Sunday, February 26, 2012

J is for Jarabacoa and Jalao

Continuing the A-Z of the Dominican Republic, here is letter J. This time a place and a sweet.

Jarabacoa is a very special place in the middle of the  Dominican Republic, in that it is not at all what you would expect to find on a Caribbean island. There is no beach, as it is in the centre of the country. Whilst the sun shines as it does all over the island, it is cold. Not like English weather cold, but significantly colder than the rest of the country, with temperatures typically between 16 and 22 degrees all year round, but known to drop as low as 7 degrees in the winter.  The reason for this is it is located at 530 metres above sea level.

The name Jarabacoa is a Taino Indian word meaning 'the place where water flows', and does it flow! There are three rivers, the Baiguate, Jimenoa and the Yaque del Norte, which at 298 kilometres long, is the longest river in the Dominican Republic. It goes all the way through the Cibao valley and enters the sea just to the west of Monte Cristi in the very North West of the country. With all of this water, Jarabacoa is famous for its waterfalls and white water rafting.

Jarabacoa was inhabited by the Taino Indians ,and then the Spanish who came looking for silver and gold. It was then more or less abandoned as they moved on to explore other places, and was not inhabited again until around 1805 when the Haitian survivors of the massacres in Santiago and La Vega escaped there. They built a small settlement which grew during the Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1822 to 1844. In 1854 it was formerly declared a town.

Nowadays it is a place where Dominicans build their summer homes, to get away from the heat on the coast and especially in the cities. It is much loved by tourists, especially those who are into outdoor activities, as there is horse riding, canyoning, para gliding and a whole range more. It is also famous for its agriculture: coffee, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbages, aubergines, carrots, beetrooot and strawberries.

A beautiful oasis in the centre of the country, fresh clean mountain air and stunning vistas.

 Dominican sweets are on the whole, very sweet.  Many also contain coconut, and the sweet called Jalao is no exception. They are  basically made of honey or molasses and shredded coconut and are on sale in all the colmados, usually for a few pesos each. All of the Dominican members of my family adore them, and I must admit I am pretty partial to them too. I had no idea they were so easy to make until I found this recipe here from Aunt Clara. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barrio Stew

Yesterday I decided to cook a stew for dinner. It is my version of Irish stew but using the ingredients I can get here. So it is made of beef, potatoes, carrots, aubergines, tayota, yuca, pumpkin, Dominican wine, a Maggi stock cube and tomato paste with fresh thyme and cilantro. Unfortunately no dumplings as  I can't find suet here. Anyway, I put it in the oven at 5pm as you have to cook the beef for 3 hours to make it tender. All was going well until I went to check on it at 7pm and the gas had run out. We have gas in tanks which you take to a station to fill up. And the only time it runs out is when you are cooking - understandably I suppose, but mine always seems to run out in the evening when the gas station is shut.  It never seems to last long anyway, and that is either because the gas station does not put in the amount you pay for, the meter showing how much is being put in the tank is dodgy, the motoconcho man who takes it does not put an amount equal to the money you have given him, or there is a leak somewhere. I can't find any leak.

Well it ran out and the stew was half cooked and stone cold. Luckily we have a little barbecue so number two stepson was speedily dispatched to buy charcoal, which he did. Then the second problem was trying to get the damn thing to light, as we had no firelighters. However, I was not worried as I know how inventive Dominicans can be.
 We managed to get it going and we all blew on the tiny little flame to try and get the rest of the charcoal to catch. Then number one stepson said he had a better idea and brought the fan outside which he said would save us blowing.  Good idea but it didn't work.

Next plan was to look for some plastic - apparently plastic cups are the best, but we had none. Tried a plastic bag but it just made a mess. Number two stepson went to neighbour and came back with plastic cup.

Success, it worked straight away and then we just had to wait for the charcoal to really glow then on went the stew.

Once the stew went on the fire  the dogs became very interested. I was terrified that Silly Boy (blind rescued English Mastiff) would walk into it as he usually does when it isn't lit. Although he is totally blind he manages to know where the walls are but always walks into things in the middle of the garden. Hence his name as we are always saying, "You silly boy!" He got close but luckily the heat must have put him off.

