Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Into the South

After a typical day in the library and gym on Wednesday, I made a quick decision. It was holy week, the DR’s main party time, and I had to do something. My palos-playing friends couldn’t go to San Juan de la Maguana after all, so I accepted an invitation from Rafael Almánzar, the folklorist at the Casa de Arte, to join him in his yearly trip to the seaside town of Barahona in the southwest. Having made plans to leave on the 6 AM bus to avoid the crowds, I rushed home to get organized, pack, and grab a very few short hours of sleep before the alarm went off. Grumbling to myself, I stumbled into the shower and threw some clothes on and was then surprised to hear the phone ring. It was Almánzar, telling me he’d decided not to leave til noon in order to give his girlfriend a chance to join us. Argh!!!! Eventually I slept a couple of hours more but was still grumpy when we met up at the bus terminal. At least I had an entertaining mystery book to read on the way to the capital, so when we got into the bus terminal there I was in a somewhat better mood. But not for long. The entire station was literally packed wall to wall with people and an amazing heat was emanating from the ticket-selling area. We had figured to be on a 5:00 bus, and it was only 2:30, but this didn’t look likely. They hadn’t even started selling tickets for our bus yet but there was already a line a mile long, we found out after Almánzar made a daring journey through the throng to investigate and nearly passed out from the heat. Next Maribel tried, and seemed to be making some progress. That progress was illusory though. It was four hours before we finally got tickets and got on a bus to Barahona, and it was nearly dark.

My first impressions of the Southwest were thus made by moonlight. The first half of the trip, through towns like San Cristobal, Baní, and Azua, was unremarkable, but after Azua things got interesting. A good stretch of the trip seemed to look an awful lot like Arizona. Maybe it was just the light from the full moon, I thought, combined with the rugged landscape of hills, valleys, and rock faces. But no, on the trip back in daylight I confirmed it: the brown and very dry, rocky soil supported trees that looked just like mesquite and greasewood, shrubs resembling creosote, yucca plants with their tall flowering stalks, cacti similar to prickly pear and organ pipe along with another that was something like a Martian version of cholla. But it was disconcerting when, as the vegetation began to change again, the mesquite (or whatever it was) began to be interspersed with very tropical plantain trees. After the landscape re-tropicalized itself we at last found ourselves in Barahona, three hours from the capital and almost 10 hours after we’d left Santiago. There, we were met by Almánzar’s friend Zombolo, the director of the local Ballet Folklórico and a guy who knows everyone.

Zombolo isn’t Zombolo’s real name, of course. His legal name is Gustavo Diaz. Like many Dominicans, he goes by his childhood nickname, which in this case came from a pet dog his family had. His dad was always calling to that dog out their front door, so the neighborhood kids took to applying the name to young Gustavo as well. These days, Zombolo is a Mormon. I was surprised about this – not only did I not know the extent of the Dominican Church of Latter Day Saints (Zombolo estimates they have as many as 600,000 members) but one surely wouldn’t find a Mormon in favor of Fidel and Cuban revolutionary politics in Arizona. I told him he should take it upon himself to discuss politics with visiting US Mormons and convince them of the error of their ways. After our brief political discussion, he took me to my hotel – the only room available in any of the many budget options in town during this busy time, and thus, as might be expected, a sort of marginal one. Peeling, icky paint; a bathroom with cold water only – and that only when the water was on; no toilet seat; holy sheets; and only a mini-padlock with which to lock it while I was out. Still, it was cheap and I was tired, so it looked OK to me. I’d just make sure to always carry my recording equipment with me. Before I could hit the hay, though, we had to eat so we went to a nearby cafeteria with excellent batidas but questionable seafood (Maribel decided, on closer inspection, not to each the lambi or conch sandwich she’d ordered) and the slowest service ever. I think it actually took an hour to get a couple of cheese sandwiches.

