After a night of much-needed sleep, interspersed with awakenings by more loud Dominican street noises (which, in their novelty, didn’t bother me at all), Elana arrived! We chatted merrily as I consolidated my bags, then sat in the hostel’s café and talked more over sugared black coffees. Thus caffeinated and prepared, we headed off into the streets of Santiago.
Santiago is really a pleasant, if unshowy, city—many brightly-colored buildings, startlingly high curbs, deep gutters, with small leafy parks scattered here and there. Elana and I grabbed some delicious fresh coconut water from a street vendor: the coconuts cut open in front of us, then poured into plastic cups. He also pulled out some of the coconut flesh for us to nibble on.
We stopped at a bank so I could exchange my U.S. money, complete with a little awkward dance as I stuffed my new pesos into my incognito ankle money pouch. Then, we searched for a chicken restaurant which Elana had heard good things of. Along the way, we admired the gaudy and sexy fashions on the shop window mannequins, all over-the-top in the best possible way. We noted that some of the female mannequins even had nipples, helpfully enough.
We also compared anthropological notes on street harassment, which was still omnipresent. Common: a sibilant hiss (“sssss”) as one walks by. When the woman in question is an extranjera (foreigner), jokes about green-card marriages are also startlingly common, e.g. today’s “Hola linda, dame una visa” (“Hey pretty, give me a visa”).
We found the restaurant, Pollo Provocón, and ate some tasty roast chicken, plus yucas (known as manioc or cassava in English, and a very common vegetable source of starchy carbohydrates) and moro de guandules (coconut rice and pigeon peas). As we were finishing eating, a friendly young man struck up a conversation, telling us about his young daughter and about the beautiful naturaleza (nature) in his nearby hometown. He then reassured me that, unlike many Dominican men—who, by his assessment just want foreign women as girlfriends or for sex—he had a “good heart” and wanted only friendship. True or no, it was actually a pleasant and non-creepy interaction.
From there, we headed out to catch a guagua (used to describe everything from small vans to full-size autobuses) toward Higüerito. After an initial wrong turn, we were able to flag one down quickly, and piled in with all our bags. Our guagua had an impressively cracked windshield and four rows of seats. It was operated by two men: one driving, the other manning the side door, shouting at and collecting potential passengers, and making impolite jokes at us (e.g. “Is it true that all American women aren’t señoritas [are loose]?”).
We zipped through the city at impressive speeds, stopping abruptly a few times as they nabbed more passengers or as they turned down a road so narrow that the oncoming van (which was stopped at a light in the opposite direction) had to back up before we could proceed. By the time we hit the edges of Santiago, the guagua was full up—all four rows, plus another row on a padded ledge facing us, knee-to-knee with us and with their backs facing the driver. The slightly lewd Dominican expression for this, shouted several times as the guagua operator miraculously squeezed in more people, is “Péguense como anoche” (approximately meaning “Stick yourselves close together, like you did last night”). Oh my.
The guagua dropped us off in Ortega, where we dashed across a busy autopista (freeway), Frogger-style, to a motorcycle depot, where one can hop on the back of a moto and have its driver carry you to anywhere in the general vicinity. A light drizzle was beginning to fall as Elana and I climbed onto the backs of a motorbike apiece, asking the drivers to take us to “la casa de la rubia” (“the blonde’s house”), the home of Nouelle, one of Elana’s friends in the Peace Corps, whose address all the moto drivers knew by that description.
As our motos buzzed down the quiet country streets, I was initially torn between fear (“Good gods, we’re clinging to the backs of motorcycles, with no protective gear, in the rain, in a country with one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world“) and jubilant exhilaration. By the time we arrived at Nouelle’s street, unscathed, exhilaration had a slight lead.
Nouelle was walking back from work when we arrived; while we waited, we lingered near a colmadito (an extra-small colmado, more like a snack-shop kiosk), chatting with its proprietor Máximo and attempting to befriend its cat Mauricio. We were on a long, straight, rural pueblo street, with short houses all around, and with damp green trees and jungle-y flowers growing up around everything. Every few minutes, a local townsperson would walk by and greet Máximo and us. An old doña was sitting placidly, watching everything, in a plastic chair across the street.
Nouelle arrived and showed us into her abode: rather large, quite basic and bare, walled with yellow cement block and sheets of wood, cement-floored and zinc-roofed. She was kind enough to let us stay in one of her rooms, which had a hostel-like set-up with two beds and a bunk bed. We dropped our bags and then set off on a Peace Corps errand for Elana.
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This time, unladen with bags, the two of us hopped on the back of the same motorcycle, with a chatty driver who introduced himself as “Macho Man.” We swerved around potholes and held on tightly as we descended and then scaled a giant gravelly slope in the road. While I was still keenly aware of my unprotected arms, it was actually very fun, and we got to see many new details of the land, buildings, and people. Macho Man delivered us to our destination safe and sound, and gave us his number so we could call him when we needed a return trip.
Elana and I were here so that she could leave a deposit with Doña N., a woman who is making ceramic oven parts for a PC project Elana is working on. We did so, but not before getting a brief tour of la doña‘s ceramic workspace, sitting down to chat with her for 20-30 minutes, and meeting several of her relatives who popped in to say hello. When we finished, Doña N. picked a bag of ají (hot chilli peppers) for Elana and instructed her on how to use them: soak them in naranja agria (bitter orange) juice to make a spicy sauce. Macho Man collected us on his moto, and we tootled back to Nouelle’s, enjoying the tropical winter heat and humidity.
Nouelle was finishing up a meeting with some townsfolk when we returned, so we sat outside Máximo’s colmadito, drinking orange Gatorade with rum and watching the road. Motorcycles and cars would occasionally race by (some of the motos doing wheelies), but it was mostly quiet. A pair of young boys were playing with a two-angled skateboard, and let both of us have a turn. The old Doña was still sitting there, keeping her watch. Occasionally, she’d notice us swatting at bugs, and, grinning, would mime bug-swatting to us; we would laugh and gesture amiably back to her.
Once Nouelle was ready, we strolled through the dark, warm pueblo streets to seek dinner. I have said this before, and I will this many more times, but the Dominican tropical weather—especially the soft, balmy nights—makes my little desert heart so happy. At a little comedor, we shared a plate of pica pollo(Dominican-style fried chicken) and tostones (fried plantain slices). The comedor was run by a family, including a cute 6-year-old boy who helped season our plates, grinned devilishly, and then hid behind the counter.
After wonderful dinner and conversation, we stopped at a different colmadito to purchase some fresh-made, still-warm dulces de batata (which were like a sweetened, dense applesauce made from sweet potatoes). We took these back to Nouelle’s, where we sat and talked as we ate our dulces, then relaxed with a dorky movie on Nouelle’s laptop. We fell asleep to the sounds of crickets, distant dogs’ barks and howls, and tropical rain plinking on our zinc roof and falling softly outside the window.