¡Qué pequeno el mundo!
Yesterday, we made a short visit to the nearby city of Higüey (hee-gway), the capital city of the eastern province of La Altagracia, which borders La Romana to the east. The province is home to the popular tourist areas of Bávaro and Punta Cana, but these beach areas are about an hour y algo further beyond Higüey. The city–which is about the size of La Romana, with cerca de 200,000 inhabitantes— lies on the western edge of the province, far closer to La Romana. It is only about an hour from our home at the club.
A fellow guest at the club who has been working the past few months as an engineer at Central (great guy, pero él es liciesta) had offered to take us to some nearby sites after hearing of our recent lack of travel — in fact, he was more or less persistent upon it, but in a friendly (and so very Dominican) way. He suggested showing us around Santo Domingo, where he lives when he is not at the club, or a quick trip to Higüey to visit the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia.
So we made plans to take him up on the latter, and yesterday we made a late afternoon voyage, departing La Romana at about half five (as the British chaps here are so found of saying). The voyage took us on an open carretera surrounded by a sea of sugar cane, all owned by Central.
Lupo had told me a few days before, on a trip to the Cacata Batey, that the passage to Higüey was nothing but caña. But this reality was impossible to anticipate—as we drove past recently leveled plots that afforded views to the fields beyond, it was sugar cane for as far the the eye could see—it appeared to stretch all the way to the foot of the mountains in the distance.
It wasn’t until sunset that we pulled into the parking lot of the Basilica, a huge concrete church with an impressive arch that sits at its center, spanning far above the structure. Construction of the building began in the 1950s, but wasn’t the finished until 1971. The church, as it stands now, is the largest in the country.
The church was pretty fascinating, simply in its size and stature, the concrete arch not only making it an awe-inducing presence from afuera, but it also allowed the roof inside the church to reach aggressively towards the heavens, a steep and curved ceiling that seemed to vanish into oblivion overhead. It also made for some eerie acoustics that reverberated throughout the place, the line ‘escuchanos, Dios…’ echoing throughout the building as we first entered, passing by a sea of candles holding vigil at the entryway.
The real awe of the Basilica, however, lies in the legend surrounding it. Housed within is the famous Virgen de La Altagracia painting, brought over by the Spaniards in 1512, during their conquest of the island (Higüey being the last province to be taken by the Spanish). There are a handful of legends surrounding the painting, even more regarding mysterious miracles occuring in the villa of Higüey near the site of the Basilica, and many myths about appearances of the Virgin Mary in the region. The Virgen de La Altagracia has since come to be the symbol of the ‘mother protector’ of the nation. There are legends abound regarding the site, and every January people from the country and Latin America venture in a sort of pilgrimage here to the Basilica, its legend being profound and potent enough to make it a revered religious site.
The most fascinating thing about our brief excursión, however, was the priest who spoke with us as we stood at the doorway before departing, taking in the last of the experience. With an outstretched hand he walked over, asking us where we were from. Dan replied La Romana, but the Father clearly knew otherwise, and asked again, this time in English.: ‘No really, where are you from?’
We soon learned that the priest had lived in the Boston area, and we talked for awhile about the city and how great it was (and how it is far superior to New York, a comment to which he nearly jumped he could hardly contain his enthusiasm and agreement). He then alluded more to the areas he had visited, and said that he stayed for some time in Duxbury, near Plymouth.
I asked if he had stayed at the Miramar near Bay Farm.
Sure enough, this priest we met in Higüey, Dominican Republic had lived and studied for some time at the Miramar, a place no more than ten minutes from the house I grew up in, a tranquil little alcove near the ocean where I had once been on a confirmation retreat, a place both Felicia and I had visited before.
“Like the phrase we use in Spanish,” Father concluded, “How small the world is.”