When we had eaten and laughed and danced our heads off, Tia Delpha sent us on
our way. I wet myself twice on the bus ride to el campo, home of Tia Gracia.
You may be wondering how many aunts Yahaira has at this point. It's like a population
sign on the outskirts of a city: rough estimates are the best we can do.
A gust of mango met us at the curb, where we grappled with our luggage.
The mango fruit grows everywhere in the DR, through cracks in the street
if you're not careful. Children feast in the trees for days. Their mothers
yell for them to come down but don't really mean it. Have you ever tried
to clean mango from a child's ear?
So this is the jungle, the farmland, the real Dominican Republic.
People sometimes describe the DR as paradise, but they never leave Club
Med. Yahaira and I were on the other side of the palm trees, where you don't
get umbrellas in your drink. We lived with the people who built their own
houses and grew their own food and took your bags just to see you smile.
There was a refreshing absence of people like me.
In el campo, reality has a different real. Electricity comes and goes at
the whim of some neurotic god. One moment you're dancing full-blast to merengue;
the next you're feeling your way to the moonlight with a friend.
It happened that way the first night: I was dancing with my Frankenstein
finesse, when the lights gave out. Children screamed for fear and pleasure,
and before I could join them Gracia presented a candle and said, "Tell
us about your home, Yayson." And we fell into conversation, easy as
rice and beans.
Our sweetest moments occurred, in fact, during blackouts. That is when we
learned about each other in hushed tones and flickering faces. Men woo women
with candles for the same reason: instant closeness, just add fire. By candlelight
we peeled beans, told our stories, and chuckled at shadows on the wall.
I am happy to report that there is life beyond electronics.
Sleeping, however, continued to hurt. Every morning at four, long before
reasonable, the roosters started in. Just one at first, then two or three,
and soon all two hundred. Gracia's husband Cristino raised poultry. If you
have ever tried to outsleep one rooster, you understand the folly of fighting
Shuffling to the porch in the dark, I asked, "Why do they noise so
Cristino chuckled and churned his butter. It was the most he said all week.
Knowing he wouldn't respond -- or understand -- I shared my theory about
the crowing madness. The whole thing, I said, could be traced back to one
retarded rooster who, still confused by an eclipse long passed, thinks the
sun rises at 4 a.m.; and if we could just eat that bird, all would sleep
Cristino smiled like the guy who had woken the roosters himself.
Water was also hit and miss. I had always taken water for granted, like
fresh air and reruns of The Simpsons. In the DR you learn that water is a
precious resource -- especially when you go to flush the toilet. At first
it felt odd to mix urine with strangers, but isn't that how we get to know
The neighbors didn't have the luxury of porcelain. They did their business
in an outhouse. Once you've dumped into a hole in the ground, you quit fussing
over things like bad hair days. You are free.
Gracia shouted, "¡Llegó el agua!"
Yahaira trampled me on her way to the shower before it ran dry. I, on the
other hand, was conflicted. Every time I showered, I lost a fortune in deet;
if I continued at this rate, my supply would expire in two days. I'd be a
sitting Love duck. As I weighed the options, a scream arose from the bathroom.
That was Yahaira's way of saying don't bother, the water had stopped.
Some days we bathed in the river, complete with shampoo, conditioner, and
rubber duckies. No kidding, right there in front of God and the village kids.
The latter were laughing at the gringo with the rash on his forehead. The
former was probably laughing too. So it goes.
There was a lot of bare skin in the river, a fact well-known to the mosquito
community. As soon as that repellant hit the water, an APB covered the island:
Calling all vermin, we have white meat on the west bank, repeat, white meat
on the west bank... I spent my river time covered to the neck, a vigilant
Tia Gracia waded by after the soap.
"You live here often?" I asked.
She had no idea what that meant, so she put her arm around me. It was like
being tucked in by a fairy godmother. I haven't told you about Gracia, have
I? I must be stalling. Words can only cheat the truth.
Tia Gracia is Mother Theresa of el campo. Her sisters are saintly, but she
is a saint. When you look into Gracia's eyes, you know that God exists. She
is madrina, or godmother, to 50 children, three of whom live in her home
(took me a week to realize they were not her own). Her house doubles as a
church, where people pray without knocking.
Gracia worked to ensure our comfort -- feeding us, rubbing our shoulders,
introducing us to everyone she knew, dogs included. She exuded a love that
healed parts of you that you didn't realize were sick. And despite her 60
years, you'd swear she was a teen. At the river, she climbed the rock from
which the kids were diving, chuckling as they pressed her to jump:
"Brinca! Brinca! Brinca!"
Her legs trembled, wanting to comply, and just when you thought nothing
would happen, something did happen: God whispered in her ear. He said, What,
are you nuts?
Gracia descended the rock clutching an unseen rosary. We met her at the
riverbank, sun-dried before we hit our towels. Gracia emptied the contents
of her hamper: rice and beans, chicken from the coop -- I hoped it was that
one -- and creamed corn for dessert. And just when life couldn't get any
better, Gracia handed me a cup of juice with a little umbrella on top.