Sunday, July 18, 2010

Woah, What Just Happened?

In the past two weeks, I got to the konooko (farms here are called konookos, not the Spanish word granja as one might have thought; it is a nominal Taino vestigial remain from some 500 years ago. The Taino people were the aboriginal natives who were wiped out by Columbus’ Spanish descendants a 150 years after they conquered the island). My first week I spent working muscles either never used or long forgotten and was incredibly sore and covered in heat and sweat rashes. Then after my first full week, Little Guy died. A day later Cindy’s husband, Jose, left the house at 11pm in a drunken rage with a small duffel and drove off into the night on his motorcycle. Cindy thinks this time he might have left for good. And so my second week was spent bonding with the 27 year old neighbor and day laborer Amaury by day, and helping Cindy cope with her mess of a situation by evening and night. Amaury is a hilarious slacker who is an incredibly skilled and effective worker (when he wants to be). No matter how hard I work in the month that I’m here, I will never be as good at any one farm skill Amaury has, save maybe using a rake. Like all Dominican men, he loves to sing, and we often switch off singing songs while working in the fields. Much to Cindy’s annoyance, he also likes to whistle. His whistling often sets the dogs off barking which drives Cindy mad, causing her to yell at Amaury for all of the things he was supposed to be doing, at which point he will either sulk, destroy something, or just leave. Usually the devil is name-dropped a couple of times, too (on both sides of the arguing). This cycle repeats itself throughout the week and usually the two have reconciled within a day. After all, Amaury needs work and Cindy needs help. For my end of things, I just stand and play shuttle mediator between the two as best I can because I am neither completely a worker nor the employer. As a volunteer on the farm, I even pay a minimal fee to help cover food costs. But because of my situation, sometimes the frustrations of both are unleashed on me—Amaury by cursing incomprehensibly and Cindy by venting what I must admit are a myriad number of difficult and serious problems. By the way, in the past seven minutes that I’ve been writing this, the weather has very quickly turned from hot n hazy to very dark and gray with 40+ mph gusts of wind blowing everywhere and the temperature dropping 20 degrees, oh chill.

Anyways, a bunch of Week Dos was spent clearing parts of the hilly terraces for roads and planting by bettering my machete and macheton (the difference being the rounded and wide edge on the macheton—think Alladin’s little sword), pick, and axe skills. Let me say that using the tripartite combo of pick, axe, and macheton to take out a tree and its much harder to get out root system is f’ing awesome. Weather update: joining the wind is the heavy sleeting rain now, it’s white outside! And my view of the ocean for the first time here looks like the Atlantic Ocean I know: cold, wavy and dark blue, not the light blue and green Caribbean stuff I’ve been looking at for so long. It’s rained hard since I’ve been on the konooko, but never this loud or for this long. Cindy just shouted from the room next door, “Well it’s more than 40mph now!” Shit yeah it is. This past week, I also worked in the pineapple area and got nicked up real good by the plants there, and had an adventure walking through the village to Amaury’s father’s konooko so we could get some banana saplings and plant em on the farm. In high school, Toby, Creight, other people at different times, and I would often sit in corners of the school and just shoot the breeze in peace and quiet. Kup called this The Lime. Walking through that village I immediately thought of the Maimo boys because I saw several generations of Limers chilling together outside their houses with nothing on their minds. [The pessimist and realist in me interposed here and yelled that they are sitting there because they have no work because there is no work. This is the sad and simple truth of the matter, but I was in a good mood so I chose to think happy thoughts of high school instead.] Nothing else significant to report on the farm end except that I am improving daily the necessary skill of opening coconuts with a machete or macheton. When the locals stop laughing at my attempts to open them then I’ll know I’ve really gotten somewhere.

Two weeks in was supposed to be my halfway point, but an internship opportunity back on campus was thrown my way and to apply and take it, I’d have to come back earlier than my original flight in order to attend a training institute at WashU. Then to change the flight would be pretty expensive at the dates I would have wanted to come home, so now I am coming home even earlier on July 29th at only a relatively exorbitant price change fee. Instead of staying here a little over a month, in the end it will be a little under a month, and thus all of a sudden I only have ten days left on the farm. Just as I’m getting into the groove of many things that have happened on the konooko so far, it’s kinda like, ‘Woah, what just happened?’

I am alright with it because it will allow me to live a little more comfortably as the trip winds down. That is to say, I will be able to buy a couple things in town and go out once, mayyybe twice and mayyybe return home with $40 or $50 bucks to my name instead of $5. The storm has passed (Cindy said that this is just the beginning of hurricane season and what just came through was nothing), and though it is still lightly raining, a beautiful rainbow just appeared on the water. And with that I’m out.

Shavuah tov, Jonah

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

R.I.P., Lil Guy

Two days ago, one of the 8 dogs (named Little Guy because he was the youngest, smallest, and skinniest of the bunch) passed away after two plus days of looking/being horribly sick.

I spent my second Sunday on the farm going back and forth from reading Anna Karenina and holding Lil Guy and helping Cindy administer IV injections and shots to try to help him out.

