Friday, August 21, 2015

Transitioning to Cibao Time

            I always look forward to my vacations in the Dominican Republic to get a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the first world. The Dominican Republic is my escape from the pressure I feel from due dates, family responsibilities, and work demands.
            For people that are not used to the way of life in the “campo” it can be annoying trying to get anything done here. You make an agreement to go for a trip to the river at 10am and you end up leaving around 1pm. You promised to be at someone’s house at 4pm and at 4:30 you are still waiting for your friend to get ready. You make a reservation for a local rental car and when you go to pick it up they tell you the previous renters have yet to return it. “Ahorita” which means immediately in other Spanish-speaking countries, means later here.
            But as you sit in a rocking chair, tilting back and forth, sipping on an ice-cold beer as your friends delay once again, you begin to realize that your anxiety about obligations is entirely unnecessary. The culture of the area forces you to choose between fruitless worry and letting go. Once you reach that realization, your vacation truly begins. Everywhere you go, people offer you coffee. I used to refuse, saying I have to get to wherever I was going. Now, I accept and savor on the sweet, strong brew while making conversation. At times you will find yourself caught in a game of dominos for hours, emptying a bottle of rum between friends.  If you want to take a nap on the hammock, go for it. If you want to drink some juice, just pick some passion fruit. No one will be mad at you for being late.
            As the days pass, I feel the muscles in my shoulders relax, my worries dissipate, and my senses enhance as I take in the surrounding beauty. I’ve heard people say they’ll need a vacation from their vacation from trying to do too much and partying too hard. While getting to this little town can be difficult and sometimes stressful, once you’re here you’ll realize what a gift it is to have this escape.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Understanding Water

Water is a difficult topic, no matter in what language or culture. Water, because it is such an 

essential component of life, takes on several meanings of its own beyond just the wet stuff. 

Our house in the Dominican Republic has undergone 

several plumbing changes 

since we first set it up to be independent of the city water, many years ago. It had been constructed with an old tin roof, which we replaced and improved. We added big gutters, made of halves of 4” PVC pipe and all interconnected to a 3,000-gallon cistern. There is also a 

250-gallon tank on the flat 

concrete roof of the front 

porch, which, when full, 

provides sufficient pressure to allow for an adequate shower. There is a small ½-HP pump that 

once had an indoor knife switch that turned it on and off, allowing one inside to pump water 

from the big cistern to the small tank on the roof when there was both power and water. That 

pump “burned itself up” awhile back, and there is a pump on-loan from a brother in place for 

now. We purchased its replacement yesterday and should install it today, returning the other 

pump to its rightful owners, who also need it for a similar purpose. 

The rainfall is periodic, and many weeks can go by without sufficient rain to fill the cistern. So, 

many years back and against our better judgment, we hooked up “street water” to our system. 

The “street water”, or municipal water supply, is not one bit clean. The occasional lizard poop 

in our rainwater collection system is nothing compared to the human contamination that arrives 

with the city water. But the usual residents of the house are accustomed to street water and 

were very happy when the water system was interconnected. We all drink bottled water—

Dominican and gringo alike—and for the gringos even the ice is made from the bottled water 

and all the vegetables are washed only in the bottled water. We have never had any waterborne 

disease problem in this house (and any Dominican, upon hearing such a declaration, would 

promptly say, “thanks be to God!” lest such a rash statement bring bad luck—and disease—

upon the house). 

The city sent water perhaps once a week by the city water system to our poor neighborhood. It 

would be sent by district, our district often falling out of favor when competing with the richer 

neighborhoods that would successfully persuade the man with the special wrench operating the 

shutoff valves to leave theirs open more often and for longer. But, when it arrived, it arrived 

with pleasing pressure and volume, for the water main is above us on Duarte, the main road. 

Then the city changed aqueduct locations, not once but twice, and now the water that used to 

arrive from Duarte rarely shows up, and water from the street just below us (Tomás Genao) is 

more likely, though it shows up with much less pressure. 

What to do? Well, Julita, the co-owner of the house, got busy and obtained a connection to the 

water from Tomás Genao via the uncle of an 8-year-old girl who is part of the extended family 

(believe me when I say this is the rule, not the exception, for how relationships are forged and 

maintained, and water is distributed). So now there is a ½-inch line that crosses two vacant lots 

between the street below us and the back door that provides water from Tomás Genao. This 

came to light when we saw the pipe and asked whether someone was using water from our 

system. No, said Julita, this is our connection and explained the shift based on frequency and 

reliability of city water delivery. 