Once the fire was really going you could hear the bubbling from far and wide - so much for slow cooking the beef, and the smell wafted through the streets of the barrio.

At last at nearly 10pm dinner was ready, and delicious it was too. What a performance though but it has happened before and no doubt will happen again next time the gas goes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I is for Iglesia

The next installment in the A-Z of the Dominican Republic - I for Iglesia which means church in Spanish. The Dominican Republic is a Catholic country in that Catholicism is the official religion, however, according to the Constitution of the country it is not a state religion. The Catholic church does however have special privileges in that they can use public funds to underwrite some church expenses and they have exoneration from all customs duties.  Almost all of the guidebooks say that 95% of the population are Catholic which always seemed high to me, and according to research carried out by Gallup in 2006 the figure then was 40% practising Catholics, 30% non practising, 20% Protestant and 10% no religion.  The growing segment appears to be Protestant with hundred of little churches of all types - Evangelical, Methodist, Adventist - plus those run by overseas missionary groups such as Jehovah's Witness and Mormons. There are also other religions such as Jewish and Muslim and the Haitian influence has also meant that in most areas there is a local voodoo branch, or the Dominican version known as brujeria, but it is usual to go to church and also go to the brujo at the same time - as a sort of back up really.

The first cathedral in the Americas

On Sundays here in the barrio I can hear singing and shouting and clapping from around eight churches, and that is just those I can hear from my house. God is invoked in most conversations. When you say goodbye to someone they say, "Go with God," when you ask the butcher if he will have pork chops tomorrow he says, "If God wishes it".
Everyone appears to believe in God and if I have ever tried to discuss Darwin's evolution theory I have been totally shot down in flames and retold the story of Adam and Eve.

The interior of the Catedral de Santa Maria
Looking then at churches, the two most impressive here are both Catholic. The first is the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, and was the  first Cathedral to be built in the Americas.  It is in the old Colonial Zone in the capital Santo Domingo and was started in 1512 and finished in 1540. The remains of Christopher Columbus were there until they were moved to a lighthouse built further along the coast.

Cathedral in Higuey
The second famous cathedral is called the Sanctuary of the Miraculous Virgen of Altagracia in the City of Higuey. Higuey is in the East of the country and the name actually means sunlight in the languages of the indigenous Taino Indians, probably as the sun would rise there first. This cathedral was opened in 1971on the original site of a  sanctuary housing a  painting of an image of the Virgin brought here by the Spanish in the 1500's. The cathedral is noted for its designs of oranges as apparently the Virgin appeared in a local orange grove and many susbsequent miracles have happened in the area. The Virgin of Altagracia is the Patron Saint of the country, and one out of twelve Dominican women are called Altagracia. Every year on 21st January - Altagracia Day - thousands of Dominicans flock to the cathedral to pray to the picture of the Virgin, which is in a frame made of Dominican gold and studded with precious stones.
When I was shot several Dominicans went there from all over the country to ask the Virgin to help me, and then insisted I returned to thank her for my return to health. Which I did.
The famous painting

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Where is my internet?

I have internet through a stick. Well my husband calls it an estick. It is a thingy that I plug into my computer and hey presto I have internet.You can tell I am technical.  It is not fast but it works and is portable so even on the beach I can be online. It was very useful two days ago when we had no electricity,and the battery went in laptop, so I went and sat in the colmado on a beer crate, balanced my lap top on a box of oil and was on line courtesy of my estick.

Anyway I decided I needed a faster line and a wifi in the house so husband and stepkids could also have internet. At the moment they have to wait till I go to bed and then they nick my estick. Went to the internet office Claro, filled in the forms for a fixed line and they said no problems you will have internet in 5 working days. A month went past and they decided I had to pay a deposit. I paid. Then we called Claro and they said your line will be in by Monday. Monday arrived and nothing. Called again and they said the order had been cancelled as I hadn't paid. Back to the office. All was fine, and they promised order sorted and would have fixed line by Friday.

