viernes, 24 de agosto de 2007

Ain´t no MTA

One thing that never gets old is Santo Domingo’s inane transportation system, I find it endlessly fascinating. That is – there is no system to speak of, but out of the chaos has emerged what is probably the world’s most efficient way of getting around.

Maybe you’ve tried convincing a New York cab driver to let 5 people in a cab once upon a time? Not easy to do. Zipping around Santo Domingo’s endless forlorn boulevards and twisty cobblestone alleys are carros publicos, barely-running taxis that drive a fixed route, piling up to 8 or 9 people into a regular sedan. Traveling in the publicos is almost always highly uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. Five strangers in the back seat, an overweight Dominican woman on your lap, merengue blasting out of the radio, the driver without his hands on the wheel, and lively conversation going on, all at insane speeds. Its great, and costs about 35 cents.

Hailing a publico takes some practice. First, you have to learn to recognize them from regular cars. This is easy because nearly all publicos have either a broken windshield, a missing door, or just a generally battered exterior. This is probobly related to the complete disregard for traffic lights, and general insanity of driving in the country. Secondly, you have to make sure you get the right vehicle, which you do by pointing in the general cardinal direction you are heading with one hand, and waving the other one towards the floor. Someone will eventually pick you up.

Complementing the publicos are guaguas, similarly battered minbuses (think volkwagon hippy-mobile style) that are better for longer distances. These range from luxury air conditioned models to vehicles that are seemingly held together entirely by strategically placed pieces of rope. Guaguas are operated by two-man teams, one driver who keeps his eyes on the road, and a cobrador who hangs out the door of the vehicle doing his best to convince any and all passersby, irrespective of the their destination, to hop on board. These are slightly more expensive, at 50 cents a ride.

Despite the complete lack of central organization – this system works amazingly well. Though outside of my colonial hood Santo Domingo ranks among the least pedestrian-friendly cities I’ve seen, getting around is really no problem. You never wait more than a few minutes to find some vehicle that will take you where you want to go, and for pocket change. The intense competition between the army of carros and guaguas drives down prices, and transportation is the most affordable aspect of an otherwise-not-that-cheap island. You can get clear across the country for the cost of a NYC subway ride.

Interestingly enough, there is a giant elevated train under construction, leading from the poor northern barrios to the city center. This is the hot conversation topic of the day – nobody thinks its worth the absurd amount of money pumped into the project, and the guaguas work just fine. It’s yet another case of the government’s weird spending priorities, mostly centered around beautifying the country for the tourists sake, or at least that’s what Dominicans are saying. As the most visited country in the Carribean, the DR’s economy revolves entirely around tourism, though the cash stays firmly in the cellars of the all-inclusive vacation gulags on the coast. Dominicans are overwhelmingly poor for how much money comes through this country. And the government builds swanky trains and pretty highway-side landscaping instead of schools.

The up-side for me – the Politur, a police force entirely dedicated to keeping gringos out of trouble. Because the government knows that one headline about a dead foreigner could mean serious declines for the sun-and-sand industry.

Anyway, I have to go practice: I have a gig accompanying Duluc on mandolin tonight in the central plaza! Just me and him, and all of Friday night out listening – I am terrified.

martes, 21 de agosto de 2007

The Beggining

Compadres... you have arrived at my first ever blog posting. I don’t know how I feel about it, but here we go. I find as I begin my journey wondering the Western Hemisphere that having crazy adventures just isn’t the same without anyone to share them with. Thus: I will blog, and hopefully some of you will read.

For those that don’t really know whats going up, the project that the Watson Foundation gave me cashmoney to do is, obstensibly, study five types of music in five different countries that share the following things: strong roots in African music and having been largely ignored on both the commercial and adacemic levels. Making recordings, interviewing musicians, taking lessons, etc, etc.

And so I live in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, in the godamn tropics, far from the all-inclusive beach resorts that make the DR the vost turisted country in the Carribiean. And rhree weeks into my new life, I have to say that things aren’t too bad. I’ve survived Hurricane Dean, learned to deal with being endlessly harrangued by taxistas and prostitutes, and have battled the biggest flying cockaroaches you have ever seen. But I’ve also made friends with a crew of funky-ass musicians, jammed with Juan Luis Guerra’s piano player, recorded a band at a traditional vodu ceremony, followed a pilgrimage to a cattle-blessing festival in the countryside, and attended a swanky party that the president was at. It goes on.

Which is not to say it was easy at first. Getting off the plane with mandolin in hand, I had a sudden urge to shit myself. I was arriving in a foreign land with no idea what I was doing, I knew nobody, and I barely remembered how to speak Spanish, let alone Dominican. My hotel was inhabited entirely by nasty, smelly, old European sex tourists. It rained all the time, I felt constantly in danger, and I tried my hardest to never leave my bed. But the remarkable thing I’m learning about truly independent travel is that you learn, and fast. You learn how to catch a bus, how to not get swindled, the foods, places, and sayings. Survival instincts kick in, and with nobody to talk to, you busy yourself with figuring shit out.

Specifically, I live in the Zona Colonial, the very first settlement in the Americas founded by Columbus himself, and its definitely the neighborhood to be in, filled with a mix of crumbling colonial buildings, old men crowded around serious curbside chess games, surprisingly hip bars tucked between the ruins, angry crippled bums and starving artists. I have a nice little one-bedroom apartment to myself, and despite frequent power outages and the occasional gecko, its an awesome place. I learned quickly that candles are not for ambiance, but for finding your way to the godamn bathroom when the light goes. I also learned to be able to sleep living across the street from a karaoke bar blasting Latin pop hits all through the night. The bar is called Bicycle, and, inexplicably, is decorated with large, shiny posters of various kinds of bicycles. A strange theme for a karaoke bar, it seems to me.

Most importantly, there is a falafel place two blocks away, run by an awesome Israeli-Dominican named Isaac. It was the moment I found this out that I started to have hope. Falafel is a very serious matter.

My introduction to a social life in this country, though, came from Duluc, one of the only contacts I had in this country. As a kid, Jose Duluc traveled all over the countryside learning regional Afro-Dominican drumming styles, and later became one of the first people to bring the music from the countryside to the cities, and fuse it with other styles. At nearly 50, extremely skinny with a head full of dreadlocks, Duluc continues to be a complete maniac. He has been rich and famous twice, lost everything twice, and lives day to day despite being a celebrity in his country. With at least twice my energy and a mind containing endless wisdom, he is an inspiring presence. He has also taken the job of teaching me this music very seriously, which is awesome for me.

Through Duluc I was introduced to a circle of people vaguely centered around admiration for him, of all ages, talents, and persuations, who hang out in a plaza called Parque Duarte, two blocks from my house. The park has the reputation, among respectable Dominicans, as being the worse place in the country, filled with potheads, vagabonds, and homosexuals. This is true – it’s also a center of youth culture in the city, and a place where a real movement of sorts is developing.

I came at a fortuitous time – all of a sudden young Dominicans are growing their dreads out, taking the traditional palos and gaga music that has been repressed by Eurocentric upper classes for hundreds of years, and wilding out. Various groups are fusing folkloric music with jazz/rock/reggae, with Batey Cero leading the pack, and jams go down in the park nightly. A lot of these kids are doing the same thing as me, and going out to the barrios to record and learn from communities that have been keeping some serious musical traditions alive for a long time. And smoking a lot of pot. But all that is for another post.

Anyway, the point is that things are happening, and with motivation, more and more things will happen. This is enough for the first post, but I hope to be updating regularly with pictures, recordings, rants, diatribes, and stories. Adiiiiioooos.