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Carnival Vegano - Dominican Republic Carnival 2004
Thursday, February 19, 2004: Miami Airport. I am writing in the departure lounge awaiting the last leg of our trip to the Dominican Republic. We had seven hours in Miami so we rented a car and took a trip down to South Beach. We had a good lunch and did a little site seeing. The trip down from Toronto was good. The sunrise over the clouds was beautiful. Mari was not able to confirm our reservations in Puerto Plata but we have a very good connection with the owner of a reliable travel agency Ali Tours. In 2002 when we went to the DR for Christmas we called ahead and they got us a very reasonable booking at the Coral Canoa in La Romana. The agency is very helpful, IATA certified and can do the reservation with a VISA card. Most of the trip will be in the countryside but we need to enjoy a couple of days in a luxury resort to shave and shower. I was sure happy the plane did not fall out of the sky. I am not nervous any more.
Thursday, February 19, 2004: We are settling in at La Vega. No internet yet. That’s OK. Not much call for it in this particular neighborhood. The architecture here is interesting. I need a good nights sleep. The volume of noise in the street is still high. I met a number of nice people I met last year. Was glad to see they all seem happy and healthy.
Friday, February 20, 2004: It is raining. I packed an umbrella to prevent this but at the last minute left it at home because of weight considerations. It confirms to me God’s whacky sense of humor. If I had brought the thing it would have been sunny for sure. I rested well last night listening to the world and getting impressions of the place. There was no light or water. Some time in the night it started to rain and I listened to it hitting the tin roof. Eventually I lost consciousness. The bed is very soft. Too soft I guess. It has one of those very springy mattresses that sags in the middle. If you dropped a bowling ball on that one it would go right through to the floor but in the meantime any unlucky sleepers would be bounced off the bed like ten pins at a bowling for dollars tournament. I did not mind because Marisol and I are on a second honeymoon. In compliance with the law of gravity we both rolled down our respective sides of the bed and ended up somewhere near the middle, skin on skin which was good. The night was cool and thus we kept each other warm. In the morning I visited a supermarket and purchased liter of orange juice, a dozen eggs, stick of butter, 250 grams of coffee for the equivalent of about $4 CDN. Our friend the painter Rafael Hernandez dropped by early to bring me a copy of his new book; Visual Art in La Vega which was published in 2003. He confirmed he would be taking me where preparations are ongoing for the Carnival this Sunday. I hope to get good pictures.
We spent the afternoon visiting various workshops of a few of the many La Vega carnival mask creators. Carlos, Antonio ( “Tono”), Leonardo (“Chino”) and Melvin. These traditional masks depicting the devil are first created in paper Mache then they are painted and decorated. Each is truly a work of art. It is obvious that these men are wonderful artists. Mr. Carlos work has been exhibited in museums here in the Dominican Republic and also in New York, Venezuela and Cuba. I felt honored to be able to film the work in progress. After Carnival the masks are offered for sale. Some of the masks are created from molds and can be produced in quantity although each of course is hand painted and painstakingly crafted as an individual creation. The prices suggested seem ridiculously low for work of such fine quality. I have taken down the telephone numbers and would be pleased to pass on the telephone numbers of the artists if anyone is interested in picking up one or more of these pieces. Sadly none of the artists we visited today has internet access. They do have telephones however and I would be most happy to pass on information as to how to contact them is any are interested.
