Friday, March 23, 2007

Meet Mr. Dorado

So my blogging has been somewhat delayed, but only because I’ve been having fun. Therefore, I have nothing very educational to write about this week. But I must tell you all about my brief vacation anyway! After a few days to gather my thoughts, write a bit, fix the car, etc, my friends Wolfgang and Anne arrived in Santiago last Thursday after an epic trip from Tucson. They flew out again today, but we managed to pack a lot into the five days we had to hang out together.

It was a bit of an ordeal to find them to begin with. Once again, my car wouldn’t start on the morning of the arrival, not even after I banged the starter smartly with my Club (cutting open my hand in the process), and because I was already running late I got into a bit of a panic until my neighbor offered to drive. Little did she know what she was volunteering for. We arrived at the airport a half-hour late, but an airport worker told me the plane was only just arriving. Sure enough, passengers started emerging from the baggage claim about ten minutes later, but none of them appeared to be either Anne or Wolfgang. I asked again, and was informed that had been a Continental flight, not Delta. So we kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until an hour and a half later someone informed us the Delta flight had been delayed but was now arriving. I confirmed this with some stray passengers and their families, and then we kept waiting and waiting and waiting some more, until my companion remarked in surprise, “oh! their flight seems to have been delayed!” I’d thought we had noticed that a couple of hours previously, but I guess it was only me.

After the last passengers came out, and then the crew, there was still no sign of any Tucsonans on board. I went in and asked security, and they confirmed all Delta passengers had exited the terminal. Now I was really worried, having no other way to find them. But as I wrote their names on a piece of paper at the information desk, hoping to reach them by announcement, they finally showed up – sans luggage. It would be another two days before we saw that.

There was no time to fret about missing bags with such a full day planned. Major naps were in order so that we could party at night. Jon had asked me to organize a merengue night out for his visiting students from the University of Vermont – 15 of them, plus 8 assorted professors and parents. Luckily, they’d already hired a bus to tool around in, and us Tucsonans were invited both to partake of their spaghetti dinner and to hop on the bus. I don’t think even Ramon, the driver, knew what he was in for with this group.

I did a little narration tour bus style a long the way to the first stop on my itinerary: the cockfight ring. Pedrito Reynoso was playing there, so the music would be good, but I also thought it would be nice for them to get the full cultural experience and take in a pelea or two. Ramon was surprised at my choice of locations, but also pleased as it meant he could also come in to enjoy a Presidente and a merengue or two. Unfortunately, however, when we arrived the fights had just ended fifteen minutes earlier, so my complete cultural agenda was somewhat reduced, but everyone still danced and Pedrito even came out to the bus to greet all the students before we left.

The second stop was the Palos party at the Casa de Arte. Ramon had some difficulties getting the bus into the narrow street, and even more difficulty parking it, but he was cheered on at every step of the way by madly screaming students who proclaimed him their hero. (His official title was rather “El Jefe,” however – it was painted on the wall above him so no one would forget.) No worries, the party hadn’t even started yet as Hector and a balsié were still MIA. That gave us time to admire the art and interpret it using deep-sounding symbolic descriptions before we got too busy with dancing, which we did very shortly.

The kids didn’t know how to dance palos, but I told them to feel free to make up their own moves, and they did. Before long, they were getting all the Dominicans to join in their own brand of dancing, which included making a circle and alternating solos in the middle, and later on, a conga line – something which, to the best of my knowledge, has never before been seen at a fiesta de palos. Even the musicians, my friends the Turbi brothers, were having a good time, laughing as they watched the Vermonters’ antics. Also, while they had me take a turn on the wood block and a balsie, I passed the block on to a very enthusiastic (and sweaty) student (he wanted to play guira, he told me, but “they wouldn’t let him”), and then on to Jon’s son, allowing them both to improvise solos as the rest of us passed the bottle of rum.

Everyone was having so much fun I hated to tear them away, and apparently Almanzar did too, since he let the party go for a half-hour longer than usual. But at 10:30 it was time to get back on the bus with Ramon (he claimed not to know any palos, but joined me in singing a chorus of “Yo Soy Ogun Balenyo” anyway – the liar!) and go to our third and final destination, Tipico Monte Bar. I was impressed that Anne and Wolfgang were still awake after an entire sleepless night in JFK airport, but apparently típico helped. I wasn’t sure who would be playing but it turned out to be Nixon Roman, Rafaelito’s son. Naturally, it was good. Anne and Wolfgang were transfixed by the musicians’ techniques and improvisational interactions – as well they should be! Nixon played some very difficult older repertoire like “Caonabo” that are quite impressive to see. The students danced in their typically exuberant way, reminding me again why Dominicans describe American merengue dancing as “jumping.” But of course, all good things must come to an end, and with the new bar laws they must officially come to an end at midnight on weekdays.

Needless to say, we all slept in the next day. Jon called to say the students were still itching to go to a cockfight and to ask where they could go. I guess I planted a seed there. When everyone eventually arose, I took my visitors to the Centro Leon to look around while I did a bit of work. We returned home afterwards to find the missing suitcase STILL hadn’t been delivered, meaning we needed to do a bit of shopping. We found most of what we needed at Multicentro Salvador, a store around the corner that used to have groceries but now has only discount clothing and a random assortment of miscellaneous objects: feminine hygiene products and cat food on the same shelf. We purchased Banana Republic shirts with the tags cut out, but Anne refused to buy the shiny red snakeskin-print pants that were in just her size (and only $3!).

That was really all we had time to do before dark. After dark, I thought it might be a good time to go up to the monument, admire some pimped out cars and their sound systems, and get a look at the city lights. Having done all that we went back down the monument hill to have a street food dinner at one of the many vans in the monument parking lot. The sandwiches weren’t bad, but the volume of the music was a little much.

So much for Friday. But for Saturday we had bigger plans. First we had to return to the airport to see about the missing suitcase, which miraculously had appeared right there at the Delta counter! That done, we beat a hasty retreat out of there and out of town. Destination: beach. We didn’t have a reservation, since when I called all the resorts were asking ridiculous prices, but I figured this wouldn’t be a problem once we arrived. On the way, we stopped to bang the car up a bit on some ridiculous Puerto Plata drainage ditches, take a look at the old fort and the old Victorians in Puerto Plata, and have some seafood on the Malecon. Then it started raining. It reduced itself to a drizzle, but it kept raining all the way until we checked into our very affordable Playa Dorada all-inclusive. Then it speeded up, and then it slowed down again for us to take a nice (if damp) stroll along the deserted beach with some beach dogs, and then it started pouring. It was not the right time to get a tan. Later I found out that the storm had been quite severe in Santiago, toppling trees and power lines and knocking out most of the city’s power! So really, we got off easy.

We had plenty to amuse ourselves with: masses of buffet food, Blokus (our favorite game), free liquor, and of course the Mister Dorado show. Wolfgang was too embarrassed for the contestants to stay and watch, but Anne and I were amused by the antics of the German, Pole, and 2 Dominicans who competed for this prestigious title by way of push-ups, sexy walk, and drag competitions. The results were no surprise, as Dominican #1 had had the support of most of the female members of the crowd since the beginning (and also he did a mean Shakira in a chiffon skirt). The surprise was that when the Pole got eliminated, all the Poles immediately switched allegiance to vociferously support Dominican #2 (by then dressed as Britney Spears in a miniskirt and blonde wig). I guess they like an underdog. Still, Pretty Boy won the grand prize of a bottle of wine and a bottle of rum – hardly enough for all the female admirers he’d have in his room later.

The next day was pretty much what you’d expect of a beach vacation. It involved lots of sitting around and reading on the beach, a fair amount of napping, a little swimming, and a ridiculous amount of food. The show that night was the big surprise. We were intrigued by the “Michael Jackson Show” that was advertised, and even more so once we heard the bare-chested emcee announcing it in dramatic fashion (“Michael! … Jackson! … Show! Over and over for fifteen minutes.) Again Wolfgang begged out in fear of embarrassing behavior by drunken guests. It was his loss.

It was a Michael Jackson show all right, complete with a Michael Jackson impersonator in whiteface makeup and seven backup dancers – but they were actually good. Really good, in fact. Clearly the Michael had been training for the role his whole life. Like the rest of us, he was probably doing the moonwalk since he was 5, but unlike us, he had all of the dance moves down and his moonwalking might even have been better than the “real” Michael’s. We were blown away. The crowd went wild, especially the Poles. The backup dancers were also actual, serious, trained jazz dancers, and one of them was pretty foxy. “Thriller” was exactly like the video – only better. I’d see it again and again. In fact, I’d recommend that we all give our money to the Dominican Michael rather than the other (alien) one.

In the morning, we got up off our butts for a bit to partake of water sports – at least, Anne and I were motivated enough to take out some kayaks. I was hoping we could simply look down and see the fish, like when Mom and I went last year, but the sea was rather choppy and it was hard to see down through the waves and ripples. Still, it was nice to be out on the water and feel one with the sea in that uniquely kayaky way. Afterwards, we attempted to snorkel – that is, Anne snorkeled, but I’d forgotten to put in contacts and couldn’t figure out anything to do with my glasses where I wouldn’t be worrying about them the whole time I was in the water. I swam about a bit instead. That was all the time we had before checkout and our final buffet.

