Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Odd museums, nice sneakers

Had my second (and my mom’s first) Dominican cooking class with Carmen last Thursday. This time we learned how to make Pastelon, or casserole, of ripe plantains and eggplant, one of our favorite dishes from the last time we ate at the Roman house. We didn’t expect to eat there – other than the products of our cooking experiment - and so had just had a huge Chinese lunch just before going. However, when we showed up we found locrio (mixed rice dish), pescado en escabeche, guandules (lentils), and green salad already underway, and knew we needed to starting looking for additional stomach space. After a glass of ponche (sort of a Dominican egg nog, but less eggy) and a couple of card games as we waited, we got to work. About 45 minutes later our pastelon was done, and tasty it was! I still think Carmen needs to write her own cookbook, but she tells me she’d rather open a restaurant.

Friday was the day of the three kings or reyes magos (epiphany, on our calendar), but we forgot that until we’d already hit the road that afternoon. In the morning, we’d checked our email and visited two museums. First, the Museo Folklorico de Tomas Morel, now run by Morel, Jr., or Tomasito and the home of a fantastic collection of Santiago carnival masks as well as an odd jumble of other items from Nico Lora’s accordion to hundred-year-old santos de palo (religious icons); from an old-fashioned water filter (pour the water into a volcanic stone basin at the top and wait for it to seep through to the clay pot underneath) to a bent-wire model showing how to make casabe. There are also three resident cats (we met one named Yoku, a name Tomasito claims to have taken from a Tarzan movie) and a small stage outside for holding programs under a huge amapola tree. Really a fantastic place, the only problem is one never knows when it might be open. (This was in fact our fourth try.)

After that, we went to visit the museum at “the monument,” Santiago’s central edifice –a two-story pedestal supporting a huge column on which is perched a very stylized statue of a woman? with her arms upraised as if to signal the landing of UFOs. One of my guide books said this statue was of Trujillo, since he was the one who built this thing; the other suggested it was an angel. Neither, apparently, is the case –our guide told us it was Maria Trinidad Sanchez, the Betsy Ross of the Dominican Republic. Although, I halfway wonder if the answer might change if we went back on a different day. Anyway, the stairway up to the second-floor museum and the top of the monument was closed, as usual, but instead we paid this guy for a tour of what he called “three museums – the monument, a taino museum, and a carnival museum.” I’d never heard of any three museums up here, but what the heck, I figured – at least it was for a good cause, since supposedly he was collecting money to buy uniforms for a little league team. Well, the “monument museum” consisted of the first floor of the monument, which I could have seen from outside, but he did provide us with one tantalizing bit of information, showing us where a secret escape passage constructed by Trujillo began (it lets out at a nearby fort). The guy was paranoid, but with good reason. Unfortunately, no one is allowed in the passage, so we continued on to the “taino museum,” consisting of a bunch of rock sculptures with faces painted on in neo-primitive style. These were actually outside the monument on one of the landscaped tiers that surrounds it and I’d seen them a hundred times before. Next and last we saw the “carnival museum,” which was a single carnival mask in pepinero style attached to a signpost at the foot of the monument hill. Located in no building, having no labeling, and in fact consisting not of collections but of single objects, these “exhibits” brought into question the very definition of museums! Truly fascinating and philosophically intriguing.

Clearly it was time to get out of town and so we got on the Luperon “highway” (about 1.5 lanes of moderately good paved road). After a few kilometers lunchtime hunger set in and that’s when we noticed just about everything was closed for the holiday. Oops. (Carmen told us that in the DR the holiday is really only celebrated by the upper classes, who give gifts to their children then, while the average joes don’t do much – but still, any excuse to have a day off of work is a good one.) Surely we could find something in Licey. OK, maybe not, but definitely in Moca, only 10 km away. Hmm… well, Salcedo was bound to have something. And it did, thankfully. We found a rather nice place – even certified by the “Ruta del Café,” a Tourism Dept endeavor to recommend reliable roadside restaurants – right by the town square and church. The church was nice: though they apparently could not afford stained glass windows, they’d found a satisfactory solution in open brickwork. This allowed air and light in, along with the curious gazes of windowpeepers such as ourselves. Outside the church, there was a lifesize nativity scene made with the wicker-work animals that seem to be ubiquitous here, and a small stage decorated with a metal violin where musical performances are apparently held. Returning to El Carnero, we ordered a Dominican pizza, juice, and a salad (Mom distrusted the greens, but I’ve never had any trouble eating salads here). While awaiting our food, I conversed with the waiter about my research. I’d come to town in search of people who knew Rafael Petiton Guzman, a composer of the 1930s-60s whose family had contacted me about doing research on him and analyzing/publicizing his compositions. Luck was with me – our waiter, Luis, knew exactly who this was. “Don Fello Guzman?” he asked. “My uncle used to take saxophone lessons with him!” His uncle, unfortunately, had died of the drink some decades before, but Luis called his father to see what he could find. In this way, we learned that Petiton’s sister, Amparo, used to live on this very spot – Luis showed me the one wall that remained of the original wooden house. Also, Pablito Torres, a son of Amparo, still lives here and has an iron-working shop just two blocks away. Score!

