Posted on March 7, 2017
It was the Grand Finale of a month of festivities all over the island. In Santo Domingo there had been an air show the week before celebrating The Dominican Republic’s Independence Day on February 27, and this would end the Caribbean Carnival season in Santo Domingo. My friends texted to say the Malecón—the oceanfront road where the oldest parade in the Americas was about to begin—was closed. I’d have to walk several blocks to get to the restaurant to meet them. I’d seen families walking toward the parade site for miles from the Colonial Zone where I’d had lunch, some stopping to buy masks, others in costumes. My driver motioned me out, so I asked which way to Adrian Tropical. He pointed left.
I stepped out onto a side street that far ahead dropped off into the sea, but I was already swimming through waves of color. Dominican groups gathered plumed in jewel tones, sequins, fringe, and feathers. I passed the Tainos in traditional dress (the indigenous I’d seen in paintings last fall ), then women like cabaret dancers in larger, more flamboyant headdresses like those seen in Rio. I tried not to look lost. I’d lived in the DR since August and was comfortable being the only expat gringa singing to bachata in my barrio’s grocery store, La Serena (Little Mermaid), but here I was a fish out of water again, disoriented by the masses and not knowing exactly where the taxi had dropped me. I squeezed past the barricades, crossed the street, and was seaside, hoping to see the restaurant up the coast. Earlier the driver got lost taking me to the Spanish Square—the biggest landmark in the city. I hoped his directions were right.
After a few blocks of moving through the crowd upstream, I stopped and asked a lady eating street food if she knew where Adrian Tropical was. She called over two guys. I turned.
It was them. The ones my friend–her families were locals– said I didn’t want to meet.
They were completely covered in black grease—tarred but not feathered–playing the part of chicken thieves, once a common problem now satirized here. She said the Carnival parades can get crazy and that these guys tell you if you don’t give them money they’ll hug you. I’d just passed other chicken thieves—men clothed as women with bulging bosoms and butts. Once these humps were really live chickens but now they are pillows stuffed under their dresses. The Carnival star/antihero is the “Limping Devil”–Diablo Cojuelo–symbolized by the chicken carried upside down by his feet. Island lore is that the devil was cast from heaven to earth for his trickery, causing him to limp.
Looking into the eyes–the only body parts not covered in tar– of the characters representing Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken) made me turn chicken.
“Donde?” (Where are you going? they asked.)
“Ah, Tropical! Tropical!” They happily pointed to the direction I was headed. I thanked them and turned to hurry on, almost colliding with another guy I was warned about. He was carrying a “bladder”—a balloon on a stick—to wallop people with. I felt like Candide. No one can make this stuff up.
After 20-30 minutes of walking I decided I’d been sent on a chicken chase. I about-faced, crossed the street, and scanned the sky for anything familiar. I was dying to text my friends to ask where they were and to take photos of the costumed characters and creatures I passed, but I had been warned by locals to hang onto my purse and not take my phone out in the crowd.
When I saw the Crowne Plaza, I sent up a hallelujah and started sprinting until an officer checking IDs checked me.
Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I growled a plea. “I only have a bank card, and I just want to see the parade.” I must have seemed scarier than the devils cracking whips in the street beside me. She waved me on. I ran up the steps, asked another security guard which way to the roof, and he pointed to the 2nd story terrace. I texted my friends who said I was only an 8-minute walk away, but the parade had started and diving into the crowd beyond the hotel again was too much for me. I told them I’d stay put.
I looked down and understood the extra security. Below was the Ministry of Culture’s main stage where participants stopped to perform. It was like being in front of Macy’s on Thanksgiving, but with three times the number marching (30,000 yearly), above the fray, and feeling a warm ocean breeze. Here’s what I saw…
Masks were worn by the first actors on Greek and Roman stages. Festivals were held for Bacchus/Dionysus–the god of fertility, wine, and revelry–as a reprieve from following Apollo/god of restraint, rationality, and order the rest of the year. Masquerade balls during Carnival, the most famous originating in Venice, spread to other parts of Europe and were brought to the Caribbean by conquerors. Combined with African traditions of the people who were here and enslaved, carnival celebrations spread throughout the Americas. The largest in the world is in Rio, the most popular in the US is in New Orleans. The word carnival means to give up meat or things of the flesh, a practice observed by some during lent in Catholic/Christian countries. Thus, Carnival often occurs just before lent begins. To consider the relationship between lent and carnival, Christianity and community, see one of my favorite movies, Chocolat, set in a small town in France in 1959. The main character’s Latin American roots are also central to the theme.
Have you been to a Carnival parade or celebration? If so, where? Which are the Must-Sees?