Saturday, February 21, 2004: AM its raining again. (Note to self: next time pack an umbrella) Last night we went to a restaurant where we were thoroughly entertained by two great talents, Blanca Iris Villafañe and Camboy Estevez. The room was filled to overflowing. Before the concert it was noisy and people were arguing over who stole their seat. We drank a lot of rum as the music did not start until after midnight. Villafañe started the show. She gave the appreciative crowd what they wanted which was a rendition of her greatest hits accompanied by the music tracks karaoke style. It turned into a love-in sing-along. At the end of each song the room returned to the artist thunderous applause. The style is very reminiscent of the number by Mary Hopkin “Those were the days” which was a big hit sometime in the late 60’s I think. Bitter sweet recollections of love and losing love living through the war kind of stuff. I found myself quite moved. After the show I had a chance to meet Ms Villafañe and thanked her. I added the greatest hits CD: Yo Soy Blanca Iris Villafañe to my collection. The second artist Camboy Estevez I already knew and in fact today we had been playing his greatest hits which I have on the iPod in anticipation of the show. Once again the artist gave the room what they wanted and we had another sing-along with wild cheering after each song. After the show the artist graciously posed for photos with Marisol and her sister Kenia. The greatest surprise for me in the show was the room’s demographic. These artists have been around for a long while. I was expecting a sedate older crowd but I was pleasantly surprised to see the mix. It appears that Ms. Villafañe has a huge fan base of younger stylish independent women who obviously adore her. And so it is with immortal tunes they live forever and the memories are forever young.
After the show we tested our luck with an early morning roadside chimi-churi which is a kind of hamburger with chopped meat fried and topped with many things. This morning I feel fine so I suppose our luck is holding up!
Sunday, February 21, 2004: My feet are sore. We walked a lot today and after the rain this morning the heat in the countryside was very strong. We drove to a place called Villa Tapia to meet with a promising young artist there, Quiban Castillo. We were in time for a political rally. There are presidential elections coming this May. Quiban was not expecting us and most of his work is lent out to decorate the homes of his neighbors. The painter’s time at this moment is painting political signs and studying medicine at the university. We did get a chance to shoot a few pictures of some of his work. The art is not as accessible as the common themes many of the local artists knock off to sell to tourists at the beach. His collages and abstract art reveal an insightful and emerging mature talent that is indeed promising. The roads were bad and the ride was long. Amazing that half a road could have been washed down a cliff and left that way for months without so much as a warning sign. It is hoped that whoever takes over after the may elections will pay more attention to traffic safety. We visited a great aunt of Marisol then delivered a package from our friend engineer Tavares to his Mother’s house in Las Uvas. I was hoping to visit the children I met last year and walked several miles to their farm but they were not home. In the afternoon I took a little siesta then we went to the children’s carnival. This is a warm up to the main event tomorrow. It gets the children involved. I was hit several times with a hitting ball which is legal at this time of the year. Mostly it was in playful fun but some of the little devils hit hard. The lights came on again so in a minute I will take a shower. The have a dangerous looking apparatus that connects to the electricity and fits onto the shower head. The water passes over a slightly corroded heater element. It seems dangerous but at least the water is warm. No ground fault protectors in this house. Later if I don’t get electrocuted in the shower we will go to a free outdoor concert staring Kinito Mendez and Ruby Perez.
Monday, February 22, 2004: Last night we got together with several friends and went to the big outdoor meringue concert starring Kinito Mendez and Rubby Perez. It was great. The artists played for free but the event was obviously well sponsored by Presidente cervesa, Pepsi Cola, and other big companies. Beer was for sale but not in a little beer tent like in Canada. You just buy it, they wrap a little paper towel around it and you drink it as you please. I got up close to the stage and took several pictures with the little Pentax. In addition to the beer some of us brought “beepers” which are little bottles of rum that fit well in your pocket. These are passed around as joints might be in Canada. (no smell of marijuana here). I got fairly drunk. I finished my beeper and started chugging down beer. A little later someone passed me their beeper and I took a big gulp like it was beer. Ouch it went down the wrong way and I nearly lost my lunch. Well today is Sunday and this marks the day of the second biggest Carnival. The celebration is carried out over two Sundays however and I believe the crowning of the king of Carnival will be next weekend.
Sunday, February 22, 2004: Wow. Now THAT was amazing. La Vega is full for Carnival. More than a hundred big busses I am told. More than 500,000 people crowded into the little streets. Sometimes it is so tight you can hardly breathe and when each group leaves their respective cave and comes charging into the masses swinging their vejigas the crowd naturally falls back and begins to push. It can become somewhat frightening but it is exciting as well. A little like running with the bulls in Pamplona perhaps. People came from all over the country and tourists from all over the world as well. I even caught a glimpse of Osama Bin Ladin (on holiday no doubt).
