Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Beginning

            La Primaveral de Villa Mella, where we live, is on the outskirts of the city of Santo Domingo about 9 kilometers up Maximo Gomez as far as the blue water tank on stilts and then our house is a 1 kilometer walk or a 10 peso per person ride on a Honda 70cc Cub Special motorbike away. When we use such a concho Altagracia rides sidesaddle in the middle pressed between me and the chauffeur. From our roof we can see mountains, and our street, Loma de Chivo, which was asphalt at one time but now is mostly paved with dust, is virtually a dead end as it narrows to a dirt trail near a stream a few blocks beyond our house. There are a few big houses like ours with three bedrooms and steel burglar bars over the windows and doorsways but mostly the houses are small and unfinished with the rough cement blocks not yet plastered or painted and with boards sometimes nailed over the windows.  A painted house usually means that the family has some relatives in New York who send money. There are chickens and stray dogs everywhere and always someone on the street unless it is raining hard. There is very little traffic and kids can play stickball in the street, which, when they don’t have a ball, they play with the small frisbee-like caps from five gallon water jugs and use broomsticks for bats. We live next door to a colmado (or bodega or corner store) where you can buy a few pesos worth of tomato paste at a time; eggs, cigarettes, tampons, mints or aspirins or shoelaces one at a time; cheese or salami by the slice, disposable razors, toilet paper, powdered milk, soda, rum and beer. There is also a pool table and a loud juke box in the colmado but it quiets down by about 9 PM on weeknights and we all like the music anyway.
            Six of us live in the house. Altagracia and I, and her four almost grown children; Kiki 21, Jhoanglish 19, Chavela 16 and Niningo 15 although their real names are Luis Manual, Luis Maria, Luis Antonio and Luisabela. Nothing is ever found in the same place twice. Toothbrushes may be found in sink drains, in mop buckets,  on the stove, in shoes or under beds. I am sure we have toothbrushes in neighbor’s houses. We have three plastic pitchers to keep water in the refrigerator and they can generally be found each with about one ounce of water in them. We evidently use over 150 matches per day, that is, to light the stove and candles when the power goes out. Someone here can eat a pint of mayonnaise at a sitting. I have a friend in the US who has just finished raising two teenagers and she assures me that living with this age group anywhere in the world can be like living with raccoons.

            Ours is a three bedroom house with two bathrooms one of which has plumbing . The indoor bathroom, full of new fixtures, is dry and not connected to any septic system that we can locate and the outdoor bathroom is a small attached room around the side at the end of the patio. The paid receipt for the city water was counterfeited by the previous owners and, since we are not going to pay someone else’s bill of over 10,000 pesos ($330) and still accruing penalties, we pump water, if there is electricity, to fill our cistern from an exposed pipe fitting across the street on Tuesdays and Saturday nights, which are the times the city diverts water to our neighborhood. The rest of the street does the same thing and assures us that even if we did pay the bill, we would still never get the water we paid for. After the cistern is full we pump water to a tinaco on the roof that holds 200 gallons and supplies water by gravity to the kitchen and the working bathroom. Many houses here do not have a cistern or tinaco and so, on water nights, the street is filled with women hauling water in five gallon buckets on their heads.
            The electricity arrives pretty much the same way as the water. Our house is situated between two telephone poles and there is a web of lamp-cord gauge wire spliced into the main power line that leads to various outlets and bulb sockets in the house. When Altagracia turns on her blow-drier the whole neighborhood dims. There is not a fuse or a circuit breaker anywhere. The house is constructed entirely of cement, roof and all, so it can’t burn down, but I make it a point to stand on one foot when I touch a light switch cause I figure maybe the current won’t go through my heart up one leg and down the other that way. We burn up a lot of light bulbs. Occasionally the power company sends a pickup truck with a ladder and two men, called cortadores, to cut the wires to the houses of people who don’t pay their bills and people like us who don’t even have a meter on the house. After they leave, the neighbor who is the designated electrician hooks us back up for a dollar.

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