So far, so good. But now, to understand how this new ½” pipe interconnected with the existing 

house system was much more difficult than you would think. David, interested in how the 

various pipes were interconnected, tried to understand what Julita was telling him. Julita spoke 

of the history of the water, of how since the change of the aqueduct the water no longer appears 

reliably from Duarte, how the water comes with less pressure, but more reliably, from Tomás 

Genao. She explained who put the pipe in and the relationship between herself and the person 

allowing the connection. None of this made any sense to David. What he wanted to know was, 

did the water from the new connection interconnect to both the faucets at the laundry sink or 

just the one? 

She said the water in the right-hand sink was from Duarte. That she liked it that way, because 

when there was water with lots of pressure from Duarte (most often announced from the 

houses above ours with the shout, “the water has arrived!”), she could get busy and wash floors 

and walls and not expend the precious water from the cistern in these tasks. But was it 

connected to the water from Tomás Genao? At first she said no, that it was just water from 

Duarte. But then upon further examination it turned out that yes, water from the lower 

pressure system did in fact get to that faucet. It arrived all right, but it wasn’t enough to do the 

cleaning with, so it didn’t count and only when there was water from Duarte in that faucet was 

there really water to pay attention to. 

David was irritated, thinking she was being deliberately vague, because as plumber he was

trying to figure out connections, and Julia was telling him about how the water was used, not in

which pipe it appeared. The more annoyed he became, the more agitated Julita became. She

was trying hard to decipher what it was he wanted to know and tried really hard to answer the

question she thought he was asking. This only made him more irritated, and he turned to me

saying, “she’s just saying what she thinks I want to hear!” Well, true enough, she was trying to

discern what he wanted, but through the cultural filter of water use it was a tough translation to

pipe connections. We finally worked it all out. Relative calm prevailed. Yet both parties are

still shaking their heads over why an apparently simple question was so difficult to fully

Wednesday, January 29, 2014



On Wednesday, we went down to Santiago.  It sounds so simple!  But from Monción, you must

first go down a windy road to Los Quemados (Burnt Ranch would be a good translation), past

the military checkpoint and through the dry forest to the outskirts of the irrigated agriculture

that still defines much of the Mao area.  In Mao you turn left at the signal that works

occasionally in front of the big military fort for the zone.  You continue into increasingly dense

traffic to Esperanza, where you enter town along a big irrigation ditch. With virtually no clues

in the way of signs, you must know when to turn left and follow the main road through town.

You follow more irrigated agriculture until you come to Navarette, a feisty town that is forever

in political upheaval.  Once David had to pay a kid on a motorcycle 30 pesos to show them

through the back streets around a particularly dense political rally with many streets blocked by

burning tires, but Wednesday was peaceful.  Once past Navarette you join the traffic stream

from Puerto Plata and any fun you were having in the drive is over.

From the Puerto Plata junction into Santiago the traffic gets denser and denser, until we are

fender to fender and bumper to bumper with traffic ranging in size from tiny motorcycles to

enormous loaded flatbeds and dump trucks.  The safe distance between vehicles, Dominican

style, runs in centimeters, not feet, regardless of speed or direction, both of which change

frequently and without warning.  There are virtually no signs of any size or placement that

could help you find your way, so your navigation is exclusively by memory and landmarks.

Sometimes people navigate by landmarks that are no longer there.  At Los Quemados, for

example, there stood an old windmill, installed in the early 1940s, that used to pump water for

that community from a well.  The windmill was still turning, though disconnected, when I first

saw it in 1977, but has long since fallen down.  Yet many will tell you to turn up the hill towards

Monción at the old windmill.  So sometimes even landmarks, unless you establish them

yourself, are not necessarily visible.

You worry constantly about the centimeter separations devolving into bumper cars.  You finally

arrive and parking is one wheel up on the sidewalk.  By the time we finished our business and

left Santiago Wednesday night at 7 pm, it was dark and raining, making our way back up to the

hills through the same maze even more challenging.  By the time we reached home at

something near 9 pm, we were not only exhausted but also quite unwilling to drive again the

next day, and what’s worse to drive clear to the capital.

