It’s mid-morning and the merengue, coming from different corners of the village, reaches the porch where I’m sitting and makes me smile. One is fast and in my face. Another is slow and suave. Almost romantic. And the third one is medium tempo and just right. Across the street–the dirt road, that is–local men are jamming to the fast version on homemade drums.
I feel like drumming with the guys or maybe dancing with one. But I stay exactly where I am, rocking on a chair on the porch.
The reason? I’m relaxing and beginning to recognize the somewhat unfamiliar (but becoming more familiar) aroma coming from the kitchen, and I’m ready to eat what’s being cooked.
Angela (Mamá), my former student Ely’s mother, is preparing a Dominican staple known as “mangú”–platanos (green bananas) cooked and mashed, with a dash of orange or lime juice–or vinegar–mixed in and topped with sauteed onions. She’s smiling as she serves it to me. I’m smiling as I sample it. It’s rico (delicious).
Somewhere nearby, a dog is barking; soon, others in different corners of the village follow along. It turns into a canine chorus.
“Algo pasó?” I ask. Did something happen? We’re eating and I’m now in mangú heaven.
“No. Algién está pasando en bicicléta. Nada mas,” says Ely. “Someone’s riding by on a bike,” she says. “That’s all.” I figure that the canine neighbors are curious and claiming their turf simultaneously. That’s what they do in most villages.
Now, a rooster is crowing….just because…and in the distance, a baby is beginning to cry. Next door, a toddler is giggling. Down the street, a high-pitched saw is screeching as it’s being used on metal. And holding it all together is a light and gentle breeze, making the perfect non-humid 80-degree weather even more perfect.
Where am I?
In Mao Valverde. Well, actually, one of its villages known as “La Yagua.” About an hour or so from the Haitian border. It’s off the beaten path, for sure, and the kind of place that operates at such a slow pace that it’s easy to lose track of time.
Several hours pass and I’m still sitting on the porch, not doing much of anything. And liking it, but ready for some action.
“How about a walk?” I ask. I know the real campo–countryside–is just a few minutes away by foot. I can imagine there are hardly any out there. And most likely, serious quiet. Just a few sounds of nature.
“Vamos,” says Angela. And after dinner, we head out. Ely stays behind to make some phone calls.
We wind our way through the dirt streets and houses, some that seem to be solid structures like the one I was in–with real walls and floors–and others that seem to have been put together with whatever was available. Sometimes just pieces of metal to fill in the gaps.
Many of the neighbors are Dominicans; some are Haitians–migrant farm workers, most likely. According to says Angela, some of the locals are somewhat middle class and relatively comfortable (like her family); others are poor and struggling, per Dominican standards.
Meeting the Locals
Angela radiates warmth and caring–positive energy–and so, I feel comfortable walking around the village with her.
Most people say hi to both of us–her first, of course. And they’re friendly. Some just say hi to her and look at me. It’s not everyday that they see a gringo in their neighborhood.
Without her, I suspect I might feel uncomfortable. Not in danger, but just a little out of place. Travelers like myself are extremely rare here, after all. And I find the feeling of being an outsider…who’s on the inside…both exciting and a tiny bit disconcerting. The pace of life and the vibe are so different that they disorient me.
Eventually, we leave the residential part of the village and end up in that place I was hoping for. It’s lovely. Palm trees set against a mountainous backdrop. The sun setting and the sky turning several shades of magenta. The real “campo.” The country.
And I love it. I don’t feel like I’m on an island; I almost feel like I’m somewhere in South America in the mountains.
“It gets dark early here,” Angela says.
“Good idea to head back now?”
“Yes. Vamos. It’ll be dark when we return.” Our entire conversation, by the way, has been only in Spanish, and this has transported me to another linguistic realm–one of rich, expressive vocabulary, which I sometimes prefer over English.
We pass the same people and others on our way back and the sun is quickly disappearing. The village is still full of life–and the sounds of merengue and the smells of whatever each mom is cooking–and I’m happy to be there. I’m not sure what time it is (I suspect it’s around 7 pm) and that’s a good thing. It means I’m in the moment.
“Hola!” Ely greets us. She’s smiling, as she usually is. I think to myself–she’s a truly happy person, isn’t she. She’s home again. And she loves it. As much as she likes the US, the DR is her real home. And I am grateful to be her guest. I understand why she likes it. It’s warm and comfortable. Womblike in some way.
Now the three of us are on the porch, chatting about everything–fruit, music, men, whatever. Girl talk. And it’s nice. I feel right at home.
Eventually, and to my surprise, the sounds of the village die down a bit just in time for us to go to sleep. Not completely, however. Somewhere in Mao–and La Yagua, of course–there’s still some merengue playing and someone dancing to it. And someone making and enjoying mangú.
More About Mao
Mao means “where two rivers meet”–or “surrounded by water.” The town of Mao is near the River Mao, which flows into the River Yague del Norte. The last part of the name refers to José Desiderio Valverde, former President of the Dominican Republic.
The name of the village I was in, La Yagua, means the brown part of a coconut tree, which is used to build houses/huts. Here’s a map showing Mao in relation to the rest of the DR. As you can see, I was close to Haiti and far from many resort areas.
Your Thoughts? Experiences?
If you had the chance, would you visit a village like the one I’ve described? Would you spend the night? Why/why not?
If you have had this sort of experience, where was it and what was it like? How did you feel being there?
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