Saturday, August 27, 2011

Yola and La Pulga

         Saturday two flat bed trucks carrying many policeman arrived in front of the colmado next to our house and the cops fanned out and swept through the neighborhood looking for the yola that was rumored to be near completion and hidden nearby. It is illegal to build such a boat without a special permit here because most of them are used as yolas, or boats that carry illegal immigrants to Puerto Rico via the Mona Strait. There are always horror stories about yolas in the newspaper-- they are generally poorly outfitted, overloaded and leaky and often swamp in the surf just after launching or disappear or sink at sea. There are evidently only a few suitable landing sites on the coast of Puerto Rico and the authorities there are on constant look-out for illegal arrivals so most that do actually make it that far are locked up and then returned to the court system in the Dominican  Republic for their trouble. Passage on a yola costs between $700 and $1000 and many yola operators could care less if the yola makes it all the way because advance payment in full is always required so overbooking on unsafe craft is a common practice and the owner himself is not foolish enough to go. Saturday, however, no yola was discovered.
         Sunday night after dark Altagracia called me out of the shower to see what was happening on the street. A guagua was parked in front of our house and people were gathering and boarding to be taken to where the yola was to be launched. The dome lights were on inside the bus so we could see who was going and the scene was oddly quiet even though families were being separated, perhaps forever. We saw that Tootie, the new guy who sells pot on the street was going, along with Jose, who walked over and handed Altagracia a mint the other day out of the blue and whose girlfriend murdered his wife some years ago; and Sandra’s husband was going without Sandra or their children; and Lao who used to consul Kiki but turned out to be a gang leader himself came out of hiding and got on too. The lights went out inside the guagua and it pulled away from the curb and about a dozen people on the street watched as it made the turn at the top of the hill where the bakery used to be. Altagracia and I leaned on the railing of the galleria and watched a tall slender old woman walk slowly back the other way through the dark to her empty house.
         Within 24 hours of the guagua’s departure from Loma de Chivo rumors began making their way back and it seems that upon arrival on the beach at Nagua, the men were asked to leave and the women were invited onto the waiting yola. The Marines arrived and some of the men were arrested and some ran away. The boat never left the shore.
Altagracia is getting sicker and sicker of working in the pensión. Her take home pay averages out to 160 pesos/day and her commute costs 30 pesos and lunch is not provided and even coffee is never offered. There is a new receptionist who manages to go into the rooms after guests have left and takes the tips left for Altagracia and, to top it off, Elvira, the owner, has asked Altagracia to bail out the toilet bowls before putting in the cleaner so as to use less cleaner. Saturday and Sunday Altagracia, unprecedently, called in sick and on Sunday we went to La Pulga to see if it could be a venue for a negociocito, or little business for her.
         La Pulga, which literally means the flea, is a weekly outdoor market in Santo Domingo which, these days is located under Ave. Luperon where it is an elevated highway between Ave. Independencia and the Malecón and must be a half mile long with hundreds of vendors. There were more clothes and shoes than anything, but also for sale were bootlegged CDs and DVDs (I saw King Kong, which is still in theaters for sale for about $2), used kitchen utensils, tools, second-hand cell phones and stereo equipment. We wended our way through a maze of mountains of loose clothes, bales of clothes, racks of clothes, clothes hanging on chains of hangers that  were suspended from under the highway far over our heads looking for Alfonsa, who is married to one of Altagracia’s cousins and who drives to the Pulga every Sunday all the way from Elias Piña to sell bales of clothes, which are called paca, that she buys in Haiti. At the end of our first pass through the throng of hundreds of vendors and shoppers we found Alfonsa seated on one of her paca and we sat on another paca and Altagracia asked about licensing to sell here and the prices for paca in Haiti and whether there would be trouble in Customs and about selling prices and it all sounded feasible.
         After giving Alfonsa some money to give to Kiki on her return to Elias Piña and after buying a handful of chicharrone to eat on the way home on the guagua, which is always a little risky but even chicharrone that makes you feel sick a half hour later tastes great, we decided that the next time we go to Elias Piña we will buy some paca and the following Sunday Altagracia can call in sick again to the pensión.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

New Year's, Clinic and a mention that my Kickstarter has only 3 more days

DEC 21
Yesterday I went to el Conde to look for a good road map of the country as well as to visit Bettye Marshall, the proprietor of the gallery where my photos are sometimes for sale and I used public transport. I was in a public taxi in the back seat behind the driver and to my right was a small boy and to his right was his mother and to her right was a man in a suit. The boy, who was practically sitting on my lap did not look happy so I asked the mother if he was sick and she said yes and I asked if it was la gripe, or a cold or flu, and she said no, he was about ready to vomit. The driver pulled over, the man in the suit left and the boy got out and tried unsuccessfully to vomit at the curb, got back in with his mother and within about 100 meters successfully projectile vomited across the back seat and out the open window.

