Mangú, Merengue and Mao: A Day in a Dominican Village

Getting off the beaten path in the DR

It’s mid-morning and the merengue, coming from different corners of the village, reaches the porch where I’m sitting and makes me smile. One is fast and in my face. Another is slow and suave. Almost romantic. And the third one is medium tempo and just right. Across the street–the dirt road, that is–local men are jamming to the fast version on homemade drums.

I feel like drumming with the guys or maybe dancing with one. But I stay exactly where I am, rocking on a chair on the porch.

Village Porch

The reason? I’m relaxing and beginning to recognize the somewhat unfamiliar (but becoming more familiar) aroma coming from the kitchen, and I’m ready to eat what’s being cooked.

Angela (Mamá), my former student Ely’s mother, is preparing a Dominican staple known as “mangú”–platanos (green bananas) cooked and mashed, with a dash of orange or lime juice–or vinegar–mixed in and topped with sauteed onions. She’s smiling as she serves it to me. I’m smiling as I sample it. It’s rico (delicious).

Mangu queso frito y cebollas

The mangú (the mashed plantains) is at the back of the plate, under the onions. Photo Credit: Remolachaoficial @flickr

Canine Chorus

Somewhere nearby, a dog is barking; soon, others in different corners of the village follow along. It turns into a canine chorus.

“Algo pasó?” I ask. Did something happen? We’re eating and I’m now in mangú heaven.

“No. Algién está pasando en bicicléta. Nada mas,” says Ely. “Someone’s riding by on a bike,” she says. “That’s all.” I figure that the canine neighbors are curious and claiming their turf simultaneously. That’s what they do in most villages.

Angela n Ely

Here are my hosts--Mamá and daughter Ely--one afternoon when we had beer and a snack in Santiago, a nearby city.

Now, a rooster is crowing….just because…and in the distance, a baby is beginning to cry. Next door, a toddler is giggling. Down the street, a high-pitched saw is screeching as it’s being used on metal. And holding it all together is a light and gentle breeze, making the perfect non-humid 80-degree weather even more perfect.

Where am I?

In Mao Valverde. Well, actually, one of its villages known as “La Yagua.” About an hour or so from the Haitian border. It’s off the beaten path, for sure, and the kind of place that operates at such a slow pace that it’s easy to lose track of time.

Several hours pass and I’m still sitting on the porch, not doing much of anything. And liking it, but ready for some action.

“How about a walk?” I ask. I know the real campo–countryside–is just a few minutes away by foot. I can imagine there are hardly any out there. And most likely, serious quiet. Just a few sounds of nature.

“Vamos,” says Angela. And after dinner, we head out. Ely stays behind to make some phone calls.

Getting off the beaten path in the DR

We wind our way through the dirt streets and houses, some that seem to be solid structures like the one I was in–with real walls and floors–and others that seem to have been put together with whatever was available. Sometimes just pieces of metal to fill in the gaps.

Village house

Many of the neighbors are Dominicans; some are Haitians–migrant farm workers, most likely. According to says Angela, some of the locals are somewhat middle class and relatively comfortable (like her family); others are poor and struggling, per Dominican standards.

Meeting the Locals

Angela radiates warmth and caring–positive energy–and so, I feel comfortable walking around the village with her.

Most people say hi to both of us–her first, of course. And they’re friendly. Some just say hi to her and look at me. It’s not everyday that they see a gringo in their neighborhood.

Local boy, La Yagua, Mao Valverde, Dominican Republic

Local man in La Yagua, Mal Valverde, Dominican Republic
Without her, I suspect I might feel uncomfortable. Not in danger, but just a little out of place. Travelers like myself are extremely rare here, after all. And I find the feeling of being an outsider…who’s on the inside…both exciting and a tiny bit disconcerting. The pace of life and the vibe are so different that they disorient me.

Eventually, we leave the residential part of the village and end up in that place I was hoping for. It’s lovely. Palm trees set against a mountainous backdrop. The sun setting and the sky turning several shades of magenta. The real “campo.” The country.
Country Road
And I love it. I don’t feel like I’m on an island; I almost feel like I’m somewhere in South America in the mountains.