Then it was time to head back to Santiago in the hopes we could make it in time for my accordion lesson (I’d missed it the week before). But fate was against us. A bit of highway under construction we’d run into on the way up was even worse going back, and we spent what at least seemed like an hour stopped in the middle of an exhaust-filled traffic jam consisting of cars, trucks, motorbikes, and the occasional horsecart (poor horse!). I am clearly not meant to be playing accordion this year! We weren’t meant to be playing dominoes, either, as it turned out. After stopping by Rafaelito’s – at least I could say hi and they could get a picture of people playing accordion – we went to Chiqui’s, but he was on his way out the door to a gig in Santo Domingo. Ah well. Must be time for Italian food!

My favorite Italian restaurant, conveniently located across the street, is an obligatory stop on my Santiago tour. Freshly made pasta, amazing sauces from all over Italy, homemade bread and limoncello – how can you go wrong? Well, we didn’t. We started out with my favorite eggplant appetizer and a new one made of thinly-sliced zucchini wrapped around a little cheesey cube of custardy asparagus. Then there was fresh fettucini with shrimp and cherry tomatoes in a garlic, oil, and parsley sauce, and sea bass Liborna style in carmelized onions and capers, creamy garlic mashed potatoes on the side. For dessert, classic tiramisu with a wine base instead of coffee, and an absolutely amazing flambéed crepe Suzette. We had considered going out to Rancho Merengue to hear Rafaelito play that night, but after all that food we were really only ready for bed.

Tuesday was Anne and Wolfgang’s last day in the DR and we’d decided to spend it poking around downtown Santiago, but alas, Wolfgang awoke feeling ill and elected to stay in bed instead. Nonetheless, Anne and I did pretty much everything it was possible to do in “la ciudad.” First we hit the Mercado Modelo to buy some tourist treasures. I even found myself one – an old-fashioned tin güira with cones over the ends for sound control. Just a couple of weeks ago I had been thinking, “I wonder where I could find one of those old cone güiras to show people what they used to be like?” So I was glad to have the answer. The woman told me a kid brought them in to her from San Juan.

While we were admiring the newer, fancier güiras, many of them made by my friend El Buty, Anne decided she needed one. This way we could accomplish two “firsts,” by creating the first ever all female típico trio, and by having the first merengue típico group in Tucson! (Of course, Anne would have to learn to play güira first, and we’d have to teach a friend to play tambora, but this seemed doable. Anne liked the idea of being the only güira player in town, since that would automatically make her the best.) So I called the man himself, and since El Buty was on his way downtown anyway, he decided to meet up with us at the fort.

First we had time to look around a bit. We peered into the old jailhouse, now an impromptu art studio filled with equal parts of trash and art. A giant wire sculpture of a horse lay on its side in the courtyard, a spider web where its lungs should be. In the entryway someone had painted “Cuartel de Arte” (Art Cartel) in ominous red paint. A crumbling bust of some general occupied one of the stalls in the jailhouse bathroom. Then we went into the actual art museum and admired the giant triptychs featuring merengue musicians and carnival characters, as well as the 500% scale model of a goat skull (I don’t think I’d like to come across that beast in a dark alley). El Buty found us examining the old pilones for grinding coffee and pounding rice and we made arrangements to have a custom güira featuring Anne’s initials ready for pickup at nightfall.

Heading back towards the car, we stopped in at the Centro de la Cultura, where most of the carnival masks had already gone home with their owners. Still there were a few to see, looking a bit lonely on the walls studded with abandoned nametags and decorative tissue paper. Next door there was an exhibit of Japanese calendars, of all things, organized by theme: Japanese landscapes, world monuments, cartoon characters and adorable animals – that type of thing.

Back at the car, a nasty surprise awaited us: a parking ticket! It was completely unjust, since when we’d parked only the shell of a meter was on the pole there, with no place to deposit coins. When we returned, the meter had been completed and we’d been cited for “indiscriminate use of space.” Whatever!!

The only way to recover our sanity after that evil trick was with a visit to the Tomas Morel folklore museum. Its hours are somewhat unpredictable, but luckily, it was now open. A new kitten was in residence, a fluffy and very playful little guy named “El Galatico” for his orbital ways. Tomas gave Anne the usual tour of his somewhat bizarre collection of masks, toys, models, religious artifacts, musical instruments, old telephones and cameras, all the while apologizing for its unkempt state since he had been “out of town for a week.” I had never seen it looking very different, but decided not to mention that. I did acquire about the Bruce Lee figurine, however, which seemed a bit out of place on its table in the anteroom. The answer to this puzzle was that Bruce Lee had been in Santiago and visited the museum before he was famous. Robert Redford had also paid a visit some decades ago and tried on a mask here; his picture was taken and appeared in the local paper. So we were in good company, at least.

It was getting late and there was still more shopping to do, so we then went back to the Centro Leon to pay a visit to the gift shop, and then returned to El Ingenio to see how El Buty was getting on with his task. I had never yet managed to find his house by car, only knowing the twisty path that led from Rafaelito’s house back into the deep barrio, but El Buty’s directions were good and this time I found the right road. It was nearly dark when we arrived but luckily there was electricity that night. We found El Buty just finishing the richi or scraper for Anne’s güira, the instrument itself already done. A friend sat nearby keeping him company while working on a Rubik’s Cube. “I can only manage to get one side,” he told me when I asked about it. I consoled him with the fact that I never did any better than that, either. We admired Anne’s new acquisition with its double-turned rim and stars surrounding her initials, taking a picture of the artist with his work before going back out into the Santiago night for one last round of Blokus.

Since returning Anne and Wolfgang to the airport on Wednesday, I’ve simply been doing laundry, washing clothes, grocery shopping, working some more on the car, and catching up on email and work. Much still remains to be done, but Mom arrives on Friday so soon I’ll be traveling again.

I have received notice that Anne and Wolfgang arrived safely in Tucson. However, their suitcase still hasn’t made it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

San Pedro choir

San Pedro choir
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Lincoln Phipps plays trumpet to accompany the choir in San Pedro church, Samaná

La Chorcha

La Chorcha
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Interior of the San Pedro Church in Samaná, built in 1820 by freed American slaves.

at Cayo Levantado

at Cayo Levantado
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
a small boat waiting for passengers at Cayo Levantado, Samana

Humpback whale

Humpback whale
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
here's a whale, and someone else taking its picture!

Hits and misses in Samaná

After only a day and a half in Santiago to pack, repack, clean up the house, meet with Rafaelito, and get the Falcon’s AC repaired, I was on the road again. Frankly, I was getting a little tired of it, but I thought I could handle it if (a) I took the bus instead of driving and (b) my destination was beautiful Samana.

A few weeks ago, at the carnival event at the Centro Leon, I had met an official type and folklore aficionado from the city of Samana and expressed my interest in getting to know its local culture better, and possibly smoking out some musicians to play merengue redondo, a unique local merengue variant using accordion and palos. My new friend Virgilio was anxious for me to know his town as well, and after some back and forth on the phone we arranged for me to visit this weekend.

I picked up a 9:30 voladora (van) in downtown Santiago, which followed a direct route to my destination via San Francisco de Macoris, Nagua, and Sanchez, but just not very quickly. The girls in front of me kept harassing the driver to go faster, saying, “at this rate, we’ll get there at 5!” But he was not to be hurried. Still, it was nearly 2 when we pulled into the Samana bus stop – not exactly light speed. (At least the trip had given me time to get to know my fellow passengers, who, coincidentally, included a professional salsa dancer from Santiago called El Soberano and his daughter, who danced as his partner.) Virgilio came to get me another 20 minutes later in his little white van, and I expressed my intense interest in seeing Samana’s scenic bathrooms before going any further. I did this and had a lunch of fried rice, pigeon peas, and bacalao as Virgilio did a couple of errands. As both síndico and radio announcer, he has a lot of fund-raising responsibilities, and today was in the midst of the difficult job of getting people to follow through on their pledges. Then his son helped me get checked into my no-frills, cold-water hotel. Seeing that its standard of cleanliness was reasonable and the price was right, I took it.

Then it was time to make the folklore rounds. Virgilio knows everyone here – that’s his job – and he knows who knows music. First, he deposited me in front of what appeared to be a small cleaning-supplies store, where an elderly black man was reading a magazine article on Samana’s history. He didn’t seem too keen on being interrupted, but soon I got him talking shop. With the last name of “Phipps” he was descended from resettled North American slaves on one side and a father from St Kitts on the other side. He had lived in Samana his whole life but English was his first language. Lincoln (as was his appropriate-sounding first name) played first trumpet and used to direct the choir at San Pedro church, the oldest church in town – originally Methodist and built in 1824 by the American freedmen. Back in the 1950s they sung all their hymns in English, he reported, but later the denomination changed to a Dominican evangelical one and they began to sing in Spanish.

Lincoln was sad about the state of music in Samana today. All but 2 of the guys he used to play with are now dead, and of those two one is very sick and unable to play anymore. No young people are taking up the reins, which he attributes to drugs and delinquency as well as simple lack of interest. He does, however, rehearse once a week with a group of about 12 in order to sing hymns in church on Sunday, occasionally throwing in an old one in English. Even spoken English is disappearing around here – I noticed him greet a few passersby in that language, but all were getting on in years. I asked about the recently-formed Department of Culture, which (it seems to me) should be investing in the preservation and dissemination of unique bodies of traditional music like this, but he said that out here in Samana they did no such thing. Nonetheless, he invited me to the church on Sunday to hear them sing and I gladly accepted. This would mean investing in a mini shopping trip, though, since I’d brought nothing appropriate to wear – church had been about the last thing on my mind as I packed for the beach!