Today I went to the Conde again, this time to deliver 6 framed photos to Gallery Toledo, Bettye’s gallery and this time I drove. I am beginning to enjoy driving here, it is adventurous and as I become accustomed to the unwritten rules it is feeling safer and safer. There are many drivers who drive slowly and cautiously and signal turns and although one tends to notice the reckless, there is a place for everyone.

Jan 1
         Like last year, we spent new year’s eve at home. Last year Altagracia’s brother, Tito and his wife Nudi came for the holiday from Dajabon on the northern Haitian border  where they live and Kiki and Jhoanglish were home. Tito is in the military and, over the years, has been the most upstanding of Altagracia’s siblings partly because she took care of him when they were children as he is about 6 years younger and 7 is old enough to baby-sit here. We cooked chicken and mashed potatoes au gratin and made s big salad and drank creme d’oro (fortified eggnog) and Presidente beer and the boys even chipped in and bought some muscatel from the colmado. I set  my laptop up on the galleria with big speakers and we danced to bachata mp3s all night. At midnight Tito, after removing his official clip and replacing it with his private clip so his unexpended bullet count would balance at the next inspection, emptied his pistol high into the roble tree in front of the house-- the next morning as I was re-imagining the angle he was shooting at I doubted it was really high enough to clear the houses on the hill behind the tree and he was probably lucky that there was nobody home. There are often reports in the newspapers of deaths and injuries from stray bullets.
         This year there were just the four of us plus Chavela’s new boyfriend, Calderon. We ate roasted-fried chicken with potato salad and the same mashed potato dish as last year all the while Altagracia claiming that she was going to go to bed because she had to work the 1st but after her bath she got dressed and she and I and Chloe got in the guaguita and as I backed it out of the marquisina to go up to the street venders near Olé to buy candy, it idled itself down and died in the road. A mechanic came over from the colmado and after I explained the short history of gas problems and after he pulled some tubing apart and blew and sucked through it we pushed it down the hill and it still didn’t start so we had to push it back up the hill and back in to the marquisina and it took 4 of us pushing hard because the hill is steep and potholed and the mechanic is going to come back this morning. He thinks it is a sticky float.
         The street filled with more and more people as midnight neared and firecrackers of all sizes as well as fireworks filled the air with the smell of gunpowder and the noise kept Chloe barking furiously. Altagracia has a friend who drives a large panel truck with election campaign posters plastered on its sides and he drove it up alongside the galleria to position his giant speakers to blare bachata into the house but a drunk on the street chucked a rock, breaking the brake lights on the truck, because he wanted to hear salsa but this was the only discordant note of the evening.
        At midnight the air filled with the smoke and smell of firecrackers and everyone spilled out onto the street and hugged and shook hands-- young and old, tigueres and strangers and evangelists and neighbors and passed bottles back and forth and by 12:30 Chavela and Niningo and Calderon left to go out dancing till dawn with some other friends and Altagracia and I went to bed in an empty house for the first time ever. At 5:30 this morning when we were sleepily drinking our first cup of coffee the crew returned fromt he disco and went to bed.

