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.
Hospital Padre Billini in the 1940's

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.
An atrium within Padre Billini today
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

Characters on El Conde and a (voluntary) Blood Donation

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 ( 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

Automotive Letter to NPR's Car Talk

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.
Motor of the guaguita denuded of vacuum tubing.
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.

The post above was written in 2006. I still have (in 2012) the guaguita that Moto Paza gave me that Friday in a straight swap for the original one. Aside from the fact that the timing belt breaks and warps all the valves annually (repair about $150 usd see post entitled Culata it has been a fine vehicle.

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

The Last Fight

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

Commute, Mundo Artesanal, Another Funeral

 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 cemetery 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.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Short takes

While I was in Massachusetts for a few months Jeannete rented out the landing above my stairwell to a nephew who installed two barber chairs and opened a barber shop. He painted stripes and arrows on the walls of what had been my area and clumps of hair wafted through on downdrafts. After getting my own hair cut I walked two blocks down el Conde to Mundo Artesanal, where I have sold fotos on consignment for years, and eventually persuaded them to rent me the space just inside the doorway on the corner of El Conde and Duarte for much less than Jeannette had been charging.

Today I drove Altagracia to Las Mameyes where she had heard there was a cheap clothes wholesaler. En route she got a phone call from Kiki saying that he had not been able to make any money trafficking across the Haitian border because the border had been closed due to the cholera epidemic and that he was hungry. So we asked some directions to Western Union from 3 different people, got 3 different answers—some of the wrong directions were very specific but none of them lead to a Western Union. We eventually wound up at Mega Centro and sent him $27 but since he has lost his cedula again we sent it under a friend’s name. This all took an hour and about 10 cell phone calls most of which were only to find out how to spell the friend’s middle name Meran. We returned to Las Mameyes and start asking people where the big clothes wholesaler is and after a half dozen vague responses Altagracia decided to bag the idea and go to Villa Consuelo where she had bought cheap jewelry before. She walked into 6 Importers and, after looking at blouses and jeans and asking prices, asked where the stuff was made and when they told her China, walked out. Walking out of an importer in Villa Consuelo because they sell clothes made in China is like walking out of a gift shop on El Conde because it sells cheap souvenirs.
Kiki never called to say that he got the money and eventually we found out that it was because he was arrested just before he went into the Western Union in Elias Piña. Police had evidently planted some marijuana seeds in his house. On our way home I bought two sheets of plywood for a display case to use in my new retail space in Mundo Artesanal.

While I am cutting up plywood in the marquesina later that afternoon, Altagracia got a cell phone message that she won $25,000 pesos—about $800 US. I explained to her and the crowd of neighbors who quickly gathered that it was probably a scam. But Niningo took over, called the number, borrowed $25 pesos and proceeded to buy the required phone cards and remit them to the company that had promised the 25,000. At one point when I came back up out of the marquesina to cry SCAM I turn the corner to the kitchen and see Felo, with my $50 Macy’s chef’s knife inverted over a can of guandules and his fist poised to drive the tip of the knife into the can to open it. To this moment—5 hours later—no one can understand why I yelled at him. The knife is worthless anyway now after it has been used as a screwdriver and to prune the guanabana tree in the garden next to the house. But I couldn’t take it anymore. Niningo meantime borrows more money to buy more phone cards so that he can redeem the grand prize. So about this time Belita wanders into the house sniffing around for lunch and asks if anybody has heard about the phone card scam and Niningo freaks and starts calling the police because none of the phone cards that he has bought and entered in the last half hour have taken.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Culata, Mechanical nightmare

