Monday, April 23, 2007

Kathryn Goes Republican, Chapter Three

Last time I wrote I was in Higuey, the somewhat nearby town where I can do internet for 20 pesos an hour, I can wear whatever I want and I don't have to greet everyone I pass – though I still do; the brainwashing seems to be working.

Local friends of mine had told me how to find a cheap internet place, but of course it was much more confusing when I got there and tried to work my way through all the winding streets, so I asked a young guy to confirm that it was, in fact, ahead on the left. He said "come, I'll show you" and walked with me the thirty steps to the Spider Cyber Cafe, introduced me to his friend who works there and sat down to wait. I thought he was just hanging around with his buddy, or maybe waiting for me to be seduced by this loud, slurpy kissing thing he kept doing while winking suggestively. It turned out he was being my unsolicited tour guide – a guy in a souvenir shop (where Yoel took me after I was done internet) explained to me that this is the system and I'd have to come up with some kind of tip.

Frankly, it was worth it; this Yoel was so much fun to hang around with! I was looking for black clothes so that I wouldn't keep wearing the same outfit every Friday (dress code: black elegant) and it was impossible to find anything that wasn't thick polyester and heavily sequined. (Any entrepreneurs who want to make a fortune should look into selling the BeDazzler in the Caribbean; these folks LOVES a good sparkle.)

But rather than becoming a long and frustrating marketplace search, it turned into an extended fashion show, with me trying things on and Yoel giving me the thumbs up or down. He doesn't like me in yellow, it turns out, but is ready to marry me in anything red. I found a sexy halter-style polka-dot dress for Sunday (dress code: black and white) and knew it was a keeper when Yoel yelled "¡Dios mio!," fell on the floor and convulsed, Dominican voodoo style. I also enjoyed his signature Bollywood move of putting his hands under his shirt and miming a beating heart, as well as his habit of putting his arm around me, hitching his thumb into imaginary suspenders and calling out "how do you like my girlfriend?" whenever we passed someone he knew. I couldn't get enough of it.

Yoel's biggest challenge was finding me a public toilet on Easter week-end (everything closes for Jesus, it would seem), but he eventually led me to the bus station and to the "clean, safe toilets" to be found there. Do I even need to tell you what "clean" and "safe" mean to Yoel? I'm sure you can imagine the stopped-up toilet, the suspicious brown water all over the floor and the complete lack of toilet paper or a sink without my going into detail. But here's the tricky part: there's no door. No curtain, no piece of plastic, no shifty piece of fabric – nothing to hide my squatting self from the men sitting on the bench at the bus station. Nothing, that is, except for Yoel. My brave soldier stood (with his back to me, of course), gallantly shielding me from the men's view and even singing so he wouldn't hear me pee. AND, when he saw that I was using my bottle of water to wash my hands, he mysteriously and gleefully pulled a bar of soap out of his pocket. I'm telling you, this guy should run for president.

Incidentally, next time I attempt a day in town, the plan is to not ingest anything even remotely liquid so that I can save my desperate pee break for my own toilet. What would I have done without Yoel?

Every night there's a children's show at 8:15 and then an everybody show at 9:30. Two of these later ones are circus shows, one in the theatre and one outside on the flying trapeze, and they're fantastic. I'm borderline in love with Mona, the Swiss wonder whose acts I refuse to describe, as no words can do them justice. They have a Cirque du Soleil vibe, if that gives you an idea, and include things like satin curtains (for climbing and wrapping herself around in) and Chinese rugs for juggling with her hands and feet. Then there are juggling numbers and acrobatics – and an exciting three-man trapeze thing where we get to watch three beautiful and perfectly-sculpted bodies in hot red tights using all their muscles to strike and hold impossible three-man-trapeze positions. Everything draws oohs and aahs from the audience – Mona and Kevin together on the trapeze draw gasps – and is professional and beautiful.

And then there are the other shows.

It's obviously a huge disadvantage to be compared with the circus team, but these shows are nothing to write home about. (Though that's exactly what I'm doing, which I guess says more about me than about our series of cabarets...) There's a terrible sound and lighting crew, first of all (which causes problems for the circus show as well), as well as a bizarre insistence on using the fog machine as often as possible, though it smells bad, makes a stupid noise, makes it impossible to see what's happening on stage and has caused several accidents.

