Friday, April 13, 2007

Travels with beans, part 1

After Mom left, it was back to work for me, making the final arrangements for the Folkways recording and press conference. I also had to finish my conference paper and a couple of applications. Nothing too exciting for the blog, expect perhaps for a rehearsal in preparation for the recording. Since one of La India’s tunes combines palos rhythms with merengue, we figured this should be worked out beforehand in order not to waste a lot of studio time. We considered it successful, although we never did manage to coordinate the palos drummers into the percussion breaks, instead opting to let them keep doing their thing. Also, I convinced them to try my favorite arrangement technique- dropping out all the melody instruments for one chorus, letting just the drums accompany the voices. Cubans do this a lot in timba, and it always gets the dancers (i.e. me) all pumped up. Strangely, Dominicans don’t ever use this technique, but I’m advocating for that to change.

Then it was holy week already, and so it seemed like I should leave town once again. Everyone else does, and if I stayed behind, I’d probably just feel lonely. I accepted a long-standing invitation from friend Laura (accordionist Chiqui’s wife) to accompany her and her kids to the family home in Dajabon. Unfortunately, Chiqui couldn’t join us: all their neighbors would be out of town, and someone had to stick around to keep their eye on things in the neighborhood. Also, I couldn’t get away until Thursday, when everyone else had already left, but Chiqui’s sister Yahaira waited around in order to accompany me on the drive. This turned out to be long but uneventful.

The main sights to see along the way were the numerous paradores that start soon after Esperanza selling spicy goat, also known as chivo liniero (goat from the northwest border region), as well as herds of the living versions that every so often attempted to cut off our progress. In the same area, the landscape became more arid and eerily Arizona-like: full of cactus and trees with tiny leaves that looked much like mesquite. The soil too was different. Instead of the bright red-orange of the fertile lands around Cotui or the slightly mellower red-brown near Santiago, it was now the burnt-looking light tan of my Arizona childhood.

The land continued thusly all the way until we hit the coast at Montecristi. This city was a bustling port town at the turn of the last century, but since being abandoned as a commercial port has fallen into disrepair. Numerous old and stately homes dot its streets, and one can see they must have been grand when freshly painted, but most of them are nearing the point of uninhabitability. One rotten-looking two-story wooden mansion bore a sign stating that it was being restored by a local historical society, but the rest are likely to be gone before long. So it seemed a little incongruous when, next to the park with the famous clock (just a big timepiece on a tall scaffolding), we passed a nice, new museum building of bright white marine limestone. I would have loved to see what was inside, but it was of course closed.

I’d never seen anything of Montecristi, so we decided it was worth a quick stop to take a look at the coastline and El Morro, the big sugarloaf mountain next to the city. It was indeed scenic: the dry-looking mountain towered over the sea, wide and very blue under the intense sun, and so shallow that we saw two men walking in it while presumably fishing a hundred yards out. Lining the road were numerous saleras, the square ponds used for extracting salt from ocean water. A dozen small wooden boats were tied up where the road met the sea, and a few men had cold Presidentes at a tiny cafeteria nearby. We bought juice instead in order to refresh ourselves for the road ahead.

Good thing, too. It wasn’t far in distance, but the road was absolutely abominable for much of the way. Great big potholes, long stretches of missing pavement, bumpiness and rockiness: it really had it all. A little over halfway to Dajabon, however, we suddenly and unexpectedly hit fresh pavement, still black with newness. This was a happy surprise. Later I was told that a local guy had gone all the way to the capital on foot with a cross on his back in order to protest the condition of the roads in these parts, and the new pavement was the result. He was also given a motorbike and some other stuff in recognition of his efforts. I suggested that he needed to take his cross out for another run at it so we could get the damn thing finished. He and the cross could both get to the capital much more comfortably on the new bike, though perhaps it wouldn’t have the same symbolic weight.

