Monday, October 29, 2012

Chivirico opens his bank account

At last Chivirico’s Gatorade pot reached the magic number of RD$500 which is about US$12 and off we went to the bank. I had thought long and hard about who should be the custodian of his account. If  it were me, we would be sure no money would be taken out, but on the other hand I doubt I will be living here for ever, and then how would he get money out, and I didn't want the family to think I didn't trust them.

His grandmother had taken RD$250 out of the pot to buy flip flops he told me. The reason we made it to RD$500 was because she brought the money back. She said she had just borrowed it, so that made me feel more confident. In the end, we decided the account manager should be his aunt. She is called Ana and is training to be a teacher, and is engaged to my step son Alberto.

Chivirico and Ana

We were in the middle of the passing of Hurricane Sandy so when the rain stopped for a short while, together the three of us squelched our way through the muddy streets to the bank with Chivirico clutching his Gatorade pot. After a long wait we sat down to open the account. He could barely contain his excitement. As usual it took ages with all the paper work but at last it was done, and he walked out holding his account book with pride.

He has already started saving in his pot again, up to RD$18 so far, and some very kind people have sent money into his account. He understands that the money is being saved for his future and his education and that he shouldn't think of taking any out for a long time. The big decision now is what he will buy with the money when he has saved up enough. At the moment he can’t decide between a new cooker for me, so that I don’t burn the cakes again, or a motorbike. No doubt by the time he reaches that figure he will have changed his mind a million times more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Yet another puncture

What is it with the tyres in the Dominican Republic? I drove thousands of miles in the UK and never had a puncture. Here I have at least one a month. In the last 3 months I have had 3. This is one I had a few days ago.

I don’t know if it is the roads, the tyres or what it is. Sometimes it is a nail, or a piece of barbed wire, but more often than not they just fall apart and shred into pieces. The roads are littered with bits of tyre all over the place.

The good thing is that it is never a total disaster. There is a gomero or tyre man on every corner, sitting there waiting for business and they never have to wait long. They are also amazingly cheap. To change a shredded tyre for the spare costs between 20 and 50 pesos which is just over a dollar. If you need it mended that is up to 150 pesos or 4 dollars. To be honest I am not sure what they mend it with, sometimes it is a patch and sometimes something that looks suspiciously like cat gut which they shove into the hole. The patches don’t last long as the glue melts. The tyre man told me it was because the roads were hot. I pointed out to him that we live in the tropics so of course the roads were hot, and couldn't they make a glue which didn't melt?

Also they have great machinery for taking the tyre off. Some have a proper machine, like the man above I used when I had a puncture driving to Dajabon, but most just use a machete like tool with a bendy bit at the end.

When you have a puncture there is always someone around to help you fix it, I just pay them a few pesos. They will even take the spare to be filled with air, as it is always flat.

Dominicans seem to take punctures in their stride and not worry about them at all. It is a fact of life. They don’t actually say that the tyre has a puncture, they say it punctured itself – “se pinchao”. Apparently my latest puncture, or total shredding was because the tyre didn't work or “no sirve”. It was pretty obvious to me that it didn't work but I wanted to know why. Further investigation revealed that it was apparently too old. I had no idea tyres became "too old". Probably as they only last a few weeks here before they get a puncture.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chivirico makes money

As you know Chivirico is working to fill up his Gatorade bottle in order to have 500 pesos (around US$12) so that he can open a bank account. He has been doing all sorts of jobs such as washing the car, cleaning the yard and feeding the animals to try and fill it up. He has collected bottles as well to sell to the empty bottle man who pays 1 peso each, although he hasn't been seen for a while.  By last Saturday it only had 100 pesos - it seems to go up and down. I am not sure if he is raiding it, or members of his family are. Anyway, he was desperate to earn some more, and watching the people in the street who are always selling things, he wanted to find something to sell.

selling avocados

I suggested we bake some cakes and biscuits then he could sell them. He loved the idea and so on Sunday he was here at 7am (so much for my lie in) and off we went to the colmado to buy the ingredients.  I decided to use my own recipe book, one I wrote myself when I was aged 8 till around 13 I think, as I knew the recipes in there would work. Well I hoped they would.

