If you thought this blog post is about Santa Claus, you will be very disappointed. It is, however, about another major holiday, namely Easter. Only it’s not really Easter here in the way we are used to in the USA.
In Catholic countries they celebrate Semana Santa, which is a week comprised of school vacations, parades and, evidently, massive partying. Are you confused? So were we. We still are.
La Semana Santa is one holiday during the year where in most Spanish-speaking countries entire towns, businesses, schools, and government close for at least four days, Thursday through Sunday. People that have relocated to other places often go back to their hometowns. Others take advantage of the long break to go to the countryside or beach. Entire communities come together for Semana Santa celebrations. In some places, religious processions fill the streets each day of the week from Palm Sunday to Easter; in others, Thursday and Friday are the most important days. Most Semana Santa traditions are hundreds of years old and originated in Spain, but many now have a unique twist due to the mix of cultures in each country.
When I lived in Spain, Semana Santa was celebrated with a few large parades depicting the life of Jesus, complete with guys in hoods and men carrying large crosses. It was a serious occasion and I remember some of the floats being rather graphic.
Last year, when in Medellin, we were visiting some of the small towns outside the city just prior to Easter weekend. We noticed that many of the churches were readying their large Jesus (and Mary) statues for the parades.
I knew something was happening with Semana Santa in our town in the DR when we were looking for apartments when we first arrived. A few times we heard “well we have an apartment you’d love but it’s booked for Semana Santa”. Since it was passed the time of traditional spring break in the USA, I figured it was probably a local holiday. I went to my trusty expat group and asked what I could expect during that week. It’s one of my favorite questions because you get such a variety of answers and it’s really just a starting place for what to expect. More like a “What To Expect Spectrum”. This is not my first rodeo, I know the expat groups like to tell stories.
The experienced expats told me that our town is the Miami Beach equivalent in the DR. Dominicans have a long weekend of vacation, kids are off school and people flock to the beaches, especially our beach. We were told to load up on groceries, cancel all our plans and whatever we do, do not drive. Drunken driving would be rampant and it’s best to avoid the roads altogether. OK! I do not like the driving here in the DR on a non-drunk day so you don’t have to convince me! It wasn’t even a good week to progress on our diving certification, as boats were not allowed in the water for most of that week, due to safety reasons with all the swimmers.
I’m sure by now you’re waiting for the deets. I’ll give you the play by play on how the week went down:
Tuesday: We went to the nearby town of Sosua to load up on groceries for the week. The town looked pretty normal other than a slight uptick in activity. We noticed our town’s sign was being finished and painted all pretty-like, and advertisement signs were going up. The beach stages were getting set up. We counted 3 of them.
Wednesday: The town definitely started filling up and our apartment pool was busier than usual. Music started thumping softly but thankfully our apartment is very well built and insulated so when we closed the doors we didn’t hear much of it.
Thursday: The stages were now all set up, the town was crazy busy and every store, restaurant and bar seemed to have music blaring. Even the car rental place had huge speakers on top of a car, blasting electro-beats. By nightfall the music at the beach was pumping. There was no official party yet but the beaches were full. Police were out en masse and people with orange vests were showing up. The orange vest people are there to “close” the water at sundown. With so many people at the beach and so much drinking, evidently water accidents are too common so they no longer allow swimming after dark. Drownings are bad for tourism.
Friday: This is Good Friday and it’s a holy day. No loud music, no partying, no alcohol sales. Just quiet gatherings of families at the beach and on balconies. It seemed to be a big day of just relaxing. No alcohol or loud music did not mean no fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves at the beach. There was no sign of Jesus or Mary anywhere. In this area the holiday seems decidedly UN-religious. Friday was the only day that the major grocery store in town was closed. Evidently in Catholic countries, Friday is the biggest day, not Easter Sunday.
