Dancing With the Devils in the Dominican Republic
By SETH KUGEL
ASMALL, pothole-laden city in the central valley of the Dominican Republic,anchored by aconcrete-pillared, irregularly shaped cathedral whose decidedlyugly look takessome time to grow on you, La Vega isn't high on the to-do listof mosttravelers. There are no beaches, a few tolerable hotels, someunremarkablerestaurants and, for 11 months of the year, no real reason to gothere.
Butthat changes in February, when Carnaval comes to town. Then, the quietstreetsof La Vega are crowded with visitors who seem to double the populationof200,000, the clubs fill with deafening music that keeps their customersdancinguntil almost dawn, and - most notably - grotesquely beautiful,intricatelydecorated, jingle-bell-draped demons race through the streets ofthe jam-packedtown every Sunday, whipping anyone who dares to get in their waywith reinforcedcow bladders that carry a surprisingly nasty sting.
Itis a month peppered with street concerts that attract the country's bigmusicstars; of weeks spent with family members who have returned home torelive thetraditions of their childhood; of days and nights filled with music- theblaring brass of merengue, the tinny guitar of bachata, both played atabsurdlyhigh volumes on huge portable speakers - that acts as a kind ofnonstopsoundtrack to the surreal events that unfold as Carnaval gathers steam.
Carnavaltakes place on each weekend of February, with parades on Sundays,culminatingwith the largest one, on Feb. 27, Dominican Independence Day. ManyDominicancities and towns have their own Carnaval traditions, usually withsome demonicor outrageous character as its symbol and centerpiece. But nonerivals that ofLa Vega, and, in fact, many other cities send representativesthere on the 27thto march alongside that town's famed diablos cojuelos -horned, fanged, wingedcreatures whose outfits are created in ramshackleworkshops by people who havebeen honing this skill for years.
Thelegendary Dominican singer Fernandito Villalona summed up the experiencein aSpanish-language merengue that you'll hear repeatedly if you go to LaVega:
When February comes, everything is happiness,
Dance in the street by night, dance in the street by day ...
Historianstrace such carnival celebrations (carnaval, in Spanish) as farback as pagan Rome and even ancient Egypt, but the modern incarnationemerged from Catholictraditions that came with colonialism and were deeplyinfluenced by Africanslaves. The word carnival is said to come from the Latin"carne vale,"a farewell to meat, which explains why it wastraditionally celebrated in thethree days before Lent, ending with FatTuesday, or Mardi Gras, festivitiespreceding Ash Wednesday. But in the Dominican Republicit has become moreclosely associated with Independence Day.
InLa Vega, Carnaval is a decidedly multigenerational event. While localpartygoersin their teens and 20's rule the streets and the clubs - witness thebeer-swilling,high-decibel gathering Friday night at the Parque de losEstudiantes, a pocketpark at a busy intersection - their parents andgrandparents are equallyenthusiastic participants in the celebrations. Duringmy visit last February, onthe final weekend of the celebrations, one of thebest dancers around was LisaFernanda Tapia, shaking her hips as she stood onthe outskirts of a huge streetparty late into a Saturday night. The next day,she turned 4.
Iarrived in La Vega on a Friday afternoon, and encountered a typical,hummingDominican town, full of boisterous, friendly people - many of whom weregatheredin the town square, where some kids shined shoes and others chasedpigeons whilea nearby vendor sold coconut sweets for 5 pesos apiece.
Usingmy cellphone (a worker at the local Verizon office had helped metemporarilyreprogram it with a local number - very convenient), I calledMayobanex Mota,the nephew of an acquaintance of a friend of mine in New York,hoping to getsome advice on what to do in La Vega. He turned out to be thehead of LosRebeldes, one of the top local teams - members of which dress inidenticaldiablo cojuelo costumes. That meant he had little time to be a guide,but didgive some excellent advice (and some pretty good coffee) in hisfamily'sbackyard before I set off to explore La Vega.
Iseemed to be one of the few foreigners in town for the celebration.Thehalf-dozen groups of non-Dominicans that I talked to were resort workers,PeaceCorps volunteers and artists from places ranging from Kansas to Chile who were all now livingin thiscountry. The only other vacationers I met were Dominican-Americans, backhomefor a visit.
OnFriday night, after an unmemorable dinner of shrimp and the friedmashedplantain dish known as mofongo at a drab restaurant that resembled ahospitalcafeteria, I set out on my own to the Parque de los Estudiantes, to mixwiththe locals, and ended up sharing a few big bottles of Presidente beer fromanearby open-air bar with a group of men and women in their 20's. (Theabilityto speak Spanish is definitely a plus in La Vega, but visitors willalsoencounter many Veganos, as the residents are known, who have spent sometime orperhaps lived, in the United States, and can helpout when languageskills falter.)