We were a bit limited for choice, as no chocolate to melt here, no golden syrup, no nuts, so we decided to make shortbread and chocolate brownies.

Once home he started work. I supervised from a safe distance as there was a tendency for the ingredients to fly all over the place. The shortbread was easy, but was hard to roll it out as I don't have a rolling bin - we used a bottle of rum instead.

Once the shortbread was in the oven we moved on to the brownies. A little more difficult as you have to beat the eggs and sugar, and the sugar was not soft brown sugar as specified, but natural cane sugar. More ended up on the floor than staying in the bowl.

Eventually the butter and sugar was sort of there and Chivirico broke the eggs in. I pulled all the bits of shell out, we added flour and cocoa and then he almost neatly put the mixture into the tin and into the oven.

I must say I was a tad concerned as my oven has no temperature control. It has a knob. You can put it to minimum knob, half knob or full knob. Full knob is very dangerous as  the oven sounds like it is about to take off. We put it at minimum knob and prayed. Chivirico then what every kid loves doing and licked the bowl.

In the meantime Chivirico prepared the tray, told me we needed lots of serviettes so that each person would have a serviette for their biscuit or cake and he practised putting the tray on his head and walking up and down shouting what he had to sell.

After checking the clock every minute and sitting sniffing the oven at last they were ready. I must admit I was impressed. The shortbread was fabulous and the brownies, although they didn't rise at all, were chewy and sort of crispy with not using soft sugar. They tasted lovely although a bit sweet which I knew wouldn't worry Dominicans.

We discussed pricing strategy and decided on 5 pesos each and off he went, yelling, "Biscuits and cakes only 5 pesos each. Two for ten pesos!"

Within 10 minutes he was back. All sold. Grand total of 125 pesos which went straight in the pot. He decided we had to do it again the next day. I persuaded him to wait a week, so Sunday we are baking again! At this rate he will be a millionaire.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dominican frogs and toads

I was recently asked to write about why Dominicans are scared of frogs. So here goes with all sorts of information about frogs in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican word for frog is rana, and for toad it is sapo. To complicate matters, the word maco is also used for toad as that is the old Indian word. Most people can’t tell the difference between a frog and a toad, and will use the word sapito meaning little toad for a frog!

In fact, toads and frogs both belong to the animal group known as frogs.

Frogs are members of the family Ranidae, which has more than 400 species and have bulging eyes, strong, long, webbed hind feet that are adapted for leaping and swimming, smooth or slimy skin (generally, frogs tend to like wet or moist environments), and they tend to lay their eggs in clusters – frog spawn.


Toads on the other hand are members of the family Bufonidae, containing more than 300 species. They have stubby bodies with short hind legs (for walking instead of hopping), warty and dry skin preferring dryer climates, poison glands behind the eyes and they tend to lay their eggs in long chains. Most toads will emit poison when touched which will irritate the skin.


It is only the male frog who makes a noise and croaks, both to mark their territory and also as a mating call. The females stay silent (just like humans really).

In the Dominican Republic there are 74 species of frog. Most of them have voracious appetites eating bugs, mosquitoes and as such are great friends to farmers as a natural way to stop their crops being destroyed.

Cuban tree frog

However, many are under threat of extinction, often from their own kind. At the moment the country is on alert as there is a danger that the osteopilus septentrionalis, also known as the Cuban tree frog, may make its way here from Puerto Rico. All airports and the ferry are being checked – cars, luggage and people to make sure it doesn't enter. During the day the Cuban tree frogs will sleep in trees but at night they become indiscriminate predators and will eat anything they can overpower which fits into their mouths, including snails, spiders, insects, other frogs (even other Cuban tree frogs), snakes, lizards, small crustaceans, and baby birds in their nest.

bull frog

They are not the only ones who eat other frogs, so does the bull frog. Toro is the Spanish word for bull, and according to the dictionary it is a rana toro, but my husband calls it a maco toro and the man over the road a sapo toro.  It can grow up to 15 cm long and  can weigh around 2 pounds.

The less frogs there are, the more mosquitoes there will be, more chance of dengue and malaria, and more crop damage. Hence there are several projects underway to try and ensure that the frog population stays healthy.