So, we called Pablito.  Pablito drives one of the two 22‐passenger buses that run this gauntlet all

the way to the capital and back at least 5 days a week.  However, it was Pablito’s problem to

negotiate the 4‐hour drive (price each, US$10) from the Monción foothills through the irrigated

lands, the industrial traffic jams, and all of the unsigned intersections.

Our journey with Pablito began at the top of the alley that leads from our house up a steep hill

to the ridge above the house, where the main road into town follows the ridge and where the

local neighborhood landmark, the Texaco station, is located.

We stood in the shade with our bags visible on the sidewalk

at shortly before 9 am.  Now of course Pablito couldn’t load us

all up at exactly 9 am, and the bus was a bit over half full

when he came by at 9:15 am.  By the time we got in, the

gentleman with his three fighting

roosters in a special cage was

already loaded up, as were some

40 boxes of some product or

another, all in beer boxes, that

took up the back two rows of seats

to the ceiling.  There was an older

television riding between driver

and the ‘shotgun’ seat.  There was

a very old lady and her son

already ensconced and perhaps 9 other passengers.  The ‘cobrador’

or fare‐collector rode standing at the door or sitting on a jump‐seat

that folded out from one of the forward benches.  We stopped to

pick up various folks as we toured the tiny town of Monción.  One

gentleman got on, realized we were going to pick up one more, and

jumped off to quickly buy casabe, the bread made from manioc root

that is typical of Monción and a major town product, to take to his

sister in Santiago.  There was a lot of good‐natured griping about

his timing, but they didn’t leave him and loaded up his several dozen packages into some

mysterious cubby behind the many boxes occupying the rear seats and we were off.  

Once we had collected our last passenger, we were off down the hill towards Los Quemados

and the music was cranked up.  But this music wasn’t too bad, mostly laments and love songs

and not at much above 80 dB.  As the 22‐passenger bus moved along its chosen path, avoiding

well‐known potholes, dodging nutty motorcyclists launching themselves into traffic, and

swerving to avoid the big trucks that took the middle of the road whenever they felt like it,

David said “Same dance, different music, different day”.  And indeed, Pablito’s skillful

maneuvering through all the traffic challenges did seem like a very well‐executed dance.  It was

a long and rather cramped two hours until we cleared Santiago, but to my delight the guy with

the roosters got off in Santiago and we could spread out a bit.  After clearing Santiago we

stopped at a ‘parada’ which probably fed the driver for free in return for the extra business he

brought.  It was early yet for lunch but we shared a couple of pork chops and some water.

The highway from Santiago to Santo Domingo once made its way through three small towns—

La Vega, Bonao, and Villa Altagracia—before approaching the outskirts of the sprawling Santo

Domingo.  Now the highway goes past each of these, with real off‐ramps and on‐ramps (and a

few other informal intersections) so that you can really get up quite a head of steam if it weren’t

for the traffic cops stationed periodically along the road.  However, Pablito had business in both

Bonao and Villa Altagracia, so we got to drive down part of the older parts of those towns

rather than just blast past.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing if you had a schedule, but we

didn’t mind because we only had to make it to the Capital by late afternoon some time.

Santo Domingo has sprawled across many square miles of what were once fertile agricultural

fields.  Grim slums with tiny shacks made of flattened 5‐gallon oil cans and whatever else

appeared on the side of the road are just a block or two from huge industrial areas and pleasant

communities with nicely clipped lawns and hedges.  Starting in 1493 with a small settlement on

the banks of the Osama River (now the Colonial Zone with its limestone walls four feet thick), it

has grown in fits and starts to a metropolitan area of several million souls.  Coming south from

Bonao, we come in from the west and cross many miles of sprawl before crossing the river and

entering the older part of Santo Domingo.  Because we were headed to a neighborhood on the

west side of the river, we were deposited with minimal ceremony at “Kilometer 9”, a major

crossroads and taxi stand.  We caught a taxi who eventually found his way through the

residential maze to the office.

That was Thursday.  On Friday, after the meeting

to which I had been summoned and after a

wonderful lunch with Don Luis, we were driven

over to the offices of Linea Gladys.  We dutifully

climbed on the bus at 2:30 pm, as we had been

instructed.  Shortly before 3 pm the bus departed

its home ‘office’ and started to circle the city.  We

drove around and around, going through one

major intersection four different ways in search of what turned out to be a very loud softball

team.  We found them around 4 pm.  Ha!  We thought that a whole team worth of fares was

probably worth the circling, but that now we would head straight for Monción.  Not so!