Friday, thank goodness, was another day, and we had big plans. After a quick breakfast of sliced fruit, we headed just out of town to a batey, or a settlement of sugarcane workers. Last night’s sandwiches had taken so long that we missed the levantamiento ceremony, the raising of the ritual objects, that begins the gagá ritual music that goes on until Sunday. But no matter; we arrived at 10 AM and the gagá was already in full swing. This style of music is played on a set of 3-5 large tubes made of bamboo or PVC pipe, each of which produces a single musical note when blown. By playing these in an interlocking pattern the gagá group produces short, catchy melodies accompanied by a couple of long drums, a smaller sideways drum like a tambora, a güira or a güira-like metal shaker, and some other metal shakers similar to maracas. Numerous long metal trumpets also join in the interlocking rhythms, and all the trumpet and tube (fotuto) players also tap out rhythms on the sides of their instruments with sticks. Altogether it makes an amazing sound and a moving one. The sound of the tubes resembles that of a blown conch shell or a ram’s horn, giving a subliminal impression of a very ancient music.

Each gagá group is also a cofradía, or religious brotherhood, dedicated to a particular saint. The first group we came across belonged to San Elias. They were playing in a small dirt yard behind a wooden shack painted bright blue when we arrived. The gagá group consists of much more than just musicians, however, as we soon found out. It didn’t take long for us to be spotted as outsiders – not just me, but also my three Dominican companions, who also looked quite different from the batey dwellers, who are mostly of Haitian descent. Both the official alms-collectors, who carry a flag and wooden boxes for donations, and numerous dancing participants who also hoped for a handout surrounded us in a noisy throng. We gave out all the ten- and twenty-peso notes we had, and Almánzar even had some larger notes torn straight out of his hand in the madness. Now I knew why Zombolo had advised me to put a single bill in each of my jeans pockets, and give them out from there rather than reaching into my purse.

Gagá groups also include a few flag-bearers flying the colors of the group’s patron saint and twirling a plaque bearing the saint’s image. There are also several officially designated dancers who dress in sequined capes and skirts made of handkerchiefs in every color imaginable. They sometimes hold batons and sometimes machetes. Both are used to conduct play-fights, which nevertheless look quite real. Once in a while, one will throw a machete way up into the air, and when he catches it the whole crowd screams in happy relief. The dancing is really impressive as two or three men advance and retreat from each other, spinning around, squatting and jumping in a whirl of color and clash of blades. After dancing for a while in the yard, the group set off down the dirt road, going further in the batey. Many neighbors follow along, joining in the dancing and singing. Most of the songs are in Haitian kreyol, which I couldn’t understand, though there were a few in Spanish, these secular rather than religious in nature. One, a street or game song adapted to the gagá rhythm, stated, “my watch stopped; now it doesn’t work.” The chorus to another could be understood in any language: “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.”

As everyone else partied, Zombolo and I filmed when we could. But sometimes we just looked around. A batey is a place of real poverty: these are some of the poorest people in an already poor country. Some of this is due to persistent racism and discrimination against Haitians and their descendents, some to the nature of the colonial sugarcane economy. In some ways, it looked like any poor city barrio, but on closer examination, it wasn’t. Instead of bad pavement, there was no pavement on the streets. Most of the houses were ramshackle wooden constructions that looked like a good wind might blow them over. There were a few sturdier buildings that the sugar cane companies had built for the workers years ago, but these too looked like they had seen better days. One cement-block house we passed by looked incongruous, freshly plastered and painted in yellow and white with a porch framed in columns. But on closer inspection, one could see that it was simply a front room built onto an older house just as ramshackle as its neighbors. Of course we not only saw houses but people. A group of very small children, maybe 5-6 years old, had formed their own gagá group and were practicing while sitting on a bit of crumbling concrete patio on the side of one house. They used milk jugs, beer bottles, and a metal pipe to make a pretty good approximation of their adult counterparts. We thought they were good and gave 10-peso notes to several of the kids. But as we walked away we heard some noise and looked back: the kids were arguing and a few of the musicians took off across the street to play alone. Boy, money corrupts at any age!

