Thursday, February 01, 2007

Back in action!

Once again, I chose the appropriate moment to make a grand entrance back into Santiago life. As the plane made its final approach last Friday, I saw the monument was all dressed up in a new set of patriotic red, blue, and white lights; I also noticed that the Estadio Cibao was all lit up, so a baseball game must have been going on.

Jon, the visiting professor from the University of Vermont to whom I’d loaned my car, picked me up in my own vehicle. His son had renamed it “The Millenium Falcon” in my absence, and I thoroughly approved of the name. I dropped him off at home and met the rest of the family, then hurried back to my old abode, since it was already past 10 PM. On the way home, I noticed that all those buzzy plastic horns I’d become so familiar with last baseball season were back in full force. Same car, same apartment, same ruckus – it was almost like I never left.

Almost, but not quite: Doña Ana met me at my car and showed me around the apartment again. The mosquito escape route was still operational, but she told me the old green-light water system was no longer needed, new ruffled toilet-seat covers had been sewn, and also the furniture had been rearranged. More importantly, I found out that the final game of the playoffs was what I’d seen in progress at the baseball stadium, and the Aguilas, the local Santiago team, was going to win: it was the seventh inning and they were ahead 10-1 over their archrivals, Los Tigres de Licey. Last year, I’d seen the Tigres beat the Aguilas on their way to winning the 2006 title, but like I say, things are different around here this year.

Don Rafael informed me that the impending Aguilas win meant that, very shortly, all kinds of inclement noises would occur, and no one would get much sleep. Sure enough, as I lay on my bed with my hand in the air, applying pressure to the thumb I’d just sliced open while trying to cut open a box of juice, fireworks started going off and shots were fired into the air, music played, and horns honked. But after a 4:30 AM wake-up call, three flights, twelve hours of travel, and completely jacked up on decongestants, I felt like I could sleep through anything, and I pretty much did.

Since then, it’s been mostly what you would expect: paying visits to friends, and getting back into this other way of life. The slower pace, the frightening traffic, the heat. The replacement of handicapped parking spaces with “I’m Going to be a Mother” spaces. A few things have changed besides the arrangement of my furniture: parties start and end earlier because of new cabaret laws. There are parking meters downtown where once there was only chaos. They put up a bunch of signs in a probably vain attempt to keep people from driving the wrong way on the one-way streets in my neighborhood.

Here’s what happens when you’ve been away from here for seven months and then you come back for a three-month stay. 1) Everyone says, “Why so short?” 2) Everyone says, “You look fatter!” (I haven’t changed in weight at all, but I realize that it’s supposed to be a compliment. Flesh is valued here.)

So far, I’ve visited the Taveras family (Chiqui, Laura, and all), the Roman family (Rafaelito, Carmen, and all), and my friends at the Centro Leon. Everyone says, “nothing’s new here,” but it’s not precisely true. Besides what I’ve mentioned, Chiqui went to New York for the first time and returned just two weeks before I arrived. He came back with a few more words of English and a picture of himself with a very lifelike wax statue of Morgan Freeman. His mother had a stroke and was brought to a hospital here in Santiago where we all went to see her. Rafaelito has more students than ever, and Carmen lost a lot of weight. At the Centro Leon, Angela went back to New York, Zoraya has nearly finished her Master’s, and everyone is hard at work on the upcoming conference.

I still have many more visits to make, but first, I had to make some arrangements. My agenda for this trip is different from those past. I’ve already got more interviews for my dissertation than I know what to do with, or am able to transcribe, so I’m going to (a) hire a transcriber and (b) take a vacation from interviews. Instead, I’m going to try to get some comparative information as well as experience some different parts of the country.

First, since this is carnival month, I’m planning on visiting some of the different carnivals in various Cibaeno towns. Last year, when I was busy participating in carnival with my group of lechones, I was only able to see the event here in Santiago and I didn’t have much opportunity to document the experience with photographs or video. This year, while I still want to hit the streets with Los Confraternos, I also want to see the better-known carnival in La Vega as well as some others with unique costumes and practices, such as perhaps Cotui, Salcedo, or Puerto Plata.

Second, I want to get a little bit more activist and spend some time on the bateyes. A batey is a government settlement for agricultural workers, usually those who undertake the difficult sugar cane harvest. Many batey-dwellers are Dominico-Haitians or even Haitian immigrants (many illegal), and they form the poorest segment of the population here. Last year, I visited a batey in Barahona during holy week in order to hear some ga-ga music (you can see it on this blog under April 2006). Now, I want to see how conditions are on bateyes here in the north, see what kind of musical activity goes on there, and perhaps lend a helping hand with some projects.

That’s why I got in touch with Jon of the University of Vermont, who along with his wife Pat is running a program on Batey Libertad northwest of Santiago. Run through GrassRoots Soccer, a group that works mostly in Africa, the program combines soccer training with HIV/AIDS education. The batey’s team competes with others in the region in order to create opportunities for the batey residents to interact positively with other Dominicans and help eliminate racism. The project has also built a multi-purpose room where classes are held and a medical clinic on the batey.

On Wednesday I got my first opportunity to accompany Jon out to Batey Libertad. I met him and two young men who work with the soccer program, Yanlico and Rafo, at the house he is renting in La Zurza (near where I lived my first year here). He had been sad to see the Falcon go, but luckily had been able to purchase his own bucket of bolts, temporarily named “Red-riguez,” from El Negro just a day before I arrived. A little nicer than the Falcon but without quite so much character, it nevertheless did a fine job of carting the four of us out of town, past Navarrete, Esperanza, and the middle-of-nowhere settlement simply called “Km. 10” to the batey.

