A view from the field…
Lounging by the pool at our 27-storey hotel amongst the urban chaos of Santo Domingo, it’s difficult to remember just how we got here. It’s sunny and about 30 degrees Celsius; there’s cheesy pop music gently rippling from nearby speakers and an atmosphere of calm despite the cacophony of sirens and horns echoing from the streets below. Behind the city skyline on the horizon is a perfect blue stripe of ocean. I’m enjoying the sun for an extra hour between rehearsals, though to be honest there’ll be plenty more time for this, what with there being just two short gigs at either end of an endlessly sunny week in the Caribbean, and one rehearsal day – today – to prepare. ‘We’re not on holiday,’ we sensibly tell ourselves, though perhaps this time we almost are.
A couple of days ago I was at home in cold, wintry Newcastle, solemnly gazing at my diary, desperately wondering how best to fill the following week. Sometimes, as in this case, last-minute gigs come up just at the time you need them to, though they’re not usually quite this far-fetched.
I’m suddenly attempting to pick up some Spanish again, in a vague attempt to interact with any number of the friendly locals. Fortunately they seem to speak slightly slower here than the way people speak in Spain (at a million miles an hour), and act incredibly appreciative whenever you utter a single word in the native language. This bodes well for us novices.
In this particular part of Santo Domingo there are few tourists, and most foreigners seem to be here on business, having travelled south from the States. We therefore encounter a lot of staring as we walk down the street, as locals unashamedly ogle these pale outsiders who rarely see the sun. The roads are fast and hectic, and most cars that pass seem to be lacking parts, like bumpers, doors and the like, and very few have license plates. Yet, from the perspective of a pedestrian, they are the most courteous drivers I’ve come across, and crossing these busy roads becomes a simple matter of confidently stepping out and making yourself known.
Yesterday we walked down the road from the hotel in search of food, passing all the American fast food chains – Wendy’s, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Creme and the rest – until settling at a small sandwich place that looked more like an off-license with a few tables in the front. We ordered cervezas and sandwiches from a surly, matron-like Dominican woman, received the beers immediately and waited and waited and waited for the food, all the while listening to a loud, garrulous man in a cap, presumably a regular, who was prone to random outbursts of excitable shouting, but all in good spirits. The service in most places tends to be so hilariously slow that by the time you receive your meal you’ve forgotten what you ordered, making the whole experience full of brilliant surprises. There’s never any apology for how long it took, or for anything else, but time slows down and life seems that much easier simply for choosing not to care.
Later on we discovered ‘happy hour’ at the hotel bar – more like ‘ecstatic everything-is-free two-hours every-freaking-day’ – and exchanged our stories from the road of gigs been and gone over buckets of face-shakingly strong sangria and bar snacks. I got the feeling this might set the tone for an enjoyable week ahead.
And now for a little reflection…
The first gig turned out to be on the 27th floor of our hotel, with a panoramic view through glass walls. I remember entering a stage from the balcony outside and experiencing a flash of green lights and smart phones, a room full of cameras (presumably with faces behind them) and a backing track revealing what happens when samba meets pop. It was short and sweet, in contrast to our 10-hour rehearsal day, and followed by big-screen videos and a seemingly high-profile rap group. In the dressing room we learned the crucial pre-performance phrase ‘muchas muerdas!’ – like a cruder version of ‘break a leg’ – from a very amicable stage manager, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of the sun setting over Santo Domingo and its surrounding mountains. When you get used to putting on your gig make-up in a basement with no windows, this sort of thing feels pretty special.
For our first day off we took a taxi to the city’s Colonial Zone, a historic neighbourhood famed for being the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World, and now a World Heritage Site. Our driver took the scenic route to get us there, by which I mean she drove us through an immense variety of neighbourhoods. We travelled down narrow streets, every humble home painted a different bright colour: splashes of red, orange, blue, green and yellow, a vibrant backdrop to the everyday activities of locals who sold fruit or took a break sitting on the bonnets of mashed-up cars and in deck chairs watching the world go by. Through open doorways we caught glimpses of everything from conga drums to fresh hanging meat, and the occasional siesta-taker. It was at once familiar and like nowhere I had ever seen.
Reaching the Colonial Zone the buildings suddenly got grander, the streets cleaner and the colours softer. We could have been somewhere in Europe (though I suppose that’s more or less the point). We headed via cigar and panama hat shops towards the Parque Colón, a grand square with restaurants on one side overlooking the stunning cathedral (Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor) on the other, and a statue of Columbus in the centre. This was evidently the tourist trap we had expected it might be – if you go for a day trip to Santo Domingo, this is where you go, and we could see why. We sat at a restaurant on the square, gazing around at beautiful buildings, a mix of excitable tourists and laid-back locals, and a mass of pigeons to rival that in Trafalgar Square. Men sat in the shade playing checkers and draughts on large boards supported by their laps; groups of Dominican kids on school trips explored the historical buildings around them; and Merengue musicians played for everyone’s entertainment – except for the occasional timid tourist afraid of being hounded for money, people stopped to watch and dance and there was a general atmosphere of sunny festivities.
While we waited for our food (fortunately time flies when you’re having fun), two young Dominican men approached our table, armed with guitar and guiro (in this case a metal scraper played with an Afro comb). Luckily for them, we’re never timid tourists, and so, as they got started on a Merengue version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, the forks and spoons came out and we got a rowdy percussive jam on the go, ropy vocals included. After putting up with us throughout their otherwise flawless performance, they deserved every peso we could offer them.