The rules among the bus drivers are unwritten but appear to be very clear.  From Monción

down to the capital, the bus driver is NOT free to pick up any passengers.  Those passengers

belong to the buses from the other towns—Mao, Santiago, Bonao, etc.  But on the way back, it is

first come, first serve.  So we drove past all the known bus stops all the way out of the capital,

the cobrador pounding on the roof, hanging out of the bus and shouting, Cibao! Cibao! (the

north region of valley and mountains to which Monción pertains).  We loaded up miscellaneous

folks at these stops, and made at least two deliberate stops to pick up people headed for

Monción who had called ahead.  They were burning tires to block the streets in Navarette on

Friday, but we got there at suppertime when most had gone home, so we got through.  Our

hopes for a quiet ride with lots of room evaporated with the softball team, and our later hopes

for at least some extra space from Mao on up the hill evaporated once again as a dozen

university students got lucky with our late arrival and got a ride for a buck from Mao all the

way home to Monción.

It was dark when we finally dragged our gear back down the alley and across the mud puddle

to our gate.  We were so grateful to be back!  In spite of the delays and adventures, we still

found the minor inconveniences of the public bus far less than the stress and strain of driving.  I

announced we were going NOWHERE for a couple of days, and so it has been!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Indian Swimming Hole

We had heard rumors of a beautiful swimming area in bedrock, with a 50‐foot Indian head carved into a cliff near the pools, somewhere near Monción. We decided to see if we could find the swimming hole. Besides just wanting to see the sights, we also wanted to see if the Indian head, which some say is just a geologic anomaly and others say is a carving, was really there.

Padre Las Casas, the priest who accompanied Columbus in his initial “discovery”, settlement, and exploitation of the Island of Hispaniola (of which the modern nation of the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two thirds) reported the devastating elimination of the majority of the Taino people on the island within just a few decades of European arrival. Disease, starvation, and vile conditions of servitude in the gold mines all contributed to the genocide. It was not the intent of Columbus or his colleagues to wipe out the native population, particularly, but by 1509 (just 17 years after their first arrival) the Europeans were importing the first African slaves, having run out of Tainos.

What happened to the Tainos? Conventional wisdom, fueled by the Spanish reports, was that they were eliminated as a people. Other folks believe they ran for the hills and mountains and survived in hiding. Some stories say that Monción, among other mountain towns, has a high proportion of blood types that would indicate Taino heritage. We heard on this visit that someone was planning DNA studies to further trace Taino heritage.

Many Taino customs are found in Dominican culture, including multi‐cropping in “conucos” (a Taino‐derived word), the cultivation of yuca (another Taino‐derived word) and the production of the flatbread casabe (yet another Taino‐derived word) from a ground paste made from the roots of the yuca plant. Tainos played a form of baseball and spent a lot of their spare time in the shade discussing politics—traditions still going strong in the Dominican Republic.

So, though there is no surviving indigenous culture separate from the more general Dominican culture, there certainly is recognition of Taino heritage among our friends and acquaintances. The swimming holes have consistently been called “of the Indians”, for example, and the locals did know that the cliff was said to be a head, though some said they didn’t think so. We started asking around, first in our extended Dominican family and then in our little neighborhood, looking for someone who could guide us.

We went across the alley/street to the neighbor’s house, since they are reliable, steady folk. They both readily said that they’d heard of the place but didn’t know how to get there. Pablo started talking to the boys playing baseball in the vacant lot next to his house—did they know how to get there? There were several braggarts in the group who of COURSE knew how to get there but couldn’t go just now. Then there was Berto.

Berto is the grandson of our milk‐selling neighbor, Martín. Martín and his family have not been the best of neighbors, what with the cows and the dogs and the many roosters raised for the fight. They have been the fence‐moving sort of neighbors. But they are our neighbors, and Berto’s father let him off his milking chores to serve as our guide. His father wanted to point out that he’d recently bought the boy a replacement motorcycle, since someone had stolen his bike on Christmas Eve. Berto’s father and his grandfather both have pinched, closed faces, but Berto’s face was open and clear. He was happy to take us and very solicitous of both the “old” gringos during the adventure. He also took a younger cousin along.

