Tuesday, November 15, 2005
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
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
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.
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.