Last week I fulfilled a double goal on Thursday: to see my friend Chiqui play in his new post as accordionist for Monchy y la Patrulla Tipica, and to visit another, different gallera. I was also hoping that El Jefe de Maisal, a famous típico patron, would show up - he is rumored to frequent the municipal gallera of Mao, where we were going - and thus enable to me to reach yet another goal by interviewing him.
El Jefe never showed up, but in all other ways I enjoyed the experience. First, the journey out to Mao - "the town of the beautiful afternoons," it’s called - in the van with the musicians, who amused me with puns and whom I amused by commenting on all the political posters along the way. There was a particularly huge one for the unfortunately-named Dilepcio Martinez. "Isn’t that some sort of disease, as in ‘I suffer from Dilepcio?’" I asked, turning this poor candidate for public office into the butt of our jokes for the rest of the day. At Navarrete, we were afraid we’d run into one of the town’s famous road-blocking strikes, but it was only a construction project underway, so we made it to the gallera in plenty of time to hang out in the bed of someone’s pickup truck in the parking lot.
There wasn’t much action in the music area when we went inside the gallera, because everyone was busy watching and betting on the cockfights. So after the first set, Chiqui and I went over to check out the flying feathers and snap some shots of the roosters before and after, in a back building used for rooster condos. Then, since we were getting a little hungry we went outside to a tiny shack selling snacks and purchased cheese empanadas, homemade donuts and milk sweets.
During the second set, an old man in a striped shirt and porkpie hat showed up and started dancing by himself in a quirky style all his own. During the third set, I was invited up to play a couple of tunes with the band, which, I had been surprised to find out, included a saxophonist I had known from Brooklyn. It was a good thing, too, as I was beginning to get nervous about my upcoming television debut on Saturday, and needed the practice. Three sets and we were out, although not before I got my big chance to dance with Mr. Stripes, who told me his name was actually "Susso," though others present insisted it was "Sucio" (dirty).
How could I follow up such an exciting afternoon and evening? By cleaning my house, that’s how. That’s how I spent most of Friday, along with some grocery shopping and a quick email visit to the Centro Leon, in preparation for my dad’s arrival the next day. I also practiced accordion a bit and hit the hay early in preparation for the show. I wasn’t feeling too confident, but at least I had a new outfit to wear. I hurried over to Channel 25, located in the Centro de Recreo - former hangout of the city’s elite, arriving 15 minutes before the show was to start. Not to worry - I was the first to arrive out of my group (I was supposed to play with Rafaelito’s musicians), and only one was there from the group that was apparently slated to perform before us. I got roped into taking some photographs of that group, then gave my own camera to Manaury (official accordiongirl photographer) to do the same for me. However, though usually only two groups are featured, we had a special surprise accordionist there: King de la Rosa, on tour from New York. He played a few pieces in quartet, and then I was up. King loaned me his accordion since mine doesn’t have an internal mic and Rafaelito’s straps always are too big on me, even after adjustment, and I joked that since it had his name on it people might get us confused. Not to worry, as when I started playing my name (misspelled, of course) flashed across the screen along with my distinguishing characteristic: "First American to play the accordion!" My performance actually went fine, although it might have looked a bit odd that Rafaelito was standing behind me with his own accordion in order to coach the saxophonist, who wasn’t sure he knew the mambos I was going to play. (However, he did tell me that he stopped playing in various sections so that people would know that I was actually playing what they were hearing.) I was even given a medal! On the back, it congratulates me for my "contributions to Dominican folklore." Cool!
After that, I’d earned the right to take it easy, but instead I was grabbed to go on another show at 7 PM, and just as I was about to leave I discovered my best cardigan must have fallen out of my bag at the grocery store and had to take a detour to look for it. They hadn’t found it, I got to the program flustered and late, and played badly. Oh well: win some, lose some. I dropped by the Casa de Arte to forget my troubles by sitting around reading newspapers and discussing politics with local artists, then headed for the airport. Although Dad was one of the last out due to a misplaced box, we found each other eventually. He’d made a friend on the plane who had said he was heading to the casino at the Hotel Matum, right behind the monument, and since we were heading that direction anyway we decided to check out the gambling scene. There e found free fruity drinks, a merengue orquesta on stage, and a cockfight slot machine, but no Miami handymen, so we moved on to the old favorite: Kukara Macara, the Dominican cowboy restaurant. After some tasty fish (me) and grilled meat (Dad) we strolled up to the monument to check out what the kids were listening to with their big sound systems (reggaeton; some típico) and the nighttime view of Santiago. By then, we were surprised to find it was already 11:30 so we went home, where Dad got to see the sights of Chez Syd and I got to open Christmas presents in March.