I left Lincoln feeling a little depressed. Virgilio next dropped me at the house of a local historian. Two young men who worked at one of the resort hotels were also just stopping by. As Virgilio left, he shouted out something about how I had to try the Oli-Oli but to “be careful” of it. In response, El Profesor disappeared momentarily and then returned with three glasses of a thick, golden liquid. This was the famous beverage, invented by his father and named by him in honor of a Samana carnival comparsa from the old days. Made from the juices of “at least five” kinds of fruit, including but not limited to grape, orange, and starfruit, it was indeed both strong and sweet.

As I sipped, the professor gave me a copy of a booklet he’d written on the town’s carnival to look over, and all four of us continued the discussion on the state of traditional culture in Samana. The professor was just as pessimistic as Lincoln had been, and he agreed that the state wasn’t investing at all in the culture of small towns or cities far away from the centers of power. The Oli-Oli comparsa hadn’t gone out in years; “no one” was making traditional carnival masks anymore (which here depicted either cows or pigs and had three horns); “no one” played merengue redondo and the bamboulá dance was only pulled out and dusted off for folkloric presentations. The young men told me that Samana youth were liable to be overly influenced by the stronger carnival traditions of La Vega, Bonao, and Santiago and then make masks emulating those rather than keeping up their local traditions.

Still, they conceded, there were a number of accordionists and percussionists around who might be able to help me, and the three of them helped me assemble a list of these. I might still be able to find some musicians playing merengue redondo in “el campo” during patronal festivals and the like. To me, this was sounding more and more like a rescue mission: the English gospel singing, the merengue redondo, and the bamboula and chivo florete – all of them were found nowhere else in the country, and they were all in danger of disappearing. In ten years the last practitioners of the first will likely be gone. Meanwhile, the woman who singly-handedly kept Samana’s bamboula dancing going for years has already died, and while her grandson does perform it for stage shows, it no longer plays any real role in community life here. The chivo, too, has been demoted to staged folklore. I still don’t know what the state of merengue redondo is. I’ll see what I can find out the rest of this weekend.

It was nearly dark when Virgilio collected me again. He had an errand to do out at a beach where a handful of stands and small restaurants sell beer and fried fish to locals. Naturally, everyone wanted to come with, and the van filled with Virgilio’s older son, two of his teenage friends, and Virgililo’s two smallest, a boy about 2 and a girl around 3. A few people were still playing in the gentle waves in front of the palm-lined beach as the sun set. It was a pleasant scene, but we didn’t stay long since Virgilio’s radio show would start before long and he wanted to interview me there. We did have one more stop to make, though: at a roadside fish-fry stand for dinner on our feet. The cotorra couldn’t get any fresher – it had just been caught and brought up from the beach. Accompanied by ripe plantains, it made for a tasty and cheap meal.

One more stop before we made it to the radio station: to drop off the little kids with Virgilio’s aunts. Finding out about my project, they immediately got me talking to an uncle who all said was an excellent dancer. Though he usually resides in the capital now, he was back home in Samana for a visit. He had never taken dance classes, he said, but loved to dance; his expertise lay in the twist, which he could dance “just like any of those dancers over there.” But his #1 all-time favorite was disco. He affirmed that the hustle was the greatest, most graceful, and most difficult dance in history. Hustle is pretty cool but I was having a hard time picturing this small, thin older Dominican man in glasses in a John Travolta white disco suit.

This man also knew Samanese folk dances though – he had even been asked to join Rene Carrasco’s folk dance troupe back in the day (1960s). I asked him to show me some merengue redondo moves and he complied, explaining that it was danced much like other merengues only continually turning and moving in a circle. There was also a smooth, gliding step he demonstrated solo for me, and when I looked puzzled, he then did it with me. It was a sort of waltz thing, dipping on the first step and then rising again while moving forward or back. He thought I was a good dance partner, but we didn’t try any disco moves.

We also spoke of “bolero rítmico.” I wasn’t quite sure what this was, but it turned out to be the kind of danzon-step bolero I knew how to do. But here there was a sort of lift on the “empty” count, making it a sort of pre-bachata. Then, as he recounted my dance ability to an aunt who had just returned, the two got into a discussion about the difference between “bailar bien” (dancing well) and “bailar bueno” (dancing good). According to these two seventyish folks, one who “baila bien” knows all the steps and moves around fine, but “no se deja llevar” (doesn’t let him or herself get into it). On the other hand, one who “baila bueno” really moves with the music and feels it.

After this long day, I was frankly ready to hit the hay, but there was no rest for the weary. It was on to La Kalle radio station – but when we arrived, we found that the power had been out all day and had yet to return. The inverter was giving enough power to fuel the lightbulbs, but not the transmitter. We’d have to wait – us, and the giant spider on the wall of the waiting room. “Oh, it’s just a little thing,” the station director assured me – and then tried to hit it with his pellet gun. (He missed.)

The power did come back, though, enabling us Virgilio to do a dramatically abbreviated version of his show – one that was mostly taken up with the announcing of all his sponsors at breakneck speed – and a short interview of yours truly. I fielded questions about how I got into merengue típico, my opinion of Fefita, my other folkloric activities, and what I had learned in the country. After the day’s depressing assessment of the state of traditional music in this province, I made sure to put a call out for Samaneses to take pride in their folklore.

Still the night was not over. As a lifelong resident Virgilio really has friends all over this town, and some of them turned out to live right across the street from my hotel. One of the residents had recently returned from New York, so of course we were obligated to drop by to pay a visit. I propped my eyelids open as best I could, but didn’t do a good enough job to be able to accept their offer of a drink. I stuck with my water and did my best to smile at the travel anecdotes being exchanged. Mostly, I ended up chatting with a young guy who had grown up in Long Island but moved back here to go to school – an interesting reversal of the expected. Turned out his father was Brazilian and played bass with various kinds of groups including forro. So he got interested in accordion music that way, and that naturally led him down the road to típico – the road from which there is no return! Now his típico fanaticism is on a level similar to my own, although being that he is younger and has more energy he goes to more gigs than I do these days.

Eventually I found a way to excuse myself. I really wanted to hit the hay because, although it was not the main reason for my trip out here, I couldn’t very well be in Samana during whale-watching season and not take a look at the whales. So I got up early as Virgilio had advised… and then waited around for two hours until he picked me up. Figures!

The cruise was very educational, as it was led by actual marine biologists (Canadians). I learned that all Atlantic whales are born here in the bay of Samana, that they all have white swimming fins while those in the Pacific have black ones, and that they don’t eat a bite the whole time they are here! And I did see myself a few humpbacks: two moms with one baby each. They weren’t terribly lively, just swimming a bit, diving for 2-3 minutes, then surfacing a bit to breathe. It was pretty much like what I saw last year. I am told that if I want to see more active humpbacks I should come in February.

I also got seasick. If you know me you will know that that is about the last thing anyone would ever expect to happen, as I have never experienced any kind of motion sickness at any time in my life. But I had woken up with a nasty cold that morning that made me a bit dizzy to begin with, and the sun got pretty intense for a while, so I guess it all added up. Now I am filled with sympathy for regular seasickness sufferers (read: Hanna). I spent half the trip lying down on a bench. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed until I got hungry, and then I went out to find some pescado con coco, the classic Samanese dish. It was yum. After that, Virgilio and I tried to locate some musicians, but to no avail. You know how those musicians are.

In the process, though, I did get to see some of the “barrios calientes” (dangerous neighborhoods) of Samana. Virgilio pointed out that now I had seen both the good and the bad, and I was glad to round out my picture of the place. These barrios were pretty much like their counterparts in Santiago, though here they were populated largely by Haitians. The streets were dark as, naturally, the power was out; they were narrow, ungraded dirt, often littered with trash. At one point we passed a low building painted mint green in front of which perhaps two dozen people were hanging out. As we passed, I peered in and saw some people dancing bachata in the dim light of the fluorescent bulb. Virgilio said it was a place of “free women.” But no musicians. Our tour was at an end.

The next day was Sunday, and I had my date at San Pedro church to keep. I certainly hadn’t thought I’d be in a church anytime soon, and I hadn’t exactly brought the appropriate wardrobe, but I did the best I could. After a quick café con leche at Virgilio’s house under the watchful gaze of a framed portrait of the late politician Peña Gómez, he drove me to “La Chorcha,” as it’s known. All the way, we were followed by this stray dog who seemed to want nothing more in life than to be by Virgilio’s side, and when that was not possible, to at least be next to his van. She even came into the church with us, until Virgilio signaled for her to go out.

The church itself was beautiful in its simplicity and strangely moving. I’ve never been to the South myself, but hey, I’ve seen movies, and it looked much like an old country church down there. It was easy to imagine the resettled American ex-slaves building this place back in 1820 with all the hopes of being in a new country and being free. On the inside it felt spacious with its high, peaked roof with slatted gables to let in the breeze. The walls were of two colors of wooden planks, as some of the older wood had been replaced when needed. The altar area was framed by a wooden archway, simply carved with a few square decorations. It was backed by an arched stained-glass window divided into several panes of different colors and a plain wood cross. At the other end, above the door, was a slightly more ornate rose window. The pews were of dark wood and three of them were on a raised platform to the left, for the choir to sit. All the doors and windows, arched like the one at the altar, were thrown open and the temperature on that hill was surprisingly pleasant.

Until recently, this church had been AME (Methodist) and it still seemed pretty Methodist to me (my own family’s denomination). When we arrived the choir was singing something in Spanish accompanied by some chords on a too-loud organ and the sweet-sounding trumpet of my new friend Lincoln. He ornamented the melody tastefully in an early jazz style. He seemed both happy and a little embarrassed to see me. A minute later he got up to direct the choir in the next tune, and though it was in Spanish I knew it as “How Great Thou Art.”

