miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2007

Sickly in Ceiba

This blog post will probably be short/nonsensical because I have malarial dizzyness and can´t quite think straight.

Well actually, as it turns out, I don´t have malaria, but I´ve spent the last few days violently shaking in Central American hospitals, interspersed with gems of American cinema such as Harold and Kumar goes to White Castle. Hopefully this sickness leaves soon.

Where we last left off, I was dancing punta on national Honduran television. I had really hoped that nobody in Ceiba saw that, but alas, I go to get my bicycle fixed (oh yeah! I have a bicycle, its great), the next day, and the guy behind the counter start laughing and says "I saw you dancing on TV with that leeeetle guitar." Sigh.

That Saturday, I went to an backyard expat Holoween party, shocked and amazed to find large quantites of Americans and Europeans living here in little La Ceiba, dressed as wizards and geishas, dancing to classic rock covers played by a Honduran cover band. This was very exciting, as I hadn´t really talked to a single human being minus my hosts since getting into town. The completely open bar led to too much Gifiti, a lethal Garifuna concoction of moonshine and various herbs and grasses, which in turn led to me vomiting on the side of the highway the next morning after approximately 2 hours of sleep. I was going with Aurelio to a Garifuna catholic youth meeting with lots of music in a dope thatched-cabins-on-the-beach town, but more on all that later.

Some absurdities about life in Honduras so far:

- public transportation is all in tricked-out American yellow school busses that got handed down at some point - little seats for little legs and all.

- Though Spanish is indeed the language here, people for some reason say the phrase "rice and beans" exclusively in English.

- Before I got here, I would have to introduce myself like this: ¨My name is Marlon¨¨ ¨WHAT?" "Marlon like Marlon Brando" "Ohhhh". Well... it just so happens that there is a large fried-chicken chain here in La Ceiba called ¨Pollos Marlon," so I get to say "Marlon, you know, like Marlon Chicken"

- My host Aurelio, ridiculous in many ways, among them his extremely tacky and ostentatious mansion (well, a normal house on American standards I guess, but really out of place luxurious here) and his favorite activity of choosing where to hang his countless awards. Which is not to say anything bad against him - he´s a really incredible guy, a brilliant musician, and a person who really works tirelessly for his people. BUT I was shocked that on the 2 hour drive to the Garifuna village he actually listened to the same song on repeat the entire time. Actually. Its his favorite song, an incredibly tacky country song called "Put Your Troubles On My Shoulder"

OK feeling weak, gotta roll.

sábado, 27 de octubre de 2007

Nuevas Tierras

A new place, new things.

Been in Honduras little over a week, and suddenly I am surrounded with new people, new cusines, new language, new reality, and its time to readjust. I spent my first bunch of days in a dusty little cowboy town called Cofradía, where Naomi and 9 other Americans live cramped together in an awesome little compound, where they teach large numbers of rowdy little people how to speak Enlgish, and other life skills. Though I was in an abusrd forgotten corner of the Earth, it was pleasantly college-like living there, spending the night cooking communal meals, drinking beer in hammocks, and making fun of the fat and/or stupid kids in their classes. I guess starred in Miss Naomi´s class as a visiting music teacher, and instructed the 4th grade on the art of beatboxing. Really fun, and hilarious, hopefully I will put a video of the spectacle up here.

Let me tell you about Honduras, or least the part of it I started ot in - think Texas 200 years ago. Really, though, its the wild wild west. Firstly, there is a conspicious lack of people, and endless, gorgeous emerald jungle covered mountains everywhere. The towns are dusty dirt road kind of places where women stay indoors, and cowboy-hated and mustachioed men in sober serious faces play pool in hard-drinking saloons. And when they go out, all cary an old-school revolver in their back pocket. Insanity. The only vehicles are pickup trucks, who will seemingly always stop for you to hitch a ride, and riding in the back of some farmer´s truck through the moutains is an excellent way to fulfill any romantic travelling fantasies.