The Culata
Last week Niningo asked to borrow the guaguita so he could attend the graduation party of his girlfriend. He brought five friends with him and returned the guaguita in one piece.  I set off for the Zona Colonial the next morning and when I was in the middle of the long bridge over the Isabela River the motor made an ominous clicking noise and died. I managed to coast it over to the right hand curb and called Cojo the mechanic. He showed up in about ten minutes, parked behind me, turned my ignition key once, got out some wrenches and had the broken timing belt out in no time. Cars trucks and motorcycles skimming past his legs as he worked bent into the driver’s side door. He said to wait for him. He got in his Hijet, which is identical to my guaguita except that it is a flatbed pick-up and not a minibus and backed up against traffic a quarter mile before he got to the end of the bridge and could U turn to go back to Villa Mella and look for a new belt. A half hour later he returned, installed the belt, turned over the ignition and pronounced the culata, or cylinder head with all its incumbent valves, dead.
He nodded toward the back of my guaguita, where I positioned myself and pushed. He steered it across the four lanes waving his free hand to slow down traffic. He then U turned through the same traffic and after backing up in front of the guaguita fished out a snarled handfull of green, nylon clothesline and braided a four foot long tow rope, tied the two vehicles together and we started off. The nylon cord had enough stretch in it and, without the motor running, my brakes were soft enough so that we never broke the rope although there was some bungy motion when I did have to brake and after about 5 kilometers we turned into the alley where his mechanic’s shade tree is. I left Cojo to work on the motor and took the Metro to work—I had luckily left my whole display with all the photos in the stairwell the night before. That evening he finished the work and I picked up the vehicle after paying him $218 for everything.
The following morning was Sunday and Altagracia and I drove to the Zona together so she could work for Bettye while I sold in the Flea Market. The guaguita had about one half the power as normal, barely even climbing the overpass at the Ovando intersection in second gear. It rained hard in the afternoon but I sold ok. Altagracia got out of work a little early so I packed up, loaded the guaguita and we set off for La Sirena to buy some birthday party stuff for Chanel. We went the back way via Avenida Central and, just as we were coming up on the broken stoplight at the entrance to the Cancino barrio, the guaguita made a brief, light grinding noise and died. I got out and pushed it through a couple of potholes to get it over to the curb and called Cojo. I waited for him out under the stoplight in the rain under my blue umbrella while Altagracia wandered off to buy pica pollo or fried chicken. He eventually showed up, popped off the valve cover, pronounced the new cualta dead and got out his green clothesline again. This time as we lurched over the potholes into the five-way intersection under the broken stoplight not all of the traffic stopped and Cojo had to hit his brakes suddenly, I hit my brake pedal, it went ro the floor and I crashed into Cojo’s rear bumper, well it was more of a jagged piece of metal than a bumper, Cojo moved forward again, flagging cars to stop by waving his arm out the window and we made it across. This time we had about 12 kilometers to go. Up hills down hills I had to brake with the emergency brake and unbrake in time so the rope did not snap. Cojo's pick-up overheated and we had to stop so he could borrow a fuse out of my guaguita so his radiator fan would run. We made it through a tapon at the interesction to Sabana Larga and went through the tunnel under Hermanas Mirabel near La Sirena and down the freeway Jacobo Macluta turning left and wending through Guaricano barrio where Cojo lives. The only damage done by our fender bender, as far as I could tell, was a loosened headlight.
The next evening Cojo drove my guaguita with its second newly installed culata in two days to my house, picked me up, I gave him a ride back to Guaricano to his house and bid farewell. I pulled out of his alley in the dark, turned left and within a kilometer felt the guaguita slowing down. I could keep going but needed more and more gas and lower and lower gears. After about two kilometers I realized I would never make it home, U turned over a median strip to return to Cojo’s and made it only a 100 meteres or so before the brakes completely locked. I called Cojo but his cell phone was turned off or the battery had died and I grabbed my umbrella and hotfooted it back to his house leaving the guaguita parked in the dark and questionable neighborhood where it had balked.
I got there in about fifteen minutes but he had already left for points unknown. His mother lives next door and after inviting me to have a seat in the galeria she sent a kid to look for Cojo’s brother Eddy. After about a half hour Eddy showed up, listened to what had happened, gathered an armload of tools and drove me back to the guaguita in his pick-up with no headlights and a maximium speed of about two kilometers per hour faster than I can walk.
Using his cell phone for a flashlight he peered up under the dashboard at the brake pedal linkages and started working the pedal up and down. He fished a fingertip full of grease out from somewhere, smeared it on a joint somewhere up under, we pushed the guaguita back and forth, braking , unbraking until he pronounced it cured. I got his cell phone number before I pulled away, but I did not have to call him and I made it home.
The next afternoon the same thing happened but this time I noticed in time to get back home. Cojo eventually came and we discovered that in our fender bender under the dark stoplight a piece of metal had been pushed up against a part of the brake pedal linkage that caused it to gradually seize in the braked position. Cojo excised the offending piece of sheetmetal with a hammer and cold chisel. I think this chapter is done.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Day at Work on El Conde