We arrived in Dajabon around 3:00, all hot and sweaty, and went straight to the Taveras family home, which was also hot and sweaty. There was no power or gas at the moment, so we found Laura working on the habichuelas con dulce, the sweet beans that are the traditional Dominican fare for Holy Week, over a coal stove on the porch. Or rather, she was going back and forth between stirring these and giving her mom’s hair a new dye job in the outdoor shower. Various and sundry other family members were milling about, the menfolk all engrossed in different fix-it jobs in the space between this house and the next, either cars or CD players or other electronics. Broken-down microwaves and speakers took up much of the space, a new chest of drawers had apparently just been built and sanded nearby, and chickens, roosters, and stray dogs wandered in and out of the whole mess. Chiqui’s blind mother was seated inside, and she seemed to be making a lot of progress in recovery from her recent stroke. The last time I saw her she had been prostrate in a hospital room, unable to care for herself or speak intelligibly, but now she responded to our greetings in a slurred but intelligent fashion.

My friend Chio, the director of the local culture house, had made me a reservation at a hotel, but it seemed that Laura had been expecting me to stay there. I have a hard time sleeping under the best of conditions, though, and these were definitely not the best of conditions. I didn’t want to become a raving b****, but I would do just that if things were half this active here in the morning. I talked this over with Laura, and she suggested maybe I would do better at her mom’s house, which was quieter and in a sort of cul-de-sac at the edge of town with no traffic noise. After a lunch of rice and veggies and an enormous glassful of blessedly iced, freshly made guava juice, we went to the other house to check it out.

The other house was indeed more quiet. Actually, it was two houses at the end of a road on the edge of a field. One of Laura’s sisters, brother-in-law, and several nieces and nephews lived in one; her mother and another sister with family lived in the other. They were made of a few rows of cinder blocks topped with roughly-hewn wooden boards through which light easily shone, as it did through numerous little holes in the tin roofs. It was obvious that electricity was an infrequent visitor here from the kerosene lamps sitting on high shelves in both homes. There was also no plumbing, but I was getting desperate for a shower. I did the best I could with a bucket of water in an outdoor shower stall bricked up to about chin height. Luckily, I didn’t need a toilet at the moment.

I was feeling exhausted, so Laura showed me to a bed in her mother’s house to lay down for a while. Two double beds took up all available space in the room, which offered little privacy, what with the four-inch gaps above and underneath the door, and the window whose screenless shutter stood open. This wasn’t the kind of house that had closets; instead, someone’s (perhaps several someones’) entire wardrobe was hanging from nails on the walls in here. There were a lot of flies and gnats milling about, and, I suspected, mosquitoes as well, so I lathered up with my trusty bug spray before lying down. Naturally there was no power at the moment, which meant there was no relief from the heavy, hot air, but I found it tolerable once I’d been lying there a while.

I very nearly slept, or perhaps I did for a few minutes, but before long the rooster had figured out what was going on and couldn’t let such a thing happen. “Hey!! Hey, YOU!!” he seemed to be shouting right underneath the open window. I could only imagine six AM at this house. Sleep would probably not be happening here, either. Instead, I invited Laura to come stay at the hotel with me, making more space for everyone involved. After I got up, we went to check in, and luckily the place was both much nicer than the ramshackle spot I’d stayed last time I was in town and much cheaper! It was such a good deal that Robinson, Yary’s boyfriend who’d come along for the weekend, decided to stay too. It was also managed by an Argentine, something I’d quickly figured out from the guy’s accent even though he’d already replaced his “vos” with “tu.” I wondered aloud at this, since last time I was in Dajabon I’d met another resident Argentine. Turns out both had ended up here through their stints with the UN Peacekeeping Force on the border.

The night was still comparatively young, so we didn’t stay to chat with my new friend Ruben any further. Instead, we returned to the Taveras house to eat the famous habichuelas con dulce. That served as dinner, since after the heavy sweet soup I couldn’t stomach anything else. So while Yary was anxious to go off and eat homemade pizza prepared by the husband of Chiqui’s sister Rossy, a strange and rather crude French Canadian character, Laura and I instead begged off and returned to the hotel for hot showers and early sleep. There we encountered Chio driving by in an official Centro de la Cultura van. He invited me to join a group he was taking across the border to Haiti in the morning for a two-hour excursion and I happily accepted, being that I had been anxious to try crossing the border anyway.