Jan 15th or so
Las Matas
On the 7th I drove the guaguita to the airport, about one hour outside the city and it gave a little cough or two on the way out but ran smoothly on the way back. On the 8th I drove the guaguita to the airport to pick up Scottie and it ran smoothly the whole time so on the 9th, around 10:30 in the morning we left for Matas de Farfan which is almost  as far as Elias Piña or about 150 miles. It ran great as far as Cruce de Santana, about an hour and a half from Villa Mella, where it stopped. It would start but it wouldn’t go. We waited a little while in the van and then got out and waited with a woman whose house we were stalled in front of while a neighbor with a motorbike went to look for a mechanic. When the mechanic eventually arrived he eventually determined that the problem was a sticky pita de abajo and so to work around the problem he tuned the carburetor (or maybe it is an injector) such that the motor would only run while mightily revved but would run although at every shift one couild feel a little more clutch burning away and we made it.
         Scottie and Louise work every year with a group of volunteer nurses and nurse practitioners who spend two weeks based in Las Matas and make trips to many outlying villages and set up one day clinics. The day I was there their group split into two and I went with the one who went to El Valle which is past El LLano and past Guanito and way up a mountain with a new gravel road that is powdery and windy and narrow enough that you realize that if the brakes on the truck fail on the way back down that death is certain but It was very beautiful and the brakes did not fail on the way back down.
         The clinic was held in a plain concrete church set in a cluster of a half dozen houses. Most people arrived on foot and then had to pay 10 pesos or 30¢ for a number to wait in line-- the clinic itself was free. There were three tables set up for consultations and boxes of medicine to be handed out were arranged on benches along the walls. Not all of the nurses spoke Spanish so I served, along with three others, as a translator. Sometimes even those of us who spoke Spanish had no idea what the patient was saying because, being practically on the Haitian border, many spoke a heavily accented patois and were describing medical conditions such as smoke in the head, wind in muscles, bites in the chest, vague pains everywhere and of one food tasting like another. Many people were hypertensive and quite a few others were malnourished. Louise is working on a funded project to study blood pressure here and it is possible that it is linked to living at higher altitudes.
         During the day another mechanic worked on the guaguita and pronounced it good to go after installing a new fuel filter so the next morning I headed back toward the capital with the same clutch grinding tune up and made it about an hour and half outside Las Matas to Las Guanabanas where it stopped. I waited 40 minutes thinking it might have been somehow flooded, and unsuccessfuly tried to start it again. There were only a few houses in Las Guanabanas and two men sitting on a rock but one of them had a motorbike and so he went to look for a mechanic. When the mechanic eventually arrived he determined that gas was not getting to the carburetor and after much testing of wires with his circuit tester (which he had to go back home to get) that it was due to a bad fuel pump, which is, in this case, located inside the gas tank. So, along with Augusto, who had been sitting on the rock, we dropped the gas tank out of the guaguita, removed the fuel pump and the mechanic took it along with 1000 of my pesos to Azua, 13 miles away, to look for a replacement. While we waited Augusto and I walked to his sister’s house and she fed us lunch and it took the mechanic almost 3 hours to return but he brought a fuel pump and when we got everything back together in the dark and the thing started and ran normally and I paid everybody and got going but after 10 miles it reverted to its high-rev-stall at idle situation of before so it was a long 3 hour drive and boy was I glad to get home.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Unfocussed moments and Driving

         I am having a couple of slow days. Yesterday I felt tired all day and read in the hammock and today I have a chin of diarrhea and the blahs. I got dressed and had coffee with Altagracia and Jhoanglish, who spent the night after a day off from the bomberos yesterday, and, walked them, with Chloë up to the blue water tank but now I am lying in bed listening to the sounds of the street-- the horn announcing the arrival of the potable water truck which will fill your 5 gallon spring water jug with osmotically filtered pure water although Altagracia says, “¡Mentira, agua de cualquier rio!, or Bullshit, that’s water from the handiest river!; the dogs across the street barking at selected pedestrians or motorcycles and thankfully the young shaggy  blond bitch is not in heat anymore-- she was very busy there for a while!; and Chavela moving around in the kitchen, putting habichuelas on the stove to simmer and there is the occasional shouted greeting to her from the street from friends and admirers. My lower back is a little sore and the back of my neck is warm and I think I might have a slight fever. I haven't eaten anything I thought was risky recently and my intestinal trouble of last year has almost entirely subsided.
         So I lie here slightly dazed and wonder what I am going to do. The excitement from the museum show is dying down although my big photos are still on exhibit and one of my images appeared on the cover of the, roughly annual, Journal of the Museum which is a classy publication. We are all still awaiting the finished catalog for the show, which I suspect has been forever derailed due to squandered or embezzled funding and so it would be tricky to ask the Foundation Garcia Arévalo for more money to continue photographing just yet.
         In this first month and a half here this year I have spent more money than I had planned, unlike last year, and I am not sure I can stretch my saved summer earnings enough to last until May, although Kiki is still far away and Jhoanglish and Chavela are working. I like my daily rhythms -- I often cook the lunch and otherwise putter in the kitchen, now that the new countertop of cement and stone marmól is in place and the kitchen faucet now delivers water-- the internet is a 10 minute walk away, we take the guaguita on field trips every other day or so; I do most of the food shopping by myself which cuts down on spats with Altagracia since we have very different styles of shopping. My Spanish learning is on a long, nearly flat plateau so I have begun to read more and check more words and grammar in texts and online.
         With the roof patched and painted and the kitchen sink remodelled the big projects for the year are out of the way and I can now scrape and paint inside at my leisure.
         The neighborhood has changed since last year-- La Rubia has taken up with a new chulo and moved away with him (after borrowing a last 100 pesos from us) leaving her grown children to finally fend for themselves in the little pink wood house-- but nobody sells chicken anymore out front. Many tigueres including Herman, the snaky killer, Demonio and Britania of the knife and bottle fight, Nati the thief, Lao and various others (including Kiki) have all moved on. Guangu helped me apply a plato fino, or finish coat of cement on my leaking roof but otherwise is not around much since he has a new woman in another barrio and only occasionally sleeps in his house (reportedly in the same bed although far from Miguelina, his estranged wife). We have not been to a rezo in a long time although, sadly, Anahai’s 15 year old brother was hit by a SUV and killed last week while on the same motorcycle and crossing the highway at the same spot where their father was killed by a dump truck last year.
         My environment now seems less exotic than before. If I feel a little better I will wash the guaguita this afternoon.

