Semana Santa Week – Jarabacoa and Santo Domingo

It is 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon, April 17, and my husband has just dropped me off at Jarabacoa to spend 4 nights at Escuela Caribe, the school where I used to work. This coming week, the week before Easter, is Semana Santa (Holy Week) and it is a crazy, crazy, crazy time. It is much like Mardi Gras, minus the parades. The Dominicans migrate to the beaches and the mountains, which is where I am right now, but so far from the town that I won’t see or hear anything.

When I worked here back in 1980-1983, so long ago, the property that the school owned only had 3 house and the Casita (Little House). The Casita is where Pastor and Mrs Blossom, the founders of the school, would stay when they came from the states for a visit. Most of the time, it was empty and often, on my days off, I would come here with a large bucket of popcorn and spend my day writing letters, reading and eating popcorn.

It is the Casita that I am staying in while I am here. The setting is so beautiful. I am sitting outside as I write this. The birds are chirping and singing. The casita sits high on a hill. The view is of the surrounding gentle rolling hills of fields and forest of pine trees. When I close my eyes, I think I am back in Maine in the country, on a summers day, hearing the leaves rustling, the birds singing and feeling the breeze kissing my face. It is just so darn peaceful and soul soothing. A very welcome respite from the noise that was starting to taking over the beach in front of our condo.

The school campus has changed so much. When I first arrived in 1980, there was one house on the school property and the Casita. I lived in the house with the house mother, father and about 8 girls. At the time, it was called the Thomas house. In the village of Jarabacoa, there were 2 other houses for boys, with their house staff. Also, the school building was located in town. Each morning, we would get our girls up, have them eat breakfast, do their chores and transport them into school for most of the day.

Eventually, two more house, Star and TKB, were completed during my 3 year stay here. After completion of the Star house, we moved into it and Thomas house, became a boys house. When TKB was completed, that was the other boy’s house. Today, all of the school is self-contained on the property. All of the students and most of the staff live here and there are probably 15 buildings in all. I am amazed that Pastor Blossom, the founder of Escuela Caribe, vision has come to fruition

Day in Jarabacoa

I spent the day walking down “memory lane” in Jarabacoa. I got a ride into the center of town and proceeded to walk to the building that once was the center hub of Escuela Caribe. I decided to walk what used to be considered the “back way” to the school. It used to be a dirt road off from one of the main thoroughfares in town. My landmark today was the old local elementary school.

I found the school building but I don’t believe it is used as a school today. It appeared that it might be an office building for the education administration. Thank goodness, it was still there, or I never would have found the road. No longer is it a sleepy dirt road with a few small houses nestled off the road. Today, it is a major paved road with a network of neighborhoods throughout the area.

got totally disorientated and had to ask for directions. Eventually, I found the building. The main building where the office, classrooms and patio were is still the same. The extension of the building where the kitchen, private apartment, female staff dorm and meeting room is all new. The dorm area is now a two-story, concrete structure.

Directly across from the school was a weekend home of a banker from Santiago. He had Paso Fino show horses and I had become friends with the trainer, Juan. On my free time, I used to ride the horses with Juan to help give them exercise. Today, the only thing that remains of the stables is a broken rubble of concrete. Their beautiful home is still there.

I was here, the banker redesigned the house to add pillars to the front of the house. He wanted to have it in the style of a southern mansion. It was painted blue with white pillars and trim. It is still blue today and is, actually, for sale! The swimming pool, where I used to swim each morning, was still there too.

I continued walking past the old hotel Pinar Dorado, which is where visitors to the school would usually stay. Often, on student’s day off, we would go to the pool for a day of swimming and relaxing. I believe it is still a hotel but there is no mention of it in my guide book.

The center of town hasn’t changed much except for the newer buildings. The jugo stand where we used to get our fruit smoothies no longer exist. There are modern strip malls and banks where there used to be quaint wooden structures that housed colmados.

