Saturday, January 28, 2012

D is for Dominoes

Continuing my A-Z of the Domincan Republic, my D is the national sport, some would agree even bigger than baseball. Dominoes is played more in Latin America than anywhere in the world, and every few yards you will hear the clatter of the tiles being shuffled and the shouting and yelling that accompanies every game.

Dominoes apparently originated in China in the 12th Century and first appeared in Europe, specifically Italy, in the early 17th century. From there it spread throughout Europe and then the rest of the world. The name originally comes from the Latin, 'dominus' meaning 'master of the house', but was also the name given to a type of Christian priest, a Domini, whose hood was black on the outside and white on the inside. Domini is also the name of a Venetian mask which is black with white spots. To play dominoes all you need is a partner - known as a frente - and a board or table. The proper domino table costs around 20 pounds and has a little groove where you keep your dominoes, plus a hole for your plastic beaker which will usually be filled with beer or rum. The usual number of players is four, with several people watching, although people will play just with two as well. Day and night, the bars, colmados, and street corners are full of  men playing, dominoes, although women and even children will also play as well..
If you do not have a proper table, the tiles are held in the hand. The best players, or maybe the ones with the biggest hands, can hold all 7 tiles or fichas in one hand. My Haitian gardener could always hold all his fichas  in one hand, whereas I had to stand my dominoes up on the table until I learned how to have four in one hand and three in the other.
The game begins with all of the tiles being shuffled face down, as noisily as possible and then each person takes seven. The double six starts and then you carry on playing, matching the same number of spots until one person has used all of their dominoes. Dominicans are simply brilliant at it. Men who cannot read nor write, and who have never been to school will know exactly which dominoes you hold in your hand and can add up the number of points at the speed of lightning.  To be a good player you need to work well with your partner or frente, and those who play together often know exactly what to play and which tiles their partner has, based not only on counting but on facial expressions or subtle movements.  Dominicans will sometimes slam the dominoes on the table when they play, or shout a lot and I understand this is to cover up some signalling to their partner, or maybe it signals something in itself such as you have no more of that particular number. Sometimes people play for money, sometimes for eggs, and sometimes for clothes pegs.  It is not that you win a clothes peg - not exactly the most desirable of rewards - but that if you lose you have to peg yourself. 
There are all sorts of rules, and words such as tranqua when you block the game so that only you can play - that is worth 25 points to you and a peg to each of your opponents.  And if you win by being able to go out at either end of the snake of dominoes, it is called capicure, which you have to shout out loudly, whilst banging the domino down on either end, several times.

Dominoes is noisy and fun but played very seriously. It is an intrinsic part of Dominican culture, albeit it can be a little painful if you are not a very good player, as this Haitian found out when playing after the earthquake.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just tell me the truth!

Dominicans never like to upset you and they will always tell you what they think you want to hear. You ask directions and they will give them to you even if they have no idea at all where you want to go or how to get there.  They would simply never think of saying sorry they did not know the way. You ask what the weather will be like tomorrow and they tell you it will be sunny as they think you want it to be sunny. Unfortunately they have no idea whatever what it is I want to know - which is quite simply the truth. Pretty amazing concept really.

The first example is the vet. The dog was sick, so I called the vet at 10 am. He said he would be here at noon. I called him at at 2 pm, he said his wife was sick and would be there in 30 minutes. I called him at 5 pm, he said he had no car.  I called him at 8 pm and he said he was operating.  He arrived at 10 pm, in his car. He said he would be back at 10 am the next day. There were a raft of new excuses during the day and he arrived at 10 pm at night. Why not just tell me that he would be there at night? Would that have been so difficult?
 People are coming for dinner, and are due at 7 pm. At 8 pm you ring and ask where they are. They say they are 'llegando' which means arriving. Arriving where? Certainly not at my house, as the chances are they are sitting in their house watching the TV but would no more think of telling you that than flying to the moon! They eventually arrive at 10 pm.

You ask the boss for a pay rise.  He says of course, as he knows that is what you want to hear. Surprise surprise no pay rise. You ask the plumber if he can come that day to fix a broken pipe. He will say 'pienso que si" which means 'I think so'. I have worked out that that is code for 'you must be joking, no way will I be there today'. Why not just say 'no' and give an accurate idea of when he can come. I ask the man in the colmado if he will have pork chops tomorrow and he says  'claro' which means 'of course'.  That is another code word which means 'I have no idea when I will have pork chops'. Once you know the code words then life becomes a little easier, but it takes a long time to realise that you will never be told the truth!