Posted on January 28, 2017
I’m starting this series to inspire real life travel, celebrate global culture found at home, and feed the soul. In the summer of 2014 just before I moved abroad from Nashville, I saw Chef at the theater and loved it. Although the soundtrack has been on my plane playlist since I rushed home and downloaded it, I hadn’t seen the movie again until last night. A great getaway, Netflix and Chef took me on a food tour that stopped in Miami, New Orleans, Austin and Los Angeles. (I’ve been considering a streamline retro trailer life in the US for awhile now.)
I had no idea after two years in Morocco I’d end up living in the Caribbean, but given my love of Latin culture in Nashville—the music, dance, food—it makes sense. Last fall the Santo Domingo Food Truck Festival felt like home. In fact, downtown workers in Music City say the best part of the workweek is Street Food Thursdays. But this movie, starring Jon Favreau as Everyman Chef Carl Caspar, serves up more than culinary masterpieces and comfort food– a grilled cheese sandwich turned art, a Cubana this carnivorous girl raised on Western Kentucky pork craved. It’s for those who fancy food…eaters and cooks…and those who love a good story. (Foodies can check out this space with recipes from the film (and other films) thanks to Judie Walker’s story here.)
Most will be able to relate… wanting to do what you felt you were put on this earth to do but feeling held back in (or from) the dream job…parents co-parenting across two households… dads and sons wanting to connect but not sure how …the bullying and blessing of social media… a career crisis that can rend or mend a family. Performances, funny, real, and warm, are given by an interesting cast— Emjay Anthony (Percy), compelling ten-year-old son of Carl and Inez (Sophia Vergara); Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.) as the first husband, Riva (Dustin Hoffman) as the creativity-crushing boss, Molly (Scarlett Johansson) as faithful friend, and Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), the callous, caustic food critic who ignites a Twitter War and change. An added treat is live performances of “Oye Como Va” and “La Quimbumba” by legendary Cuban singer, Jose Caridad Hernandez, who plays Abuelito.
The film written and directed by Favreau with the help of consultant/food truck Chef Roy Choi of Kogi Korean BBQ won nods including Audience Award for Best Narrative at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and in 2015 Best Comedy given by the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards.
Be prepared to plan a southern road trip to NOLA for beignets from Café du Monde, Little Havana for Cubanas at Hoy Como Ayer, or some blues at Franklin Barbecue. Even better, the film will help anyone who feels he/she may have lost his/her way or is simply afraid to turn in the direction to which we’ve been called for a long time. E. E. Cummings said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Growing pains are real no matter our age, and change for the better usually comes after we are pushed from our comfort zones and, thus, really scared. For years I’ve taught literature students the hero’s quest which is all of our journeys. When called to adventure–our bigger story and unique purpose God put us here to do–we often, at first, back away from the call. When we do accept it, there will be obstacles, but I believe it’s the way out of living the lives of quiet desperation Henry David Thoreau said sadly most people accept. Carl is faced with a choice though he feels he has none. Sometimes it takes a lot for us to heed our hearts.
Carl: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve always known what I was going to do and now I’m lost.”
Molly: “I think that’s a good place to start.”
Food Truck Fest in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic…
Posted on December 11, 2016
Like I said, Santo Domingo takes salsa seriously from Sunday night dancing-in-the-street in the Old Town to Saturday night shaking-in-the-courtyard in the New City. According to health experts and dance studios, such as Arthur Murray, salsa and merengue burn an average of 400 calories per hour. Good to know for those who love the pulled pork sandwiches vendors sell at Las Ruinas and the best ribs I’ve ever had at my favourite restaurant in The Colonial Zone just down the street.
Since the days my cousins and I gathered after church at my grandparents’ house for dinner (SouthernSpeak for lunch), I’ve loved a big Sunday meal. Though I don’t recommended eating the huge portions at Pat’s Palo just before trying to shake it like Shakira, I highly recommend this spot for Sundays and any day of the week. An institution with locals, indoors is cave-cool and outdoors the patio overlooks The Alcázar de Colón, Diego Columbus’ home. There’s also a great playlist, live music, and PIRATES for waiters (who doesn’t love Jack Sparrow and other pirates of the Caribbean???) Though I support Piantini, my local ‘hood, this is one of the two must-eat places in Santo Domingo (the other being Adrian Tropical). Here you get fabulous food, a fun atmosphere, and a front row seat to the authentic Santo Domingo old and new.
Posted on December 10, 2016
Santo Domingo has surprised me with its wealth of food choices– from mega groceries full of imports to familiar chains and international cuisine. While many coworkers have cooks and cars, I have neither, so I try to do a big grocery trip on Saturday or Sunday as I did in Morocco to make comfort food–cold salads for lunches and seafood chowder, chilli, Irish beef stew, or jambalaya for dinners–to last the work week. But come the weekend (or sooner when I miss my deck and grill so much I have to find a place to sit, sip, and socialize outdoors), I head up the street in my Piantini neighborhood to an area that after four months here finally feels like home.
