The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
Los Quemados, Dominican Republic

“I had a few problems with a boy once. I smashed him up with a stick…Don’t you think that’s bad?”
“Well…I don’t really know why you did it.”
“So I could crush him up and drink him like fruit juice!”

I searched for a twinkle of humor in the piercing, empty stare of this strange woman who’d stopped me moments before. There was nothing. We stood alone at a bend in the road that eventually led into the village. Terrified by her apparent earnestness, I fled, hoping not to appear like I was running.

Los Quemados. Nothing usual ever seems to happen there. To walk along “main street” is to witness a conveyor belt of elsewhere eccentrics in thrift store clothes. A skinny mulatto, whose dangling pipe and candy-striped jacket give him the air of an extra from a British seaside movie, will stop with a toothless smile and wave. You might not even notice a little blonde albino girl, breaking open cacao pods on the roadside, almost camouflaged by her organic beauty.

Cockfighting Locals

Cockfighting locals

I’ve been back four times now. Work, curiosity, escape, recuperation. The village seems to occupy a timeless vacuum, against which I can measure my own fluctuating progress. I always seem to bring rain. One time it didn’t let up for a second in five days. This all leaves the surrounding valley as green as fresh spinach. The entrance is usually the same. I’ll arrive on the back of a motoconcho, the Dominican motorbike taxi, probably as fatal as it is entertaining. The lunchtime sky is bright with crisply defined clouds that look like they’ve been peeled off a sunny intervals weather map. The mountains appear as they might in a children’s pop-up picture book, perfectly formed and two-dimensional. Like everything else here, they never really seem real.

Which is maybe what keeps me coming back. Of course it is only unreal from my side of things. I’m from the country myself, but the similarities end there. The villagers here, especially the older ones, are about as earnest and unaffected as they come. Away from the compounds, the Dominican Republic is hardly a tourist Mecca, and most find neither the roads signs nor the inclination to reach a place like this. Los Quemados is buried in the deep folds of the Cordillera Central as a puzzle piece might be buried down the back of a sofa.

But it’s great. It abounds with natural beauty. Enough to make a nature documentary. The clear, long and still nights are made of terror, magic and wonder. Fireflies flicker aboard the mountain streams. Animal groans and mumbles sometimes make you wish you’d drunk more rum. One night even, a rampage of lovesick horses, I don’t know whether it was two or two hundred, thundered in circles around my cabin for what felt like an eternity.

By day, the more tranquil areas of garden and greenery are home to birds of primary colors, such as hummingbirds, or zumbadores, as they are poetically named in Spanish. Peace is not hard to find, even if it is not hard to lose later. It may be a rustic agricultural community, quaintly named after the ubiquitous aroma of burning wood, but, in keeping with the Dominican constitution, speakers the size of elephants are obliged to blast out merengue and bachata all day long.

It all adds to the charm (and absurdity). Far from abandoning their bodies to the spell of the shuddering rhythms and vibrant melodies, most onlookers often tend to gaze on motionless, wearing the kind of lost smiles that suggest they have nothing to do until next year.

The inactivity is a concern. Los Quemados is poor. The few jobs there are exist in farming, the local dams and nearby ferronickel mining. People seem to survive via an extended family tribal provision network. The current economic crisis means that most can’t afford meat with the traditional sustenance of rice, beans and bananas. Survival, however, is in their blood. The people of this valley are descendents of some of Hispaniola’s hardiest legends.

Many Taino Indians, whose obituaries have been written by historians to coincide with the brutal Spanish Conquest, actually escaped enslavement and survived for centuries in runaway settlements in these mountains. Fleet-footed African slaves also broke their chains to abscond deep into this difficult terrain. It has traditionally been a no-man’s land, a place of penance or a refuge for renegades. Rebellious Spaniards and hungry buccaneers made the mountains their home after discovering there were 30 cows for each human being. It gives just a glimpse of the rich Dominican heritage. An extraordinary racial and cultural mix. The most creolized society on earth.

The only outsider in town has fallen in step with the unpredictable nature of life, and is now a permanent fixture. Horses run through his house. His property is a model of self-sufficiency, partly powered by a rusty old water turbine that once sat in a Liverpool scrap yard. He rattles around in a last of the line jeep that probably ceased production with the end of the Vietnam War. Little kids dare each other to go and steal his mangoes. It must be very seductive the thought of ‘going native’ in such an Eden.

Things in and around Los Quemados, are, no doubt, much as they have always been. The slow passage of time is regulated by the explosive annual flourish of the omnipresent Flamboyan tree. Folklore has it that the vivid bloom reaches its height around Easter Sunday, to remind the devout of the blood shed by Christ. At this time the valleys become saturated in floral stripes the color of orange bell peppers.

Pig on a Spit

Pig on a Spit

For every aesthetic charm there is an earthy contrast. On weekends and fiestas, the air is laden with promiscuity. The bawdy pastimes of cards, dominoes and cockfighting erase all memory of work and duty. Those with enough gas in the tank run their mistresses to secret locations in the mountains and stopover hotels. The dog days make for a comic desperation. One time I saw two furtive lovers ungainly struggling to cross the wide and fast-flowing Rio Yuna, their jeans rolled up like wading stalks. The rapids proved too much for the girl and she got a soaking. A Caribbean romance. On the banks people laugh, rum flows, and with luck, someone will have a spit roast pig on the go. Nothing tastes so good.

All this revelry tends to unfold on the street or on the doorsteps of humble wooden or concrete shacks. This is campo life, people struggling on and responding to their desires without a moment’s inhibition. The hospitality is awesome and addictive. I always come here full of city suspicion and distrust, and leave with the unconscious inclination to wave at everyone I see. When I leave, Los Quemados soon becomes as intangible as a daydream or a fantastic story. It’s just nice to know it exists, like a peculiar parallel dimension. The puzzle would be incomplete without it.