         Man, can it be tough to shop with Altagracia! Yesterday afternoon after work she, Niningo and I went to La Sirena, a mammoth, crowded department and grocery store, mainly to buy something for Kiki since we will be seeing  him in Elias Piña on Christmas Day which is also his birthday. Walking down the blue jean aisle which was neatly organized with the prices clearly posted above each column of shelves of jeans she asked constantly how much are those and how much are these and grabbed folded jeans off shelves and tossed them back roughly and would spend minutes minutely examining a pair  with a 30 inch waist whereas Kiki wears 34 or 36. Niningo and I made a deal behind her back and attended her in shifts of 10 minutes so the other could wander off and take a break. The long selection process was particularly frustrating because I figure Kiki will probably sell the $15 jeans for 50 pesos ($1.75) before the dust on our way out of town has settled. After the jeans were finally selected, and the cart was full of $3 dolls for the nieces in Elias Piña and an oven thermometer to replace the one I burned up somehow roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving, and a polo shirt for Niningo we got separated when Altagracia darted up a shoe aisle and I took the opportunity to sneak off to the perfume counter to buy her a vial of Café, which does not smell at all like coffee but is a heady floral scent that Altagracia is crazy for, which took longer than I thought. When I got back to Shoes Altagracia was nowhere to be found. The cellphone signal was weak inside the big store but I was finally able to call her and we met near the front doors and Niningo eventually showed up but no one had the shopping cart because Altagracia had left it behind in a fit of pique and we didn’t find it until it had already been rounded up by the abandoned shopping cart patrol and most of the stuff had already been sorted out into other carts for reshelving but we were eventually able to recollect everything.  As we headed toward the check-out line Altagracia started to veer back into the store toward the grocery area but we grabbed her and lied to her and said that we had bread and cheese and yucca in the house to get her to leave quietly because hog tying her and dragging her out would have been the next option. When she tried to bolt from the line I waved my fingers, which smelled of Café Perfume, under her nose, and that calmed her down and on the way back home we stopped off at Hipermercado Olé and bought our needed staples without incident.

         When walking Chloë, my crazy English cocker spaniel, on a leash, which is an undisciplined process at best, she will track straight down the center of a sidewalk but if we step out onto the street she careens crazily toward the center of the road, nearly slipping her collar at times-- it is like trying to heel a lemming along a cliff-- and it does not matter which side of the street we are on or what is on the other side or which way we are going or how much traffic there is.
         Chloë loves the guaguita although she has not yet had a ride in it. If the doors are left open she can be found sleeping in it during the day even if nobody is in the marquisina with her. I think she knows that it is cars that take people farther away from her and if she stays in the guaguita she will not get left behind.
         Chloë will not drink tap water, osmotically purified water, ice water or rain water from her water dish which is a normal glazed ceramic bowl on the kitchen floor but she will drink whatever cleanish water running down the street gutters and loves to drink from a full 5 gallon bucket of water just bailed out of the cistern. I have now placed a new aluminum water dish next to her ceramic one but it seems to be as distasteful.