We loaded up the two wide gringos on the smallest of the motorcycles—a Honda 70. We followed Berto and his cousin and our neighbors had decided to come along—Pedro and Maritza loaded up on their motorcycle and off we went. We had helmets—Dominicans don’t wear helmets except where they fear the AMET—the transit cops—who will fine them on the spot if they catch them without helmets. We do not fear the AMET—we fear injury and wear ours.

Our route led us through the “rotunda” at the entrance of Monción and straight through on a dirt road that followed a ridge—probably a logging road from the 40s and 50s. That road led us past an old dumping site and to a gate adjacent to a milking barn and cow loafing area. The gate was closed only with a rope, and Berto opened it for us, then closed it behind us. We continued down the ridge until the ridge became much steeper. We stopped at a fence (belonging, we were told, to Berto’s uncle) and left the motorcycles. We covered them with large dry palm leaves (cana) that had been leftovers from the last load of thatching palm leaves hauled out of this area. Past the cana palms now harvested for thatching, we crossed a dry field of bitter yuca, used to produce casabe flatbread (Monción produces probably 80% of this staple for national and international consumption). The cultivation of yuca on steep slopes contributes dramatically to erosion and lack of rainwater retention during and after a storm, but it produces a reliable income for the farmer. The field was recently created from a remnant pine forest—you can still see a few barely‐surviving pines among the yuca plants.

From the yuca field we descended the ridge and finally reached the bed of the Rio Gurabo. It might once have merited the title of “River” but when we saw it, there were dry stretches and even as a creek it was sickly. We followed it along, noting the trash caught up in the branches of the brush along the river bed and looking up the sides a bit for evidence of the most recent high water—probably 8 or 10 feet above the sandy bed where we trudged.

Along the river bed were growing “guano” palm, which are much prized for their leaves and are used to weave all kinds of baskets, from the big disposable packages used for tobacco (serones) to saddlebags for a burro, a mule, or a motorcycle (álganas, pronounced “aiganas” in Monción) to the common shoulder‐bags used by men and women alike to carry essentials, including lunch (macutos). The words, the weaving, and the tradition are all Taino, though few Dominicans give that much thought.

After more trudging than I quite expected, we finally rounded a bend and found ourselves in bedrock country. We were on top of a series of bedrock pools, and even though the water was very low, they were still beautiful. The water was quite deep, even mid‐drought, and the boys were glad when the women‐folk headed back, so they could strip to their underwear and go swimming.

Sure enough, there was a big red cliff with some caves in it. We never did see the face as clearly as others have seen it (see photo bellow from Google search for Charcos de los Indios). What we saw was rather the worse for wear—perhaps an earthquake had removed a part of it.

For my part, I was much more worried about hiking back OUT of the hole we’d so cheerfully hiked into, and after enjoying the view for a bit, Maritza and I started out. We were in no hurry and moseyed along, making our way along the river and then across a short‐cut to avoid a big bend. On the short cut Maritza identified “broom brush” and promptly started picking branches of the brush. She said these branches would make excellent outdoor brooms (for sweeping the road and the grass, as needed). I obediently collected a broom worth of brush also, then watched with admiration as she broke off a couple of spiky leaflets of the cana palm with which to bind the brooms up, making them easier to carry. We got back to the ridge and the motorcycles with plenty of low sunlight left, right about the time Pablo and David also climbed out of the river bed. The boys, who had stayed behind to swim, must have run up the hill, because they joined us before we’d wheeled the motorcycles back on to the road and were there to close the gate behind us as we lurched back on to the back roads and on up to Monción once again.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Eco Green Sustainable Construction of our Guesthouse

Casa de las Anas is a small guest house in the foothills of the Dominican Republic.  Like many other houses of Monción, it was built of concrete blocks and roofed with used tin when we bought it, blazing hot during the day.  Located in a working poor neighborhood, it wasn’t a priority for electric power or water—power was off for hours a day and water showed up maybe once a week.  We re-roofed it, using a “hop roof” design that allows the heat to escape from the peak and adding an inexpensive ceiling that channels the heat towards the peak instead of allowing it to heat the house.  A 3,000-gallon ferrocement cistern stores rainwater and a 150-gallon tank on the porch roof provides enough water pressure to shower.  Most important, we built porches and a thatched patio out back that doubled the living space and provided a cool, breezy place to be all day. 

Tin "hop" roof and thatched patio

Carport, Walkway, and Rainwater Cistern