The shows are a series of dance numbers, though it's less "dancing" and more "putting on costumes and kind of walking around." For example: one show opens with "It's Raining Men," which I would think should be lots of men doing fun and flirty dance moves for the audience. Instead, it's about ten girls in tight and busty costumes who walk in in two lines, cross the stage so their lines move through each other, then walk back out. They do this again and again, sometimes with a little turn. And about three times, a few men in suits and bowties come and walk with them. Aaaannnnd – scene.

There's a can-can number and a snake-charmer dance that start out well but then they just do the same 40-second sequence on repeat until the end of the song and I don't think they're fooling anyone. As far as actual dance moves, the best number is "Lady Marmalade," in which the girls wear boustiers and garters and dance seductively around chairs. Isn't that weird? To do a borderline strip-tease at a Hotel Fun family show on Saturday night? (It is a French company...) They're always looking for dancers and they keep trying to talk me into coming to rehearsal; they don't seem to understand that even if rehearsals weren't from 12-2:00 a.m. (the only time everyone is free, since sleep doesn't count here), I would never, EVER put on a hooker costume and go spread-eagle on a chair for the pleasure – or not – of our esteemed guests. And I certainly won't do it when they persist in calling the show "Folise," even though we've all told them it's "Follies." Inappropriate sex is one thing, but poor spelling I will not accept.

Then there's my favourite number, the magic trick that is so unmagical it is hilariously funny. Elie and Raymond come out in tuxedos and shake hands, then Raymond goes over to the dirty curtain on the far edge of the stage (dirty enough that we should not be calling attention to it, quite frankly) and slowly wheels out a big, clunky box. It's awkward and takes forever, with the audience just sitting there watching. Why doesn't someone else wheel it out ahead of time? Or maybe Elie could do something to distract us, rather than standing with his hands together, watching Raymond struggle with the box as he tries to manoeuver it past the speakers and the other props on stage.

He finally gets it to the right spot and he turns it around to show us that there are no trap doors – except that there are small squares painted on three sides, and then this giant, person-sized square on the fourth with paint chipping away from it having opened and closed so many times. I haven't yet heard the audience break out in open laughter, but that may be because the music is too loud. (Music not unlike Job's magic show song in "Arrested Development," which makes it that much funnier.)

He turns the box so the door is facing the back of the stage, then puts handcuffs on Elie (another four minutes of waiting, as the cuffs are cheap and never work right away) who gets in a sack and goes in the box. Raymond goes backstage to look for the big flag that they can't figure out should be left in the wings, ready for action, rather than hidden in the prop room somewhere so that we hear crashing and banging while we wait for him to come back to the actionless stage. The flag is waved around, Elie ends up on the box and Raymond comes out from the audience wearing the handcuffs as a pretty girl steps out of the sack: good idea. But so clunky and embarrassing. The first time I saw it I laughed until there were tears streaming down my face. When he proudly showed us the trap-door side of the box I almost fell off the bench. (None of the other GOs could understand what was so funny – I haven't yet found a real friend here.)

Needless to say, I'm hoping to get involved with some of the children's shows so I don't have to be part of any of the cabarets. We'll see what comes up when our new mini-club chief gets here.

The most important news is that I was finally given my own room, after two months of sharing with Anouk. It's tidy, clean, quiet and all mine. I can close my door and no one else has the key – I’m pretty much naked all the time, just because I can be. No drunk roommate showing up in the middle of the night (or trying in her confusion to pee on my bed, which she did twice), no smoking, no dirty underwear on the floor or wet towels on my bed. And no 5:00 a.m. rooster crowing, since they live in the field by the other room.

What I do have is hot water, which is a godsend after so many cold and miserable showers, and the water doesn't cut out during one out of four showers, so I don't have to panic before shampooing that I will be stuck there, soapy and cold, waiting for the water to come back on. (This has happened too many times to count.) Officially, I should also be finished with tarantulas. My grand total in the other room was four, two of which I killed myself – just for your big fat information.
It's only been two days and I already like my job much, much better.