After an hour or so with the gagá San Elias, we decided to go look for the other big gagá of this batey, this one dedicated to San Miguel. They were not hard to find by following the noise and looking down every street for bright colors. Besides being dedicated to a saint, most gagás these days also “belong” to a political party. That is to say, they receive sponsorship from a party that enables them to purchase items like costumes, flags, or instruments in exchange for wearing the colors of that party; whether they actually support that party is another story. At any rate, San Elias had been supported by the newly formed Red and White Alliance, which brings together the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano and the Partido Reformista Social Cristiano. San Miguel received the patronage instead of the Partido Liberal Dominicano, the one currently in power and represented by purple and yellow. Many of those following the gagá San Miguel were therefore wearing PLD t-shirts and visors, and even their fotutos were painted yellow and sporting purple bumper stickers. But Zombolo, a strong PRD man, was happy to see that, at least when we first arrived, this group had fewer followers than did the Red and White. He explained that the current government had done little to improve the plight of the batey dwellers and so was not terribly popular, while the local PRD politician (whose campaign Zombolo was endorsing through a huge stick-on poster on the back window of his van) had made an effort to get basic necessities to the sugar cane workers.

After another hour or so with San Miguel we decided to break for lunch and naps. We loaded up on rice with pigeon peas, fried carite (a local fish), and salad and rested, but when the agreed-upon time for reconvening came Almánzar and Maribel still weren’t up. Zombolo therefore came alone to collect me and took me down to the seaside, which I still hadn’t seen even though my hotel was only a few blocks away. The townspeople were there hanging out and listening to music, and although it wasn’t a sandy beach, some were swimming. Vendors sold fried fish and green coconuts out of carts. We opted for the latter. Cut into a flattened point on one side with a machete with a little flap hanging off like a lid over the hole, one can drink the abundant water inside, which my companion said is good for cleaning out the kidneys. Once you’ve drunk the water, they’ll hack the thing in half for you: with a sliver cut out of the outer shell, you can scoop out the soft layer on the inside that, if allowed to ripen, would have turned into the white coconut we’re all used to.

Back at the hotel, we found the two sleepyheads waiting for us, so we collected them and then headed back to hook up again with San Miguel, still making their circuit up and down the streets of the batey. Now they were parading less and stopping more, though, allowing for more people to join in and observe the machete dances. They also stopped to pay visits to various members of the cofradía, knocking on their doors, greeting them, and sprinkling rum on the ground in ritual fashion. One drawback was that as the afternoon wore on, people got drunker. At one point a fight broke out and there was a general fear that they might have guns, so everyone started to run, an activity made difficult by the fact that at that point we were in a narrow, rubble-strewn street between two barbed-wire fences and there was a truck coming in behind us. I ran too, attempting to get behind the truck with the rest, when word spread that it had been a false alarm. Still a little spooked, though, I went back to join Zombolo in his van for a bit and search out some cold water. It was just as well, as it was quite tiring to follow these groups through the dusty streets under the beating sun. Rejoining the group, a couple of drunken revelers tried to grab me for a dance but at this point they were dancing more reggaetón-doggie-style than traditional gagá moves, so I decided to abstain.

We stayed with this group until well past dark. As night fell, we made it to the batey’s main intersection, the only one I’d seen with a traffic light and street signs. San Miguel occupied one of the four corners here, and another gagá from a neighboring batey soon came along to occupy one of the others. I wondered if we could get two others and have a big play-off, but this didn’t happen. At about 9:00 we headed out for a not-so-quick bite to eat. Driving back into town, we headed down the malecón where a local bachata group was playing, all the many bars were filled to overflowing, and couples were making out under nonfunctional streetlights (Zombolo said it wasn’t worth it for the city to replace the bulbs, as the kids would always break them again). Just rising out of the sea was an enormous, blood-red moon. I thought it looked ominous, while Zombolo thought it looked like rain. Turned out he was right.

