Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012

Swigging Campari straight out of the bottle at 3:30 am. Wondering briefly if the shit they make this stuff from (we harvested some, an acrid bark, in the Bahamas) has medicinal value. A thick cough. The fluid’s building up in my lungs. Reggaeton is blasting from the speakers of the club next door. Outside, in the park, empty plastic cups are strewn under the trees and the grape and apple hut--it’s a Christmas tradition, grapes and apples mostly imported from the States, artfully arranged under a roof of heavy brown banana husks, the kind of thing you find on the side of the road, that cradles, too, the roast pig carcasses, their faces shrunken but intact--is strung with blinking colored lights. People are drunk and moving slower. Talk is slower, louder--they’re starting to sing along.

The piles in bags--our belongings--pathetic they look now, as I trip over them. Is it just that I’ve stopped sleeping? The world looks strange, not so much hostile as mismatched. It makes sense to be awake, profiting from the dark, unexpected hours. I’m singing along, too--era un imbecil, un tonto, de rodillas ante ti--I’ve heard this song a hundred times coming up off the street--y ya ves--I still like it. I take another drink and wonder how I’m going to feel when the sun comes up and all these people with whom I share the night are sleeping. Sigue tu camino, sings Frank Reyes. Y yo seguiré el mio. Adios, Luperón--I’m saying goodbye, half drunk on an aperitif. Y gracias. We’re not the same people who sailed into the bay, narrowly avoiding the shallows. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

White Christmas
The Strange Flower
The Commute

Friday, November 16, 2012

I’m eating something called “Studentenfutter,” which they sell at the Esso station down the street from the Montessori school. In my life traveling in and among new cultures and economies, one of the things I’ve learned is to remap the landscape in order to find unsuspected pleasures in random places. I discovered they sell German food in the Esso station--beautiful European food in shiny packaging that goes straight to the part of my brain formed early on. The American part. The consumer part, the part that identifies status with shiny European objects. Those things seem to give me a sense of well-being, a sense of comfort, that I cherish while wandering through the city.

Tallulah is adaptable to almost any circumstances, the only completely unacceptable one being that there is no food. Sometimes our gears slip--the gears of different cultures meeting, turning, producing something. And we forget that everything in Luperón is closed on Sunday nights--the vegetable truck comes on Tuesdays and the only things left on the counter at the fruit and vegetable store are carrots, eggplant, and bananas. In some improbable way I guess we were still assuming a world of grocery stores open 24 hours, the world of abundance from which we came. And so I stop at the Esso station (bypassing--why?--the sidewalk fruit/dulce de leche stands, and sidewalk vendors where something I don’t recognize is being sold) to buy shiny European food, things that are familiar despite the fact that I can’t read the labels.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Farm visit

With many thanks to Dave and Marilyn, homesteaders in the DR from New York via North Carolina.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I turn 42, and expound on something or other.

I want to write an ethnography of the guagua—considering the way we all crush together, shoulder to shoulder, flesh spilling into each other’s space, bodies overlapping.

Everyone is there—the people neatly dressed for work, the woman listening to the radio in her phone—she has it tucked into her hairnet and is singing along—the old men, dignified and self-contained, and the old women who shout, hilariously, getting everyone laughing.

We take a bus next, with fringed curtains and a cobrador who makes change and somehow remembers the faces he needs to get money from. My face is often different from lots of the others—I am obviously not Dominican—I always have a large bag and a child—we are memorable, and people wonder if they can communicate with us. One morning the cobrador asks me something. It sounds like he’s saying, “How old is the girl?” And I tell him she’s five, but with a question in my voice like, What? (The language is moving almost like quicksand.) The cobrador exhanges a look with the woman in front of me like, I give up, whatever. Like, what can you do. And I sit there thinking about how what he could do is to like, enunciate.

And then, kilometers down the road, I realize what he must have said. And I realize another level of their look. The word sickness ends with the word age. Enfermedad. Edad. He asked me, “Que enfermedad tiene la nina?”--what sickness does the girl have--which I heard as “Que edad tiene la nina?”

Getting off the bus I say, “Me preguntaste si ella estuviera enferma?” Getting a couple of complicated tenses out there just to make myself feel better about not understanding before. And he almost smiles with relief and says, “Yeah.” And I tell him she’s just tired, and order is restored between us--because it is just as miserable, I remember, not to be understood as it is not to understand.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I don’t have New Orleans, but I have Puerto Plata. Sometimes all the parts of my life seem to merge, the past and the present--I think this is what happens as you get older, and it also happens when I’m in a place where the past is embodied--where things that have happened make an imprint on the physical world, and are not forgotten--and they are used. The proportions of the old city are like the core of colonial New Orleans--the grand architecture, its proportions stately, crumbling, while life continues unabated--“progress” feels like a kind of dream here, or a hallucination, a fantasy people have of something coming, in the open-ended future, that will bring goodness and prosperity. There is so much dreaming. There are betting parlors on every corner. Yeah, “Make your dreams a reality,” says the handwritten sign taped to the glass in one of them, right next to the bus station. And there is so much religion. A chicken runs, flapping, across the road--a woman stands there, bent sideways, her body freighted and her expression that of one accustomed to having to make things happen by sheer momentum. How else can you make sense of things being so hard, relentlessly, for all the time anybody can remember? Religion and theft, those are ways to hope.