Parque Central is still there and has had a face-lift of fresh paint, new benches and a beautiful arbor crowned with a purple flowering plant. In the center of the park. the grand old tree still stands with its’ limbs spreading shade over the whole area. Off to the side, the Catholic Church is still majestically standing.

The populations of Jarabacoa has definitely grown. Where there used to be wide open spaces are not populated. My guide book says there are 57,000 people. I have no idea what the population was back in 1980, but I have to say that it was definitely not over 10,000.

The road to the school was one of those areas where there was just pasture land, palm and pine trees. Now, there are newly developed villages everywhere….Thank goodness there was a small sign announcing the entrance to Escuela Caribe or I would have missed it completely. One of those villages has grown-up around the entrances to the school.

After doing some grocery shopping, I took a taxi back to the school and walked up the hill, loaded down with my purchases, to the casita. It was a great weight and cardio workout!

The rest of the evening was spent organizing my pictures I had taken that day and reading the book “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson. It is the latest rage in the literary world. I had heard that it took awhile to get into the first book but once you had read about a third of it, you were hooked. I have found that just reading the first paragraph, I have been hooked.

Bedtime was 9:00 PM and I slept through to 6:00 this AM…to be woken by the birds chirping. I have found that staying at the Casita isn’t for the “faint of heart”. When I was in bed last night, I heard this rustling sound in the living room area. Flashlight in hand, I went to investigate. I was making a sweeping movement when I saw something scrambling to get out of the light. Fortunately, that “something” was a salamander, jumping around on a dead plant making a heck of a racket. When I got my light positioned on him, he was chasing after a cock roach….sounds ugly, I know, but I will take a cock roach any day over a mouse!!!

My time has come to an end here in Jarabacoa. I have so enjoyed the peace and quiet. I took a hike yesterday up the mountain, behind the Casita. Further up the hill, the views were incredible. The hike up was very steep, coming down was a challenge. I traversed the hills on the well-worn cow paths and eventually made my way to a stream and followed that to the school’s property.

Last night, I was invited to Youth Group night. The students sang songs and then I gave a brief talk of what living in the Dominican Republic and working at the school was like back in 1980. I hope that I was able to impress on them all the changes that both the country and the school has gone through. It was a nice night. I enjoyed the brief encounter that I had with the students, who for the most part, seem like a nice group.

Santo Domingo – Colonial Zone

Picked David up and arrived at the Colonial Zone in the capital at 5:00. Checked into the Hotel Conde de Peñalba, which is located right on the Parque Colonial across from the Catheral Primada de America. Although the honors of the oldest cathedral goes to one in Mexico, this cathedral is the oldest operating one in the world. After we got settled in, we set out to find a restaurant for dinner. It was a lovely evening for walking. The grand, old stone buildings definitely give you a feel that you are in another part of the world. We walked east on the pedestrian street of El Conde. At the end of the street, we saw the ferry that now goes out of Santo Domingo to Puerto Rico. That would be a fun side trip. It is at a dock on the Rio Ozama.

Walking north on Calle Las Damas, the first paved street in the Americas, to the Plaza España. At one end of the plaza is the Alcazar de Colon, the home of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego and his wife. Today, it is a museum of household pieces said to be owned by the Columbus family. On the other side of the plaza, is a row of restaurants that housed in buildings that used to be used for warehouses during most of the 16th and 17th century. It was a lovely evening and at the recommendations of our friends, we ate at Paté Palo. We sat out under the stars enjoying a bottle of cabernet and eating the tapas dishes they had for a special. In honor of Good Friday, the special was all seafood. They had croquettes, paella (not very good), seafood chowder and an interesting seafood noodle dish.

The backdrop of the old colonial stone buildings, looking out over the plaza where Christopher Columbus probably once strolled made it a lovely evening. We wandered back through narrow streets that were lit with old fashioned styled street lamps, adding to the atmosphere and charm of the Colonial zone.

Back at our hotel on the Parque Colonial, we saw that there was a service being held at the Cathedral and went inside. We were just in time for the procession around the church of the priest. One thing I like about attending Catholic services here is you can come and go as you please.