After dinner, all I could think of was bed, but the others just had to have ice cream. We headed to an enormous Trujillo-era hotel that looked like it must have been quite grand in the 1940s and 50s. The lobby that seemed a mile long was still pretty impressive, especially compared to where I was staying. Local nature scenes were painted onto the walls, and the big columns holding the tall ceiling up were painted in an oversized wood-grain pattern for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. I was too tired to converse with the proprietor as did the others, so I parked myself on a couch near a mosquito coil, at which point the rain started. It was really coming down. When it slowed a bit, we made a run for the van. Unfortunately, it was raining in the van as well. I had grown fond of the rust bucket, but it had definitely seen better days. One could roll down the automatic windows using the button which hung on its wires out of the door frame, but to roll them back up required the judicious application of a metal wrench to the contacts on its backside, which also produced a festive-looking shower of sparks. “Move to the back! move to the back!” Zombolo advised Almánzar and Maribel, who normally sat on the van’s middle seat. “Oh dear, now when we wake up this thing’ll be like an old mattress.” He was right, but first I had to get to my own mattress. When I entered my room though, I found out the van wasn’t the only thing that was leaky. Water had started dripping through the ancient paneling that made up my tiny box of a room’s ceiling: the tin roof above was obviously in need of repairs. I told the proprietor and he came to look. “Oh, it’s only a little drip.” He shoved my bed an inch closer to the wall. “There, that’s better.” “Well, I just hope it doesn’t start coming through the boards above my head in the night,” I shouted above the roar of the torrential downpour. He looked at that area. “Well, it is possible; it’s discolored here and looks like it might have leaked before.” “Great!” I replied. “So what do I do if it starts pouring on my head in the middle of the night?” “Move to the other side of the bed!” He advised. Then we both cracked up. I was slightly more worried about the electrical wires that ran to my fan and single lightbulb, which passed through the ceiling panels up into the presumably damp attic space, but was too hot to do without the fan and too tired to let that keep me from sleep.

I awoke feeling much improved and ready for whatever adventures the day might bring, now that the rain and hence the roof drippage had stopped. After another fruit breakfast, we were on the road in our trusty if leaky van to see the Barahona coastline. It was beautiful and quite different than the north coast I was used to. There are few beaches: instead there are mountains running right up to the sea and dropping off in cliffs, some of which in the distance appeared to be as white as those of Dover. Combined with the lush foliage and flowers, it reminded me a bit of the Amalfi coast of Italy. We passed through many small towns like Baoruco and El Paraiso, but stopped only in La Cienaga. There, as we peered out our window and down what appeared to be the town’s only street, we saw a ragtag gagá heading towards us. This rural group clearly had no political sponsorship of any kind and was much poorer than the batey ensembles. Instead of sequin capes and skirts made from hundreds of handkerchiefs, they tied just two colorful handkerchiefs together to make a sort of overshirt/cape. They had only one flag and instead of a box for the money-collector, they had only a plate. Instead of multiple PVC fotutos and metal trumpets, they had just two bamboo tubes. But what they did have was rhythm and machetes for dancing. They approached us and for our donation of 10 pesos they gave us our own private machete performance. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my video camera or minidisk recorder, but I did get a couple of photos.

From there we continued down the coast to Los Patos, a natural swimming hole just before a cold mountain river meets the warm sea. There is a beautiful white pebble beach there, but swimming isn’t permitted in the ocean because of a strong current. The waters are perfectly clear with little clear fish swimming around in it, and surrounded by lush greenery. On one side is a group of food and drink stands and tables, chairs, and umbrellas to be used by any customers. The water was really cold but it was a pleasant and scenic way to spend a hot morning. Still, I’m more of an ocean swimmer, so I was glad that as we headed back up the coast we made a stop at El Quemaito, an ocean beach, to have a quick saltwater dip. By this time I was starving, so I checked out the snack offerings of the beach vendors and settled on a bola de pescado, a little fried ball of yuca with a bit of salty fish inside. On the drive Zombolo told us a bit about the local culture and economy. Apparently, small planes from Colombia regularly fly over this coast to make scheduled drops of big blocks of cocaine to waiting speedboats. From there, the drugs make it around the country and, presumably, sometimes on to the US. But occasionally the speedboats have to get out of the area too quickly to make a thorough search and some blocks are left behind. No matter: some lucky fisherman will come across it, pick it up, and sell it to men who come in from the capital for just this purpose. This makes a substantial supplement to many local fishermen’s incomes, and is responsible for the fact that, as Zombolo pointed out to us, many of the poor-looking shacks we passed actually hold new refrigerators, TVs, and stereos. We passed through numerous police checkpoints along the road, which one might think would curb the problem, but no: they are mostly there to look for illegal Haitians, and at any rate, are all too easily bribed.

