Sunday, March 18, 2012

My new Masons

Last week I weathered another near shipwreck in my service. Despite all my efforts to prevent my masons quitting mid-project: signing a contract, explaining in full the requirements of the work ahead-of-time, investing in a training workshop with them, they did just that, they up and quit. After completing nine of the thirty Eco-Banos, they confirmed my suspicions that something was souring by informing me that our work relationship was over. I was crushed to say the least. Their reasoning was “too much work and too little pay.” Insert tears and whining here. When they found out what a local volunteer was paying his masons they were never the same. They worked, but always making side comments: eso trabajo no es facil, me duele mucho la espalda, este proyecto esta matandome…etc. I must have asked 5 different Dominican masons in my community to see if they would take over the project; all chuckled and said the Project looked too hard. It looked like despite all my efforts to the contrary, my project was going to flop. Enter my savior. Rafael, one of two said quitters brought to my attention a wiry, toothless Haitian mason that was interested in the project. He called me out of my slumber at 6:30 one morning, asking if he could start the project. He told me with enthusiasm that he would start work with me the following Friday, bien temprano, a las 7, I liked this guy already! At 7:05 he was in front of my casita, eager to begin the workday. Unlike my Dominican masons who always rode their motorcycles to the job site even if it was a block away, my new Haitian mason Bobby and his partner Papi impressed me with their lightening quick footpace. They worked through the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and told me that they would work every day until we finish all 30 latrines. Rafael would never work on weekends.
The difference in the Haitian vs. Dominican work ethic, at least in this case, is phenomenal. Speaking from my personal experience in my community, the Haitians are willing to do the most undesirable work, they work extremely hard in the hopes of saving as much money as possible to send home and to eventually go back home themselves. It is rare to find a Haitian in my community that would want to stay on this side of the isla. On the other hand, the Dominicans in my community complain constantly about lack of work, about being impoverished, but are not willing to work hard, or at all, to change their reality. That is not to say that there are not hardworking Dominicans. I just think, in general, the average Haitian, like most uneducated immigrants, are willing to take any work in order to improve their lot in life.

Here are some pics of my new masons working on the project. Also on Saturday I took 20 youth to the local beach. Exhausting but fun

Big spider on my wall

Bobby and Papi working hard

Smoothing the second layer of cement


Sifting Sand


my new masons

Girls excited about their new latrine

at the Playa with Miguelina y Angelica

Darcia and I

Friday, March 2, 2012


Chilling in mi casita..Happy because I just got gifted a box of grapefruit from my old host family

The great thing about Peace Corps is you never quite get the hang of it. In my case, I have learned that I have honed the skills of not being so overwhelmed by strange and uncomfortable situations, but that is not to say that awkward and strange situations stop happening the longer one lives in a community. I remember during training one of the training staff using the metaphor of a rollercoaster to describe the ups and downs of our Peace Corps service. Even at the end of my service I am still dealing with new challenges and skirting my way around unique obstacles. I bet I still have a few more big drops in my future. Twenty-three months in country and I still haven’t gotten the hang of it all. Just when I feel that I truly belong in the community (as much as a foreigner can belong in a small Dominican community) one of my neighbors forgets my name and calls me the Americana. Oh well.

As my time ticks down I am filled with nostalgia, sadness, and a bit of excitement about returning to the comforts of America. Recently I have been taking every opportunity to try new things and hang out with my neighbors as much as possible, cherishing all the unexpected things that we do to fight the boredom.

By way of being adventurous the other day I agreed to try the national delicacy: mondongo: or intestines. I don’t think of myself as a very adventurous eater when it comes to animals but for some reason I felt, hey I guess I should say I’ve tried everything once. I accepted the lunch invitation at my friend Rossi’s house. After talking with several neighbors about my lunchtime challenge in order to assuage my nerves, my host mom tsked, shook her head, and said, I hope you trust the family to clean the intestines well, if not you can get sick. Not exactly the boost of confidence I was looking for. I arrived at Rossi’s around 11. I refused to look in the pot because I thought if I was scared of the finished product, half cooked intestines were not going to lift my spirits. I announced to Rossi and her mother that I was nervous about lunch, they both laughed and said its ok, lots of Dominicans are grossed out by mondongo too! Perfect I thought. I sat in their dirt patio under an increasingly hot tin roof porch with Rossi. Rossi half-heartedly reprimanded her two sons to stop playing with rusted motorcycle parts littered about the yard. We took turns holding the rotund newborn Brian. We made small talk and the conversation, as always, returned to the fact that I would be leaving in May. Rossi said she wasn’t going to let me leave, she would find me a nice Dominican boy to marry. She then said if I had to leave I had to send her things from America and call at least once a week, also, she wanted my mini-fridge.