And then for a couple hours he was just groaning, lying under Cindy's bed (I could hear him from the next room over).

After he died at 4 or so in the afternoon, Cindy and I found a piece of soil that wasn't too rocky and dug a grave and buried him with the other 7 dogs just sitting there watching. It was a pretty shitty afternoon and really the worst part was just holding him when I could feel all of his bones because he hadn't eaten anything in days and that feeling of helplessness because there really was not much we could do (no way to diagnose what he had, no vet around, and even if there was one--no money for a vet).

Dunno this is not a real thought out and formulated post, but I thought I should post in his memory both because even though I only knew him for a week he was really cute and I guess it was definitely an isolated on a farm type of experience...

Say, What’s that Song Called?

Dominican men love to sing.

I first noticed this when good ol Charlie picked me up at the Punta Cana airport and after a couple minutes of conversation started singing to the radio’s tune. But it wasn’t only Charlie. In nearly every situation I have been in this country, there has been a singing man involved. At the resort in Punta Cana, the waiters at breakfast would always be singing (or rapping) love songs (or dirty lyrics) to the ladies at the table. At night when the workers were off and I would occasionally join some of the guys by their trailers for a couple hours of dominoes, often the only noises one could hear were the slamming of the dominoes on the table (I loved this) and the radio playing some bachata. But the silence would only last for so long because someone would start singing along. When our group stopped at a church in Higuey one of the security guards was just sitting there singing. Ditto with the policeman on horse in Santo Domingo who I heard when the cab Ebs, Cita, and I were in stopped at a traffic light our first night. Or how about that bus from Veron to Santo Domingo with the 6 drunk kids in the way back hollering to the songs on the radio (yes, there is always music playing on public transportation in this country which I think is pretty awesome) and shouting at the driver when he changed the station and eventually turned it off because they were so loud (a big dude from the front of the bus gave em a bit of a talking to). And the guys sitting next to me in the guagua from S.D. to Samana who every so often started crooning for everyone to hear. Or Cita’s friend of a friend of a friend at a quiet moment in during dinner, or Leonel and Amaury the two neighbors who work as day laborers for Cindy and Jose start singing bachata or merengue (but never ever reggaeton) and so on and so on. It seriously must be in their blood something. I mean if all Liben men dance (and trust me, we do), then all Dominican men sing.

A Catalan 4th of July

On my first morning (after being woken up super early by everything around me), Cindy told me over coffee that since it was Sunday there was no work. My official work schedule was to comprise of Monday-Fridays from 8am-noon, and then from 2-4pm. Pretty reasonable in my mind. After messing around watering some plants for a couple of hours, we went to David and Marta’s house for Marta’s 33rd birthday party. Marta is smart and beautiful. David and Marta are from Catalan, Spain, and are in the town of Las Galeras (about a ten minute motorcycle ride from the farm) trying to open a hotel—more on foreign (wealthy) people trying to make money in this country to come soon. Speak to David for a mere 30 seconds, and they’re not from Spain. No no, Catalan. [A sentence on Catalan as explained a few weeks prior by my Spanish friend Lisa: it has its own language, history, culture, etc., and under the dictatorship was suppressed. Now there is an uber conscious effort from the current government in Spain to appreciate everything Catalan not as worse, but as different and also part of the Spanish cultural, historical, and current fabric.] It should secede, David says after introducing himself and offering a round of martinis (at 12:45 in the afternoon; yep, it’s gonna be that sort of day...). Everything good about Spain is actually from Catalan. I’m from New York? An incredible city says he, but from where are its best chefs? Catalan. The famous modernist architect Gaudi? From Catalan. Conceding that I’ve never been, he runs excitedly into the house (we’re on the patio) and returns with a coffee table book of Catalan filled with indeed beautiful imagery. He later brought out more books of Catalan, too—one filled with pictures from the castle he built (I repeat, a castle he built), and one of Gaudi’s work. I tell David and his 20 year old son (from his first marriage) all that I really know about Catalan and Spain—that half of the national Spanish world cup squad is from Catalan to which David literally jumps with joy repeats it to Marta. It didn’t matter what I said the rest of the day because boy did win them over with that comment! [This too I knew this courtesy of Lisa so mad props there] While Cindy and I are scanning through it and Jose is starting up the grill, David informs us of a tradition ‘typical in any Catalan household,’ namely pouring whatever alcohol happens to be in a jug (called something awesome but I am forgetting now) from as far as one can into one’s mouth without spilling. A drinking game, hurrah! He passes the jug around the table and while he and his son are quite deft at it, the rest of us are a bit more cautious and sloppy. He repeated this process of jug passing every time new guests came, and I started to get quite good at it :)

Highlights of the afternoon: getting drunk with all the guests, eating great bbq’ed food, getting taught yet another drinking trick by an 80 year old grandpa from Las Galeras, and sounding off 3 different national anthems and 3 rounds of happy birthday.

