Life was getting more or less back to normal last week. The main task I had to accomplish was getting the rest of my permissions together for my quebradita book, which is in the final stages of editing. I sent a ton of emails and made a bunch of phone calls, and got a little closer to getting nowhere. At least, I hit complete dead ends on a couple of pictures from 1990s quebradita videos made by fly-by-nights that no longer exist. Whee. Definitely more fun than that mess was my tambora lesson with Rafaelito on Wednesday, which was also attended by a couple of neighborhood kids who can really play. While there, Carmen fed me with a banquet worthy of a king (or perhaps a cacique), including fish, shrimp, rice and beans, ripe plantains, salad, “chulos” or little sausage-shaped fried yuca balls, and some jalapenos on the side in honor of the fact that Rafaelito and I are the only people in this country who can eat them.
But then Thursday hit. I was working in the Fradique Lizardo archives at the Centro Leon in the afternoon but left early to see if I could find a call center that would make all my licensing calls cheaper. I turned on the headlights since it was clouding over and looking dark and ominous, but the lights started fading out. A minute later, not even the blinkers would work. When I got to the Verizon call center, the car had totally died, and it seemed to be the battery. Of course, it then started to pour rain. I tried to call my mechanic pal El Negro but his phone wasn’t working. Luckily his cousin Andres and Mario, the guy who fixed my timing a couple weeks ago and introduced me to Panchita the wonder chicken, were still in their shop and came to rescue me. As Mario busied himself on the underside of my car, I chatted with Andres and his teenage assistant. Mario had been saying, “I don’t like to leave anyone stuck on the side of the road like this. Anything can happen. The other day, right around here, I saw people trying to kipnap a kid, tearing him right from his mother’s side!” “Why? What was that about?” I asked. “Satanic rituals!” Andres suggested. “Human sacrifice!” “What?!?” I exclaimed. “No, no; it was to sell his organs,” the teenager said knowingly. “No!” I cried. “It was for Satanic rituals!” insisted Andres. The kid shook his head: “No really, that really happened to someone in Gurabo. They found them dead later with all their organs removed.” This story sounded suspiciously familiar. These urban legends circulate pretty widely, and it’s been going on for a while: I remember seeing a clipping in the archives a few weeks ago of a story that sounded just like the classic Vanishing Hitchhiker, only it took place near Santo Domingo. Pretty soon, they’ll even have their own Kentucky Fried Rat.
Mario got the car running fine again, and Friday went as usual, continuing in the Lizardo archives and meeting with Raul Roman to talk accordion shop. In the evening I’d been specifically asked to attend an event at the Centro Leon: an Afro-pop group was coming in from South Africa for a special performance in honor of 12 years of South African independence this week. I couldn’t attend the political talk beforehand with the South African ambassador, who had organized the event, but I did make it to the cocktail hour (have I ever refused free food and drink?) and the show. Many of the usual suspects were there to enjoy the South African wine the embassy had kindly provided: the same newspaper reporters, jazz musicians, artists, and dance fanatics I see at all the cultural events. Though things got started late and there was a bit of a drizzle, it in no way inhibited the Dominican audience who turned out to be absolutely nuts for South African music and the ambassador, as well, who gave a hilarious introduction about how beautiful South African women are and how one of the delegation was looking for a Dominican husband (shouldn’t be hard for her to arrange). The music was similar to other Afro-pop groups I’ve heard, and certainly excellent for dancing, but the real standout were the three female vocalist/dancers who sung in gorgeous harmony. The leader, an enormous woman in an equally enormous orange shirt, even sung in an impeccable male voice, imitating some other African star, at one point.