Batey Libertad is much smaller than the one I’d seen in the south, but still has a population of nearly 2000. It was originally constructed during the Trujillo era to house sugar cane workers, but the cane is now gone: today, these people work in the rice fields that line the highway along here. They are beautiful and impossibly green, but full of pests and fungi that spread nasty parasites, skin diseases, and respiratory infections among the workers. The work is hot and can be painful, but it is still a draw for many Haitians who have no work at all.

The settlement itself consists of clusters of houses made of materials ranging from rusted-out corrugated tin to newly plastered and painted cinder block, so close together that cars can’t pass through most of its dusty roads. There are two round shelters with thatched roofs and concrete floors that can be used for gaming, and five small concrete water towers on stilts, all empty. Rafo tells me that a community upstream from them has usurped their water supply, and now they have to cross the highway to fetch it from the rice plant. When the plant is closed and locked, they take it out of the drainage ditch that catches the pesticide-filled runoff from the fields. For sanitation, there are a handful of outhouses all in a row: Rafo calls it the Barrio de las Letrinas. One of the stalls used to hold a communal shower, but now, of course, it’s out of order.

There are a few more landmarks to see here: two Trujillo-era buildings still stand, long, low concrete buildings divided into separate apartments, where workers used to sleep twenty to a room in hammocks. A concrete slab with a basketless hoop at one end provides some entertainment, though perhaps not as much as the dirt soccer field that lies just outside the settlement. There is an internet center (one of Jon’s endeavors), denoted by a nicely-painted desktop computer on its yellow wall. Tobacco dries in two places: the green leaves hang outside under a shelter, those farther along in the aging process dry inside a wooden house, its shutters open to reveal the somewhat surreal scene inside. Sheep, cows, and chickens stroll the open area between Latrine town and the soccer field.

Then there is the lair of Casco Pelao (bald head), the local voodoo doctor. His consulting office is decorated with a painting of San Miguel in angel form floating over the doorway, accompanied by a legend informing would-be patients that their search ends here, for the low low price of 57 pesos and a bottle of rum. Next door is the peristyle, a building designed for voodoo ceremonies, with its all-important centerpost and colorful paper and plastic flags hanging from the ceiling. On the other side of the batey is his home, painted with the full-size image of a hatted man with crosses in his eyes and a bone necklace; here, the deity Guede guards the doorway. Casco Pelao’s home actually takes up only half the building, the other half is a dormitory where his patients may sleep peacefully, free from evil influences. Besides medicine, Casco Pelao also provides entertainment. On weekends, he converts the peristyle into a disco for the benefit of local youth (and a small entrance fee).

Casco Pelao was not around at the moment. Instead, we met with Papito, who serves as mayor of the batey and the head of a very accomplished family: his sons are now studying medicine and law at the technical university in Santiago. We pulled up a couple of chairs in the shade between the houses to chat, and were soon swamped by children. Some were playing a version of hopscotch they’d drawn using coal scavenged from cooking fires. Some were getting their hair combed, another was taking a bath in a washtub – the school around the corner, which goes up to fifth grade, had just broken for lunch. Before long, we got our own, prepared by Papito’s wife in the communal kitchen: rice, spaghetti, fried chicken (for those who eat such things), and a bottle of Red Rock, the soda that tastes like red.

Chatting with Milanda, one of the soccer trainers, I found out that Batey Libertad had once had a ga-ga but its leader had moved away; a típico musician used to live here, too, but now he lived and worked in Santiago. These days, most musical activity around here was recorded. Indeed, today there was electricity, and people were taking advantage of it to listen to típico, reggaeton, and bachata. On the weekends, when the power supply permits, the kids have dances where Haitian konpa and Dominican bachata are the favored sounds. But there are plenty of drummers here who provide Casco Pelao with necessary ceremonial music. November and December are the big months for voodoo ceremonies here, I’m told, but those who wish for one to be performed especially for them can pay to obtain this service, and Jon will be doing so in March when his student group comes down. Most interestingly, Milanda told me that just this past weekend, a ga-ga group appeared in the batey to play for tips. They had come down from “la loma,” the hills, an indefinite spot to be sure, but likely to refer to one of the coffee plantations in the mountains that separate Navarrete from the coast. This could be something to investigate.

After lunch, we headed to the recently-constructed community building, where Yanlico was in the midst of leading an education session with this year’s Grassroots Soccer trainees. It was the first time this part of the curriculum had been tried out here, recently translated from English to Spanish, and results were mixed. Today’s activity was a game called, “where do I stand?” and it was a means of getting the kids to talk about their beliefs and opinions about sex. Yanlico would read a statement from the book, and the students would decide where they stood on it by going to either the “agree” side of the room or the “disagree” side, or staying somewhere in between. We soon realized there was a problem with understanding double negatives – i.e. those who disagreed with a negative statement often stood on the “agree” side, as they were thinking that made it a positive statement. In spite of the confusion, though, the goal of talking about their opinions was reached. The second game was a game of limbo, where the pole with a sign marked “sex” hanging from it was progressively lowered as a symbol of the increased peer pressure one can expect at increasing ages. This game was particularly popular and amusing, although as Jon remarked, it was a bit fatalistic: sooner or later, the sex was going to hit you. The meeting concluded with a snack (a way to ensure attendance as well as provide needed calories) and we returned to Papito’s.

The short time remaining in the afternoon was occupied by (a) playing with the community dog, Rey, and (b), much less fun, accomplishing the errand of making photocopies of a poster inviting batey residents to the Grassroots graduation ceremony this weekend. This took about two hours of running around the congested and polluted streets of Esperanza, since we had to try two different Internet centers and three copy stores before we found functional printers and copiers. After that, it was back to Santiago as the bright red sun set behind the emerald rice paddies while men on horses and pedestrians with machetes headed for home.

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