On the other hand, I had a good taste of how little Hotel Fun cares about its employees on Friday: one of my closest friends here, Rivelino, along with eight other Haitians, found out at about 10:00 that evening that they were leaving the next morning at 9:00 because there aren't enough kids this week and their services are no longer needed. Not even 24 hours' notice. Hotel Fun is booked months in advance and I'm sure they knew exactly how many kids there would be – they couldn't let them know ahead of time so they could say goodbye to people and call ahead to whoever's waiting for them at home? I tried to go and meet the bus to say good-bye but they didn't even get to leave from reception like everyone else, so I couldn't find them and I'll probably never see them again.

And, incidentally, we have over 45 kids in my group of 4- and 5-year-olds – same as last week – and are now even more severely understaffed than before. (We claim a 6-to-1 ratio but are currenly at either 15- or 22-to-1 at any time, which is obviously a lot of fun in the pool and at lunch...) Sebe, our current douche-bag boss, is now scrambling to replace the people he fired by weasling GOs from other services – as if anyone would be stupid enough to leave a cushy job teaching sailing on the beach to come run around with a group of rowdy kids all day.

One person whom I'm kind of glad is leaving is my supposed look-alike, Julie. She's Canadian (from Montreal, like everyone else here) and has basically the same colouring as I do, but that's where the similarities end. And yet everyone always tells me how great I was in the show – including once when I had been standing beside her on stage, she in her princess costume and I in my Kathryn clothes, doing the nightly song and dance with the kids after the show. "Katy, you were so good as the princess!" And Julie's still there in the costume, maybe 10 feet away from us. She's a nice girl but I won't miss having her around, you know?

Next week looks like it's going to be a lot slower than usual because there's a private reservation. Specifically, a 950-person group of lesbians who are bringing their own entertainment and seem to want a minimum of G.O. involvement. This is: Fantastic. No mini-club, no crazy signs, NO EATING WITH GMs! They don't want us at their tables, which means we can actually eat with our friends for a change, or even alone.

There was talk of their not wanting any male GOs present but I hope that's not true, first because it's discrimination and I object on principle. Sleep with whomever floats your boat, but don't rent a staff and then lock them out by gender. Second, it's no fun working without half your team. Boys are fun, you know? And third, why should they keep getting paid to NOT work while the girls do all their jobs?

So I am preparing myself to feel highly indignant. But I'm also preparing myself for a week without mini-club: no snot, no wiping bums, no day-long cheers, no one clinging to my neck and sobbing because maman would rather go tan by the pool than actually, oh, I don't know, spend time with her children in this family resort. No kids who speak only Hebrew or German and are traumatized by the amount of noise and their inability to understand any of it.

However, none of my little angels, either, and no kids all excited to go on the trapeze, and of course no kids who will then go home and send me letters and pictures and tell me how great I am – but it's good to miss some of it. That gives me the strength to pick up again next week.

Have a good end of April, everybody.


Saturday, April 7, 2007

Kathryn Goes Republican, Chapter Two

1. On Sailing

A few weeks ago on my day off I decided to give sailing another go. I had the official lesson with the GMs (Gracious Members = guests) and then took the boat out with J.C. and, feeling confident in my ability to interpret the wind speed, almost killed us both with a sudden and unplanned turn that brought the bar whipping towards our skulls at top speed. We didn´t have time to duck our heads under the bar, which is the standard turning procedure, but rather had to lean out backwards over the water.

Now, this is an okay thing to do when you´re balancing against the wind and the boat´s weight, but is obviously not so good when all the weight is already on your side and the boat is just waiting for an excuse to tip over. J.C. jumped out before the thing collapsed on us and I tried to do the same, only my foot was caught in the ironically-named "security strap" and I ended up dangling there, uncomfortably straddling the side of the boat in an unattractive spread-eagle, until J.C. pushed the sail back over, turned us around and hoisted me back in. Not one of my finer moments.

