My amiga Yahaira wanted to show me her homeland, the Dominican Republic, where 62,000 of her relatives live. We met them all at the airport, a metric ton of strangers hugging me as their own.
The DR comes in two parts: There is Santo Domingo, which rivals the finest capitals in terms of lodging, culture, and streets so clean you could eat off them; then there is the rest of the country, which is like that minus the lodging, the culture, and the streets.
There was no time to sightsee, though, because I was having a near-death experience called Driving in the DR. I'm just saying that the country could benefit greatly from painting lines on the road.
Half the people drive mopeds, which makes gridlock smell like one big lawnmower accident. If you don't have a moped, you are forced to -- enter Psycho music -- take the bus.
For me, buses have always been a novelty, a place you end up after Jaeger Bombs. In the DR, buses are big business. The drivers, who own the buses, don't see space the way we do -- one rump per seat -- but as possibility-per-cubic-inch. Children are placed on laps, parents' and otherwise, and when they run out of seats, you get a folding chair.
To maximize the volume of trips, buses go 100 mph even around corners. Drivers don't stop at intersections but do honk as a professional courtesy. I clawed the stuffing out of my seat trying to keep the bus upright. Honk! Honk!
At Tia's house, a boy hugged my leg and said, "Yayson, how you like ride?"
I unclawed my bags and said, "I don't."
Tia dabbed the mosquito bites on my forehead. I could still hear the clerk at the fishing store: "This here repellant is 28% deet, and no creepy-crawly can stand that kinda deet."
PSA: Island mosquitoes are hip to the whole deet thing. One landed ON MY CAN OF REPELLENT.
Something else I learned in the DR: Just because it's 200 degrees outside doesn't mean it can't rain. The tropical sun visits everyone individually, sitting on their laps at times, but does nothing about the drizzle. Dominicans have learned to live with the humidity, but now and then you'll catch one screaming at the sky just for a minute.
Tia invited us to sleep in her room. "Bueno," she said, opening the door to gale-force winds. Tia's ceiling fan was set on Tornado and could not be turned off. It had been raging like this for months. The base had, in fact, come apart from the ceiling and stayed in place by faith alone. It's not easy falling asleep in a Cuisinart.
At seven a.m. we awoke to a breakfast bonfire. Once that smoke hit the squall in our bedroom, it was like being gassed out by SWAT. We would have woken up anyway on account of the merengue music.
Tia was dance-cooking in her slippers, smiling for no reason at all. Her daughter danced on a chair. Tia caught me staring and asked me to join. I thanked her but no. She seemed okay with that as she grabbed my waist and waltzed me into the living room, where the family took turns teaching the gringo to lighten up.
Next day, Tia sent us by bus -- gulp -- to Gracia's house in el campo, where mangos grow like crazy, through cracks in the street if you're not careful. Children eat them without leaving the trees. Their mothers yell at the kids to come down but don't really mean it. (Have you ever cleaned mango from a child's ear?)
In the jungle, electricity comes and goes. One moment you're dancing full-blast to Fulanito; next moment you're feeling your way back to the candles. Our warmest moments came, in fact, in the dark when we shucked beans with flickering faces.
Water was also hit and miss. I had always taken water for granted, like fresh air or reruns of The Simpsons. In the DR you learn that water is precious, especially when you go to flush the toilet. So it goes.
Some days we bathed in a river replete with shampoo, conditioner, and real-not-rubber duckies. Gracia waded by after the soap.
"You live here often?" I asked.
Gracia put her arm around me and smiled, the most she said all day. Gracia is madrina, or godmother, to 50 children, three of whom live in her home. Her house doubles as a church, where people come to pray without knocking.
On the riverbank, Gracia emptied her hamper: rice and beans, chicken from the coop, creamed corn for dessert. And just when life couldn't get better, she handed me a juice with umbrella on top. Take that, Club Med.
In the DR, you are not allowed to meet people without eating. It's part of the handshake: grip with one hand, munch with the other. Dominicans don't like to hear that you're not hungry. In fact, don't even show up thin.
We gained numbers on the walk home, as Gracia introduced us to everyone she knew, dogs included. Cousin Maria opened her door and said, "Siéntese," which means "sit," or more specifically, "sit and eat." And out came the chicken feet, a delicacy in the DR. If there's one thing I've learned in my travels, it's to stay away from the "delicacies."
It had never occurred to me to eat the knuckles of a bird. Maybe I had never been hungry enough. Children gathered to watch my face, smiling, snapping photos. I'd say that it tasted like chicken, but it was more like gristle or latex or Denny's.
Once we met everyone that Gracia knew, we visited the graveyard to meet everyone she used to know. The tombs looked like dusty chests of drawers, one slot per relative. La Vieja kissed the top drawer and sighed.
I haven't mentioned La Vieja? That's Yahaira's grandma, the cause of all these people. When you meet "The Old One," you bow as you might to Don Corleone and say, "'Cion, Grandmother." Then she gives you benediciones, or blessings.
When I met La Vieja, she grabbed my neck with both hands, scrunched her face into a leathery smile, and recited the Bible from Genesis. Then we sat on the porch and told stories over rice and beans. "Siéntese, siéntese."
Whatever Dominicans lack in fancy cars and iPods, they more than make up for in time. Returning by bus to the airport, I saw men playing dominoes, women laughing by the mailbox, children growing mangos from their ears.
These people had taken me in as their own, no questions asked, and if we had stayed any longer, they would have squeezed me into their chest of drawers.
Which was very much on my mind as I steered the bus with my seat cushion. HONK! HONK!