It starts with a quote. The night before I leave for the Dominican Republic, I listen to an excerpt from a speech called A Counsel of Resistance and Delight in the Face of Fear by a mythologist and an author Dr. Martin Shaw. In it, Dr. Shaw avows: “…If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered.”
It is a good speech, but it doesn’t fill my lungs or lace my bones with its profound knowledge until much later, when I am dancing on the red Dominican soil.
Touching down in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital that proudly carries its other title — the first city of the New World — earned after Columbus arrived here in 1492, I expect anything but the overwhelming shower of affection I receive from the local women and men. Pushing through a thick moving crowd of laughing and sweaty people, I seek out Carlos, my guide through the mountainous Samaná province that juts out into the Atlantic on the northeastern tip of the country. A tall and gregarious man with conquistador looks, Carlos scoops me up in a welcoming hug: “Bienvenida a Republica Dominicana.”
Hours later, as we approach the thick vegetation of Samaná jungle and I leave the stereotypes about Dominican allinclusive resorts behind, I get a crash course from Carlos on what it means to be a Dominican. Dominicans love their country, but there are three things they love even more, he tells me. “Vida, merengue, plátanos.” Life, merengue, plantains. I chuckle at that la st one, until I see plátanos show up on my breakfast plate in the iconic morning dish called mangú and eat a handful of fried plantain slices — tostones— as part of my everyday lunch. Indeed, the biggest compliment a visitor can receive from a Dominican is that he is becoming a plantain, esta aplatanado. Becoming ‘one of us’.
Love is shown and discussed on the streets openly. Before my first day in the country is over, I learn about a list of fruits and other foods that one can eat to help in the love department. Turns out, there are a number of options: a cup of hot chocolate or ginger tea, the ingredients for both grown locally, juevos de codorniz — quail eggs (who knew!), clamato — a mixture of clams and tomatoes, a slice of watermelon or, at the very least, a serving of passionfruit, if you believe about half of Dominican men who trust in its aphrodisiac qualities.
And then there is mamajuana. I get my first of many servings of this spicy sweet concoction about hundred kilometers away from a beachside town of Las Galeras at a roadside fruit stand sinking under a heavy load of pineapples, bananas, mangoes, and naturally, plantains. A large bottle is filled with various herbs and wood chips, then infused for about two weeks with inexpensive white rum (it has to be cheap or the taste is not right, as several mamajuana enthusiasts have explained to me), a splash of red wine for rich color, and a hint of honey. “We enjoy things a lot here,” Carlos translates as a woman that tends to the fruit stand pours me some mamajuana. I’m starting to feel it.
Tangled beachside palm trees sway gently as I walk on a main road of the sleepy town, Las Galleras, next morning. The road ends at a narrow strip of a beach where fishermen park their red and blue boats overnight. I dip my toes in the clear warm water and give in to the marvelous feeling of letting go that often comes with being thrown into new surroundings. “We enjoy things a lot here.” Boy I could get used to that.
“You know what day is today?” Carlos asks me a few days later, when we reach Santa Barbara de Samaná, the province’s capital. It is Saturday, and in the Dominican Republic, that can only mean one thing — we’re going dancing. Pulling up at the Malecón de Samaná, the broad esplanade that doubles up as the main town artery, we navigate through a maze of street bikes, old cars, and plastic chairs to an open air dance cafe where the beat is already on.
I find bachata with its intricate sequence of steps to be harder to follow than the faster, but simpler merengue and retreat to my seat. A young woman is sitting next to me in a low plastic chair, her left wrist hugged by a snake charm bracelet. She is swaying her hips and waving her hand slowly in tact to the tune. Her partner, a young man with a shy smile, can’t take his eyes off of her. Neither can I. Later on, the couple stands up to the sound of a popular song and doesn’t stop commanding the dance floor until the music dies.
On my final day in Samaná I spend time with Ramona and Brasilio, an industrious older couple in Salto del Limón that keep a restaurant and a horseback riding trek to the nearby El Limón waterfall. Ramona cooks up a simple fare made of bolitas de yuca— deep fried balls of starch laden yuca root — and pollo con arroz y frijoles, a Dominican staple of chicken, black beans, and rice. After lunch, Brasilio makes us a cup of hot chocolate with beans harvested from the cacao trees in his small backyard while Ramona sits down to chat about recipes. “Primeramente,” she says, “hacer las cosas con amor.” First of all, you have to do things with love. Then come spices and everything else.
I think I’ll start cooking with that recipe.