Walk on the wild side
Think the holidays are nuts? Trying going out for some in the Dominican on Christmas Eve

Walk on the wild side
john van becay - 12/19/2019

The pretty young woman whacks me just above the knee with her shopping basket laden with goodies. The stream of shoppers that propelled her into me pulls her away. Xmas Eve day in Santiago, Dominican Republic, is officially nuts, which, coincidentally, was one of the things I was trying to buy in La Serena, a large Walmart style supermercado. Most days it is convenient one-stop shopping. Today, 20-30 people crowd each of the many cash registers, arms full of last-minute items. You cannot walk in the aisles, let alone push a cart, it’s Black Friday, Level 10. I opt out and head for the street market. At the door, I am squeezed against the hordes pushing to get in. We jostle through the narrow opening, one river of humanity crashing against another until I am spewed onto the sidewalk. I casually brush my wallet, secure in the knee pocket of my cargo pants. Still there.

It’s about the same outside, except in open air and with a lot more cars. The sidewalk is jammed, people spill into the streets; vehicles jerk, shiver, stop. Trucks and busses stall in the street. Blowing their horns seems to help. Pedestrians maneuver thru the metal squeeze, cutting between cars. It is faster than the sidewalk. Some are hawking bottles of water, candy and fresh chunks of pineapple in plastic baggies to the frustrated passersby. A taxi driver shouts. I sidestep mothers weighed down with bulging plastic sacks, children clinging to their skirts, an occasional beggar, which today all get an alm or two from me. A parked car, itself jostled, sounds its alarm, clearly distressed. Its bleating is annoying, no one pays it any attention.

It rains and stops, the air refreshed then muggy. The cracked and jumbled footing becomes even more treacherous. We crawl along the narrow sidewalk, like the sweat crawling down my chest. I am nearly blind-sided by an umbrella, its spikes at my eye level. A statuesque woman brightly dressed, balancing a tray of sunglasses on her head, weaves between cars, her rhythmic sway unperturbed by the melee. I wish I was going her way just for the serenity.

At a side street, booths line the sidewalk offering fruit, bread, sweets, clothes, belts, CDs, flowers – sometimes all at the same stand. A man sells shoes out of the trunk of his car. I try a  newsstand/bakery/electronics shop which may be selling maternity clothes in one corner. No nuts. I find a promising booth on a corner manned by three teenage boys. Two seem to be selling, the other in charge of the portable radio pumping out the same juiced-up merengue spilling from a shop a few doors away. I choose grapes with seeds, raisins with seeds and bananas, no seeds, all of it bulk, all of it wholesaled off the back of a truck a few hours earlier.

“Tiene nuezes? Nuezas? Nu – ay – sayes?”

My Spanish is preshrunk, washable and I try every variant I can think of. The boy looks at me blankly. His Dominican does not intersect with my Spanish. Finally, with the help of another customer, his face brightens. No, no nuts for you today. When the young man gives me change, he pats my arm and wishes me well. It is unexpected and kind. The fruit will last several days. It is 125 pesos, about $2.60.

A narrow vertical gutter a foot deep parallels the cross street, a real ankle twister. Periodically in the sidewalk, the mouth of a utility pit gapes open. There is no cover, no warning sign, no protection of any kind. You could go in to your hip. Shop doors stand open with music and people cascading onto the sidewalk. An imperious man with a huge gut bellies his way thru the throng, oblivious to the consternation in his wake. It is an effective ram and he gives me a good thump. A thin dog, pendulous from nursing, noses through a pile of household refuse. The fetid stench overwhelms the unburned hydrocarbons.

A tantalizing aroma draws me across the street. I look for a natural break in the bumper to bumper. The greater hazard is the one you don’t see. Motoconchos – lightweight motor bikes – cut between the cars, their horns at a higher pitch. In the general mayhem, they are impossible to track. Ignoring their own safety, and everyone else’s, they think nothing of grazing your hip, gunning it between you and a car. God help you if you step backward at the wrong time. I make it to the mouthwatering smells unscathed. A deep pan of hot oil simmers over a gas burner. In plop chunks of sausage, cheese, plantains. A man dressed simply in a loose shirt, pants and flip flops buys a plate of the steaming food – a little over $3. He juggles a bite-sized piece, pops it into his mouth and gives the plate to an old woman sitting cross legged on the sidewalk, her possessions tucked closely around her. She smiles, I see only three blackened teeth. In the street, a pedestrian curses a car, throwing his arm into the air, dismissively.

Finally, in a pharmacy, I find a paltry package of nuts and decline the exorbitant price. I’ll get crackers at the hotel. It rains – again. A man in a doorway asks, what are you looking for?

“Este es avenida Cucurulo?”

“Si,” he smiles, swinging his arm parallel to the street, “Cucurulo.” He’s delighted to be of help. “Pase un buen dia!”

I find my lodging, Hotel Colonial, right where I left it. Most days it is a 10-minute walk from La Serena. I stand outside a moment, breathing in the whole glorious mess. This has been unforgettable, even for here, a mesmerizing hour and a half traversing a few blocks. I am fall-on-my-knees grateful I have an air-conditioned room, a hot shower and a comfortable bed a few steps away.

The day has been full of heart: heart stopping, heart wrenching, heart warming, one moment piled on the next, all of it a gift, all of it divine. I give thanks. Feliz Navidad!

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