Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dominicans do Riverdance, too

Friday’s palos party probably couldn’t compare with the excitement of the Scary Bathroom, but nonetheless I was anxious to make my percussionary debut. When Heather and I arrived at the Casa de Arte, we found the capoeira group of La 37 Por Las Tablas, another art space across the street, in mid-performance. So we paleros, aka Grupo Mello de San Juan, were on second. While waiting I had time to greet all my friends in the audience, which included Chio Villalona, the folklorist from Dajabon I hadn’t seen in months. He was still wearing the little hat that marked his profession. Also present was Manochi, Tatico’s old marimbero, who I’d told about the gig and who had come just to see my debut.

The rest of the Grupo Mello were dressed for the ocassion in tropical floral shirts. I was the only one that didn’t match (in more ways than one), but I got to play balsie anyway. I thought I might be nervous but it was surprisingly fun. One of the other members of the group had told me after every rehearsal, “you never really play until you’re playing at a party. Then you’ll really get into it and you’ll see that you can play.” He was right; I even remembered more repiques or fills that I thought I’d forgotten long ago. This in spite of the drunken Colombian guy who kept trying to join us on various percussion instruments, but did so playing Colombian rhythms that didn’t really go with our Dominican ones. He was very persistent, but Hector kicked him off the palo. Then he moved on to dancing around us. I invited Manochi to join us as well, since he claimed to also play palos. Eventually he settled in on the güira, where he seemed to be very happy.

I played for probably half the set. By then my right hand was a little sore and also I realized my sister was missing; thus, I asked another palero to fill in for me while I went to look for her. I found her talking to an artist under a lime tree, from which he had pulled a very fragrant fruit to give her. But the artist wasn’t her only admirer. As I relaxed on a folding chair with a cup full of rum, this little but extraordinarily pushy guy came over to make annoying conversation and then force her to dance with him. It would have been good if he’d stuck with a basic step or two, since Heather had picked those up quickly. But he had to throw in some crazy moves of his own. One of the pictures I took captured his bizarre ape-man style pretty well. Meanwhile, Manochi called me over for a chat. He explained he had paid for his concho over here just in order to see me, but didn’t have enough to take a car back. I assured him that I’d either give him a ride or see that he got a taxi home. But then he went on to other monetary matters. We’d spoken of doing an interview in the coming week, and referring to this he said, “I was hoping that maybe you could give me a little help.” This gave me a sinking feeling. I knew of course that he meant money and I was already reliving the argument I’d had over paying for interviews a few weeks earlier. I figured I had to get out of this situation quickly. “OK, but I want to make sure you know that I don’t pay for interviews. I’ve never paid for an interview, so I can’t change my policy now.” “Oh no, I would never charge for an interview,” he assured me. “I was just thinking, maybe I could help you with something and you could help me with something too.” This sounded to me no different than paying for an interview, which clearly I couldn’t do, but I did want to help him in some small way if possible. Was there some way around this? “Let’s talk about this later and see if we can come up with something,” I suggested.

As a public, family-appropriate organization, the Casa de Arte parties never go on too late. By 10:30 we were done and I said my goodbyes to the rest of the Grupo Mello out on the sidewalk, as another drunken artist – one I always see here, and who always makes me uncomfortable with his too-friendly greetings – tried to get my phone number. I deflected him with, “I’m going back to the US very soon, so it will be disconnected,” and then Heather and I took off to give Manochi a ride home. On the way I thought I’d found a solution to our problem. “Do you have a marimba?” I asked. “No, but I borrow one from a friend whenever I need to play one.” “Do you think you could teach me how to play marimba? I have one in the US but I’ve never learned how to play it.” “Sure! Of course, no problem.” “Then why don’t you give me a lesson before I leave, just like Rafaelito gives me accordion lessons.” I knew he would understand this to mean that I’d pay him for the lesson just as I pay Rafaelito. He agreed to this and we planned that he would come by Rafaelito’s at my accordion lesson time on Monday, either to give me my marimba class just after or to do an interview and make other arrangements. Nevertheless, when we arrived at his house in Ensanche Libertad he asked me for 100 pesos. “I’m in some hard times.” Not wanting to argue the point further I gave the sum to him and told him to “consider it a down payment on my lesson.” “Oh no, I would never charge for a lesson!” he insisted. “It’s only a loan, I’ll pay you back.”

