortunately, as in most countries, what goes for the poor doesn’t necessarily go for the rich and things went on more or less as normal in my fancypants neighborhood. There were fewer cars on the street, and one had to wait quite some time to get a working concho, but there were no rockthrowers either. Schools were closed and some restaurants, but mall stores were still open. So much for solidarity. So I went to class and to work anyway, but I did stay in at night.

By the next day the strike was supposed to be over, but there still weren’t many conchos. Maybe the drivers just wanted to sleep in. Anyway, it was business as usual until, on my way home from the Centro Leon, I got a call from a folklorist friend that I should come to an event at the Casa de la Cultura in celebration of the national Day of the Poets. Dominicans either really love poetry or they just all say they do to seem cool. They particularly dig poetic declamation, which must be done in a loud voice with a lot of gesticulation. Well, I went, but soon I was asking myself, Why? Why?!? Because the thing is, I really don’t like poetry, and now that I have reached the age of 30 I really don’t care who knows it. So I was kind of happy about the political rally going on next door in the Centro de Recreo, the city’s former upper-class hangout, bought out by the quasi-dictatorial Balaguer in the 1970s. From the plaza in which we were sitting we could look up into the second-floor windows and see a bunch of PRSD flag-wavers. Every so often they would break out with some Carnivalesque drum beating and güira scraping. This seemed to annoy the poets but I rather enjoyed the counterpoint.

After the poetry reading/political jam session, I was sitting around talking with the Dajabon contingent when the regional cultural minister came over and started making trouble. He jumped into our conversation by stating, "There are no folklorists who don’t wear a little hat!" He was clearly referring to my friends Chio Villalona (of Dajabon) and Rafael Almanzar (a folklorist who directs of Santiago’s Casa del Arte), who have a retro-sixties-black-pride look that often involves dashikis and those little round, woven caps favored by pro-Africa hippie types. Intending to just joke around, I told him, "That’s not true; I’m a folklorist but I don’t have a cap." For some reason this really upset him and he said, very confrontationally, "You’re not a folklorist!" I pointed out that I had a master’s degree in that area and had worked in that field, to which he replied, "well, maybe you’ve read some books about folklore, but you’re not a REAL folklorist. You don’t have the real folklore feeling." Then I got all mad. Who the hell was this guy to tell me what I am or am not? What the hell does HE know?! "You don’t even know me," I said; "how do you know if I am or not?"Oh, didn’t I see your little ‘talk?’ Didn’t I see you play your accordion?" And then he went back to the hat thing. Well, this guy was clearly an idiot who actually believes that you are what you wear, so before long I just walked away fuming. Later I found out from Almanzar that this guy rubs everyone the wrong way and is just plain annoying. But he agreed to loan me a hat and dashiki next time, for experimental purposes.

On Saturday I got bored of sitting around reading and writing and went downtown for a shopping trip instead. It’s always fun in an insane sort of way to see what’s being sold on the sidewalks, and I also checked out some clothing, CD, and instrument stores. In the end all I bought was a clock, some barrettes, and apples and bananas, but the latter were really tasty. I know I overpaid on the clock and barrettes, but really, when you’re talking about a difference of 30-60 cents, I’d rather pay than haggle. I also stopped in and got a manicure at a Chinese manicure shop (just like New York, but on a generator). While I was there a guy came in to get acrylic nail tips. So if you thought there weren’t any drag queens in the DR, you were wrong.

Another exciting moment for me was finally catching the plataneros one morning. All this time I kept missing the guys who go around in pick-ups full of fruits and veggies so fresh the root vegetables still have dirt on them. They usually come by really early, when I’m still asleep, and their loud (REALLY loud) speakered announcements work their way into my dreams in odd ways. The few who do come later for some reason generally miss my street. And if I miss them I have to buy my produce at the grocery store, spend more, and carry it home. So I was really happy to finally find my very own plataneros, who come after 11, which is perfect on the weekend. I loaded up on batata, auyama, tomatos, limes, and cucumbers, and they agreed that those guys who wake everyone up at 8 on Sundays are lame.

Sunday marked my 3rd performance of the year . I went to a rancho típico called La Tinaja to see my teacher Rafaelito play, accompanied by his wife Carmen, daughter Jenny, and a niece, Martha. Besides Rafaelito’s band there was a second group featured – La Union Tipica, fronted by vocalist Narcisco (whom they call "El Pavarotti del merengue típico") and accordionist Pedrito Reynoso. I had met them in Brooklyn once and was happy to see them again. I’m also a big fan of their tamborero, Boca Chula. At least of his music. He could use some new jokes. Here’s one he told Sunday: "Why does the river never dry up? Because it doesn’t have a towel." One amusing moment was when General Larguito showed up. He's a singer/accordionist from back in the old days and is rather a rustic personality. Apparently he can't play anymore due to arthritis but he got up on stage anyway and sang and danced around. Anyway, after four hours of just sitting there all of a sudden everyone wanted to dance with me. (I guess until that point, they all though I’d dance like a white girl so didn’t bother asking. Clearly, they did not know who they were dealing with.) It was just in time to et my energy back up before taking to the stage. I played the same two merengues as last time, but I played them much better now that I could actually hear myself! Everyone dug it and then we all went home. But not before stopping for a sandwich. You can really work up an appetite with all that accordion playing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

More Andy Ranch, 10/16/05

Here you see Geovanny Polanco on stage, Manaury the official accordiongirl photographer with girlfriend, and a conga played by one of Geovanny's percussionists. We all thought it was cool because it has the names of a bunch of famous tipico musicians all over it.