The service went along pretty much as one would expect. The minister was a woman, though, and much of the talk today was about the International Day of the Woman (as designated by the UN) which occurred this week. A youth group got up to sing a few songs, which they accompanied themselves on tambourine. Then the choir returned for a few more, this time with a not-too-expertly-played electric guitar. Then a special guest got up to sing some tunes karaoke-style off his CD – this guy, Wilson Vladimir, had formerly belonged to the popular merengue group Los Diplomaticos de Haiti but had then found the Lord and switched over to Christian music. He was a little too evangelical for my tastes, but at least he was enthusiastic. The service concluded with a rendition of “Old Time Religion” in English, a reminder of the congregation’s English-speaking past.

I had to beat a hasty retreat then, not even getting to say goodbye to Lincoln, in order to make my bus back. I was sorry to leave Samana, especially since in the last 5 minutes before my bus left we finally located one of the aging musicians who still knows how to play merengue redondo. And even more especially since it turned out to be the most uncomfortable bus ever: more than full with too-straight seats and no room for my knees, various parts of my body kept falling asleep the whole way back. I couldn’t sleep even though my head was swimming from my nasty cold and I was desperate for some rest, knowing that I had a long night in front of me.

It was the night of the vodou ceremony on Batey Libertad, to which I’d been invited months previously. I wasn’t really up for it after 4 ½ hours on the bus from hell, much less for the long drive out there, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Plus, I liked the idea of starting the day out in a Methodist-turned-Evangelical Christian church and finishing it up in a vodou peristyle. That would really encapsulate this country, I thought. But fate had other plans. I rested for 45 minutes, ate a quick quesadilla, changed clothes, and went out to my car – which wouldn’t start. I whacked the starter with my club to no avail, and then my two helpful neighbors did the same with no better results. Looks like I wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, I spent the evening on the sidewalk chatting with a neighbor who grew up in New York in the ‘60s, and who had met John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and a whole host of famous countercultural characters. Well, that was another good way to end the day.

I’m already planning a collection trip back to Samana for next year.

El Secreto Musical

El Secreto Musical
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Members of the Club de los Soneros and other patrons at El Secreto Musical, Villa Consuelo, Santo Domingo.

Salseros in Los Alcarrizos

Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
At left, El Playero la Salsa and at right, El As de Pi, the proprietor of this dance school just outside of Santo Domingo.

Something completely different: Salsa & Son in Santo Domingo

Still questing after photos, I tried to go the car wash route on Sunday. My friend Denio, of the palos group, decided to accompany me to Rancho Tipico Las Colinas – if we could get there early, I thought I had a chance of getting something interesting on film, but Denio’s childcare situation didn’t pan out until it was already dark. It didn’t matter too much in the end, because there was no good spot from which to shoot, and the music/dance/bar part was totally separate from the car part, anyway. It was a fun place to spend an evening, though. I danced some merengue, some salsa, some típico, and some bachata, and watched other people doing obscene things on the dance floor to reggaeton. I ran into an old friend from the Centro Leon, Freddy, and then played some pool. After that, we tried to hit a couple of other car washes to see if things would work out camera-wise, but no such luck. Anyway, we were both tired so headed to our respective homes early.

It was just as well, since Monday would be another long day, filled with an inordinate amount of driving, as it turned out. I had to get up early to drive to the capital to check out the salsa and son dancing scenes down there. With my newly rebuilt engine, the mechanic had assured me I could go anywhere I damn well pleased, and I hoped he was right. But this time, just to be sure, I would do my best not to think at all about how the Falcon was running.

As it turned out, the drive down was pretty uneventful, if hot. I enjoyed having a radio to play with this time, and I even stopped for some roadside shopping. The freeway here boasts some great crafts, believe it or not, and stuff that’s not sold in the tourist markets in cities. On the way down I stopped at the wood stalls near (naturally enough) El Pino, where natural and painted wooden dishes and utensils can be found. On the way back up, I’d stop to check out the rag rugs at the less appropriately named Piedra Blanca – the town at the turnoff to Cotui, to which it seems to have lent its weave & tie technique for the creation of the fundú costumes.

Anyway, as I was driving I received a call from “Playero la Salsa,” as my guide to Santo Domingo’s salsa world was known. I’d been planning on going straight to my hotel to check in, shower, and change before meeting anyone, but he suggested I stop and see him on the way in since he lived a little ways out of town. I agreed, and we rendezvoused at a Shell gas station at the barrio of “El 9,” ever-so-picturesquely named after the number of its milepost on the freeway. I thought it would be easy to recognize me, being as always the lone white girl, and also I had described my car to him. But he ended up taking several turns around the parking lot before eventually finding me half expiring from massive amounts of sweating. I always forget how much hotter the capital is!

At the gas station’s small restaurant I ordered some lunch and, most importantly, water, over which to discuss Dominican salsa style. We compared notes on New York vs Dominican steps and men’s and women’s roles, entertaining the restaurant workers with an impromptu and covert demonstration. Then we made plans to meet again that night to visit a salsa club in the Zona Oriental, were hopefully I’d be able to see some dancers in action. I really should have come on a Thursday or Friday when there are regular dance contests and performances by Playero’s group, but unfortunately, I didn’t have any more free weekends left! My stay in the DR this time is beginning to seem way too short.

I dropped Playero off a ways down the road in the barrio of Herrera and then followed his directions to go around a frightening roundabout (approximately ten times the chaos of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn) to the 27 de Febrero – where I promptly got caught inside the worst traffic jam ever. Let’s not talk about it. It will be enough to say that I sat inside my un-air-conditioned car in searing afternoon heat, in the middle of a sea of asphalt, for nearly an hour, with no water. If a water-seller had inserted himself into that mess, he would surely have walked out a millionaire.

By the time I finally extracted myself, swearing to hold a grudge against the 27 de Febrero for the rest of eternity, and got to my hotel, I barely had time to shower, change, and rest a few minutes before I had to head back out west to Herrera and meet with Playero and two of his friends and students for a night of dancing. But when I arrived, I found out that the club we were going to was actually across the river to the east, sending me right back to where I’d come from and further. Having spent 4 hours already in my car that day, I was a little annoyed with this nonsensical plan that seemed to have been devised only to force me into spending more money on $4-a-gallon gas and raising my blood pressure.

I did like the place once we finally arrived, though. It was packed with shiny metal tables, all filled, and there was no dance floor to speak of, just a narrow aisle in the middle. The ceiling was filled with colorful paper flags like Mexican papel picado. But the real attraction was the music. The deejay was spinning nonstop old-school salsa, what one of my companions called “salsas raras - stuff they only dig out here, that you would never hear anyplace else.” It was true, but it sure sounded good, and the crowd was really into it. A table of guys behind me had even brought their own instruments and were playing along with maracas and cencerro.

This wasn’t Playero’s usual crowd- he usually only came on Fridays, when a competition is held here weekly. But one friend was here: El Guinguiriano, reported to be the best salsa dancer in the country and the winner of the most competitions. Tonight, he showed off a bit by dancing with two women at once, turning them in perfect spins and executing flawless footwork. He had his moves down, and he was quite the ball of energy to see on the dance floor. Oh – and he’s blind.

It was definitely impressive. I danced with him a bit myself, and knowing I danced New York style, he put in some New York style spins. It was a bit nerve-wracking, though – the tables were so close together and the place so crowded that I kept being afraid of spinning into a table, knocking over beers, and stepping on others’ toes. I don’t know that my partner was aware of just how precarious the situation was! That, combined with the fact that I hadn’t danced much since my last knee surgery a year and a half ago, meant that I didn’t feel my performance was quite up to par. But it was fun, and he wanted to dance some more, offering to meet me at the next night’s destination.

There wasn’t much time to sleep. I had an ever-so-exciting errand to do the next morning: pay a visit to the police headquarters for the recovery of stolen vehicles. See, a year and a half after I bought my car, I still don’t have its papers. At first, the problem was getting a copy of the ID of the woman who had owned the car previously. El Negro, my trusty auto body shop guy, was supposed to get this for me since he had actually sold me the car. But although I had the original registration, this pesky woman seemed always to be out of the country (or, more likely, El Negro just didn’t feel like dealing with it). So last time I left the country, I deposited the matter in the capable hands of my lawyer, Eddy. He managed to get the ID, miraculously enough, but by the time I returned here (seven months after I’d left) the papers still hadn’t gone through. We had to take the Falcon for a second inspection for reasons unknown (as you may recall from last month’s blogging). The problem, as it turned out, was a number missing on the form because of a fold in the photocopy.

The forms were submitted again, together with those of my friend Jon’s car. Jon got his papers back quickly, but mine still didn’t show. Eddy sent a messenger to the Palacio de la Justicia to find out why. Turned out the Falcon appeared on a list of cars that were “stoled, recovered, but not returned.” I’m not so clear on what that was supposed to mean, other than a trip to the capital. Apparently, the police computer system is based in the capital, and for some reason that means that no one in other cities can make changes to the system. So my mission was to show up, talk to a particular Lieutenant, show her my papers, and have her remove the warning from my car’s record. Of course, I knew it would not be so simple. After a year and a half of submitting and resubmitting, how could it be?

I saw the lieutenant and got in line, waited maybe an hour for her to finish with the guy before me, then got passed on to a Lieutenant Captain in an office with ten other people waiting for various things and a desk covered with piles of vehicle-related forms. Both of them were very nice and as helpful as they could be, but how helpful can you be with so much bureaucracy? As I waited for the computer guys to check my car’s record, I talked with another unfortunate waiting room resident. “You’ve been waiting a year and a half? That’s nothing! I’ve been waiting three years! And there are four warnings on MY car!” So when they told me the warning was there and couldn’t be removed without several more steps of work, I was nonetheless getting off pretty easy.