Arriving back in Barahona, we stopped on the city beach for a quick meal of local specialties: stewed carite fish and moro con coco, or rice and pigeon peas cooked up with coconut milk. We bought it at the fisherman’s cooperative, which guaranteed it was as fresh as could be, as fishermen’s wives almost immediately cook up and sell some of what their husbands bring in. In the time we sat there, we saw some arrive with huge catches, like an enormous marlin and a four-and-a-half-foot pointy-looking carite. Then we all took very quick showers, so we could get out to the town of Cabral in time for their carnival parade. This was only slightly interrupted by the fact that in the morning rush I’d left the keys to my padlock inside my locked hotel room. No biggie: Zombolo had a hammer and screwdriver in his car, and with a quick hit to the lock it was open. So much for security.

This time we were joined by Zombolo’s son and headed northwest into the interior to the town of Cabral, about 10 km away on a half-paved road. At the turn off for Cabral, a costumed figure on a platform showed us what we were going for: the cachúas, which are kind of the lechones of this town, the only one to hold carnival on Easter weekend itself. We’d been in a hurry to arrive, since it was already after three and word had it that the parade was to start at three-thirty sharp. Fat chance. When we got there the town’s population was milling about the park but not a comparsa (carnival troupe) or a carroza (float) was in sight. However, the town’s Judas was in place. In a tradition unique to this town, a dummy representing the traitor is erected on top of a monument at one end of the park. He wears a demonic horned mask and is dressed in a cachúa’s clothes: a colorful printed fabric jumpsuit with wings under the arms and strips of fabric or streamers flying about, a whip in one hand. On the Monday after Easter, when Cabral’s carnival ends, he’ll be taken down, burned, and whipped in a symbolic farewell to evil.

Almánzar hopped up on the stage that had been erected in the street on one side, since the judging table was up there and he was to take part. The rest of us milled about the park saying hi to our host’s many friends, including a politician, who graciously welcomed us to the town he represents and sounded pretty much like a politician anywhere. I certainly didn’t expect to run into anyone I knew here, in the middle of nowhere, but we were just settling down for a rest on the bandstand’s banister when I heard someone call my name and saw an American girl approaching me. Imagine my surprise to find it was Nicole, an intern working with my friend Kay at the Brooklyn Council of Arts who I’d met once a year before. I knew she was coming to the country for Holy Week, but we hadn’t been able to come up with any plan for meeting up since out own individual plans were so nebulous, so this was a happy and sublimely odd coincidence. As it turned out, she and her boyfriend Kareem had been wandering about the Southwest much as we had, only minus the bateyes.

