I'd made several trips to Higuey over the years, but never had the unaccompanied chance to simply explore at my own leisure. The day I'd selected to do so was not only a Saturday, but also a welcomed relief from the house.
Barking like rabid dogs, chaotic Dominicanas were in a tizzy, trying to prepare enough to feed the entire village for a Quinceañera party the following night. I was chuckling to myself about the frenzied hysterics I was likely escaping, but before I could even make it half way down the block, Mami came running out into the street, and yelled for me to bring back queso blanco...white cheese. Ok.
You'd think by now I would have learned -- just because I can speak and understand the language, it does not qualify me to read minds. Too bad, since it's often what isn't said with Dominicans that's left wide open for interprative "ass"umptions. There’s quite a lengthy, long-running list of my oblivious antics that keeps the village entertained and ever-guessing. And so, another wild goose-chase begins...
Man On A Mission
Exiting the gua-gua at a central stop in Higuey, I'd already used the 35-minute ride to contemplate my desired course of actions for the day. And, how this perceived timely delivery of requested cheese would likely cramp any spontaneity.
Within my second block, I came across a medium-sized grocery store, and decided to survey the prospects - certainly not that I planned on hauling cheese around all day, but the budget shopping mode kicked in for establishing a comparative price base.
When it comes to refrigerated foods, on-going circumstances with the nationwide rolling apagón/brown-out power outages have redefined cold storage and waste for what grocers stock, and locals purchase. Aside from minimal amounts of meats often kept and sold for daily consumption, dairy products are all but non-existant.
Even milk is sold in powdered premix, unrefrigerated cartons to be chilled before using. Once the inner-light bulb clicked, and my own mental black-out passed, I remembered this was the Dominican Republic! That explained why there was only a pathetic selection of yellow cheeses. I didn't even ask...reasoning that my people deserved the best, which I'd undoubtedly find at the city's outdoor market.
Ambling around Higuey's center turned out to be much smaller and more condensed than the expansive appearance on the map stashed in my backpack. I made "just in case" mental notes of a pair of other grocers I passed, but stumbled upon the market far quicker than expected. Once I'd sated my explorative senses, it was time to get down to business!
I found a small booth with a refrigerated reach-in cooler, and asked if they had any queso blanco? The lady made an eager search and indicated no, but suggested I should try next door - soon to become a futile, reoccuring scenario.
I'm not sure how many vendors unknowingly toyed with the rise and fall of my anticipation for fulfilling the basic business concept of supply and demand; that demand mode becoming more fervent with every "lo siento, pero no tengo" -- "I'm sorry but I don't have".
I even took a suggested six block detour to another grocery store only, to find the same slim-to-none pickings I somehow knew would be waiting.
By this point, I felt rather ridiculous and perhaps even more a stooge when a young man behind a diner counter insisted I go to the Basilica for cheese. What for; Divine intervention? No one sells cheese in a church!
Unknowingly again, I was left facing another communication gap; that chasm brought on by appearing to fit in and understand, which erases any need for further explanations – not that Latinos would ever think to give it!
I'd all but given up, and had already began imagining potential shame and outcomes for not being able to complete a simple task. I was in no hurry to head for the La Romana bus terminal, but yet didn't want to keep the ladies at the house waiting -- for something that was never coming.
I piddled my way back to the Laguna Llana t-intersection, in front of the Gran Basilica, and decided to stop at one of the religious trinket stores to pick up plastic everyday-wear rosaries for my boys. Thankfully, I did.
Seek and eventually Ye Shall Find
In addition to all the religious icons and tourist-type junk were stacks and stacks of queso blanco! "Holy Cheese", I would discover, being sold in stores and make-shift boothes for as far down the blocks as could be seen. Feeling like the rodent that hit the jackpot was somehwat overshadowed with disgust of how many times I'd passed along this major roadway, and never noticed the cheese...not that a rat supposedly has a conscious.
Exactly what consecrates these sacred morsels, I'm still not sure, and have learned not to question locals' beliefs centered around tradition, folklore, and superstitions -- often further rooted in the Catholicism-altered religion of Santería. But I was curious - was this made from milk, which came from some "Holy Cow" or goat? The most I could find out was it's pure with no chemical additives, and could be purchased in various amounts, including three-pound balls for RD50. I made quite the haul!
Since main entry to the Basilica compound was just across the street, I'm not sure what compelled me to desire passing through it again, but there I was - loaded down; being robotically drawn up the long walkway to the cathedral’s entry.
It took a bit for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. I made my way half-way down the center aisle, and parked on one of the wooden benches. A stiff breeze was being pulled through the open doors, creating a wind tunnel through the cavernous setting. The coolness was welcomed, yet warmth from gazing at the colorful stained glass wall initiated a rather melting affect.
I'm not sure how long I'd sat there surveying and reflecting; that habitual ritual a house of worship has a way of drawing out of individuals -- regardless of how often or little they dare enter. Here I'd came to Higuey to go exploring on my plan and terms, that were obviously altered by this quest for queso blanco; the Holy Cheese.
I likely ended up seeing more than I originally would have, and with a learning experience to boot...ironically, how so many of life's lessons come about when we're diverted from our planned course of action.
But this wasn't the time for further enlightenments. The ladies were waiting, and with my bags of cheese in tow, I headed for the La Romana bus terminal - unknowing that my daily dose of acquiring wisdom was far from over.
Caught in the Baited Trap - Again!
The público was just approaching the center of Bayahibe when driver announced the time. Dang, what had felt like an all-day excursion had barely lasted four hours!
The mid-day sun was riding high as I made my triumphant march home, along the dirt roads -- savoring not the flavor of the cheese but the fact I had succeeded in making a needed contribution. Turning down the block, aromas of the freshly stewed goat meat, for the village party, hung heavily in the thick salty air.
I was rather puzzled to find the house quiet and abandoned compared to the hubbub I'd earlier left, but began stirring around in the refrigerator to make room for my hard-earned plunder. Sounds signaled Mami in from the backyard patio. Turning to greet her, I wasn't expecting the shocked look on her face, but -- placing hands on her hips, exclaiming my name, and not knowing whether to scold or laugh was all too familiar.
As it would turn out, the panicked request from earlier in the day had nothing to do with cooking, or feeding the village at the following day's party. She'd only wanted some queso blanco; "Holy cheese" for herself and us, the family. Go figure!
Bless me Father, for once again, I have assumed.