Took a couple of days to recover from the quinceañera. As well as an accordion lesson and a couple of games of dominoes. On Wednesday, after the second one of these, Chiqui accompanied me to Rancho Merengue to do some daytime photography and then to visit a friend who was going to help hook me up with an interview. This guy has a diesel auto shop right next to the gas station on Av. Tamboril where I found myself stranded in the rainstorm a couple of weeks ago. He pulled out a couple of chairs so Chiqui and I could relax with him in the shade surrounded by diesel engines. He’d been at the quinceanera, showed me a video he’d taken of Lupe on his cell phone and played a recording of yours truly. He also had an interesting old tape of Tatico playing La Pobre Adela and a bunch of other merengues. Everyone’s a collector here – but unlike in other record collecting scenes, among merengueros, everything’s free. We got as far as making an appointment for me to call him again on Friday, after he’d had a chance to talk with his friend.
On Thursday I found that I had AMAZING timing. I went out for dinner and sat there reading for a while. I got up to leave, and it wasn’t raining. I drove home and walked up to my door. As I opened it, it started to drizzle. As I closed it, stepped inside, and turned on my computer it started to absolutely pour. We’re talking monsoon proportions. Someone left the faucet turned on full blast. When it hits the metal blinds, it sounds like heavy artillery. It hadn’t even looked at all like rain earlier, and so I hadn’t had my umbrella with me. Hooray for the tropics, and hooray for my psychic abilities that brought me home in the nick of time.
Even before that, my day had been going pretty well. I got up, practiced accordion, went to the Centro Leon, posted last week’s blog and wrote some emails, and ate lunch quickly. At 1:30 sharp I left, filled up my tank with gas, and headed down the Duarte Highway to La Vega. I had an appointment with Francisco Torres Petiton, a local historian and the nephew of the composer, Rafael Petiton Guzman, who I’d been researching off and on, on the request of his youngest daughter. I’d met Don Francisco back in February at the Centro Leon’s program about the Vegan carnival, but what with carnival and Semana Santa it took me this long to get around to phoning him.
Anyway, it was well worth the trip, even if I did get a bit lost on the way down. First, I missed the turnoff to Santo Cerro, a hill that comes up on one’s left just before getting to the city of La Vega. A problem soon solved, when I came to the next retorno. So I headed up the hill, a very pleasant drive, if a little rough on my car for the steepness. There was a charming little town on top of the hill with a cemetery featuring the white, boxy above-ground tombs topped with stark crosses that are typical here. But a few blocks beyond that, the road abruptly dead-ended at a large church. This, I found out, marked the spot where Columbus first climbed up here to place a cross and pray in 1494, and uses some of the bricks from the old fort down the hill. But I hadn’t seen the school I’d been looking for as a landmark for a right turn I was supposed to take. The friendly townspeople pointed me in the right direction, though – I’d apparently neglected to put a left turn at the cemetery in my notes. But after the turn it didn’t get much better, as I wasn’t sure which house was the one. Luckily, a pair of teenage boys on a motorbike, the rear one carrying a spare tire, appeared and offered to lead the way. Everyone knows the Torres Petiton house! So now we switched to low gear and headed down the equally steep backside of the hill, past a series of statues marking the stations of the cross for penitents, down to a small settlement called Carrera de las Palmas. Here was the school – we made the right and pulled in to the house.
I found Francisco and his wife relaxing on plastic chaise longues in a thatch-covered gazebo to the right of the house, reading the paper. They pulled a rocking chair up for me so we could chat. In the course of the afternoon, I got to see a bunch of news clippings on the composer, a few music manuscripts, and two disintegrating posters probably from the 1930s, advertising Petiton’s performances at disreputable locations in various parts of Latin America. Apparently, he joined up with a variety show group in Caracas and traveled to Cuba, Panama, Colombia, and elsewhere in a sort of Latin vaudeville circuit. It’s too bad he died in the 80s – there would have to be some great stories about these joints! I was also served coke, coffee, and the juice of yet another tropical fruit previously unknown to me – called, I think, tomacillo? It did look a bit like an elongated tomato, with a mottled red skin. But on the inside, it was a bright orange with black seeds. A friend brings the Torres family these and strawberries from the mountain town of Constanza every Wednesday.