The next step is a bit of detective work that is entirely my responsibility. They gave me the name of a mysterious Freddy who filed the robbery report, although according to my papers he was never the owner of the car. They also gave me a three-year-old phone number likely not to work and a cédula (ID number). With this information, I am supposed to be able to track down this guy and convince him to write a letter to remove the warning from the record. Riiiiiiiiight. (Imagine if I had four of them to take care of!) So it looks like I’m keeping the Falcon rather than selling it this year. It’s just as well I’m getting all the repairs done – we are going to be together for a WHILE.

Cementing our bond further, the Falcon and I then headed back out to Km 9 to meet Playero at the ol’ gas station AGAIN. Well, I couldn’t complain too much; he’d agreed to show me some moves to help me get the hang of Dominican salsa style. By the time I arrived, though, he had decided we might as well kill two birds with one stone and pay a visit to some salsa schools where I could also meet some teachers and observe other dancers. That meant a drive even further out of town, to a peripheral barrio called Los Alcarrizos.

On the way out, el Playero explained that several salsa schools were located in this area, and all had plenty of students. I wondered why Los Alcarrizos was so salsa-happy, but he said that’s just the way it was there. Where Santiago has típico, the capital has salsa! Our destination was a place called “ADPI” after its owner, whose salsa name was “El As de Pi,” which in Dominican means “Ace of Hearts.”

It was a sort of rough-and-ready place, which turned out to be because it was the second ADPI and had only recently opened. This explained the rough cement floors and lack of any accoutrements other than a stereo and a single full-length closet style mirror tacked to the wall. It had, however, been nicely painted in royal blue and with the figures of a ballroom-type couple in black and white. The house across the way was pretty snappy too – also a bright blue with white gratings and an assortment of odd, folksy wood carvings mounted under the eves. I commented on it, and Playero told me, “that’s a witch’s house!” When I expressed incredulity, he added, “well, that’s what people in the neighborhood say. Because it’s so unusual.”

When we arrived the master was on a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of the studio, relaxing with some neighbors before class. But we soon changed that! Before long, all of us were sweating in the capital’s humid air and vying for space in front of the one oscillating fan mounted in a corner. It was an educational time and now I feel confident that I can follow a Dominican lead without trouble. My two hosts made plans to meet me in Santiago for an evening’s dancing at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Time was running short, however, and the sun was about to set. Since I was to meet Rossy, my colleague from INEC (Institute for Caribbean Studies), at 8, I needed to hurry back if I was to have a badly-needed shower. As it turned out, I didn’t even have time to eat before I had to go find her at the corner of Duarte and Paris. Because this wasn’t a very good area, Rossy had told me to me sure to get there on time. I got there 15 minutes early, and found that it was about the worst meeting place ever.

Although it was after dark, the streetcorner was completely packed with vegetable vendors, shoppers, and people looking for the public cars that parked there as they took on passengers. It was ill-lit, wedged under an elevated highway, and in constant motion. There was no good place to park, and though I tried my best to pull well over, people kept getting mad at me anyway, slapping my car and yelling to move on. Eventually I moved over to the side of the public cars, thinking that at least it was a sort of parking place. An attendant came over with a big stick and whacked my car, telling me I couldn’t sit there. But then he took pity on me and allowed me to stay, even fending off the occasional passersby that thought I was a taxi and tried to get a ride. Still, though I waited and waited and waited, there was no sign of Rossy. I thought of moving, taking a drive around the block, but all the streets were one way and I was afraid of getting completely off track. Also, as soon as I left I knew she would show up in the next moment. Surely she would check all four corners of the intersection and notice my car there – but she didn’t. Nearly an hour later, I was ready to give up. As I started to go around the block, my phone rang – it was Dario. Rossy had called him from a public phone, since she didn’t have my number memorized, and he called me. She had been on the opposite corner the whole time.

Annoyed, hungry, and tense from the whole situation, I wasn’t in the world’s best mood, but the prospect of now being able to search out food picked up my spirits. We decided to go straight to our destination in Villa Consuelo and then see what edible matter could be found. I didn’t realize it was so close, but it only took us a few minutes to get there and park, and happily, there was a sidewalk cafeteria on the same block with a good selection. We engorged ourselves on grilled cheese and zapote shakes, and then, feeling a little too full to dance, made our way back down the block.

Our destination was El Secreto Musical, a place well-known (at least among ethnomusicology/folklore types) for its son dancing. Since my last trip, I’d been wanting to check out Santo Domingo’s son scene, and had finally found my opportunity. Rossy had already been here several times as a part of the preparations for this year’s conference on son and salsa at the Centro Leon, and she was warmly greeted by many of the regulars. These consisted mainly of the older Afro-Dominican gentlemen who had formed the Club de los Soneros twenty years ago. They were all well dressed, many in white pants with button-down shirts, some in solid colors and some in bright patterns. One, incongruously, sported a Led Zeppelin shirt. Many wore hats. Their wives and girlfriends wore dresses or slacks, while the younger women on the scene wore revealing outfits that in other contexts could only have been described as “hoochie mama.” There were a few foreigners – including my colleague Martha Ellen Davis. We run into each other in the strangest places. Last year it was in Cabral during carnival. This year, Secreto Musical in Villa Consuelo. What would be next??

The Club de los Soneros was sort of a brotherhood for these men who had grown up dancing to son in the city’s older barrios. Here, the lower and working classes maintain many aspects of Afro-Caribbean religion – what would openly be termed Santeria were it in Cuba, but which here is seldom discussed. At Secreto Musical and other sites the Soneros frequent they have created a syncretic practice, blending popular music and social dance with rituals that to them are highly meaningful. I had come mainly to see how Domnicans dance to son – many Dominicans even claim that son originated here, not in Cuba – but I was also curious to see what else might transpire during the evening.

I had heard aficionados discussing Dominican son music and how it can be distinguished from its Cuban counterpart. The easiest feature to recognize was in its instrumentation – where Cubans used bongó, Dominicans used mongó, a single drum that looks like an upturned tambora. I wanted to know if the dance was also different. It was. While dancing with Led Zeppelin Man at some point in the evening, I told him of my question and explained how I had only danced son in Cuba previously. “Ah! Well, this is Cuban style,” he said, and changed his step. It was the side to side 3-step movement with lots of hip action with which I was already familiar. I followed it easily and comfortably. “And now, this is Dominican style,” and he changed again. Smooth, with subtler hip motion more integrated into the rest of the body, this step moved in a quick circle. Then he stepped in place as he led me back and forth in front of him. Sometimes, the man would execute a quick bit of fancy footwork, or stop to allow the woman to do the same. This was Dominican son: subtle, graceful, elegant, leaving space for both partners to show off and look good.

I was surprised to find out that my friend from the night before, El Guinguiriano, had actually shown up. I hadn’t seen him because he had been seated right next to the dance floor and kind of behind a pillar, while Rossy and I were squished all the way in a back corner because the place had been so crowded already when we’d arrived. He wanted to sit with us but there was no way. So he said, “Come and find me when you want to dance. You must, because I am here with no partner. Or rather, perhaps I have many partners here, only I can’t see them!” So I did, and we did, and everyone had fun.

Around 11 PM, an hour before closing time, the music was shut off for the president of the Club to make some announcements. Tribute must be paid to the soneros who had passed on. A list had been distributed to club members naming all those who were to be remembered tonight. The music came back on, playing a tune that stated, “El son nunca muere” (Son never dies), and the soneros came together, dancing a simple step while following one another in a counterclockwise circle, a dance to remember the dead. After this, a palos tune came on, “Miguelito, Miguelito.” A man appeared seemingly out of nowhere, his head wrapped in a scarf and smoking the cigar that indicated he was in the service of the santos. A fire was started on the dance floor in the middle of the circle, which he and some other men fed by pouring rum on it. Perfume filled the air as he sprinkled scented holy water on the other dancers. A woman passed colorful scarves out to the other women, who unfolded them and twirled joyfully about. One of them was also smoking a cigar. Ten minutes later, it was over. The santero came around with his bottle and bathed us all in perfume – I rubbed it in, hoping it would help with the mosquito situation. We finished our beers and went home feeling satisfied.

That was all the time I had to spend in the capital. In the morning I was up early, bought a quick coffee and banana from a shack on the corner, and was back on the road to Santiago. I had just one more errand to do – purchase some more of the colorful rag rugs I love in Piedra Blanca. The selection wasn’t as good as last year, though, and the prices had gone up. The vendor explained that they got their fabric as remnants from a factory in La Vega, and it had been bought out last year by an American. “That American won’t let anything go!” he complained – presumably, the Dominicans had let the rugmakers take the scraps for free or very cheaply. Now they bought the fabric by the kilo at a higher price. It looked to be the kinds of things used for sport jerseys and tank tops, and it wasn’t as soft as last year’s models, but the colors were still nice. I bought two and hurried home for my meeting with Rafaelito.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

El hombre lata

El hombre lata
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. Another version of recycled costuming - this one all of tin cans.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. Another version of the fundú (plastic bag costume), squatting.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. This guy is famous for coming up with a new, outrageous version of the papelú costume each year.

Las princesas Lay?

Las princesas Lay?
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. some more potato-chip bag dresses.