It was good I had Nicole to chat with, because it turned out to be a very long wait before the parade made it down to us. They followed a whole long route, just like in other towns, but most observers wanted to get a spot around the park or near the judge’s stage in order to see the comparsas’ performances. Unlike in Santiago, each group must do a quick show of some sort, and they are judged on this as well as on their costumes. Eventually they did make it down to where I and my video camera were parked along with Zombolo, his son, and the other videographers. Besides local groups, visitors from other towns like Bani and San Juan de la Maguana were also included, as well as a number of devils from the capital in their fantastic suits with rumba-like sleeves and ruffled fabric running down the hood and back like a sort of mohawk. As the hours went by it got increasingly hard to film as the crowd pressed in on me where I sat Indian style, in spite of the police officers trying to keep them away from the performers and off of us squatters. It was decidedly uncomfortable and a little scary as the crowd got more excited and rowdy, but I filmed at least a snippet of each comparsa. They ran the gamut from traditional cachúas to a group covered in reddish slime that danced merengue zombie-style, from a colorful troupe of Robalagallinas to dancing burros. Transvestites were a definite theme, even more so than in Santiago: not only did we have the traditional robalagallina character, but transvestites appeared in many otherwise unremarkable dance troupes, and seemed to run the gamut of age from boys of maybe 12 to men of perhaps 60. Traditional occupations were also big: one group of campesinos demonstrated how they clear land with machetes and scythes, another represented the corn harvest through dancing girls in yellow dresses. One float held artisans showing how they make the wooden furniture typical of the town La Lista, and another held women pounding coffee and preparing stew. My favorite float was probably the one that showed what the cachúas would be doing the following day: on Easter Sunday, they all head down to the cemetery where they pay tribute to the great cachúas of the past by standing on their tombs and cracking their whips in a sort of 21-gun salute. Some crowd favorites included a little league team that “performed” a baseball game in reduced form, and one that showed a man preparing triculí, a typical bootleg liquor, in a trash can. Because this is illegal, the comparsa also included comical uniformed police and military men to arrest the bootlegger in dramatic fashion, nearly running me over in the process. We also got a President Leonel Fernandez impersonator surrounded by army generals and security guards. Still, the cachúas themselves were probably the most impressive and the most scary of all. Today’s lechones in Santiago try not to hit one another with their whips, just cracking them to scare and entertain the crowd. Quite the opposite with the cachúas, who periodically stage remarkably violent-looking fights, actually hitting one another with their whips and producing ear-splitting cracks in the air. They said it doesn’t really hurt (unless they take their shirts off), but I wasn’t sure about this. Also, I’d been told that lechones were originally around not only to fight one another but also to “keep order” of a sort by using their whips to keep the crowd back and prevent fighting. The cachúas did seem to be trying to do this, but often they only managed to get everyone riled up. Towards the end of the evening, a couple of cachúa troupes brought their own Judas dummies and set fire of them. As they whipped the burning dolls, flaming bits of cloth flew up into the dark sky while the crowd yelled rhythmically, “Judas, Judas, Judas, eh!” Or actually, something more akin to “Júa, Júa, Júa, eh!” in the local accent.

Hours later, things finally wrapped up. I was a little disappointed to not have gotten a picture of a cachúa with his mask actually on, but Zombolo told me that, unlike us lechones, they hardly ever pull them down off their heads. Perhaps this is so their identities can always be known and trouble avoided. At 7 PM, when the parade ended, the announcer made it known that all cachúas had to be unmasked and out of their costumes within the next half hour in order to avoid trouble with the law. Because a masked man can commit any sort of dastardly deed, this is how the town has decided to keep order. As the cachúas made themselves scarce, we wandered over to the ice cream parlor where I had a delicious scoop of ciruela (plum), and then down the street to the Doctor’s house.

Temito, as Dr. Temistocles is better known, is not only a medical doctor but also an artisan and the local folklorist. He makes tiny versions of the cachúa mask for sale, as well as the full-size deal, as well as whips. In fact, he invented a new style of whip, in which each of the hunk of natural fibers that are woven together are dyed a different color. They can be red, yellow, blue, or natural white, and thus make a striking fashion statement for any lechon or cachúa. I hadn’t seen these in Santiago so of course I had to have one. While I was trying one out, I had the second unexpected, weird reunion of the day. This time, it was anthropologist Martha Ellen Davis who I was surprised to see. I hadn’t known she usually makes a point of attending Cabral’s carnival. We enjoyed a quick chat about fieldwork and academia as Temito put the finishing touches to the 3 small masks and 1 medium-sized whip I purchased.

Once my purchases were complete, we beat a hasty retreat, as we still wanted to attend a fiesta de palos back in Barahona. We arrived at the house, a blue wooden deal in a typical barrio, only to find it looking suspiciously shuttered up. But when we turned off the car’s engine, we could hear the sound of drums coming from behind it. Heading down a narrow alleyway alongside, we arrived in the backyard to find about 30 people listening or dancing to the music being played on three long drums, maracas, and guira. At the back of the yard was a small thatch-roof shelter hung with voodoo flags each bearing a different color and a different symbol, much like what I understand to be used in Haitian voodoo ceremonies though lacking the central pillar. Next to this on the right, a goat in a black mask was tied up, presumably awaiting sacrifice, by a fire around which a set of drums were laid to heat their skins. To the left, a bunch of downy-feathered ducks were improbably running about with a couple of kittens. I talked with one of the drummers as they were waiting to begin. He said his nickname was Mero. “Mero? Like the fish? Filet of Mero?” I asked, thinking of the common Dominican dish. “Yes, exactly! Filet!” He laughed. I think I gave him a new nickname.