It is hard to express in words the fantastic feeling of being in the middle of the street facing a dozen or so devils coming at you. Big teeth, menacing eyes and wonderful wonderful colors. The treated me nice though I was hit a few times but gently. They are allowed to whack you on the bum with their vejiga which is a ball on a nylon rope. Some hit very hard but most of the vejigas are soft and more like balloons. The visual impact combined with the noise and everything produces a kind of sensory overload. It literally took my breath away. I got separated from my people very early and wandered on my own taking many pictures and trying to find Marisol who had the Pentax. I circled around a back street and came back in through a barricade into a kind of mass dance like that in the third Matrix. I was able to make my way about twenty feet before the crush of humanity permitted no further progress. Turning around the way I came the way was blocked as well. There was no panic but I could see that this was a potentially dangerous situation. We were literally compressed to the max. People started putting their hands in the air to get enough room to breathe. Electronic dance music pounded at high volume and the crowd was as one. I could see this modern dance was really much more primitive. This was something well before my time and the time of my fathers. I was in the time of hunter gatherers. I let the music and the sweat and carry me along for awhile and although I felt I could have stayed there entranced by the muse for hours I needed the second camera so I ended up crawling down between some legs to a side viewing stand where I was eventually able to crawl under the bracing to the street wet with sweat, out of breath but none the worse for wear, in fact absolutely electric with life.
The carnival celebration comes before lent and I understand has its origins in Europe as a pagan celebration marking the return of spring and the growing season. Later it was adopted by the Christian church to mark the symbolic conflict between the Moors and Christians. Later the church banned the celebrations and it came back as a kind of big party before the next forty days of fasting and good behavior before Easter. Now it is a great celebration moving away from its religious and pagan roots to take on a life of its own. It is certainly a fabulous demonstration of the wonderful artistic talent in this town. This is certainly turning out to be a wonderful experience. I cannot recommend it enough. You have to take the usual precautions in crowds of course. Marisol wisely made me leave my wallet at home. I took a few hundred pesos in case I needed a drink. A can of most excellent Presidente beer was selling for 30 pesos which is quite a bit less than a dollar Canadian. I bought one so I had about 170 pesos (perhaps a little over $3.00 Canadian) in my pocket. You can drink beer freely on the street. Before the day was out while being squashed by the mass of people I barely felt the flash of a hand in my pocket and just like that the remaining pesos were gone. An important lesson costing only three dollars Canadian was a lesson well learned. Either stay away from crowds (impossible in this situation) or leave your valuables safely stowed at home.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004: Yesterday we visited the ruins of La Vega Vieja. This is the site of one of the earliest Spanish settlements in America. Here is a plaque from over 100 years ago commemorating the 4th centenary of Columbus visit here. The site was apparently destroyed by an earthquake and all that now remains are the foundations and a few artifacts. A short drive up the mountain are located also the remains of a monastery and cemetery. A very friendly guide was happy to show us many things we would have undoubtedly missed on our own. There are records of the Carnival celebrations happening around here in the year 1510. We were able to remove some protective coverings to see the skeletons of the people buried there. He showed us how to tell the difference between the Spanish and Taino. The Spanish were buried separately and erect while the Taino people believed in reincarnation were buried in the fetal position as a preparation for birth in the afterlife. He showed us the grave of a wealthy or important person and explained how his prettiest wife (they were not monogamous) and child were buried alive with him. We saw the way the priest could tell the time with a sundial on the wall. Above the cemetery a short drive away is the monastery Santo Cero. Located on the top of a small mountain this picturesque church offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding territory. It is no wonder they believe that from this spot Christopher Columbus said this land is the most beautiful place in the world. In the church there is a spot where it is said Columbus erected a wooden cross that later sprouted and