And all  I want is to be told the truth. Not what people think I want to hear, as their mind reading skills are appalling!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

C for Corruption

The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country with fabulous people. In many ways it is one of the best places in the world to live.  However the one major problem it has is the corruption.  The definition of a corrupt person is one who is willing to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain, and various reports say that the DR is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.   Corruption in one form or another is endemic here, especially in business, government, the police and the judiciary.  If you want to be awarded a contract then sometimes bribes have to be paid. If you set up in competition to someone who has money, then you may find yourself having  visits from all sorts of people making your life difficult.  I remember one night being in a bar which had a live band, when a truck load of police with machine guns walked in, and took away all of the music equipment saying they were playing too loudly. A rival bar had paid the police. The police are paid so poorly that they have an incentive to make easy money. If you are stopped by the police for doing something wrong, sometimes you can pay them to save paying a bigger fine. On the other hand the police will stop you and say you were doing something wrong when you weren't and make you pay. A foreigner hit and killed a Haitian woman crossing the road.  He offered her family money to pay for the funeral. Seeing as he was a foreigner, they thought they could make more money from him and refused his offer, saying they wanted to involve  the police. He did so and negotiated with the police, paying them the money he had offered to the family, which the police then kept and the family received nothing.

The whole legal system is especially corrupt. When I was shot, having admitted shooting me, the perpetrators were in jail awaiting their first court appearance. One had a Canadian girlfriend who paid US$1000 to the judiciary and they were released. A few months later they murdered a Canadian man, were sentenced to 30 years in jail, and were released a year later having paid 14,000 pesos.

An English man bought marijuana from a Dominican 'friend', who even showed him where best to hide it in the house, as it is illegal here.  Possession brings long jail sentences. The next day the police turned up, went straight to where the stash was and the Englishman was arrested. As well as taking him away they took his car, computers, telephones, videos, DVD players etc. The following day he paid 250,000 pesos, around USS10,000 at that time, and he and all his possessions were released.  Several foreigners are not as lucky and are languishing in jail for trying to take drugs out of the country, even though they have paid millions of pesos to corrupt lawyers with a promise of obtaining their release.

There appears to be little transparency at the local government level. Funds come in and no one seems to have any idea where the money has been spent.  The mayor of Cabarete on the north coast is currently being investigated over a failure to produce financial reports.

Unfortunately the corruption is not only financial. People have been murdered for supposedly getting in the way of illegal activities, or being in possession of information which could cause legal or financial difficulties for someone. It appears that those with money can live above the law by simply disposing of any threats and paying their way out of any problems.

There are signs that some things are changing and it is not as though the corruption is not talked about or swept under the carpet. The vast majority of the citizens abhor it.  The President, Leonel Fernandez said that 2011 would be the year of transparency and there are all sorts of departments to combat corruption, with cases of corruption  reported daily in the national press. The Chief of Police has promised to investigate all cases of police corruption and only last week 20 officers were dismissed.

As Heinz Meder says in the forward to his book, 'Tales of a Caribbean Isle', The Dominican Republic is "... a world of corruption, human abuse, of poverty... no motivation... the rich getting richer and the poor going nowhere..."  I really hope that one day corruption will be eradicated, which would go a long way to improving the lives of thousands, ensuring that the law really is upheld, improve confidence in law enforcement and make this country an even better place to live. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

B is for Bachata, Brugal and Barahona

My A-Z continues with B, and three of my favourite Dominican things.  Bailando Bachata, Bibiendo Brugal and Barahona! (Dancing bachata, drinking Brugal and Barahona)

Bachata is a Dominican dance, which is danced everywhere; in the streets, shops, clubs, homes. It originated in the DR and is basically three steps with a hip motion and a hip tap on the 4th beat. You should not move your upper body much as the movement of the hips is the soul of the dance, which is probably why I am not very good at it. My bottom is not big enough or round enough, and however much I try, I can't move it the way that Dominican women can. You can see bachata being danced in this video

My second B is for Brugal - rum. The company was started in 1988 by Andrés Brugal Montaner who came from Spain to the DR via Cuba. He started the famous rum company in Puerto Plata in the north of the country.  The actual process is a closely guarded secret, but basically the sugar cane is cut and then turned into molasses in the factory in San Pedro de Macoris.  Yeast is then added,  the sugar turns into alcohol and is then transported to Puerto Plata, where it is placed into barrels to age. The Carta Dorada rum ages for 1-2 years, Añejo for 2-5 years and Extra Viejo for 5-8 years. My personal favourite is Añejo. The rum can be drunk neat, or with ice, and several people drink it with coca cola (a cuba libre) or with sprite (a santa
libre). It is said that if you drink a lot of Brugal you will either want to make mad passionate love, or you will start an argument! 