Then it was Sunday, a perfect day for strolling around downtown, if a hot one, and then for cooling off in the Centro Leon with beer, sandwiches, and the new photography exhibit. After that, we just had time for a quick nap before hitting the clubs - or the ranchos, to be exact. I of course had to make sure Dad had a típico experience during his stay in the DR, so we went to see what was on at Rancho Merengue. Besides being the "home of the merengueros" and therefore a must-see, it also has early shows on Sunday, unlike the other ranchos that always start after 11 PM. And who did we find playing there but my old friend Pedrito Reynoso, with his newly re-formed group? Although they’d only broken off from Narciso only a month ago, they sounded great and apparently are soon to tour New York. Both Pedrito and Boca Chula, my favorite tamborero, had seen me on TV the day before and wanted me to play one with them later on; also their manager told me that soon he would be my manager too. But after the first set it was 8 PM and we were hungry. So we left for a rendezvous with Alvaro, the Italian restauranteur across the street from me. Good thing, too, as we got to try their new menu addition: actual Italian-style pizza on Sundays and Wednesdays. Together with a fish dish cooked in pineapple; wine; and a Sicilian olive appetizer, this made for two happy campers. Sleepy ones, too.
On Monday we had to get to my accordion lesson, but first we had time for an enormous, Dominican, carb-heavy lunch at a cafeteria downtown and a quick visit to the museum at the San Luis Fort. The house raven wouldn’t talk to me today, but I did find out that the reason he says "La Vega" is that the vans to that city pass right by the fort’s front gate so he constantly hears the shouts of the cobradores advertising their destination. From there, a steamy drive took us to Rafaelito’s where we found that the student who comes before me hadn’t even started yet. So we waited and chatted with the various neighborhood types that dropped by: an Indonesian kid who showed us how he makes his trick thumb "dance" to Tulile songs; a former New York resident whose English was actually better than average; El Flaco, the old tamborero I knew from Queens; the vendor of habichuela con dulce (sweet beans); and the local drug addict who always comes by to bother me and beg during my lesson. Then it was my turn and I learned two new merengues (both Tatico-era: Cualquiera llora and La jugada), which filled up all available space on my internal hard drive and left my brain feeling stuffed. But the coffee flavored with nutmeg that Carmen served and the vegetable pastelito (little, fried empanada) we got from our usual teenage vendor picked me up enough to get to our next date: a dominoes game at Chiqui’s house.
When we got there we found, to our disappointment, that Chiqui had been called to play in the capital. But the game would go on: Laura had invited his sister Yahaira to join us. Fueled by red-flavor soda and lit by a candle, since naturally the power was out, we played on for hours and - miracle of miracles - I won for the first time ever! Yahaira was an excellent partner, and finally I was learning some of the strategies. Therefore we won a record 8 out of 10 against Laura and Dad, even in spite of Laura’s highly animated cheerleading. A good time was had by all, but soon it was time for dinner. Just as the lights came back on, we left, and went on to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood.
On Tuesday we decided Dad couldn’t possibly leave without seeing the beach. So after running a couple of errands we made our way north over the mountains and to the coastal town of Puerto Plata. We didn’t want to spend too much time there, since our all-inclusive was awaiting us at Playa Dorada, but we did take a drive down the malecon to the old fort, stopped for a drink and a quesadilla at a restaurant with a good view and good food but horrible service, and then went past the main square to look at the beautiful old Dominican Victorian houses that surround it. Then, we pushed on to the beach, arriving at our hotel just as a busload of tourists did the same. We hastily checked in and ran off to our room. This resort was small but pleasant, and you really couldn’t beat the deal: only $65 per night per person including all drinks and meals and many activities. Our first order of business was to check out the beach itself, which was reached by a path that turned into a wooden footbridge over a pond where mangrove-like trees with long and tangled roots grew. But it was far too windy at the moment for either water sports or swimming. Instead, we enjoyed a couple of Presidentes and then took a stroll down the beach to check out the other hotels. After that, we were ready for a rest and a shower, and after that, for our buffet dinner, which was pretty darn good, especially the grilled fish and the rum raisin ice cream. Next we thought of watching a DVD, which a wall display said were available from reception. But it turned out the delivery car at the DVD place was broken down, so we couldn’t get any. Then we thought of playing pool so we purchased a coin to do so, but the tables were full. So it came to our last resort: the hotel show.
