Sunday, August 12, 2012
A Visit to the Ward Healers
After 6 days of off and on fever and diarrhea which had turned bloody even though I self medicated (correctly it turned out with Metronidazole) and with substantial tenesmus (a new word for me that is clinically defined as having the urge to defecate without the material but which I define as your colon trying to turn itself inside out to empty your own intestines into the bowl and boy does it hurt) I finally dragged myself to Padre Billini Hospital, the venerable public ward healing hospital in the Colonial Zone. It takes up nearly an entire city block and was built around 1880. I remember bringing Niningo here for what he thought was a hernia but turned out to be constipation some years ago and being pretty shocked. Feces in the waiting room, blood drips following gunshot victims into the emergency wards, broken tiles, flies, dirt etc. Just months ago the Hospital was reinaugurated after an extensive renovation—all new plaster outside, new stone entry steps, glass doors, all new tile floors and walls, air conditioning and huge atrium garden with a giant statue of Padre Billini himself.
At 7:30 am it was not crowded and after giving the watchman a short list of my symptoms he led me, forgetting to pass his metal detector over me, to the emergency room and introduced me to a nurse or maybe a doctor, very few name tags here, and she led me to a bed. My history was taken down a couple of times, sometimes by students, and I was handed two specimen jars for urine and feces. The bathroom was sparkling with its new white tile job but had no running water, no soap, no toilet paper and nowhere to hang your IV bag while you worked—floor or back of toilet. When I returned the canisters to her she had to ask which was which—the urine sample was the color of Coca-cola and the feces flask contained only a thin pool of blood with a corn flake or two sunk in the bottom. At least now she believed I was sick. Blood was taken (from my arm) and I was given a bed and froze to death on it for four hours waiting for the first test results. There were about 14 beds on the ward with a central nursing station where they let me use some hand sanitizer. I was the only patient all day who did so. Positive for Amoeba, no surprise, but the blood came back with a high white count and almost no platelets (13,000 of a recommended 150,000). She took another sample to reaffirm the results and said they would be back fast. Someone graver than I came in and was given my bed and I was given a piano stool to sit on next to my IV tree, which dripped cold saline into my arm. It was so cold parts of my hands turned white. I asked to wait outside in the lovely sweltering waiting room but they were afraid I was a risk to flee, since I had talked about going to work. Four hours later the doctor apologized saying that the lab had damaged the second sample and they would need a third and I obliged. They found me another bed and by around 7:30 PM confirmed that I had too few platelets to leave and I would be interned.
I was wheeled through the beautiful atrium garden and down some hallways to Room 109 in the Gautier wing. Three bed suite with a giant bathroom (sans H2O) and I was the sole occupant. Silence. Two sheets. Adjustable bed. Perla brought me juice and bread and the plaid flannel sheet from Egremont.
An X-ray upstairs in Padre Billini costs $200 pesos or about $5 usd. For fancier blood tests I had to cross the street to one of the many freelance medical labs within walking distance since most of the patients here are too poor to use taxis and the Hospital has meager capabilities. Leptospirosis was the only expensive one at about $50 usd (result negative which I understand is a good thing) blood and stool cultures run between $8 and $15 each.
Every day a sheaf of prescriptions come in signed by a different doctor ordering me to go get such and such a test and some of them repeat tests that I am already waiting for results on and some are for Billirubins (not yellow), LDH cholesterol (I fail to see. . .), they had demanded twice that I get a sonogram (which would mean a taxi ride) and one for transaminasas (the doctor thinks it’s for liver enzymes). I spoke with an epidemiologist, gruff but distinguished white haired man who filled out forms while he sat and asked me questions, who did not know if there were other cases of amoebiasis similar to mine and when I asked him why I needed a cholesterol check he said it was all tied together. Said he wanted me to get another check for dengue fever even though I had no dengue symptoms. When I mentioned that I slept under mosquito netting he mentioned that the dengue mosquito is only active in the daytime and when I pointed out a live one which was resting on the wall next to us and asked him, “like that one?”, he said, “yes.”
Finally I met Dr. Mendez, 35ish, rough looking, short beard, but soft spoken and polite and was very reasonable. Said not to bother with the new sheaves until we had results from the first battery of samples and he confirmed that I was within my rights, at any time, to sign myself out of here as long as I did not owe any money. Since the hospital room and board is free that won’t be a problem. Waiting for the platelet count for the day, if it gets to about 80,000 I might get to leave peacefully.
I spent a total of seven days in Padre Billini. When you are interned here you are NOT allowed to leave. Nurses rotated through every few hours to hang a new IV bag and to inject various drugs and medicines into the port on my arm. Stomach calmative, antibiotics, metronidazol (antiparasitic), vitamins and some that nobody seemed to know what they were. I was interviewed often about how I was doing. My sheets were changed every day. Every patient is allowed one family member to sit with them and they can spend the night sleeping in a chair in the room. Breakfast consisted of a cup of tea around 7:30 AM and around 8:30 a wholewheat roll and a bowl of boiled milk. Lunch was a scoop of mashed plantain with a half can of tuna fish or a hardboiled egg and dinner a scoop of mashed potatoes with a little grated cabbage or a slice of luncheon meat. Fifteen hours could pass between dinner and breakfast and any additional food, and all drinking water has to be smuggled in by visitors. Some visitors were able to smuggle in fried chicken and Pepsi-cola but others had their provisions confiscated by the guards. Once Perla came in almost crying because they had confiscated her apples leaving her with only a banana and a bottle of water for me.