View of the Barahona coastline
My third B is Barahona, which is a town in the south west of the country.  It is the last major town on the southern route to Haiti. What makes Barahona so special is not the town, but its geography. The mountains literally descend into the ocean and you can sit on the beach but bathe in cool fresh river water that pours down from the mountains. The drive along the coast from Barahona to the Haitian border is said to be the most spectacular drive in the whole of the Caribbean. 

A piece of larimar
Barahona is famous for its agriculture: plantains, coffee, cocoa and sugar.  It is also home to the only larimar mine in the world.  Larimar is the beautiful blue volcanic stone found only in the DR. The province has the largest salt lake in the Caribbean, Enriquillo, which is 45 metres below sea level. Few tourists venture to Barahona but it really is a natural unspoiled paradise. It is my favourite 'B'.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I am turning into a Dominican

I have been in this country for over 10 years now and living with, and then married to a Dominican man for most of that time. In recent months I have discovered that I am beginning to exhibit certain Dominican traits.

Concon - courtesy of

  • I can make concon (burn the rice) - a Dominican essential.
  • When I see someone I know in the street I tip my head back and purse my lips, instead of saying hello.
  • Having previously berated my cleaning lady for using so much Mistolin (disinfectant) and Chloro (bleach), I now do the same as it helps keep the flies away.
  • I put liquid bleach into the washing machine along with washing powder to try and get the whites whiter.
  • I love mangu (mashed plantains) and have withdrawal symptoms if I do not eat it 3 times a week.
  • I usually eat with a spoon instead of a knife and fork - it is so much easier.
  • I can wait patiently for hours in a queue at the bank or at the dentists.
  • I shout 'dame' (give me) in the colmado rather than waiting for my turn.
  • If I bake or cook something special I always take some round to my neighbours.
  • I drink my coffee black with lots of sugar rather than white without sugar as I did before.
  • I love batidas (fresh fruit, ice, sugar and evaporated milk whisked in the blender).
  • I laugh much more and am far less stressed.
But there are some things I still don't do.

Los patos river, Barahona
  • I don't go into the river with all of my clothes on.
  • I don't feel the need to spit when I smell something bad.
  • I don't take one antibiotic when I have a headache.
  • I don't eat my avocado with salt.
  • I don't use sazon liquido (liquid seasoning), sazon completo ( a powdered seasoning) and Maggi cubes (chicken stock cubes) in everything I cook.
  • I don't watch Dominican soap operas.
  • I don't cook the rice with a plastic bag on top of the pan.
  • I don't put a plastic bag on my head when it rains and I still go out in the rain.
Anyone else turning Dominican or are other expats slowly becoming like the indigenous people in the country you live in?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A is for Avocado

A fellow blogger had the idea writing a series of posts, using the letter A-Z, relating to the country she lives in, which seems like a lovely way to describe all sorts of aspects about life in different places. She asked other bloggers around the world to do the same, and those who are participating are included in the blog roll on the bottom right of this page, so that if you want to, you can follow them around the world. So far there is Australia (2), Portugal (4), Poland and the UK.  I will carry on blogging about daily life here, but at the same time, every so often, will work my way through the alphabet writing an A-Z about the Dominican Republic. We start with Avocado, as I absolutely adore them and eat at least 3 or 4 a week.

Avocados originally came from central Mexico and the word comes from Nahuáti, which was the language spoken by the Aztecs. The word they used was ahuácati which means testicle! Here they are known as aguacate, although in some parts of Spanish speaking Latin America they are known as palta. Also they are not called avocados all over the world, some places know them as alligator pears or butter pears. The word abogado here means lawyer, and when I first started speaking Spanish I kept saying "I really fancy a lawyer tonight, instead of I fancy an avocado".

