They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles…Fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World…It is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world…Santo Domingo might be fukú’s…port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.
—JUNOT DÍAZ, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
We spent long and lazy hours under a bushy hut attached at the end of the dock, where the water was still shallow and clear enough to see your feet. This was the paradise that fantasies of heaven are made of! Diamonds glistened atop a surface of water, still as a mirror; rays of sunshine melted into my skin; ice-cubes clinked in the glasses of passion-fruit juice. I could’ve floated on that cloud forever—had it not been for the cheesy music like Olivia Newton John and Journey blasting out from every single speaker that was dotted every ten feet of the resort—even on the dock! And the food menu? Hamburgers! Hot dogs! Chicken fingers! Appalled, we marched to the front desk. “Where the hell is the bachata and why are your waiters recommending burgers to us?” we flung up our arms in fury. The food issue no one seemed to have an answer for. But the music could have very well been pinned on the owner. Turned out he was some rich-ass Donald Trump-type dude (from San Francisco of all places). “He’ll fire us on the spot if he hears us playing our music,” the manager shrugged at us.
We checked out two days later, the entire soundtrack of Grease still burning bitterly in our ears like a slave-master’s whip.
Catedral Primada de América: The last time I was at the Good Will, I tried on a beautiful black wooly coat…only to take it off immediately. There was something horrid that had stuck in that itch of wool; a dark sordidness of energy that lingered, now woven invisibly into the fabric (and perhaps a reason the owner had discarded it in the first place). I couldn’t help feeling this way as we visited the first church ever built in Hispaniola; a dark sordidness of energy lingered, now cemented invisibly into the archaic stones of the church’s walls. So many questions plagued my mind, both a frustration and relief from only sensing the church’s palpable eeriness. Why were there statues of howling wolves clustered in the garden of weeds? Was that a welcome into “God’s home,” or merely a symbol of fear meant to sting into the psyches of the Tainos? Why did the hairs on my neck stand up when I passed the staircase that spiraled downwards into some kind of dungeon that had been barred off to the public? And why did the graves inside the church bear those cryptic skull and bones symbols that made death appear as anything but peaceful?
Walking the perimeter of the church, I touched the archaic stones that had held up these walls for centuries. I felt like I was watching a TV on mute, unable to hear the sounds of copious souls being tortured and killed, only able to see these same walls for what they were now, their silent secrets now eternally cemented into its stone. A newly dead pigeon had been caught in the wire netting that hung around the church’s exterior. Had the poor thing gone mad trying to escape? Had it fluttered its wings so badly that the netting stabbed like scissor blades into its flesh? Or had it given up altogether at that first sign of being trapped—knowing that, inevitably, there really was no way out?
In my dreams, I often find myself back in the childhood house I grew up: a familiar home of comforts with warm smells of dinner, the squeaking swings on the swing-set, my parents’ kiss good night. In my nightmares, I can only imagine pounding myself madly against the stones of the church’s walls, fluttering my wings against the wire net, no escape.
Peace Corps Ceremony:How did I get here? I wondered. I straightened my dress and fluffed my hair, trying to recall the confidence I’d felt when I’d left the hotel room. Still, I looked around me. Champagne glasses clinked. An Olympic-sized pool twinkled in the distance. I was at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic; the entire week had been a festivity of ceremonies to honor Andres Hernandez, our friend’s late uncle, who’d first established the Peace Corps in the DR in the 60s. This was the reason we’d come here in the first place.
There was laughter, speeches, and lots of shaking hands. “The Peace Corps wouldn’t have been possible without your uncle,” someone had told our friend. And there were tears in his eyes.
Hacienda Hernandez was a special space dedicated just for him at the Peace Corps headquarters, the walls adorned with his bio, quotes, and pictures on the wall. Another round of applause and a drop of a flag revealed a plaque in his memory. Did I also mention that an entire school will soon be named after him?
I was in complete awe. Some people live an entire lifetime and leave the world a little better by planting a tree behind them. Yet some people spend entire lifetimes planting nothing at all, becoming nothing more than merely roots in the ground. Andres had not simply planted a tree to leave his legacy behind—he had planted an entire forest.