After filling our stomachs with pizza, pasta and all those other typically Dominican foods (we did attempt to find local dishes, it just wasn’t particularly easy), we decided the best way to explore was by the Chu Chu Colonial, otherwise known as a train for children, except that this was an adult-sized one, where they gave you sophisticated historical information about your surroundings. As the road train set off we soon realised the whole experience was something of an attack on the senses: with a Spanish-language audio tour coming through some loud speakers, an enthusiastic group of about fifty young locals making up all the remaining space after the five of us, an English-language audio tour happening solely for us through one very loud speaker interspersed with Latin music wherever possible, and all of the general city hubbub happening around us. It wasn’t even possible to see half of the buildings we were meant to be learning about beyond the low roof of the train, and so I resigned myself to simply enjoying the friendly greetings of locals as we passed them with a wave and an ‘Holá!’. It was amazing just how approachable everyone was – even those gazing into the abyss from chairs down alleyways or sitting alone in dark rooms – and how far a small greeting can go. Combine that with the sunshine and endless brightly coloured buildings and you’ve got yourself a recipe for contentment.
The following day we took a taxi to Juan Dolio, the beach paradise we’d naively expected to step out onto directly from the plane. Our driver told us it would be no better than the two other tourist-infested, litter-filled resorts he’d taken us to first, but fortunately he was wrong – it was everything we had imagined: white sand, turquoise sea perfect for swimming, palm trees, unspoiled views, and most importantly no other visitors. It was also not as far away from Santo Domingo as one might expect – Punta Cana on the eastern side of the island is better known for its stunning beaches, but is about a three-hour drive away. Here, about one hour from the capital city, the beach and the bar was all ours. So, it was 11am already and easily time for a Piña Colada. This was the most relaxing day I have ever had (and probably ever will) on a work trip. I will cherish every coconutty, rummy, sunburn-inducing moment.
A final day off before the next gig involved a visit to must-see natural wonderland, Los Tres Ojos National Park. The Three Eyes (Tres Ojos) are three underground lakes, hidden in enchanting caves laden with stalagmites, stalactites and immense vines – it’s no wonder both Tarzan and Jurassic Park were filmed there. These perfect azure lakes were enjoyed by local swimmers right up to 1972 when the site became a National Park. A Tarzan-like character still lingers in the cave’s shadows: having remained almost a permanent fixture since the sixties, the wizened (but presumably very fit), bearded, half-naked man climbs the rocks every time a large group of tourists approaches, and from a great height, as if out of nowhere, dives into the six-metre-deep Lago La Nevera to a roar of applause. After a short, quiet boat ride across this lake, this was perhaps the last thing we were expecting.
On the other side there were more surprises: pillars as big as old trees, where stalagmites had met with stalactites over hundreds of thousands of years, running seamlessly from floor to ceiling. According to our guide it would take more than 100 years to grow one inch – that gave us a pretty good idea of how old and remarkable this place, which was once entirely immersed in sea water, actually is. After the three underground lakes, there was one more lake immersed in sunlight, surrounded by cliffs covered in trees and their elongated vines. The water here was teeming with fish, which we were given morsels of bread to feed, and there was a wooden platform which extended slightly further out towards the sunlight. If it wasn’t such a popular photo spot for the other tourists, we could have stood there and pondered for hours.
After all the hard work of being tourists for days on end, we deserved a proper night out. Things we discovered on a night out in the Zona Colonial include: cativias (also spelled catibias) filled with chorizo and cheese, a local and incredibly tasty street food dish; that sushi is surprisingly brilliant in the Dominican Republic (what with being so far from Japan) and available in most places; and that club nights playing Merengue are few and far between, but if you want hardcore house and techno from Swedish DJs you can go pretty much anywhere. All of our enjoyable antics that evening were due to the help of an incredibly kind and hospitable young woman who went to the ends of the earth to sort us out despite being under no obligation.
Finally the day had arrived that Carnival was upon us. On Shrove Tuesday in the UK, we make pancakes. Here in the Caribbean, they throw the world’s most insane party, and apparently it goes on for pretty much a whole month. That funky pancake batter doesn’t seem so edgy now, eh? Our final day in the Dominican Republic was spent entertaining and subsequently being entertained by the party-goers at one of the biggest Carnival events on the island, in La Vega. We headed north in a mini bus with all our gear, on long stretches of road surrounded by mountains and lines of palms, a constant stream of Cuban Son and Bossa Nova on the stereo. We passed small villages full of life, pottery shops and long lines of vibrant rugs – or were they carnival capes? – catching brief flashes of fluorescent pink, blue, green and orange.
Carnival itself turned out to be one of the loudest events I’ve ever come across, as we discovered when we rocked up behind the main stage, sub-bass dance tunes blasting from one side and hoards of drummers bashing away at random on the other. The stage was enormous, about ten feet above the audience, and as we headed out there above the crowds for our first show of the day things went from surreal to crazy. At Carnival people drink and dance from the beginning of the day to the bitter end, so the atmosphere is lively all day long, to say the least. There were people in colourful matching t-shirts filling the backstage VIP area, with glitter on their faces and in their beards, and just when we were ready to go onstage for the second time, troupes of what looked like dragons in various team colours turned up. It turns out these represented the Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil), the mischievous main character of the carnival, who typically carries a ‘Vejiga’ (a faux animal bladder filled with air) with which he whips innocent bystanders. Fortunately the whipping must have been banned in the backstage area, but we learned about it the hard way the second we ventured out into the main arena after our gig.
Backstage, the Devils gathered around us, chanting ‘Gringo! Gringo!’ (a Latino term for white American or foreign folk), until we started up a spontaneous bossa groove, which seemed to make them dance with delight. Next minute, we were called to the stage and charged onto a catwalk to perform amongst ecstatic party-goers and confetti canons, and then charged back again to continue playing to our by-now admiring backstage audience. We gave all the energy we had, and it was worth every ounce of sweat and every lost breath. It’s not often you get to play drums at Carnival in the Caribbean, and after the incredible week we’d been given, we gave it everything.