Sunday, April 22, 2007

Travels with beans, part 2


My first task of this Easter Sunday was to head over to the Centro de la Cultura, an unmarked yellow house, for a demonstration of the newly formed children’s típico class. Laura came with me, and we found the children anxiously awaiting our arrival in the backyard. It was a complete group of accordion, tambora, güira, and marimba, all played by children under 12 (the marimbero appeared to be more in the neighborhood of 7). They did quite a respectable job on three merengues, considering the accordionist had been playing for all of four months. This was one of the results of Dajabon’s win in the city pavilion competition at last year’s Feria Regional del Libro, which I had attended on my last trip. With the prize money Chio purchased instruments and got this new program going – the first such class I’ve ever seen or heard of.

Chio also showed us quickly around the other new developments, which included a large room used for sleepovers and movie showings, the recently purchased other side of this duplex house. We couldn’t stay much longer, though, if we wanted to carry out our plan to get to Haiti. Laura’s brother, a military man, thought he could get us across with no problems, but the border crossing would close for lunch at 12:00 sharp and then there’d be no crossing back. When we met him at Laura’s mom’s house it was already nearing 10:00 so we had to get a move on.

Approaching the border by Falcon, we parked it at the customs house and passed through its arched gateway, pausing to greet several soldiers on the way, all of whom assured us we could go on through the big metal gate in the center of the bridge over the Rio Masacre that here marked the border. Well sure, the Dominicans let us through, along with all the Haitian vendors carrying heaps of clothing and carts full of other mysteries to sell. But the Haitian border officer wasn’t such a pushover. He didn’t mind the Dominican members of our party going through, namely Felo, Yary, Robinson, and our military escort, but I was another matter. First our guide tried evasionary tactics: he insisted that I was, in fact, Dominican. The guy didn’t buy it and wanted to see ID. Unable to produce this, he then said that I could go through if I showed a passport and paid 600 pesos. Luckily, I did (unusually) happen to have my passport with me, but the price seemed a little steep. Arguing that we would only be there for a short time anyway, the price was negotiated down to 200 upon our return, and we set off.

It was a weird no-man’s land we had entered. After the customs house, it was a rather muddy dirt road lined with masses of trash, first passing by a line of men selling things like phone cards from TV-tray-sized tables, then a larger table with food and drink, then a tiny city of booths selling lottery tickets. All this was in the middle of a sizable empty space sparsely populated by trees and one lonely white truck marked “UN.” In the heat it was like entering a weird purgatory where no one spoke our language and could only stare quietly at us as we passed by. It was a relief to finally cross a small bridge and enter the town of Ouanaminthe, known to Dominicans as Juana Mendez.

The road conditions did not improve. In fact, I saw not a single paved road in the whole town. I did see a surprising number of fancy mansions in various stages of being built. Then there were the places that held only a nice-looking wall surrounding a plot of land filled with nothing but weeds. I was told the method here was to build the wall first, then the house as money becomes available. Where does the money come from? Probably best not to ask. Borders are borders anywhere.

We walked on through the hot and dusty streets, passing little girls dressed in Sunday best on the way to church and small businesses painted with slogans in Kreyol. A brand new white SUV passed and Laura’s brother hailed the driver. Apparently this guy was a friend of his, with two others in the car, all Dominicans claiming they were there to visit friends. They invited us to pile in alongside and they would take us as far as we wished. We didn’t go far but it was still a relief to have those few minutes of air conditioning.

After dropping us off at the town’s main square, our ride took off. We were left to stroll through the park, such as it was: a ramshackle building in the middle in the middle of a somewhat depressing slice of patchy grass with few other plants to speak of, all surrounded by a low stone wall. A few sheep relaxed in the shade on the side nearest the church from which a crowd of people were emerging. Next door to the church, a few men watched soccer on some benches under a roof, a place where you could pay to enter and watch TV. A poster advertised some upcoming games and movies that would be shown.

