Written by Jose Kevo on 26 Sep, 2003
Stepping off the local publico at the crossroads, it didn''t surprise me none of the other motoconcho operators even bothered from under the shade tree. Reynaldo, my new trusted driver, was already kick-starting his Yamaha for where ever we were off for today. My…Read More
Stepping off the local publico at the crossroads, it didn''t surprise me none of the other motoconcho operators even bothered from under the shade tree. Reynaldo, my new trusted driver, was already kick-starting his Yamaha for where ever we were off for today.
My intentions were to wait on the next passing gua-gua for the 35+ km ride to Higuey; still too many painful reminders of motorcycle tragedy on the open road. Reynaldo was also familiar with our loss and my skepticisms about riding anywhere that wasn''t short distance, but began with despacio / slowly, suave / smooth and a barrage of other assuring adjectives that had me throwing caution to the wind and climbing on behind him without second thought.
Heading east on Highway 3 from the intersection, you quickly come to the hamlet/village of Benarrito that you''d never find on any map. This "wide spot in the road" has always intrigued me the way it appears inhabitants gather roadside every day to watch life pass them by. To insure you get a good look at them, three speed bumps have been placed to slow traffic. People called out and waved; Reynaldo again reminding me this is where he lives now.
Within moments of passing through, you literally take to the open road with fields of grazing cattle to the right, and this region''s signature trademark to the left. The southeast is sugar country where cane fields sprawl as far as the eyes can see appearing to grow right up to the base of the distant Oriental mountain range all but lost in the morning haze. An occassional dirt road heads off the highway; some with individuals waiting for transportation pick-up. Conversation continued and our solidarity was all but dwarfed in the countryside expanse.
I''d unstrapped my backpack fidgeting for my camera when Reynaldo reached around to grab my hand and place it on his hip...all but slowing to a stop for navigating the brief stretch of broken-up pavement. Todo bien / Everything good he asked with the all but protective fuss I repeatedly find from locals. He didn''t resume full speed until I''d convinced him otherwise.
I began noticing more billboards detracting from the natural scenary; advertisements for resorts or 2004''s Presedential elections. Reynaldo started to share his hopes for a new leader when suddenly pulling off the road at the Boca de Yuma turn-off. Another young man was checking his motorcycle with what turned out to be a flat. Reynaldo unlatched a concealed bomba / air pump and tire kit immediately starting to work. When preparing to leave, I asked if the kid was a friend or someone he knew? He shook his head no.
Once Highway 3 makes the L-shaped curve at the Boca de Yuma intersection becoming Highway 4, I''d noticed the difference countless times passing in the gua-gua, but experiencing this open-air, helmetless on back of a motorcyle with unobstructed views was exhillerating. Here, sugarcane is grown on both sides of the road; some places right up to the shoulder. Tall slender chutes all but engulf anything passing through. I pulled a couple of successive deep breaths as if to smell the sweetness. Fresh air was all I got...and another check from Reynaldo to make sure everything was ok.
Along this stretch of highway, there are no roads but only wide tracks cut into the cane fields that are swallowed into the horizon. Some where back there are the bateys; shack villages where Haitian cane cutters live in squalor. Reynaldo looked rather shocked when asking if we could venture down one of these mystery pathes for exploring. He promised some other time. I pledged to hold him to it.
I asked Reynaldo if he''d like something to eat or drink as we neared the railroad tracks which has a small cluster of shacks and stands; Grand Central for this area. He began slowing; pulling off the road without even answering. Before he''d even killed the engine, I could hear Merengue blasting as if the party had already started...9:45 in the morning!
We entered the open-air eatery which doubles as a disco, had the traditional booster shot of Mama Juana, and sat down at one of the plastic patio tables with chairs. Even for a veteran, Reynaldo was somewhat amused at not being able to hear over the deafening music. Feisty hens were challenging the mangy cat for pieces of pastelies we were tossing to the ground. Another gua-gua stopped to pick-up passengers...as if time mattered at this point.
Finishing our pineapple juices and preparing to leave, I decided to step around the corner to see what was source of the rancid smell coming from the creek. Off in the distance were a trio butchering a lot of somethings; the stench coming from whatever was smoldering in the huge kettle. Reynaldo''s gotten to know me all too well and indicated we needed to go before I could proceed any further or pull out the camera. Perhaps to appease my loss, he snatched a couple of bananas off the stalk hanging outside the make-shift colmado and handed the lady 5 pesos. I asked, "Who''s the monkey now"? He laughed though I figured he''d never heard of Curious George.
Crossing the railroad tracks signals the final 15 or so kilometers to Higuey. Along one short stretch, there''s rows of trees which create a canopy tunnel to pass under . Sudden shade called attention to absence of morning sun - something not even considered with the constant liberating breeze riding on a motorcycle. A large farm truck slowly passed with sideboards rising 6-feet high; a young boy sitting atop a mountain of green plantains and smiling...just like everyone in the DR.
The sparse early morning traffic was beginning to pick-up, but by then I was totally at ease within Reynaldo''s care and the questionable commute he''d coaxed me into - even with all the crosses and make-shift memorials we''d passed along the way signifying others not so fortunate. Nearing the city, fields give way to more homes/business...including a couple of roadside motels I''m told are for actividades extraordinario! At least they were in proximity to a premier hot spot for the southeast.
It would take a blind deaf person to miss the gargantuous pagoda-shaped, thatched-palm roof rising above the open-air dancehall that easily accommodates the multitudes. The vast parking lot was empty but the readily heard music was Toño Rosario; a Merengue King that make-shift signs advertised would be performing there Saturday. Reynaldo asked if I wanted to go. Reminding him I had no car; he reasoned we shouldn''t come this far by cycle after dark. Barely out of hearing range, I impulsively broke into the infectious chorus that had been playing. Reynaldo just shook his head; reluctant to chime in.
Except for a serene green field full of goats further accented by unfortunate comrades'' carcasses hanging roadside for sale, entering Higuey''s outskirts are much like any other global town. New businesses, such as car dealerships, gas plazas...even somewhat of a strip mall line the road, but with an unrefined appearance registering you''re in the DR. It''s also hard to miss the thriving garage businesses which keep scores of motorcycles running; an assortment of cyclists in various stages of tinkering amid a blackened grease-pit appearance with accompanying whiff of related grime.
Reynaldo felt me tensing up and squirming entering into the bustle of Higuey''s main thoroughfare. Tranquillo papi he assured while scooting back on the seat for steadiness of contact. Once confirming which regional government branch I was needing, he broke into Tour Guide pointing out things. His efforts to calm, distract me did nothing to divert his attention from the snarls of cycles, cars, trucks he''s used to navigating through. Arriving and stepping off with somewhat wobbly legs, Reynaldo felt need to convince me he''d be right there waiting when I returned.
The whole process was typical when dealing with any faction of bureaucratic government - taking longer than it should, and I got turned around within the unfamiliar facility. Exiting from the other end, I wasn''t even to the curb yet when other motoconchos waiting for random pick-up came racing towards me. Before I could even begin to explain, Reynaldo swept in amid them and reached out to assist me on behind him. Todo bien he asked, and the camaraderie with daily life in the DR resumed along the open road home.
About Reynaldo, until this trip, he was only a kid I recognized growing up over the years from the nearby village of El Padre Nuestro. Since my last visit, his mother had died leaving him to support his younger siblings. If available for hire, he can regularly be found at the Highway 815 turn-off for Bayahibe/Highway 3 intersection. You''ll recognize him by the red St. Louis baseball cap he''s always wearing. He speaks only Spanish.
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,…Read More
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 MissionExiting 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 FindIn 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. Close