Friday, we ate breakfast of cheese omelet (or tortilla as they say here), toast with guava jam and coffee at the El Conde restaurant in the same building as our hotel. Then it was off to explore more of the Colonial Zone. Since it is Good Friday today, everything is closed. So, we mostly wandered around the looking at the interesting architecture. We walked down narrow alleyways decorated with beautiful deep pink bougainvillea bushes. One such alleyway led us to the courtyard of the Cathedral Primada de America. Another brought us to the Iglesia de la Reina Angelorum. It was a very small chapel, but what I liked most was the dome of the church on the outside.

At the end of Calle Arzobispo Portes, we saw the old city gate Puerta de la Misericordia, erected in the 16th century. It obtained its name due to the large tent that was erected, to help the homeless, after an earthquake in 1842.

From this point, we ended up on the George Washington Avenue, also known as the Malecon. We saw some ruins of an old fort and canons. Off in the distance was a lighthouse. We walked along the waterfront and came to a statue, 150 ft tall at the mouth of the Rio Ozama. It is to honor Friar Anton de Montesinos who was one of the first inhabitants of the Monastery of the Dominican Order. He was one of the first people to speak out, in 1511, against the abuses done to the Indians of the island. This statue was a gift from the Mexican government.

Making our way back to the streets of the Colonial zone, we came upon a small tree lined park that was protecting a group of Dominican men playing Dominos. On one side of the park were a row of buildings washed in Caribbean colors of blues, yellow and green.

Back on Calle Damas, we passed an old part of the city wall. We commented on the work it must have taken to build it, especially since it was so thick. Following that wall, we eventually came to the entrance of the Fortaleza Ozama, the oldest military edifice in the New World. It was erected beginning in 1502 and was added onto over the next two centuries. The guide book said that over the course of its history, the fort has flown the flags of Spain, England, France, Haiti, Gran Columbia, the US and the DR….now, that is quite an impressive resume!

Continuing on Las Damas, we eventually came to the pedestrian street of El Conde and walked along that until we came to Parque Colon. We sat on one of the benches for about a half an hour, David was people watching, I was reading about the various places we had seen.

After awhile, we continued on El Condo to the Baskin and Robin ice cream (!!) store and indulged in a treat. When we were finished, we continued up El Conde to Parque Independencia where we saw the city gate of Puerta El Conde. This gate is the supreme symbol of Dominican patriotism. It is where, in February of 1844, a group of Dominicans held a bloodless coup against the occupying forces of the Haitians. It is through their brave actions, that the Dominican Republic became independent and it is also at this gate that the first Dominican flag was raised. Inside the park is a mausoleum that houses the remains of three national heroes, Duarte, Sanchez and Mella.

By the time we finished visiting this area, we had been exploring for over 3 hours or so. It was midday and hot! We have been relaxing in our air conditioned room waiting for the sun to set a little before heading out.

We ventured out after the sun set a little. We walked down the pedestrian street, El Conde looking for a convenient store that might be open, as David wanted a soda. These are called colmados and are usually the meeting place for people in the neighborhood. We got directions to a great colomado….it was busy with people buying beer, sitting around socializing and listening to the music playing. Across the street, from the store, were 3 men playing dominos. They had set up their table on the side of the road. Cars going by, would have to veer around them.

Our wandering took us past the ruins of San Nicolas de Bari, the oldest hospital in the New World. It was ordered built by Governor Nicolas de Ovando in 1503. It was so sturdy a building that it survived the ransacking of the city by the English pirate, Sir Francis Drake and multiple earthquakes and hurricanes. It was only after a devastating hurricane in 1911 that the building was so severely damaged, that it was ordered torn down for fear of harming pedestrians walking by.

Eventually, we made our way over to Calle Las Damas, again. This time, the Panteon Nacional (National Pantheon) was open. Before this building was restored by the dictator, Trujillo, in 1958, it was used as a tobacco warehouse and a theater. Today, many of the countries admired people are buried and honored here. The thing I remember most about this building is the painting on the arched ceiling above the alter area. It was very much in the Italian style and just not something you would expect to see in the Spanish colonial area! Also, the massive chandelier that hung from the dome of the building.

