Dec. 4, 2012

Whereas Santo Domingo (population c. 4 million) roars like a beast, Santiago (with half of the capital’s population) is a quiet city of small barrios. Or at least it’s like that where I’m staying. This congenial little neighborhood is on Los Buenos Street, and Paula lives here.

A month ago, Paula moved into this little house in the middle of the barrio. She was born in this neighborhood 28 years ago and has lived most of her adult life here. This is the kind of place where you know your neighbors and see them everyday, on the street and through their open doors and windows. A taxi company is down the street, and a few little stores (some big enough to step just inside, in others you order at the window), run by crafty witches (the older, wise women of the hood), are a short walk in either direction from Paula’s house.

Paula’s front door leads out onto a small porch (the “galleria”) which has a grill-work gate and  grill-work “window” (without glass or a screen in it). The gate opens directly onto a narrow sidewalk, and past the galleria, is Paula’s front door which is usually open. The sounds of this very Spanish, Caribbean neighborhood are exuberant; everyone is a performer here.

Music is usually coming from somewhere, telephones ringing, dogs walking the streets (most have homes, but are allowed to wander). Some people would say it’s a “run-down” neighborhood.  I’d call it relaxed. Both little stores (the one down on the right and the one over to the left and across the street)  serve little plastic cups of very sweet espresso (10 pesos). I got coffee and two little pastries at one store this morning, and, an hour later, more coffee at the other store, where, even later  in the day, Israel and I bought a large Presidente Light beer (110 pesos) to go with the expensive lunch I bought at the local supermarket (imported fruits and vegetables).

I don’t like to idealize or idolize people; it always has a bad end. Paula though is one of the handful of people I’ve met in my life who has actual saintly qualities. Maybe it’s just that she looks like she could come from India (the Dominicans’ very mixed population at play), and, in fact, Paula looks like Amma,* the Indian guru who hugged me twice a few years ago. I think in her next life (if there is one), Paula will be a guru like Amma.

*Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī (born as Sudhamani Idamannel on September 27, 1953), primarily known simply as Amma [“Mother”], is a Hindu spiritual leader and guru …

Paula said, “It’s what’s inside that really matters. Nothing else is important.” Anyone can say this, but Paula embodies the gentleness and kindness it takes to live by this wisdom. When I told Paula I needed some lice shampoo, she said, “That doesn’t bother me.” Most people are horrified by this kind of information.

We discussed what makes people live a long time. Paula said, “The main thing is being happy… Happiness and health.” And she told me about the documentary “Happy,” which says that in 10% of people, happiness has biological origins; in 30% of people, happiness is situation-specific; and 60% of all people DECIDE to be happy, no matter what. They make a choice.

Yesterday Eligio (Ill-ee’-see-oh), Paula’s boyfriend for 5 1/2 years, brought home a drenched and shivering puppy he’d found out in the street in the pouring rain. She couldn’t be more than six weeks old. They made her a little bed and fed her milk. Her name is Luna (Spanish for “moon”). Eligio spends lots of time washing and brushing her. I like to stroke and hold her until she falls asleep and then I sit with her like I did with my kids after they nursed and fell asleep. Such a peaceful time.

I like being in cultures like the Dominican Republic where I can’t understand the language, and where the values, beliefs and mores often elude me. (I prefer happy cultures like the Dominican Republic to Haiti’s morass of depressed, suffering people.) It gives me lots of time and freedom to  imagine what’s taking place. In the end, I don’t even care.  All that’s important is that the daily mystery remains intact. I don’t know exactly what the hell is going on; it’s all assumption (forget the admonition to “assume nothing”). I often get all preachy about honesty, but I think what I really prefer is the dream.

I am really happy. I have decided that my current alienation from Megan and Sam (and Archer) is fine. I have decided to be happy with that, just as it is. I have decided to be happy with everything in my life and with myself. It’s better this way. Contentment is a gift.

An odd or unexpected thing that has happened lately is that I’ve realized people seem to like having a non-threatening, self-confident, happy, old grandmother figure around the house. My Couchsurfing hosts, most of whom are young, tolerant, curious, generous people, appear to enjoy the presence of a quiet, mature, occasionally wise, non-confrontational, older person in their busy schedules. This is a wonderful unexpected benefit of Couchsurfing: to meet and be appreciated by these lovely strangers. It’s the adoption story playing over and over again in my life.

I am one of the Ugly Ducklings of the world. I have found out who I am: a Swan. I have found my group: Traveller-Gypsies and those who welcome us into their homes. I know what’s important to me: love, kindness, generosity, compassion, beauty, all Wild Things and Sentient Beings, and happiness.

I went out this evening with Nasia, Paula’s friend. I had the puppy under my jacket (borrowed from Paula) because it’s chilly and damp from all the recent rain. This street is tiny, and it’s one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a physical beauty (because it’s not visually stunning). People live in little houses and sit out on their gallerieas (balconies) in the evenings. A few strands colored Christmas lights are strung up. At one end is the pizza man with his little red cart, lit by a single, overhead bulb. His T-shirt says, “Trophy Husband.” He makes original pizza with corn and ham, and when he runs out, he trots down the street to his house (10 seconds) where he has more pizza (30 pesos for a big slice). Nasia got a plate of yucca with egg, fried cheese, and onions at the tiny little store where I got coffee in the morning. Paula’s neighbors own all these local businesses, and they live  next to their little shops. It’s a peaceful, family scene, and I think most of the families have been here for so long, that they are “like family” to each other.

This is the kind of Couchsurfing experience I  searching for wherever I go. Paula is a part of this barrio’s past and present. She is a strong and positive presence; everybody here knows–and probably loves (or at least respects)–her. Her parents and sister live close by.

The Los Buenos barrio is a poor, working class neighborhood (my favorite kind of place because the people always have a passionate response to life). When I find someone like Paula in my own culture, it’s not as meaningful because, despite appearances,  I am a classic type of person in my own culture. Perhaps what I’m looking for is other versions of myself in different cultures and societies all over the world.

The Dominican people are a blend of very conservative (in dress and lifestyle) and totally unrestrained (in their style of communication). Just walking down Paula’s little street this evening, with the soft lights and gentle conversations–punctuated by frequent outbursts and the casual, unmistakable touch of a stranger’s hand in passing–is unquestionably seared into my consciousness forever.

Tourists almost never come to this street (just the occasional, drifting Couchsurfer who is visiting Paula); and, even when we do land on Los Buenos, most of us don’t realize what we’re seeing. It’s not scripted or designed for anyone but the local inhabitants. I only recognized it because my dreams are set against the eternal landscapes of places I have seen and never forgotten. Venice is one such place; I was there  at 17. And now, at 67, here is Los Buenos Street.


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