Andy Ranch pictures, 10/16/05

Here you see some highschoolers performing reggaeton, one of them in the tiniest skirt I've ever seen in my whole life. Manaury took that picture.
The group of girls in the middle photo were very popular with the crowd. I liked their custom-made airbrushed jeans featuring Dominican flags and the group's name: Dominican Code. But what does it mean??
The delay in blog-writing has been due to boring circumstance beyond my control – namely, the need to finish a book, an article, and a conference paper. The first two have been completed, the last is underway, so now we can get back to the good stuff!

This weekend I finally managed to get myself out of the house, where I’ve gotten entirely too comfortable, and into some merengue típico gigs. You’ve already seen the pictures of my performance at Patron Burger. While there, I also saw two sets by Rafaelito and his group, and danced a couple of tunes with this old güira player known as El Viejo Rodriguez. I told him he should come because he had told me about watching dance competitions in Santiago during the forties and fifties, and that there were several different steps back then that you don’t see now. He was very pleased with my dancing abilities. So I guess I have a future if 1940s merengue típico dance competitions ever make a comeback.

On Saturday, I got some more unplanned accordion playing in. I had gone to the gym, only to find it closed (I forgot they close early on the weekends), so I went to check out an Argentine restaurant I'd noticed only the day before. I had an excellent empanada there and left to walk back home, intending to work for a couple of hours on my conference paper before bed. However, on the way I encountered a tipico trio playing on the sidewalk in front of a neighborhood bar/sandwich shop, and I found it impossible to resist the merengue magnetism. I sat down and listened for a while, but when they found out I could also play there was no getting away. I was obligated to play 7 or 8 tunes before I could leave. It was too bad that I didn't have my camera or recorder with me to capture the streetcorner atmosphere. It was fun, though, and I got paid in beer.

In truth though, I’m having an ever more difficult time getting to the late night tipico shows. Especially since I’ve been trying to get up earlier and go to the gym. The next type of music I study will definitely have to be music for old people. In at 2 PM, out by dinnertime. This is my new ideal research schedule. Any suggestions? Or should I just check into the old folks’ home now??

At any rate, I did get to see a show yesterday (Sunday) that was a bit closer to my ideal schedule. It was a "pasadia" or daytime event for students, to which I’d gotten a ticket from my teenage pals Manaury and Jonathan. (They’ve also promised to take me to some baseball games when those start up next month.) It was at "Andy Ranch," which is an updated version of the old "ranchos tipicos" where one goes to hear merengue típico and bachata, which themselves seem to have been created to cater to urbanites’ rural nostalgias since they are constructed along the lines of a typical enramada, a thatch-roofed shelter where people gathered to dance in the old days. "Andy Ranch," however, also has bar, restaurant, and swimming pools. Unfortunately, what it didn’t seem to have was food.

We got there about 1:00, expecting not to have to wait too long until the musical entertainment began since the ticket stated that the event began at 10:00 AM. However, when we arrived we were told Geovanny Polanco, the merenguero we’d come to see, wasn’t going to play til 5! Oh well, we shrugged our shoulders, we’ll just wait. Such is life in the DR. So we got ourselves a table and attempted to order food. At about 1:30 we put in our sandwich orders. About 2 PM the waiter shows up again, only to tell us that they were out of everything except fries. We could have French fries, or French fries with cheese. Oh well, we said, shrugging our shoulders, just bring us four orders of fries with cheese. The waiter comes back around 2:30 with the news that in fact there are some sandwiches, namely the grilled cheese I ordered and the ham and cheese the other girl had ordered, and should he put in that order, he wonders? Yes, yes, we tell him, just bring us some food!! 3:00 rolls around, and so do our mediocre sandwiches, but he hasn’t brought anything for the rest of our table, and the guys were at least expecting some fries. Which they finally get around 3:30, only one order, with no cheese and only one packet of ketchup that is soon gone. Oh well, we shrug our shoulders, at least we have some sort of food, and we did manage to get some drinks. Mission somewhat accomplished. Although pretty soon the drinks dry up as well.

By the time we finish our sumptuous spread enough time has actually been wasted that the first act is on. This consists of a series of high school wannabe reggaeton singers. I’m not crazy about reggaeton to begin with, and most of them aren’t exactly the greatest singers/rappers/whatever, although some of their backup dancers were pretty impressive. And all wearing very tiny clothes. This caused Manaury, the photographer, to take rather a lot of pictures, of which you can enjoy a few here. These were followed by two professional reggaeton groups, Ingco Crew and Big Family. I can’t tell you much about them because I could not see them. Although we were seated right next to the stage, people were so into this music that they climbed in front of us, onto the stage, sitting on speaker towers and standing on the backs of our chairs. I was kind of relieved when it ended and I found I hadn’t been crushed by falling speakers, falling teenagers, falling whatever.

Finally, what we came to see – Geovanny Polanco. I was really impressed with the group. I’d only seen them once last year, but from what I heard yesterday they have changed a bunch of things since then – new arrangements, etc. He also had a new tambora player (Sandy Pascual, brother of my old friend Fidelina) who was kind of out of control. But in a good way. He’d added a pair of timbales, a snare drum, and a cymbal to his setup. I guess you could say he’s added a drum set to his tambora, while my tambora teacher, Pablo Pena, has added a tambora to his drumset. They also played some new songs I hadn’t heard before. So I guess it was worth the wait. Mostly.