After King Kong, the rest of last week was fairly uneventful. We took Luis, our guide for the Valle del Tetero trip, out to a “thank you” dinner at Amici, the Italian restaurant across the street. This place never seems to get any business, so it was a bit odd to notice they’d taken their sign down – the only little bit of advertising they had. I guess they like to be exclusive. I only knew about it because it’s directly across the street from my place! The food is excellent (and accordingly pricey), though, made by this guy Alvaro from Milan and his Dominican wife. Alvaro told us they recently celebrated their restaurant’s second anniversary with an invitation-only party; unfortunately we missed it because we were gone. To make up, he prepared us a special mixed platter of appetizers – blue cheese puffs, grilled eggplant, caprese, and some kind of beef and caper thing for the meat eaters. The eggplant was amazing, so we asked him for his secret. He slices it ultrathin on one of those slicing machines, then grills it quickly - just about 10 seconds on each side – in a grilling pan. Now that it’s been dried out, he forces it to rehydrate in a dish of vinaigrette for 24 hours. Then, wrap it around a little piece of cheese and serve! (He wouldn’t give us his secret house vinaigrette recipe, but he did tell us a vinaigrette should always be one-third vinegar and one-third oil.)
We enjoyed the house wine until our next course showed up – Luis and I both got the lasagnette with spinach and shrimp. This was a stack of thin lasagna noodle pancakes interspersed with the aforementioned ingredients and a light cream sauce, very tasty. Finally, dessert. Mom had the marmalade crepes and Luis and I once again agreed on the semifroid – a half-frozen whipped cream cake, chocolate on the bottom and semisweet cream on top with a few little chocolate chips thrown in. Sooooo good. But that wasn’t all. We couldn’t go without having some more of Alvaro’s homemade limoncello, to send us off to bed happy. Luis gave Amici two thumbs up.
Next day we kept up the eating frenzy, since Mom wanted me to show her how to make the two Dominican dishes I’ve so far learned to prepare. They turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately, that’s about all we could do with the day since, after eating lunch out, I got hives from something or another and we had to go home again. Luckily, I woke up feeling fine the next day (if somewhat sleep deprived), since it was December 31 and time to celebrate! We did so by having our friend Juan Miguel, who teaches at the university here and was responsible for finding my apartment, over for a brunch of pancakes, home fries, eggs, and mimosas. (Having lived for a year with a Mormon family in Mesa – really! – he finds he misses American breakfasts.) After that, we went to visit another friend, Chiqui Taveras, a tipico musician in Ingenio Arriba, and his wife Laura. It was his birthday so we brought him a cake and some fudge. They’d promised to teach me to play dominoes, so pretty soon we found ourselves embroiled in a three-hour Presidente-fueled game, me and Chiqui versus mom and Laura. Chiqui and I started off OK at first, but neither of us seem to have the concentration required for counting tiles, so soon Laura and mom were brutally kicking our butts. This got our attention and we started putting more effort into the thing, but (a) I had no luck at all and kept getting impossible hands and (b) my mom kept cruelly playing only tiles that were of no use to me. Thus, Chiqui and I lost six or seven games in a row! But we all enjoyed slapping the dominoes down hard, Dominican style, and yelling “Chiiiiiiiiiiiivo! Chivero!” (Goat!!) every time Chiqui tried to pull one over on us by playing an inappropriate tile.
Chiqui had to play a gig that night in another town, and while we wanted to go we were also extremely sleepy and a bit worried about all the drunk drivers on the street, so decided to give it a pass. Instead we went to Kukara Macara, the famous Dominican cowboy restaurant. There is a John Wayne poster on the wall and the waiters all wear chaps and six-shooters. We ate seafood and plantains while soaking up the décor and the loud orquesta merengue music. It was quite the combination. They also put on one US country song in the middle of that. I guess it was their nod to “cultural authenticity.”
Kukara Macara is right across from the monument, so we wandered up there to check out the scene. It was quite the happening place, and soon we saw why – a couple of sidewalks were blocked off and guarded by fire department personnel, since they were full of rocket launchers for the midnight display. We decided this was a bit too close for comfort and headed home, taking careful note of the enormous bottle rockets and other “fuegos artificiales” being sold on every corner. Somehow (perhaps by virtue of the many loud explosions going off everywhere) we managed to keep our heavy eyelids open til midnight, at which point we went out onto our absent neighbor’s porch to check out the monumental fireworks. They were quite impressive. But they weren’t the only display – people all over the place, including right next to our house, seemed to have invested a significant amount of money in purchasing professional-level pyrotechnics, which they were setting off wherever they happened to be at midnight. It sounded like we were either in a war zone or in Rome, since it was very reminiscent of a New Year’s we spent there back in 1992.