Today is Thursday. Man from Claro arrives and says the lines come from a post with a box on it. I can see the post from my house.  But the box is full. It has plugs in it for the lines and all the plugs have lines? So there are no empty plugs.  There is another box but it is too far away so sorry I have to just live with my estick!

I really am convinced I am living 50 years ago. We need one of these ladies here to sit outside the box and plug us all in when we need to be online. Must have been a great job listening to everyone's conversations. Anyway until I can persuade Claro otherwise will just have to live with my estick.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

H is for Hambre and Habichuelas con Dulce

Letter H in the A to Z of the Dominican Republic series and  I couldn't decide between these two, so decided to write about both of them.

Hambre means hunger, and when I used to think of people being hungry, I thought of Africa and deserts, millions of people with no food or water anywhere, not a Caribbean island rich in agriculture, fruit and vegetables, coffee and cocoa, meat and fish. I could bore you with figures from the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the UN and a whole host more, but suffice it to say that  in the Dominican Republic 29% of people are below the poverty line and the same number again just above it.  The problem starts at birth, as breast feeding is not the norm. Some say due to culture, some that the women think it will destroy their figures, some that they need to be seen to buy formula as it shows they are rich and only the poor breast feed. Formula is expensive and needs to be mixed with clean water. Many use well water to mix it, some use flour and water so it looks like formula, and other such concoctions. The children are not starving, but they are hungry and malnourished. From 1940 to 1989 UNICEF states that 265,000 Dominican children died of malnutrition. The problem continues through life. It is not that there is no food, it is that it is expensive compared to the income levels. More than 2 million Dominicans live on less than US$2 a day - that is for everything not just for food. And a significant percentage have only a little more than that. The main meal is eaten at noon, and is usually rice and beans and a small amount of meat. No green vegetables, occasionally a little salad. And very little real nourishment. This is the way of life for most of the population, and has an effect on the cultural differences when someone who has never suffered from hunger marries a Dominican who has.

I am used to shopping for at least a week at a time, which is what I did when I was first with my husband and his kids. Big mistake, as the kids would eat everything  on the day I brought it home from the supermarket. Investigation revealed that they believe that if there is food there you eat it as you do not know when there will be food again. I would buy a pack of 6 oranges - gone in 10 minutes. Another slightly annoying habit is to eat all the peanut butter, or whatever and then leave the jar in the fridge so it looks like it has not been eaten.  They would always leave a tiny amount behind though! Juice cartons with a centimetre of juice left in them, the same for the milk, and the chocolate wrapper beautifully arranged to hide the fact that there was only one square left. They found it impossible to eat one biscuit from a packet, one toffee from a box, they all had to be eaten straight away. And given that they had never eaten vegetables it was very hard to make them start and to educate them on the benefit of vitamins.

The food issues spread through all events. At weddings or dinners you eat at the very end of the event, as if you eat early then people will leave as soon as they have eaten, so you must always remember to eat before you go out or spend all evening very hungry or very drunk as the drink flows and on an empty stomach it is not wise. Speeches are before the food not afterwards and I have been to upmarket dinners where the event started at 7pm and we eventually ate at around 11pm

I have no idea what the solution is, and there are several discussions and meetings happening at high levels on a daily basis to try and solve the malnutrition and hunger issues here. But how can it be that in a country so rich in food from the land and the sea, so many people are hungry?

Moving on to a happier topic - habichuelas con dulce - sweet beans literally. This is a famous sort of thick, sweet bean soup or drink which everyone eats at Easter time. it seems that everywhere you look someone is slurping it. If you don't cook it yourself then you will not be short of it as every neighbour will bring you a plastic cup of theirs. Personally it is not really my cup of tea, but I have never found a Dominican who does not love it. It is made of beans, raisins, sugar, coconut milk, evaporated milk and sweet potatoes.  Some add cinnamon, some cloves, some all spice, but every family has their own recipe. Many put little rich tea biscuits floating on the top here.  For those who want to give it a try, there is a recipe here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

G is for Gallo, Gallero, Gallera

The whole idea of cockfighting is pretty horrifying to me, but it is a major part of Dominican culture, some say the biggest sport after baseball. It dates back to before the Spanish arrived and is enjoyed by rich and poor alike.  The word for cockerel is gallo in Spanish, the cockfighting ring is a gallera and the man who owns the bird is called a gallero. Plenty of letter G for this post in the A-Z of the Dominican Republic. I did consider calling the post "Dominican men and their cocks" but I thought people searching on Google may end up being disappointed.