After we’d exhausted Francisco’s data on his uncle, and had returned to his favorite topic- that of local history, I asked where the ruins of La Vega Vieja were to be found. I knew the remains of La Vega’s original settlement, destroyed in an earthquake and moved to its present location in 1562, were around here somewhere. In fact, they turned out to be just down the road 2 kilometers. “Take her to see them!” urged the wife, a motion I seconded. On the way, we also passed a dirt road that Mr Torres told me led to the ruins of the original cathedral, but this was unfortunately on private property whose absentee owners lived in Puerto Rico, and they didn’t want people tramping around in there. Mr Torres even told me that back in the early 80s they’d opened a billiard parlor right there in the ruins. So, Don Francisco, on the town’s preservation and planning committee at the time, took them to court. He argued that they couldn’t treat national patrimony in this way, private property or not, and succeeded in getting them shut down. They haven’t dared to gamble in the cathedral again.
La Vega Vieja is still a national historic park, but unfortunately all its funding was cut a few years back, and no one is there to look after it anymore. The ticket booth stands empty, and the two-story house at back that used to house the curator and a small museum showcasing artifacts found during the excavations has seen better days. Now anyone can tramp all around the site, just as we did. Don Francisco really knows his stuff, though: he gave me the history about, latest theories regarding, and excavation data for every bit of wall or flooring we went past. Here’s what can still be seen: a good chunk of the original fort, with its unusual openings that could accommodate both crossbows and the latest technology in 15th century firearms; the foundation of another part of the fort used for storage, which seems to have burnt down during the 1562 earthquake; the foundation of a storehouse with an interesting zigzag brick pattern; the base of a stone washtub and bits of the old aqueduct and drinking fountains. All this except for the very top of the original, round fort was buried under vegetation and dirt until it was excavated in the 1970s. There was also an underground room they dug out, ten feet below the floor of the burnt section, but now it’s filled up with squishy orange mud. The site was interesting and quite beautiful, though it’s too bad it can’t be better taken care of. My guide also told me that the empty lot next door, where the tallest rooster I’d ever seen and a bunch of chickens were now pecking under some plantain trees, used to be called “La Temblanza,” from the word temblor, or earthquake. In a strange geological phenomenon, the land there has a more solid layer over a more spongy or perhaps even hollow layer. The underneath part had filled up with water during floods, staying that way for a couple of decades, so much so that the area’s usual vegetation couldn’t grow on it. One person could jump on the spot and hear a sort of hollow sound. If several people jumped together, they produced a mini-earthquake. It was fun for a while, but the site eventually dried out and is more or less back to normal now.
Our visit ended and I drove back to Santiago just about at sunset. I was feeling very hot and sweaty, but also pleased with myself for having accomplished a mission long put off. I was even more pleased with myself that I still had another interview scheduled for that evening and another in the morning. Should have known better. After staying awake and clothed long enough to make my 11 PM appointment to interview a bass player before his gig, I got there and, not seeing him, called his cell. He was only just leaving his house – in Moca. This meant that (a) I’d have to wait around in that parking lot for another half hour and (b) I’d only have half an hour, tops, for an interview I knew would need more time than that. I elected to postpone to a more convenient time for both, and was happy to hit the hay anyhow. But in the morning, I had the same problem with my other interview. The guy, a military general and big típico fan, was in the capital and wouldn’t be back til about 7, my informant (a friend of his) informed me. The friend was supposed to call me back around 7, but didn’t, and no one answered at his shop. Ah, fieldwork! The ups, the downs! My archival afternoon went better, though. I got to take a look at Fradique Lizardo’s old tapes – both reel to reel and cassette. There was a lot of very interesting stuff there, from old palos parties to field recordings from Samana to a recording made on Ramfis Trujillo’s yacht of parodies of merengues written to praise his dictatorial father. Now, if only we could find a machine to play them on…