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.