The fighting cock apparently originated in India more than 4,500 years ago and is usually a very colourful bird, bred to be aggressive. It takes around 18 months for him to reach maturity, during which time he is completely spoiled by his owner, often living in the house, sleeping in his bed, eating the very best food and treated better than the wife or children. Just like boxers, weight is essential and the feathers on the chest and belly are often removed to give them less weight and more speed so they tend to look a tad odd.

Every town will have an arena or gallera, and on the day of the fight everyone goes to the arena where the cocks are weighed and resin spurs are fixed on. This is a time for fun and laughter, gossip and betting. There is a referee in charge of proceedings and the owners whisper instructions to their cockerel, who I assume understands them. Once the fight starts, all hell breaks loose with people screaming and shouting and betting. The fights are timed and will go on for the set amount of time or until one cock dies or gives up.

The cock will usually only fight once or twice a month, and once they have won at least 9 fights then they can be given a name, before that they are usually just named after an aspect of their appearance, like my cat with a white tail is called, oddly enough, white tail.

My husband with the unlucky bird from across the road
We have a man  living opposite us who is a gallero. Every night he would sit on a plastic chair with his cock on his lap, stroking it and talking to it. He would have a constant stream of visitors coming to see him and the cock.  Last week at around 11pm one of my cats brought in a cock’s head. It was the head of the cockerel from over the road. Panic ensued as my husband and I looked around in the dark for the body. He said we could stick the head on with taypee and put it by the side of the road and the owner would think it had been run over by a motorcycle. I knew better than to ask where the owner would think the taypee had come from. Anyway no sign of cock, and I was in panic mode thinking of the potential retribution for murdering his cock. However number two step son mentioned later that the cock had had its first fight and lost and had been killed.  In true cockfighting tradition his owner had brought him home and eaten him, apart from the head, which he had thrown away. The cat was simply helping himself to the rubbish. Phew – thank goodness for that.

Where I live now, you cannot walk for more than 10 minutes without bumping into men with their cockerels under their arms, or sitting on a plastic chair with their cock on their lap and a bottle of beer in their hand. They take their cockerels everywhere, to the colmado, to the bank or just to visit friends.

A great Dominican tradition.

Friday, February 10, 2012

New buttons and sad news

I am improving my computing skills and have put a few new buttons on this blog. You should now be able to see where people are logging on from. I am fascinated by this and spend all the time watching to see who is reading, yelling out to no one in particular things like, "And here is Kiev!", "Welcome California!", "Hola, Madrid!".

I have also put a button on which should link to an interview I had with Expat Focus - for those of you who want to know more about me,  and how I ended up in the Dominican Republic. There is another Expat Focus button which will take you to my monthly column there, and other columnists which I thought you might enjoy reading too.

I am very impressed with myself!

The very sad news this week is that Tyson, our 7 year old Great Dane had to be put to sleep as he was paralysed from the waist down.  He was a fabulous dog with an amazing personality and touched the hearts of all who knew him. He adored people and had so many friends, we are missing him terribly. RIP Tyson.

Tyson with Heather from Canada and Fred in the background

Tyson on the PC helping Shirley from the UK but now living in the DR

Tyson having a beer with Welsh Ian who now lives in the Canary Isles

Tyson dancing with me

Tyson having cake and a glass of wine on the occasion of Ian from Canada's birthday

Tyson looking especially handsome

Tyson with Chris from England

Tyson having a snooze with his favourite cat, Matilda

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

F is for una Fria and Fiao

The next letter in the world blogging challenge to blog the letters in the alphabet.  This was a hard one, but I thought I would write something which will resonate with all the Dominicans who read this blog.