Rossi’s mother, aged from years toiling over an open flame, raising children, and putting food on the table with little to no resources, brought out a heaping bowl of rice covered with the infamous mondongo. It was white, translucent almost, and cooked with red onion. By this time several men who eat at Rossi’s house had come back from the rice fields for their midday meal. Everyone was excited to watch and see if I liked the mondongo. I took a bite with lots of rice and struggled to get it down my gullet. It was swelteringly hot, the baby was crying, and I was eating intestines. It was truly a Peace Corps moment. I announced I didn’t like it much to Rossi’s delight as she scooped the intestines into her bowl and let me eat the plain white rice. We all had a good laugh at my expense and Rossi’s mother Carmencita retreated into the house to fetch some boiled sweet potatoes she had cooked in case I couldn’t eat the mondongo. I walked back to my house that afternoon proud that I had tried something I feared so much.

The month of February is marked by Carnaval in the DR. Every Sunday is a reason to celebrate, even more so than usual. Montecristi’s carnaval is renowned for being the most violent as pairs of matadors take turns whipping one another with all their strength. It is nicknamed the torros or bulls so I guess the original intent was to reenact a fight scene between a matador and a bull. The costumes leave something to be desired and it seems the focus is now less on the spectacle and more on the beating. The carnaval celebrations in Santiago, are known for its parades, costumes, and finery; in La Vega, which is the most famous site for carnaval on the island, it is a mixture of fine costumes, lavish parades, and brutality with a behiga. The behiga is used mercilessly on anyone in the crowd that dares show their backside. Originally it was a cows bladder on a string, now a hard plastic balloon on a stretchy rope is sold to all who attend the party. I went to La Vega last year and was struck several times on the rump with said bladder and swore that was enough for a lifetime. It left some serious bruises.

The spectacle I witnessed in Montecristi, although the costumes were ragged, the fighters mere children and drunkenly blind men, the parade no more than two city blocks, made sure to maintain its claim to fame as the most violent carnaval on the island. It seems people in Montecristi just have more to be upset about and more angst and steam to blow off than their fellow countrymen in other villages. It is hot, it is dry, and we have a reputation to uphold!

Anna, Super pumped to be doing a trash pickup in the community

Camilia, proud of all the trash she found

Trash pickup with my girls group

Birthday Party for my neighbor

Rosi, my best friend, Posing with the cake

Carnaval in Montecristi! lots of whipping

Carnaval duel

Street scene, note the old man dressed as a witch

Scary Clown

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Aqui en La Lucha

En la lucha, reading in my hammock

The title of this blog is a dicho (saying) Dominicano that I have come to love and use freely. It translates literally as “here in the struggle”. It is a common response to Como estas? (how are you). The struggle can refer to something specific: washing clothes, cleaning chicken, sweeping the patio or something more general: living in the campo, raising children, facing the day. Viewed from a first world point of view life in the campo of the Dominican Republic really is a lucha or struggle. Speaking from the standpoint of my campo in Judea, we do not have running water, the aqueduct brings us water once a week. We have electricity only at night. The roads are not paved and turn to thick mud if it rains. The mosquito swarms are as thick as an angora plush sweater. The government does not pick up our trash. There is no sewage system and many families lack a latrine or indoor bathroom. With the lack of rain and our desert climate, little grows other than bananas, plantains and rice. Cholera is a real and present threat to the health of the community. Other than work in agriculture there is no job market for young people.
However, although people tend to luchar physically more than we do in the United States, the mental lucha does not seem as present. People in my community seem more or less happy with their lucha. They struggle with daily annoyances, but at the end of the day, they are with family, with community, and have copious amounts of time to reflect and enjoy life. We talk a lot about the fact that my family and friends in the States live a more comfortable life and yet there hardly seems time to enjoy those comforts because they are working so much. To some extents, this is true. The difference in culture cannot be glossed over; rather, it accounts for a difference in priorities, in free time, and in feeling satisfied. I cannot help but hope to bring back a bit of the Caribbean mentality of taking time to enjoy life and enjoy family and friends home with me.

