Saturday, February 11, 2012

Trafficking with the Moon (by David House, first impressions)

I must say I’ve had worse international trips. Three legs, middle seats on two—I am in the seats, after all, to serve the airline, and not the other way ‘round— but short waits between. Then (as you know if you’ve parachuted into a new country) the mild background fog of unreality, until the senses accept one’s new circumstance. O. I really am here.

I arrived late, by taxi, with Josh, who met me at the airport. The kids were still up, to come and exclaim “Baba!,”and cling, “dripping off me” as my beloved says. And to bed.

The next day the fog lifted, to save my life. That is to say, Josh, the kids and I went for a walk along the sidewalks. Growing out of the middle of one, about a mile along, was a thin wire, stretched up to guy a power pole. Fiendish, and as it turned out, only one example among several of an urban obstacle course which, if the purpose was to totally defeat the blind and maim the daydreamers, could not have been designed any better. Just a bit further along, for example, we were welcomed by a gaping hole, half the size of the path. I grabbed Zora, who wanted to be carried anyway.

Traffic is similar: casually lethal. The people in the DR don’t drive angry, as is the case in so many countries, but the range of styles is definitely there, and one can never tell whether the approaching vehicle is driven by someone who likes to play “Frogger”, or someone nurtured on the milk of human kindness: a mensch.

Because the disappearing lines in the roads are universally regarded as a mere suggestion, only some of the traffic signals work, and many of the streets are narrow and the intersections are… call it “intimate”… there is a lot of subtle negotiation going on to replace the administrivia of mere traffic laws. Down the street you go, in a four-wheel amble. You approach an intersection, slowing. That one, there, waiting to go left, appraises you with a bland look which nevertheless has penetration. Have you slowed enough? Is your pause too long? Languid milliseconds make the difference. He will go, and several behind him will be pulled along into the vacuum of your apparent indecision.

“Right of way” is also determined by the vehicle: newer, more expensive, and above all very large? You go first. The proletariat, huddled masses, are left to negotiate, and those who habitually hesitate may die of hunger or thirst, waiting for a break in traffic. [Darwin in the DR.]

It’s campaign season here as well, so no kilometer of road is without its gallery of posters and promises. Dannilo: “Correct what’s bad; continue what’s good.” Inspiring, eh? “Do what’s never been done”. Like… democracy? Then a sign with a familiar swirl, seen mostly on computers, except: “Hippolito Inside

The only relief from the constant posters comes on our trip to the beach, to Nagua in the northeast, when we finally get out of the towns and into the poor country. The roads have been packed, cheek by jowl with houses, dogs, chickens, bancas (where lottery tickets are for sale), colmados (tiny markets), men who appear to have an endless capacity to sit doing nothing much, and women walking. One has been passed on either side—and going either way—by an endless kaleidoscope of motorcycles, with an average of 3.3 people on each. Did I say the intersections are intimate? Stop one direction, and the passenger can put down her window and nearly touch people on the sidewalk. But in the next moment, a motorcycle passing between will take it off at the elbow.

But as we progress further into the up-country, the field opens—literally in the case of the emerald rice paddies from horizon to smoky horizon, figuratively in the case of jungle, claiming everything to the verge of the road.

Then Nagua, which at the end of a hot day of driving and getting lost and driving, is something of a revelation, simple, windy, almost primal: sand, palms, clouds, sunset; beauty.
The house is older, and shows the scars of its losing battle against mere nature: rust on the bars, termite damage there on the table leg, the shelf, the roof beams. But the open porch, second story, tiled ghostly white, is like a breath of prayer. Darkness has finally come and the moon calls the congregation of clouds and shadows to worship, filling the heart with throbbing silence.

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