Finally, we made our way back to Parque Colon just in time to see the Catholic procession go through the streets in honor of Good Friday. It was quite a parade. There were several bands, men dressed as Roman soldiers, as well as, 3 large statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary and finally, Jesus, after he was crucified in the procession. After watching that, we joined the Dominicans in the plaza and did some people watching. Neither of us were hungry so we didn’t eat dinner. I bought a papaya jugo, which I have not had since being back down here. Jugo is the Spanish word for juice. They fix them naturally, with just fruit, ice and sugar or like I had mine, with milk. It is like a fruit smoothie. Only, I should have said “no sugar”. It was good and not too filling before turning in for the night.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

We explored the Colonial Zone more today as it is Saturday and things are up and running as normal again. Our first stop was at the Fortaleza Ozama. The oldest colonial military building in the New World. Construction of the fort, which is located at the mouth of the Ozama River and the Caribbean, began in 1502. Over the course of history, this fort has flown flags for the countries of Spain, England, Haiti, France, Gran Columbia, the US and now, the Dominican Republic.

As you walk through the huge, wooden gates you see the Tower of Homage (Torre del Homenaje) the oldest building on the grounds. You can still go up this tower that has walls 6 ft thick and get great views of the city, the river and Caribbean. To the right of the tower, along the wall that encloses the fort, are two rows of cannons. The first row was added 1570 and the second was added in the mid-1600s!

David and I enjoyed the views that the tower had to offer. Again, it was a beautiful, clear day. The statue of Friar Anton de Montesinos, that we saw yesterday by the water, was visible from where we were standing. Quite an impressive sight as you can see by the picture!

We left the fort and made our way up Las Damas Street to the Plaza Espana and the museum in the Alcazar de Colon. This building was the residence of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego…..who knew he had a son over here with him??? I missed that chapter in history class! Anyway, Diego and his wife, Dona Maria de Toledo lived there during the early 16th century. In 1523, they were recalled to Spain and for the next 100 years, relatives occupied the “house”. Eventually, it was used as a warehouse and even a prison. By 1775, it was the shell of the house that it had been and was used to dump garbage.

With only two original walls still standing, it was restored in three different stages beginning in 1957. More was done in 1971 and in 1992, it was finished. The museum houses many items said to have been used by the Columbus family. I loved the model of the horse and soldier in full armor that greets the visitors as you walk into the building. It was quite an impressive site!

Each room had very interesting items… the large copper vessel in the kitchen that held the wine… the table in the servants kitchen that had holes cut in it, to hold the round bottom vessels that held oil, water and other liquids in them….the travel trunk in Diego’s bedroom made from elephant hide, just to name a few of them. It was a nice museum and we both enjoyed our visit.

Walking back from the plaza, we looked up a hill and saw some ruins. So we walked up to explore them. It was the ruins of San Francisco the oldest monastery in the New World. It was built in 1556 but was destroyed by Francis Drake in 1586. It was rebuilt but destroyed by two different earthquakes in 1673 and 1751 respectively. Each time, it was rebuilt and from 1881 to 1930, it was used as a mental asylum. The building was destroyed a final time by a powerful hurricane and never rebuilt. Today, the shell of the walls are standing and you can make out where the church once was. The ruins are behind an iron fence, so you can’t walk around them.

After taking some pictures of the ruins, we started walking back to the Parque Colon. We saw an elderly blind lady walking along the street. She was carrying a very small, crudely made chair. It appeared to be a chair for a child made out of wood with string woven together for the seat and back. She was using a stick to help her “see”. She was “looking” for what I thought might be the entrance to her home and I asked if she needed help. In one of the doorways, I saw another lady and asked if she knew where the elderly lady wanted to go. She said the colmado “or little store” a few doors down. She was right. The elderly lady knew exactly the spot, near the colmado that she wanted to put her chair down and sit on it. I then gave her about $6.00 and she pulled me closer and asked if I might go into the store and buy her a beer. I asked if she wanted a small one and she said no, a large one so she would have some for that night and the next day. I did as she requested, gave her the beer and then told her I had to go. She thought that I could understand Spanish and started sharing something with me, but sadly, I didn’t understand. I just wished her well and left.

