The week of Thanksgiving I took a trip down to my beloved Dominican Republic. It was a last-minute decision; as the holiday inched closer, I realized I had some vacation time to use–and that part of the world had been on my brain lately. So one week, a few clicks, and a virtual credit card swipe later, I had a ticket to the island.
This trip was interesting because it was the first time I had visited the community, La Ceiba, simply to… be there. Say hello, drink coffee, catch up. When people asked me why I had come, I responded, “I’m on vacation.” An expression of surprise would cross their faces, and I could see the progression of thoughts: “Oh. You came alone. On your free time. Huh. You’re here just to see us… Cool!”
And that was the whole point. I wanted everyone to know that, while Cucuyo is still running a program each year, that’s not the only reason we visit La Ceiba. We come because we are invested in the community.
I often say that I have friends in the Dominican Republic–which is true–but in closer conversations, I describe La Ceiba as a second home, a place of family. I know that I could go there under a variety of circumstances and be taken in, no questions asked. When I visit, lives and routines are shifted because that’s what you do when family arrives. It’s an extraordinary thing.
So I spent several days in this place I have come to love: drinking coffee, making lingering visits, and playing with kids in the hot sun. While it was short, the trip was a gift in many ways:
- It reminded me of the joys of slowing down and doing nothing except eat, drink, talk, and play. It’s easy to get caught up in everyday tendencies and beliefs: I am busy with important things, let’s make a mountain out of this molehill, etc. But these four simple actions are some of the most critical, soul-filling things we do (and apparently when I’m in the Dominican Republic, I have no problem devoting my time to them, ha ha).
- It was a chance to catch up on local updates and ask folks what they thought Cucuyo should do next year (and beyond). Fortunately, we still have an amazing support system in the community and a group of people who are as enthusiastic about the work as we are. The trip also gave me the time to absorb some aspects of Dominican culture–sitting in long silences for the win!!!–that I don’t get to fully appreciate when I’m running back and forth for the program.
- Finally, it sparked some understandings (or reminders) about the things that I love doing–and some of the things that drive my purpose. During those six days, I remembered how much I love kids and want them to be a part of my life’s work. I thought about the inevitable ebb and flow of relationships, the sudden sprouting loss of kids becoming young adults, and the particular, profound ways in which life unfolds. It all reminded me to watch and listen–and be ready to act when the right opportunities and people present themselves.
I came back lighter and inspired–and at ease with whatever is to come. It’s been an interesting year since I got back from Argentina (one year on Dec. 19th!)–new job, new location, new friends, new context. But it’s little surprise to me that returning to a place where some of my heart roots lie would help bring back some of the lightness.
So now for the fun stuff–stories and pictures:
School days. I visited the high school where my friend Orlando teaches–and where Cucuyo collaborated with some students and teachers last year. It was cool to see a public school and briefly meet the kids and administration. The dynamic between teachers and students was interesting–they have much more affectionate and informal relationships, though teachers are clearly respected. U.S. schools could learn a lot from that kind of atmosphere (though look at that barbed wire on the outside wall…. a horrifying similarity with urban U.S. schools).
These kids were celebrating International Day against Women’s Violence with a parade focusing on the Mirabal sisters, three women who opposed the Trujillo dictatorship and were murdered for it. The entire school came together for the parade, with students carrying signs, playing music, and chanting anti-violence slogans as they walked through the community (Los Arroces).
Tia Nini. Aunt Nini… this woman. Nini is the 70-something (?) aunt of Orlando, who I usually stay with when I visit La Ceiba. This time life was a little nuts for Orlando, so I stayed next door with his aunt (where I usually eat my meals anyway).
Nini is amazing. She’s a mujer dura, a tough woman from the campo (countryside) who has lived in La Ceiba for most of her life. She’s a widow and has lived alone for years, tending the garden outside her house, taking care of her animals, and chismeando (gossiping) with her friends and neighbors in the community.
Nini treats me so well it makes me embarrassed. She lets me sleep to as obscene an hour is possible in the morning noise, putting cafe on the stove the minute she hears me rustling. She knows my favorite foods and how much I love her berenjena a la Nini (eggplant, Nini style).