I knew they were widely available in the Dominican Republic but I had no idea that the DR is actually the 3rd biggest producer of avocados in the world, only Mexico and Chile produce more. The DR has climbed up the rankings since 2008 when it was in 7th place.

Avocados grow easily from seed. You just take out the big pip in the middle, and using toothpicks, balance it over some water. Once the roots have grown and a shoot come out of the top, you can then plant it outside.  Apparently it takes 4-6 years to produce fruit. Personally I think it might take a lot longer, as I bought an actual tree which I had for 4 years and no sign of any fruit.

The avocado should not be allowed to ripen on the tree but should be picked when it is still firm. Once picked, it can be left to ripen naturally, but will ripen faster if you put it in a brown paper bag, or next to other fruit when apparently some sort of ethylene gas exchange takes place.  In some countries they will actually treat the avocado with ethylene to speed up the ripening process. They are picked with a special avocado picker, which looks a bit like a lacrosse stick. Thanks to my friend Grace, also married to a Dominican, for sharing this picture of her daughter, and mother in law showing the avocado picker.

Avocados are very good for you. It is true that they have a lot of calories, around 300, but apparently, although they are high in fat, it is good fat as opposed to bad fat.  They have more potassium than bananas, more protein than cows milk or a cooked steak, have the highest fibre content of any fruit, and are also high in vitamins B,E and K.  They have been proven to lower blood cholesterol and are even being researched as a possible cancer cure.

The most famous avocado recipe is probably guacamole, the famous Mexican dip made with avocados, coriander, tomatoes and onions.  In the Dominican Republic they are usually served in wedges, with the main meal, sprinkled with salt and sometimes lime. They are also served as a salad.  I love half an avocado with its hole in the middle filled with juicy prawns and prawn cocktails sauce, or simply filled with vinaigrette.

I buy my avocados from the lady in this picture, who comes around most days with them in the washing up bowl on her head. They are 10 pesos each, around 15 pence or 35 cents, or two for 25 pesos.  If you buy the two for 25 they are bigger. 

So that is letter A.  Something I love, something truly Dominican, something I would really miss eating if I did not live here. I could do with a few more recipes for them though, so if you have any delicious ways of eating avocados please let me know.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I have a cold

I have a very bad cold at the minute – a Dominican cold, which is known as gripe.  I know they are not the same as British colds, as when my Dominican husband had a cold in England he said to me. “There is water in my nose. Why is there water in my nose when I have not been in the swimming pool?” I explained that that a runny nose was the norm for a cold, and suggested he blow his nose to get rid of the water.  He did so and then ten minutes later: “The water has come back into my nose. Where does it come from?” I had no idea how to explain.

My Dominican cold is particularly nasty and everyone has been telling me how to get rid of it and how not to make it worse.  I should not get out of bed and put my feet on the cold floor, nor should I clean the house using disinfectant or bleach.  Both will make it significantly worse and the later may even put my life in danger.

To cure the cold I need a combination of limes, honey, garlic and mashed up onions. Someone suggested mixing with a little aloe vera which is grown everywhere here.  My husband said that when he was a boy in the campo the cure was to drink one’s own urine, or if you were unable to produce any then to drink someone else’s.  Luckily he assured me that it didn’t work so I will leave that off the list to try.

Another tried and tested cure is Veevapporroo.  Now it took me a while to work this one out in English.  It is of course Vicks Vapour Rub! And finally I have just met a man in the colmado who assures me that the only cure is shark oil.  You take a bottle of egg nog and mix the shark oil with it.  Keep in the fridge and then have a drink of it every day.  I have no idea how they get hold of the sharks nor where the oil comes from, and having been a diver I do not approve of the idea of killing sharks for their oil. Nevertheless, as Dominicans are always helpful, the man said he knows someone who has some so the shark oil is on its way here.  And I hate egg nog.

If anyone has any ideas for how to get rid of a cold I would be most grateful.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What would we do without taypee?

                                                                               Dominicans love sticky tape, or taypee as they pronounce it. It is usually black but in our house we were left a roll of silver tape by some American friends, so our whole house is full of things stuck together with silver taypee. The washing machine has been taypeed. Electric cables throughout the house are stuck together with taypee. Under the kitchen sink, all the pipes have taypee wound around them. This picture is of a fly and mosquito murdering device which delivers an electric shock to them. It stopped working but was mended in no time and  as you can see, its handle is now totally covered with taypee.
My husband decided to play baseball in the garden, but the only problem was there was no bat. In true Dominican fashion the problem was fixed in a jiffy, and he just broke the handle off the sweeping brush and hey presto one baseball bat, albeit a little bit thin.