The food is Mexican-ish, but a little blander, with beans, tortillas, and salty chunks of cheese seeming to make up a large part of the diet. Many restaurants serve three things: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, breakfast and dinner are identical, and pretty similar to lunch. I can´t say I yet understand anything.

Took a weekend trip with Naomi to Copan, famous for crazy Mayan ruins, but I was more impressed by the bizarreness of the town. Due to the backpacker nature of tourists that come to Copan, the place is the Burlington of Central America, the sort of place where Honduran cowboys and curried thai tofu live peacfully side by side. Its absolutely bizarre, though, as the town is filled with sleek cafes and bars owned by painfully-cool-blonde-belgian-expats, fairtrade art stores AND even a higher cowboy hats per capita rate than in Cofradia. The other thing, is that there were no actual tourists there. It was as if they are all waiting for the tourists to come.

All thats past now, and after 6 hours of winding through beautiful jungle mountains, I arrived in my new home, La Ceiba, where I am currently living in the half-built mansion of senator and pop-star Aurelio Martinez. La Ceiba is like a whole other country. It sits sweating on the Carribean Coast, filled with a diverse group of hispanic Hondurans, afro-indigenous Garifuna (more on them later), English-speaking decendents of imigrants from Grand Cayman, and decendents of Americans and Europeans that came to administer or work on the banana plantaions. Built entirely by Chiquita banana, the town looks more like a Southern American city, maybe New Orleans, and has a sort of pan-Carribean culture, where you never know what language to address anybody in. And the only nightlife in Honduras to speak of, with a bustling beachside club strip. No cowboy hats, lots of doo-rags. Every other person is selling lychee nuts on the street, I don´t know why. Most insanely, American country music is one of the most popular music styles here, with thugged out types dancing the latest Nashville two-steps.

Aurelio invited me to play with him headlining a benefit concert for disabled children on national TV. Crilaton 2007, as the event was named, went down last night in a school gym, and had a sort of high-school-talent-show thing going on. Once again, sound failure in the last moment prevented me from being able to play, yet somebody Aurelio tricked me me into dance on stage with him, feebily shaking my hips on national Honduran television. Hopefully nobody in town will remember this.

I did meet some cool musical expats there however who invited me to play a weekly gig with them, and to go to a Haloween party tonight at the subtly-named "Expatriate´s Bar." I am excited for this, but somewat feverish (malaria? dengue? dysentary?), and need to find a costume.

Till the next update, all my love.

jueves, 18 de octubre de 2007

Bored in a Miami Airport, Goodbyes, and Maybe Americans Really Do Suck

I’m in Miami, well, in the airport. Its funny, to me, to reflect that this is the most time I’m going to spend in America for the next year. I was excited for the prospect of a 3 hour layover with wireless internet connections to lose myself in the sweet surrender of email. But actually, I really was looking forward to joys of internet, a lot, and this disturbs me. Alas, no wireless in the Miami airport. Other than that I’ve gorged myself on American things, National Geographics, Starbucks Coffee, Kettle Chips. Strangely… unsatisfying. But how lovely to be able to throw toilet paper in the toilet. It’s the little things.

But really on my mind are the goodbyes, there were many, and how sad to leave a place that really became home. My last week in DR was spent getting ready for the next leg of the journey, doing little things, having fun with Dominican crew. Since my eviction I crashed on the couches (metaphorically) of various members of Santo Domingo’s artist community, eventually ending up renting a spare room in the colonial house of an impoverished gay writer. The kicker – a pool and a roof terrace. Went to the beach in the hippie-mobile of my friend Guillermo, passed up an opportunity to jumpstart my acting career as a French soldier in a History Channel rendition of the Haitian Revolution. Had a goodbye party in which we played music all night in the park, gave hugs and said “nos vemos” and ya, me fui ya.