became a tree the descendant of which still grows today outside the church. There is a curious intermingling of Christian and earlier religions in the Caribbean countries. The church’s saint is the virgin Mercedes who has been known to grant favors to the faithful. The alter of this Catholic Church features this saint rather than Christ on the cross. Jesus is there but off to one side. While we were exploring the ruins I noted with interest that apparently the spraying of chemtrails goes on even here. I saw at least four in a cross thatch pattern, fairly low in relation to where we were because of our high elevation. (The highest mountain in the Caribbean is located in the Dominican Republic) I could tell that what we were looking at was chemtrails because they did not dissipate like ordinary contrails. Later the vapor spread out cirris like and it got really hot – hot like greenhouse hot or summertime in the car with windows shut hot. About six hours later out of the blue it rained heavily. Not a clean tropical rain I thought but a cold greasy rain. In the morning the cough I left behind in Canada returned and I got diarrhea. Just coincidence no doubt. Just my imagination playing tricks no doubt. No such thing no doubt. Move along; move along nothing to see here. Tomorrow is another day and we will rest in a luxury resort in Playa Dorada.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004: Well here we are at the Gran Ventana Beach Resort. My Salute goes out to the travel agency. The check-in went without problem and we will be very comfortable here for the next few days. There is excellent internet service but no point in updating the site at the moment. A little bird tells me the 7 million or so visitors to the site so far this month are a mistake, probably the result of me dissing the king of spammers so I have been attacked by loads of spam and I feel my server is being used for ulterior motives. Let the damn thing crash. I am on vacation. When I get back to Toronto I will go through the administration option and carefully analyze the site, change the password and delete any unusual files. Meanwhile I am enjoying this place. The crowd is somewhat older than the Coral Canoa people last year. There are also a scattering of young vacationers, many with children but at the moment a lot of guests are older and heavier than I am accustomed to. There are quite a few here from Europe as well as the usual Canadian people. The accommodations are great. When you get into the higher price ranges about the only thing management can do is increase the size. We could open a discothèque in our room. I’ve rented rooms on the road smaller than the bathroom they have given us but that’s OK. You know when all is said and done just close your eyes and everything is about the same. Size is not important for everything! Anyway the pools are great. The food is great. Plenty of it all included in the price. Cafeteria buffet with everything you could ask for plus three gourmet restaurants for picky eaters in long pants. Plenty of booze. Great beach. Free scuba diving lessons and wind surfing. Tennis, golf close by. Amber. Cinema with three films. Wheelchair access. At night they put on an entertaining dance show well choreographed by Mr. Ruben Santos, trained in Santiago with knowledge of classical ballet, modern dance, Latin and African rhythms. Quick colorful costume changes to please the guests. Sort of like a good cruise. I bet we sleep well tonight. Mike, enjoy yourself you need the rest. I’ve been running on fumes for the last six months, burnt out and tired. I needed the rest. La Vega is nice but where we were staying you can forget about sleep. After the dance show around midnight we took a stroll down to the beach. The air was wonderfully clear and we could see a million stars. I reminded Marisol of the First Star Wish Poem. We worked on it together until she got it right, picked a likely star to wish upon and made our little wishes.
Wednesday February 25, 2004: Today we walked for miles along the beach. I took pictures of some driftwood. I bought a piece of amber for Eric. I’ve been taking the Pentax Optio S4 everywhere with me. Its obvious attribute is the compact size. The camera shines when it comes to close ups. The battery life is great. The extreme macro setting makes focusing closely a breeze. Here are some lovely tropical flowers taken in close up mode. .
Thursday, February 26, 2004: It is a travel day. We took the comfortable Caribe Tours bus from Playa Dorada back to La Vega. I had a bad night with diarrhea and some nausea. The room's A/C was cranked to the max and in the night I felt a chill to the point that I thought perhaps I had a fever. It was only the air conditioning I think. No blood in the diarrhea but a lot of cramping and I feel weak. Today I avoid alcohol, cola and meat. I spent most of the afternoon comfortably relaxing in bed. We retired early.