         Driving here requires a mixture of patience and aggression and constant surveillance using the rear and side view mirrors. Aside from the fact that they are cheaper, many people here buy motorcycles so that they can weave their way through the frequent traffic jams, or tapones, and may travel on the sidewalks and down the median strips as well. Motorcycles frequently shoot out into intersections against red lights figuring that they are agile enough to slalom their way through the traffic and may do so with several children on the bike-- I have seen motorbikes carrying as many as five people, counting babies, at a time. Very few motorcyclists wear helmets and I don’t  think I have ever seen a passenger wearing one.
         (During the period when I was photographing in the caves of El Pomier, Johnny Rubio and I had gotten a ride on a motorcycle to take us down out of the hills and back to town and the road wound down through limestone quarries and was severely potholed and was strewn with boulders that had fallen off of dump trucks and I realized that, ironically, between the three grown men with four bulky backpacks on the Honda 50cc Club motorbike we actually had two helmets with us that we used in the caves but it would never dawn on us to wear them on a motorcycle.)
         (When I stayed for a month at the pensión where Altagracia works, which is located on the corner of an intersection with four-way stop signs in a quiet residential neighborhood I heard or saw three accidents happen because most cars do not stop there but honk their horns and speed up and I would listen to that driving pattern of beepbeepvroom as I was dropping off to sleep nights and wait for beepbeepvroomCRASH.)
         Another driving habit that I am learning to anticipate is that when crossing a big city intersection traveling in the left or center lanes it is not unusual for someone, usually driving a large vehicle, to make a left hand turn, whether or not permitted, across your bow, from the right hand lane. One time while we were with Norkis, our lawyer, and stopped at such an intersection in the left hand lane waiting for a break in the traffic that was still streaming across in front of us against our green light, a large Hielo Nacional ice delivery truck, did just that and drove over the top of Norkis’s front right fender in doing so-- later in the police station the ice truck driver emphatically insisted he had done nothing wrong and was flabbergasted when the policewoman confiscated his license and handed him a summons.
         Solutions to tapones may be creative. I have seen two of three southbound lanes of stretches of Maximo Gomez filled with northbound traffic during the afternoon rush-- moving fast too-- and I was once in three lanes of traffic on a one-way, single lane sidestreet going the wrong way-- many cars had one wheel up on sidewalks and at intersections two or three drivers would get out of their cars and direct traffic in a jigsaw puzzle crossing.
         When breakdowns occur where there is no breakdown lane you might see someone changing a tire in a center lane of a highway and I have seen a whole bus transmission being rebuilt on the sidewalk next to the bus it had fallen out of.
         Cars may swerve crazily in front of you while passing to avoid potholes-- which may be cavernous. The use of turn signals is not unheard of but is not common. Altagracia warns not to put one’s elbow out the window because of the chance of stray chunks of rock or metal bouncing down the road.

         I may have chosen the single worst possible time to buy a car in Villa Mella because construction of the elevated commuter train that will run the length of Maximo Gomez nearly from the center rotunda of Villa Mella which is about one kilometer north of my house south to the Malecon on the sea. Upon the project’s approval by the Senate, work was immediately begun and holes the size of houses appeared overnight in the center of the road dug by large earthmoving equipment as well as by pick-and-shovel. Within two weeks giant towers of grids of 3/4 inch re-bar were lifted into place in some of the foundation holes-- sometimes using ropes and man power and sometimes using backhoes or cranes and in some holes the towers were built in place within a cage of wood staging nailed together with rough sawn lumber. I saw one crane that had toppled over while trying to lift a concrete barrier, but traffic was still able to move under the nearly horizontal boom and the half dozen or so workers that were gathered around it scratching their heads did not seem too bothered. As I write this,some of the steel re-bar towers are being enclosed by round, steel, prefabricated forms that will be filled with concrete and later removed.
         The Metro is being built to alleviate the terrible traffic  problems that plague Maximo Gomez during rush hours but while being constructed is making traffic much worse. While the published estimated construction time is hovering around one year most people are wondering if it will be done in one lifetime because the history here is that public works projects almost always run out of money and if the project lasts for more than one term it may turn out that the next President has other plans. Many different construction companies are working on the Metro and there is much speculation already about how the bidding process was legally completed in the one or two days between Senatorial approval and the start of construction.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sand Lot Baseball, Altagracia, Dentista and the Guaguita