They began playing a rhythm almost exactly like what I’d learned from my friends from San Juan de la Maguana. Receiving the OK from Zombolo, I filmed a bit of the music and dancing, which surprised me by including a gay couple, but then Maribel grabbed me to go inside the house and chat with the santeros. As we entered the tiny room stuffed with candles, pictures of saints, and other ritual objects all arranged significantly but signifying I knew not what, I discovered that transvestites were definitely the theme of the day. The two men who sat in front of the table bearing food offerings like roast peanuts, candies, and a kind of semolina cake were both wearing women’s clothes. The man on the left was very dark-skinned and wearing a long black dress bordered in colorful ribbon, reminding me of a folklórico dance performance dress. The one on the right was light-skinned and festooned in an outlandish floor-length yellow satin number trimmed in white lace. The one on the left received me, telling me that there were many things I didn’t believe but that I needed to know and something about an interview. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at – did he want me to pay for a consultation or something? Was this like a tarot reading, or what? He stuffed my hands with peanuts and candy and I went on to the guy on the right. Unlike the first guy, this one was possessed, something that often happens to devotees during drumming ceremonies. Apparently, I was now speaking to the goddess Anaisa. S/he took my cupped hands between his and blew on them and shook them around. Then s/he said some kind of blessing wishing me health and money and all in a dramatic voice, and told me that the Virgin of Guadalupe watches and protects me. This part was a little eerie, as La Guadalupana is the patron saint of Mexico but not particularly big here, and he didn’t really have a reason to know I was from the Southwest, near Mexico. Did one of my companions go in and tell him this? It seemed unlikely, as he was in a trance and not up for chitchat.

Uncomfortable in all kinds of religious situations, be they Christian or voodoo, I was a little weirded out by this whole business. I felt stupid because I didn’t know what to do and was so out of place, much more so than in any other field situation I’d come in to. Not knowing if there was some other step I’d omitted, I thanked him (or her) and s/he told me, “I want beer! Bring me beer!” Oh great, I thought. Where was I supposed to get beer around here? Wait a sec- Maribel had brought me an enormous beer just before coming in here and it was still half full. Would this be appropriate? I didn’t really have any other choice I could see. I asked Maribel and she said to try to give it to Anaisa. I hurried out and back in with the beer, but Anaisa protested in dramatic fashion. “I said I wanted beer, not spit! This is spit! Bring me beer!!” Great. Even more embarrassed, I almost got into a discussion with this strange personage, protesting I didn’t know where to get beer at this hour in this neighborhood. Now I sort of felt like the whole thing was so ridiculous, I might be in a bizarre sort of sitcom. There should be a laugh track. A woman named Rosa who was attending to the ceremonies offered to show me where, and led me across the street to another house that appeared identical to all the other darkened shacks on the street, but which on the inside was actually a neighborhood bar. We took it back, and I was going to put it in front of Anaisa to make up with him or her, but Rosa took it away and poured it into a wine glass that looked like it had glass pebbles or beads in the bottom, handing it back to Anaisa, who then passed it on to another woman to taste. With the taster’s approval, s/he drunk it. I guess it finally passed the test. After that, I just wanted to enjoy the music and avoid any more weird religious encounters. But Zombolo was ready to go already and waiting at the car. Well, it had been a long day. We made a stop for sandwiches and then hit the hay.

We arose early on Sunday, expecting another harrowing day of travel. It almost turned out that way: at the Caribe Tours terminal, we found that they were completely sold out for the whole day. At the stop for the cheap buses, the voladoras, it looked to be a similar situation with a long line of passengers and luggage snaking all the way around the building. Luckily, Zombolo spotted a friend: the leader of the local drivers’ union! Thank goodness. He put us on a bus along with a few other VIPs before letting those from the line in, which not only assured us of breezy window seats but also of space to stow our luggage. It was a long, uneventful, but scenic trip back. Since then, it’s been more of the usual: writing up notes, organizing field recordings, my accordion lesson. We’re also preparing for Chiqui and Laura’s daughter’s quinceanera on Saturday, which necessitated a visit to the cakemaker and a shopping trip on Monday that I sponsored. I feel it’s a worthy cause.

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