Perilous Footing on the Path Home
“My Gutsy Story®” by Rita Gardner
The old ferry boat was ready to board. It lurched on frayed ropes each time a wave shoved the dilapidated vessel close enough for another passenger to be hauled aboard. I asked myself for the hundredth time if I was just plain crazy. An old woman covered in a black shawl crossed herself as she was handed across, and the boatman caught her just before she could slip. From the dock, men threw battered luggage, one live pig, and household belongings onto the deck. Piercing sunlight bounced on wave tops and sweat dripped from my armpits.
I’d just arrived at the harbor near my childhood home in the Dominican Republic. Having spent two weeks visiting the village I’d not seen for years, I was now on a mission to find a writer I’d never met on the far shore of the Samana peninsula. My vague instructions were to get to the village of Samana and find a ride eastward 12 kilometers, and then to ask anyone to lead me to “Don Alejandro.” I’d not crossed this bay for over thirty-five years. The dock was wet with gaps that made any foothold challenging. Heart pounding, I hoisted my backpack and prayed for safety.
Only two months before I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in California thumbing through Travel Holiday, escaping into worlds far away. I encountered an article by Alastair Reid that propelled me into this journey. The story was about the very same bay I was now crossing. Titled “My Several Selves,” it was about being at home wherever you are. On staff at The New Yorker, Reid lives in New York but for many years he wintered in a simple dwelling on Samana hillside, writing and translating works by Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, and other noted authors.
I went home that day and wrote a letter to him about how I hoped to meet him when I next traveled to the island. His handwritten reply arrived the next month saying he’d be delighted to see me. He had no telephone on the island, but reassured me he’d likely be there all winter.
And so I traveled that December to my childhood home, site of my expat family’s coconut farm on an isolated beach, and a country we’d left decades ago.I was welcomed home with typical Dominican exuberance. One day I walked the path to my family’s former house, still owned by the same man who bought it ages ago. Now used infrequently as a backcountry retreat, it was all locked up, shrunken and lonely.
The next day I decided to journey across the bay and try to find Alastair Reid in his winter lair. So here I was, hanging on to a broken rail as the ferry plunged drunkenly along. When the boat landed on the far shore I found transport on the back of a motor scooter. The driver didn’t know Reid (known locally as Don Alejandro), but for 50 centavos he drove me anyway. After a while we stopped a farmer at the side of the road and asked if he knew Don Alejandro. “Ah, si.” he nodded, “it’s very near.” He pointed to a clearing to a simple one-room structure, open on one side. I waved away the scooter uncertainly and hiked through the woods as if I knew what I was doing.
Barefoot and dressed in faded khaki shorts, Alastair Reid greeted me as if he’d known I’d pick that day and time to show up in his clearing. We talked for hours, about writing, about the lure of this island despite its troubled political history. When it was time to leave, he presented me with a book and walked me up to the road until a crowded pickup came by. I crammed myself into the back, avoiding a squirming pig, trussed and unhappily serving as someone’s seat. In Samana, I found a small inn and settled in to read. The tattered volume, written by an American in 1958,was titled Trujillo, Little Caesar of the Caribbean. It was published when I was 12 and living in Miches. An account of Generalisimo Trujillo and his reign of terror, it never would have been allowed in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s rule. I felt I was reading forbidden material. For all our years on the island, our lives depended on not ever speaking ill of the dictator. This book was an entry into what I wasn’t allowed to think about for all those years.
I read until my eyes hurt, trying to reconcile the factual portrayal of one country’s nightmare with my parents’ decision to raise a family under such a government. At midnight, needing a break, I walked down to the harbor. A light breeze tickled the coconut palms into slow dancing silhouettes. Across the bay to the southeast a faint light glowed—Miches. I pulled the night around me like a warm shawl and hugged myself at the memory of countless evenings like this when I was a child. The next morning I caught the ferry.
On my last day in Miches, I was drawn back to my old house for a final look. A crowd of emotions welled up and I cried for longer than I can remember. I understood only dimly that this trip was just the first step on a longer journey to reconcile my own disparate selves. And now I was to begin a new journey, much more dangerous than crossing a bay in storm-tossed waters. It was now time to bring family secrets and stories to light, and just maybe, find some peace about the meaning of home.
Fast forward to 2014: I’m thrilled to have completed my memoir, titled “The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean.” Publish date: September 2014 by She Writes Press, Berkeley, CA.
Rita M. Gardner grew up on her expatriate family’s coconut farm in the Dominican Republic. Home-schooled as a child, she began writing, reading and painting at an early age. She now lives in California where she follows her passions – writing, traveling, hiking, and photography. Her published essays, articles, poems, and photographs have appeared in literary journals and travel magazines. Her memoir “The Coconut Latitudes” debuts September 2014 . Rita continues to dream in Spanish and dance the Dominican merengue; her favorite color is Caribbean blue. www.ritamgardner.com
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SONIA MARSH SAYS: I had the pleasure of reading Rita’s memoir and was intrigued by her island life and how she captured the vivid details of her childhood in a remote part of the Dominican Republic.
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