F is for una Fria.  Fria means cold in Spanish, so when you ask for a cold one, you mean cold beer. Not just a cold beer but an ice cold beer. Dominicans will not drink their beer warm, nor even cold.  It has to be ice cold. They say it has to be covered in ashes (cenizas) or wearing a wedding dress (una vestida de novia) to describe the white frosting on the outside of the bottle.

There are three main brands of beer; Presidente, Bohemia and Brahma but by far the most popular is Presidente. You can buy it in all of the colmados and bars and everyone will always check it is cold enough before buying it. They come in three sizes, small, large and jumbo. The large one costs a pound or US$1.50.

There is a bit of a performance when you buy the beer. The top is flipped off, usually using the counter top, and then out come the serviettes. The first one is used to wrap around the top of the bottle. I was told that there was always a chance that rats might have peed on the bottles when they were in the warehouse or stacked up in the colmado, so it is used to wipe the top of the bottle.  The second serviette is wrapped around the bottle to stop your hands getting too cold, and to absorb the water from the ice. Alternatively the bottle is put in a brown paper bag.

I am not a beer drinker, but there is nothing like an ice cold presidente on a hot day. I can feel all of you  who know the Dominican Republic, but who are not here at the moment, smacking your lips and wishing for una Fria right now! Sorry!

My second F is for Fiao. It means credit and is a way of life here. The majority of Dominicans do not save money and so if they want to buy anything they buy on credit. This applies to cars, motorbikes, clothes. The interest rates are exorbitant and if you miss a payment they are even more terrible. If you do not pay for a few months the item is repossessed. There is a major network of loan sharks who will lend cash for whatever you need. They will often take your bank ATM card and when the wages are paid it, they take out your wages, collect their dues and then pay you what is left. On pay days, the first and the fifteenth of the month, you do not want to go to the ATM machine, as you always get stuck behind the 'prestamitas' with a massive stack of cards withdrawing money.

Not everyone charges interest.  In the colmado the vast majority of people have credit. It is very well organised in that you are given a piece of cardboard torn off from a box of something. This picture is of mine which comes from a box of packet juice mixes. Every time you buy something it is written on your piece of cardboard. Then when you have money you pay some of it or all of it.

The system seems to work well, but the colmado owner has to know who is likely to pay and who not!

The big problem comes when people want to borrow money for something which cannot be repossessed. A few years ago an acquaintance of my husband had a son needing life saving brain surgery. He borrowed the money but needed to guarantee it with something. My overly generous husband put our car up as guarantee, being sure the man would pay it back over the 4 year
term. All went well until he lost his job.  Every month he did not pay the interest went higher and higher. Eventually the loan sharks came to our house and said that the debt was RD$ 200,000 which was around US$8000 at that time. They took our car.
My husband went to look for the man who had been in hiding from the loan sharks.  He said he was sorry but he had no money and nor did any of his family. They offered us the only thing they had - the family pig. A pig for a car. Still the little boy who had had the operation made a full recovery and we let them keep their pig.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why is there so much analysis?

Analysis in Spanish is analisis.  This country is full of it. Every time you are sick or go to the doctors they always say the same thing: "Hay que hacer analisis," meaning "We have to do analysis."

I am used to having a conversation with a doctor, explaining symptoms, answering questions which usually leads to a diagnosis without the need for analysis. Here, you explain the problem and then go straight to the analysis stage.

Number one stepson had a nose bleed. Whole family decided that he needed analysis, as he obviously had too much blood. I pointed out that it might have something to do with the fact that his right index finger was permanently stuck up his right nostril on a never ending bogey hunt. I was ignored and off he went for analisis. Not just of blood either, but the standard blood, poo and pee. Whatever your complaint is - all three have to be analysed.

