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.

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