Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Currently I have installed myself at Altos de Chavon , where I will be working for the rest of the summer. It’s absolutely beautiful – there are lime trees mixed in with oleander trees, flame trees (flamboyant) mixed in with patches of bougainvillea. It’s really quiet, which I appreciate since it’s a hard environment to find in the Dominican Republic (land of bachatas, merengues and Optica Issa multi speaker truck announcements – if you’ve never seen a truck passing by with multiple speakers attached to the flatbed, you’ll see it here – or in Brazil), and I’ve been able to set up a nice area in which to work.

Since part of what I’m working on this summer couldn’t be completed elsewhere, it’s a real privilege to be here and especially at Altos de Chavon, where I’m able to visit the museum’s collection of Taino artifacts, their vast collection of documents, and work with Arlene Alvarez, who has expressed a lot of excitement about this novel and has been super generous with the resources here. There’s a beautifully carved canoe in the museum, and I’ve also been told by many here that there is a resident ghost. Let’s see if the ghost has anything to share with me!

In general, people have been so wonderfully generous. On Friday I boarded the guagua through Villa Mella (an experience which inspired a play), and went to Yamasá. Yamasá is where the Taller Guillén – the craft shop of the Hermanos Guillén – is located. When I went to the Faro a Colón a couple weeks back, I found several ceramic Taino figures in the shop. And on the tags, I found information on where they are made. So I decided to visit the workshop directly. And, it was an incredible, inspiring, moving experience. I’m so glad I did, despite the madness of the journey getting there...I suppose I should say something about the journey, since it inspired a play and all.

Currently there is a project to build an underground metro in the Capital. I will refrain from any public opinion on building a metro on an island and in a country that lacks electricity. Anyway, the main corridor to get to Yamasá is the street Máximo Gomez, which is also where the metro is being built. Even before the metro was being built, Máximo Gomez and the bridge into Villa Mella were famished roads . And I do mean FAMISHED. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the National Cemetery is on Máximo Gomez. The chocolate factory is also there. So while we were driving by the cemetery, I was slightly distracted sniffing the chocolate and coffee in the air. So here we were on Gomez. The bus driver had already left people almost falling onto the sidewalk. One guy got on with his frothy fighting rooster. I didn’t think I could get upset at riding buses anymore, except for the fact that right before crossing the bridge, our guagua driver drove over a sidewalk piled with materials because he didn’t want to wait for the light. After the guagua stopped rocking and everyone on the street stopped shouting at him, and everyone on the bus stopped screaming, I decided that I’m getting too old for this kind of adventure. That’s when I decided to ask the cobrador (simultaneously the person who collects the fare and ensures that you get off where you need to) how long to get to Yamasá – at which point he looks at me and says “We’re not going to Yamasá. Did I say we were?” Of course, totally denying the two times I asked him BEFORE getting on the bus. He incorrectly interpreted my stare as fear. After I clarified that it was actually annoyance, I made him stop the bus, and I walked through traffic and clouds of construction dust to catch the correct bus to Yamasá.

Once on the correct guagua, the journey was actually much smoother. Yamasá itself is a small, hilly town with a Parque Central (a town square) and houses spread across green fields. The Taller Guillén is about 1 km away from the town center and what I first saw when I got there was a small building with beautiful, elaborate murals on the side. We drove into the property and I was immediately humbled by all of the gorgeous pottery embedded in the landscape. It felt like an ile – a Yoruba spiritual community – but with a different kind of energy. I was received by Manuel Guillén, an incredibly humble and generous man who showed me around the workshop. He describe how when the clay is collected (there are four primary kinds of clay they work with, though many more are found throughout the country), it is put in a water bed in order to clean out the impurities. While it is there, people will knead it with their feet. And then let it sit for seven days. They have a gas kiln, and after sculpting the statues and figures, they let it dry and then fire them in the kiln. Few of their items are glazed, most retain their original clay colors. What I love about their work is not only how beautifully they work, but also their intention behind the work. The Guillén brothers, in addition to running this incredible workshop, also head a 102-year-old spiritual lineage of St Anthony (San Antonio); every year on the Sunday closest to June 13 the Guilléns hold a massive fiesta for San Antonio who, in the vudú pantheon is Papá Legbá – healer and path finder. The 5,000 guest fiesta allows the brothers to give to the community of Yamasá, consolidate their power as heritage keepers and town leaders, and to appease the spirits in order to enable abundance for their families. In other words, the space of the workshop was not only amazing for the artwork, but also for the spiritual energy that charges the property.