The baseball game:Dominican Republic versus Puerto Rico! Last game of the Caribbe series!
I walked into the stadium, my heart trembling at the rush of thousands of people whose roars were like stampeding horse hooves in the humid night air. Ever been to a game in the States, where the music and newscasters stop when the player is up at bat? Well…let’s just say it’s not like that in the DR. The music never stops—you’d think the band-players are on a perpetual Red Bull buzz. Drums, trumpets and bells wailed their batucada mercilessly, as if saluting the full moon that had blown up magnificently in the starless sky. Trompezancos—stilt walkers—rallied the crowd while a trio of girls grinded their hips in orange shorts bloomers. No one seemed to mind the teenagers that were guzzling down bottles of Presidente. Vendors worked the crowd too: “Cerveza!” “Empanadas!” “Quéso!” (Quéso?) I’d never felt so under-dressed in jeans at a baseball game. Women walked around in heels—ten-inch high heels—one might wear to a club, all of them thick as a tree-trunk and in skin-tight pants (with a belt just in case).
We sat next to a class of 11-year olds on a “field trip” who looked at us strangely in our plain jeans and tennies with no cleavage-baring tops, and asked where on earth we were from. “Los Estados Unidos,” our friend answered. “De California.” “Ohh,” they nodded. “Isn’t it cold there?”
After the smoke had cleared the stadium from the fireworks, a free concert was given by the famous bachata singer, El Toro. Thrilled, the ruca sang along to every song, repeating incredulously every ten seconds, “I can’t believe this—it’s El Toro!” The locals spun around in the sizzling heat of bachata, bottles of empty beer broke all around us, and a rico suave playa—who was a whole foot shorter than my ruca—kept begging her to save him the last dance. The ruca and I winked at each other and muffled our laughter, saving it for later at the hotel-room.
The entire experience was definitely a game and a show, with the actual sport of baseball seeming to be the least of everyone’s focus. I wish I could tell you the score of the game—hell, I wish I could tell you who won.
“Tourist Police”: Lord, was she beautiful—and, shockingly, one of the friendliest people we'd met on the trip. She had a brick-house of a body with curves bursting out all over the place, all squeezed into her tourist police uniform. (I wasn’t sure what a “tourist police” did, but the headquarters situated in the center of Zona Colonial was blasting AC.) We asked her for two things: to call us a cab we could be sure was legit, and to answer us why the locals kept calling us “gringas.” (Back home, a gringo/a is a white person.) Sure, our morena skin paled in comparison to the darker, black-skinned Dominicans—but we certainly weren’t gringas.
The officer threw her head back and laughed. We didn’t know what we were laughing at, but hell, it seemed rude not to laugh with her. Here, she explained, a gringo was originally used to describe the white tourists. Then it just carried over to anyone who was foreign, even if they’re Latino. But the black Americans, she raised her brows, well, the locals just scratch their heads at them. They’re not quite sure what to call them.
Our cabbie arrived, wailing along to a Maná song both beautifully and terribly off-key. I couldn’t get the tourist cop’s words out of my head though; I could just picture the Afro-Caribbeans staring at the African-Americans, stumped, searching for the right words to call their distant native brother.
(History 101: After the Emancipation Proclamation, an exodus of freed slaves from Philadelphia fled to Samaná around the 1860s. American last names like Johnson and King are still common in this region. Many even spoke English until the dictatorship of Trujillo forced its erasure.)
La Playa: After a three-hour bus ride and a 40-minute cab ride, we trudged down a rocky dirt path that was another 15-minute walk to the beach, our core destination. Supposedly, La Playa was a treasure, the most beautiful beach in the DR. I scoffed to myself, tired, cranky, “this shit better be worth it.” Seriously, how great can a beach be?
Turns out…it was the most stunning beach I’ve ever been to—hermoso. In a vast cove, it was surrounded by a mountainous backdrop with palm trees shooting out of the rocky cliffs. Silky grains of sand tickled my toes. We paid someone 200 pesos to lie out in the lawn chairs, who may or may not have been legit—we didn't care. Exhausted, we melted into sleep with the sun high at its zenith, and awoke to its faint light at the far edge of the sky.