Two of the GMs in the group decided it was too risky an activity and defected, despite J.C.'s assurance that he's never seen that happen before and it is almost impossible to make that kind of mistake. (He didn't quite say "only a complete moron can screw it up that badly," but we all understood the message.)

So then on my second run he sent me out alone, which initially seemed like a bad idea. Then I hit my stride and sailed straight out to the orange buoy, which made me feel like hot shit -- until, trying to come back to shore, I was suddenly and inexplicably unable to find any wind and spent about fifteen minutes sitting pretty much still in the water, slowly drifting in the opposite direction from where I needed to go. It was kind of a panicky situation, albeit in a slow-motion, nothing-really-happening way. They eventually sent a couple of guys out to sail me back – which humiliatingly took about forty seconds – and then suggested that I might want to head over and try a tennis lesson, rather than hang around the water sports the rest of the day.

Despite my evident lack of natural sailing ability, I took my wounded pride over to the windsurfing station, thinking that my cat-like agility would make me an instant pro. In my five-person lesson group, I was the only one who was unable to execute a turn. I think I fell off the board a total of eleven times before the salt in my throat became unbearable and I called it quits, to the evident relief of Flavio, the Brazilian windsurfing G.O. who was running out of encouraging words. He gives me an apologetic little smile every time I see him, though I have noticed that he has not suggested I come back and try again. I'm just saying.

2. On Trapezing

After defecting from all things sailing-related, I went back to the circus to take a second shot at the trapeze. This time I was a lot less scared and made a conscious effort not to take out any panicky feelings on the circus team. (The platform is still unreasonably narrow but I didn't mention it, for example.) I trapezed until all the muscles in my shoudlers felt like they'd been put through a meat strainer, then went on the trampoline, which turns out to be the single most aerobic activity I've ever undertaken. (I don't think it's a coincidence that the infirmary is right behind the circus zone; it's just a matter of time before someone thinks the trampoline is just a big kids' toy and then has a heart attack.) I got as far as doing a full sitting turn, which is not easy. Or so Mona assured me. Next time they'll harness me up and I'll learn flips, supposedly the same day I do my first trapeze catch – though I don't feel any real compulsion to make that happen.

3. On Local Fauna

I am fairly terrified of rats, mice coming in closely behind, and frankly I don't like crossing a city raccoon on a bad day, but otherwise I'm okay with most creatures. There are a lot of snakes around here and they don't faze me in the least. Cockroaches are gross but no big deal, frogs and lizards are my favourite things ever – other than the occasional rat around the beach bar when it's raining, I thought I would be free of sissiness during my stay here.

On Wednesday I had a bunch of airport pick-ups and so had a different schedule than usual and I found myself with two free hours in the afternoon. This being unprecedented, I couldn't decide how to best spend the time so I wouldn't regret it afterward, and I ultimately chose to nap. (Which can only ever be the right decision.) Now, get ready because this is a big one.

I was lying on my side and suddenly woke up and opened my eyes. There, on the wall, about 15 cm from my face, was a tarantula. Huge. Hairy. Possibly about to jump on my face. I somehow didn't panic – I am aware that hysteria never helps a stressful situation – and even heard the words "at least it isn't a rat" in my head.

I very slowly got off the bed and tried to ignore my pounding heart long enough to come up with a plan. I decided that I was a strong, capable woman and would simply deal with the situation myself, and so I got my sneaker and spent about six minutes psyching myself up to actually do the deed. When I finally attempted to smoosh the bastard, I was so freaked out that I only hurt its leg and sent it scurrying under my bed, which is a horrifying, horrifying thing to have done.

And still, I remained calm.

I went out onto the balcony to see if someone was out there who might have a suggestion, maybe give me a number to call, and I found Bazz from the circus. He's tough, he's from Indonesia, he has seen lots of tropical creepy-crawlies in his lifetime and should know exactly what to do. I called down to him and when I heard the panic in my voice, I realized I was fairly close to having an emotional breakdown. He is exceptionally chivalrous and came running up to help, assuring me the whole time that it was just a small animal, more afraid of me than I was of it, nothing to worry about. He was poking a hanger around to make it come out from under the air conditioner, telling me that there are a bajillion spiders in Indonesia and he might even want to keep this one as a pet – when it suddenly came scurrying out where he could see it.