All of this from a tag I found in the gift shop at the Faro a Colón. Which by the way, is a strange monument. It was built by Balaguer to commemorate the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’ landing. It’s in the shape of a cross, and back when Balaguer was still in power, and the country lacked electricity 18 hours out of the day, the Faro (lighthouse) used to project a lit cross into the sky that could be seen (they say) as far as Puerto Rico (60 miles away). Eh – hem. Inside the Faro is a museum that holds such random items as a Mayan codex (one of four in the world); an iron chest that supposedly encloses Columbus’ remains; Japanese warrior masks and watercolors; an extensive panel on Israel’s various social projects; and a small document on a wall detailing a journey taken by a group of physical and social scientists from the Amazon all the way up to Miami on a canoe. This document intrigued me, because it served to confirm what I’ve read about the movement of populations around the Caribbean, indigenous economic exchange systems parallel to Polynesian systems, and the sharing of similar cultural materials throughout the region.

All of this is serving to inspire my work and to move me forward. I’ll share more shortly, but that is all for today. I’m off.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

It's currently raining here in Santo Domingo. It's hard to believe that just a few days ago I was up in the mountains where the only thing in the world to think about was, "How can I make sure the mule and I can get up and down the paths?" Well, of course there was a lot more to think about, but the mule and I were seriously bonded.

I just made a trip to the South of the Dominican Republic where we (we were a group of four) made a trip across part of the Cordillera Central from Sabaneta to La Cienega. It was a 98 km hike, up 3100 meters (app. 10,000 ft). I had made this trip before, but this time, it was absolutely incredible. We didn't have much rain, and the forest was incredible. There was a fire last year, so most of it was burnt down, but even the new ground cover was gorgeous. There were a lot of agave and the fir trees had their tops to them. We saw parrots, rolos and hummingbirds, among other birds. And we made a two day trip down to El Valle del Tetero, which was absolutely one of the most difficult hikes of my life, but one of the most gorgeous. The valley was stunning, and sacred.

The route, as it were, took us from Sabaneta to Alta Rosa, down to the Mata del Aguacate, where we camped by this beautiful river. We then went up 1,000 meters to El Valle de Macuticu which had fields of wild irises, azulejos (forget me nots?), and wild roses/blackberries. From el Valle we went up La Pelona peak, down to El Valle de Lilis and then down to La Comparticion. We ran into some German journalists who were coming up for a few days, and shared a fire. From there we went down to El Valle del Tetero and finally, the last day, to La Cienega. There are tons of photos on digital camera, but I'm currently trying to work out the technical issues on how to download them. I would really like to share them, because this is an incredible part of the country, and it's close to impossible to find visual images of the flora.

There were several highlights to the trip.

Sleeping by the Piedra del Aguacate, which is absolutely a magical place. I fell asleep to the sound of the river.

The smell of wild roses in the valleys.

That Biuti, the dog accompanying us on the trip, caught a wild boar which we ate for dinner over the course of two days. The first day, it was incredibly gamey, but by the second day, it was absolutely delicious.

Bathing in the river in El Valle del Tetero right by a small waterfall.

Finding the petroglyps in El Valle del Tetero (finding is a strong term - they were indicated).

I was on the hike/trip as part of my research for my second and third novels, one which I'm here to finalize and the second which I have just begun. We're here in the capital, Santo Domingo for this week. I'll be going to Yamasa to visit some artisan workshops, whose mission is to preserve Taino imagery and art. And then back down to San Juan for the Fiestas Patronales on the 24th. Then it's off to Altos de Chavon for the remainder of the summer. And to writing, writing, writing.

I'm thinking of my friends on their journeys this summer...including trips to the concentration camps in Poland, for initiation rites in Nigeria, to Headlands and other residencies...there is always movement in the world. And it's powerful and beautiful.