Although she was able to bring me something every day, after 5 days I felt like I was starving to death and I sent Perla a text message in the morning pleading for hardboiled eggs. I reasoned that they were easy to cook and easy to smuggle, nourishing, caloric and cheap if they were confiscated. The text messages got a little confused. She came at 7:00 PM and handed me a bag with a towel and a new roll of toilet paper in it. When I realized there were no eggs I broke down. She said I didn’t know what it was like to try to get stuff past security. I ripped my IV bag off the tree and left the room angry. Out in the atrium a guard saw me pacing and came over. Before he had a chance to invite me back to my room I told him my problem with the guards in the entrance and food and eventually I introduced him to Perla and he said he would let her in with the stuff and she walked back to the apartment to boil eggs and potatoes.
I sat on a bench in the garden while I waited for eggs. After a little while a white man came out of one of the bedrooms sat down and introduced himself as Thurman. Thurman is from Johannesburg, South Africa, 33 years old and has lived here for four years teaching English at the Berlitz School but now has ulcerative colitis. A year ago he contracted amoebiasis but did not know what it was. He shat blood for 9 weeks alone in his apartment; eventually unable to work he went to the Plaza de Salud. A month later his insurance, which was the good kind, was depleted by the 30 pints of blood he’d had to buy and the medicine that costs more than $1000US/month. His Ford Bronco had been repossessed. He is in Padre Billini Hospital now trying to regain strength and hoping his family sends a plane ticket for Johannesberg soon. We talked a long time about the fragility of the human body and of the world in general. Thurman now dreams of edenic economies and of living on a commune someday. Eventually Perla entered the garden and walked up and handed me a loaded Tupperware container, spun on her heel and left. “She’s ticked off,” I said to Thurman. “She looked ticked off,” he replied.
The next day Dr. Mendez, Dr. Abreu, Dr. Sánchez and the epidemiologist all said that I would be dado por alta or released almost immediately. No infection, no fever, no virus, no untoward intestinal incidents (I continued to photograph my bowel movements for proof). But the day dragged on like the others, a lost receipt from a lab, then they wanted to wait for the sonogram, then it was my blood pressure (which had not moved more than 5 points the whole week). The next day Sánchez did not show up because it rained. The seventh day I got up early and sat on the bench, arms crossed, leg twitching, where I had met Thurman and I laid for Méndez. I plead my case with any nurse or docent or janitor who paused to chat while I waited. Most of them concluded that I would be able to leave when God decided it was time. A warm drizzle fell in the garden and at about 10 AM Méndez finally emerged from the staff cafeteria at the far end and I stood up and hailed him like I was in a lifeboat lost at sea. We shook hands and he said that he understood that I was ready to go home. An internist brought me a release to sign stating that if I died of high blood pressure she was not responsible. I packed my sheets and toothbrush, said goodbye to my roommates and walked alone to the lobby and out into the soft rain and slowly walked the 6 blocks to my apartment in Ciudad Nueva.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Mundo Artesanal is at the corner of Duarte and El Conde, which is a shopping street closed to vehicles and, 5 years ago was usually thronged with shoppers both tourists and Dominicans. My space is right in the door on the corner so I pass time leaning in the doorway watching the street. Since the elections in May tourist traffic has been way down, I would say foot traffic has decreased 50% compared to the same time last year. It is not only the elections that scared people away, a few weeks ago the US Embassy came out with a travelers warning (http://santodomingo.usembassy.gov/sec-noc-120613.html) regarding recent attacks on tourists arriving at the airport in Santo Domingo involving corrupt taxi drivers as well as taxis being followed to hotels and robbing people as they got out of the car. Cholera is still in the news. Many stores have closed and are boarded up and there are holes in the street and more beggars and thieves. The harbor still needs dredging to allow cruise ships to get in and the world economy, especially in Europe, is not encouraging the usual summer vacations to the colonial zone here. Business is dead. Some days, not only my little area, but the whole gift shop registers zero sales. There are large stores on the other three corners at Duarte/Conde: closest to where I lean in the doorway and across Duarte is Jumbo Supermarket, catercorner is Cuesta Ferretería a fancy hardware and department store, and across Conde is Siderias California a department/clothes store.
Yesterday a man lit out of Jumbo and sprinted down Duarte at top speed pursued instantly by two or three Jumbo employees and then by a half a dozen fleet-footed idlers. A crowd collected and a few minutes later the thief was lead back by two men who held him by locked elbows. Police showed up and it turned out that he had stolen a $3 piece of cheese. Something like this happens nearly weekly these days. A couple of weeks ago I saw the manager at Jumbo, with pistol in hand, usher a man out of the store where they were met by two Policia Nacional on a motorcycle who put the man between them on the bike and took him away.
A month or so ago I was sitting inside the store around 4 in the afternoon trying to stay awake when I heard a series of gunshots and a moment later a taxista came in the store dripping blood and went to the bathroom. It turned out that three armed men had robbed the banca, where they sell lottery tickets, a block and a half up Duarte. The watchyman had just wandered off with his sawed-off shotgun for a cup of coffee. When the men exited the banca a motorcycle with the usual two Policia Nacional mounted happened to drive by and the thieves mistakenly thought that they had been called for the robbery and started shooting and scattered on foot. The cops and a small impromptu posse, some of whom pulled pistols out of their waistbands, gave chase on foot and the three were eventually rounded up. The taxista, who had been dozing on a box leaning against the side of Mundo Artesanal had caught a stray bullet that somehow had threaded its way between the parked cars a block away and lost the tip of the little finger on his left hand.