Amazing though – my recorder that was stolen in the robbery got back to me. How this happened is a long and convoluted story, but basically I went back to Villa Mella a couple of times to talk to community members, tell them about the assault, and ask for them to do their best to help find my stuff, above all my recorder. A drummer fiend Giovanni, who happens to be a brujo or witch, told me it was going to turn up, though I was pessimistic. He spent three whole days entirely investigating my situation, found the thieves through their mothers and girlfriends, found the corner store they traded it to for a night of free beer, bought it back from grocer, and got it to me hours before my flight, all without asking for a penny. This is true kindness. I gave him a bottle of vitamins in return (he said he always wanted vitamins…) a bizarre trade in the last moments of Dominican life in a Santo Domingo pizzeria.

But really, truly sad to leave, but this is the nature of my life now. Get there, get comfortable, get going. I sometimes think I know more people in Santo Domingo than in New York. I can’t help but think that I worked so hard to make a life that worked, and its gone like the dust with a snap of the fingers. But this blog wasn’t supposed to be about feelings.

Being an American living and traveling in the Dominican Republic is met with about three basic responses. One is “I’ll give you 8 thousand dollars to marry me for papers.” Another is, “Oh I have a tio in Washington Heights, I’m waiting for a visa to go myself.” The third is, “Yuck, Americans suck,” translated into the appropriate Dominican slang. To the first two, I sometimes will just smile blankly or will try to explain that although I understand the economic impetus to want to bounce out of the DR, that America’s streets aren’t actually paved in gold and there are certain things about the quality of life that really are better on the island. To the third, I try to convince people otherwise, that the bullshit on American television and in American government doesn’t represent the real people, that we have a rich artistic aesthetic of jazz, diners and beatniks, that we aren’t really that bad. I try to be an embassador of American chillness.

However, on being back in America for three hours, I have to say, maybe Americans really do suck. At least ruddy-faced, frumpy, screechy voiced and unfriendly Floridians. I can already tell it’s going to be rough to be back.

Which is not to say I don’t miss you New York, and all of you beautiful people in it.

Next time in Honduras!

martes, 9 de octubre de 2007

The Colorful Characters of Parque Duarte

This is an old blog article I wrote and never put up. Why not, I figure?

I have the great fortune to live one block from Parque Duarte, a little plaza that has been at the very center of my social life here in Santo Domingo, and the spot where I got connected to virtually everybody in the folklore/Afro-Dominican scene. Think, perhaps, a Union Square, minus hipsters, plus the ability to legally drink in the park, plus a colmado (Dominican for bodega) that sells jumbo sized Presidente beer for a mere $2.50. The park, though packed to the brim on weekends with all sorts of people, is consistently stocked with regulars who seemingly never leave. It is certainly the center of alternative culture in the city, filled with brilliant and mostly broke artists of all generations, drinking and… well, drinking, day by day.

Each crew has a part of the park where they traditionally congregate – the gay community is over by the statue of the horse, then the black-clad heavy metal kids, the domino-toting dykes, and the main part inhabited by my friends, who for lack of a better word, are the hippies of the Dominican Republic. My best buddies are Pipin, a writer and self-proclaimed leader of the "Movimiento Erranticista" who carries himself with constant rock star swagger, Jean Jean, a Haitian actor who has no money but 50 pairs of shoes, and Renato, an artist who almost exclusively paints cats.

When there is nothing to do, I just go down to the park, and am sure to find friends drinking on the benches, a jam session, a man who sells delicious cheese on sticks, some strange performance art, a magic show, at least one crazy person yelling nonsense, and always, good times.

But what I want to write about are some of the more colorful personalities who frequent the park.