Now, I noted previously that David and Marta are here for business. Las Galeras has a gorgeous beach that has not really yet been tapped by tourists. If one couldn’t tell by now, David also has a bit of money, to say the least. However, he is pretty frustrated because since he’s been here people have been ripping him off left and right, and the money simply isn’t where it used to be. And time is going by and he is still getting ripped off. And he is obviously a fluent Spanish speaker and a businessman. But, because he is not Dominican it doesn’t matter. As a non-native, it’s like he has a big ‘Gringo’ tattooed on his forehead. Cindy has explicitly stated similar stories time and time again and similar frustrations because she, too, is going broke here. Well, when the incoming mayor of Las Galeras (term starts in August) and his two pals showed up (invited? Uninvited? Unclear) and were given ample food and liquor, David’s already quite toasted Dario, also a Spaniard and hotel hopeful (although Dario is doing everything completely illegally—starting with the land purchase, the walls he’s putting up around his property, the sewage that will flow right into the ocean and so on) and David started railing to the politicians about how it was all unfair, etc. etc.

The point of this side story is simple. My friend Paola complained sometime back about how she hated being treated like a gringa even though her mom is Cuban and she speaks a real good Spanish. She found it offensive and could not believe that as a fellow Spanish speaker she’d be treated like the rest of us kids from the U.S. Apparently, if you’re not Dominican, good luck. Well Paolacita, I hate to say it but I (and really Becca) told ya so.

A second and final anecdote I learned that afternoon that also came from a side discussion about how us gringos always get swindled. Once Marta told a frustrated Cindy that there is one important thing to remember about Dominicans: the men are thieves and women are prostitutes. Lemme tell you, after personally getting robbed in Miches a few weeks ago by some punk with a knife and after seeing enough local bars and joints where the literally all of the women are ‘working,’ I’m starting to think Marta was on to something!

Definitely an entertaining 4th.

Getting to the Farm, and some other things

After Ebs and Cita (dreamily thought about trying for a threesome; a concept that I and probably many a men have oft thought about, probably never gonna happen in my life) both left Santo Domingo for the States, I took a cab to a guagua station and hopped on a 4 hour guagua to the town of Samana not coincidentally on the Samana Peninsula, i.e. the north eastern coast of the country with beautiful beaches, poverty, resorts, motorcycles, and gorgeous green scenery all mixed together. Well to be honest a lot of the country can be described that way...Anyways, from Samana I sat on back of a pickup truck guagua headed toward Las Galeras and since the driver knew the family I was going to, he volunteered to take me all the way to the farm in a little village called Manuel Chiquito himself.

[Important side note: What is a guagua, you ask? Guaguas actually describe many things in this country. For example, like a Sherut in Israel, it can be an intra or intercity mini bus that takes 15-25 people around to general areas and make personalized stops along the way. If it's an intercity guagua, it will be slightly bigger and will take you potentially quite far--like the one I took from Santo Domingo to Samana. If it's intra-city, it's probably a van with an always-open door and some guy hanging out always hollering at walkers by to jump in and go wherever it happens to be heading. If my Spanish was good, then I would love to explore Santo Domingo via guagua routes...

So primary guagua meaning: intra or inner city mini bus that makes personal stops on the way to a planned destination. However, I have also heard it defined as a true bus (like when Elena's fam, Ebs, Cita, and I took a bus from Veron to Santo Domingo and a local gal in the city still called it a guagua even though it was a chartered bus) and even as a guy in a pickup truck or sedan driving as many people as he can stuff into his car around town (like the ones Ebs and I took in Caberete or the guy, Lazaro, who took me to the farm when I got to Samana). Good. With that said..]

I arrived at Cindy and Jose's home and farm at dusk on July 3rd and was greeted with the barks and howls of lord knows how many dogs. Actually, there are eight, and their names are: Mimi, Annie, Shiro, M.T., Sherman, Brahma, Reina, and Little Guy. There are also 3 adult cats (Cinco, Xana, and Leo) and Xana’s 3 babies; the cats are quite anti-social compared to the dogs. Jose was in town drinking with some buddies so Cindy welcomed me by her lonesome with some beer and a curried rice n potato dinner she was just putting back in her fridge. To be honest, she had no idea I was coming as she had not checked her email in some two and a half weeks because it was down for a while, and on my end I had no idea what the response would be when I showed up because she wasn't responding to my emails and her farm was my only plan so I was definitely apprehensive. But she was just like yeah, I figured you might show up last week or this week, and if not then I'd figure that you just weren't coming. Alright, in the game!

After eating and chatting with Cindy and the recently arrived Jose, they helped me set up my air mattress on sofa frame and mosquito net, gave me a couple of sheets and a pillow, and I passed out until the dogs started barking in the middle of the night. And then I fell asleep until they woke me up. And then I fell asleep until the night’s heat woke me up. And then the dawn’s light woke me up. And then the dogs started moving around and eventually barking and then Sherman started jumping on my bed to play with me through the mosquito net and then, yes, it was 7:30am on a Sunday morning and I was wide awake for my first day in my new 'home'...