Nini also has an incredibly thick accent that is difficult for me to understand. In past years I would often nod or laugh at what seemed appropriate moments, not taking the time to truly listen. But this time I did–and it was pure joy. Each day the percentage of interpretation success would crawl a little higher; I remember one moment where I was staring at her so hard, trying to catch all her words, that it was like trying to see into her soul. But it finally came together. Nini is a gifted storyteller–she understands how to use variations in volume and pauses to grab your attention like few other people I’ve met.
Some Nini stories (told or witnessed):
- Nini’s pets, a cat named Sunika and a parrot named Candy Jr., are her family. (She recently added a chihuahua that she named Lassie, which delighted me to no end.) She told me that Sunika meows for her in the morning if Nini rises later than usual, and sometimes the little cat will put her paws up on the bed, as if in prayer, to say hello. Candy Jr. is famous community-wide for his/her insanely loud warning blares, which sound just like a car alarm. Once, when Nini went to visit her daughter in Constanza, a city a couple hours away, Nini took Candy Jr. with her in the cage on the guagua, a cramped van used for most public transportation in the DR. I can just imagine the discomfort of holding Candy Jr. on her lap as they rode up the mountain with 12 other people in the van… but leaving Candy Jr. alone was an impossibility.
- When Nini was married, she always made sure to be home and have food ready when her husband arrived. That’s what men prefer–they don’t want to wonder where their wives are when they get home. (words of advice)
- Nini and Yuleka, the sister of La Rubia, have been close friends since they were girls. (That’s them in the first picture.) I got to eavesdrop once when Yuleka came to visit and gossip; Nini says she comes by as often as three times a day.
Fooooood. I love Dominican food, and people love givin’ it to me while I’m there. There’s the bandera Dominicana (Dominican flag)–meat, rice and beans, and salad. Yucca, fried egg, onions and vinegar with avocado. Moro (rice and beans mixed together). Concón, the special burnt rice at the bottom of the pot. Spaghetti. Mangu–mashed plantains and garlic. Asopao: rice stew, one of my favorites. TOSTONES (fried plantains). My life for tostones.
I didn’t get to see La Rubia too much while I was there–she is another amazing woman whom I love dearly–but I got a quick cooking lesson from her one afternoon: spaghetti. La Rubia feeds me love through food (and whiskey), and I am always grateful to accept it.
Candy workshop. Across the street from Nini lives Iris, her daughter, a gentle, sweet woman who is the mother to three fantastic kids (Edideison, Ñaña, and Lidia). This taller de dulces (candy workshop) is the brainchild of Iris. She used to run a bakery but it failed, so she decided to make candies for her next business.
Iris has found a lot of success with it–and she may be the only woman business owner in the entire community (apart from those who run colmados, corner stores, with their husbands). Iris’ husband helps sometimes, but he has his own job as a guagua driver.
Every day, Iris and a handful of men who work for her create different flavors, pour the dense liquid into molds, and press and package the candy for sale at bus stops. All the candies are milk based with a flavor mixed in: coconut, orange, peanut, guayaba. They are freakin’ delicious. And all of the family pitches in to help make the candy–including Nini and the kids. I love that Iris’ kids have the example of a smart, strong mother who handles everything with grace and patience.
Marializ, la diabla. This little diva in front is something else. Her name is Marializ, and for years I have affectionately–and not so affectionately–referred to her as the devil. When she was younger, she was quite the hellion–she would start fights, dance inappropriately, and say generally terrible things to whoever.
Marializ is probably around 5 or 6 now, and she’s mellowed out (a little). She’s still full of the same troublemaking spirit, but this time I got to see her sweeter, affectionate side. In years past she wouldn’t get too close to me, but we decided to upgrade our relationship to hugs and swinging her around in the street. She is going to be So Much Trouble someday– but she’s a good kid.
(Hilarious bit: Apparently there is a doll in the DR called Muñeca Chu that looks like that devil–and that’s what everybody calls Marializ in private. :D)
Rossy. Rossy Esther is a brave woman. A year and a half ago, her family’s house burned down from a stray electrical spark. All six of Los Adames survived, but they lost everything material. All of their momentos and photos–which are especially prized in the DR, since they are costly to print and not many people have cameras.
So Rossy left her tight-knit family and the place where she had lived all of her 18 years, to work in a tourist resort in Puerto Plata, 8 hours away by bus. It was hard for her to be away and take care of herself in a strange place, where there were many young people like her also living apart from their families.
