The Unexamined Life in the Dominican

The DR is so warm that hot running water isn’t necessary. In all the time I was there I saw one or two windows with glass, but that isn’t really necessary either, unless you have air conditioning–which nobody where we were does. What they have is metal blinds, shutters or nothing on most openings. Where we were is just a poor rural area. People may live in the usual Latin American brick and concrete houses, but many live in brightly painted wooden shacks. The church building was made of sheet metal, and probably built by a mission team–which is a way you can avoid the law of institutional decay, I suppose.

We never had any gentle rain there, just torrential. When it rains, you get out of it and wait for it to pass. And when it rains, you might turn or shut the blinds depending on the wind. What we had right at the moment I started to teach on Wednesday evening was a renewal of the rains and a sudden invasion of insects which the saturated ground no longer harbored and to whom the lights beckoned. They arrived on one side of the church, afflicting those seated there. Then someone started playing with the lights to attract them away from the people and they ended up at the front where I was. Nobody calling a halt to the proceedings, I didn’t either, and we continued on, ignoring the insects as best we could. The Americans mentioned them later, but the Dominicans didn’t.

* * *
What did attract attention one night was that someone saw a mouse emerge. They were all playing dominoes and then someone shouted and suddenly they were all around a wall darting in to step on a mouse, using chairs and brooms to poke at it, chasing it around until it got away. A mouse is something you have to be concerned about, the clouds of insects are not.

* * *
The unpaved roads are lined with discarded mango seeds. As they walk along they notice whether any of the nearby trees have ripe fruit and when they see some they throw stones and knock it down so they can eat it on the spot. They don’t really seem concerned with whose mango tree it is. I guess there’s such an abundance nobody cares about it. It may be that it just isn’t customary for someone to run out and fight about something like that. The people who live closest have the best opportunities, and that’s enough. I also think that if you have a crop you want to protect, you will keep it out of view.

* * *
We had mashed yucca our first night in the DR. We had scrambled eggs and mashed yucca for supper. And if they eat eggs, it is for supper: we were never given eggs for breakfast. There was also a bottle of ketchup provided with the scrambled eggs and yucca, and hot sauce. So I put ketchup on the eggs and hot sauce on the yucca.

Yucca can taste good on its own. It is a stringy tuber that grows large and prodigally in tropical climates. It really is good first boiled and then fried (in Colombia Katrina would buy frozen yucca fries), and with skill can be prepared so that alone it is interesting, the way Colombians do with potatoes and rice. But the mashed yucca wasn’t.

We also had mashed plantain, and on this they put sautéed onions with vinegar. Highly palatable, sautéed onions with vinegar. I was surprised, and pleased, and even thought it was mashed plantains, I almost went back for more; then I realized they were out of the onions.

We had our bread in rolls. One night they put ham and yellow cheese in the rolls (they have two kinds of cheese, white and yellow, both mild: they don’t really age cheese there), one night they put a hot dog in the same rolls and we could add ketchup and mustard. I learned from the eggs to steer clear of the ketchup–something in the spices is different.

The best meal we had was on Sunday. Rice, stewed beef, and a good salad with beets and tomatoes. I love the soggy salads you get in those parts of the world; so much better than what Americans do. They had some fried things with a base in yucca too, that Sunday. They grind the yucca up and from that make other things. Such things were these fried, the yucca ground coarse, like cornmeal.

We had several consecutive meals without meat, but never a whole day without. We had stewed chicken, stewed beef, baked pork ribs and once goat, hamburger (on a large flour tortilla with shredded cheese, lettuce, carrots and diced tomato: no Dominican recipe). Their dietary staple is rice and beans. They eat a lot of brocoli and cauliflower, it seemed to me, perhaps because I don’t like them too much. Carrots were often present, green beans, corn–not on the cob. We had potatoes a few times, a shepherd’s pie type of thing. Yucca tended to get paired with eggs, and once most curiously with large rounds of fried sausage.