Day at work in the Gallery.
Up between 5:30 and 6:30 depending on which day. Coffee and listen to WAMC on the computer at the kitchen table. Fill iced tea jar and a Tupperware if there are leftovers for lunch.
Drive south on Hermanas Mirabel—I finally have what I think is the best route. Straight through Ovando, over the new overpass, left on Pedro Livio Cedeño, straight to Avenida Duarte, turn right at the Texaco station go straight through the Duarte shopping district. Even at 7AM street venders are setting up their stalls with new and used clothes, baseball hats, belts, text books, fruit, cell phones; heating up cauldrons of oil to deep fry platanos, empanadas, spam, pigs ears and chicken feet to sell for breakfast. Vendors unpacking their merchandise from soggy cardboard boxes, cheap suitcases, unloading from the trunks of taxis or from horse drawn carts or tricycle carts and hand trucks.
After crossing Avenida Mexico and the two blocks of Chinatown what traffic there is drops off to almost nothing. The Colonial Zone sleeps late. I cross Avenida Mella and pass La Sirena, downhill past the Monastery of San Francisco, cross Mercedes a few blocks from where Alexa the archaeologist lives, cross El Conde, turn left on Arzobispo Noel, left on Hostos and park as near as I can to El Conde. If I am more than 4 spots from El Conde I reconnoiter during the day and often am able to get the first spot on the corner, which is important if it is Saturday when I haul everything home at night so I can sell in the Plaza in the pulguita on Sunday.
If I am early I stroll off to buy an empanada, if I am really early I nap in the guaguita.
My stairwell is closed to the street with a galvanized steel roll up door. Flor, the housekeeper or Londres or one of the nieces who live upstairs either opens the door for me or tosses me the keys from the balcony. If it is Thursday I carry my tables, cases of matted and framed photographs and tee shirts in about 5 round trips. If it is Friday or Saturday my stuff is stashed under the stairs. It takes me about an hour to set up. I bring my GE Superradio and listen to Radio Francia 93.1 FM; the news alternates between French and Castilian Spanish and the music is a mix of Euro pop, American Jazz and eclectic rock but the general mood is NPR.
I am usually the first shop owner to arrive on my block. Suqui, directly across from me also opens early as does the pleasant woman who manages Coco Zen three doors up. Domi-Habana opens next and then my immediate neighbor to the left La Morena. Suqui is a diminutive Dominicana of apparent Asian extraction and has had her gift shop for more than 25 years. She pays just $400/month and is petrified the rent will go up. She and her husband Carlos have two daughters one in Long Island and one in Paris. Suqui spends her days watching television in her shop and leafing through a French phrase book in hopefull preparation for a visit to the Paris daughter. To my right is another stairwell where Vilma sells beach clothes, mass-produced Haitian paintings, baseball hats and canvas shopping bags. Vilma lives in an apartment upstairs and mentioned once that she does not pay anything for the use of the stairwell—in fact I heard once that her building has no owner and that no one in any of the 10 apartments pays any rent to anybody. Most of the ground floor was a gift shop at one time but is now sealed up by steel doors.
Across the street from me-- and by the way, El Conde is pedestrian only, no cars allowed, street lights and benches line the center-- next to Suqui is Jeanette’s Salon. I pay Jeanette $20/day for my stairwell; Jeanette rents the building I am in. Upstairs are a series of rooms where 10 or so of Jeanette’s nieces and nephews, all brought in from Haiti, live. Most of them work in one of her two salons. The two leaders of this pack of kids are Alexandra 21 and Myrtha 25 who work in the salon across from me. They are helped by Marybell 10, when she is not in school. Gina, 17, Polita and Chantel work with Jeanette herself in her other salon near the other end of El Conde. Londres is the alpha male who once in a while washes a window or fixes something in the salon but mostly hangs out. He goes to the gym every day and plays basketball every evening in the parking lot on Luperon. Judging by his acne and rope like veins in his arms he is injecting vitamins (i.e. steroids). But he is pleasant. On days when there are many customers Myrtha and Alexandra work hard all day from 8AM to 8PM with only a short break for lunch.
Myrtha and Alexandra are either cousins or half sisters; they have each told me different stories and it could be they don’t know for sure. They are both short and very cute with large round faces and gigantic eyes. When the salon window is dark and Myrtha, who has darker skin, looks out, sometimes all you can see are the white crescents of her eyes. When I asked them how much money they made working in the salon they said nothing but that whenever they wanted to buy something there was money. When it is quiet in the evening Myrtha sometimes brings out her laptop and connects to Facebook where she is Myrtha Zamy but she recently told me her legal last name is Kelly. What could she say, she said, her mother had lived in La Romana. Alexandra likes working in the salon because, as she put it, she gets to be the little boss.