We heard the party kicked off right at 12:01am on Saturday so we decided to ring it in like the New Year and we stayed up for it. This is a rare feat for me, who likes to be tucked into bed by 10:30pm. But we stayed up, convinced our amigos The Capplemans to join us and we all headed down to the beach just before midnight.
True to form, the music turned on at midnight and the DJ worked tirelessly to get the crowd moving. It was a strange dynamic, however, as no one seemed to want to dance. They were all staring at the stage, as if waiting for someone or something to appear. Jesus, maybe?
We stayed for about half an hour. Cappleman Adults Julia and Mitch danced a little, in a vain attempt to get others to dance. Eventually we lost interest. We can only assume that people were not drunk enough to dance…? We aren’t sure, it never made any sense. Haley and Zoe said that if they had invited even a few Colombian girls from their former school in Medellin, there would have been a lot more dancing. Colombians will dance to the rhythm of the washing machine if you give them the chance.
Saturday: This is the party day. I’m not sure if the music ever turned off from the night before. We were told Saturday morning there would be a lot of drunk people on the road. We needed no excuse, we just stuck close to home and the beach. A down day in sunny DR? You don’t have to ask me twice!
We went to the beach and checked out the party and again saw the same dynamic of beat-thumping music but a lot of people just staring at the stage, not dancing. There were so many people at the beach, just relaxing, picnicking, watching the volleyball tournament, playing in the foam pit, or kite surfing. The opportunity to people-watch was fantastic. This was definitely not a tourist gathering, these were all locals – albeit from other parts of the country – and they were there to relax. Zoe and I spent the afternoon with our neighbors from downstairs and soon the kids swapped sand castle making for trash collecting, and then the beach for the pool.
Later that night I was the designated chaperone for Haley and her friend Eva, who went down to the beach to dance. They soon learned that dancing with boys was a little too intense, as it became far too physical far too quickly. They decided to dance only with each other and make a point of being very loving (giving the impression they were a couple) so as to deter any over-enthusiastic males. As one of the very few foreigners in their age group, Haley and Eva got a LOT of attention. So that was their way of diffusing it. It seemed to work (other than the guy who requested a 3-some). Eventually they ended up in a group with some other local teens who respected their physical space and did not try to twerk on them repeatedly. We came home around 10:30 p.m. Eva and Haley had fun but fighting off the boys was tiring. Even with the lesbian ruse.
As I was down at the beach on chaperone duty but with no phone (pick-pocketing is common at these parties) I had a lot of opportunity to people-watch. A lot of people were just chilling out in family groups, making sammiches from their coolers and enjoying the music, but not exactly dancing. I came to the conclusion that they were just enjoying the time off work and even if they weren’t actively in the thick of the party, they still enjoyed it. I also learned that they play a lot less American music in the DR than they do in Colombia. And what they do play from the USA has been remixed with a much faster beat.
A few people were trying to swim in the ocean after dark but were quickly told to get out by the local police who seemed to have little experience handling the very large guns they were carrying.
The party raged on until well past 2 a.m. based on the music thumping we could hear from our apartment. We aren’t sure when it ended but when I got up on Sunday morning it was quiet. The whole weekend reminded me so much of Carnaval in Pedasi, Panama, where the main activity was drunken dancing for days on end. But in the DR it was a little more civilized and a little less drunkenness, at least during the times I was out. There were no public bathrooms that I could see, however, so that did not give me a lot of confidence. It had a similar feeling to King’s Day in Amsterdam, although decidedly more beach-y.
Sunday: On Sunday the town was a little quieter and we saw a lot of people with luggage catching buses or just pulling them down the uneven sidewalks. Clearly it was time to get back to work. There was no music, but still quite a few people. Zoe and her friend Francisco went back to the beach and collected 8 bags of trash from the party the night before.
I made a halfhearted and half-appreciated attempt at an Easter Egg Hunt in the house using jelly beans, and then we went to the Capplemans’ apartment for a lovely dinner. All in all, another great week in the DR. All the partying locals seemed to think so too.