Cane toad

There is one dangerous frog here, known as the cane toad or sapo de caña, which was introduced to this country from Australia, specifically to kill pests and bugs which were destroying crops. It is poisonous to animals and even occasionally humans, as when threatened it releases a white milky fluid known as bufotoxin. This contains a substance known as bufotenin which is a Class 1 drug in Australia alongside heroin and cocaine. People actually lick the toad to get high, although too much can result in death. The same substance in used in Japan as a hair restorer and aphrodisiac, in China during heart surgery as it slows the heart down, and here, in the DR, some unscrupulous cock fighters put the poison on the spurs of fighting cocks, or stick the spurs into the toad. This will render his opponent almost unconscious, thus ensuring a win.

World wide outbreaks of lymphatic filariasis

Frogs are apparently used here in the treatment of lymphatic filariasis, which is a tropical disease caused by parasites entering the lymphatic system via the bite of a mosquito or black fly. The parasites develop into worms inside the skin and as the disease advances, what is known as elephantiasis can develop where limbs or even testicles become hugely swollen. 120 million people worldwide are affected by this disease and the island of Hispaniola has 90% of all the cases in the Americas. Haiti has around 500,000 cases, but there are much fewer in the DR, and it is hoped to eradicate the disease in this country soon.

Apparently you take a frog, not sure if it matters which particular type, and rub it on the affected area. Somehow it can cure it they say. Maybe frog toxins enter the skin and kill the worms?
So even though frogs do good work in eating bugs and mosquitoes, and potentially curing elephantiasis, they are the number one most hated creature by Dominicans. Whilst researching this, I asked Dominicans why they disliked them so much, and the standard answer was “I just do!”

They are used in various forms in witchcraft, brujeria, which automatically makes people afraid of them. Also, if a frog urinates on you, apparently you will go blind. This may come from the fact that some, such as the Cuban tree frog and most toads, have a substance on their skin which causes severe itching if you rub your eyes after touching it.
Also if you touch a frog they say you will also develop an ‘ojo de pescado’ which literally means fish eye and is a type of yellow wart, or verruca apparently. That probably comes from the same source as the old wives tale in the UK that toads can give you warts either due to the fact that they have bumpy skin or the irritations that can be caused by touching toads.

ojo de pescado

So there are all sorts of reasons why Dominicans don’t like frogs, or toads, but it seems to me they do a pretty good job if they eat mosquitoes!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Colonial Zone – how to ruin a fabulous place

The Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo is one of my favourite places on the whole island. Situated in the south eastern corner of the city, with an area of less than 5 square kilometres, it dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus and is full of charm and history.

Colonial Zone 1805

There are beautifully preserved historical buildings, narrow cobbled streets, quaint lighting, and it is a lovely place to wander round and spend a few hours.

During the day it is thronged with people – not only tourists but also Dominicans. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Colonial Zone is far from a twee sterile tourist attraction, it is home to 15,000 people. It is like a village with businesses, restaurants, bars and charming studios, apartments and homes tucked away on every street.

At night it is even nicer than during the day. You can stroll through the streets with a cooling breeze coming off the Caribbean ocean, eat fabulous food at a multitude of different restaurants, sip a Cuba Libre at an outdoor bar and then go home to your apartment, house or hotel, where you spend all night unable to sleep.

The problem is the noise from the techno discos. They are a relatively new phenomena, and play music until the early hours of the morning much louder than the usual full on Dominican volume, which is unbearable for people trying to sleep. Even for Dominicans who can usually sleep through anything. The thick walls shake and some residents are now unable to stay in their homes on Friday and Saturday nights as the noise is just too much.

Following complaints from desperate residents, the church and the neighbourhood groups, amazingly the Dominican authorities actually did something for once. As there is a law here against noise, especially in residential areas, they closed down the offending establishments.

However, the peace only lasted for 20 days, and then they reopened. Not only did they reopen, but someone, and no one seems to know who, gave them authorisation to stay open not just until 2 or 3 in the morning, but until 4 am. Some decided to keep going until breakfast time! So the residents and hotel guests have no sleep at all.

Some did say they would keep the noise down, but instead of turning the volume down, they have turned it up, put on a tin roof which bounces with the music and acts like a drum, and stuck on some old egg boxes and a sort of mattress, which is supposed to help.