Now, my friends, you have never heard a man scream like Bazz screamed. He leapt off the bed faster than I've ever seen anybody move and we both stood there against the wall, screaming and doing that icky-shivery body thing you do when you've seen something gross (and, usually, when you're a girl). Luckily, my neighbour J.C. heard the commotion and came to see what was going on. He's Dominican and apparently unafraid of big, fat, hairy tarantulas, and he took my room apart, undid all the bedding and the suitcases and moved all the furniture until he found the beast, killed it – possibly with his shoe but I don't know because I was still doing the squirmy dance with Bazz – and took it out to the garbage.

Nobody knows how it got in, nobody has ever seen one in their room, everyone in my building is now terrified to go to sleep at night. I've been turning on the air conditioning and am willing to take the bronchitis that it brings if it means that no rodent-sized spiders want to hang out in my room. I also have a near heart-attack every time I see something move, whatever or wherever it may be. I do a full and thorough area check before going into the shower, I shake out all my shoes at least twice a day and I avoid any clothing that may brush up against my leg and make me scream in public – my life now revolves around arachnid-management. Good times, good times.

4. On Local Life

My friend Alexandre invited me to spend a day in Bayahibe, a nearby village where he has an apartment.

*Incidentally, "nearby" turned out to be about 3 hours of travel time by the time we switched from crappy bus to crappy bus, and "apartment" turned out to be a little tin shack with a bed, a tv, a clothes rack and a bucket to pee in. (I turned down the Dominican pork he picked up, lest a gastro-intestinal crisis should be magnified by having only a bucket and a smile.)

I was psyched to get away from the surreal world of the Hotel Fun site and see what it's really like in the Dominican Republic – well, it's no Hotel Fun, that's for sure. The Punta Cana area is a series of aluminum huts amid piles of garbage. Every third home has an old woman in a rocking chair with a kerchief on her head and a bunch of naked or underwear-clad children playing in the garbage piles beside the hut. In-between the groups of huts is a series of road-side vendors' kiosks, usually featuring a bunch of bananas, some sugar cane and a couple of slabs of hanging meat with plenty of flies and no refrigeration in sight. (Hence the Hotel Fun advice to never eat meat off-site.) Every once in a while is a gorgeous, gated home with a Mercedes or an SUV. I don't really get that.

The buses are as crammed as they were in Guadeloupe, big vans full of sweaty people yelling in Spanish or Creole. (The locals are just as likely to be Haitian as Dominican.) They also boast the same road safety standards as Guadeloupe, which include angrily passing anyone who's driving under 110 km/h, oncoming traffic be damned, and stopping suddenly and frequently to buy orange slices on the side of the road, whatever swerving and general panic it might cause. One thing they don't do is turn away passengers because the van is full, so I spent more than half of the trip sitting on men's laps. You want to be fondled by strangers on public transit, you just make your way to Bayahibe.

5. On Weather

That day was unfortunately the first of intense rain, which made for a crappy tourism day and an even crappier homecoming: the theatre, the restaurants, the mini club, half the GM rooms – flooded. We're talking biblical amounts of rain here, all day and all night, so that any time not spent dashing from shelter to shelter was spent sweeping, mopping, toweling and bucket-ing the water out of those shelters. For three days. This has never happened before, apparently, and certainly not in March, which made for lots of angry GMs who blamed Hotel Fun for not being God enough to stop the rain. Because it was obviously such a great week for us – thanks for adding to the good atmosphere. Our hands were all red and chapped from wringing out so many towels, people had foot infections from wading through water up to their shins that was full of who-knows-what (I know what: rat pee and tarantulas!) – it was awful.

And now it's over.

Thanks for all your well-wishing – I've already explained about the lack of internet time, but it's not for lack of thinking of you. It looks like I might decide to stay (IF they give me my own room), so you can now feel free to send me lots of fantastic letters and care packages. Especially if you can get your hands on some Milka chocolate.

Seriously. Milka. Get on it.