That odd and uncomfortable conversation over, I decided to show my sister one last sight before we hit the hay. I consider it a must to visit the monument at nighttime to check out the hopping teenage hangout scene. We arrived about 11 PM and it was packed as always as we strolled the road that wraps around the Trujillo-era landmark, checking out the view of the bridge at night as well as all the SUV’s filled with floor-to-ceiling sound systems. Most were blasting reggaeton, though merengue, merengue típico, and bachata could also be heard. Strolling vendors sold ice-cold Presidente beer to the partiers. As we passed around the back of the monument, we were surprised to run into someone we knew – the half-Indonesian teenage neighbor of Rafaelito’s who often comes to my lesson. He insisted on taking us inside the monument’s lobby since he had a friend in the tourism police on duty that night. Inside, surrounded by marble columns and looking out the diamond-shaped panes of glass, it was actually quite pleasant. Our Indonesian tour guide told Heather, “see the elevator? Just like Titanic!” It had one of the old sliding metal gates. “What year was it built?” she asked. “Umm… I don’t know! I don’t know anything about it! But it’s kind of old,” he concluded.

Thus informed, and after a haircut for Heather (she was just as surprised as Mom had been to see the bouffant blow-out that Margarita always does with our straight hair) on Saturday morning we headed up towards the coast for our one night at the beach. We noticed the flame-orange flamboyan trees were in bloom – just as Dominicans always say, right in time for mother’s day. After passing first through browning tobacco fields (tobacco season long gone), then emerald green canefields, and then a mountain tunnel, we decended towards the sea and the town of Puerto Plata. There, I took Heather on a quick driving tour of the sights –the 15th-century fort (burro off-duty today, seen from a distance grazing in a vegetable patch), the gingerbread architecture around the charming town square, the somewhat less attractive Brugal bottling plant. We only just had time for pizza and a salad on the Malecon before checking at our resort at Playa Dorada – this one for the astoundingly cheap price of $55 each, all inclusive.

When we arrived, we found out why – it wasn’t right on the beach, but set back from it a ways down a sandy path. But we decided we could deal with the 5-minute walk for the price. Thus we checked in and changed for the beach, heading straight for the activities desk – where we found they were closed for the day, and wouldn’t even open the next day, being that it was Sunday and Monther’s day. We were disappointed being that Heather hadn’t snorkeled in 20 years, but I put on a pathetic act and talked the guy into trying to set a couple of masks aside for us tomorrow. Instead, we relaxed on the beach with our books and a beer and treaded water a while for exercise, and then Heather bought a nice speckled shell six inches wide from a strolling vendor. That brought us up to bathtime, dinnertime, billiardtime, and finally showtime. Of course it was a must to check out the corny hotel entertainment. I was kind of hoping for a Stupid Human Tricks thing like the last time I was down here, but they only did a quick “Spanish lesson” competition before going on to the main attraction. It was an “dances of the world” program tonight with a company of four women and three men. In general the choreography was needlessly repetitive, but one woman clearly outshone the others and did a respectable job in the “bellydance,” “Spanish,” and “merengue” numbers, the last done in day-glo to Juan Luis Guerra’s recording of “El Farolito.” But in between we had to sit through some decidedly odd pseudo-interpretive dance numbers by a couple, one of which found the female partner dressed in a snakeskin unitard for unknown reasons, and another which emphasized her lack of extension, and a final one consisting primarily of lifts which put her into semi-obscene splits positions half the time. The show ended up with a Dominican versdion of Riverdance, something I never imagined I’d live to see.