Richard, who is one of the sales people in Mundo, did not come into work yesterday because his hand had become infected. Two weeks ago he went downstairs from his apartment to complain about loud music played by a neighbor, one thing lead to another and when he tried to wrest the machete away from the neighbor his right hand got sliced up to the tune of 50 stitches. The two spent the night in jail in separate cells and were released when they agreed to shake hands—left hands in this case.
Guy comes up to the storefront, big sloppy guy, shiny suit coat, blue jeans, dress shoes, face kind of beat up, dark bags under eyes, twitchy right eyelid and asks me how it is living here. I start to give him my cost of living advice, look out for thieves, it’s tough in the barrios banter and he eventually tells me that 10 years ago he and a partner bought a piece of land here in Herrera near what is now an airport for $380,000 US and that, tomorrow, now that the Minister of Finance of the Country and the IMF have signed off, he is going to close a sale for 68 million dollars. His iPhone rang and while he paced around the sidewalk talking on it I managed to overhear a confirmation of an order for 40 pizzas to be delivered to the closing. He told me that he is going to start a bank in Santo Domingo, said you only need 3 million here to do that. Before he walked off he handed me two dollars and said to buy myself a beer when I got off work.
Two guys come in to the store and start looking at my pictures. One is a big fat guy with a dark hair buzz cut, tee shirt with scissored off sleeves and his friend is a skinny little guy with bad skin and a blond buzz cut, I figured them for Merchant Marines or deportees. They reminded me of the big mouse and the little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons who were modeled after Laurel and Hardy or maybe Abbot and Costello. The big guy, Paul, asked some questions about the Taínos and when I started to explain about their cohoba drug ceremony he asked me what the active agent in cohoba was and when I said DMT he started in about how it is in every living organism, including our brains, and is even responsible for the WHITE LIGHT that everyone is supposed to see just as they are dying. As the conversation wandered he asked me, by the way, did I know the best way to transfer like $200,000 cash from Canada to a high interest yielding account here. He bought a $75 dollar panorama, which, these days, is a higher end sale for me and I said I would recommend a good lawyer.
Last year a customer eating a hotdog and drinking a coke in Rudy’s little café in Mundo Artesanal keeled over in a diabetic coma. I got called over because he only spoke English and he eventually was able to mumble, “juice.” I shot over to Jumbo and bought two cartons of orange juice but when I got back the victim, whose name turned out to be Felipe, or Phil from the upper east side of NY, was still dazed but sitting up on the floor. He said he was fine and not to worry. We helped him back up on his stool at the counter but he passed out again a minute later and hit the floor like a wet sack of rice, cutting his head on the way down. There were four taxistas standing around waiting for fares and none agreed to take Phil to a hospital unless he paid up front. Finally Richard and I guaranteed payment and piled Phil into the nearest taxi. When we pulled up to Clinica Abréu Phil became alert and begged us to bring him home where he had his insulin, which was only a few more blocks so we did. The taxista charged him 500 pesos which was a real soaking for a 10 block ride. Rudy eventually closed up his hotdog stand but I still saw Phil from time to time walking the Conde. When he wore shorts you could see his lower legs were red and swollen. He was on some kind of disability and collected social security but ran monthly tabs at the restaurant, pharmacy and colmado. My friend Hal waited to meet him for breakfast yesterday but Phil never showed up. The American Embassy came around later in the morning to his apartment to collect the body. He had died in bed.
Hal stops by to chat almost every day. He used to be the famous Mafia boss Meyer Lansky’s driver and errand guy and spent years in Haiti and Cuba running casinos. Says Meyer Lansky never swore. Hal gave Baby Doc Duvallier his first bicycle for a birthday present and used to put shopping bags full of money on Papa Doc’s desk to help with the casino license. He says he offered to broker a deal for the new president of Haiti, Martelly, an ex-performer who used to sing in one of Hal’s casinos, with the Israelis to arm a police force but Martelly goofed and used the word army in a press release and the U.N stepped on the deal because nobody wants Haiti to have an army, remembering the body count from the last time. Hal knows the people who the Sopranos were modeled after (Tony Acceratti for one), knows Whitey Bolger the Boston gangster who was played by Jack Nicholson in the movie—“I don’t know where he is, but he calls to chat every so often” and then when they caught him—“ I doubt they are going make anything stick” and Henry Hill from the movie Goodfellas—“That guy was a born crook, I saw him swindle someone out of $10,000 once in about an hour with a phony real estate deal. He always wanted to be made but he wasn’t Italian.” When I asked him, half joking, if he knew where Jimmy Hoffa was he said no but that he knew they would NEVER find the body. Hal is 85 and says the FBI comes down to Santo Domingo from time to time to ask him questions and he says he can’t figure out why, “cause almost everyone I knew is dead.” He would like to go back to the States for cataract surgery and thinks he probably could since as far as he knows there is no warrant out for him but says at his age it’s not worth even taking a chance on getting arrested so he’s trying to figure out a way to get Medicare to pay for the operation here.
On Sunday morning four months ago Rudy, my German friend here who makes the tee shirts, who used to have the hot dog stand in Mundo and whose wedding I went to last year and who has a 7 month old baby named Lars, walked out the front door of his house in Los Frailes and bumped into two tigueres taking a motorcycle away from some dude on the street. Everyone panicked and while Rudy was either backing away or trying to scale the sliding driveway gate to get back inside someone shot him in the ankle shattering tibia and fibula. A neighbor brought him to the Plaza de Salud. The hospital had to mail order the steel pins required for the surgery so Rudy had to wait until Friday for the bone setting. But when Friday rolled around he was informed that the operation was postponed until he found at least two volunteers to donate blood to the blood bank in case he needed any extra. Some of his employees tried but forgot to bring their cedulas or IDs; all his wife’s sisters were having their periods and so were disallowed; Richard in Mundo Artesanal has no cedula; Modesta is underweight. I went with one of Miriam’s brother-in-laws to try to donate the final pint. An uncle was already there in line but he was disqualified because he is older than 65 and the brother-in-law turned out to be anemic but I qualified since my tattoos are more than ten years old. When my blood bag was about half full, Rudy’s wife poked her head in the door and said Rudy was on his way to surgery. He is walking with crutches now but his shin has a wicked curve to it and his foot is angled funny so he is going to Germany to try to have it reset.