I then wanted to sweep the house, but the handle on the brush was only 2 inches tall and although the brush itself was still fine, it would have only been easy to use if you were 8 inches tall, and I am a little more than that.  After a week of sweeping whilst sitting on my bottom, I asked him to fix the brush. 

Easy, simply bring on the taypee.  As you can see the brush has been fixed, although I was not too chuffed that there is now a big hole in the middle of it, making sweeping a tad more difficult. I pointed this out to him and he said. "Yo resolvi," meaning I fixed it. 


Does anyone have more interesting things which are taypeed together?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What on earth is happening to me?

England in the 1950’s.  I was born in that decade, but only remember what family life was like from films 
and soap operas.  The woman would usually stay at home; always wearing a floral apron, hair lightly permed, and spent all day cleaning and cooking. Husband would come home from work at 5pm, usually wearing a hat and always a vest.  Men all wore vests then.  She would give him his felt slippers and he would sit on the brown draylon chair with a lacy thing hung over the back. The chair would be in front of the coal fire with a brass coloured fireguard in front of it and the mantelpiece covered with china souvenirs from seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Llandudno. He would sit and watch the flickering black and white television whilst the final touches were made to his dinner. They would call each other ‘father’ and ‘mother’ and never use their real names. Then one day the son would bring his girlfriend home for tea, to meet the parents and the whole house would be cleaned in anticipation.  Great nervousness and great excitement. 

I have often thought life here in the Dominican Republic had some similarities to Britain in the 1950’s but the reality hit hard last night.  A couple of days ago, stepson announced he had a girlfriend. A serious girlfriend.  She wanted to meet his parents but he was scared to bring her to meet us as he thought she wouldn’t understand my British sense of humour and I would embarrass him in front of her. As if!  I assured him I would not point out any of his annoying habits and promised to behave myself. 

Last night, around 10pm I was working on the computer and husband was watching TV in bed, in his underpants. Stepson walked in and announced that girlfriend had arrived to meet us. Then a truly dreadful thing happened.  I changed from being me, to being that woman from the 1950’s.

I jumped up from my chair, took off my glasses, fluffed up my hair, and tried to smooth down my T-shirt.  Walked nervously into the living room and saw her standing outside the front door.
“Come in out of the cold, you must be freezing.” (This is the Dominican Republic you dork, not Yorkshire in the winter!)
She came inside, holding his hand. 
“So sorry about the mess, it is the puppy, she is wrecking the place,” I apologized, wringing my hands. (I have never wrung my hands in all my life).  I looked around horrified at the chewed up empty toilet roll inserts, and bits of paper all over the place.  And then, horror of horrors spotted a little puddle of lemon coloured puppy piddle.  I managed to manoeuvre myself expertly in front of it 

“What is your name?” I asked. (Things were going better now.)
“Anna,” she replied. (Ha, I had this cracked.)

“And, err, do you do anything?” (What an idiotic question! My nerves were getting the better of me.)

She replied, “I am at University, studying to be a teacher.”
“Ooooh a teacher!  How amazing.” (For Pete’s sake it was a teacher not a brain surgeon. No need to overreact.)

Husband appeared, fully dressed to rescue me before I made a total fool of myself.
“Hello, nice to meet you. At least my son has good taste in women!”
And I thought he was going to save the day, and instead started like that. I decided that anything I could say would be better than that.  I was sadly wrong.
“And such lovely teeth,” I gushed. (Do not even ask where that came from. I was completely mortified as the words left my mouth.  And one thing I never do is gush.)

Luckily stepson could see things were not going to get any better and said that this was only the informal introduction and a formal one would follow shortly.  He ushered her out rapidly.  On asking husband later what exactly a formal introduction was, he said something to eat and a longer chat. I know that in 1950s Britain it would have been a nice pot of tea and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts off and fruit cake, but I have no idea here.  Whatever it is I will have to do it well.  This is the woman who will feed me mashed plantains when I lose my teeth and change my incontinence pads when I am old and decrepit.  I just hope I can return to being me and not continue to morph into 1950’s woman, and I have a horrid feeling I am not changing into the nice one in the floral apron at the stove, but more like Hilda Ogden from the famous British soap opera, Coronation Street.