Wednesday, December 21, 2016

La Frontera and Whiplash

It is raining and dark outside Colmado Chiquito in Ciudad Nueva but I am under cover and my bicycle is too, leaning against the lottery kiosk. I have a neck brace on and am nursing a beer while waiting for the downpour to let up. There is a 2 pound plastic grocery bag of yucca weighed out on the counter for me. This colmado always has good yucca. I know because I used to live just two blocks from here when I was with Perla.

To carve the bark off the yucca tubers I have to kneel at the kitchen counter and work at eye level to keep my neck from cramping up. The yucca boils tender in about 30 minutes and I eat half of it along with some black bean and pork-bone stew that I had saved in the fridge.

Last year I became addicted to bicycling and, by chance, joined the Logia Ciclista Internacional de Santo Domingo, a bicycle club of artists, renegades, neer-do-wells, communists and ex-pats that tours the barrios and colmados and bicycle workshops of the city sometimes with picaresque results. There are about 25 members of the Logia all told, but active members number around 7 and we are all famous and it is Sunday mornings when we are most active. We have a private Facebook page but I cannot imagine that Carlos Mario, El Jefe, would refuse access to any curious pilgrim. We typically meet around 9:30 in the morning at Hugo's Colmado on the corner of Meriño and Portes in the Zona Colonial and you are welcome. We bicycle about 3 miles between colmado stops and, while much of the conversation is about bicycles, food and women; it ranges as far as Blake, Bukowsky and Buddy Holly. Donald Trump is never mentioned. I will tell you how I came to have this neck brace on.

Last December just around this time Kike (not Kiki from Villa Mella), Chiñou the Gallego, and I made the hungover decision to bike to Bayahibe, a small fishing resort town in the eastern portion of the island. In the morning we rode from our neighborhood up to Duarte and its dusty crazy complex of bus and guagua stops  and stowed our bikes in the hold of a giant bus that would take us as far as La Romana. From there we struck off on our bikes through the city to the highway through  swarms of Honda 90 motorcycles, fruit carts, coconut venders, wheel chairs and goats. We turned off on the old abandoned highway and found ourselves pedalling alone for the next 50 kilometers. The few people we saw on this biway asked us if we were afraid of robbers. We had one flat tire.

In Bayahibe we rented a cheap room with two beds, locked the bikes up in it and strolled off through the town. Two girls followed us through some of our wanderings and we shared street sandwiches and a glass of beer with them. I remembered the way one of the girls held her head while she listened and the curve of her posture which was somehow both lazy and athletic at the same time. She held her sandwich with two fingers.

Back at the room we decided that since I was the oldest I would get the single bed and Kike and Chiñou would share the double. Sometime during the night Chiñou, apparently acting on some drunken hallucinogenic dream groped Kike who responded with a sharp elbow in Chiñou's ribs.

In the morning I was ready to continue our bike tour on to Boca de Yuma right off but was voted down and so we went to the beach and drank beer. After the beach the town again but now it was Saturday night and the rum flowed more freely. Chiñou, the youngest of the three, struck off for decadent discoteques with our two followers of the night before while Kike and I cruised free rum sampling booths on the sidewalks and danced with the dancing girls in local colmados.

We tweaked the sleeping arrangements for this second night in Bayahibe by renting a second room for Chiñou, who had aspirations for liasons, with Kike and I now to share a bed in a separate room for economy's sake. At 3 in the morning Kike, being gunshy from his experience with Chiñou the night before rolled up all the towels from our bathroom to use as a berm between us. Lights off. We hit the hay, berm in place. One hour later lights on and Chiñou is at the door with the girl with the curvy posture saying she refused to be in the same room with him and could she sleep with us since she had nowhere else to go. We said yes. She slipped in between us and thus her nickname La Frontera; the Border. We passed the night as tired innocents. Nothing happened as the kids say.

I awoke first and went for coffee and rolls. Sustenance. Hangover. Walked La Frontera to a house a km away where some kind of aunt or cousin lived , gave her bus fare to get home, and we talked on the way. Her name is Xiomara. Single mother. 1 year old daughter. We exchanged contact info. I said I liked her forma de ser and she said she liked mine.

Chiñou, destroyed from drug and drink from the night before, stayed in Bayahibe. Kike and I mounted our bikes and pedalled bravely, massively hungover and sleep deprived, out of town. We stopped at a gomero and begged a dreg of contact cement enveloped in a scrap of plastic grocery bag in case we had a flat tire and then  bicycled on to Boca de Yuma on a secondary road through miles of sugar cane fields and little else. We stopped for water at a colmado run by a 102 year old woman. In the first town we sat on the curb and shared a beer.

Boca de Yuma, a seaside town popular during the Easter season, was nearly abandoned, it being out of season. We found a clean room with two beds and two fans and slept for 12 hours. In the morning we pedalled languidly around the still sleeping town waiting for a colmado to open to buy a cup of coffee, an empanada and some blood pressure medicine. Once fueled we headed north toward Higuey and an ATM. Narrow harrowing highway with broken borders and pot holes, tractor trailers screaming close by our elbows made the trek harrowing. Motorcycles swarmed through intersections in every direction in Higuey. We got cash and got out.