But Rossy thrived. She had wanted to study tourism and improve her English, so waiting tables was a perfect fit. She charmed and cared for many tourists (one of whom became her boyfriend, ssh, don’t tell anyone), and Rossy realized she had truly found her dream profession in tourism.
A few days before I left for the DR, I texted Rossy to tell her I was coming.
“What days?!” she wrote back. I told her. “I have 3 days of vacation then,” she said.
“Wow! What a coincidence,” I said. “Can’t wait to see you!”
When Rossy finally arrived, we met for coffee at a fancy panaderia nearby. It was so good to see her. She told me all about her life at the resort and how much she liked taking care of people. She also revealed a dream–to continue the theater work Orlando had started in La Ceiba and do an international play with performers from all over the world.
She told me she had asked for the three days off work the moment I’d written her, to come see her family and I. It was not a coincidence after all.
I marveled at the confident, mature young woman she had become. 19 years old. When I first met Rossy, she was a tomboyish 15 year-old who was eager to show off and formed clingy relationships with our teachers. Now she was worlds away from that. Moving away from her family had given her a valuable chance to grow up and find herself.
I was delighted as we drank our coffee. We were continuing our friendship on new ground–two adults sharing, growing, and dreaming together. I look forward to many future coffees with Rossy.
Los Locos de La Ceiba. There is a nebula of awesomeness in La Ceiba, conveniently located in front of the community club, and at its center is la familia Rosario: 3 brothers, Elisangel, Bladimir, and Andrys, and their cousin Milenia. I have watched these kids grow up for the last 5 years, and they are just awesome. They bring smiles, security protection during nighttime walks, and ridiculous fun. Elisangel was one of my first students–a shy artist who drew me a picture that I still have.
Another part of this group is Marinel, a lovely young woman who lives next door with her grandmother, sister Mariely (total sweetheart and also a beauty queen), and their mom Mari, a local judge we refer to as Dominican Oprah (if you met her, you’d get it immediately). We went to Marinel’s English class one evening (her English is SO good now) and hung out for a bit on her front porch. She graduated university last year with a law degree and is now practicing in Bonao. She is confident, beautiful, and a total badass–a really great person. Her independence and straightforwardness is refreshing.
One evening the boys–Elisangel, Bladi, and their cousins Robert and Niño–had a basketball game, so I suggested to Milenia that we make signs. She screamed her heart out during the game–in full One Direction-loving, tween mode–and the little cousins Frandy and Aneurys joined us. Frandy is a great kid who also has the voice of a 78 year-old man who has smoked cigarettes all his life. Aneurys is a gem, too–a cousin of the three brothers. I enjoyed getting to know him through his shy shell.
We drank beer, ate fried empanadas, and were silly for hours. Some of my fondest memories come from that club and basketball court–it was great to pass the night with mis locos again. It always feels like a precious moment on the timeline.
Kids, kids, kids. SO much time playing on this trip. Nothing better than undirected downtime. I kept promising Andrys, Aneurys, and Frandy that we would play basketball, so one morning I finally dragged my ass out of bed and we played before they went to school.
It was hot as hell–but we had a great time. (Bonus: I kicked their asses.) We ran back and forth till my stomach couldn’t take any more, and then we sat in the shade sharing water out of my thermos. I was glad to have that moment with those three.
In this picture, I’m minutes from leaving–and you can totally see it on Andrys’ face. He is incapable of hiding emotion; I hope he’s always like that. Aneurys is to my immediate right. He gave me a huge hug when I left, and I can’t wait to return it the next time I see him.
Orlando. I think there are very few people that I would immediately describe as being a privilege to know, but José Orlando Muñoz is one of them. I feel like I’m a better person for having him in my life–and it’s probably true. Orlando is the core of Cucuyo on the Dominican side: making sure critical community connections are made, spelling every kid’s name EXACTLY the way it needs to be on the program certificates, and tying up loose ends. They don’t make people of his quality anymore.
Orlando was very busy while I was there–his daughter Lidianny was sick and he was also rehearsing for a play in Bonao. But we had a few moments here and there to hang out, and I got to see a dress rehearsal of his play. He’s an incredibly talented actor and singer.
All said: Orlando and I can laugh and be silly together in any context. He is a wonderful person that I am honored to call my friend.
Chau, hermosa isla, hasta la proxima.