Sand Lot Baseball

         This morning I went with Niningo to watch him play baseball for the club where he is a member. To get there he led me through a section of the neighborhood where I had never been before down quiet little side streets and through a field and we came out on Ave. Charles DeGaulle on the other side of Olé and where there is a bus stop for the 5 peso OMSA. We waited a long time for the OMSA and finally gave up and squeezed into an overcrowded taxi van with no side door headed for Sabana Barrio
         The ball field had grass in both the infield and the outfield although it was very uneven and patchy and there was a small concrete grandstand and a concrete dugout on each side. Both the pitcher’s rubber and homeplate looked like they were made from cement and the bases were not brought out and tossed in place until just before the first game started. Groups of boys from about age 12 to 18 were playing pepper, taking infield practice, jogging in the outfield and lounging on the bleachers and there were squads of peewee leaguers running around in the farthest, overgrown reaches of the outfield. Eventually the fifty or so older boys were divided into four teams and the first game started.
         The umpire, who was usually one of the players waiting to play in the second game, called the game from just behind the pitcher and could often be seen giving the pitcher pointers or laughing uproariously at wild pitches or joking with the nearby baserunner on second base. There were many errors, both throwing and fielding, some of which could be attributed to the rough ground, but there were also many misjudged fly balls that fell in for extra base hits and nearly all the baserunners that reached first base quickly stole second and third-- home was stolen successfully five times. The final score must have been astronomical.
         Niningo is touting himself as a pitcher because, as he figures, all he has to do is get his fastball up to 85MPH and he can sign with a Major League team and because every team needs more pitchers than any other position his odds are mathematically better. He does not bat because they use the designated hitter here, or practice fielding much but he looked very smooth and cool jogging in the outfield. He started the second game but had not warmed up his arm or stretched and so-- after the first two batters reached base on errors on weakly hit groundballs and he got one to ground out to short-- he got shelled and had to concentrate so much on each batter that all his baserunners stole their way around the bases to score and he was lifted after a half dozen runs because of shoulder pain and before he was able to record a second out. The relief pitcher got hit so hard that he was replaced by the hard throwing third baseman before recording any outs. Niningo and I left after the third inning  and by the time we had walked from the field to the nearest bus stop he said that his arm was feeling a little better.

Sometimes Altagracia has unpredictable moods and they might be started by anything. Last night after borrowing my cell phone Altagracia tossed it on the bed and it two-hopped off the mattress and hit the cement tile floor and skidded under the night stand. The phone turned out to be okay but I was a little annoyed and said something like, “Sheesh, could you be a little more careful,” and, “and you wonder where Chavela gets the habit of dropping plates and glasses in the kitchen from?” and Altagracia went into a little sulk saying that she would never borrow my cell phone again and so forth but when I grabbed her from behind and tickled her and blew in her ear she laughed so I figured things were okay. But she came to bed late and wouldn’t talk and after lying in the dark for a while I could feel her trembling and she was crying and still wouldn’t talk until she finally said, “I threw your phone,” and I said that it was nothing, that I was not annoyed anymore, that there was no damage done but she would not say anything more and she was just as quiet in the morning when she generally chatters happily on while we are drinking our coffee and she refused to bring her cell phone to work which meant that she did not want me to call her during the day.

Chavela has been having toothaches and since Altagracia has been complaining about her fillings shifting and losing little pieces I took Chavela to Dr. Ingrid Lantigua who is the dentist up near the blue water tank. I was allowed in the room while she peered around in Chavela’s mouth counting cavities and appraising the damage of the two painful molars. She wrote out the estimate which included 8 cavities at 400-500 pesos (12-15$) and then went ahead and filled two and I was allowed to watch the process and even ask questions during. Because of the miracle of fluoridation in Massachusetts I have never had a cavity or seen one filled, so I was riveted although it didn’t seem much different than masonry work in miniature. I paid the 900 pesos and Chavela promised to visit one of the nearby locations that could x-ray the bad teeth and to bring them, the x-rays that is, with her on her next visit.