David wanted to rest and cool off in our room. So, he went back to the hotel. I took off to visit the many churches that are here. I walked to Convento de los Dominicos (the Convent of the Dominican Order). They arrived in Hispaniola in 1510 and constructed the monastery first in order to have a place to live while building the church. In 1534, they started teaching classes here and so, it is the location of the first university in the New World. This church has been destroyed by a hurricane in 1545 and severely damaged by Sir Francis Drake when he came through and vandalized the city. However, each time the building was damaged, it was rebuilt.

Across the courtyard from the convent, is another very old church, Capilla de la Tercera Orden Dominica (Chapel of the Third Dominican Order). It was built in 1729 and holds the distinction of being the only building in the Colonial area to reach present day fully intact. Today, this building is used as the office for the Archbishop of Santo Domingo and is not open to the public.

Sadly, none of the churches were open on Saturday afternoon. So, I decided to go to the Museo de La Casas Reales (The Royal House). It is on the opposite side of the Plaza Espana, from the museum we had visited this morning. This museum is housed in a Renaissance style building that was built between 1503 and 1520. It was built of stone and had two very lovely, large courtyards inside. It housed the Governor’s office and Royal court and was the longtime seat for the Spanish authority for the whole Caribbean region.

It was the history of the Dominican Republic. At the entrance was an amazing model of the walled city of Santo Domingo that gave you an idea of what it looked like in the 1500s. It was a walk through Dominican history beginning with articles used by the indigenous Taino tribes. Stones that they used to grind yucca and stones that were used as axes. Models of Columbus’ three ships were there. As well as displays of items that were found in the waters nearby from sunken Spanish ships. What amazed me were the items made of glass that were still intact. The water pitchers and glasses that had been brought up.

They had rooms dedicated to the sugar cane and tobacco production and the slaves used in the fields. On the second floor was a weapon display that Trujillo purchased from a Mexican general in 1955. There was the court room for the Royal court heard judicial matters. The audience room was a long room with a ceiling of mahogany beams, wood that is native to this island, and two chandeliers. The guide said that during carnival, the ladies would entertain themselves by throwing oranges to the masses outside the windows.

Dinner was a fiasco! I had read in the guide book about a lovely restaurant not far from where we were staying, La Bricola that was highly recommended in. We walked down to it and I guess, because of the long weekend, it was closed. So, we headed over to the Plaza Espana where we ate the first night. We looked at the various menus and David decided on Harry’s because of a pasta dish he wanted.

It was a pasta dish with vegetables and sounded good, so I ordered two. David had a beer and I ordered a glass of wine. The waiter brought the beer and wine and we sat enjoying another lovely, summer-like evening. We had a table that overlooked the plaza and watched the people. One thing that I have observed in my travels is how the people in other countries enjoy and use their parks more than we Americans do. This was apparent tonight. Parents bring small children to run and play with balls, ride their bikes with training wheels, while they sit and visit. Young people sit together chatting and laughing. It is fun to sit and observe.

We waited and waited and waited for our meal. An hour later, I asked another waiter where our order was, as we had not seen our waiter since he delivered our drinks. The waiter returned to our table and said that no order had been made. Oh my gosh, I was mad….I asked for the check to pay for our drinks so we could go somewhere else. The waiter tried to get us to stay by saying it would only take a few minutes if I told him what I wanted. No, sorry, I am out of here.

We walked down the street Isabel la Catolica to a small restaurant we had passed earlier that day….Pasatiempo, which was also mentioned in our guide book. We had thought about going there after La Bricola was closed, but it was such a pretty night, I wanted to eat outside. Pasatiempo didn’t appear to have any outdoor seating.