Two blocks from the apartment–dangerously close for sugar overload– is a bakery/brunch/tapas/coffee destination. A coworker took me to La Cuchara De Madera (The Wooden Spoon) last August promising it “feels like visiting a friend’s house.” She was right. On a second visit, I met the owner’s father who gave me a tour. I have always loved baking, but in the heat (only the bedrooms are air-conditioned) up until the last month turning on the oven was done on a must-do basis. Knowing cheesecakes and cherry pies are just around the corner is a lovely thing. To locals, La Cuchara is Birthday Cake Central, cozy quarters for a late breakfast, battery recharge station for afternoon coffee, and gathering spot for evening wine and tapas.
A couple of blocks beyond are three patios illuminated by twinkling lights and friends’ laughter.
Bravo Forna offers Italian dishes, fresh salads (Insalata de Pollo Santa Fe below is my fav), fantastic sangria and great music in a relaxed setting.
Another place I’ve enjoyed my weekly fix of grilled steak is Sonoma Bistro–always full of locals. They have a deli and wines, cheeses, and Angus beef in the market next door. But of course the ultimate treat is meat on a grill surrounded by friends under the stars. For a cookout on our friend’s rooftop terrace, we bought some ribs and Italian sausages at Sonoma and turned them over to our friend, Master Chef Moises. Between the meat, the view, and Dharma’s hospitality (and potato recipe) it was the perfect night.
Moises Cordero now caters for Destination Weddings at Punta Cana, Samana and beyond (for catering, call 829-944-1521), but when I first moved here he was the man behind the grill at Shorthorn at Galeria 360 just past Agora Mall–both within walking distance of my street brimming with beautiful (though out-of-my-budget) boutiques. Below are photos of our feast there last summer with Steve, Sana, Taylor and Mariya, our friend and coworker who is marrying Moises in January.
Moises also took us to his friend’s seafood restaurant next door, Pier 47 , which was delicious and and just around the corner from the mall’s Margaritaville.
Recently I took Griselda’s advice (below) and checked out Ciao–a great place in our neighborhood not only for healthy soups, wraps, and salads but also a great American-style burger. And around the corner just before Blue Mall is a popular trio of restaurants where folks frequent for food and drinks at 2 for 1 prices–Francesco Trattoria, La Posta Bar, Julietta Brasserie (beautiful indoors and out).
Everyone here has been gearing up for Christmas since trees sprouted all over town November 1. It’s almost 11 PM here and outside my window speakers have started blaring from a party in the courtyard next door. Think I’ll check it out…salsa music calling…
(Added the next morning…So The Who may still hold the title for the World’s Loudest Band by the Guinness Book of World Records for a 1976 concert, but the DJ under my window until 4 AM last night blasted that record with speakers we used to call “mind-blowers” (this from a girl whose hearing was maimed by bands like Aerosmith, YES, and Pink Floyd back in the day). The good news is the rooster that crowed from the same apartment building starting at 4 AM hasn’t been heard since Thanksgiving.)
Posted on November 12, 2016
Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order. – Samuel Beckett
For those wanting the ultimate Dominican experience, check out Las Ruinas in Santo Domingo where every Sunday night locals gather to dance merengue, bachata (both invented here) and salsa—the world dance popular from Asia to Africa to Australia.
Posted on October 23, 2016
The Colonial Zone is the most magical part of Santo Domingo. Last weekend I had 3 wishes, so I asked the area to grant them:
#1 Take me back to Europe.
#2 Give me rest.
#3 Help me remember again why I moved to the DR.
Like a genie, it did.
A huge perk of living two years in Morocco was taking advantage of cheap flights to Europe. Oh how I miss the $60-80 roundtrip tickets to Neighbor Spain. But last weekend I went there again via a staycation in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.
Never underestimate seeing your city as a tourist. While home last summer, I felt again the excitement found under the Batman building along the banks of the Cumberland River while staying in the center of Nashvegas.
Likewise, last weekend I needed escape. A new perspective. Peace. Weeks go by working in my Piantini neighborhood—a maze of mega malls and stifling traffic– when I never see a wave, monument, or sunset. But then I remembered. Just an Uber ride away from my apartment where car horns and jackhammers deafen and high rise apartments smother is the Colonial Zone with its wide open spaces- -grand plazas surrounded by cathedrals, museums, and waterfront views.
Posted on September 11, 2016
Yesterday I went spelunking.