Victor Camilo

The unico-en-el-mundo Victor Camilo, now at the ripe age of sixty-something, studied sociology in the states for 19 years (claiming to have all that time never gone to a class without being stoned), and knows seemingly everything. He is usually raving drunk, and never stops talking, using the word "discourse" every seven words. He used to be the official photographer of the Fania All-Stars, and finds himself in every possible situation. He has pictures of himself with Pele, with the Queen of Spain, with everybody imaginable. His friends all think he's over-educated, so he has taken to me because I have a degree from an American college and put up with his verbosity more than most. In the words of Jane's mama, Carol Charles, who shared schooling with him, "He's really crazy."


Yeyo is the black Dominican Elvis. He is obsessed with American blues, country, and rockabilly and consistently talks about how Elvis was the true messiah. He speaks in a low, incomprehensible growl, constantly laughing and hugging people he doesn't know. The man exclusively dresses in black pants, black shirt, black leather vest, and black cowboy hat, and though it may seem that he only owns one outfit, his friends assure me he just has a closet filled with 10 versions of the same clothes. He sings in a poorly-rehearsed but high-spirited psychedelic blues band.

El Rey de Los Perros

The best-known beggar in the Zona Colonial is the King of the Dogs, and lanky fellow who travels with a pack of 30 dogs of all shapes and sizes. Like clockwork, every night he comes over with the same speech. "Please, 5 pesos for the Rey de Los Perros, so he can feed his wolves, etc etc." He speaks to his dogs in a language of whistles, which they seemingly understand perfectly. In one recent park drama, the police beat him up (the police beat people up pretty regularly) for some disrespectful comment, with the whole park protesting and the dogs yelling. What the police didn't know is that the Rey de Los Perros was once a well-regarded amateur boxer. When one argument with the acid-head bum who lives on my corner turned violent, he knocked the guy out with one punch. Don't mess with the Rey de Los Perros.

sábado, 6 de octubre de 2007

Robberies, Jail Breaks, Evictions or Trouble in Paradise

Things have gotten a whole lot crazier since last posting. Best buddies Laura and Vlad were in for the weekend and I was determined to show them a good time. Saturday, the third day they were here, was the fiesta of San Miguel, one of the biggest Saint’s Days of the year, so it was a perfect excuse to bring them along to the parties to see what it is exactly I do here. The whole weekend had a strange energy in the air in general; the day before the lights went out in the entire Zona Colonial, and the torrential tropical rains came down heavier than normal. We checked out one fairly uneventful celebration in the neighborhood and then caught a guagua to Mata Los Indios, Villa Mella, the distant shack-and-mango-tree filled barrio where I do most of my work.

There was, as always, a wonderful huge celebration going on there, with communal food, kids playing, a beautiful altar inside the house, and a live electric band leading the festivities. We got our plate of rice and beans and settled under a tree. San Miguel is syncretized to Belie Belcan, a god of storms, of warriors, and of many other things. The participants were doing a dance that involved circling a machete around people’s heads. We ate delicious passion fruit icees and dug the glory that is a Saturday in Mata Los Indios.

My little buddy Elan, the 8 year old heir to the Cofradia de los Congos, a terrific drummer, and all-around coolest kid in the neighborhood took us down to the river past the town. Along the way we got together a gang of little dudes to guide us, running around and freestyling reggaeton and generally being free-spirited village children. The path went past town, through pastures dotted with soaring palms and jungle, across streams. We chilled out bathing in the river, took pictures of our crew doing flips off an overhanging branch, smoked cigarettes in the shade. We all agreed it was one of the nicest days we ever had.

We returned to town and started heading out on the road that leads to the highway back to the city. Walking along happy-as-can-be, the sun setting past the point that I like to be walking by myself in Villa Mella, a guy in front of us motioned for us to stop, and wham, my first-ever-in-life mugging. Six guys, two of them with guns aimed at us appeared out of seemingly-nowhere, took everything we had, and were gone. And I mean everything – recording equipment, camera, licenses, credit cards, keys, sunglasses, my notebook with my music transcriptions. Everything. Except for Vlad’s coca-cola he was holding, he got to keep that, as one onlooker duly noted.

