The sun tends to burn hot into the valley mornings. The Nagua river loses its blanket of mist an hour past dawn, but the hanging trees will be dripping with dew until midmorning. Then the gathering heat will be mercifully pushing the mosquitoes back into their refuges and the roosters will finally stop crowing. Really, everything tries to take cover from nine AM onward, but the first hours of the day are when the whole valley stretches and shrugs off the accumulated weight of the night.
When I leave the village of Vuelta Larga - where I live and work as a Peace Corps volunteer – it’s by this first light. My reasons for visiting the nearby coastal town of Nagua usually involve communication or business with the local environmental NGOs, but the trip always requires an early start. It’s best if I’ve finished the downriver hike to the road by seven o’clock, because the truck that waits for passengers there leaves as soon as it’s full. This usually implies seven people up front and ten or so in the bed.
In the land of crappy roads and an agro-dependent economy, the man with the extended-cab Toyota pickup is king. Daniel - the local driver - is well aware of this, and yesterday morning he was bearing his paunch as regally as ever when I emerged from the trail and took a seat above the rear wheel well, settling down to wait. Eight o’clock rolled around - the longest he could wait - and his disappointment was evident that he didn’t have a full load; only nine of us altogether, most headed to market. We took off down the runoff-excavated road, occasionally stopping to pick up sacks of rice from the farmers who work the paddies of the outwash plain. At the maximum thinkable speed for such conditions, Daniel was hard-pressed to swerve without losing anyone when a moped cut suddenly in front of us in the early traffic. The driver had two large boxes of avocados perched behind him on the seat, and we watched with awe as he nearly toppled and then regained his balance, cursing fluently.
The sun was gaining as Daniel dropped off near the center of Nagua, and all was quiet. Several cops with assault rifles lounged on the corner of a deserted street. I could see smoke rising from several points in the market area, and as I walked toward the town offices I found burning tires set in the middle of half a dozen intersections, Atlantic wind sending the dense, black fumes inland and into my face. The handkerchief I breathed through soon had a dark patch precipitated on it where it covered my mouth.
I didn’t see a soul until I walked into the office of an agronomist I work with. By way of explanation, he told me that the previous night there had been protests against the country’s new accord with the International Monetary Fund. The police had broken it up by dawn. Leaning in the doorway and looking at the disheveled street, I told him that I had missed out on the protests in Seattle and Quebec. He seemed to know what I was talking about.
So I went about my business as best I could and took the truck back to the mouth of the valley when Daniel headed out at day’s end. I found my way back upriver by the combined glow of my dying flashlight and the thousands of nine-volt lightning bugs under the forest canopy. My neighbors greeted me warmly as I walked by their candlelit houses, but they quickly went back to their conversations. From what I could hear, the subject was global economics.