La Reina Lay

La Reina Lay
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. The Lay's potato chip queen.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. The still older version of the papelú is the platanú, a costume made out of banana leaves. It is supposedly a direct descendant of some African dance costumes.

Bull-head Papelú

Bull-head Papelú
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. another version of the papeluses

3 happy guys - or are they drunk?

Carnival in Cotui. One of the more creative costumes in the parade.

El papelú sin cabeza

El papelú sin cabeza
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. this traditional papelú costume has been altered to be scarier.

Los Guacamayos

Los Guacamayos
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. More funduses- this time, their plastic bag costumes in parrot colors.

Carnival queen, Cotui

Carnival queen
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. The queen wears a deluxe version of the paper costumes.

Osos polares

Osos polares
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Carnival in Cotui. These polar bears are an example of the fundú, an adaptation of the traditional papelú costume that uses plastic bags in place of old-fashioned paper. Yes- the whole thing is plastic trash bags!

What does it mean?

What does it mean?
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
When my car broke down in La Vega on the way back from Cotui, I had to amuse myself until the tow truck came. I snapped this picture with my car using the timer. I thought the weird, shiny spiral must MEAN something - until I realized there was a spring sticking out of the post I was using as a tripod.

Travels with the Falcon

After not quite enough sleep, I was up and ready for a day in the field on Dominican Independence Day – February 27. Or I would be, once I found coffee, which took more doing than one might have thought. I did eventually find a guy with a coffee-and-cracker stand out on the Avenue, though, enabling me to hit the highway and head for Cotui. It was the country’s independence day and the final day of carnival in that town.

The drive out was mostly uneventful, if longer than expected. When I got off the main freeway at Piedra Blanca, near where the beautiful rag rugs are sold, I found myself on a pleasant and surprisingly well-paved country road passing through Maimon on its way east. The sun was hot, but with both windows down there was a good breeze and in spots the road was shaded by bamboo and tall trees. There were so many picturesque houses painted in bright colors, one a sky blue with geese fluttering about in front, but of course every time I saw one I was already too far past to take a picture and there was no place to pull over, anyway – one of the problems with solo road trips.

Of course, my happy road trip moment, speeding through the countryside singing, couldn’t last. At some point the pavement would have to give out, and it did in a big way as I approached the town of La Colimbra. The last ten kilometers were pretty jiggly and painful, but I arrived on Cotui’s town square reasonably intact, if sweaty.

I was set to meet with Felipe Orozco, a local folklorist who wrote a book on carnival in the province of Sanchez Ramirez and currently teaches at a technical university in town. He’d told me to meet in the “park in front of the church” – pretty indefinite directions for someone who had never been to the town and had no map, but I figured I had the hang of small Dominican towns by then. Every one of them has a centrally located town square with a church on it, and the so-called highway would have to run either right by it or close enough so that I could make out the church steeple. Sure enough, just at the point where I was wondering if I’d gone too far, should turn off the main road or stop for directions, I found the church on my right, turned and parked in front of it.

The plaza was already filling up with people, mostly teenagers talking and laughing. Just past the church on my right, a small stage was set up and strung with Dominican flags. The sun was incredibly intense. Luckily, I only had to bake for a few minutes before Felipe showed up and led me to his house. There, his girlfriend was waiting with lunch almost ready. Luckily it wasn’t a big deal that I don’t eat meat, since she wasn’t eating any either during cuaresma (lent). Felipe left me with his book to look over while he went to check on the University comparsa of which he was in charge as lunch made its way to the table.

As we were eating and drinking cold beer in order to cool off a bit, Felipe’s brother and a friend showed up. They’d just returned from the cockfight ring with a winning rooster, who was also along for the ride in a canvas sack. I quizzed them about some of the rooster-related terms I didn’t understand but had come across in merengue lyrics, and they brought their little buddy out to say hello and illustrate the canelo for me (a white bird with some red feathers). He had won, but was a little bit worse for the wear. I thought he was missing an eye but they told me it was just closed. He would go on to fight another day, although he hadn’t earned the right to a name yet – the guys told me that only very special roosters, the big winners, get their own names; the others are simply known by the descriptors of their coloring.

Time was a-wasting, though, and we had to get going if the University’s show was going to get on the road. In the carport of a house some blocks away, the university students prepared for their performance in the carnival parade. In celebration of the school’s anniversary they had made a human-powered “float” (really more of a large, rolling sign) with the number “25”, a book, and a pencil on it. The students would accompany it down the road while dancing, costumed as the various professions one could study there: mining, agriculture, law, etc. I ragged on a couple of the women dressed as miners for being entirely too clean to be convincing: their gloves were brand new and one of them was wearing shoes with rhinestone buckles that I had a hard time imagining covered in coal dust.

There was still much to do, so I went to visit Felipe’s co-author on the carnival book, Ricardo Hernandez, a sociologist with whom I had a very interesting talk about típico, class, politics, and other matters. When the students were finally ready to move, Felipe picked me up again, we drove with his girlfriend and her daughter to as close as we could get to the park what with all the carnival groups now clogging the streets. Eventually we had to ditch the effort and the car and go on foot up to the university group, which was the first in line and dancing to a popular palos tune when we arrived. (I have to say, palos is really moving up in the musical hierarchy here – I’ve heard far more in this year’s carnival than I did last year.)

I walked with them part of the way to where the parade was actually supposed to start, and then ran to the small stage I’d seen earlier, from where I’d be filming. Three other videographers and the entire panel of judges were up there too, which made for crowded times. In the end, the only space for me was on top of a speaker that didn’t balance particularly well, but I’d take it. It was definitely better than the spot in the sweltering sun I’d had before, which had necessitated the employment of the emergency umbrella always in my purse at the ready.

I was in Cotui because I’d heard about the fabulous costume tradition here in this midland town, legendary among Dominican folklorists, and I wanted to see for myself. Like any tradition, though, this one has kept changing with the times, though always maintaining its basic ethos – which seems to be something like reduce, reuse, and recycle. All the outfits are made entirely of recycled materials, the material simply depending on whatever is cheap and plentiful at the time.

The oldest variation is the platanú (plural, platanuses), a voluminous covering of dried, brown plantain leaves, sometimes decorated with a colorful round collar, sometimes accompanied by a simple yet effective mask with rectangular mouth and eye slits. But the typical 20th-century model is made instead of newspaper cut into strips and affixed to old clothing using starch. Naturally enough, a person costumed in this way is called a papelú (plural, papeluses). There is no one traditional mask for a papelu; they can use a papier-mache mask depicting any sort of animal face. More recently, a 21st-century variation has appeared: the fundú (plural, funduses), made of plastic bags woven and tied into clothing using a technique borrowed from the rag rugs made in nearby towns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of those annoying and ubiquitous plastic grocery bags.

Well, the street was now completely packed with eager onlookers, and more kept arriving and trying to push their kids in front of everyone else, as well as in front of the stage. Some perched on the fence surrounding the church for a better view. Some individual papeluses and funduses wove their way down the street and amid the crowd, occasionally administering a vejigazo, though not often. One had a costume made entirely of rags with a coconut helmet. But soon the parade itself got underway – and a good thing, too, since there were far more groups involved than I could ever have imagined for a town of only 44,000.

After the university group, it was an endless succession of papeluses and funduses until nightfall. Each had about two minutes to perform a choreography for the judges, usually to some kind of carnival merengue tune. In general, they don’t have a particular movement style as do Santiago’s lechones, they just do your standard stage merengue steps. However, the one remaining group of platanuses were something to see not only for their costumes but also because their choreography is made up of spins that made the plantain leaves fly around them.

Like in Santiago, anyone can participate in this parade wearing any type of costume. In fact, this and the economical nature of the papeluses and funduses is a source of pride to the town’s inhabitants; the announcer on stage boasted more than once that Cotui’s was “the most democratic carnival.” (Ricardo, the sociologist, had told me that Cotui had for many years had a strong leftist core.) Thus, there were categories for different types of comparsas beyond the traditional, including one titled “comparsa barrial” (Barrio group) in which the group could depict any kind of character that might be seen in a local barrio. This included girls in pyjamas and mismatched socks, coal vendors, and the like.

Many entrants had also invented creative outfits that had little or no connection to Cotui’s better-known traditions. There was an “hombre de lata” who had carried the recycling theme on to include painted tin cans. There was a woman, her face covered by an old lampshade, who wore a dress of garbage bags with trash stuck to them. It was a statement of protest to the city council: “Thus are the streets of Cotui,” a sign proclaimed. There was a little man in a bizarre sort of “Indian” costume and mask, who appeared to be a carnival regular known to all. Most spectacularly, there was a guy who had constructed an entire sofa with two stuffed men looking a little drunk sitting on either end. He was in the middle in a suit with a fake pair of legs crossed in front, reading the paper and looking very happy indeed.

A few mishaps occurred during the course of the afternoon. A few cases of bottled water had been set out for those working on stage – announcing, manning the sound system, judging, etc. After a while, someone discovered it had all disappeared and the emcee announced this fact, stating, “well – I hope you all enjoy it!” A couple of groups went on too long, one group of blue monsters to such an extent that the emcee became angry and announced that they were disqualified. Some of the groups didn’t seem too clear on the judging concept and performed their routines too far back for the judges to see. But mostly, it was simply a beautiful afternoon, particularly as the sun lost some of its force.

Among the funduses were costumes including polar bears, panda bears, pink panthers, vultures, parrots, and monsters. Some girls had constructed beautiful dresses entirely out of potato chip bags, including the particularly spectacular “Reina de Lay,” who had won a prize at school the day before for her potato chip gown complete with train. Those who had more funds had purchased metallic papers There were papeluses in bull masks and another group with more abstract, spookily featureless horned masks – perhaps a kind of devil? There was even a giant, headless papelú complete with the bloody stump of a neck.