El dueño y la araña: We checked into our bed & breakfast where the owner, a bald French man with black teeth, spoke to us in Spanish—or was it French? His accent was so thick, webbed between both languages, that I could hardly tell. He’d burst into a terrible hissy fit when he found out that, through a miscommunication on behalf of our tour guide, we would only be staying in that spot one night and not two. Flailing his arms, he yelled and cursed in Spanish—or was it French?
I gave him some time to cool off before I paid him our board for the night, only to find him upstairs yelling at the housekeeper.
“De dónde son ustedes?” he asked, blowing smoke in my hair.
“De San Francisco,” I answered. “Pero somos Mexicanas.”
“Ay, México!” he kissed his fingertips. “I have a tortilla maker.”
“Wow,” I squinted up at him.
“And I make the best guacamole you’ve ever had in your life!”
I doubt that, I bit my tongue.
He proceeded to tell me that his recipe for guacamole included a teaspoon of sugar, which I thought sounded disgusting, but handed him money for our board that night and waved adios. Seventy bucks bought us a plain, ordinary, and rather dingy room with beige walls bare of art. In the middle of the night I went to use the restroom, only to find a massive furry-legged spider that might’ve been a young tarantula. Perched upside down on the counter of the sink, its body was the size of a child’s palm with legs that sprawled outwards like broken pipes…I was so scared I felt faint. Obviously, I did what any normal person with a mild case of arachnophobia would do: I held my bladder until we checked into the next bed & breakfast the following afternoon.
“How’d you sleep?” our tour-guide greeted us the next day, annoyingly chipper.
“Sleep?” I yawned.
Whale watching: Whales bigger than the 14 bus surfaced to the top of the ocean—beside us, below us, all around us. Their gigantic dorsal fins glided through the water as if breaking it apart like a knife. It was mating and calving season, and the ocean was a party with the hundred-plus tons of gentle giants blowing fountains out of their blowholes. Our tiny boat was close enough to touch them—what a speck we were to them! They didn’t seem to mind our presence; were hardly fazed at the buzz of our boat’s motor, or the poor seasick kid who’d expelled his entire breakfast overboard. “Bravo!” we yelled, any time they revealed their massive flukes before dipping back underwater. We gasped and applauded madly and oohed and awed like 4th of July fireworks as they sprung up all around us; I wonder if they translated our humanistic behaviors to utter and complete fascination of them?
I looked up at the sky and down at the ocean...everything was blue for miles around. I felt very small in the universe right then, a sentiment that, on occasion, cleanses me humbly.
My heart beat gloriously inside me.
Sshh! If you’re quiet, you can hear the orchestra of life chanting all around you: the whinny of horses, the cluck-cluck-cluck of bustling chickens, squawking birds rattling in trees, the subtle slither of lizards in the sand, roosters cockadoodle-dooing at dawn—and every hour after. Can you hear it? The sounds of wildlife, of nature’s symphony that inhabits the island?
Coming home: The U.S. customs agent stared blankly at up us. “Unless you’re family, you can only check in one at a time.”
“We’re domestic partners,” the ruca said.
He looked at us strangely, as if we were grasshoppers standing in his line and not humans. “Are you married?”
“No. We’re domestic partners,” the ruca repeated, a tinge of irritation.
“But are you married?”
“No, we’re domestic partners.”
“But are you married?”
“No! We’re domestic partners!”
“We’re DOMESTIC PARTNERS!” we both shouted at him in unison.
He gave us the grasshopper look again, then did whatever it is those customs agents get paid to do. Finally, he handed us back our passports as he pawed furtively at his chin; his feebly grown facial hair looked more like rat whiskers than a goatee. “Welcome to America,” he snorted.
“Thanks,” we muttered, a substitution for what we really wanted to say: Go fuck yourself.
---Welcome home, indeed! Stay tuned next week for my adventures on the Mini-bus!