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Dear Click and Clack,
I just bought a used, year 2000 Daihatsu Hijet minibus from a Japanese import lot here in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It measures 5 feet wide by 11 feet long and is 6'3” tall and is a 5 speed with a 660cc, 3-cylinder motor and uses lots of regular gas, which costs $3.50 a gallon here. In 5th gear at 60mph it runs at a little over 4 grand but it is adorable.
It's been “tuned up” a couple of times now by street mechanics who each owned one wrench-the 10mm is ubiquitous- a pair of bent pliers, a screwdriver and a piece of cardboard or burlap to lie on in the street lieu of a creeper. The timing was set by ear. When I have asked whether that thing that they are tweaking is a fuel injector or a carburetor they tell me it is “somewhere in between” and keep on turning the four adjustment screws on and near it until it idles smoothly and restarts easily. After one bout of adjustment one mechanic shrugged and suggested that I should start it cold by not touching the gas pedal and when starting hot that I would need to keep it matted until it started and this system has worked fine except for on New Year's Eve when, thankfully--because drinking while driving is not discouraged here-- it would not start at all. One of the muchachos spent about 3 hours New Year's Day underneath it installing 3 new spark plugs and now it starts again using the methods described above.
In the city it runs great and is peppy when weaving in and out of traffic-which is essential here to avoid being run over by gigantic guaguas (busses) making left hand turns across your bow from the far right hand lane through busy intersections but on the highway, after about an hour of driving at a steady cruising speed, it sometimes shows the unnerving symptoms of running out of (or maybe of being flooded by?) gas and jerks, I mean IT jerks, and it almost dies but this symptom is not at all predictable. Occasionally I think I detect an increased smell of gasoline in the air when this happens but, since the motor is directly under the front seats, this may be expected from time to time due to proximity. I have, so far, always gotten to where I was going. One of the mechanics working out of a grease pit found the fuel filter under the chassis and blew it out from both sides with a compressor and proudly announced that it had been installed backwards and reinstalled it the right way, but this seems to have made little or no difference. I have also poured an assortment of carb-cleaners and dry gasses into the gas tank and just when I think that did the trick I find myself lurching toward the breakdown lane again. I do not want to spend much time standing around in the breakdown lane because when the street thugs here steal your sneakers they don't wait for you to take them off, they remove them at the ankles with a machete-- without damaging the sneakers.
My real question is why am I getting only 22MPG? I am certain that I am converting from kilometers accurately and I have confirmed that the gas stations here indeed sell the stuff by the normal gallon and I have checked the odometer by using a handheld GPS unit and it agrees. I was hoping for more like 50mpg. One “mechanic” tells me that 22 is normal because my model of Daihatsu has a turbo, and, indeed, the van does have the word Turbocooler written on the side in what appears to be factory lettering but I do not know what an actual turbo looks like or how much one might drink.
What do you think?
Well, I thought that the new plugs had cured the “dying on the highway” problem but three days ago it died dead in a backwater village far from home. A mechanic who materialized out of the bushes determined that I had a bad “pita de abajo” which was failing to control the flow of gasoline. He described this pita as a small vertical pin that works like a float and is next to the real float and is located in the lower half of the carburetor. He then adjusted the carburetor for highway driving, so that I could get to where I was going, which meant that the thing ONLY ran at 3500 rpm or above and stalled instantly at idle but could be restarted. This strategy worked (at the expense of much of the clutch while negotiating speed bumps, traffic lights and craters and goats in the road) for 200 miles when it died dead again in a smaller village, even farther from home, and so the next mechanic had to be fetched by a friendly stranger on a Honda 50cc Club Special motorbike and he determined that the fuel pump was working erratically. So, after finally locating a new-used fuel pump we changed it on the side of the road-and it is a submerged fuel pump so we had to drop the gas tank and he figured that maybe a wire was bad too so, after stripping the ends of a found length of insulated wire with his teeth he ran it from the tank to the fuse box where he jammed it in alongside one of the live fuses. The motor idled and ran at normal rpm for 5 miles, even though the screws on the carburetor had not been reset, but then reverted to its custom-highway tuning of before-- but I made it the 80 neck-jerking, backfiring miles back home, and boy was I glad to get there.
So now what do you think?
I have taken the Daihatsu minibus to a real Daihatsu dealership to be worked on. They tell me that there has been a spate of bad gas in the country and that this could easily be causing all of my problems. The bad gas evidently came from the National Refinery which, fearing fuel shortages over the holidays, topped off their supplies of gas with an, as yet undetermined, although clearly detrimental to the fuel delivery system, substance- garages have been reporting ten-fold increases in fuel pump and pita de abajo replacements in the past weeks.
I just retrieved my minibus from the Daihatsu dealer because they refused to work on it because, evidently, none of the running system is Daihatsu-they did not know what it was, but it was nothing they had seen before and did not appear in their computer. So I bucked and burned the clutch back to Moto Plaza where I had purchased it in the first place and I will find out more on Monday how this is going to be resolved.
Jan 30, Monday--
Moto Plaza, in a last ditch effort to get the guaguita running smoothly, removed all of the vacuum tubing as well as disconnecting the air filter and the turbo-cooler. But the guaguita ran worse.