Anticipating the worst, we got some Planter’s Punch to help us through it, but it was actually pretty amusing: a contest they organized between four men to determine who would win the honor of being "Mr. Villas Doradas 2006." The volunteers consisted of three Brits and one Canadian, who kept getting drunker as the show progressed thanks to the mixed drinks one helper kept bringing them. Good thing, too, with the types of events they had to compete in. First, a hot-bod contest, where the guys had to strut out in their sexiest manner, whip off their shirts, and strike a couple of poses. The clear winner here was one of the Brits whose signature move consisted of removing his belt and hitting his butt with it, though the 50-something Malcolm came in a close second for good-sportedness. Then they had "Spanish lesson," followed by a related event in which they had to say "Gregorio, Gregorito" with their mouth full of water, gargle-style. At this point, an uninvited guest appeared on stage - an even drunker and more sunburned Brit with glasses and a broken foot - so they let him try, too. Next contestants had to invite a female partner on stage to lay across their backs as they tried to do push-ups. Unexpectedly, Malcolm was able to do nine - six more than even his exceedingly tall countryman with a girl half his size. Finally, a lip-sync/impersonation contest brought things to a rousing close. Malcolm did Bob Marley wearing an army jacket with cardboard electric guitar and a "spliff" made out of an entire sheet of notebook paper. Mr. 6’9" did Madonna in a sparkly tank, exceedingly short skirt, and blond wig. The Canadian was Michael Jackson in a black jacket with a corny moonwalk. But no one could compete with Belt Man’s Britney Spears in a bikini top, tennis skirt, and rouge as he really had the moves down. Thus, I felt we had been cheated when Tall Guy won anyway. All of his drunk British friends in the audience cheered so loudly no one else had a chance, but Belt Man and Malcolm will always be Mr. Villas Doradas to me.
In the morning we lazed about in bed for a while, getting up just in time not to miss the breakfast buffet, where I had pancakes and eggs, fortifying me for the upcoming hour of snorkeling. We got our masks and flippers and headed down the beach, scoping out some likely reefs close to shore. The water was murkier than last time I was there because the wind was whipping up all kinds of waves and stirring the sand, but still we saw a lot of fish at our first stop: mostly the friendly, stripey ones that ate bananas from our hands last time but also some longer pastel-colored ones and the long, skinny trumpet fish. Then we got a tip from a Brit who had seen an octopus down the way, so we went to check out his spot. This bigger reef also was home to bigger fish, including some maybe 18 inches or so in length, round in shape and with electric blue fins and markings. By this time the water was getting a bit chilly and checkout time was approaching, though, so we got out and headed back for showers, packing, and lunch. After that, and a game of pool, we were back on the road.
If we could figure out where it was, we thought we might make a stop at Puerto Plata’s teleferico (funicular). Sure enough, just as I was about to give up hope, a sign appeared pointing the way. The guide book told us that its hours of operation were unpredictable, seemingly breaking down whenever fewer than 3 people wanted a ride, but today there was nothing to worry about. There were a number of tourists, as well as about twice as many guides milling about. In no time at all we were riding the Italian-built cable car up 2000 meters to the top of the Isabel de Torres mountain that overlooks the port city. It was really a great view all the way up as we passed over a school baseball diamond, footpaths leading to backwoods homes, and plenty of tropical vegetation. At the top we found ourselves literally in the clouds, which made the air nice and cool. From there, we could see the whole city and the coastline down past Playa Dorada, along with the bay into which Christopher Columbus had sailed, finding as calm as a silver reflecting pool, hence its name. While in the 16th and 17th centuries this city was constantly raided by pirates landing in that same spot, today the bay was only occupied by a dredge and large transport ships, one of which we saw being towed out to sea.
On top of the mountain is a giant Christ statue much like the more famous one that stands above Rio de Janeiro and somewhat less like the not as famous milk-carton-shaped Christ of the Ozarks in Missouri. There is also a food stand, a gift shop, the start of some hiking trails, and a great scenic overlook that we enjoyed for a few minutes before heading back down the mountain. Someday it would be nice to come back and do the trails, although climbing the whole, very steep mountain would be difficult.
The ride back to Santiago was uneventful unless one counts the unbelievably slow trucks we encountered, which caused many daredevil feats of passing on the part of the drivers of Lexuses and SUVs. We got back in time to pay a visit to the old folklore museum, which astounded me by being open. Tomasito gave us the usual tour, but now we were also able to see the excellent prizewinning masks of this year’s competition. Dad agreed it was worth the stop but worried about the 1812 house’s fire safety. Unfortunately, after another great Italian dinner across the street, his visit had to come to an end. In the morning (Thursday morning) I woke up early to take him to the airport, had some coffee and a cheese roll there as we chatted until boarding time, and went back home to go back to sleep.
Since then, there has been little to report. Dad had noticed a couple of things in my car that should be looked at, so that same day I dropped it off at El Negro’s. Thinking I’d get it back the next day, I decided to work at home until that happened. But as things usually go here, it took longer than expected and I didn’t get it back til Saturday.