In spite of all the emcee’s attempts to move things along quickly, it was nearly dark by the time the last group paraded in front of the judges. My friend Dario had told me that in Cotui, when carnival is over, all the papers and leaves are torn from the costumes and burnt in the streets – a symbolic representation of the “out with the old, in with the new” spirit of Easter. This may have been true in the past, but it surely didn’t happen today – perhaps the prevalence of the funduses discourages the practice, being that plastic bags don’t make very good campfires. However, I was told that it is still considered essential to make new costumes every year.

It was late and that meant I needed to hit the road ASAP if I wanted any light at all on the iffier sections of the road. I couldn’t wait for the judges to come to their consensus on the prizes – I’d just have to call Felipe for results later. So the Falcon and I got back on the road, albeit a different road this time, one which would come out close to La Vega on the highway. Pretty soon it was really, really dark, making for a decidedly less pleasant drive than I’d had on the way up. The road was medium bad in some places and extremely bad in others, where two cars could barely pass. The hardest point was striking a balance between having my brights on so I could see far enough ahead to go more than 10 mph and turning them down so as not to blind other drivers. Not that they cared about such trivialities – every time someone approached me heading the other direction I was so blinded I nearly had to come to a complete stop in order not to run off the road or fall into an unseen pothole.

About the time I came to Fantino, another town with a strong carnival tradition (they had even sent some representatives to today’s celebration in Cotui), I realized I was pretty hungry. I didn’t want to stop to eat a real meal, and most Dominicans don’t eat a big meal at night anyway, so I decided to look for a place that could prepare me a quick grilled cheese to eat on the road. Finding one, I ordered two sandwiches (the rolls were small) and a zapote juice. That’s when things started to go very, very wrong.

Anyone who has had Dominican street sandwiches will know that they always come with what I term “Dominican Special Sauce” – really just mayo and ketchup. When I got back on the road and started chowing down during the brief respites from blinding lights and uncertainty, I discovered that the woman in Fantino had gone a little overboard. There was almost more Special Sauce than cheese, and it squirted out all over my hand, so much so that it was dripping off onto my fancy jeans. It looked like my hand had been tragically mangles in an incident involving heavy machinery. I tried to fix the situation with whatever was at hand, but she had only put one tiny napkin in the sandwich bag and it couldn’t even manage what was on my thumb. The only other thing I could find was a receipt, and hoping I wouldn’t need it for anything later, I used it to scrape some more off and then threw it out the window.

That was all for immediately accessible paper products and it wasn’t close to enough. I couldn’t figure out how to drive without gumming up the steering wheel with Special Sauce, and also I kind of have a thing about sticky or dirty hands. They disturb me greatly. I had to pull off the road and deal with the situation, but there was no shoulder to pull onto. So I just sat there in the middle of the road, letting the occasional car swerve around me as I cleaned my hands with Kleenex and a little of my precious bottled water. So much for dinner.

Then the road got a little confusing. There was still an Independence Day party going on in one town square, requiring a detour. Then there was a fork I wasn’t quite sure about. I half hour later I still hadn’t reached the highway, so, getting nervous, I stopped and asked some motoconcho (motorcycle taxi) drivers if I was going the right way. They assured me I was, and that in about 20 minutes I’d get to the freeway. So I kept going, but then arrived at another confusing fork. A little girl was sitting on the hood of a car next to the intersection, and I asked her the way to La Vega. She pointed right and I turned, now onto a much better road. Not ten minutes later I was finally on the Autopista Duarte just outside of La Vega.

Freedom at last! Good road, fast driving, space to use my brights - in forty-five minutes or less I’d be back in Santiago, with enough time to bathe quickly and change clothes before heading to my palos friends’ gig at Rancho Tipico Las Colinas. I was singing as I zipped along in the fast lane, and I started thinking about just how much ground the Falcon and I had covered since morning. “My car is really running great! I guess all the money I’ve been spending on it has paid off,” I thought, with the new rotors, CV boots, gas filter, oil change, alignment, and wheel rotation I’d had done in the last week dancing in my head, not to mention the new brake tank and battery Jon had put in it in January. And then, “oops….”

In mid-thought, the car simply cut out. What timing! What irony!

It wasn’t the battery or the alternator cable that had conked out on me once before – the lights and everything else seemed fine. There had been no noise or smell, no overheating, no warning of any kind; just all of a sudden, the accelerator had no effect and I was coasting to a stop along a busy freeway, alone at night. I guess I should have been worried, but I wasn’t particularly. My friend Jon had recently mentioned that he’d had to have his car towed, so I had a plan of action. I called the towing company, and though it was 9 PM on a holiday I made my plight sound pathetic enough that the driver was soon on his way. He told me he’d come with his blinking lights on, and the boss told me to be sure to look and see that it said “Felipe” on the door. They were all very concerned.

So I had some time to kill on the side of the road, and I didn’t want to make any more phone calls since the battery was low and also I was worried about running out of minutes after all the time I’d spent trying to accurately describe my location to the driver. I amused myself by looking at the stars, using the “facilities,” such as they were, and setting up a timer snapshot of me and the Falcon. It came out with a crazy shiny spiral that seemed to emanate from my shoulder, reminding me of so-called “spirit photography.” I thought for sure it must mean something… something like, “never go around thinking your 23-year-old car is running well; it will only get you into trouble.” But then I discovered an old rusty spring coming out of the post I was using as a tripod. So much for my three-second spiritual experience.

Well, eventually the tow truck guy did come. I saw him approaching from Santiago on the other side of the highway, his lights flashing as promised, my parking lights on as promised. He saw me and honked three times; I replied in kind. (Good thing I’d just had my horn fixed.) He did it again just to make sure, and I honked back in a jaunty rhythm. When he got there he expressed relief that I hadn’t been attacked by highway robbers, marauding crusaders, or anything else. On the slow ride back to Santiago, I came up with some probing questions for him about his profession.

“So, what happens if you have to go pick up a broken-down car, and then your tow truck breaks down?”

He laughed. “I call another tow truck.”

“A bigger one?”


“So then you have a car on top of a tow truck on top of another tow truck?”

“More or less.”

“And what if that one breaks down?” My enquiring mind wanted to know, and to be prepared for any eventuality.

He laughed again, then became serious. “Actually, it has happened to me.” Not the second one, but the first one, that was. I thought that would have to be pretty much the worst day ever: your car breaks down so you call for assistance, wait an hour, get your hopes up when the truck arrives, and then have to go through the whole thing again.

At least THAT didn’t happen to us. But it was a bit of a hassle to get ahold of El Negro, my trusty car guy, at 11 PM at night and figure out how to get the car to him for repairs. In the end, we dumped it on the sidewalk in front of his shop since the “guachiman” (night watchman) in the parking lot next door had informed us in surly manner that the lot was full. He cheered up a bit and became talkative, even, when the prospect of a tip became apparent, as we needed him to hold on to the keys and give them to the gas station attendant in the morning who would in turn hand them over to El Negro.

This somewhat iffy plan did actually work out in the end, although the trip there from La Vega had made me about $75 lighter. And now, after three days in the shop and $225 worth of work, I have a completely rebuilt car. It turned out that the timing belt had broken, which in turn destroyed several pistons, rings, and the culata, a part that was new to me, meaning that I now know it only in Spanish.

In the midst of all the car-related excitement, which necessitated repeated trips across the river to El Negro’s in Bella Vista in order to examine some part or another, it was a bit difficult to get much work done. Nonetheless, I managed to be interviewed by a reporter on my carnival experiences, meet with Rafaelito to enjoy a tasty lunch from Carmen’s kitchen and toss around the idea of a merengue típico accordion method book, snap some pictures of the masks entered into this year’s carnival competition, and meet with Raul (Rafaelito’s son) for the purposes of (a) teaching him some music theory and reading skills, (b) learning some fancy parts to some merengues I’m working on, and (c) discussing plans for the upcoming Smithsonian recording. This turned into (d) more monetary headaches for me regarding the budget for said recording, headaches that lasted through the night and into Saturday morning.

The good part on Saturday was that I got a new radio put in my car! I’d had a nice one with a CD player and removable face, but it had conked out last year and I’d never gotten around to fixing it. Now I was sufficiently tired of having only my own voice for company on long driving trips that I was ready to sacrifice both money and time on the matter. First to the electrical guy, who found there was no hope for the old thing – it was essentially brain-dead. Then a couple of hours of driving around looking for a suitable replacement. Everyone wanted me to buy a CD player, but I don’t have any CDs here so I didn’t see why I should spend RD$2200 ($66) when I could spend RD$1000 ($30) for one with a tape player that would play from my iRiver just as easily. But since I am the only person left in Santiago who wanted such an outdated thing, it was hard to find. Eventually, success! With that and two cheap speakers I was ready to rock, and I drove away with La Super Regional blasting. It was off to the cockfights for me, since I needed a couple of pictures for an article. I got them quickly, giving me a much-needed night off.

Armando la morcilla

Armando la morcilla
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
It took five people - well, 4.5 - to put the cover on this morcilla on the last day of carnival.

Lechones rebel!!