Outside of Higuey we saw a small colmado with a sign-- Museo de Ron and stopped. Kike was aghast, “there´re brands of rum here I never heard of”. We bought some chatas for the Logia and kept biking till we got home.
Museo de Ron. Kike.

I contacted La Frontera and we exchanged messages for a few weeks. She was living in Guyacanes, so when my friend Mike had a music gig near there I caught a ride from the Capital where I live. When we entered Guayacanes that night there were firetrucks and ambulances blocking the eastbound lanes tending a motorcycle wreck. I called La Frontera from Mike's gig and it turned out that she knew the folks in the accident and one had died. They had been at her house just before to see the baby. She had no baby sitter but I could come visit anyway. Mike finished playing at midnight and dropped me off. Xiomara and I spent the night together sad and confused and happy. It was December 20, 2015.

The Holidays
Xiomara mentioned during the week that she had nowhere to spend Christmas. I had been invited to visit friends in Las Terrenas so I brought Xiomara and her baby, Luz. This was, effectively, our second date. We stayed in the little guest house where the workers stay when Mike has employees working on his compost business. The baby babbled happily in the bed with us for hours while we stared at our cell phones waiting for her to go to sleep so we could make love.

On New Year's Eve Xiomara came to Santo Domingo from Guyacanes to her brother's house on the upper part of Ave. Venezuela. We drank beer and the cheap red muscatel La Fuerza and bought roast pork sandwiches on the corner. Along with some cousins we walked Venezuela, famous for its discos, picked one and went in. When I figured out that I would be the only one who could chip in for the second bottle of rum Xio and I left and found a cab and went to my apartment. Our first night together without the baby in the bed.

It was when she referred to her brother Tito, who is 23, as “older”, that I learned she was not quite 21. The other thing I learned was that, although she was born in the Dominican Republic in Jimaní, near the Haitian border, she had no birth certificate and thus no cedula, or government ID so she could not work or finish high school. I met her mother, Carmen, a thin, mousey, drawn woman that night at Tito's and also learned that Carmen did not keep Xio but that she was raised by her Father's sister, Aquilina, in Tierra Nueva, a hamlet more rural than even Jimaní and located closer still to the Haitian border nestled between the two great salt lakes of Hispaniola, one in each country. A year later I would bicycle to Tierra Nueva to meet her adoptive family and celebrate the issuance of Xio´s cedula, after a long expensive hassle with a shyster lawyer.

Tierra Nueva
Mike and I took the bikes off the front seat of the guagua in San Juan de la Maguana, remounted the front wheels and saddle bags and pedalled south toward Neyba 80 km away. Gently uphill for the first
Downhill to Neyba. Mike.
hour but downhill or level most of the rest of the way. Wide highway in good condition almost no traffic and few houses. Occasional livestock in the road and men riding small horses using woven straw saddles. We arrive in Neyba in darkness.

Next morning breakfast of coffee, boiled green bananas, dominican salami and deep fried eggs and we pedal away. The region is arid with cactus and rocky outcrops of rusty limestone but there are spring fed concrete lined ponds, or balnearios, along the route and we cooled off three times (to take a dip here is to echar un chapuzón) as we headed west to Tierra Nueva with the great salt lake, Lago Enriquillo and its caiman, giant iguanas and flamingos always to our left.
Balneario Las Marias, Neyba

We ate lunch in La Descubierta at a small comedor in a cool humid grove near a rill and another freshwater balneario. We took a short detour to see Nueva Boca de Cachón which is the town that was hurriedly constructed to house the people who were flooded out of old Boca de Cachón when the water level of Lago Enriquillo mysteriously and suddenly rose 20 feet a few years ago. Nueva Boca is built in a perfect grid and every house and building is in the same style and there was almost no one on the street. With its bright clear desert light it could be the setting for an old Twilight Zone episode

A green highway sign points to the turn for Tierra Nueva and the road surface changes from smooth asphalt to rough pebbles in tar. To our right sere pastureland leads to a mountain range a kilometer away and to our left is scrubby brush. No cars pass and there are no houses. Goats everywhere. A lone motorcycle approaches in the distance and it is Xio and her sister coming to cheer us on. They are laughing and waving and escort us the 7 km to the town. Xio's long microbraided hair extensions blow behind her on the back of the motorcycle.

The family compound consists of three small, cement block/tin roofed buildings connected in the shape of a U. The floor is concrete in places and dirt in places. Chickens and pigs wander in and out of the little courtyard. We met Xiomara's adoptive mother, Aquilina and a smattering of sisters and cousins. When her father, Tilson, showed up, Mike and I both stood up to meet him and Tilson looked at each of us and asked, “which one of you is Xiomara's husband?” I answered, “guilty, Sir.” and we shook hands.

The next day was Thanksgiving Day. I watched and we talked while Tilson slaughtered and butchered a goat. The intestines, feet and hide were all he threw out. A small boy toyed with the amputated goat's testes, squeezing them in and out of the scrotum. Luz, a little more than 2 years old now, toddled up from the house and cried when she saw what he was doing. We put the meat in a plastic grocery bag and brought it down to Xiomara and she made goat stew.
Note goat hanging to right of bicycle.

