Sunday, February 11, 2007

A walk in the tropical woods


Something was in the air on Tuesday. It was clearly a day not meant to be. First, having discovered the night before that my headlights had burnt out, I had to hastily have those replaced, so I headed to the mechanic’s first thing. This ended up to be more of an ordeal than expected, since I went ahead and asked him about the blinker that had never worked and the dashboard display light that had mysteriously ceased to function a few weeks ago. All of that took until 2 PM, which was kind of bad since I had a meeting set up with La India Canela at 4 PM and a lot of work to do at the Centro Leon before then. Arriving at the Centro Leon at 2:30, I worked as quickly as I could, firing off as many emails as were humanly possible before 3:45, at which point I suddenly realized I’d eaten nothing and was starving. I shoved a cheese sandwich and bean soup down my throat and ran out the door again.

It was already 4:00, but La India lived nearby, so I wouldn’t be too late – in fact, I’d be positively early if we were working on Dominican time. (I’m never sure when we are and when we’re not, though, since some people expect me to function in “hora americana” and some don’t.) But like I say, something was in the air, and it was not meant to be.

First, I couldn’t find the turnoff to Llanos de Gurabo, which should have been only a few blocks east of the Centro Leon but I seemed to have passed it by. I stopped at a traffic light to figure out where I was, and also to figure out if the traffic light was actually working – in the sun, it kind of looked like the yellow had been lit when I pulled up, but looking at it again I wasn’t sure; perhaps it was not working. In that moment, a car behind me honked and I figured that in fact the light was out, so I started to go. But that car had, in the intervening half second, attempted to swerve around my right side where I couldn’t see him, and ended up sideswiping me!

I was swearing in my best Dominican style when I pulled over behind him to examine the damage. Well, the bumper was a little bit broken and scuffed up on that side, but it had been a little bit scratched and cracked before. It wasn’t worth making a big stink about, so after we finished yelling at one another for a minute or two in the accepted manner, I said it would be fine, explaining that the car had been ugly before and now was just a bit uglier, and he and his SUV with the Che Guevara sticker on the back window drove off again. Clearly, I wasn’t meant to get to this meeting at anything even remotely resembling on time.

I set off again, made a U-turn, then meandered through a hilly neighborhood until coming out on an avenue that would take me in the right direction, although it wasn’t the one I’d been searching for. A few blocks later, although there were no signs to tell me so, I got the feeling that I might be in the correct neighborhood and turned into it. None of the streets had the name I searched for, however, so I stopped two passersby for directions and ended up on what was apparently the right street, even though the posted street signs didn’t bother to state the fact. I checked my notes: Prolongacion 9, #3. According to the guy on the corner, this was Prolongacion 9, so I started looking for the house number.

5, 7, 9 – this didn’t seem to be the right direction, but there hadn’t been any #3 yet, so I kept going. 12, 14 – ah! there it was, right between 11 and 6. Of course! I sighed in exasperation at the sense of whimsy displayed by city planners. So I’d passed the first test, but I still wasn’t sure it was the right house. I’d been to La India’s once before, but that was two and a half years ago and I didn’t have a clear memory of what it looked like or where it was, but I really didn’t remember it being on the corner as this house was. Only one way to find out if I was at the right place, though, so I rang the bell.

A teenage girl answered, opening the iron gate for me. “Is La India here?” I asked. “Yes, yes, come on in,” she told me. She didn’t look familiar, but she could have been newly hired help, I reasoned. I inquired whether I could wash my hands, as the twenty-some minutes I’d already spent on the road in the hot sun had made me feel sweaty and dusty. She showed me to the kitchen sink and provided me with soap and a towel. That done, she showed me to a chair at the dining room table and sat down with me.

She looked at me expectantly. I smiled.

She continued to wait. Another girl, younger than the first, came in and sat down, too. I smiled at her.

I pulled out my notebook, attempting to look professional and ready for the meeting to which I’d arrived so late. Another minute passed.

They both looked expectantly at me. What were they waiting for? I wondered. I’d already asked for La India and no one looked like they were making any move to bring her.

“Umm… so, where exactly is La India?” I tried again.

“La India?” the first one said in a puzzled tone. “There’s no one by that name here.”