I initially inquired about renting the stairwell because I had noticed it only sadly displaying clothes for sale with never any interest. I was directed to the distant salon where I met Jeanette. She is 55, not large but imposing, high cheekboned, large eyed, dark skinned and wears flowing white tessellated dresses. She greeted me in Spanish with a thick Haitian accent and after asking where I was originally from she announced that she was not Dominican but Swiss. It eventually came out that she was once married to a Swiss and lived in Zurich for a while. I had had in my mind a daily rate of $20-25 so when she asked for $20 I agreed without bartering. During my first two weeks in the stairwell I sold very poorly and at one point I asked if she would consider lowering the rent until I got going. I had the money I owed for that week in my hand and as it dawned on her that I was asking to pay less, she kept glancing at Gina, who was sitting in a salon chair not really paying attention, and asking her to translate, and as what I was asking finally registered, as she finally allowed it to register, her eyes got even bigger and she seemed to suddenly grow taller and I handed her the money and thanked her and fled. Since then we greet each other warmly and I don’t ask for any discounts. Yesterday she came into the stairwell and sat down and we chatted. I was able to explain that I needed to go to Massachusetts for a couple of months and she assured me that the stairwell would still be mine when I returned, especially if I paid in advance but even if I didn’t. Her eyes stayed the same size the whole time, to my relief.
Much of the day is spent hanging out. I read the New Yorker and listen to the radio. Sometimes I have computer work and I bring my laptop. For example—a couple of weeks ago Alexa was able to borrow a complete set of USGS maps of the entire Dominican Republic for two days only. The first night I photographed all 150 maps at home. I had to set up a stepladder in the living room and lash a tripod horizontally to the top rung with strips of bicycle inner tubing so I could get the camera far enough away to take each map. The next day on the computer I was able to process/crop/tweak each map so I was sure we had usable files. To buy the full issue would have cost about $2000.
When it is busy I have long conversations with customers, some of whom keep in touch later through email. I get inside local gossip from Vilma and was getting it from Santos who worked in the big gift shop La Morena to my left before he was transferred. La Morena is a family operation run by the matriarch known as La Morena and her husband Eusebio. Their son Francis and Eusebio’s brother Santos work for them along with an unrelated rotund employee named Maylenny. They also use the services of guides known as Buscones who are the annoying guys on the street who tug on tourists sleeves saying things like come to my gift shop, everything 40% discount, no cost to look, cheapy cheapy, and then lead them toward holes in the pavement so they can say, Look out!, Watch you step! When a tourist who has been successfully dragged into La Morena by a buscon buys something, the buscon gets a cut as does the person who makes the sale and a cut goes to store. How they divide it up at the end of day I do not know. Sometimes there are fights. Francis almost never sells anything since he drinks all day. Motorcycles from various local colmados deliver jumbo Presidente (1L.) after jumbo Presidente, curbside estimates reckon he spends about 500 pesos a day on beer. Sometimes when I am in La Despensa, the small supermarket one block away I see him in line buying a12oz. single beer. Santos sells the most souvenirs for La Morena. He is 54, short and wiry with a shaved head and horn rimmed glasses and wears heavy-metal tee shirts that hang down past his jeans pockets, baggy jeans and oversized sneakers, but when he peers up at you over the frames of his glasses and lowers his voice to a confidential near-whisper he is very convincing.
There is a local cast of minor characters, beggars, prostitutes and homeless who come and go. Jasmin is a crack addict who also hangs around the plaza on Sundays. She is scrawny, toothless 4 feet 10 inches tall and probably no older than 25. She wears rags, sleeps in the middle of sidewalks until the tourist cops shag her off and collects empty beer bottles for a peso each and begs. She spends time in Najayo women’s prison every year and, reportedly when she sleeps on the rocks on the seaside of the Malecón the bums there fuck her for $1. I had not seen her during the past month and when I asked Vilma if she knew if anything had happened she told me that some tigueres had beaten Jasmin nearly to death, that she had spent a month in the hospital Dario Contreras, that her mother had even come to help and that she had lost an eye due to the beating.