Friday, February 27, 2004: Last night Marisol put on a very noisy fan. I told her it was too loud but she reminded me the white noise would shield us from the street noise. She was right. I got about the best night's sleep of the vacation. I feel a lot better. Today is the National Independence day Holiday in the Dominican Republic. In the morning there was a big celebration in the central square with assorted dignitaries including the governor of this region, the mayor and many others. I took a bunch of photos not really knowing who I was catching here. You can usually tell the politicians as they are the ones wearing smiles, jackets and ties in the searing sun. I hung out with the band for awhile while this was going on. From what I could understand from the speeches they were telling the people of La Vega they had a lot to be proud about. They are right. Later there was a huge parade of school children from so many schools. In any country the strength and future is with the children so in this place it looks like there is a lot of reason for hope. I saw so many lovely smiling faces. We stayed until the end taking pictures. After lunch the Carnival Vegano started up again. This time it was more to show off the wonderful costumes. We stayed near the television spot where everyone paraded three or four times until the light was lost and everyone went home. Many of the groups paraded without masks so we could see the happy people responsible for the fine show. As you can easily tell from these photos (there is sadly only space for a small portion, I took more than 600 this afternoon alone) a splendid time was had by everyone. The little Pentax was a hit. I passed it out to Papito, Marisol's brother. He passed it on to his young son Jonothan who took many photos. Either beginners luck or this is a splendid photo machine because they mostly turned out great.
I was about ready to crash early but you do not sleep in La Vega so after a refreshing bowl of light chicken soup which returned needed salt and water and additional nutrients without the challenge of food nine of us packed into a little mini-van and made our way to the Olympic stadium for another free concert. This one by the merengue flavor of the month Los Illegales. The place was packed when we got there. Marisol had a bad feeling about jumping right into the mass and pushing our way to the stage. It was too crowded, too hot. the participants were younger, somewhat more volatile and had been drinking all day because of the national holiday were some of her reasons. Besides that we were awfully tired as well. We managed to find a spot outside the actual park but off to one side with a pretty good view of the side of the stage. I took a number of pictures with the Pentax on "night mode" with max telephoto. The color balance and exposure came out well I think. I had no tri-pod and forgot the mono-pod at home so I snapped off a few shots with the camera balanced on a wall. I also had our friend Chia stand still with the camera braced on top of her head. As it turned out the concert had some of the same elements of the free concerts of the 60's. The main group arrived late, took an inordinate time to set up their equipment. From our vantage there was sound problems throughout but we were not in the best position to judge. At least one fight broke out and the party started to thin out after that. We went home before the show finished. From what I could tell the people up near the center and close to the stage seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot.
Saturday, February 28, 2004: Today we took a short drive up into the mountains to a place called Jimonea. This is a waterfall near Jarabacoa. The air is fresh and cool there. There are many pine trees and some people build county homes there to escape the heat. We took the short walk across a number of the swinging suspension bridges leading up to the waterfall. The hydroelectric plant is being refurbished so the water is not being diverted to create electricity. They could sure use electricity in this country. Daily rolling black outs are the norm. Without power to run the pumps there is often no tap water either. There is plenty of water here however. A few years ago where we once could swim the current is too strong and swimming is now prohibited. I took this next picture several years ago. It shows how much water was being diverted to collect energy. At the centre for reforestation we picked up several pine trees to replant at the homes of friends and family in the city.
Sunday February 29, 2004: It is another travel day. We spend the last day in la Vega enjoying the national carnival parade. This is the end of carnival and participants from most of the 32 provinces come to La Vega to parade down the streets. The regional participants dress differently according to their individual customs. It was great to see the different people with their individual expressions of creativity. After dark we packed our suitcases into our friend's truck and he drove us to Santo Domingo. In the morning we fly to New York. We were supposed to do a 8 hour stop over to enjoy lunch and take a look at Manhattan but both of us were very tired and decided to catch an earlier flight home. The American Airlines clerk at La Guardia was most helpful and bumped us to an earlier flight which shaved about 5 hours off the trip back. That way we got to fly over Shea Stadium, once the home of the world famous Beatles, so I could take this shot out the plane window.
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