“What?! But that’s why I asked you when I got here!” I jumped out of my chair, startled that I was sitting in a strange house, with people that must have been off their rockers, to bring me in off the street. Then I sighed once more in exasperation. Getting lost was one thing, but being lost, suffering a traffic accident, and then being shown into a stranger’s house was really quite out of the ordinary, even for me. In fact, I was still lost, I remembered, and there didn’t seem to be any escape from the situation.

“Ah. You’re looking for La India Canela, aren’t you?” the younger girl guessed.

“Yes, I am! I got lost coming here, but my notes say Prologacion 9, #3 – isn’t this number three?”

“Yes, but there’s another three, around the corner,” she explained.

But of course. I should have known.

“Around the corner – but is it still the same street, then? Prolongacion 9?”

“Yes, yes. Just go around the corner and you’ll see the other number three. It’s two stories,” she elaborated.

“Well, thank you,” I said uncertainly, moving rapidly towards the door.

“But wait! Stay a while!” the first girl insisted.

I burst out laughing. This was too much. I hurriedly explained that I was late for a meeting and really had to be going, and hopped into my car as quick as I could.

The second number three turned out to have no one home. I gave up – neither my map nor my usually stellar navigation skills could possibly be of use here, especially if “here” was, as I was increasingly starting to believe, the Twilight Zone. I had to try the phone, the instrument of last resort.

La India’s housekeeper answered, expressed sympathy for my lostness, and then explained that the house was actually at #13, not #3.

“But WHICH thirteen?” I demanded, not wanting to get caught in the same trap twice.

“The one that’s just a couple of doors down from where you are. Keep going. Ah, you’re here now,” she said, and opened the door.

I told both her and La India the story of my misadventure. They both laughed heartily. “Well, that’s Dominicans for you,” La India said, shaking her head. “Although it is strange for people to open their doors in this neighborhood – they’re very careful of their homes,” the housekeeper added. Apparently a sweaty, disheveled American girl doesn’t count as a threat. Although, I could have been a missionary, and then they might never have gotten rid of me. Luckily, I was there on other business. Tipico business, to be exact.

The excitement over, we got down to work. We had set up this meeting in order to decide on a repertoire for the CD she would be recording for Folkways, and which I was here to produce. Over the next three hours, we listened to selections from my collections of historical típico recordings and discussed our favorite tunes. We ended up with a list of twelve that we though showed a good cross-section of rhythms, time periods, topics, and composers, but we’ll go over it again on Friday with Raul, Rafaelito’s son, who is going to help us with arrangements and rehearsals.

By the time we finished, it was already 7:30 – exactly the time that a show I’d been invited to was supposed to start. Luis, who served as our guide in the mountains last year on our trip to Valle del Tetero, had finally got back in town and told me about a free jazz concert scheduled to take place at the new UASD (Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo) campus that night. I still had to get back home, wash up, change clothes, and eat a bite before I could go anywhere, too. Luckily, Luis called and told me the event wasn’t going to start on time (should I really have been surprised?) since there wasn’t yet a big enough audience.

Eventually I did arrive, and although I was an hour late, the group was only in its third piece. The auditorium, far from empty, was nearly full. And it turned out that the event, sponsored by the US State Department, was a performance of a group from Jazz at Lincoln Center. They were good! It was a quartet consisting of organ, drum set, congas, and trumpet. The audience was really into it, responding either vocally or by clapping to all the solos. In fact, when the conguero did a solo during which he improvised some vocals, the audience decided it was time to chime in and sing the tunes back to him. The piece turned into a spontaneous call-and-response number, and you could tell the percussionist was terribly amused by it all. They should have expected that Dominicans wouldn’t be able to sit silently during a great performance.

Afterwards, I spoke with a couple of the musicians. I told them that it had been a welcome change to actually feel proud of being an American for a few moments. The rest of the time, when you live abroad these days, it’s pretty much just an embarrassment. Let’s hope that some time in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all be able to enjoy a few more of those moments.

On Thursday, I decided to do something completely different and join Luis on a day trip up to the mountains. He goes frequently to an environmental preserve, la Reserva Cientifica Ebano Verde, on the way to Constanza, a place legendary in these parts for its beauty, cool temperatures, and fresh flowers and produce. I’d never been, and I could use both some nature and some exercise, so I decided to tag along.

This reserve was founded about ten years ago by Fundacion Progressio, a local NGO in order to protect the Ebano Verde, or green ebony tree, which was quickly becoming depleted. It is an endemic species only found in this particular part of the island. The local population was subsisting on cutting down these trees and other hardwoods in demand for furniture and art. The tree can grow to over 20 feet in height but the only old-growth stands left are deep in the reserve. It is difficult to grow, but the Fundacion employs technicians who work on germination projects in order to help reseed the area.