An old woman with a bundle of rags comes every afternoon and sits on a stoop in front of the sealed up gift shop and waits for people to give her money. She is graceful about it and never begs but readily accepts. La Morena fills her water bottle for her when she is thirsty. One day a geezerly part-time peddler reeking of rum set his two or three broken souvenirs on her stoop in an unlikely attempt to sell them and when the old woman arrived she demanded her spot. When the peddler refused and the argument escalated Santos launched out of La Morena brandishing a large machete and ran past my stairwell toward the arguement—when he sped past my doorwar he glanced in at me with a wink and a smile—the peddler, who looked to be an arthritic 60 took off like a gazelle and turned the corner at Meriño without breaking stride and without looking back. Santos collapsed in laughter but passerbys gaped in horror. Eventually Asoconde, which is the equivalent of a chamber of commerce for El Conde, heard some version of this story and now Santos has been deported to another gift shop owned by his sister-in-law in the Mercado Modelo up on Avenida Mella. Along with Vilma he had been the most fun to hang out with.
Aside from the buscones there are a host of other guides who all expect a cut from somebody for any sale made on El Conde. Many gift shops have agreements with individual guides and one can see small flocks of tourists being bum-rushed past store after store until arriving at their guide’s chosen locale. Because I have unique merchandise I have no agreement with any guide—most of the gift shops here have nearly identical inventories displayed slightly differently i.e. one store puts the Indian made saris in front, another places the Panama hats more prominently and another their Haitian paintings—I sometimes have trouble with them. One day two French women stopped at my gallery, looked at some photos, asked about pricing and moved on. About an hour later they reappeared and started selecting photos and negotiating a discounted price when suddenly a guide’s head insinuated itself between the women and looked at me smiling and told me to start bagging. The women bought about $60 US worth of stuff and the three left. An hour or so later the guide reappeared looking for his due. When I looked surprised that he was asking he said, “aw just enough for a soda?” but when I offered him 30 pesos (about 75¢ almost enough for a soda) he took umbrage. We were in the street and he started yelling about how he was not like the others that he was a good and honest guide and I yelled back that he had not brought anybody to my shop, that I had met the women on their own before and that I was not going to pay anything and he could feel free to get lost. He yelled the whole way down the street and to this day (2 months later) gives me a dirty look every time he passes.
As I type this in my stairwell at 11:15 AM a hard rain has completely cleared the streets of all foot traffic. A few guides huddle, here and there, under awnings and overhangs but not under mine.
At lunchtime, if I have not brought leftovers or stuff to make sardine sandwiches (with a 45¢ avocado purchased from a fruit vendor around the corner), I put a be right back sign on the front of my display and walk fast to one of two or three comedors that are within two blocks. Lunch price ranges from 70 pesos ($2) for rice, beans and a veggie, to 100 pesos for rice, beans, potato salad and a stewed meat choice of beef, pork or chicken to 140 pesos from a different comedor for the same thing presumably tastier or from a cleaner kitchen. I bring the meal back in a Styrofoam compartment plate complete with plastic spoon and eat it when it cools off.
So, I sit in the stairwell and read or write for most of the day and when the shade reaches the bench out front I sit on it with Vilma and the girls from the salon and we shoot the shit. Sometimes Ruddy stops by after closing his concession in Mundo Artesanal and we drink beer. Ruddy is a 55 year-old (same as me, in fact Jeanette is 55 also, Santos is 54) athletic German ex-pat who had a silk-screening business in the Zona Colonial for a couple of years. He eventually got tired of the low quality of the Chinese tee shirts available so he studied and thought and bought some used sewing machines and now he designs and makes the shirts that bear his designs and he makes mine too and we have become friends. He is getting married next Saturday and I will go to his wedding.
Around 7:30 or 8 I pack up the photos and either store them under the stairs or haul them to the guaguita if it is Saturday since I still sell in the Plaza Maria de Toledo on Sundays and drive home. At 8 there rarely are traffic jams although one night, and Altagracia happened to be with me, there was a bad one before crossing the bridge after Ovando. It was so bad and so unexpected that I bet Altagracia that it could only be one of two things—an accident or a dead horse in the road. As we finally reached the other side of the bridge and passed the Metro subway station we saw the horse, dead and splayed out across a lane and a half.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gilbert Murdered