Moto Plaza replaced the motor with all its adjunct parts with a motor from a similar guaguita in their lot and the guaguita ran worse.
Moto Plaza has painted me up another minibus from their lot. This one is white, does not have a turbo, has a simpler motor and is supposed to be ready for me this Friday.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
The other day we plunged two caves in La Piedra by rope and came up with more or less nothing. One cave measured only about 40 meters and we needed to rapell twice to find that out. The other cave entrance was half choked by the most disgusting pile of garbage I have yet waded through which was composed of (partial list) pampers, tampons, pig bones, rotten chunks of wood, tires, plastic oozing shopping bags, chicken carcasses, unidentifiable glop and detritus. No petroglyphs.
The next day we went back to La Piedra, picked up our guide, Raphael, and drove over to the next barrio. The first two sites we checked out yielded little although the owner of La Cueva de Bienvenido, whose name was Bienvenido, did give us a few ripe jumbo platanos and the cave, a crawlspace-like crevice, contained several indistinct petroglyphs. The third site we visited looked a lot like Bienvenido’s—two shallow sub parallel wandering ridges pocked with various abrigos or natural rock shelters. We clambered down a short slope and wandered through the scrub poking our heads into the little pockets and hollows in the limestone walls until we came to the back of the low horseshoe shaped formation. We crawled through a low opening, stood up, turned our headlamps on and immediately saw numerous, dark, clear, large charcoal pictographs. We quickly reconnoitered the cave and found many other paintings and went back to the guaguita to get the gear. Walking back through the bush we met a neighbor, Maria, and explained what we planned to do, she blessed us and we went and got our stuff. We were parked on the side of road, track really—mostly grass—Raphael mentioned at the last minute that maybe we should not leave anything of much value in the guaguita and so I carried all my camera stuff down into the cave. About two hours later, while photographing, I heard a distant buzzing noise but concluded, with Raphael, that it was probably a car alarm somewhere far away. Eventually Raphael went to check and a few minutes later I heard a shrill call ¡DANIEL, VEN ACÁ, LA GUAGUATA! I dropped my archeologist’s scale and went running and sure enough someone had driven a screwdriver into all the key entries of the guaguita and then smashed the driver’s side window in frustration. Broken chips of tempered glass all over, shades of my youth. All the bags in disarray and the seats turned up to expose the engine. They had been looking for the battery to sell as scrap. Luckily a chip of glass had gotten lodged under the horn cushion on the steering column and shorted out the horn which stuck in the ON position and was blaring and which had evidently spooked the ladrones and was the buzzing noise I had heard from afar. They stole only my favorite flip-flops and my machete. They left Alain’s bag with 100 meters of climbing rope and my bag of climbing gear worth maybe $500 USD along with the ashtray full of change and our street clothes. As I was carefully probing the door locks with my key and trying to raise the back hatch, which had also been unsuccessfully jimmied, a crowd of kibitzers gathered. Arguments broke out over who the thief might have been, one woman hiked up her skirt and shook her butt in the direction of an old man in an unspoken answer to some unspoken challenge, children darted between the legs of taller onlookers. I left Raphael in charge of the throng and went back to the cave and collected my camera gear and told Alain, who was still in the cave obliviously working, what had happened. Four or five guys followed me back down in, we got my stuff and Raphael’s machete and went back to the guaguita. I swept glass chips out of the guaguita onto the road and rearranged the packs. Bunch of bad people. They were all eager that I park in their yard the next time we visit.
We hustled out of there and back to Raphael’s so Alain could change. Raphael shagged a ride on our way back to the Capital and jumped out at the turn off to the cave and I realized that he was going back to try to retrieve my flip-flops and my machete or colleen. (Colleen is a vernacular term here for machete because many years ago all the machetes were imported from The Collins Iron Works in Collinsville, Ct., USA and they had the word Collins stamped in the steel up near the handle and colleen is the Spanish pronounciation. In those days when you were wading into a machete fight you might threaten to stick it into your foe “up to the colleen”.) I begged him not to, tranquilo, Hermano, but he said not to worry, although he was heading back in with the $300 pesos we had paid him and his own well-sharpened colleen.
(Raphael did not get into trouble that night and my stuff never rematerialized. To see some of the art from the Cueva del Barrio de la Cucaracha go to http://www.danielduvall.com/CucarachaSwaps/CucarachaInteractive.html You may need to wait a minute for the images to load in the background before the animation works.)
Much later we learned that local tigueres occasionally use that cave to torture and kill captive rivals. They reportedly noose the victim on the surface and throw him down through a skylight in the cave so he hangs in one of the rooms in the darkness below. There is also one room that has a hole 12 feet deep excavated where a box of gold was rumoured to have been buried by drug dealers. The treasure was not found.