The restaurant was very quaint and nicely decorated. The service was excellent and the food was very tasty. We started the meal by sharing a tomato and fresh mozzarella cheese salad. I ordered feticcini with mushrooms that was delicious. David had spaghetti with oil, garlic and parsley. It was all washed down with Perrier and a glass of wine.

We wandered back to the Plaza Colon in front of our hotel and sat for awhile before calling it a day.

Sunday, April 25, 2011 – Easter

Happy Easter! It didn’t seem like Easter today. I thought that we might be able to attend the service at the cathedral but there wasn’t one. We walked to the Plaza de la Maria Toledo, which is on the way to La Casa Reales. I read that there was a flea market there on Sundays. There were only three booths….one of photographs and t-shirts, another selling odds and ends, like books, old jewelry, etc and the third had what appeared to be very old artifacts of early tribes. He had rocks that were finished like the ax heads I had seen the day before in the museum. So, the question was, were they genuine or were they new artifacts made to look old? Plus, if they were genuine, could one actually take it out of the country? We will never know as we didn’t buy anything and of course, when asked the vendor said that everything was very old!!!

Breakfast this morning was at La Cafeteria, on El Conde. It was a hole-in-the wall place just big enough for the long bar with stools to sit at. David had an egg sandwich and a pineapple jugo (pineapple milkshake). I had scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. It was the equivalent to a diner in the states. With all that grease, how can something not taste good???

We walked to La Sirena (the DRs version of Wal-Mart). We walked along Calle Duarte that took us past the ruins of San Francisco and straight into Chinatown. Amazingly, there was no mention in our guide book of Chinatown in the Colonial zone or surrounding neighborhoods. On our way, we passed a vendor who was making and selling something similar to empanadas. He had a manual pasta maker that he rolled the dough through and had a long ribbon of dough. From this, he would cut a piece off and filled half with cheese, ham and cheese, an egg, whatever you asked for. Then, he would fold the other half over press the edges and put it in a kettle of hot oil that was next to him. His helper would cook it until it was puffy and golden brown. David and I had one with cheese. It was rather tasty.

Chinatown was similar to Chinatowns throughout the world. There were the famous gates, guarded by statues of lions, announcing you were entering the neighborhood. Along the sidewalk, was the open air market full of beautiful fresh fruits and vegetable. It was an area full of activity….almost to the point of sensory overload. Especially at the entrance of the store! Vendors had set up their tables selling herbs, pirated movies and CDs. There were massive speakers blaring music. People talking loudly to be heard over the music. I was relieved when we walked into the store!

I had to share this picture with you. It was a neighborhood that we passed on our way to La Sirena. I was surprised that they had the elaborate street lights at the entrance of each home. I wonder how often, if at all, those lights are actually utilized at night. Also, in the background, notice the several electric wires dangling. This is not an uncommon sight along the streets. We often look at the electrical connections and think “not scary” but in reality, how scary and unsafe!

We walked around, bought some apples and mechanical pencils and then left. From the store, we walked down to the El Conde, headed toward Parque Independencia and from there, to George Washington Avenue or the Malacon. It is a lovely area and walk but sadly there is so much trash and it smelled horrible. We walked for about a half an hour and then took a taxi back to the hotel. It is so very hot midday in the capital. The heat just drags the life out of you.

After resting for awhile, we ventured out to get an early dinner. We found a small cafe at the end of El Conde, near the Parque Independecia. David had pasta with vegetable sauce, a natural pineapple jugo (without sugar and milk). I had a shrimp and rice dish with a natural papaya jugo. Walking back down El Conde, after dinner, we treated ourselves to an ice cream.

It was an early night, as we had to pack to get ready the next day. We had a 4:45 wake-up and a 5:30 pick-up with our taxi driver. It has been a lovely stay and I am grateful for the experiences that we have been able to enjoy while here. The only question that I have is….I wonder where we will be next Easter???

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