Gilbert Murdered
Chavela now has spent the past 5 years working at the banca selling lottery tickets. The banca is a kiosk sized building just on the other side of the colmado next to our house. She opens lazily around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and then hangs out on the front step with Chany and chats with neighbors or plays dominos. Across the street in front of the banca is Gilbert’s colmado. It is a grungy little colmado in a perpetual state of failure. Gilbert is, or was, a kind of goofy harmless tiguere who, when smoking drugs, would stay up all night cranking the jukebox in the colmado. He had long arms, short legs, a drooping lower lip and had two sons one 6 and one 11 years old. Altagracia and I were out of town when she got the call that Gilbert had been killed.
The banca was open and Chavela, Chany, Gilbert and 4 or 5 others were hanging out on the front step. The phone rang inside Gilbert’s colmado; one of the kids answered it and yelled out that it was for Gilbert. Gilbert got up, went into his colmado and when he did two men no one had paid much attention to who had been loitering nearby followed him in and pumped four 9mm bullets into his chest. They ran out, sprinted up an alley and disappeared. Gilbert slumped against the counter and died almost instantly. Both his sons were there. Chany heard the shots but has since been told that Gilbert went to Nueva York.
The prevalent theory is that the two assassins were hired to kill Gilbert by the father of Omar. Omar was murdered a month ago and his father had heard a rumor that Gilbert knew who the killers were but would not tell the police. The phone call that was placed to the colmado was so that the killers could identify Gilbert by seeing who got up to go the phone. The rumor that Omar’s father heard was wrong. We are now waiting for one of Omar’s brothers to be killed in retaliation by one of Gilbert’s brothers.