I am including some photos taken during the second week of Eco-Baño construction. I could not be more pleased with some of my community members. My health promoters, especially Digna, have really stepped up in ways I could not have foreseen. They show up every day of construction to make sure everything is running smoothly, that the beneficiaries have breakfast ready for the masons and workers, that the families have the materials at their house the night before, in other words they are running the show. Most importantly, the health promoters are each in charge of doing 9 different family visits to teach the family how to use and care for their Eco-Baño. I feel that this education component is missing from most NGO latrine projects and that is why I have seen so many eco-banos that are no longer being used because families did not understand what taking care of them entails.
What makes me most proud is that if I were to disappear tomorrow I am sure the project would still run smoothly. The goal of sustainability and community ownership of work is at the heart of all of Peace Corps projects. At times it seems an elusive goal and can be extremely difficult to break through years of a community conditioned to accept foreign aid and handouts without having any agency in the direction and planning of community projects. As a volunteer, I always have the question in the back of my head, but will this be sustainable?, in other words, when I leave, will the community continue the work we achieved together or will everything fall apart as they wistfully remember an Americana that once lived among them. The problem with sustainability is that you can only hope that it will continue working when you are not there, but one can never be sure.

ok, so a little tongue in cheek, my neighbors and I love to express all of our actions, even the fun easy ones, as being part of the lucha or struggle.

tiny little cucumbers in the street, I luchar to get veggies in my diet

some of my trashcans I painted, I luchar a lot with waste management

Blue, en la lucha

Morning in the Campo, even the gato is in the lucha

Putting on the finishing touches: Rafael en the Eco-Bano lucha

Rafael, one of my two masons, building the caseta of the latrine

The ladies proving to the men that they can mix cement, luchando

Josue, loving the camera

Adorable little Salvador watching the action; he is always smiling

Maximo y Altagracia, two of my good friends, looking on as we build
at their house

Salvador's Great Grandma

Maximo posing with his "sombrero" the bottom of the fiberglass toilet bowl mold, siempre en la lucha!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brooke and John Visit

