Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Border Trip


This weekend I went to Dajabon, the largest town on the Haitian border. It was a great opportunity to experience the fiestas patronales (patron saint festival) of a small town, and to start getting to know the border culture. There are a lot of similarities between this border and the US-Mexico border, and Dominicans are discussing many of the same issues that we constantly hear about in Arizona: immigration, border control, cultural conflicts. Apparently, there’s even been talk about building a wall – argh!! Up to this point, though, they haven’t really enacted anything and Haitians can cross with some amount of freedom (at least, more freedom than is afforded to Mexicans at our border).

Anyway, the fiestas patronales are a big deal in a town like Dajabon principally because that’s when all the ausentes (townspeople living abroad or in larger Dominican cities) come home. My bus happened to arrive just as the caravan of ausentes was coming into town and passing by the main gate, so by default we became part of the parade. I am told that the tradition of caravanning dates back to the 1970s – when massive emigration first became a part of life for towns like this.

I only had time just to drop a few things off in my hotel (semi-crappy, since pretty much everything was full for the week) before my friend Chio, the director of the local Casa de la Cultura, whisked me off to the parties. There was a good merengue típico group playing at “the Club” (sort of a community center) which I would have enjoyed a lot more if it hadn’t been so hot. I mean really hot. This is the desert rat talking here. Everyone was pouring sweat but it didn’t impede them from dancing. I managed to get one dance in with this rather outlandishly dressed guy, carrying a horn (something like an old powder horn) full of god only knows what. Later I found out he was known as “Boca Chula” because he is always smiling like a madman. At this party I also met the Queen, Vice-Queen, Princess, and Ambassador of the fiestas.

Afterwards, we paid a visit to a family living in a really beautiful if somewhat ramshackle old house on the main square. The central members of the family were a Dominican woman and an Argentine man who own and run a colmado (bodega, in New York speak) out of their home. The Argentine had come to Haiti on a UN peacekeeping force in 1995, but when he crossed the border and met Preciosa (her real name!) he decided to stay. Also visiting them was a Dominican historian, from whom I learned more about Haitian-Dominican relations at the border. From there, on to one of the nicer hotels for a typical Dominican meal – rice, beans, plantains, avocado, and meat (not for me, though, obviously), and back to the hotel for a quick nap and shower.

Nighttime was much more tolerable – it really cools down a lot and becomes quite pleasant. The town square was full of food carts, vendors, a stage, and thousands of spectators. Although Dajabon only has a population of perhaps 15,000, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grew by about 50% during the patronales. The food carts were basically all serving piles of meat: strips of bacon hanging from strings around the top; heaps of roast chickens, fried chicken feet, and other mystery foods down below. These are all served with yuca, which I like – but not plain, so I went for the pizza. Dominican pizza is not that much like ours except in the fact that it involves crust and cheese, but it really wasn’t a bad meal, especially when combined with fresh passionfruit juice, and couldn’t be beat for 50 cents a slice. After dinner, we enjoyed the music – a performance by bachata star El Chaval – from Preciosa’s porch.

It was a rough night in terms of sleep. My hotel was on what might count for a major street in Dajabon, only 2 blocks from the border, and all night people were yelling and talking in the street and unmuffled motorbikes were passing beneath my window, whose wooden slats offered little soundproofing. At about 7:45 AM I knew my time for sleep was officially over when one of the ubiquitous pickup trucks carrying a gazillion watts of speaker power came by blasting an ad for whatever. Agustin, a palos (Afro-Dominican religious music) drummer came by looking for Chio and then accompanied me to a breakfast of plantains and fried eggs (everyone else was having meat stews- they sure do like their animal products around here). Then we met Chio at the church where a mass baptism ceremony and art fair was going on, and from there headed over to the Casa de la Cultura. It is a typical island house – wooden slats, tin roof, and open space under the eaves to create air flow – painted in cheery colors, where they offer music and kreyol language classes, along with occasional performances in the backyard. The house also serves as the Centro de Documentacion Fronteriza (Center for Border Documentation) that Chio has begun to create out of a couple of bookcases worth of volumes on the subject and various piles of other documents. Unfortunately, they don’t have any funding to speak of so it’s not going to get much better than this for a while. However, with the money they won from their pavilion at the Feria del Libro last week, they are finally going to be able to buy a few instruments for the music classes.

The Cultura workers tell us of some kind of event going on out at the Zona Franca, the free trade zone where Haitians can come over to work legally (though, one imagines, not for much money). So on a rickety and – thank god – not very fast motorbike we head out. It’s not far but seems like a different world out amongst trees and flowers, with blue mountains rising up in the Haitian distance under a perfect sky. When we get there, though, what’s going on is motorcycle races, and no one wants to pay the 50 pesos to get in (about $1.60). We stand around for a few minutes outside the fence, to see what we can see, but I’m more interested in the attractively painted homemade roulette table a guy on a bike has brought by, and around which a group of men stand, placing their bets in the hopes of winning a bottle of rum.

Next up is Dajabon’s #1 tourist spot – the border itself. Here the border is actually a river in which many Haitian kids are swimming and playing. Up above, a couple of Dominican soldiers guard the gate at the exact center of an arched bridge, letting through select Haitians to sell their wares. While snapping a couple of pictures, we run into two American peace corps volunteers – one is stationed here in Dajabon, working with some women’s organizations, and the other is just up visiting from La Romana (a city in the south I still haven’t seen – she says it’s nice).
The rest of the day passes fairly uneventfully, except that I have to switch hotels due to (a) the noise problem and (b) another guy showing up who has apparently reserved the room I’m in. Oh well, the new one’s better anyway – it has screens on the windows. (They’re apparently not as worried about mosquito exits here.) After my now traditional pizza dinner, I catch some of the show by the popular singer Rubby Perez and run into a friend from Santiago before I can’t stand it anymore and head off to bed and a much more restful night.
Got up early in order to catch some of the Dominico-Haitian market before I have to get the bus back to Santiago, in order to make it in time for my accordion lesson. This is what Dajabon is really known for. Two days a week – Monday and Friday – all the Haitians the city can handle are let in so they can sell clothes, shoes, purses, household goods, food, and agricultural products at rock bottom prices along with their Dominican neighbors. I mean, this stuff is REALLY cheap - .e.g. shoes were going for about 100 pesos a pair ($3.30). As for me, I bought a jar of a homemade peanut butter called banba ($1); a slice of an orange-flavored sweet wrapped in some kind of leaf (30 cents); a rum bottle full of freshly collected honey (85 cents); a piece of casabe de mani (traditional flatbread made of yuca with peanuts on top, which I ate for breakfast; 30 cents); a straw hat ($1.60 – Chio thought this was outrageous); and some mystery art/artifacts (more later).

It was a quick trip, but it just whetted my appetite to come back and spend more time in the region. In fact, I might do so as soon as this Thursday – Agustin and Chio are trying to organize a fiesta de palos, and as I’ve been wanting to get to know that kind of music and dance (often considered the DR’s second national dance) I’ll probably go back for it.

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