Kiki mostly stays in Elias Piña but pops up from time to time. When he is in the area he stays with Chavela who has moved into an apartment down a narrow side street behind the banca (she and Calderon are back together). A couple of weeks ago before leaving to work in the Zona Colonial on Sunday, Altagracia and I swung down her side street so we could deliver Chanel’s clean laundry. I knocked on the door and after a few minutes it opened a crack and Kiki’s face appeared. We were equally surprised. He said, “Good morning“, I said, “Good morning“, I handed him the bundle of laundry and turned and left.

Joanglish continues as before. He is now working as a Municipal Policeman two days a week. Altagracia sends a plate of rice and beans daily to his apartment a block or so away. He is still not allowed in the house.

Niningo is still working 7 days/week at the casino. Altagracia has taken his banking passbook and deposits the money he gives her on paydays.

I have rented a street level stairwell on El Conde three days a week and set up a little gallery of the cave photos. In general it has gone very well although as the elections approach tourists have been warned to stay away. Yesterday I sold $0. Campaign activities paralyze the city daily creating huge traffic jams. The activities involve setting up bandstands with loudspeakers the size of tractor trailers to play reggaeton at volumes at which you cannot hear a car horn honk, itinerant clowns on 5-foot stilts and free rum. I have heard of individuals being paid as much as 1000 pesos ($27 at today’s exchange rate) for their vote. When the election results start coming out the celebration can include pistol shots either into the air in happiness or horizontally in revenge.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Short misc posts. Cave exploration, solenodon.

Kiki is out of jail. He was found innocent of killing Carlos and the six months were enough for the other charges. He is staying in Elias Piña.

Chavela’s baby, Chanel, is almost 2½ and is a happy baby although Chavela is a careless mother. Chavela has left Calderon, again, and is living in the pink wood house across the street where La Rubia, who butchered chickens in the front yard, used to live. Chanel has been sent to the colmado across the street barefoot, with 10 pesos to buy a pat of butter by herself.  She is tiny but spunky and chatty. She loves to drink coffee with Altagracia after lunch on the galería. Sugar and Nesquick in her milk, daily icecream and frequent candies have resulted in her having all her front teeth pulled. Nickname is Vampira.

We had lunch at Peperoni with George and Mitzi Stein on Wednesday. The dinner at Vesuvio last year was more fun since it was her first fancy restaurant and had never seen so many glasses and silverware on one table. She picked at her salmon and did not like the risotto. She loved her margarita but not the chardonnay. No time for desert, George and Mitzi had to catch a plane for Chile.

Things in the house have been mostly ok although there was a explosion last week that sent me looking for an apartment downtown. I actually looked at one on the edge of the Zona Colonial—decent location behind the Shell station on Independencia but on the third floor, through the landlady’s living room and out onto a rooftop hallway to a room in which the bed fit but nothing more. The private bathroom measured about 3 square feet and the toilet was directly underneath the showerhead. $5000 pesos or $140 a month. I declined.

            A few weeks ago Altagracia and I stopped at EPS, the mail service I use, so I could pick up a package and the New Yorker. She waited outside while I went in. While she was standing on the sidewalk a bunch of motorcycle cops drove by followed by a series of limousines in one of which was Leonel Fernandez, the president of the country. She waved and he waved back.

I now rent a street level stairwell on El Conde Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays where I sell the cave photos. I rent it from Jeanette who has two hair salons on el Conde. About 10 nieces and nephews live upstairs all of whom, except the very littlest, work in the salons. Sundays I still sell in the Plaza Maria de Toledo in the antiques flea market.