If I go back, I’m going to have to take coffee and a french press. They make coffee, but of course it is of the lowest quality and worst. I was going to take tea, but it got left behind. You end up drinking a lot of water there, of course, and I ended up wishing it could have been cool tea (no ice there, but I can’t relate when Americans say they miss ice. I’m fine if you never put ice in my cup). What surprised me is that they never drank hot chocolate once. They must export it all. And of course they’re not given to warm beverages or soup, sadly. But that’s what happens. In Colombia they exported the best coffee.

* * *
Every once in a while you got an unpleasant smell drifting through. Was the smell tropical? Was it because part of the place we were on is a goat farm? Tropical places usually have the smell of decay wafting through from time to time, and it is unpleasant. I didn’t smell a more intense version of the same when we walked through the goat farm. I never figured it out, and I didn’t remember to ask, though I have the feeling what would have resulted there would simply be a puzzled look.

Did learn that goats are in their eating habits more of a deer than a sheep. They need the higher mineral content of plants with deeper roots than what grass has. So they bring in forage for the goats. On Sunday night as I was walking over to the church to preach I was surprised by a guy driving a truck stacked up with chopped branches for the goats. He wanted me to open the gate for him. That would never have happened in Colombia: if they see you dressed up they won’t ask you to get your hands dirty. I did not mind, but I was surprised. They aren’t as solicitous in the DR as Colombians are.

* * *
It frustrates me the way we go about all this. I had, for example, an activity besides the preaching: reading a book in English. We could have gotten pretty well along in the book had we done it in Spanish, but the point was the English camp so we waded through slowly in English. Which is fine from the point of view of teaching English, but frustrating from the point of view of Christian teaching.

Because they are hungry for the teaching. One of the things I was most impressed with is their desire to know and to learn, and just the nimbleness of their minds. They have curious and restless minds, but what they don’t have is a steady discipline. It is kind of the opposite of the USA where discipline is much more dominant (and valued) than quick wits.

They keep their wits sharp by loving jokes and arguments. That’s what the domino sessions taught me. It has to be dominoes because you have to use your head to play with them – they’re not just discarding high points, they’re figuring out who’s playing what and what can be played. All of them are good at dominoes. And it is the occasion for all kinds of mock arguments which they enter into with great enthusiasm, the point being to say the most preposterously funny thing. It is lively and energetic, and they’ll bite at anything that requires them to be clever. They appreciate clever cheating and are always up to tricks, though the point is more to be caught rather than to get away with it otherwise nobody would know of their ingenious scheme.

I was impressed with how bright they are. And it makes me wish they could be taught more and better, and that’s why it frustrates me that instead of doing Bible teaching–which we are in a way there to do–we do English teaching to keep up the pretense. Our lay people could instruct them successfully in something, having better access to resources and in general a better level of education. They have the translators themselves.

I don’t know exactly why it is but it may be that we don’t think strategically. We think that somebody is involved in religious activity and that in itself is good. People come back and talk about how awesome it all was, and how happy it made them feel. And I asked the chaps there what the benefit was; they all say they were converted chiefly because of English camp. We do it because it is apparently getting results. But that could be saying that in spite of what we are doing, God is at work, kind of the way it was with Joseph’s brothers. It isn’t the way to measure.

The way to measure is to find out what they really need, and then do what we are instructed to do to meet that need. Why don’t we proceed that way? Out of politeness, perhaps. We trust them to know that. They say we need native speakers to teach English and do chapel services. We say, fine, we’ll provide them. And we are glad to do something.

They used to have a family that did the week-long camp for the lower grades, but the family grew up and now can’t come, so what happens? They don’t do the camp. Which tells me it isn’t really a need. If they needed to do it, they have people there who can handle English enough to be able to teach basic and intermediate levels. And they bring in the preacher to preach in English and be translated too. So when I go and preach in Spanish, the ruse is over. They don’t need us to go because they have preachers who could do it, and connect better because they know their audience and speak their language at more than one level.

But it is a jolly time for the people you meet. You get to know them, and that’s interesting. I sometimes wonder if we of the human race are capable of organized and intelligent work, or if the best we can hope for is from time to time to have intelligent moments. Especially Christians. There are people who do intelligent and organized work, no doubt, but probably not Christians. All the surrounding muddle of the way we go about things perhaps is the only way for us to get to that.

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