From there, we went on to speak of politics, always a big topic in Salcedo. This was a hotbed of resistance in the 1950s, since the famous Mirabal sisters and their husbands lived just outside of town in Ojo de Agua and their group of resistance fighters, 14 de Junio, was based here. Apparently, Luis’s father had belonged to this group, and was thus lucky to be alive, since many other members had been assassinated by Trujillo’s henchmen as were the Mirabals. The other reason we wanted to visit Salcedo was to see the Mirabal sisters’ house and museum, which Luis assured us would be open, and which was only two kilometers down this same road. After lunch we followed his directions, which led us right to the spot (though it was really more like 3 km). If you plan to visit: continue east on the highway out of Salcedo towards Tenares. Just after a Texaco station on the left and a sign pointing to “El Conuco” on the right, you’ll see the entrance to the museum.

The museum is actually the house where the sisters lived with their mother for the last 10 months of their lives, during the time that their husbands were all political prisoners. They were in and out of prison themselves, and one of the spookiest exhibits was of the sculptures one of the sisters did while in jail – disembodied heads, decapitated torsos, and a pair of hands, which the guide told us were meant to symbolize the injustices of prison, where some of the women’s fingernails were torn out as punishment for their dissident beliefs. It was a beautiful house, though, as they were clearly a family of means, even having one of the first modern European-style bathrooms in the country (imported from Australia), and two separate kitchens: one in the main house for daily use, fitted with a refrigerator and a coal stove, which also supplied hot water to the bathroom, and a rustic woodfired version in an outbuilding, for the use of the staff and when large groups of guests came. The house was full of evidence of the sisters’ many talents: the paintings of one, charcoal drawings by another, Minerva’s thesis for the law degree she was never allowed to use, and embroideries and sewing projects done by all three. Next to these hung the bloodied handkerchief used to clean their bodies after they’d been beaten and thrown into a ditch by Trujillo’s henchmen, and the braid the only surviving sister cut from Patria’s head after her death. It was a sad reminder of the country’s bloody history that seems so distant from today’s daily life, but important to see the facts about tyranny. We took a couple of pictures in the lovely gardens where the three sisters’ and one of their husband’s bodies have been reinterred after moving them from the Salcedo cemetery in 2000. Having seen all this, I guess it’s time to re-read “In the time of the butterflies”!

We took a different route back to Santiago, since we were hoping to find the shops selling wooden utensils that were closed when we were coming back from Santo Domingo. We did find them, at the Cruce del Pino – about halfway between La Vega and Bonao - and just in time, since it was near sunset. We purchased some dishes made of lightweight amapola wood, some painted with pastoral scenes, and some in fish shapes, as well as a couple of painted gourds, all done by artists in the Bonao area. These were all fairly inexpensive and quite different from the tourist art sold on the streets and in the mercados of either Santiago or the capital. The lack of avenues of distribution for folk arts in this country is really kind of odd – these things, along with the great rag rugs we bought up in the mountain pass, are all readily available roadside but never seem to make it to the cities.

Hoping to catch some merengue típico at the Car Wash, we headed there directly upon our return to Santiago. Unfortunately, no one was playing today. Instead, we decided to try out one of the many neighborhood bars in my area that I still hadn’t made it to. I chose one with the intriguing name of “Te Matare, Batista,” or “I’ll kill you, Batista!” I had been thinking this must either be a literary reference (it looked like that kind of a place) or some ancient Cuban saying. Neither was the case. The waiter told me it was something the owner always said affectionately when he called up his sister-in-law, whose last name was Batista: I’ll kill you… with hugs and kisses. Not the revolutionary political slogan I was hoping for, but a cute story. A couple of frias and a cheese appetizer allowed us to soak up the Batistan atmosphere before heading over to Helados Bon and purchasing the ice cream that would stand in for dinner that night.

It was a mellow weekend, by decree of the weather, mostly. Went to the gym and the movies on Saturday. We’d planned on attending a baseball game on Sunday but it got rained out, and it’s still raining now, on Tuesday morning as I write this. Just as well, since I woke up with a head cold on Sunday and am still suffering from it – health to match the weather. Sort of put a damper on our “last hurrah” plans for Mom’s last week here, though. At least we got out to hear some music last night with Luis and Pilucho, our friends from the mountain expedition. Percussionist Felle Vega was hosting a jazz jam session at the cleverly named Bar Code downtown, as he does every Monday. (On the inside, the bar’s name is reconfigured on a poster that tells the audience they are actually at the Barco de Jazz.) The music was good – jazz and Latin jazz tunes played on a wacky combination of instruments, dictated by whoever shows up I think. When the jazzistas took a break a 5-man rock band took the stage. They were very professional and quite impressive, as Felle himself pointed out when they’d finished. “When we started this event five years ago,” Felle noted, “a lot of groups would come down to play who really had just gotten together. Now the groups are very well-rehearsed, they really know what they’re doing and aren’t just making it up as they go along. Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but they have invested a lot of money in their tennis shoes.” Which was true.

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