Daihatsu Minibus
I am a driver now in Santo Domingo. I bought a year 2000 Daihatsu minibus for about $4000 fresh off the boat from Japan. So far so good aside from nearly killing us on the first test drive when my foot got caught between the gas pedal and the brake-- which are inordinately close together-- and we were propelled into traffic prematurely. The woman driver who swerved to miss us yelled out her window that if she had a pistol she would have shot at us.
         We have taken to calling it la guaguita and it has a 3 cylinder, 660cc displacement motor so it is like a 4 wheel motorcycle and reportedly will get around 50MPG. It is a little more than 11 feet long and is 5 feet wide-- about the same proportions as a lunch box. There is also a pickup truck version which is built on the same frame and, between the two models they must nearly outnumber Toyota Corollas on the streets of Santo Domingo. The pickups are often equipped with loudspeakers and, loaded with platanos, eggs, bananas, potatoes, onions, avocados, oranges, rolls of toilet paper, mops and brooms, slowly cruise the residential neighborhoods loudly announcing what they are selling and for how much. The minibuses are often used to deliver baked goods to colmados since the bread must be kept dry and they are also used by small contractors who need to keep parts and tools secure.
         There are surprisingly few cars for sale privately in the classified section of newspapers-- many editions had no minibuses listed at all-- I assume this stems from a ‘drive’em till till they drop’ attitude-- so I searched the car plazas which are scattered all over the city which mostly sell used cars bought at auction and imported from Japan and the U.S. There is a customs regulation which prohibits the importation of any car older than 5 years old so there were many vehicles reputed to be year 2000 models to choose from and two or three plazas that specialized in the tiny Daihatsu. The plaza at the intersection of Carretera Mella and Avenida Charles DeGaulle (or La Charley, as it is usually called) was filled with vans and trucks in various stages of dis- and re-assembly. The floor was slick with motor oil and the air was filled with Bondo dust, fiberglass and resin hole and dent filler, and there were chunks of blue Bondo everywhere. The phrase chop shop came to mind. I left after I was told that the price was $170,000 pesos ($5,500) and no test driving was allowed.
         About two miles down Gomez from the blue water tank was another used Daihatsu mecca, Moto Plaza, and it was there that I bought the guaguita. They were much friendlier and I was able test drive at will, accompanied by their mechanic, Felix, at every stage of the multiple after-purhcase tune-ups, which included a radiator flush and carburetor adjustment. Before we paid the down payment Altagracia noticed a long tear in the headliner and Moto Plaza agreed to fix it. When we picked it up a new headliner was installed but the wires that run above the headliner to supply electricity to the two dome lights had been carelessly left unattached and too far back to reach to reconnect so the entire headliner had to be removed, the wires reattached, and the headliner replaced. I am on the road.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Street Crossing in Guaricano