I am experiencing a bit of post-family-visit-loneliness at the moment. I just saw my brother John and his fiancé Brooke to the airport after an amazing week of activity and adventure and good conversation: all things that are not part of my daily life in Judea Nueva. I am now sitting at the Hodelpa Garden Court outside of Santiago enjoying the pool, eating fresh strawberries, and yet, even the post-gym workout endorphins surging through my body cannot buffer against the dark cloud of reality sweeping in that tells me soon I will be back on a Caribe Tours Bus rocketing back at unsafe speeds to my home and “real life.” That is, life in the campo, a life filled with lots of mosquito repellent and water-fetching, and making up games with children, silly banter with the neighbors, talking to my dog and confidant Blue, in other words, a life I have come to love. But after a week of hot showers, gourmet meals, and time with family, you can see how going back to my little hut can be a difficult transition.
The trip could not have gone better. John and Brooke were the third group of friends/family that have come down to see and experience a bit of my life as a PC volunteer in the DR. My first visitor was Laura last November, then my parents came in May, and now John and Brooke. Each visit was unique and amazing although I have learned a good deal after each one and feel I am getting much better about not trying to do so much stuff in the trip that it ends with everyone being exhausted and wearing cranky capris. That being said, because this island is so unique and has so much to offer, I cannot help but want to show my visitor a sampling of the many things to do and see here. Poor Laura suffered the worst as I attempted to take her all across the island on different forms of public transportation, something I have gotten used to but forget that it can be intense for a visitor. Ma and Pa weren’t spared either as I thought going from Punta Rucia to Samana would be a doable afternoon drive, needless to say 7 grueling hours later we arrived and if it weren’t for being family, I’m not so sure we would still be on speaking terms. So with John and Brooke, I planned lots of fun things to do but tried to keep the driving to a minimum and felt that because I had been to all the places we had been before, question marks were kept to a minimum. We had a fabulous time and I think we did a nice mix of fun touristy things with seeing things through a local lens thanks to my status as a quasi Dominicana living in the dusty border town of Judea Nueva.
My favorite part of Brooke and John’s visit was the time spent in my campo. I learned that trying to visit everyone in town is very difficult when one has visitors because everyone and everyone’s cousin wants to meet the shiny Americans. When my parents were here showing them around my community in one afternoon left me stressed out and the neighbors we didn’t get to see were disappointed that they were not included on my tour. So, I planned ahead of time and organized a sancocho or Dominican barbeque of sorts in order to relax and hang out with everyone in one location. Sancocho is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is generally served on special occasions because it feeds lots of people, it is too time consuming to be a weekday meal. It is a stew that slow cooks various classes of viveres or tubers, vegetables, and meat. Generally, different people will bring different ingredients so that no one family needs to bear the brunt of the cost. In this case John and Brooke offered to buy the meat, by far the most expensive ingredient. We bought four pounds of goat (my regions specialty) six pounds of beef, and six pounds of pork. The neighbors contributed carrots, celery, garlic, yucca or manioc, auyama (pumpkin), taoyta (chayote), yautia, and potatos. We started cooking the meat at 2 pm. China was in charge and she set up three broken cinderblocks, got firewood, and placed a huge pot with the seasoned meat on the open flame. China, Josie, and Luisa did the prep work and cooking and were very pleased and surprised that John had some knife skills up his sleeve and wanted to help. In this very machismo society, finding a man that is interested in cooking is rare, let alone one that cooks well. We helped cut up lots of vegetables and clean the caked-on mud off the tubers. By six pm the neighbors started showing up lured to my home by wood smoke and smells of goatporkbeef stew. I tend to forget that in my community people are not all friends, it is not that they are not friends, it is just that not everyone is on hang-out terms with everyone else. Therefore, my presence brings together people that would not normally socialize together. We set up lots of plastic chairs in my carport area and I was touched to see how many people showed up. It had to be close to 50, maybe more. Everyone got something to eat although I was quickly reminded I was in the DR when several neighbors took me aside to see if I could squirrel them away some extra sancocho to take home to their family who hadn’t come. They said if I asked and said it was for me no one would mind. What a pleasant task.
All in all, it was a really pleasant gathering and no one can say they didn’t get to meet my brother and Brooke because I invited everyone I could think of. I think that was one of my best moments in Peace Corps. Anytime you can successfully share parts of your life that are important to you it is a great feeling, in this case it was my American family interacting and experiencing my Dominican life.
After two nights in Judea Nueva where we did an afternoon at the gorgeous El Morro beach in Montecristi, we packed up and set off in our little blue Kia to the remote and gorgeous beach of Punta Rucia. The sleepy beach town is a hidden gem and because it is rather difficult to get to, it attracts little tourism. Most tourists that visit Punta Rucia are driven in from nearby resorts of Puerto Plata, experience the beach and then take the bus back home to sleep at the resort the same day. We found a lovely place to stay that was QUIET! Tranquility is something very hard to find in this country. The following morning we took a boat out to the adorable circle of sand known as Cayo Arena. The little island is visited everyday by groups of tourists who descend on it in order to snorkel and see beautiful coral and fat fishies. This was then followed by a high-speed boat ride through the mangroves whereby our boat capitan almost flipped our skiff trying to take a turn at Nascar speeds. Definitely worth our money. In the afternoon we checked out the gorgeous beach of Playa Ensenada lined with fish stalls and restaurant shacks serving freshly caught octopus, conch, fish, and lobster. We relaxed and read, watching the sunset. The next morning on our way out of town, I was able to fulfill a life-long dream of mine: seeing a manatee, my favorite animal. We took a boat out to observe the gentle giants in their natural habitat and were awarded with three sitings accompanied by our boat driver tapping the boat and chanting sube! sube! sube! sube! (comeup! come up! comeup! comeup!). In the most tranquil of spots, deep in the mangroves of the National park of Montecristi our boat driver had his headset on, listening to bachata and merengue, allowing us to have mood music for the manatee watching. Never a quiet moment in the Dominican Republic.
After Manatee watching I was in a bit of shock, how many people can say they have seen a manatee??? We headed to Jarabacoa, land of eternal spring filled with pine trees that offers lots of adventure opportunities. We decided on whitewater rafting for the following day. Super fun.

John and Brooke: Thanks so much for visiting and sharing in my life in the DR...Now its back to latrine construction

Oliver with the yucca

one of the two giant stew pots

Prep work outside

China Cooking the Meat in her Backyard

Washing the dirt off the yuca

Awaiting our water taxi at Cayo Arena

Sibling Love

The happy couple

cooking breakfast in my casa

Water taxi to the isla

high speed race through the Mangroves

Beautiful Punta Rucia

Brooke and I with our highspeed boat


John and I at sunset, leaving Playa Ensenada

Our Manatee guide, calling the sea cows to the surface

Happy as clams, posing like true Dominicanos, outside of the Manatee Park

Post Rafting High speed Guagua ride through Jarabacoa

John, Rosie, baby Brian and I at the Sancocho