In the DR, you are not allowed to meet a person without eating. It's part of
the handshake: grip with one hand, eat with the other. Dominicans don't like
to hear that you're not hungry, either. In fact, don't even show up thin.
Gracia introduced us to her neighbor of 16 years. The woman hugged my bloated
body and said, "Quiere comer, Yayson?"
I gently declined, citing the 72 lunches I had already eaten, but you will
notice how the word no forms an opening large enough to fit a spoon.
"Sientese," she said, disappearing to the kitchen.
Sientese means "sit down" and derives from a Latin term meaning,
to rupture at the naval.
Everything in the DR comes with rice: breakfast, lunch, dessert, medical
applications. When you order rice at a restaurant, they ask if you want rice
with it. Moro is made from every conceivable grain -- white rice, brown rice,
wheat rice, and most remarkably, wild rice, which has to be hunted. By week's
end, all I could say was "no moro."
As Gracia rolled us down the earthen road, our party acquired little people.
That was one thing that could fetch children from the mango tree: a white
guy. By the time we reached Cousin Maria, we numbered fourteen. Surely we
were too many to feed. Maria performed a head count and, Dios mio, dragged
her sofa to the porch.
"Sientese," she said.
And out came the chicken feet, a delicacy in the DR. It had never occurred
to me to eat the claw of a bird. Maybe I had never been hungry enough. Relatives
gathered to watch the gringo's face, smiling, snapping photos. I dipped the
-- gulp -- toes into vinegar and nibbled. I'd say that it tasted like chicken,
but it was more like gristle or tendons or something else one really ought
Thus Yahaira and I gorged for days. Thank God for Vacation Mode, which allows
a person to consume unlimited calories without feeling guilty. Vacation Mode
also holds that a person can pay twenty times the value of an item without
feeling cheated. We didn't do much shopping, however, because prices in the
DR fluctuate according to how much Spanish you know.
Here was my bid for a shot glass:
"Esa glasa, por favor."
"Cuarenta pesos," said the girl.
"Cuacawhorento?" I asked.
"Uh, no, dos cien y cuarenta pesos."
Yahaira walked in and caught on. She shouted "el diablo" and "la
madre" and other things you shouldn't say to someone unless you feel
that you can take them in a fight. I was no longer allowed to shop on my
own. So it goes.
Our procession turned north, as did our cloud of dust. It couldn't be long
till we hit water; the place was, after all, and island. Children stared
as only they can. A six-year-old made kissing noises as he cut mangoes...with
a machete. His mom was concerned not that he would cut himself but that he
would get mango in his ear.
Once we had met everyone that Gracia knew, we visited the graveyard to meet
everyone she used to know. The place looked like, well, a ghost town: tiny
buildings on either side of a footpath. I say buildings, but they were more
like chests of drawers, one slot for each member of the family.
We stopped at the Guzmans, who grew up with Gracia. The top drawer was occupied
by Señor Guzman. An altar showed pictures of the man with his family
in happier days when their lives overlapped. Gracia kissed the drawer and
cried, clutching the rosary around her neck. La Vieja insisted that all her
daughters wear a rosary.
I haven't mentioned La Vieja. She is the elder whose blood runs through
15 children and scads of grandkids, my wife among them. When you meet La
Vieja -- "The Old One" -- you bow as you might to Don Corleone
and say, "'Cion, Grandmother," at which point she gives you benediciones,
When I met La Vieja, she grabbed my neck with both hands, hoisted her face
into a leathery, lopsided smile, and recited the Bible from Genesis. She
had not finished when I left and may still be going now.
On La Noche de los Santos, we squeezed into La Vieja's room to call on the
saints. These weren't soft puritan prayers like I knew back home; they were
flaming incantations that made you stomp your feet and cry out loud. La Vieja
led the way, praying at the top of her 90-year-old lungs. I don't know what
she was saying, but she really, really meant it.
Steaming young men pounded the drums, and everyone chanted, even the fatally
ill. Cousin Maria grabbed me from my camcorder and shuffled me into the madness,
where I stomped with men, women, children, even a baby being moved by her
mama. My qualms were bongoed out of me, a sacrifice to the saints.
I woke up the next morning clear as a bell.
"I feel smiley," I said to Gracia over the roosters.
"You handed it over to God," she said.
We sat on the porch, reflecting over moro and orange juice. The children
were bathing at the river; the bigguns had nowhere to be. Whatever Dominicans
lack in property, I thought, they more than make up for in time. They have
time to talk, time to laugh, time to play jokes on the children. They know
the kind of things you can only find out when you shell beans together.
We say that time is money, but I think it's more valuable than that.
When I had arrived in the DR, it hurt to slow down. I had been working so
hard for so long that I couldn't see out of my inbox. In time my anus stopped
twitching and I melted into Dominican mode. I was in love with a country:
its music, its mangoes, its lack of concern for insurance. In the end there
are no cultural barriers, just love or the lack thereof.
Returning to the airport, I surveyed the land from a lounge chair in the
back of a pickup. I saw men slamming checkers on the porch, women chatting
by the mailbox, children building castles in the trees. These people can't
afford the baubles of Bauble-On, but they know where they are: they are home,
engulfed by love, soon to be buried in a chest of drawers with their family.
And that cheered me up the whole way home.