Street Crossing in Guaricano
         Because Niningo needed cleats for baseball, and Chavela needed two more pairs of tighter fitting jeans and Altagracia needed a dark skirt for work we all went to Duarte yesterday afternoon. I had been grocery shopping in our local Hipermercado Olé that morning so I should have known better because, being the first day of the month, nearly everyone who has a job had gotten paid plus it is that much closer to Christmas-- which is huge here--and so lines in banks and at check-outs were more unbearably long and slow than usual. I think new employees must start work on the firsts of months because both the incoming package check person and the cash register person were new and, therefore, very slow. But, in any case, in the afternoon when Niningo and Chavela got home from school they took quick showers and snacked and the three of us walked up to the water tank and caught a guagua for Gascue to meet Altagracia as she got off from work. We got off the guagua at the Supermercado Nacional and, while Niningo and Chavela went to meet Altagracia at the pensión I walked quickly down to my friend Domingo’s apartment on Independencia which is next to where we would re-meet to for transport to Duarte. Domingo, who is the Head Speleologist for the government and also a journalist and photographer, happened to be home so I was able to give him, in person, the small set of cardboard archeologist’s scales for including in photographs so one could figure out the size of the thing photographed that I happened to have extras of and that I had promised him. Even after after visiting I still got to the bus stop about fifteen minutes before the rest.
         Duarte was teeming with people and construction crews were digging the street up to install new drop inlets to catch rainwater so there was mud and sand and cement dust and smoke everywhere and the street was trickier to cross than usual. But we crossed back and forth in-between eating Chinese food in a restaurant where a waitress brought menus to the table, and buying fingernail polish and rubber gloves in La Sirena and jeans in La Paloma and baseball cleats in the basement of Gran Via and when we were ready to leave it was already dark and the street venders were breaking down their kiosks and wheeling their juice stands and portable, makeshift gas grills and deep friers home for the night and there were horses pulling two wheeled carts and we heard a dog howling its death howl after being hit by a car down a side street.  We snaked our way through stained, curling plywood tables covered with apples and eggplants for sale and found a public taxi headed for the intersection of Ovando and Gomez and traffic was so thick that we got let off a block early on Ovando.
         Ovando, like Duarte, is lined on both sides with street venders selling everything from used clothing to wind up alarm clocks to underwear to coconuts and as we worked our way toward Gomez we bought apples and gumdrops for the rest of the trip. Hundreds of people lined Maximo Gomez looking for a guagua or a taxi but there were hardly any because of a partial work stoppage by the taxistas to protest the new regulation that forced half of all the public cabs to paint their roofs yellow and the other half to paint theirs green and to work only on alternate days of the week. Another reason was to protest the construction of the new overhead train that will draw customers away from the taxis and besides, has already reduced Gomez to one lane in places. The first plan to reduce the traffic on Gomez during commuting hours was to dig a subway line from Villa Mella to Gascue but because nobody understood where the money was going to be borrowed from to even meet the unrealistically low estimate for the cost of the project, it was scrapped after only a few of the planned subway stations had been marked out with spray paint on the ground. Only a few days after the newspapers reported that the Senate had approved plans for the overhead train, giant holes that encroached on the left-hand lanes going in each direction were dug both by back hoes and by hand in the center of Gomez and then, two weeks later, prefabricated round towers twenty feet tall of reinforcing rod were dropped in the holes and hoisted into place using cranes as well as by men pulling on ropes and now are precariously guyed in place with nylon rope while they await the concrete forms and then the concrete to be poured in around them. In the meantime, and no one knows how long that will be, traffic is worse and sometimes Altagracia has to wait a half hour for a guagua or a taxi to take her to work.
         The crowd waiting for busses became more restless and overflowed onto the street which cut off still another lane for traffic and so we walked slowly downstream hoping to find emptier busses. A man leaning out the door of a slowly passing garbage truck started calling out destinations as though it was a guagua and everybody laughed. We finally gave up waiting for a guagua to take us to the blue water tank and got on one heading for Guaricano which would let us off half way home and across the bridge and we figured it would be easier to change guaguas there. The guagua was so crowded there was hardly room for air. We were wedged in, standing, cheek to jowl to cheek and most of the windows had been replaced with plywood so we could not see out. The driver tired of waiting for traffic and so detoured and we lost track of the turns and we figured we must be winding our way through the MIrador del Norte park and we made a stop at a SuperMercado Nacional, and I was afraid it was the same one in Gascue and that we would have to start all over, but it was one I had never seen before. Nobody really knew where we were but at one intersection there was an extended discussion between the driver, the cobrador and maybe 10 of the 80 or so passengers about which way to go and the longest route was finally decided on. After an hour of riding this way the guagua finally came to a stop at the gas station in Guaricano where we would look for a guagua to take us home. All that remained was to cross the street.
         The frustrated traffic was unyielding and it was not until fifteen of us had collected to cross that we had the courage to lurch like a drunken flock of sheep tied together across the two southbound lanes to the relative safety of the narrow concrete median. Traffic was moving faster in the next two lanes and I thought our little herd chose a bad time to start the crossing but we did anyway but then we got split by two motorcycles speeding between lanes and then all the group except for me and Altagracia made it across with room to spare in front of an oncoming OMSA, which is a bus the size of a NYC bus and looked like a huge wall moving toward us. When I saw that the OMSA was stopping to let us cross I took Altagracia’s arm and started but she heard someone on the other side yell, “It’s not stopping!” and she stepped back but the cars in the lane behind us were moving fast again and there was no room to wait between the lanes so I pulled her across with me in front of the OMSA and we made it to the curb but she thought I had tried to kill her and said that she was never going to cross the street with me again and solicited opinions from the rest of the disorderly flock, which had not yet dispersed, and opinion was divided although no one except for Niningo and Chavela (who saw the bus stopping) had really been paying attention. In the meantime a guagua going our way stopped and Niningo and Chavela got on and I started to get on but Altagracia turned and strode away, still gesticulating and opining wildly, and so I got off and Niningo and Chavela went on without us. When Altagracia refused to get in the next taxi that stopped I went on without her and eventually caught up with Niningo and Chavela at the bus stop and, as we were walking home, Altagracia sped past us on the back of a motor concho, and it is the next day now but she hasn’t yet spoken with any of us. The kids tell me to not worry and that she gets like this from time to time.
         After coming home from work the following day she went straight to bed complaining of a splitting headache but she was seeming much more herself.