Friday, June 1, 2012
Today in the store the girl who works for the restaurant in Mundo Artesanal handing out menus on the street came to work walking funny and around 11 AM eased up to the register and told Modesta that she was bleeding bad and thought she lost the baby. Modesta and Miriam conferred for a minute and hollered, “¿DUVALL, tu tienes la guaguita hoy?” They helped hold her up while I drove the guaguita to the door, she got in and she and I drove off to her doctor on the other side of the river. After I hit one bump going kind of fast I asked her if I should drive smooth or fast and she said smooth, so I eased over everything after that. I drove down Meriño to the Malecón and found that the riverbound lanes were backed up all the way to Quimbambas waiting for a cruise ship to offload its passengers so I U-turned at the base of Meriño and wrong-wayed it back to Isabel la Catolica at about 2 mph with my flashers on and we eventually got down to the Puente Flotante fine and crossed the river. I almost hit the same pothole I hit the other night bringing Miriam to Avenida España to make out and when I missed it the girl and I both said, “whew”. She pointed out the clinic after a couple more turns and I parked in front and went around and opened her door. There was a wide deep broken gutter between the guaguita and the sidewalk and when I asked her if I could carry her she nodded her head weakly. It’d been a long time since I picked a girl up out of a car and carried her into a hospital, maybe never. I carried her in and down the hall where a seated nurse said to go back to the first door and I did and I opened it with my foot and laid the girl as gently as I could on the bed there. She was crying softly and I held her hand and stroked her forehead while watery blood soaked its way across the mattress. The nurse came in and asked her some questions and called Dr. Castro, who was the girl’s physician, and left. I offered the girl my cell phone and she accepted since she had no minutes and when her boyfriend answered she wailed, “Oh, Poppy, ¿Donde tu estás? ¡Ven acá!” in an agonized tone that I have only heard from women’s throats at Dominican funerals. Then she called her priest and spoke with him for a minute or two in Haitian Creole. The doctor showed up just finishing off an empanada and went to wash up, I presume. The nurse came back in snapping on a pair of latex gloves and I asked if I should stay. The girl said no that her guy was on the way, I asked again and she said that he was really on the way and I left. The tiled hallway floor where we had entered was still blood spattered and the passenger side door to the guaguita on the street was still wide open. My pant legs were blood soaked to the knees and there was a puddle of blood on the seat.
The girl was 3 months along and had had a recent sonogram that suggested there were things wrong. She had been given two pills to help her, one to swallow and one to insert. She had started to bleed shortly thereafter. She was never told that the pills were meant to abort the baby. Later I learned that her name was Rosa. Two months later she was fired from the restaurant.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Life with Altagracia proceeded in an up and largely down fashion. She worked one day a week for Alexa cleaning her apartment and spent the rest of her time in Villa Mella cleaning our house incessantly. Sometimes she would cook and sometimes not—in past years there was always food on table but not now. In past years she had looked for better work, talked of taking remedial reading classes and of business ideas. Her angry outbursts and tirades became more frequent and when I came home from work or waked up in the morning I never knew if I would be embraced or cursed. Kiki is in prison for an undetermined period of time and, I think, that much of the money I left on the bureau to buy food went via Western Union to the jail in Elias Piña. She sent all the money she earned from working to Kiki and she secretly owed money to the lottery ticket booth where Chavela still works.
Alain, my French caving friend came to Santo Domingo and stayed with us. I had thought, when I invited him that he would be in the house one or two nights per week when he and I were not exploring caves but it turned into more like 4 or 5 and he was here for over a month. I told Alain that he had to wash his own caving duds and Altagracia that she had no obligation to wash them but she would ferret them out in his room, wash them and then complain about the mud and the smell. Even when I had him bag them and hide them in his room or stash them in the marquisina she would find them, wash them and then lay into me about how disgusting they were. He eats a lot and has specific food requirements. Altagracia did not like anything about him even though Alain paid for almost all the groceries and we had more fruit in the house than ever before. On the last day, just before I took him to the airport, he awkwardly handed Altagracia 500 pesos ($15) by way of saying thankyou for the extra work and she accepted it quietly. But when I got back from the airport run she blew up saying that we had treated her like a servant, that the wife of a foreigner should not have to work and then she took it to the street ranting at top holler, going from door to door screaming what an abuser I was and that I treated her like a slave, etc etc. We did not speak for three days and I began to look for an apartment to move into.
I am working these days on the Conde where I rent the inside of the corner doorway to the gift shop, Mundo Artesanal and, when I am not in caves I sell the photographs there. The commute is brutal, ranging anywhere from a half hour to an hour and half if there is a tapon, and I see a near accident every day. I leave the house around 8:45 in the morning and get home around 8:30 at night after closing the store. The guaguita does not have a radio but I put Radio France on a small transistor radio that rests on the passenger seat and it sounds fine. My original plan was to sell on only the busy days of the weekend but I went there on the slow days too, as much to get out of the house as anything. When I am not in the store the sales staff sells my stuff for me and I tip them about 10% of the sale. When I am in the store I can use my computer to write stuff like this and can go online using a wireless modem. While some days are long and slow, the worst are painless. Around lunch time I walk up to la Sirena and buy a piece of roast chicken and tuna pasta salad from the deli counter and whatever groceries we need in the house. There is also a grocery store across the street from Mundo Artesanal and a branch of Banco Popular across the Conde. Life on el Conde is convenient.
I began to walk the streets near the Zona Colonial looking for an apartment and after about my third foray I fould an unfurnished studio apartment through a middleman named Ivan in Ciudad Nueva, about a 15 minute walk from the store, 12 minutes hotfooting it. Altagracia and I had made up by then but the truce was shaky and I reasoned that I could use the studio for matting prints, writing or even a small gallery so I rented it for $216/month. When I told Altagracia she humphed and said it sounded like nothing more than a rapadera or a place to take prostitutes. I bought a portable radio in the flea market, moved the matting and framing stuff there and hung the 26x36 original print of my main logo. I showed it to her once which turned out to be a mistake.