On Saturday night, I had sort of vaguely been planning on heading to Rancho Merengue to hear Kinito Mendez. It was an out-of-the-ordinary event for RM, as Kinito is not a típico musician but an orquesta one who has become famous for his fusions with palos music. I was curious to see him live, although I was also kind of tired from our late night in Moca the night before. At any rate, my dilemma over evening plans was solved for me when I received a call from my friend Denio of the palos group, Grupo Mello. They were planning on rehearsing tonight and would like me to come. So I decided to exchange expensive commercial palos for free down-home palos. The exchange paid off in the form of some balsie practice, the learning of some new coros, and of course, beer, rum, and conversation.

I couldn’t party too much though, since Sunday was the final day of Santiago’s carnival and I needed to be well-rested in order to endure the rigors of the parade route. As usual, I went early to Tonito’s house to do some last-minute preparations. Tonito was of course doing the same: he and his son had decided to use white costumes from a few years back, loaning last year’s golden models to those who wanted to dress up but couldn’t afford costumes of their own. This meant they had to glue back on all the bells and buttons that had been stripped from the old costumes for recycling, fill in empty spaces with scraps of glitter fabric and sequined trim, and re-cover an old morcilla (the tube-shaped cummerbund) in sequin and lame remnants. The last part was the funniest: when the morcilla was unwrapped and laid out, it reached all the way from the living room into the kitchen, and I compared it to an anaconda in the jungle. Getting the tube of fabric Tonito had prepared onto it involved the efforts of four people, bucket brigade-style.

There had been no time for me to get my own whip, but it was just as well: after last week’s practice I’d woken the next day with intense neck and shoulder pain. I could suffer plenty without that added burden. My newly-purchased bladders, now, thankfully, dried out and mostly smell-free, would be enough for me. Over at Betania’s we all got dressed, a much larger group now than at any of the previous events. One was a kid who had grown up in New York but was sent back here four years ago after getting mixed up in some trouble at school. He was anxious to practice his English with me, and hopes to go back to NY soon to finish high school and then attend college. Jose was also there. He told me that some of the other groups of lechones have numerous New York members who come back specifically for carnival; back in the Big Apple they have stateside branches of the group in order to dress up and participate in New York’s carnival and Dominican Day parades.

The previous day had been cool and breezy, so I’d been hoping Sunday would be the same, but no such luck. It was a hot one and I was sweating and thirsty inside my suit before we even started. There was a lot more waiting around this week, as all the groups attempted to get in line in a somewhat orderly fashion along Av. Imbert, while news reporters weaved their way in and out, looking for comments on the “situation.”

Here’s the situation: last year, differences between the Federation of (barrio) carnival groups and the Carnival Committee of (wealthy) official types were finally resolved in the last week, and all the groups ended up following the designated parade route along Las Carreras and around the Monument area. This year, the differences worsened and the governor of Santiago refused to negotiate with the Federation; thus, all Federation member groups agreed not to parade on the official route in protest. Instead we would parade through the barrios where carnival has always had a home and the support of the people, and where, some argued, the “true” carnival still existed. In effect, this served to divide the celebration into two carnivals this year, one for the rich and one for the poor, something that hasn’t been seen since the days of the “Carnaval Social” in the elite Centro de Recreo during the Trujillo era.

The only groups that went up to the monument area were the random, unorganized groups that always appear on the last day, the officially sponsored floats, and the few groups of lechones that do not belong to the Federation who have their own sources of funding and do not belong to the Federation. If this had happened in New York, the giant inflatable rat would surely have made an appearance, greeting them all at the Monument.

At any rate, we counted are Carnaval Barrial a success. We made the point we intended to make, and we brought carnival to the people. The people liked. I even ran into my friend, folklorist Rafael Almanzar, down by the Plaza Valerio. (As a good leftie, he was conscience-bound to attend our carnival and not the other.) The only bad moment was when, coming down a sidestreet, we passed a badly decaying animal carcass of some sort, and then got stuck in a carnival traffic jam when right in the midst of that ungodly stench. It was not as bad as the fresh bladders in my car, but close, and there was no relief other than a lechon sleeve over the nose.

Our route took us once again through the traditional carnival barrios of Pueblo Nuevo, Baracoa, and La Joya. As night fell, we arrived back at Betania’s, and one of our helpers jumped on top of their wall to make a speech detailing how we could be proud because we’d just done something unmentionable to the governor in an unmentionable spot. We cheered.

No one knows where carnival will take us next year, or if there will be water to drink there, but plans are already underway for the costume we will use.

The next morning, I crossed the street to visit my neighbor, Raudy, the Robalagallina. As a member of the Santiago elite he had naturally been at the “other” carnival and expressed his disappointment that I hadn’t been able to see him in costume. I didn’t feel like getting into a political argument, so I shrugged and said I was also sorry he hadn’t been able to see me in costume. We both smiled in agreement of our disagreement. He was on his way to the Gran Gala de Carnaval in the capital, and told me that he could provide me with tickets for me and my friends if I came. I did feel that, after all my barrio carnival experience, I should see the other face of the festivities, so I decided to make the trip. Over the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of work done on the car, and so I though it would be good to put it to a road test. I felt sure the Falcon would pass, what with its new battery, brake tank, lights, rotors, CV boots, oil, oil cap, and gas filter. After lunch, a few hasty phone calls, and an alignment and tire rotation for my car, the Falcon and I were on our way.

We made it fine to the capital, although it took as long to cover the last kilometer in Gazcue than it had to go the previous 60 k. This was because of the construction of the Metro, whose future tunnel passes just a few blocks from where I usually stay, meaning that half of the Av. Maximo Gomez is currently missing. But we did make it eventually, just in time to meet my friend Dario for a hasty dinner purchased from the Supermercado Nacional’s cafeteria and pick up his friend, Marta, before going to the Teatro Nacional.

I thought Raudy had said the show would start at 8:00, but Dario assured me that everything in this theater started promptly at 8:30. In fact, he told me, there had been a whole series of commercials stating this fact a few months back, in an effort to get people to show up on time rather than on Dominican time. The only thing was that we needed to be there early if we wanted to get the tickets from Raudy, and it was 8:26 when we picked up Marta. I was a little worried. I was a little more worried when I couldn’t get ahold of Raudy on either of his two cell phones (“in case one doesn’t get a signal,” he’d told me). I was still more worried when the ushers told us they didn’t have our tickets and they couldn’t get Raudy for us as the show had started at 8. But luck was with us: a manager took pity on us and let us go up to the balcony. Still luckier: when we got into the theater, we found the house lights were still on. Apparently, things hadn’t started yet. As we took our seats, the emcee was making an announcement to the effect that, because so many people had arrived late, they had been forced to delay the show a half an hour.

The performance consisted of a couple of introductory dance numbers, one provided by Ocean World park near Puerto Plata and featuring sea-inspired costumes, and another that was a sort of modern dance/merengue number with a background of lechones, provided by the Santiago group of Los Tuaregs. Then there was a competition between five towns: Bonao, Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, San Francisco de Macoris, and Santiago. Each had brought a “comparsa” (they called them that, even though they didn’t in the least resemble the semi-theatrical carnival street troupes that the term usually refers to) that performed about six minutes of choreography on a certain theme in elaborate costumes.

Bonao’s was “Soy Dominicano,” so they were naturally costumed in red, white, and blue, and performed mostly merengue moves. The tambora was used as a central symbol, and giant cutouts of accordion and güira also appeared on stage. In the middle of the piece, the dancers went offstage and out came ice cream vendors ringing their bells, a guy talking on his cell phone while buying fruit, etc, to the great amusement of the audience. Santo Domingo’s theme was simply “Fantasia,” a catch-all term used for anything that doesn’t fall into any traditional carnival theme but that captures its colorful exuberance. Both costumes and choreography were nice to see, but it didn’t really say anything. Puerto Plata’s was the most confusing, as it seemed to be a sort of a South Pacific theme that combined tiki masks, a smoking volcano, and grass skirts, but it also gave you the most to look at. San Francisco de Macoris had a religious theme, with a living Madonna on a platform and the dancers in white, even featuring a section of palos music (but which seemed to have little to do with the movements or costumes that accompanied it).

And finally, Santiago, whose theme was its own carnival. A single lechon posed on stage with whip in hand as a film projected on the wall behind showed scenes of busy streets like Las Carreras and the Monument. Then the dancers emerged, their costumes evocative of lechones, Nicolas Den Den, and the Indios; near the end, a comical Robalagallina even made an appearance.

I enjoyed the show, because the choreography was interesting and the dancers were quite good. But I was a bit confused as to what it all had to do with carnival – or at least, what it had to do with Dominican carnival. The costumes consisted principally of spangled bikinis and feathered headdresses, or Carmen Miranda-esque ruffled gowns. I really didn’t see anything that resembled anything one would see in the streets of this country in February until we got to the Santiago number. But, I guess that is a difference between the carnivals of the elite and the carnivals of the barrios. The winners were announced: for choreography, Puerto Plata; for costumes, Santiago; third place overall San Francisco, second place Santiago (the crowd near me, mostly members of Los Tuaregs, went wild), and first, Puerto Plata. I guess they voted in favor of spectacle over theme.

After the show, we mingled with the elite and the intelligentsia. The Secretary of Culture was there; the great folklorist Dagoberto was there; a couple of very tall transvestites in absolutely incredible tiered and embroidered dresses were there with an entourage of the flamboyantly gay. The scene in the lobby was almost better than what we’d seen on the stage. By the time we exited, Raudy was already on the bus with the Tuaregs, ready to head back to Santiago, but we managed to at least say hello before they left. After that, a beer at our local colmado – accompanied by a new flavor of Lay’s, “pescado con coco.” It tasted like coconut, sure, but I wasn’t sure about the fish part.