Tuesday, December 13, 2005

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…

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