“It gets dark early here,” Angela says.

“Good idea to head back now?”

“Yes. Vamos. It’ll be dark when we return.” Our entire conversation, by the way, has been only in Spanish, and this has transported  me to another linguistic realm–one of rich, expressive vocabulary, which I sometimes prefer over English.

La Yagua, Mal Valverde, Dominican Republic

We pass the same people and others on our way back and the sun is quickly disappearing. The village is still full of life–and the sounds of merengue and the smells of whatever each mom is cooking–and I’m happy to be there. I’m not sure what time it is (I suspect it’s around 7 pm) and that’s a good thing. It means I’m in the moment.

“Hola!” Ely greets us. She’s smiling, as she usually is. I think to myself–she’s a truly happy person, isn’t she. She’s home again. And she loves it. As much as she likes the US, the DR is her real home. And I am grateful to be her guest. I understand why she likes it. It’s warm and comfortable. Womblike in some way.

Now the three of us are on the porch, chatting about everything–fruit, music, men, whatever. Girl talk. And it’s nice. I feel right at home.

Eventually, and to my surprise, the sounds of the village die down a bit just in time for us to go to sleep. Not completely, however. Somewhere in Mao–and La Yagua, of course–there’s still some merengue playing and someone dancing to it. And someone making and enjoying mangú.

More About Mao

Mao means “where two rivers meet”–or “surrounded by water.” The town of Mao is near the River Mao, which flows into the River Yague del Norte. The last part of the name refers to José Desiderio Valverde, former President of the Dominican Republic.

The name of the village I was in, La Yagua, means the brown part of a coconut tree, which is used to build houses/huts. Here’s a map showing Mao in relation to the rest of the DR. As you can see, I was close to Haiti and far from many resort areas.

View Larger Map

Your Thoughts? Experiences?

If you had the chance, would you visit a village like the one I’ve described? Would you spend the night? Why/why not?

If you have had this sort of experience, where was it and what was it like? How did you feel being there?

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37 Responses to Mangú, Merengue and Mao: A Day in a Dominican Village
  1. Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures
    January 17, 2012 | 11:18 am

    Lisa, what a fantastic story! You describe it such vivid details that the pictures are almost unecessary. And yes, I would totally spend the night! What a great experience!
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..Aerosvit…A Terrible Flying Experience!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 4:11 am

      Thanks so much, Aaron. Appreciate that. And I’m sure my friend Robert, writing coach and the current editor of my book, will be pleased, too. I don’t always include enough description and am currently working on that skill!

      Anyway, it was a cool experience and I have no doubt that you would have stayed and totally enjoyed being there!

  2. Linda
    January 17, 2012 | 1:45 pm

    I loved this. I loved your writing, as always, but I love hearing about DR. My son was there a few yeas back and came back with glowing reports. Some of those landscapes are quite similar to this island, yet most of your photos are quite different, and I love the colors! And I definitely have to try making mangú. Canary Island bananas are famous in Europe, yet there are few traditional recipes using them. I think because, as a crop, it was introduced quite late. Hmm thinking I need to nip down to the store right now to get some!
    Linda recently posted..Walking Amongst VolcanoesMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 4:09 am

      Thanks so much, Linda! Happy you enjoyed the post and the photos! Glad your son liked the DR, too, and I really understand why. It’s a sweet place, full of tremendous beauty and mini adventures that seem to be around almost every corner.

      I had no idea that the Canary Islands had similar landscapes…that’s wild! I love those banana trees. Whenever I see them, I feel good because I know I’m somewhere warm and wonderful. Have a banana for me, OK? LOL :)

  3. Charu
    January 17, 2012 | 4:47 pm

    Great story Lisa! Don’t you love when the locals just radiate warmth and joy and happiness even if they don’t own a pair of shoes?
    Charu recently posted..What are Travel Bloggers’ Top Destinations in 2012?My Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 4:05 am

      Thanks so much, Charu! What you’ve said is so true. I especially saw this in Los Patos (in the southwestern corner of the DR–way off the beaten path) when I was invited into someone’s home there. The family was struggling financially, yet was happy and welcoming.