There wasn’t much to do here unless we wanted to sit and watch the game, so we continued down a side street toward the fortress. This too was a bit depressing – a large cinder block structure that was only partially standing, as apparently some kids had blown it up or set it on fire about ten years back for no very good reason. A mule tied up under a tree swatted at flies in front of the place, and that was pretty much the only activity on the street until a street vendor came by with her wares in a wheelbarrow. Among the various bottles and cans were several pints of clerén, a bootleg Haitian rum. I’d had it before in its clear form, but this one was flavored with something that made it an almost fluorescent orange color. My companions bought a couple and we pushed on.

Coming to a graveyard surrounded by a high wall, I insisted we go in if at all possible, and finding the gate open, we did so. It was not very different from Dominican cemeteries I’d visited, with its large above-ground tombs plastered in various pastel colors. An unusual structure, like a mini castle complete with turret, stood in the center. It didn’t appear to hold any bodies, at least it wasn’t marked with a name, but it was hard to be sure. One of the group suggested it belonged to “El Baron del Cementario.” This vodou spirit in charge of the dead still survives in Dominican folklore, although in a somewhat different form. My friend told me the Baron del Cementerio was a sort of honorary position occupied by the first person to be buried in the cemetery, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

Emerging from the graveyard we checked our watches and saw it was getting perilously close to 12:00. We had better make for the border tout de suite to avoid being turned into pumpkins or something. Indeed, when we crossed the no-man’s land and walked up to the customs house they were nearly ready to close the doors, and Laura’s brother’s cell phone was ringing with a soldier friend calling to notify us. They were all worried we’d get stuck in Haiti and never make it back, I guess, but we paid our fee and passed through to the other side safely.

Our little international sojourn over, it was time to pack up the car and hit the road. It would be a heavy load coming back: not only would we total five people in the car, each with a bag, but Laura wanted to bring back a giant sack of rice and another of dried beans. The Falcon would be riding low, which made me a little more nervous than usual about the potholes. I’d have to go slow, but I was in a bit of a hurry to get back, as my friends from the batey had called to inform me that a gagá group would indeed be going out that day and I should stop by to see it.

As we got on the road, Laura informed me that rice and beans were considered contraband in these parts and that if we were stopped by the military, they would confiscate it. What was that about? Haitian rice smugglers? I thought it was more likely the guards wanted to eat the stuff themselves. Our illicit agricultural products were well hidden under clothes and bags, but Laura was still nervous. Not I. I cackled maniacally every time we passed a checkpoint. They waved us through every time. “Ha! I’d be the last person they’d suspect of rice smuggling!” I bragged. “I could smuggle a ton through and they’d never notice!” Laura wished she’d brought more.

We actually made pretty good time on the way back, even considering our heavy load. As we approached the batey, we encountered the gaga on the highway – they had already set out for Maizal, hoping to collect some tips. I pulled over and jumped out with my recording equipment, as well as an umbrella for the blazing sun, and paid them to play a couple of tunes for me before moving on to Santiago. This accomplished, I finally felt that my Easter was complete.
We weren’t home yet though: just as we were about to come into Navarrete, we hit a major traffic jam. Turned out that in Navarrete this is the last day of carnival, and perhaps the most important one. From a distance, we could see a giant doll of some sort propped in a pickup truck somewhere in the mass of cars ahead of us. Then I remembered how I’d heard that the Navarreteneses make a big Judas doll, kind of like in Cabral, parade it through the town on Easter Sunday, and then burn it in a kind of cleansing ceremony. Following the Judas were more pickups, these filled with various carnival groups in their matching t-shirts, carrying their masks more for show than anything else (they weren’t going to actually dress up today, it appeared) and blasting music. I would have liked to get a picture of Judas and maybe see the burning, but I couldn’t deal with getting through all the traffic again in order to follow it.

Outisde of Navarrete, things didn’t get any better. We wondered if there had been an accident, since traffic was backed up on that side too and we could see a couple of police cars a ways down the line. As it turned out, though, this was simply a part of the plan to reduce traffic fatalities this year, since these are always high during Holy Week here. The police cars were there to escort us at a safe speed down to Santiago. It was a fine idea, but too slow for my tastes. And it got even slower a minute later, as it started pouring rain. Luckily, the cloudburst ended before Santiago and I was able to drop everyone off and get home with no further incident – other than for complete and total exhaustion.

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