Same step son had headache. He had spent the day in the hot sun playing baseball. I asked how much water he had had to drink and he confirmed he had not drunk anything all day. I diagnosed dehydration. Ignoring me (again!) he was carted off to doctor who sent him for a brain scan and the standard analisis. For a headache. Which was not a brain tumour and disappeared once he had drunk some water.
These analyses don't come cheap and I can still not work out why they are so prevalent. Is it across all the segments of society here? Is it because doctors and patients do not discuss symptoms? Is it the doctors who recommend them, or the patient who insists on them?

There also appears to be a culture of self diagnosis, especially among the poor, and which has been passed down from generations when
access to a doctor was difficult.  It is aided by the fact that most medicines, apart from narcotics and a few others, are available over the counter. Unfortunately few know exactly what they are taking, why they should take them, nor the dosage. It is standard practise to take one antibiotic for pain, and to take pills to cure a prostate problem because the TV advert says men over 40 should take them, without having any idea where the prostate is or what it does. The boys and men who go to the gym take all sorts of protein pills, muscle builders and vitamins without any idea of the side effects. When he played baseball, number two stepson was constantly being injected by the coach with various concoctions, and he had no idea what they were, just that they would make him play better.

Is this just the Dominican Republic, or are other countries like this?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

E is for Enriquillo and Empanadas

Letter 'E' in my A-Z of the Dominican Republic. I have added two button on the side bar. One will take you to my A to Z and the other to a site which has everyone else's A to Z from around the world.

Enriquillo was a Taino Indian who rebelled against the Spanish after they had colonised the Dominican Republic. When the Spanish originally arrived, everyone was friendly to each other but unfortunately it didn't last, and the Spanish soon enslaved the Tainos. Obviously the Tainos didn't like this very much and Enquillo's father, who was a chief, met with the other chiefs to have peace talks with the Spanish. The Spaniards murdered them all by burning down the meeting room, leaving Enriquillo to be raised in a monastery in Santo Domingo.  At that time he was called  Guarocuyo, but when he was baptised into the Catholic faith his name was changed to Enrique, to be known as Enriquillo because of his short stature.  In 1522 he led a successful Indian revolt in Bahoruco in the south west of the country, which eventually led to a peace treaty being signed.

Unfortunately it was too late for the Indians, as apart from those who had been killed, the rest were dying out rapidly from disease brought by the Spanish such as typhus, smallpox, influenza and measles.

Statue of Enriquillo
Enriquillo himself died from tuberculosis in Azua on 27 September 1535, but is known throughout the country as the leader of theTaino revolt. He even has the biggest salt water lake in the whole Caribbean named after him.

Lake Enriquillo
Many Dominicans like to believe they are descended from the Tainos, and although this idea has been rejected by many historians, saying that the Tainos all died out, it is interesting to note that the 1514 census states that 40% of the Spanish male settlers had Taino wives, and scientists have confirmed that Taino DNA is present in many Dominicans, especially those from the South West. My husband swears he is a direct descendant of Enriquillo, and has a great aunt who lives in the village of Enriquillo in the South West who is known as 'the Indian'.

What is also interesting is that according to a book by Kirkpatrick Sale called "The Conquest of Paradise", Christopher Columbus wrote to the King of Spain about the indigenous Taino Indians saying:

Lake Enriquillo
"They traded with us and gave us everything they had with goodwill. They took great delight in pleasing us. They are very generous and without knowledge of what is evil, nor do they murder or steal. Your Highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people.  They love their neighbours as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world and are gentle and always laughing".

I have always wondered where the spirit of Dominicans came from, and  I find it fascinating that Columbus could have been talking about many Dominicans today.

My second 'E' is for empanadas which I understand are available in many countries.The word comes from the Spanish word 'empanar' which means to wrap in bread.  Here they are also known as 'pastelitos'  or 'little pies'  and are pastry filled with savoury fillings, such as shredded chicken or beef or cheese, and then deep fried. They are standard street food and are found everywhere.  They are delicious as a snack, and there is nothing better than sitting in the park - every town has one - munching on a fresh warm empanada and drinking freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, watching the world go by.

If you would like to try making them, here is a great recipe from Aunt Clara.