In February and March Alain Gilbert was here and we searched for and mapped caves Mons, Tues, and Wednesdays. We worked in Cumayasa, Hato Mayor and el Seibo mostly.
One of our searches concerned the alleged Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) reported in Pedernales, a desert region in the south near the Haitian border.  Alain and I rode with Domingo Abreu, who is the government official in charge of all the caves in the country. The two of them know more caves than anybody in the Dominican Republic—Alain has measured and mapped 400 caves and Domingo has been exploring them for 40 years. The cave we were looking for had been reported in about 1990 by Morban Laucer, then director of the Museo del Hombre, now deceased, in his book Arte Rupestre in the Sierra Bahoruco. There is a photograph of Laucer in the book standing next to a guide named Donovan, or Nóvan, Pérez a montero who lives by hunting feral goats and cattle in the mountains around Pedernales. There were also black and white photographs of handprints on the cave walls We eventually found Nován’s house in Enriquillo by asking random people on the street. His wife was home but Novan was out hunting. She said she had just spoken with him by cell phone, that he had just shot a goat, but when we tried calling there was no signal meaning he had moved into a valley. Armed with his cell phone number we continued driving on towards the town of Pedernales trying to call him every hour or so.
On our way we stopped at two caves near the highway that Alain and Domingo knew and photographed the rock art in them. We ate lunch in Pedernales (waitress named Misou) and continued to ask people if they knew someone who might know where the Cueva de Las Manos was. We eventually located a lawyer who had reconnoitered many of the caves of the area—he showed us a human skull he found in one—who said that Nicolas Corona might know. We called Nicolas but he was working in Bayahibe on the other side of the country. We drove around a barrio of Pedernales and found a brother of Nicolas but he did not know where the Cueva de las Manos was. We slept at a $10 hotel in town.
The next morning on our way back toward Enriquillo we toured a limestone quarry as part of Domingo’s job with the Dept of the Environment and then stopped back at Novan’s house. There were twenty or so people outside the house sitting on plastic chairs under an improvised blue poly tarp awning. Novan’s mother-in-law had died that night. He was hiking out of the mountains to attend the wake.  We offered our condolences to his wife and started the 4-hour drive back to the capital.
Eventually Domingo called Nóvan and made a date and the next week we drove back to Enriquillo. We arrived at night, Novan found us an $8 hotel and the next morning we picked him and drove as far as we could to the cave. We parked off the road in a gravelbed. Following Novan through the cactus and spurge desert we arrived at an enormous sinkhole in red limestone after about a 20-minute hike. If you trip it is better to fall than to grab a branch to steady yourself—the spines can take weeks to get out of your skin and become infected easily. Our friend Eric Labarre who I hiked with through mountains for 11 hours to reach the Cueva de la Cidra a few years ago refuses to explore Pedernales anymore because of the cactus and rough walking. Four years ago he and Alain spent three days traipsing through this same desert looking for this same cave unsuccessfully. The jagged rocks tear up shoes, there is permanent drought and the sun is ferocious.
The sinkhole contained many petroglyphs and a few paintings, and was very interesting, but did not turn out to be the Cueva de las Manos but to be a cave called Póciman Jé. I photographed everything including an iguana turd the size of a German Shepherd’s. Novan admitted that he could not remember where the Cueva de Las manos might be.
We went on into Pedernales, lunched in Misou’s restaurant and I remembered that I still had Nicolas’s phone number. We called him. He was in town but about to leave but could meet us for a few minutes. We met him at a nearby gas station and he drew us quick directions on how to find the cave, two caves in fact.
We found the first cave; in fact, we drove right up to it at the end of a 4wd only track. The entrance was about 15meters up a sheer cliff face. We could see red paintings on the cave ceiling from the ground. To get to it we had to climb up around the back of the promontory and then descend down to a skinny ledge, step over a gap in the ledge in which was a colony of honeybees. (Novan stuck a smoldering branch in the hole to keep the bees calm) and belly crawl into the small cave.  The ceiling and walls were covered with mostly geometric designs in red pigment. Since it was already middle afternoon I only had time to photograph rapidly and we climbed back down to go to the Cueva de las Manos. Following the map Nicolas had given us we searched up one dry ravine called the Cañada de los Huesos or Bones Creek and then down the other until dark. There were clouds of small mosquitoes—but slow and slappable unlike the lightning quick mosquitoes in Villa Mella—there were interesting natural red patterns in some of the cliff walls that I think might have inspired the indigenous artists’s abstract designs—but we found no Cueva de las Manos.
Now, weeks later, Alain has gone back to France to his job as architect of historic buildings for the Dept of Culture, and Domingo is still trying to track down Nicolas for a better map, and Novan, who has forgotten where the cave is, is trying to relocate it when he is not hunting wild goats.

Last week I came across a web page that reported that some kids had captured a live solenodon in Hato Mayor. There was a link to another page called Save the Survivors Solenodon and Hutia, which was run by Joe Nuñez. Nuñez had recorded the first ever video of a wild solenodon in Pedernales—as cute as a venomous insectivore that looks like a small opossum can be. There was a photograph of Nuñez wearing a heavy leather falconry glove with a solenodon perched on his hand. I joined his Facebook page.
Two days later I am sitting on the bench in front of my tiny gallery on El Conde when two men stopped in their tracks in front of the gallery. I had put my photograph of a cave painting of a solenodon in the front of the display that day and one of the men was Joe Nuñez. He bought the picture. He had actually been up the Cañada de los Huesos and had visited the same cave full of red paintings that we had, but knew nothing of the Cueva de Manos.