I then came down with either Giardia or Amoebic dysentery, probably from a bad plato de día (lunch special) and was repulsively sick for 4 days, including experiencing nocturnal leakage while sleeping (and this from a man well known for the strength of his anal pucker). As I recovered, Altagracia began her menstruation so as a result we did not make love for almost two weeks. Saturday night I went to sleep around 10 and around 11 she woke me up roughly asking why I was sleeping with my back to her all the time and when I did not have a good enough answer, because I had been asleep and did not even know she was in the bed, she went and slept on the floor of the living room. The next night she slept on the sofa and the next in Chany’s room. Monday I went to Las Maravillas cave with Domingo to take paint residue samples. Tuesday morning I bought lumber to make a bookcase for the office—as we were then calling it—brought the boards home to the marquesina, marked them for cutting and the electricity went out for 7 hours so I had nothing else to do but wait. When I came up the stairs toward the galería the ruler pocket snagged on a piece of the railing and ripped; a harbinger of more torn clothes.
Jhoanglish had been working as a night watchman but last week he shot himself in the left hand while putting the pistol in his pocket and is now furloughed until the stitches come out which means that he hangs out on the street in front of the house, borrows money and smokes pot every day. Just after lunch he wandered by and complained to Altagracia about the reheated dinner she had given him the night before and mentioned that he would slap her up if she did it again. She lit off the galleria and grabbed a softball-sized chunk of broken concrete from the curb and chased him until Niningo and Chavela restrained her. He threatened to kill her and she responded in kind, brandishing the brickbat until Niningo wrested it away. Once back in the house she grabbed a 2 foot long piece of iron pipe that she keeps handy in case of thieves and started back after him, Niningo blocked her and she turned and beat the hell out of the concrete set tub we have in the patio breaking off pieces. Channy, 3½ now, had been sleeping on the floor of the galleria on a pillow with her bottle and woke up crying because ants had invaded her crotch and were biting her. Chavela picked her up by one arm and gave her a roundhouse slap to stop her from crying. Altagracia, unarmed finally, now went out to the street harangueing about the four good-for-nothing children she has and she has to support them all by herself because the father was murdered and nobody helps her not at all not one peso and even though she is with a gringo she has to clean floors for a living. She went up one side of the street and down the other for most of the rest of the afternoon shouting this litany to anyone with their door open. When the electricity came back on around 6PM I went down to the marquesina to cut my 1x10 pine to length and make the dado cuts with my SkilSaw asking myself what I was doing in Villa Mella where mothers threaten sons with brickbats, hit children waking up from naps and holler lies up and down the street. When I finished my cuts and dados I packed the unassembled parts into the guaguita along with the tools I would need to assemble the shelves in the office.
Although we had not spoken civilly since her interrogation about sleeping orientation, Altagracia and I watched the 10 oclock episode of the novela Fantasma de Elena on TV and I went to bed at 11. She rolled and smoked a cigar out in the patio and around 11 came inside, got ready for bed and went into the spare room. A minute later she flung the bedroom door open and when I sleepily looked up she hurled the new red cell phone I had bought her the week before, the one we called the chihuahua because it was so small, on the floor and it broke into pieces ricocheting across the room. She fled the room but turned and charged in again, I was sitting up on the edge of the bed by now, and she launched a volley of punches, I tried to stand up and she stooped and tore a gaping hole in one the legs of my pajamas. She resumed the punching. I was able to grab her wrists from time to time. All the time she was screaming that I had cheated on her, that I was nothing but a no-good cheater and liar and occasionally shooting a glance at the night table. When she retreated I looked over at the night table and saw the AlkaSeltzer.
Monday morning, the day before this drama, before meeting Domingo, I had had a headache and my stomache was still a little iffy so, before the drive to the cave, I had bought a two-pack of AlkaSeltzer Extreme. Since they were, at least nominally, extreme, I only took one and put the opened foil package, which incidently has trendier graphics than the classic AlkaSeltzer blue foil pack, in my shirt pocket and forgot about it. Tuesday, before the conflagration with Jhoanglish in the street, Altagracia evidently found the open packet in my shirt pocket while doing laundry and put it on the kitchen table. When, after the blitzkrieg that night I saw it on the night table I knew what had happened. I brought the packet to her and asked her what it was, she said with scorn, “condones,” I said, “AlkaSeltzer,” as I peeled apart the foils and dumped the broken tablet on the table. “Would you like a glass of water?” I asked. I watched her face. I had never seen an expression change like that with absolutely no facial movement. Something lit in her eyes and then fell. I got the glass of water, plopped the fragments in, offered it to her, she was still expressionless, and I drank.
I went back to bed. She went to the sofa but then came into the bedroom. I said I wanted to be alone. She said that she would not bother me and got into her side of the bed. I lay on my back all night with my eyes riveted on the concrete louvre that communicates with the kitchen and was backlighted. On the underside of each slat silhouetted cockroaches moved around from time to time. I waited until 6 AM and then got up and perked coffee as usual. I packed my camera stuff like I was going to a cave, but I also packed the cash hidden under the mattress and my passport. She slept. I packed my cell phone charger and the all the camera and flash cables. I packed a box of books that I would put on the finished shelves in the office that would be where I would live. When I was done I gave her a kiss on the cheek and said, “Mándame suerte“ like I did every morning when I knew I would need good luck. She murmmered but did not waken. I closed the door quietly behind me and left.
I called her later in the morning and said that I was going to San Cristóbal because I did not want her to look for me in the store. Early in the evening I called again and said I would not be coming home. She called back, “Never?” I said, “Never”, she asked, “Really?” There were many more calls like that. In the end she became hysterical and finally ran out of cell phone minutes.