It seems totally ridiculous that such a beautiful part of the city which is trying to attract more tourists, more residents and more businesses should allow a few all-night clubs to drive everyone away. The government have even spent billions building a new road from the biggest tourist area in the east of the country, Punta Cana/Bavaro so that more and more tourists can visit the Colonial Zone. They are drafting more police in so that the tourists feel safe and cleaning up the whole area, which is fine during the day, as long as no one wants to sleep there at night.

The residents are trying to fight back though and there is now a Facebook Group who are trying to get the authorities to do something. Join the group here and help preserve this beautiful part of the country.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Belinda on guard

At 6 o'clock this morning I was sitting here at my computer. The sun had just come up, and it was very peaceful in the barrio. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Belinda, my 6 month old Great Dane puppy, was sitting on guard by the front gate. I hadn't taken any pictures of her for a while, and she is growing up so fast, that I grabbed my camera and just quickly took a picture. The flash on the camera went off, and as I put the camera down I saw a movement in front of the gate. Cock man, as I call him, my neighbour who raises and fights fighting cocks, was zipping up his trousers. Then I looked at the picture.

I wonder what Belinda was thinking!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Chivirico tries to open a bank account

Chivirico came to the bank with me a couple of weeks ago and was totally fascinated by the ATM machine. The fact that I put my card in, and money came out astounded him. He stood there watching wide eyed as more people used the machine, and from that moment all he wanted was a bank card so that he too could go and use the machine.

I explained to him that you have to have an account with the bank, with money in it, in order to be able to take money out of the machine. That was it. His sole purpose became earning money to open a bank account.  He has washed the car (well the bottom half of it);

Fed the dogs.

Each time he gets paid a few pesos, but straight away goes to the colmado to spend them on a biscuit or sweets. I explained to him that if he spent all his money as soon as he had it, he would never have any to put in the bank. His reply was that he was hungry and it was more important to eat than put money in the bank and he could only save money if he wasn't hungry.

The discussion continued over a game of dominoes and I said that if he had 10 pesos he should spend 5 pesos on a biscuit and then save 5 for the bank. That appeared to be a satisfactory solution, and within a few days he had 15 pesos saved and we were prepared to go to the bank the next day to see about opening an account. He was beside himself with excitement.

The next morning arrived and once school was over Chivirico came to the house and announced he could not go to the bank as his father had come to the house and taken 10 of his 15 pesos to give to his brother and sister. His father had told him it was very important to share. This of course is true, especially in this country, and I remembered being in hospital when I was 5 to have my tonsils out and my grandmother sent me a box of chocolate teddy bears. The nurses told me it was important to share them with all of the children on the ward, with only one for me. I remember being heartbroken and furious at having to share my chocolate teddy bears so it was interesting to see that Chivirico just accepted that it was the right thing to do share his hard earned cash with his siblings, although  it meant that going to the bank was on hold until he could earn some more money.

The next day he earned some more, so off we went to the bank with 11 pesos.

We arrived there during lunch hour and so the bank was nearly empty. Chivirico sat down and put his 11 pesos on the counter and announced he would like to open an account. Unfortunately the children's accounts need a minimum of 500 pesos to open them, and he would not be able to have a card to take money out of the machine, it comes with a savings book.  The account must be opened by an adult and it is that adult who can take the money out, although Chivirico can pay it in. In order to open the account he just needs an adult to do it, a copy of his birth certificate – and 500 pesos.  He went into great detail at the bank about how he was earning money, and that it was best not to spend it all on sweets, concluding by saying he needed the money to buy a Jeep.  All of the bank staff were in total hysterics.

Although disappointed, he was not defeated. We got home and he made a money box out of a Gatorade bottle, and I have told him when it is full then we can go back to the bank and open his account. We just need to decide who the responsible adult will be!  The money in the bottle appears to be going up and down,  although it is counted several times a day. I think it is probably being raided for sweets and biscuits at the colmado.

One day he will have his bank account. In the meantime, if you want to keep up with his activities on a regular basis,  he now has his own Facebook page, set up by one of his fans - Chivirico the Body Guard.