I guess all the excitement was too much for me, because I slept badly and woke up tired on Saturday, a bad thing for the Big Day – the quinceanera party of Yary, Chiqui and Laura’s daughter. When I called Chiqui to see how things were going, he said, “all these people came in from Moca and Dajabon and they’ve turned my house into a beauty parlor!” I went over around 3 to investigate this new horror and see how I could help out. When I arrived, a gaggle of ladies were in the small living room, whose chairs had all been removed in order to give us room to dance later and them room to decorate now. They were busy hanging borrowed green and white curtains to cover up one plaster wall and tying green and yellow balloons into a long bundle to string up along the top. Every so often Chiqui would come in and pop one. After a little while, Laura and I went to do some shopping at the colmado, a 2-trip deal as when the yuca was cut open we saw some was bad and had to exchange it, then caravanning over with Chiqui and a friend to pick up (a) the cake and (b) an enormous stack of plastic chairs we were renting from a funeral parlor. Afterwards, I went next door with Laura and her mother to see how the cooking was going. A huge iron stove with three burners connected to a tank of gas had been set up in the neighbor’s backyard, and an enormous pot three feet across was already simmering, filled with the meat of two entire goats. Soon rice and yuca were going too, in pots only slightly smaller, all lent by friends and neighbors. Back at the ranch, the living room had been completely transformed, the green and white cake I’d purchased looking quite lovely with the color-coordinated decorations. But night was starting to fall and the power was still out. Yary was dressed in her green and white confection (an amazing transformation of an old communion dress Laura’s had remodeled) and getting her long hair, now in loose ringlets from the salon, pinned up with flowers in the backyard. The rest of us were still in our street clothes and unadorned, however. Good thing I’d just had my hair cut and dyed – at Audrey Hepburn length it needed little work. While someone went to light the kerosene lamp, I and the other lady visitors sequestered ourselves in a dark bedroom to change. Just as we finished, the lights came on. Right in time! We turned on the music and Chiqui, his sister Yahaira, and I danced a few salsa numbers in various combinations. Then we worked on setting up a food area in the backyard. However, we didn’t have a table big enough for the planned spread. A couple of men came over carrying a dining room table that a neighbor had offered for the job, though it was a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to actually get it to the patio. It clearly was not going to fit through the front door and past the refrigerator. Neither would it fit through the door to the narrow alleyway alongside. But, lifting it up, it could go through a large window opening between the carport and the alley. The problem seemed to be solved, but another, bigger, one came up when, as they were maneuvering the monster around the last corner, they hit a water pipe, pulling it apart at a joint. Water sprayed everywhere and puddled on the ground until Laura grabbed it and held it together. A boy went and got a piece of broom handle and, with a large kitchen knife, whittled one end down to an appropriate size (everyone here is good with a machete). This was fitted into the end of the water-supplying side of the pipe and plastic wrapped around, saving us from drowning for the moment.
More and more guests began to arrive. Chiqui’s elderly and slightly drunk father from Dajabon; our musician friend Lupe Valerio and his even more elderly (84!) and drunk father from Restauracion, another border town; our favorite neighbor, the one famous for formerly adding S’s in all the wrong places. And a hundred others I didn’t know. I mostly sat around with the old men, they got a kick out of giving me homemade mamajuana to drink. The makings for this traditional beverage are sold all along Calle del Sol, but Valerio Sr had made this himself out of “5 types of twigs that grow in the country over there – they’re all medicinal! It’s good for you!” All these woody plants are tossed into a gallon jug and cured with either gin or rum. It tasted kind of like spiced rum. It’s good for hilarity as it’s rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Meanwhile, Yary was held prisoner by the photographers, both official and unofficial, who had to get pictures of her, the cake, and just about everyone in attendance. Anyway, eventually (11 PM-ish) the food service got started. We began with a juice beverage with chunks of pineapple and melon, followed by pastelitos (little empanadas filled with chicken) that Ms S and I had gone to fetch, sandwiches with a mayo-based spread, sliced ham donated by a friend who works at the ham factory. Still later, the real food made its way over – the goat, rice, yuca, a macaroni and tuna salad made by Yahaira across the street, and just for me, some cooked veggies in vinaigrette.
At this point I was about ready to fall asleep but everyone else seemed to be just getting started. The oldsters had way more energy than me, and I danced some merengue and bachata with both of them. Lupe’s dad had some especially distinctive moves, including one in which he took my hands and alternately placed one over the other in a sort of Dominican hand jive, which sent one girl into hysterics. But soon it was time to turn off the recorded music and get to the real business of merengue típico. Altogether, we had five accordionists: Chiqui, Chiqui’s dad, Lupe, Lupe’s dad, and me. I was forced to be the opener, and played 3 merengues with Chiqui accompanying me on saxophone, his dad on tambora, and some guy I’d never met before on a little dinky güira. Then things got mixed up: Chiqui’s dad switched to accordion and Chiqui to tambora, his sister Rosy on güira; then Lupe, his dad, and Chiqui, rotated through on accordion. It was fun to hear the oldsters play, and Chiqui’s dad was especially fiery on the tambora, but Lupe was the one who really shone on the accordion with his crazy solos that made the crowd (consisting mostly of a lot of young men pressed in close in the tiny living room) go wild.
This went on until close to 3 AM, at which point about half the crowd was ready to leave but the other half, still partying, turned the sound system back on at full blast. As I tried to get the family organized for a group shot, something that hadn’t been able to happen earlier with Laura running around, and others took out the trash, a police car actually showed up with its lights flashing and all! I was surprised. “What’s that about?” I asked Laura. “To turn the music down,” she explained. Wow! I’d never have expected that in a barrio in the Dominican Republic. “Barrio Seguro,” she elaborated. So I guess the president’s plan for keeping neighborhoods like this safe and secure is having some effect. Still, as I left, Laura warned me, “Don’t stop for anyone! Not even the police!” I didn’t, and made it home just fine.