Later,we all headed to Kafe Klaro, a disco decorated with diablos cojueloscostumesand so popular I had to park my rental car on the grassy median of theroad, theonly space available. My New York-bred fear of tickets, I wasassured, wasunfounded.
Thenext day, Mayobanex rode with me to the Altos de Hatico section of townto seethe workshops where the amazing costumes are made. For weeks and monthsbeforeCarnaval starts, dozens of teams design their own costumes as theirpublicawaits, wondering what they will have come up with this year and sharinganysecrets that escape. At over $1,000 a costume, several months' salary formost,the designs of the elite teams are highly guarded, and in recent yearshavegrown increasingly complex and creative and, alas, often sponsoredbycorporations.
Livingin a largely Dominican neighborhood in New York, I had heard a lot abouttheworkmanship that went into these costumes and seen many examples of thematvarious festivals and at community centers. But to see their humble originswasa shock.
Ourfirst stop was a rusty ramshackle shed, full of industrial sewingmachines andlittered with scraps of fabric where Ángel Fidelio Jorge, known asFillo, hadworkers putting the finishing touches on a costume or two. Fillo, inhis early50's, works with a team that numbers 35 or so at its peak, workingnonstop inthe weeks leading up to Carnaval tailoring the multilayered,jingle-bell-heavysuits according to lists of measurements that teams submit.
Sinceit was the last weekend of Carnaval, activity was slow, and Fillodidn't seem tomind the company. Nearby, in the back of a run-down concretehouse, Melvin Marteand his crew turn out papier-mâché masks from molds sointricately twisted anddiabolical they could have emerged from a Hollywood costume shop.
BYthe time we got back to town, the Saturday night festivities were underway, andvisitors began to flood the town. Many of the Carnaval costume-makingteams -groups with names like the Broncos, the Buddies, the Ants and theScorpions -set up cuevas, or caves, which serve as gathering places for theirfriends,staging grounds for the parade on Sunday and ground zero for theafter-party.Usually, they are just the equivalent of party tents withbleachers, but inrecent years a few groups have begun to outdo the others.
Ithought Mayobanex was boasting when he declared the Rebels' cave the talkof the2005 Carnaval, but he was right: the city was buzzing about theelaborate pirateship they had set up along the main parade route, completewith a mast, ropeladders and plenty of planks. And admission to the upperlevel, with its greatviews, was reserved for friends and family.
Outsidetheir cueva, available to the public, the Rebels had created whatmay be thefirst machine in history to measure how hard you can swing a driedbladder. Thetest-of-strength gadget, called a vejigómetro, or bladder-meter,looks like acannon. Wind up and bash the back end with your handy cow-bladderwhip, and outflies a ball. The farther it goes, the stronger you are. Or, putanother way,the more pain you would have inflicted on somebody's rear end.
Istuck around the Rebels' cave as the parade route began to fill thestreets forthe Saturday evening festivities. And, in the Dominican Republic,festivitymeans loud music. By 10 o'clock, a nearly full moon had risen behind a stagethat wouldlater feature live bands, and conversation was possible only bydirectmouth-to-eardrum shouting. All around me, people were dancing toreggaetón hitslike Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina," which in February wasreaching itsapogee.
Sundaymorning broke and I took off to wander the streets and scout out thebest spotto watch the afternoon parade. Signs of preparation were everywhere.Off Parquelas Palmas,a square park blocked off by Do Not Enter signs that everyone wasignoring, ateenage boy set up blocks of ice and bottles of syrup forfrío-fríos, the localsnow cone. A few blocks away, a hollow-cheeked older man,Gil Tineo, hung hisstock of colorful, cloth-covered faux vejigas on a clotheslinebetween twoposts. He told me he expected to sell 100 or so for 25 or 30 pesoseach. (Butnot everyone was in parade mode: several evangelical churches wereconductingenergetic services audible from the sidewalk.)
Byearly afternoon, the streets were packed: sellers of MunchkinLand-likelollipops lugged their wares through the crowd, people suckedice-coldpassion-fruit juice through straws, and among those carving out dancespaces inthis mass of humanity was a little girl in a frilly pink dress dancingwith acostumed penguin.
Thebest viewing spots were anywhere with barriers separating the street fromthecrowd, because as the day went on, the crowd elsewhere surged out littlebylittle, occasionally nearly blocking the procession until a few demonic whipsgotcracking. It was not a place for the claustrophobic.
Icould hear the somewhat disorderly parade before I could see it, as cheersrosefrom the crowd down the street as groups of dancing diablos appeared.Thoseresidents who had taken to rooftops or perched in trees were the first toseethe marchers, swinging their vejigas as they swept down the street insomewhatdisorderly fashion, eliciting shouts of delight from the crowd.