It was not to be. We waited and waited, but Chio was a no-show. I called him about a thousand times, but half the time the calls wouldn’t go through – all the circuits appeared to be blocked by all the Dominicans calling each other on Good Friday – or it rang and rang with no answer. Exhausted from the day before and being awaked at some ungodly hour by a screaming child, I went back to bed. Of course, shortly after I’d done so the screaming child returned. Oh well. I rested and read my book for a while, fumed about being excluded from the Haiti trip, and then went back to Laura’s mom’s. There, I found Felo, Robinson, and a cousin, Kendry, playing cards. I joined the circle and they tried to teach me their game, but I found it completely unintelligible and gave up. Then I taught them blackjack, five-card stud, and hearts. Then I suggested dominoes, and some other cousins ran to a neighbors, returning a bit later with the necessary equipment.

We appeared to go a bit dominoes-crazy after this, and ended up playing for four hours straight. Players came and went, but Felo, Robinson, and I were constant in our devotion to the game. I started off playing well but grew increasingly tired and inattentive and then started making stupid mistakes. Still I couldn’t tear myself away from the game, even when Robinson started trying to fool us all with his inaccurate point tallying and throwing of “chivos,” the misplaced dominoes for which Chiqui is famous. It started raining, so we moved inside. The power went out, so we lit a candle. The candle burnt down, so we bought another. We consumed more habichuelas. The game went on. And on. It was almost impossible to quit, but eventually my sagging eyelids forced me to do so.

Back at the hotel, we encountered a small child that sounded suspiciously like the one who had awakened us so mercilessly. He was yelling and running around the parking lot as his mother stood around talking on her cell phone. Since he was staring at me anyway, I decided to have a little talk with him. “Hey buddy,” I said, all friendly-like. “You know, you can yell all you like out here in the parking lot. Just not inside, OK? Have fun now!” At which he promptly took off screaming into the hotel and down the hall where my room was located.

His mother told us, “No, that kid making all the noise in the night wasn’t mine. It was a nephew of mine.” Fat chance. We could hear him going on for another half an hour as we showered and got into bed.

In the morning, I stopped by Laura’s family’s house again. I was surprised to find her brother-in-law, Sandy, sporting a pair of University of Arizona shorts. That would be probably one of the last items of attire I would expect here on the Haitian-Dominican border, so I asked him how he’d gotten them. He gave some roundabout explanation about people sending clothes from the US, and Haitians getting ahold of them and then selling them in the market here, etc. In other words, who knows? Let’s just enjoy the bizarre coincidence. I took a picture to remember it by.

The next stop was of course to see how the other side of the family was getting along, and we found Chiqui’s father, brother, and assorted neighborhood children busy in the bakery. The giant brick oven was fired up, but at the moment they were baking chicken rather than bread. Outside, a couple of goats had been brought in to the patio, presumably to escape the on again-off again drizzle that was occurring, and were dozing amidst oil barrels and assorted machinery. We decided the time had come to get out of town and see some different scenery, so Yary, Felo, Laura, Yahaira, and Robinson all piled in and we headed south on the lovely paved highway.

It turned out to be less of a driving trip and more of a stopping trip. My passengers had relatives and friends all along this road all the way to Loma de Cabrera. First stop was at an Isla gas station where a sister ran a small bar/cafeteria/pool hall. The pool table wasn’t in that great shape, but we all shared a beer before moving on. Next stop was a roadside colmado run by a cousin, just next door to Chiqui’s grandmother’s house. This was our main sightseeing stop of the day, since I had been hearing for years about a bizarre mango tree at this location that produces two different varieties of the fruit on the same branch. The stories were true: the tree was huge, and on one of its long limbs you could clearly see a clump of the usual kind of elongated mangos hanging next to another of tiny round ones. But this wasn’t all grandma had to offer: there was also a pig sty, a big bush full of ripe Dominican cherries, a fuzzy little puppy, and a house built entirely of yagua (a kind of palm frond) – even its walls. My companions busied themselves with a bucket and the cherry bush while I photographed and looked for the puppy.