I was excited when my friends, Sana and Steve, invited me to join. Though newlyweds, their kindness and inclusiveness from the day we met blessed Taylor and me. Trusting them as history teachers and adventurers, I did no research but quickly scanned a few photos online and took off. As I’d been thrilled by Venice last January, I wanted Santo Domingo to share some of its secrets as well. I wanted to be surprised. I needed to feel wonder. For awhile I hadn’t had the energy or desire to explore, but last week I’d begin feeling like myself again.
Located just outside the city, Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) costs a mere 100 Pesos/$2 and is open until 5:30 (though ticket sales end around 4:15).
As I journeyed into the dark bowels of the limestone labyrinth leading to underground lagoons, thoughts of spiders made me flinch at water drops from stalactites above. What other creatures might swim and slither within?
The three underground eyes are Lago de Azufre (Lake of Sulfer) discovered in 1916 , La Nevera (Known as “The Fridge” for its icy cold water) and El Lago de las Damas (“The Lake of the Ladies”) where Taino women–first inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the DR) — bathed their children.
The second lake was darker than I’d hoped, and Steve and I joked it was the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel. I remembered a movie about a mutant shark grabbing a victim gazing into an underground river, so though I wanted to take the boat into even darker depths, I was nervous. Normally I’d take photos with flash, but as we crossed the water I was afraid of arousing bats hidden in holes overhead. My trypophobia was kicking in and I remembered, Katherine, my role model for adventure in The English Patient, had survived desert storms and a war but died in a cave.
On the other side, I crept off the boat, peering down into the dark at the slippery rock beneath my feet. Determined not to sink into the river we’d just crossed, I carefully groped my way around a corner of the cavern. Then, as in every miraculous moment of my life, I looked up and all changed.
My eyes filled with light. I hadn’t read that here was hidden the fourth lake–discovered after the park was named for the other three. But unlike the others, this lake opened fully to the sun. To the sky. To the heavens.
My eyes filled with wonder and recognition as another heart’s desire was fulfilled. As I’d dreamt as a girl of exotic Arabian gardens, then saw them come to life in Morocco, I stepped into another secret place I cherished as a child. I’d watched Tarzan movies my whole life–loving most the black and white Sunday morning Johnny Weissmuller films. But here in living technicolor, realtime, were vines hanging like party streamers beckoning Jane to swing. Turns out, this lake was a location for Tarzan films and Jurassic Park. Memories of dying Katherine vanished. Instead I was strong Kate on Lost and smiled remembering my kids’ groans as I’d drag them around Radnor Lake and tell them to pretend we were on the tv series island scouting for treasure. This island, too– just outside my new city– was mysterious, unearthly, ancient. And alive.
We boarded the boat, left that piece of paradise, and climbed up, then down to the third eye–the most most gorgeous blue water dappled with sunlight. On a walk around the perimeter of the park, I marvelled at this tree and its green bean pods fit for a giant.
The fourth lake, Zaramaguyones, was beautiful from above. But somehow, discovering it on the other side of a darkness and fear made it much more breathtaking.
For all my déjà vu movie moments, the expedition reminded me most of a cave of my childhood and its metaphor guiding my second-ever blogpost written so many years ago. It calls me back to my main mission for writing.
When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave. While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths… The tour guide seemed so calm. She had a light to guide us but no map. She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.
The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light…
Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight. God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out. I still grope but know He’s there. Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine. Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years. I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.
The last few weeks I’m often felt confused. Disoriented. Exhausted. I’ve had health issues and struggled at times to embrace all the changes that have flooded my life this year. Selling the home we loved, then transitioning from Marrakesh to Nashville to here has been fraught with questions about where I’ll ultimately put down roots again. Taylor moved back to Nashville and I couldn’t be happier for her as she goes after the life she wants there. As Paulo Coelho said, “Love never keeps a person from pursuing his or her destiny.” We agreed if living abroad wasn’t right for her–as it isn’t for many people–she could be proud of herself for taking this opportunity and return with no regrets. Though I’d hoped we’d have more time together, I’m so thankful for what we shared while she was here. Letting go again is so hard as all parents know no matter how many times the nest empties, but she and Cole are both in really good places and that soothes my soul. In a week he flies to Washington, DC to start his new job in Knoxville–something he’s waited a long time for. I love and miss them both madly.
So in this silent apartment I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with old friends– like Elizabeth Gilbert –who comforted me with these lines from Eat, Pray, Love:
In the end, I’ve come to believe in something I call ‘The Physics of the Quest.’ A force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.
As for this new relationship with the DR, I cling to the Message version of Matthew 6:22-23: “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.” I’ve experienced beauty, adventure, and relationship here. And caves. Big ones. Beyond my two human eyes is a third one of faith–the door to all things bright and beautiful. I remain thankful for the One who holds, now and always, my family, future, hand, and heart.