Dominican Shuffle

Twenty minutes into the flight and the plane’s ceiling tore open. Misty air fogged into the cabin.

It had been a three-hour wait in the Miami airport for the connecting flight to the Dominican Republic and finally we were up in the air and en route. Safe in my aisle seat, I settled in for the short flight, anticipating the meeting of my crew in Santo Domingo, then the three-and-a-half hour ride up into the mountain town of San Juan, where tomorrow we would be begin the week-long kitchen equipment installation at the University. When I heard a gunshot  pop and looked up to see the plane’s ceiling insulation blowing downward and cold air rolling toward me.

My chest kicked out a breath. My last breath? Would I fall into the blue ocean below? Is this when my life passes before my eyes? The inside of the cabin looked all syrupy and dreamy. No one was doing anything! No panicking or reaching for vomit bags. Even the flight attendant just stood at her post, phone receiver in hand, uninterrupted in whatever announcement she’d been making when the ceiling split open. Was it just me? Like the guy in Twilight Zone who’s the only one who can see William Shatner sitting on the plane wing?

There was a hand on mine then. The guy from across the aisle reaching to me. “It’s only the air conditioning vent. It’s not the plane, we’ll be okay.”

Okay then! Aware of how stricken I must have looked, I said, “Thanks.” An iron jacket of fear dropped off me to the floor.

Finally the flight attendant said something comforting through her phone and moved the people seated in the middle of the plane to rear seats to avoid the chill. It was getting very cold.

The pilot turned the plane around and we returned to Miami.

I assumed we’d simply get onto another plane and be off again. There was a kind of planned chaos at the gate; some of us would squeeze onto the 5:30 flight and others onto the 7:30 flight. I pushed my way up to the front, where names were being called. I insisted I be on the earlier flight. As a solo travelling female going to a third world country, with a three-hour drive ahead of me, I needed to get there before dark. My crew and driver were waiting for me in Santo Domingo and it was imperative I get there soon.

7:30 flight. Sorry.

I called my client and he said everything would be okay, that he’d let his driver know to stay in the city for the night and leave early the next morning for San Juan. So I had this vision of my crew, who had flown in at 3:00 from Orlando, with this unknown driver person, sitting in a hotel room watching Spanish TV while they waited for my arrival. But when I expelled myself into the humid air outside the Santo Domingo airport at 9:30, from the dark faces lined up along the railing I heard Kevin and Keith shout my name. They were clapping, “Yay!” They chorused. “Finally!”

“You’ve been waiting here this whole time?”

They had. John, the Latin G.Q., bling-wearing, non-English-speaking driver had entertained them and they were all a bit guy-giggly, they had been girl-watching apparently, and having a great time communicating with facial and hand expressions and not much else.

“They lost my suitcase,” I said.

Finding a hotel at night in Santo Domingo was an adventure I had no energy for. I began to see that my American vision of a Hilton, with a complimentary toothbrush and a smiling, bilingual person to assist in communicating with the airport about my lost bag, was not going to happen. Instead, we drove and drove in the dark, passing casino hotels on the ocean-front, zipping by street meat vendors (no Health Department inspections here), then driving through hilly slums, the open-door stucco hobbles tucked right up to the street, music blaring from each screenless window (competing with the boom-ba-boom pounding in our own SUV), kids playing ball in the dark street—wait, isn’t there school in the morning?

Several times John stopped and yelled out to street hoods. All arm waving and Latin sounding they were. Were we lost? After about an hour of this, getting this weird tour of a very dark (no street lights) Santo Domingo, I mustered up my college Spanish, in my most managerial and demanding voice, and spun down the radio dial, “John, yo quiero dormer. Donde esta el hotel?

“Ah,” he crooned, “la nina speaka Spanish? Oohh,” he mocked, wiggling his eyebrows in the rear view mirror to the backseat. My guys laughed.

“He’s not from here,” said Kevin. “He said he lives in Santiago.” Three hours up the other side of the mountain range, where my client’s office is.

“I thought Santiago was in Chile,” said Keith.

We finally pulled into the Santo Domingo Apartments around midnight. We each had a remote control for the air conditioning unit. The lights in the room were a bluish dim. It smelled like a weird soap, a sickly sweet version of Ivory, which I would learn permeated everything: restaurants, stores, etc. I brushed my teeth with the unpotable water and my finger, and I fell into the lumpy bed with the exploding airplane ceiling distant in my tired brain.

The next day, after a meaty breakfast at the apartments and time waiting for John, we were up the mountain in a one-hundred-mile-an-hour blast, willy-nilly herky jerking through people on scooters balancing gas tanks and Daihatsus tilting under their weight of plantains on the wide but non-laned highways. We’d slow a little at street vendors, dark natives rushing at us from corrugated hobbles with mangoes, bottled water, plastic jars of cashews. One kid even tried to sell me a caged parakeet. At the San Juan hotel I continued my calls to the airport about my bag. “Mañana,” I was told.

After we spent the afternoon uncrating boxes of kitchen equipment on the hot, dusty job site, John took me into San Juan to a corner shop. It was charming how he escorted me across the street by holding my hand. So this white girl wouldn’t get kidnapped or hit by a beeping car? Inside, he helped me locate toothbrush and paste, girl’s shirts, socks, a hairbrush and, at the bins of ladies underwear, with both hands he held up a white thong, rolling the “r” in my name, “Marrrisa…”

“Ha-ha.” That John, what a character. I corrected him by selecting a pair of bikini style underwear. He helped me sort through my Monopoly money to pay.

Next morning, still no word on my bag. By that afternoon, racking up roaming charges on my cell phone, I still wasn’t any closer to receiving my suitcase. I began to realize I was only getting polite, Dominican lip service. I called Laureen at my office.

“Laureen? Marisa here.”

“Well, how’s the—”

“The airline lost my bag. I need you to call Delta—here’s the claim number—and find out where the hell my bag is. I want my bag. Now. I’m at the Hotel Maguana.”

“Got it.”

Twenty minutes later, Laureen called me back.

“Your bag went to Haiti.”


“It’s in Haiti now. It has to fly back to Miami, then back out to Santo Domingo. They’ll drive it up to you tonight, around 8:30.”

Thank God for the pushy American way, I thought. Without it, my bag would’ve become a permanent part of the Haitian landscape.

Three days later and waiting at the gate for my return flight, the scene of the split ceiling came back to me, the entire Dominican and lost-bag experience having temporarily displaced the fear I’d felt on that first flight over. I guess I had practiced at something: when you think you’re facing death, it’s out of your hands—you just freeze and wait. I know I did.


Marisa Mangani was born and raised in Hawaii, worked as an executive chef throughout the U.S. as well as Canada and Australia, and now designs commercial kitchens for a day job which supports her writing habit every morning from 5:30 to 6:30. She recently co-wrote Sharkman of Cortez, a memoir of a former commercial shark fisherman, and she is currently concluding her own memoir, Stepping into the Water.

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