Saturday, June 27, 2009

there is much to be said about the dominican republic, which has been on my mind lately as i try to compile the things from my trip. in this area i'd like to just bring up the personal stuff, although sometimes it is impossible not to mix in the professional. it was very tropical there, and we noticed that almost as soon as we landed, even in miami, where storms threatened and the plane was moved from gate to gate as a chicago-bound flight was delayed for hours. i myself had just come from chicago, on a plane full of hondurans who had been to a honduras-usa soccer game; one kid that i talked to was a little disappointed that the usa had won, and on top of that, most americans such as myself were not even aware of the game, much less traveling across a continent to attend. when we landed in santiago, a highland traditional town in the d.r., we could feel the different atmosphere right away. i woke up bright and early the first morning to a rooster crowing; it reminded me of mexico, and of the way you didn't know quite what you would get at a restaurant or a motel.

the people we met were generous and friendly, and took us from place to place, from lunch to dinner, giving us dominican food and dominican coffee. two people i liked immediately were jose and manny, leaders at the center in santiago, generous to a fault, and interested in all things usa, baseball, jazz, obama hope posters, etc. they more or less ran the center at santiago, but also made sure we had what we needed, to the best of their ability. thouogh our technology never arrived, or was not up to the job, at our presentations, people remained nice to us, and if they found our presentations over their head, or wild, they never let on. people at motels and restaurants were similar; they seemed to have good enough english, but didn't always let on, if their comprehension was not quite up to the task.

there were signs of a gulf between worlds- one, the rich & fat world of the usa, two, the poor third-world scramble of the d.r. cities. one young boy at the motel gave me a guilt-drilling stare, though i wasn't interested in a shoe shine; finally on the last day i gave him some money, as he'd worked for it more or less constantly over a period of three days. it was the third world, in the sense that so many lived with so little, and even they were wealthy, compared to haiti, which was right next door.

at the dominican american center, where the conference was, it rained, and rained often; in my plenary, it lightninged, thundered, poured. a little garden next to the building housed bananas, an avocado tree, mangos, yuca, that kind of stuff, put there by the workers and tended meticulously. when the sun came out i would be covered with sweat; at night, in the rain, manuel gave us a ride around santiago, and showed us downtown, the monument, the fort. it was home of manny ramirez, or so one man said; it seemed like everyone, down to the last busboy, could talk baseball, and wanted to. in general, the food was fantastic, such things as sangcocho (meat soup), moro, mangu (a kind of mashed plantain), and mangos, mangos, mangos. i heard stories about ubu de playa (sea grapes)- how people ate them before they were truly ripe, and so had gone out of style as too tangy. be patient, people! get your grandmothers to tell you how to handle it! i was given the best of food, but one night jose had some kind of melted-cheese-on-taco meat dish and shared it with me- greasy, heavenly, but, actually made me sick by morning, i think.

my spanish was quite terrible, but i managed, got around pretty well, and said what i wanted. sometimes i'd plan out a good sentence, only to be hit with good, fast spanish in return; in general, i was unable to keep up. i was grateful that so many people knew english.

my co-presenter, who ran workshops on using cell-phones as a classroom tool, was afraid to turn on her cell phone and have to pay hundreds in roaming fees, so she ran whole workshops on other people's phones, since they didn't bring her one until the very end. her classes would post a class roster of photos on the web, all self made and uploaded; then they'd work on verbs and go from there. i found myself also unable to do what i'd intended, and bursting in sweat from the tropical heat, almost became faint, but kept it together, and got through the first two days (santiago) fine. but the night of the second day, in a restaurant that had four televisions, all on american baseball (one on the indians- a sight i never see)- this was when I got the food that didn't agree with me; i was sick the following morning. that morning- the morning of the ride to santo domingo- we saw the whole country, right down the valley of the central highway, with roads going up in both directions, toward countryside, down into villages, out onto farms, up into the highland rainforests. it was a busy country, hard at work, with lots of travelers out on the road; our guide drove in a very dominican way, all the while giving us a tour in english.

in santo domingo now, we were given a plush hotel, with a buffet breakfast, now all you can eat, mangos, papayas, pineapple, mangu, whatever i recognized. santo domingo is a capital city; the caribbean sea crashed mercilessly on the black coral shores by the seaside road in front of the hotel. here, it was a much more urban scene, and we met the ambassador, cultural attaches, all kinds of people, including an artist who had done an exhibit for the center to coincide with the conference. we ate dominican food at night, danced merengue, and i went to the hotel pool a couple of times, and had all-you-can-eat mangos for breakfast. still it was very hot; we were drenched after just walking a couple of blocks. again, the dominican coffee kept me going; they gave us spending money and were very generous with us, in general. one young haitian student was assigned to get me copies, water, whatever i wanted; we talked linguistics, languages, french creole, and the three he knew. he seemed to be a nice fellow, using his skill at language and language teaching to come to the states, maybe, or so he said. the other usher was haitian also.

at one point we were taken to the old city, down by where columbus lived, or where his brother lived, anyway; and, all the other spanish heavies (cortez, pizarro, etc.) had ghosts there too as well as the damas for whom a certain calle was named. history oozed out of this part of town- it was the 1500's, after all; and i realized that their columbus complex was much deeper than ours; by that i'm referring to general mixed feelings about cristopher and all he had done to/for the new world. at one point we paused by the statue of a famous governor, ovando, and it was generally agreed that he was bad, though feelings weren't so unanimous about columbus himself.

toward the end of my stay in santo domingo i walked down onto the sea, to see if i could put my foot in it; it crashed up against the black coral, however, and i was unable to. furthermore, people told me that it was dirty up near the city, but that on the beaches it was greener and bluer and much cleaner; this i could see. the road along the sea was called the malecon (mah-lay-cone) and was easy to cross, unlike lakeshore drive, for example; who could forget the brown lizards, or the yellowish purple crabs along the shore there, or the statue of the nino descalzo (barefoot boy) along the way to downtown? we ate fabulous food everywhere and i practiced my spanish on simple signs: empuje (push), pare (stop), salida (exit). back in the hotel, i ran into an old cesl student, working on the island fixing hyundai generators with his uncle, adamant about the fact that he was not a hyundai employee.

our presentations still suffered some disconnect. in both cities, it was unclear how much the teachers actually wanted to be there, or were able to use the information or even understand it. teachers' listening seemed uniformly better than it was, better than their writing in particular. they had few questions; they had no comments, and i wasn't used to this. when i asked them things i rarely got definite answers. i still try to sort it out, and say, ultimately, that i hope relations continue, and i can continue to be helpful. it's a special place, a unique place, down there south of florida; it's an extension of the east coast, where they still love baseball, where there's a kind of sadness in the air when it rains, where there are miles of beautiful beaches, but a statue of a "nino descalzo" (?) or barefoot child, perhaps one who grows up, wants to be in baseball, and is willing to do anything to achieve that dream. i was happy to see that so many had not lost their spirit; i was treated with grace, hospitality, and genuine friendship at every turn. for that, i am truly grateful.


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