The holidays have passed, but now that I have a loaned computer again (my Mac has been in repair since late November) I couldn’t help but share my Christmas experience in the countryside of the Dominican Republic. It was one of the most memorable celebrations I’ve experienced overseas.
My friend Alejandro invited me to spend almost an entire week in his hometown of Mamey, north of the country. Mamey is the kind of small place I always imagined growing up–homes tucked in rolling hills, and days surrounded with your extended family, friendly neighbors who know your name and familiar sounds of birds, donkeys, goats and roosters.
It’s the kind of place where you can’t walk one block without waiving at well known faces, saying hello or stopping for a quick chat. The kind of neighborhood and “traditional” sense of home that I never experienced growing up, having left Ethiopia at a young age. At Christmastime or any holiday, I didn’t get to hop from one aunt’s house to the next, or hang out with my cousins daily while we played games and told jokes. I didn’t get to walk over to my grandma’s and have coffee with her whenever I pleased. I didn’t go house hopping all day long, from one street to the next, eating and drinking, laughing and ending up at the disco with my young and fabulous aunt.
No, this was a different world–the kind of family closeness and neighborly environment that I had always wondered about and secretly wished for as a kid. The kind that I witnessed this Christmas with Alejandro’s family.
The Nochebuena or Christmas Eve was the most special night of all, when the entire neighborhood came alive as early as 1pm. The men of each family were busy cleaning, mounting and roasting whole pigs on a pit–puerco a la puya–with the help of the younger ones. Music played on, drinks were on hand, and the fire kept everyone warm.
Others were in line at the barber shop, because one must look their best on this holiday. Along the streets of Mamey, the fire lit up the darkening skies while the thumping sound of merengue tipico and bachata continued. The women were in the kitchen, baking, or taking breaks on their porches, laughing and catching up on the latest gossip.
More neighboring family members roasted pork in the back of the yard (others opted for chicken), while on the veranda Alejandro’s aunts, uncles, cousins and extended family danced–from the eldest to the youngest, twirling and laughing with abandon.
Around the central park of Mamey, more music blared from the nightclubs and open bars that hug the square, the terraces spilling over with scantily clad girls and their handsome dance partners. The neighborhood drunks came out too and roamed the streets, a bottle of white Brugal rum in one hand and a soda in the other.
Deeper in the neighborhood, we walked from one aunt’s home to the next, hearing stories of the old days of Christmas gone by, and the changing times. Before I knew it, I was having yet another glass of ponche, on yet another open air veranda at a tia’s house, the air cooling me off as much as my iced drink.
The night continued with visits to more homes, of Alejandro’s childhood friends. We sang our hearts out at a family karaoke gathering, drank wine, chewed on grapes and nuts. We gathered on a street corner to hear Christmas tunes and chanting to a live guitar, courtesy of our friend Chuchu.
Four o’clock struck and we were back home after more dancing, indulging in leftovers from Christmas Eve dinner before crashing in bed, passing out to the sound of more merengue from the neighbors who were still roasting the pork. This was the one time of the year one could be certain there would be constant electricity (as daily power cuts are frequent in the Dominican countryside).
Christmas Eve dinner–what a feast it was! Roasted pork, roasted chicken, pastelito de platano (baked plantain dish), baked yucca, lasagna, moro de guandules or rice with pigeon peas, ensalada rusa (a creamy potato salad), coleslaw with raisins, and snacks like apples, red grapes, dry raisins, and jelly sweets.
The rest of the days were spent indulging some more, and being spoiled by the moms and the tias–sleeping, eating, drinking and dancing. Taking in every single moment, without distractions. It was the closest I had ever come to feeling like I was back in Ethiopia. And it struck me, halfway through, that I was on a real vacation for the first time in at least four years since travel and writing guidebooks became near full time work.
On the last day of the weekend, we went hiking into the hills of Mamey to pick mandarins. We found plenty, beside cacao, mango trees and pineapple. By the time we came back down, we had devoured most of the fruits, smiling and replying, “not that much,” when others asked us if we had found anything.
Now back in the city, whenever the urban bustle and isolation of the writer life overwhelm me, I close my eyes and remember the warmth and melodies of Christmastime in Mamey.