martes, 28 de octubre de 2008

a buen tiempo

“A buen tiempo.” It’s one of the many idiomatic expressions that distinguish the Dominican language. If you walk in on people having a meal, a snack, or cualquier cosa, “a buen tiempo” is an invitation to compartir, to share, and I’ve heard that in the absence of more food in the pot, people will give you half of what they have on their plate. Compartir. House visitors are virtually always offered something in the way of food or drink… maybe juice… more often coffee – just a shot, but strong, pretty much espresso. If nothing else, visitors are offered a piece of candy… often really a cough drop… maybe sometimes bubblegum.

And my ass is made of bubblegum. As a major component of our technical training, we’re augmenting parts of an existing acueducto. Our current project is the construction of a sedimentation tank. The concept is that water should flow through the tank at such a rate that it remains in the tank for a sufficient amount of time to allow sediment to settle to the bottom. It’s a big concrete box, constructed with little more than brute strength and steady hands, two things I am in short supply of. But the view, sometimes blurred by the sweat in my eyes is worth any numbness from the daily combination of physical and mental exertion: milder slopes covered in fields growing onions, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and beans to steeper slopes covered in trees ranging from palms to pines to some fruit trees, and even some cacti.

There are moments every day that make me feel like bubblegum. One time I was León trudging up the hill, hunched over, hauling a massive concrete vaina (something) on his shoulder. I don’t know what this vaina was, but it looked big and heavy. León is a frail looking old man with long fingernails, fewer teeth than fingers showing in his perpetual grin, always plastic sandals barely holding together with string, and always with his machete strapped to his side as any self-respecting campesino would have. León walks past the work site daily, his arms outstretched to give each person a hug while giving his greetings in a dry, raspy voice, “hermanito… ¿como está la cosa?... hermanito… vaya bien… hermanito.”

Up to my knees in concrete, I hit a wall sometime Saturday afternoon and I couldn’t have told you if it was made of block, stone masonry, or ferrocement. On the other side is the obligatory Saturday night, after the long week of work. In the next community down the road, there are two colmados (general store/bar/dance hall) that try to outdo the other in attracting business with the volume of their music. But the gemelas, the twins, only hang out at one of the colmados. It’s about as absurd as those Coors Light commercials, as if a small piece of the Purple Martini was transplanted onto a dark, lonely campo road. I’ll save a discussion about machismo, tigures, and the exploitative conquista of women, but the campo colmado scene seemed so out of place, and yet so fitting. We’d stop by after the work day, still in work boots and blue jeans still caked in mud and concrete – I feel like a gringo when I’m clean and I feel like a gringo when I’m dirty.

Up to my knees in mud, I trudge through the most treacherous part of the road to the nearest pueblo, San Jose de Ocoa, a perpetual landslide, where on a couple of occasions, I’ve seen the front-end loader that’s there to clear the road has become stuck, and has sat precariously close to plummeting off the steep face to one side. Oftentimes, the only way to travel in the campo, is by vola, by hitchhiking, usually on the back of a long-bed Daihatsu truck or a pickup carrying produce down to market. When road conditions are bad, you have to take one vola to the landslide, roll up your pant legs and remove your shoes and tramp through the mud, and then hitch another vola to town. And Dominicans seem to nearly always maintain clean clothes and shoes. I feel like a gringo when I’m clean and I feel like a gringo when I’m dirty.

In some parts of the campo, the only way to get around is by motoconcho, motorcycle taxi. I recently went to the southwestern part of the country, near to the pueblo of Las Matas de Farfan, in the province of San Juan, near to the Haitian border, to see the nearly-completed acueducto of a second-year volunteer. Being on the drier side of the mountains, the dirt roads are more dust than mud. The word “matas” translates to “bushes” and as the name implies, the landscape is dotted with small bushes, and also grazing cattle. My impressions over my limited time there were that this frontier zone is more underserved than the campo outside of Ocoa. Travel along the main road is briefly interrupted by periodic immigration check points. Which way do the immigration vectors point? Well, suffice it to say that my campo host family owns a modest, but substantial piece of farmland and the labor is performed almost entirely by Haitians. I feel I have no need here to draw comparisons to similar dynamics in North America or in Europe. Anyway, in this particular campo in San Juan, there is only one family that owns a motored vehicle with 4 wheels, so the vola situation isn’t exactly practical. Therefore, you have to hire a moto. With two gringos, feet flailing, clinging to the side of the seat and to the rear fender for dear life, our passing moto must have looked something like 3 krusty the klowns crammed on a miniature tricycle for a circus trick.

The water system, though close to completion, had seen its share of obstacles, including the meddling of mischievous, disapproving indios. Now, the Spaniards quickly wiped out the indigenous Tainos soon after their arrival on Hispañola, so the impish indios mysteriously breaking pipes underground aren’t the literal ancestors of those living in the community, but rather adopted cultural ancestors. If indios interfere with your water project, you have to have a party at the site of the problem. I guess there’s nothing like pouring out a little Coca-Cola on the earth to appease the ancients. Really, people didn’t seem to seriously buy in to the whole indio thing – it’s just a story to account for sometimes enigmatic problems, and an excuse to have a party.

The Monday after returning from was the Día de San Miguel, a fiesta de palos. I didn’t know this until the day of, when a good portion of the community up-and-left to partake in the festivities in the pueblo. Fiestas de palos, which literally translates to “drum parties” are not nationally sanctioned or celebrated holidays, but are more regional affairs. Some pueblos have a sort of patron saint associated with them, and therefore have celebrations on the day associated with the given saint on the Roman Catholic calendar. In order to preserve and continue their religious traditions, African slaves masked their gods with the names and images of the catholic saints, and the surviving remnants of this practice are known as santería on this side of the border. The fiestas de palos are, in part, santería festivals. For many, they’re just another excuse to have a party, with drums, dancing, and drinking rum. When people returned the community that night, there was a feast of espageti, cooked in a big cauldron over an open fire. A buen tiempo.

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