Afternoon in Puerto Plata

Thursday, October 11, 2012

We have been traveling in the guaguas (which here are often small Japanese sedans crammed with people--eight, even ten--of all sizes and ages and levels of garrulity) to Puerto Plata, an hour and some away, for Tallulah's lovely Montessori school. The school is in Spanish, which I hope will graft Spanish onto her mind, and soon it will grow there like a natural part of the organism, bearing interesting and different fruit. Looking out the window, listening to the radio station that the driver chose, reminds me of the best moments of childhood--I am blissfully (almost) not in control of my life, and therefore have no responsibility. 

I imagine what would happen if a screen descended over everything I'm seeing and hearing and translated it all into English. Brought it all into sharp and sudden focus. What would I think if I understood everything? I'm still in the phase of learning Spanish where using it feels like spending play money. That might always be true, no matter how good my grammar gets, because I don’t have it embedded in my cells. But I decided there’s something good about that, too--I have another, lighthearted self, one I don’t take too seriously, that makes weird, sometimes fantastical creations in the air.

Some of the political heroes of the Dominican Republic died along this route, when all this was canefields--where the Lifestyles resort is, and the Super Cabanas, the life-sized papier mâché sculpture of a man drinking from a cow’s udder. The Mirabal sisters, heroines of the struggle against Trujillo, were beaten to death among the sugar by members of Trujillo’s secret police. They had been visiting their husbands in prison in Puerto Plata. The prison was once a Spanish fort, built out of black stone on a promontory overlooking the sea, the doorways low, fitting the size of the colonizers. Looking out at the sea, island life makes perfect sense. And Puerto Plata feels sometimes imbued with death--but death like clay, its edges softened by handling.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Birthday week

I really love to go grocery shopping in Puerto Plata. This is  the kind of thing I used to take for granted and now it seems somehow wrong, but good, like a drug.
Fresh from the pool.
Grandma Donna with one of her biggest fans, looking up for the camera.
The view from "Gringo Hill."
Beach grapes and limoncillos in La Isabela, a city founded by Columbus. His little house was right next to the cemetery.
Five hundred years ago Columbus's ships anchored here. "Dèye mon, gèn mon," a Haitian proverb says. "Behind the mountains are more mountains." The mountains beyond are Haiti--our first glimpse of that legendary place.
Tallulah turns five and prepares to go horseback riding with friends. (Somehow we didn't get any pictures of that part.)
Elvis--taxi driver, aspiring English speaker, ertswhile student of natural medicine. He drove us wherever we wanted to go in his blue Toyota, "Cristo Da Vida" emblazoned across the windshield. 
It is Grandma Donna's birthday.
Happy birthday!
Tallulah's first ballet class, with her friend Calliope. I think this is some sort of rite of passage. Anyway, she loved it.

Peras perujanas

Peruvian pears. They don't last, they must be eaten. They are either the quintessence of pear (like silk, like butter), or too much pear. Eating locally is not a thing we can choose to do. It is what we have to do. Whether we like it or not. Sometimes I think about how much we travel and what that means. Sometimes I think about how much we are products of our early environment, our culture of origin, which seems to whisper that the world should come to us. The remembered delights of what people call the first world are thrown into relief--they seem baroque, impossible, almost terrifying. The lived sensations of here are (literally) a cellular reeducation. I've noticed that there's a moment when you're learning a new language when that language seems cacophonous, dissonant--and that that is a tipping point before your brain expands, shivering and sliding into a new world. I eat the pears standing up, over the sink.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

When I was fifteen we moved to a town in New York State where nothing ever happened—at least, nothing I thought of as something. A new person there was interesting, at least for awhile. A place like that—farms, cows—a place the best part of which was that things never changed much. The future seemed to be taking place elsewhere. On the weekends we had beer parties in the hills. Sometimes I think I see some of the same desperation I used to feel in the faces of the people, the young people, here in Luperón. A little of that lack of something, the sense that the future doesn’t hold much, the present is everything, and you have to make something of it—wrest meaning from whatever is right in front of you. Stare at a woman walking down the street, looking with a kind of hunger that isn’t really for her, for any woman, but for something more than there is here, now.

Anyway, I go out, I go shopping for some bread, some fruit, trying to speak, trying to understand. There are stories, mysteries, in every corner of this place. In all the places people are. Little stories that spin like flywheels. I reach out to catch the little flying things I overhear when I’m walking, fluttering like birds from the open doorways. Things that pass between the people sitting in chairs set out on the sidewalk—people who have hardly lived yet, people who have lived most of their lives and now spend their days watching the life passing in front of them.