Luis and I set off from Santiago in the late morning, about an hour or so after we’d originally planned to hit the road (naturally). Heading south on the Autopista Duarte past La Vega, we passed all the usual roadside artifacts: the ceramics, the hammocks, the wooden dishes and utensils, and finally the piles of chicharron, or pork rinds. That was the indication that our turnoff, just before Bonao, was approaching. From there, we headed through the town of El Abanico up a steep and often frightening road into the Cordillera Central.

This was definitely the backwoods, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty going on. Along the way we passed two barefoot children carrying ñame they’d just dug out of the jungle somewhere. Next to one house, someone had constructed a basketball hoop using an old motorcycle tire. Higher up, another young boy attempted to repair a foot-pedal Singer sewing machine sitting in front of a clapboard house whose owners hadn’t been able to afford paint in quite some time. The Singer was in surprisingly good shape, as shiny as if it had been bought yesterday.

Then we were monte adentro, deep into the mountain forest. I began to be able to recognize the piñon cubano with its pink tissue-paper flowers, the great amapola, and the yagrumo with its enormous fan-shape leaves that shine silver at night. Other plants surprised me with their familiarity: the fragrant eucalyptus, graceful stands of bamboo. Higher still, the temperature dropping to a pleasant degree, we found manacles palms, indicating that water was near the surface, mixed with the first pine trees. There was even an occasional early-blooming flamboyan, the most beloved of Dominican trees, whose flaming orange blooms are so favored by painters. The steep slopes, Alpen in everything but vegetation, were good for more than just trees, we found as we passed a group of paragliders throwing themselves off the mountain and floating gracefully down to the Cibao valley floor.

Now there were cafetales, coffee plantations; the palo de viento which quakes like an aspen in the breeze; and stands of elencho ferns covering entire slopes. Nearly fluorescent green in color, Luis explained that the plants were all females. The males, alone in the midst of their harems, resembled tiny palms with fronds drooping down to reach their mates.

Then we turned a corner, and found ourselves at the highest point on our route, at about 1200 meters. The site was marked with a small chapel dedicated to La Virgen de Altagracia. The irregularly-shaped mud walls resembled the mountain slopes around us and also looked invitingly cool, so we stopped to enter. Two women caretakers welcomed us inside, explaining that it had just been built in the year 2000 and that candles were for sale, if we wished to make a devotion. Images of the virgin were on display behind a decorative iron rejilla and rays of light came down through glass bricks that had been laid in the form of a cross into the ceiling. It was cool, quiet, and contemplative, and while we enjoyed the silence for a moment, a produce truck driver on his way home to Constanza stopped in to do the same.

A short while later, we reached the town of El Arroyazo, at the turnoff to the preserve’s interpretive center. Luis seemed to know every resident of this town, and therefore we had to stop about once every minute to inquire after someone’s health. One woman told us the mass marking the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death would be held later today. A teenage boy in rubber work boots worked to bundle tiny white and yellow flowers on long stalks into manageable bundles for market. Vast fields of roses alternated with lettuce and white-roofed greenhouses where tomatoes grew. Many Haitians were on their way to and from the fields, having immigrated in search of profitable work. One house featured a veve design rendered in wood, a reminder of the vodou religion the inhabitants practiced.

A couple more kilometers, past a few attractive cabins and one misplaced A-frame, and we reached our destination. The first thing to see was the public swimming hole, a gorgeous spot with green mountain water so clear you could easily see the rocks on the bottom far below. It looked a little cold for me, though, so I contented myself with scaling the rocks along the river’s edge to get a few pictures. Luis told me the water was populated with few fish but many jaibas, or river crabs, which make for good eating.

I still wanted to get some exercise, however, so headedup the trail for a lovely 4km walk past 2 small, creaky footbridges. It was easy to see why this mountain range is known as “la madre de las aguas,” the mother of waters. We’d passed a number of streams tumbling down the steep slopes on our way up, and here was where they began, in hundreds of little springs. At various points along the trail I could hear the water rushing below. Otherwise, all was silent save for the occasional buzz of a cicada, the chirp of the ciguita, a tiny, cheerful brown bird, the squelch of my shoes in patches of mud, or the crunch of a silvery yagrumo leaf underfoot. It was quite a change from the constant noise of Santiago.