Someteams had stunning costumes, ranging from royal blue and gold to neongreen to arather startling orange. Other traditional (and nutty) Carnavalcharacters alsomade an appearance, like Robalagallina, which means "stealthe hen"and generally is a man dressed as an ample woman, usually, forsome reason, withrollers in her hair and holding an umbrella.
LaVega's elaborately costumed diablos are, deservedly, the centralattraction.With their deeply grooved faces, jutting demonic eyes (usuallyred), outsizefangs and brilliant colors, they are irresistible - and for manylocal children,irresistibly scary. The vejigazos, or bladder attacks, don'thelp, and manychildren in the Dominican Republic grow up with a kind of love-fearrelationshipto Carnaval. In recent years, the Carnaval authorities have triedto restrictthe whipping: only on the street, and only on the behind. (Thesidewalk, andother parts of the body, are safe zones.)
Manyof the visitors dispersed after the parade ended, but for those whostayed, theparty had just begun. Freed from their marching orders, devilsroamed the streets,doling out freelance vejigazos, and kids whose parentsbought them vejigas fromvendors joined in. On one street corner, I saw a boynot much older than 3wielding his yellow and black vejiga like an expert. Hedid not wear a mask, butthe diabolical look in his face as he swatted strangerafter stranger showed hedidn't need one. I considered the playground fate ofhis future classmates andshook my head.
Justbefore walking over to the final event of the weekend - a massiveoutdoorconcert featuring two of the country's most beloved merengue stars,FernanditoVillalona and Toño Rosario - I bumped into a hulk of a diablo namedJuan CarlosMota, Mayobanex's brother, outfitted in a red and gold,gladiator-inspired devilsuit. Hearing that I had remained largely unscathedfrom the vejigazos, hereared back and took a massive swing. It stung badly,but it didn't hurt as muchas I had feared - at least not then.
Thenext day, as I settled into my seat on the airplane, and flinched atthesensation, I realized I was leaving La Vega with a black-and-blue souvenirofthe place. It would be a long three-and-a-half-hour trip back home to NewYork.
How to Get There
JetBluehas daily nonstop flights out of New York to Cibao International Airport, about15 minutesfrom La Vega and about the same distance from the center of Santiago.Fares start at about $120 each way.American and Delta also fly nonstop fromJ.F.K., as does Continental from Newark.
Rentinga car is advisable, though there are buses from the airport to LaVega and taxisin town; most major rental companies are represented at Cibao.
Youcan use one of the many A.T.M.'s in La Vega to get pesos.
Where to Stay
Guidebooksto the Dominican Republic allmention Carnaval in La Vega, but most caution against stayingin town, notingthat the typical hotel is a dive with missing toilet seats,saggy mattressesand questionable security. True enough, but for some reason fewguidebooksmention El Rey, Avenida Antonio Guzmán (formerly Restauración)3,(809) 573-9797, a 10-minute walk from the square. This small hotel openedfouryears ago, and, despite its location next to an auto parts shop, couldevenstretch its way into the "charming" category, withwrought-ironfurniture and colorful tile in the lobby, and perfectly decentrooms for 900pesos ($29, at 31 pesos to $1) a night.
Thereare also some campy "resorts" off the highway, which formuch of theyear serve as love nests for romantics with nowhere else to go, butareperfectly respectable hotels for Carnaval, if you don't mind theoccasionalpiece of erotic art in your room. One, the Atlas Apart-Hotel,Autopista Duarte, kilometer 2, (809) 573-3110,is just outside of town andcharges about 1,500 pesos a night.
Where to Eat
Eatingand celebrating are Dominican specialties, and in La Vega they don'tdo eitherin a fancy way: beer, rum and loud music for the partying, and rice,beans andmeat for the food. My favorite place was El Zaguán,AvenidaPedro A. Rivera, kilometer 2.5, (809) 573-5508, just outside of town.It is anopen-air restaurant with the thatched roof common to Dominicanthrowbackrestaurants. There is no menu here, but one thing not to miss is aparticularlyfine rendering of the local speciality, mofongo - mashed friedplantains mixedwith pork cracklings (165 pesos).
Thefood at Macao Grill, Avenida Antonio Guzmán (formerlyRestauración)82, (809) 573-2020, has standard Dominican dishes for between 200and 300 pesos;it doesn't quite match up to El Zaguán, but it could hardly bebetter situated,right across the street from the cathedral. A great place fora quick bite isVilla, Plaza Aspen, Avenida Imbert, (809)573-9168,where the pressed sandwiches are all under 100 pesos.
Thoselooking for a more down-home spot should try Pollo el Confesor,Avenida Imbert at Calle Colón (no phone), which attracts chickenlovers likeflies. Unfortunately, it also attracts lots of chicken-loving flies,but thiscrowd doesn't seem to mind sharing. A whole chicken is 200 pesos; ahalf is100.
SETH KUGEL contributes regularly to the Travel section of The newYork Times.