The office has the 7-foot tall bookcase that I had cut and ripped in the marquisina in Villa Mella, the card table that was Mamie’s in the 1950s and not much else. It consists of one room with a separate kitchen and a bathroom. It is two blocks from the Malecón and the Caribbean and there is a colmado a half block away that does not play deafening music. There is a school across the street and an empanada and juice vendor set up on the corner to sell breakfast to the students in the morning. The Justice Building is nearby so there are always a lot of cops and lawyers around. I am on the 4th floor, on the roof, with a small patio shared by two other apartments— one is empty at the moment and four young doctors live in the other. There is always a breeze and I can see the sea if I stand up and look out the back window across the adjacent rooftop. Last night I slept in my hammock.
Monday, April 2, 2012
Worst part of most of my days is the commute. I hope I get things organized eventually so I am not transporting boxes of stuff or bulky items every day and so can use the subway and guaguas. The traffic jams for no reason drive me nuts, just stupidity like cars filling up a clogged intersection so when the light changes nobody can go anywhere. Cars turning left from the right lane through busy intersections. Traffic cops directing traffic in intersections that have broken stoplights but then the cop wanders off and leaves chaos behind him. The other day a cop was directing traffic in a busy intersection in a shopping district, pedestrians crossing everywhere, motorcycles slinking and weaving their way to the front of the lines and squirting out across the road. I was in the middle lane stopped with a guagua to my right and a car to my left, we were in the very front waiting for the cop to signal us to go. He stops the other lanes, waves us on and just as I accelerate a Haitian runs out from in front of the guagua and I hit him. He goes flying to the pavement. I stop, the Haitian gets up, I look at the cop and he is just watching the Haitian shaking his head, the Haitian apologizes and limps off, I continue.
A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday morning on our way to the Plaza we saw a motorcyclist down in the northbound lane of Avenida Hermanas Mirabel. He had been hit by a SUV that had sped away. By the time we stopped passerbys had hoisted and dumped him into the back of a passing pick-up that had stopped and had dragged his bike to the side of the road. The pick-up took him to the hospital but he was dead in the road.
Mundo Artesanal (Craft World would be a likely translation) is top heavy in administration. David Morrillo is the owner along with his wife, Dany. His sister-in-law, Jocasta, is the manager, a son is the evening in charge person and there is an administrator who I think is a cousin, a cash register girl, an odd jobs guy, a housekeeper and two retail sales people. One of the retailers is Richard Bristol, an intense young Haitian who speaks Spanish, Creole, French and English and has a couple of his own paintings for sale in the store. When I am not around it is usually he who makes sales for me and when he does I give him 10% which is great for him since he only makes 2% commision in the other parts of the store and it is good for me because he is motivated.
Much of Mundo is stuff on consignment a few of us rent spaces. Ruddy the German (who makes my tee shirts as well as his own) rents two spaces. In one he has his tee shirt store right behind me and in the other he sells fancy knackworst and German beer-- Polaner at $5/bottle. On the other side of the store an Italian has a small diner type restaurant-- spaghetti with a tuna/tomato sauce, capuccino and mixed drinks and in the other doorway a jeweler who sets up on a card table and sells larimar earrings.
Aside from Richard, the other retail person in Mundo is Modesta and she really is the glue that holds the day-to-day business together. She is also the type that will grab a mop when the house cleaner moves too slowly and she will run the hose up to the tinaco to fill it with water when the odd jobs guy is goofing off; she is paid for 8 hours but opens every morning at 9 and stays to lock up at 9 at night while her youngest kid, about 10 sleeps on the floor behind the register. When it is slow and she is caught up during the day she will go into a back room and sleep in a chair with her head on a desk for a half hour or so. She is bone thin, blonde with white-grey eyes and ears that stick out. Last Wednesday when I went in to work Modesta was not there and Richard told me that her oldest son, 22 and a recent high school graduate had been killed the night before in a motorcycle accident. Evidently the stoplight was badly timed; while he was accelerating through a green an SUV went through on a stale yellow and killed him instantly in the middle of the intersection. There were lots of witnesses and the driver of the SUV was detained by the crowd and arrested. I went to the funeral home in Gualey with Jocasta and her husband Juan Paulo and then on to the cemetary in San Luis just outside the city past Hainamosa.
They bury them quick here. That day employees from Mundo went in shifts to go see Modesta in the funeral home in Gualey, a famously tough slum. I asked Jocasta if I could go with her since I did not know the way. She said that she was going to go on to the cemetary afterwards but it would be quick and I was welcome. Around 2 PM her husband, Juan Paulo, picked us up along with about 5 other people and we crammed into the crew cab of his listing pick-up truck. The funeral home was packed. Modesta was seated in the front of the room near the coffin that was closed but had a small window over the boy's face. There was blood caked in his hair and cotton balls stuffed in his nostrils and ears, no makeup. Modesta cried wailing nonstop and hugged hanging on to each person in the line who stepped up. She recognized me and cried “OH, DuVall” and cried on.
The cemetary was a lot farther away than I thought. Outside the city and farther than Hainamosa all the way to San Luis. There were two school busses full of mourners and at least 20 other vehicles not counting motorcycles. We wove our way in through the above- ground tombs and monuments overgrown with grass and weeds, past one that said Morillo, when I asked Juan Paulo if that was his family he nodded yes. The coffin was on the ground. The boy's sister was sprawled on top of it screaming. His father, who had barely been evident in the funeral home-- he is divorced from Modesta and has his own family-- was front and center tears streaming non stop down his face and Modesta was standing quietly a few meters away. A number of tough looking teens had scaled a nearby building and watched from the roof. A preacher spoke for 10 or 15 minutes and then 6 people hoisted the coffin up on their shoulders to a crescendo of screaming and crying. Modest broke down again and they slid the box into an opening in the tomb like the middle drawer of a giant concrete file cabinet. The preacher said a few more words and we walked slowly back through the weeds to the pick-up truck.