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.