Once I was standing in line in a supermarket in San Juan. I was standing, waiting, the way you always do in an unhurried place. A grandmotherly lady wearing a black dress stood in front of me. Like a vapor, something passed from her to me—an image of her what must have been decades ago, children in the yard, clean clothes hanging out to dry, the voice of a man calling from the house (a wooden house, a farmer’s house), chickens flapping up into the trees.

I’m always looking for a little understanding without fear. A little knowledge without the fear of not understanding.

To write about this place, this corner of the world, is to record mysteries, to draw a map of fleeting impressions (why are there so many little stores? how do people earn their living? where is the woman who, they say, makes empanadas on Tuesdays?). To walk through town is to try to lose myself in impressions. To try to be a door, swinging—adelante, atrás.

Photo by Tallulah

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tallulah's projects

"Tree of heaven"
"Crab shell"

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday on the water

The local sailing school, the inspiration of our wonderful friend Nathalie!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Inside the limoncillo tree

As we ride in the back of a pick-up truck, on our way to help clean up all the plastic trash that has washed inside the mangroves, I ponder the way in which an extended stay in another country, among another culture and another language, has the effect of distancing you—-me—-from myself. We stand out, we are a spectacle. I cannot control my image-—maybe you never can-—I see how it takes shape through the filter of other views on the world. When I open my mouth I accidentally say things that are strange, I make mistakes. That has a humbling effect, as is proper, and I am reminded to--to try to--let go.      

Usually impermanence seems like something you have to get used to, something we can’t help struggling against. It may be natural, but if you think about it too long you see it means that you are dying. One thing I have learned on this trip is that, for me, it is also the only way to feel alive. Impermanence is up close and personal here, moving between norms. Different norms, totally different. Even a few miles and the assumptions that guide people’s lives, the exigencies and the sensual pleasures, may change completely. If I can look at it right, the world is stuffed full of pleasure.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Annals of fruit, continued

Love the one you're with, they say. We are with plantains. Slowly the other foodstuffs fall away. The pasta, the rice, even. Bread is long gone, with the oven broken. Leaving us with yautia, yucca, purple tubers, yellow and white tubers, hairy and misshapen in their bins, embraced by the locals. We are being drawn inexorably into a different orbit, in which our ways change. Habit gets shucked off. Eating fried plantains for breakfast because there is really nothing else around--this feels almost like a small, individual revolution, a little mental breakthrough. Not to overstate the case. But what next? What other new thoughts are going to wedge their way into our consciousness, and soon?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What is this?

This is a granadilla. It smells like fabric softener. 
There is something so fleshy and almost grotesque about this fruit, with its strange, artificial taste of clean clothes.  I wonder what Virginia Woolf would make of it. I think she would have had a hard time with tropical fruits in general, with their womblike abundance of seeds, their heady, luxurious sweetness and unrelenting softness. Then again, maybe she would have loved them. Maybe her writing would have become more like Georgia O'Keefe's paintings, and she would have had a longer, happier life, walking out in the mornings with a parasol and taking a siesta after a good meal of rice and beans.

Monday, July 2, 2012

News about the environment is depressing. Depression really sucks and, even worse, it doesn't help the environment. SO, if you care about the fate of the planet, stop watching the news. Seriously, turn off the TV or your laptop—boom, you've done something for the environment, you're using less power, global warming is slowed. Repeat.

You've heard this before. It's true, of course, but since we've gotten intimate with our utilities over the last 6 years of living on boats, I've noticed a few things. One is how good it feels to get away from the news as well as doing something about our footprint on the planet. Here's how we roll vis-à-vis power.

A monitor that shows how much electricity is currently being consumed (or produced, but we'll get to that) helps this process of using less along mightily. Put it in a place that's hard to miss--it will draw your attention like a flickering flame. Putting a number to how much power you're using when different devices go on and off really catches your attention and helps promote shutting things down and replacing the ones you can't give up with more efficient models.

This is the low hanging fruit. Energy conservation is WAY cheaper, easier and better-for-the-planet than ANY form of energy production. Look it up. So, turn it off--lights, pumps, motors etc etc. Anything that you can't stand to turn off, take that thing and sell it on eBay or Craigslist then replace it with one that uses less power. This is real, this is positive, this is good for you and everybody else. But you're not going to do it unless that little monitor is constantly rubbing your face in it, so get one, they're relentless, news you can use.

to be continued...
(I'm finishing the rewrites on a large and time-consuming project, not to say novel. Between that and speaking a bunch of Spanish, I guess this post is an accurate description of my state of mind.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Our sails have been retired for the next few months
We walk up the hill on Tuesday mornings and buy milk from a farmer, and the milk is still warm

 a gift from the milk man
Blowing the conch

Passionfruit and avocados--this country is full of fruit, and nothing thrills me more