Using earplugs and sleeping pills, we actually slept through the rest of the explosive festivities, enabling us to get up at a decent hour and head back to Chiqui and Laura’s for a big lunch and a dominoes rematch. Laura had prepared rice and beans, green/cabbage salad, stewed pork-ground beef for the carnivores, and a macaroni-tuna salad whose recipe she shared with us (yes- this, too, is Dominican cooking). To drink, she mixed fresh juice of bitter oranges with a packet of strawberry drink mix to produce a thirst-quenching combination. Once our stomachs were full, we got back down to business, that of dominoes, during which Chiqui and I lost another couple of quick rounds to the evil domino queens. Soon it was time to go to Moca, anyway, so at least it was over fast.
We had agreed to drive Laura to Moca to pick up their son and daughter, who’d been spending their vacation with Laura’s sister, mother, and other family members in that small ciabeno town. It wasn’t a long way but the abominable road conditions and rain turned it into an hour’s drive. Really, this was one of the worst roads I’d been on, missing significant lengths of pavement, and when paved, in possession of enormous potholes. (That reminds me, a sinkhole recently appeared in a major street in my very own Santiago neighborhood. People started sticking things in it to make sure drivers would see the hazard, and pretty soon it looked quite festive indeed, sporting a log wearing a paint can hat, a broom, and some Christmas decorations.) It was a pretty drive though, through little agricultural towns, groves of plantains trees, tobacco-drying houses, and finally past the somewhat less scenic chicken-and-egg farm. Turning off the main “highway,” we headed up a steep hill and arrived at Laura’s sister’s colmado and house where we spent a pleasant couple of hours conversing with relatives, getting hit with things from a two-year-old’s slingshot, greeting the church ladies who came by to pray with the sister’s elderly mother-in-law, watching the older kids play Super Mario Brothers on a 1986-vintage Nintendo, examining the jiguera (giant gourd) tree across the way, and seeing the new apartment the family was building on top of the colmado. If the bathroom had been finished, they would have moved in already, but as it was they were still living in the old blue-and-pink wooden structure next door. We took pictures with the family behind the counter of the colmado, where flies buzzed around the pieces of auyama squash sitting on the elderly scale, and then had to cut our visit short since it was getting near dark. Laura, her two kids, and her mother all piled into the back seat of my luxurious 1984 Honda Civic and we hit the road – much faster this time, now that I’d learned where the major holes were located and could avoid them.
When we got back we ate more of the same and then played a couple rounds of dominoes with Laura’s mom – this time, she partnered with me and mom with Chiqui. We did alright but there was still no beating mom, the domino shark. (Is there a saying for “lucky at dominoes…” ?) Then we quickly ate some of Laura’s rice pudding (boil rice with cinnamon and nutmeg, when it’s nearly done add milk, a can of Carnation, and butter; garnish with raisins) and ran off to La Tinaja, since we’d promised Rafaelito we’d make it to his show that night and we were cutting it close. No worry – things had gotten a late start there anyway and we missed none of the típico goodness. For some reason, though, La Union Tipica (the group formed by Narcisco “El Pavarotti” and Pedrito Reynoso, who usually play after Rafaelito) didn’t show up or was late, so we didn’t get to hear them.
Since then, we’ve mostly been trying to get a bit of work and shopping done before mom leaves next week. It will be weird to be alone again! We did get in another movie, though – Harry Potter, which just opened here last week. Potter seems to be just as popular among Dominicans as it is in the US, as there were longer lines for this film than I’d seen for any other. During the show people were absolutely, and atypically, quiet – except for a few comments on the cuteness of Voldemort and the odd ringing of a cell phone, all were completely absorbed. As were we.
Progress on my carnival costume is coming along slowly. I went with Tonito, my group’s leader, to the tailor yesterday to get measured. The whole workshop was busy making baseball jerseys for the national playoffs, though, so we won’t get our costumes til the week after. Just as well, since I haven’t actually finished designing mine yet. After that, mom and I tried for the third time to visit the Tomas Morel folkloric museum, which has a great collection of carnival masks and other random items from Santiago history, but Tomasito was once again nowhere to be found. We consoled ourselves with buying a pile of típico and bachata CDs at Alex Music.