Heading first up and then back down to the stream, I reached the second bridge and the abandoned encampment just beyond it. I paused to eat my sandwich and headed back, making a stop at the education center to see what I could learn. Park guides Christian and Luis showed me around the displays, which included illustrations of local birds, plants, and insects, and topographical models of the park territory. They estimated that there were about 90 species of birds in the park, 15% endemic, in addition to its seven endemic plants including the ebano verde. The highest point is Loma La Sal, at 1400 meters and a day’s hike away, where the tallest ebony trees are found along with several waterfalls.

Christian then showed me the young ebonies that demonstrated their successful germination experiments: eight and ten-year-old saplings, ten feet tall but only a couple of inches in diameter. As we examined the results, I got bit by an evil malle (sand fly), the bane of my existence. Luckily, they had garlic and salt on hand, which, if rubbed on the bite quickly, can abate some of the unbearable itch. And if anyone thinks that locals don’t get bit, think again: Luis the guide showed me dozens of scabbed-over welts up and down his arms where they’d gotten him in the last week, and he’s lived in the mountains all his life. We discussed insects for a while longer, but it was getting late and I had a meeting to get to, so Luis (Santiago Luis, not the other one) and I began to head back down the mountain.

We didn’t make very fast progress, however. We had to stop to talk to everyone once more, give a woman and her baby a ride to the mass, pick up a couple of squash, and shoot the breeze with an elderly couple who reported they had been married over sixty years, and the woman was turning 87 that very day. We gave them each a banana as an anniversary present.

We also had to stop once more at the home of that teenager who we’d earlier seen buried in piles of flowers. The flowers were still there, on the porch of their roughly made wooden house backed by a grove of banana trees, but they were now all neatly tied up in bundles and placed into buckets of water, ready for the market in Constanza. Also, the radio was plugged in now and blasting “It’s my life,” a snappy little bit of American techno music. The boy Carlos welcomed us back, telling us to get out and offering to cut some flowers for me, fresh out of the field. How could I say no?

Emerging from under the shady canopy of the banana grove, which also served as the family’s trash heap (the bananas didn’t seem to mind), we came out into a spacious field, where the family’s cash crop of flowers was surrounded by bananas, papaya trees, a few stalks of corn, a bit of sugar cane, and one lone orange tree right in the middle. Carlos took his clippers and cut me an enormous heap of tiny yellow salidagos and white, daisy-like montecasinos. The silence, the flowers waving in the pleasantly cool mountain breeze, the fruit falling off the trees, ready to eat, the blue-green peaks in the distance – I felt I had never been part of such an idyllic scene. I could see why Dominicans speak of pre-industrial times in such Edenic terms.

Before we left, Luis insisted upon gathering an enormous heap of bananas, both green one from the trees and ripe yellow ones from the ground, which then went into a plastic burlap rice sack. He also needed a few stalks of sugar cane, which Carlos peeled for us with his machete. Then we were on the road again, gnawing on our sweet acquisitions.

This time, as I gripped the door for dear life around the perilous curves, I also got a good look at the Cibao valley as it was laid out below us, with its patchwork of fields in different shades of green and the blue waters of the reservoir lake spilling out from between two mountains. Up where we were, someone had tacked signs to two trees, wooden ones with blue letters spelling: “I love the trees because they are dressed in silence.”

Unforunately, things weren’t so silent when we got back. I didn’t get home until 6:30 and I had an event to attend at the Centro Leon at 7. I barely had time to hurriedly sponge myself off, change clothes, and stuff some food down my throat before I ran out the door again – so much for the tranquility I’d absorbed in the mountains. Then, when I pulled my car out of the driveway, it started honking for no apparent reason. And it kept on honking, and honking, and honking. The neighbors looked quizzically at me as I raised my hands in exasperation, then pulled over again to assess the situation. Definitely, the problem was with the wiring in the steering wheel: something bad had happened two days ago when they had taken it apart to repair the blinkers. I called El Negro and hailed a passerby to see if he could disconnect the horn for me. The poor guy ended up having to spend 45 minutes on it – as we discovered, there were actually two horns on my car, one above the other. The first apparently was just to fake you out, as it didn’t work at all; the real one was hidden underneath. Needless to say, I was a wee bit late to my event. But it all turned out alright, since the speakers had gotten a late start, too.

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