  4. Rease
    January 17, 2012 | 6:01 pm

    I love being on the inside of a community. Sounds like a really relaxing experience. How did you meet Ely?
    Rease recently posted..Argentina: I Love You But I’m Not In Love With YouMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 4:03 am

      Hola, Rease. It was relaxing! I had no Internet (which made planning the next part of the trip challenging) and found it challenging at first and then, I just went with it. It definitely put me more in the moment.

      Ely is a former student of mine from the 2-year college where I work as an Asst. Prof of ESL. She was in my Advanced Reading/American Culture course and invited me to Mao, etc. when she learned that I’d never been to the DR. Many of my Latino students are from there and so, I figured it was a great opportunity to get to know the culture better there so that I could connect with the students more here. She was/is a great student who’s now a friend and also a fantastic traveler; she likes to get off the beaten path, just as I do. Que suerte! :)

  5. David
    January 17, 2012 | 10:50 pm

    I love the photos, thank you for sharing. Looks like the ambiance there is so well. The place looks so peaceful and simple.
    David recently posted..More About Wedding Speech Jokes IdeasMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 3:57 am

      Hi, David. You’re welcome…and thanks for checking out the article! It is simple and peaceful there. Exactly! And I had no choice but to relax. :)

  6. victor r. tica
    January 17, 2012 | 11:43 pm

    Nice story, teacher. I think you are a really adventurous soul. I believe that with each new journey that you have, you become more inspired and people are the reason for it. I hope to do a story about the 107 ESL classroom and our professor (you), and if you have a party please let me know so we can go to rumba!

    • CB Driver
      January 18, 2012 | 3:56 am

      Thanks so much, Victor. You’re so right–it’s the people who inspire me and who make each trip so special. Visiting Mao was a unique opportunity and I’m so glad I had the chance to go! Re: any possible parties…if anyone sets anything up, I’ll let you know. Maybe we should start a club! :)

  7. Stephanie - The Travel Chica
    January 18, 2012 | 6:45 am

    My only experience in the DR was when I was in college and went on an all-inclusive vacation with my family for Winter break. Needless to say, slightly different than what you’ve described here :-)
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..2011 Travel Year in Review from A to ZMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 19, 2012 | 11:07 am

      Hi, Stephanie. I’m sure that was different. It must have been very easy…

  8. James
    January 19, 2012 | 5:01 pm

    This is a great post Lisa, especially loved your line, “I find the feeling of being an outsider…who’s on the inside…both exciting and a tiny bit disconcerting.” I had a similar feeling when I was working on a service project in a small rural village off the normal tourist path in Guatemala. We were in homestays, and after a week I felt, well I felt like you said, and you said it best, like “an outsider… who’s on the inside.”

    • CB Driver
      January 19, 2012 | 10:46 pm

      Thanks, James! What sort of project were you working on in Guate? Glad to know that you relate to that ‘outsider’ feeling. It’s a unique one, isn’t it?

  9. Erik
    January 19, 2012 | 6:34 pm

    A really cool narrative. I would hope I am adventurous enough to seize such a unique experience if it was presented to me!
    Erik recently posted..Photo of the Day- Brandenberg Gate, Berlin, GermanyMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 19, 2012 | 10:48 pm

      Hi, Erik! Glad you enjoyed it. I have a feeling you would have gone for it, too. Making it easier (and more enjoyable) was the fact that I was with a former student. I think I would have done it if I’d met someone randomly, too.

  10. jack lowry
    January 19, 2012 | 10:14 pm

    Nice! next time bring your Riq to jam out!

    • CB Driver
      January 19, 2012 | 10:49 pm

      Thanks! The Riq would have been interesting there. I heard some cool brush sounds and something like a washboard. Might have made for a cool jam!