Although Heather had secret desires to visit the casino, I convinced her they were unlikely to have quarter tables in this resort complex. This enabled us to get up early enough to enjoy a big breakfast and a morning of snorkeling with the masks our friend at the scuba desk had in fact sneakily set aside for us. Unfortunately, they were much too small for our Swing family noses, meaning that in order to submerge ourselves we had to hold our noses and continually press the water seeping in out of the masks. Eventually, after what seemed hours of snorkeling struggles, we did manage to see a few colorful fish. Our work done, we decided to turn in our flourescently-colored, child-size apparatuses and move on to packing and lunch. Although our time had been too short, we had taken full advantage of the beach and the free alcohol.

On the way back, we’d planned to stop and buy a couple of gifts in Puerto Plata. The shops were closed! Duh! Oh well, it was just as well. Up at the mountain tunnel, after passing through what was almost a major rainstorm before it suddenly petered out, we stopped at a roadhouse for a rum-based shopping spree and potato chips with lime. Back in Santiago we only just had time to hose ourselves off after the muggy drive before we were due to make an appearance in La Otra Banda at my palos rehearsal.

Hector, Denio and the rest were waiting for us with rum, coke, and chipped ice at the ready. Since my last rehearsal, Denio had finished plastering over the old doorway he’d sealed off in the living room and painted the whole place in off-white, finishing it off with a scallop design up near the ceiling. Progress. After chatting, we repaired to the back patio where Heather sketched the 12-inch purple bud of a blooming banana tree as we heated the drums using the lightbulbs the Turbi brothers had cleverly affixed inside the palos’ lower openings. When we started playing, it seemed like half the neighborhood showed up to join in the fun, including a very drunk, very fat man in a white undershirt who insisted on showing us all his dance moves. His drunkenness was only rivaled by that of the third Turbi brother, Daniel, who kept repeating over and over that he hoped I’d enjoyed being with them and hoped I’d be back soon as I “added beauty to the group.” He insisted on continuing the “conversation” by walking Heather and I to our car, though Hector followed and told him firmly that we really had to go. And we did have to go, as we didn’t want to be late for our appointment at Rafaelito’s, since he and Carmen had kindly invited us for dinner. We were late anyway, though, ensnared by a monumental traffic jam by the Estrella Sadhala / 27 de Febrero intersection. (Rafaelito later told us it was the result not of an accident but of everyone trying to go at once when they saw the traffic light was out.)

Carmen outdid herself as usual, with breaded and fried fish, tostones, green salad, rice and beans, and the obligatory can of jalapenos in my honor. Heather, having never experienced a Carmen meal and thinking we were there more out of social obligation than anything else, exclaimed, “I didn’t know it would be GOOD!” Mauricio the cat joined us, begging for scraps. After we ate our fish we tried giving him a bean and discovered he liked those too. So much so that he tried to climb up onto the table. Bad kitty! I guess it was just as well we had Mauricio’s help, though, because we had to eat quick in order to make it to La Tinaja in time for Rafaelito’s regular show there. After one set, we decided not to wait for Monchy (the second band on the bill) to play but instead to cross the highway and visit Rancho Merengue. To the music of Francisco Ulloa we greeted friend and Heather got hit on by a military man who just wouldn’t give up. With her thus entertained, I took advantage of what I imagined would be my last opportunity this year to experience the dance stylings of Papote de Leon, the 70-year-old merenguero I’d interviewed in Tamboril a couple weeks earlier. They turned out to be nothing fancy, but smooth and fluid, one might say classic. I enjoyed it – and then Heather enjoyed getting rid of her admirer when we went home.

Monday was Memorial Day – not here of course, but in the US – and Heather had to go home. At least we had time to finish her gift shopping at the Mercado Modelo before we had to be at the airport. And at the airport, we had time for coffee and a snack before she had to be at the gate. It turned out to be a fortuitious coffee break, as Heather got her last wish of things she’d wanted to do in the DR. As we sat chatting, I was surprised to see our old friend David David sneaking up behind her back. So in the end, she was able to see the only other person she knew in the DR besides me! We reminisced about the moments on September 11 we’d all spent together. Indeed a joyous reunion, although not perhaps the ideal topic for discussion before a plane trip. Luckily, Heather wasn’t phased, and she got home safely.

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