After lunch Tilson said to me, “Vamos andar”, or let's go for a ride. We took off on his motorcycle toward Jimaní but turned off on a discrete, rutted dirt track and bounced along over rocks and tree roots until we reached Poplume, Haiti a cluster of mud plastered huts on the edge of Étan Saumatre, the great salt lake of Haiti. No customs no border check. As we pulled into town people greeted Tilson with respect. Tilson is a carbonero, or charcoal maker and employs the people of the village to cut wood for charcoal and to carry the 100 pound sacks of charcoal off the mountain where it is
Poplume, Haiti
made. We sat on plastic chairs and drank Prestige beer while Tilson talked business with clusters of thin men asking about the next day's work. When he was handed an unopened bottle he pried the cap off with his teeth. No twist off bottle caps here. (Xiomara, by the way, has the same gift which is apparently learned and not inherited since he is her adoptive father.) After several hours we got back on the motorcycle and bounced back toward the highway. At a small bend in the trail, still deep in the brush, we were stopped by two Dominican soldiers with machine guns. They greeted Tilson by name, we all shook hands, Tilson gave them 200 pesos (5 dollars) and we moved on.


As we speeded back toward Tierra Nueva on the highway Tilson shouted back to me, “¿A la casa?” and I shouted back into the wind, “¡Sí!” But when he asked a second time I said wherever he wanted to go was okay. We motored into Tierra Nueva and, stopping once to buy beer, drove right through town and on toward can't remember the name of the town another Haitian village near the northern end of the lake. We dumped the bike once on a slippery bend in the rocky ledgy four-wheel drive track. It was dark and moonless when we got to the village and I could only see occasional flickers of candles through open doors of huts. No music played. We used our cell phones to light the way as
Sacks of charcoal
someone led us to a hut with a couple of chairs and a half dozen people hunkered on the floor and on empty beer crates. Someone handed me a Prestige and a girl maybe 16 years old held my arm for a while. Folks chuckled when I spoke the little French I know. Tilson disappeared but returned after a few minutes. We walked out to the beach where he showed me pallets of sacks of charcoal that were to be put on wooden boats and rowed across the lake tomorrow and eventually transported to Port a Prince to be sold.


Somehow we made it back intact to Tierra Nueva on the motorcycle although we had to get off and push it the last kilometer into town due to lack of balance. Aquilina and Xiomara came out and helped us park it, fed us leftover goat in the kitchen and put us to bed.



There were just three of us for Logia Ciclista that Sunday so we chose a different route through unfamiliar territory. After a quick jaunt into Chinatown for dumplings, which are only available on Sunday by the way and are excellent, we pedalled east over the Puente Flotante over the Ozama River and up past the enormous Faro de Colón and turned left up Venezuela and turned right onto Club de Leones, toward Santana Bicycle Shop. Which was closed it being Sunday. We stopped at several colmados on our slow return home and at the third, Colmado Repecho in the nadir of a short steep valley in the outer reaches of Ensanche Ozama, I needed to use the bathroom. The first visit to any bathroom in any colmado in the Dominican Republic can be an adventure. You often have to pass behind the counter and wend your way through precarious towers of stacked boxes of toilet paper, crackers, returnable soda bottles, broom handles and mop buckets. Sometimes you go through small dormitories where the employees sleep and it is often dark and the walls might be so grimy that you don't pass your hand over them to feel your way along. However, this bathroom was out back. I made the first turn and all was dark. I paused a moment to let my eyes adjust and could barely discern the dim form of a toilet in the back of the room-- my goal! I stepped over the cement block threshold into the darkness, feeling for a light switch with my left hand but my foot landed on a greasy slick floor that sloped sharply downhill and went out from under me. I lurched forward, sliding and somehow hit my head both front and back on my way down-- once on a pile of cement bricks and the second time on a pile of scrapped porcelain toilet tanks in the corner. Shit and urine. I used my handkerchief to clean myself off, urinated and left, blood dripping from my forehead. Left the handkerchief behind. We left on our bicycles.

The next morning I managed to move from my bed to the floor but an hour later the pain in my neck was so great that I could not move. I had my cell phone but could not reach my glasses so called friends not really knowing who I called. I called out for a neighbor who arrived about the same time as Kike. Neck brace, strapped to a board, ambulance and carted down the stairs and off, with Kike, to Dario Contreras, the public trauma hospital. Short lines, short forms, X-rays, no fracture, another short line to get prescription. Guy in the line in front of me was handcuffed to his wheelchair. Bought a soft neck collar for about 4 dollars. There was no other fee and I have no health insurance here.

Two and a half weeks later I can take short bike rides and remove the neck collar often. During the first week I bought syringes of Dexa-Neurotropas and walked into the nearby hospital (Padre Billini where I spent a week a few years ago with amoebic dysentery Visit to the Ward Healers) and looked for a nurse to inject me. Other pain medications included Bergeron, Dolo Ultrafen and Dolometaplex. Some prescibed by doctors and some recomended by friends.

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