No time for panic as night sets in the hood and three gringos without even one peso and stranded far far from the safety of home, I panic somewhat anyway and we hurry into the barrio to find someone I know. Luckily, and I repeat, so luckily we run into Giovanni, a friend of mine, drummer, and brujo. He gives us all the money he has, the 5 dollars we need to make it back, and takes us up the back road to the highway. Due to festivities all over Villa Mella, the world’s worst traffic jam awaits us, and the busses leading back to town don’t appear. We get into a public taxi, who doesn’t charge us after hearing our story, and start on our long journey home. On the last leg of the trip in carro publico, a woman in front of us turns around, and with great concern, says “You guys are tourists? You should be really careful, you could get robbed” We smiled amongst ourselves. We didn’t have the heart to tell her.

Miraculously, I somehow left the door of my apartment unlocked. This is really miraculous, because I’ve never done this before, and there would have been no way to get to the last of our money, or even their passports to go home the next morning. Strange happenings.

We head down to Parque Duarte, where a big festival that me and Vlad were supposed to play in is happening, tell our story to my friends. As it turns out, my friend Renato was picked up by the police that morning for no reason, and he’s stuck in a 12 meter cell with 37 murderous thieves. Off to the rescue.

We get to the jail, where various sinister, pot-belied, gray-uniformed policemen are sitting around and laughing as horrible screams of pain are coming from the cell. I tell them I am a respected anthropologist and they have arrested my associate, a vital contributor to Dominican culture. For the first time, my official letter of introduction from the Watson Foundation comes in handy. When four white people show up to the jail at 1am to get a guy out, the police respond. They let him out, and Renato comes out of that stinking cell the happiest man in the world. He was going to be sleeping on the floor in his own urine until Wednesday. As the cops even admitted themselves, he was picked up for having suspicious looking hair, little pointy dreads. Que pais. I earned myself a free Renato original (my boy is a badass painter), and its time for celebration. Our spirits, pretty fucking low, have been lifted.

The night continues and we go to a crowded palos drumming-house-party with a huge altar covered with millions of kinds of fruit, and we dance till the early morning singing ancient songs to San Miguel. Life is absurd, sometimes. More often than not these days.

Well my friends have left, and here I am with no money, my contacts lost with my cellphone, my transcriptions gone, my equipment gone, seemingly starting from scratch after months of work. But I’m alive, and all things considered, feeling allright. After getting robbed like that, there is this feeling of violation I’ve never known, of helplessness. Its going to be a while before I start to live without an ugly tasting ball of fearfulness lodged somewhere in my throat. Traveller’s innocence robbed, in a way, and after months of happily roaming where I please and having marvelous adventures, its time to step back and remember after all that I am a conspicuous gringo in an impoverished land. Piece my piece I’m putting my life back together.

Its rained all week since, and there is a certain gloom in the air. I’ve been slacking on doing my investigation and spending lots of time cooking dinner parties with my friends and digging the last moments of my glorious Santo Domingo life. My buddy Jean Jean and his Spanish girlfriend Cristina have been crashing on my floor, and it’s nice to have housemates again. Thursday was my third show with Duluc, this one also fraught with sound failure, but an amazing, drunk, and enthusiastic crowd. As he went around the corner after the show to get cigarettes, he too was arrested for suspicious hair, until the police realized he was a famous musician.

The bad news, though, is that I just got kicked out of my apartment today by my landlord, under accusations of “haciendo coro con tigueres y enanos,” or “having parties with swindlers and dwarves.” While my friends do have suspicious hair, mostly, they are certainly not tigueres (the word basically meaning delinquent/ rapscallion). As for the dwarf… I have to admit I didn’t invite him over and somehow new having a dwarf over would mess my shit up. So shitily, I have to find a new place to stay in three days. I will really miss my apartment, it’s become home, and symbolic of the settled-ness I feel in this country. Oh well, time to ramble.