The colmado also had a domino table parked in front, so you know what that means.

The first domino game of the afternoon out of the way (but far from the last), we stopped at a little round sort of enramada/roadside hangout spot in front of an uncle’s house. The main thing to see here were two adorable fluffy gray and white bunnies in a cage in back. We fed them bits of grasses to amuse ourselves until the drizzle began to get harder and we weree forced to take cover and admire the planters full of bromeliads for a bit, as well as the herd of cows being driven into an enclosure just up the street, before moving on.

Further still, and in heavier rain, we came to a roughly built roadside shelter, inconveniently located in front of a large pothole now filled with muddy water, where a stout, dark woman was selling sweets. Across the street, a narrow dirt road led down a hill back into the campo. I was informed that this is where Yary and Felo’s birth father lives with his Haitian wife, and I might as well accompany the kids down there with my umbrella and get a look at him. I did. Clearly, we prefer Chiqui.

From here, it was only about 10 kilometers to Loma de Cabrera and the swimming holes near that town – we saw many pickups full of bathers coming back to Dajabon from that direction – but the road looked like it got worse, and also it was still raining and dusk was approaching. I voted to save that tour for a later date and get back to town while I could still see the potholes. That made us just in time to catch the end of the bakery’s working day. All the trays of sugar cookies were out of the oven. Soon they were being stacked by the dozen into Styrofoam trays by Yahaira and wrapped in plastic by three boys of about 9 or 10 years old. I decided to join in on Yahaira’s side, which meant things quickly got silly, and two trays knocked over, but all was right in the end.

After a couple of those cookies and some habichuelas con dulce, I found I didn’t really need much dinner. Instead, back at Laura’s family home, I sat around in rocking chairs with her, her sister, and their mom, looking at family pictures in the dim light of one energy-saving bulb and discussing them with the sister’s two little girls, age 4 and 18 months. Those two girls had more energy than I could even imagine having, and they kept jumping up and down nonstop on the cement floor, getting right back up again each time they fell. The older girl was counting, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis” as she jumped, but the little one couldn’t get beyond “Dos! Dos! Dos! Dos!”

That’s when I heard the story of the Third House. While now only the two wooden structures (and one half shower stall) stood on this property, Laura and her sister told me that there had been another one up until a few months ago. It belonged to their brother and his wife. She had been a problem all the way along and couldn’t get along with anyone in the family. Eternally jealous, she was always accusing her husband of various things with no basis in reality. Then one night, she burned the house down. Torched it and everything in it: television, refrigerator, everything one has to work so hard to have now. She then went back to the capital, and he has to start over from scratch.

By now I was yawning a bit, but I was told that we had been invited over to the Canadian’s house to eat his famous pizza, so I could hardly turn that down. While waiting for everyone to get ready, I sat around talking to the teenagers. We were talking about different hand signals and what they mean (this was sparked by usage of the middle finger). They showed me how an “L” made with thumb and forefinger of the right hand here stands for the political party PLD, the current president’s party. I remarked that that was funny since in the US it means “Loser,” especially when held up to the forehead. Felo and Robinson found this both hilarious and useful, especially during dominoes games. When we did eventually get to the Canadian’s and get out the dominoes (as well as the beer and pizza), “Loser” became the evening’s theme, along with the “W” Robinson started flashing, gang-style, in order to represent his supposed “Winner” status. “Whatever!”

It was hard to stop playing but at 11 we really had to call it a night. I had a 9 AM appointment with Chio, who had reappeared as mysteriously as he had disappeared the other day, and then we were planning to attempt a border crossing. In Haiti, we probably wouldn’t have to eat any more beans, at least.

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