  11. Dominican Papaya Milkeshake Recipe
    January 23, 2012 | 12:40 am

    [...] back in New Jersey’s crappy cold weather after enjoying wonderful 80-degree weather in the Dominican Republic. There’s something far more serious going on with [...]

  12. kirisis almonte
    January 25, 2012 | 11:02 am

    I’m very impressed that you visited my country and feel proud, too. While I was reading everything you wrote about, I was crying because in my mind, I was there in that space that you described. Thanks for being part of our people and culture for a while. Thanks for visiting my country.

    • CB Driver
      January 25, 2012 | 5:37 pm

      Hola, Kirisis! That’s so much. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to visit there and especially that I got to visit Mao and La Yagua. I had no idea how many of my students, like you, are from there. I feel a special connection to all of you now because of my trip and so, I’m really happy that I went. In fact, I wish I’d visited sooner….

      I can understand the emotions you felt, too. It’s lovely there and it’s your home. Last week, at school, I showed the article to someone from the DR (from Mao) and he had the same reaction–an emotional one.

      You’re welcome…and guess what? I hope to return very soon. Maybe next time I’ll check out other parts of the country. Gracias! :)

  13. Suzy
    January 28, 2012 | 5:10 pm

    Great telling! I think when you are forced to speak a different language than your own at such an intensity as you were here, you really immerse yourself even more into the local experience.

    • CB Driver
      January 28, 2012 | 10:41 pm

      Hi, Suzy. Thanks so much! Yes, speaking the language as I did really brought me further into the moment there. I enjoyed it and hope to have more experiences like that in the DR (and elsewhere, of course) if I return.

  14. Paket Umroh
    January 28, 2012 | 8:07 pm

    Great post, thanks

  15. [...] I felt a sudden urge to visit Haiti. It was right there, after all. Especially when I was in a village near Mao, just one hour or so from the [...]

  16. indo
    March 7, 2012 | 7:10 pm

    Prof. Lisa–I just hope you visit San Jose de Ocoa on your next trip to the Dominican Republic… I can go with you if you don’t mind…Indo…

    • CB Driver
      March 7, 2012 | 10:51 pm

      Hi, Indo! I’d love to visit SJ de Ocoa. Are you planning to go sometime? Perhaps we should do a road trip! :)

  17. Robert
    March 11, 2012 | 12:03 am

    Excellent article on Dominican life and the photos are superb. Love how you capture the Dominicans and their reactions! Great work!
    Robert recently posted..One Night In Bangkok LyricsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 11, 2012 | 9:56 am

      Hi, Robert. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the article and the photos. I was fortunate to have such a cool opportunity. Hope to return to the DR and explore it some more next year!

  18. Traveling Ted
    May 3, 2012 | 6:39 am

    Looks lovely. Wherever you are in the world, it is always a pleasure to be out in the countryside.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Canoeing the Santa Fe River in FloridaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 3, 2012 | 9:50 am

      Hi, Ted. It was lovely and had a unique vibe, too. It was nice to be a guest allowed to experience village life for a few days. And yes, always a pleasure to be in the countryside. I’m a huge fan of nature as I I suspect you are, too. Nothing quite like it!

  19. Atileidy Ortiz
    February 10, 2013 | 12:15 pm

    Hi, Lisa! Oh, wow–looking at these pictures, I would like to be at home again. The Dominican Republic is great, isn’t it? I invite you to go to my town, San Jose de Ocoa, because I am sure that you will love it!

    • CB Driver
      February 11, 2013 | 7:24 pm

      Hi, Altileidy. Thanks for visiting my blog! I can understand why you’d want to be back there. It’s a great place to visit and I’m sure it’s a lovely place to live. The weather is perfect and the people are super friendly. I really enjoyed my time there.

      I’d love to go to San Jose de Ocoa. Thanks for the invitation! Maybe next year? Let’s hope so! :)

  20. Jake Luft
    February 21, 2013 | 11:53 pm

    Great adventure. Thanks for sharing!

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