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.
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.
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.
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
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?”
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.