Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas in the Caribbean

I was warned, but the warnings were unable to prepare me for what the season of Christmas on this island really entails. December in the Dominican Republic encompasses round-the-clock dancing, generous libations, eating lots of fatty Christmas pig, and near as I can tell, even more general merriment than the rest of the year holds. What I have come to appreciate and value most in the Dominican culture is the focus on family, sharing what one has, and the ability to have a good time or dance party (usually synonymous) in almost any circumstance.

Trying to motivate community members to do any productive work this December has proven futile. I have called meetings to which people readily agree to and tell me how important it is that we work together; I wait at the meeting with two dedicated muchachos who are the only ones that show up for anything I plan. After an hour of waiting I usually go home with mixed feelings of being lied to coupled with rejection. When asked about the meeting most respond that oh well you know how it is in December, I was sweeping the floor, I was washing the artificial Christmas tree (and yes I have seen this done), it looked cloudy out…lets just hope January will bring a new attitude with the new year. However, having been warned about the “December partyitude” in advance from other volunteers I have planned meetings without too much hope that attendance would be more than my personal fan club of two or three teenage girls. With this in mind, I have to focus on compartiring or sharing with my new neighbors and friends in this season of merriment. I did have to draw the line the other evening when I was repeatedly peer-pressured to drink rum straight with no chaser at midnight while watching telenovelas at Marcia’s house. The whole family kept telling me, but it’s Christmas Clara, followed by why don’t’ you drink? To this I respectfully replied that si yo tomo, but not cheap rum shots from the bottle (I’d like to think that that Claire has no place in Peace Corps). Also, I have had to draw the line at the neighbor’s consistent attempts to fatten me up and make me feel ill from overeating. Having a good time and feeling overstuffed and drowsy from over consumption somehow go hand-in-hand here. Despite my smiling and reassuring everyone that I am having a grand time, the fact that I have not been able to eat four servings of rice and lots of chicken, and lots of pork means that I must be sad and deeply troubles my new neighbors.

People are constantly murmuring in my new community that I do not eat and that I will waste away here because I hate the food even while I am busy eating more than I should just to complement the chef. At Marcia’s two nights ago watching television after I had had dinner, Marcia told me she was going to make sancocho, a traiditional stew made with three kinds of meat and lots of yams, platanos, potatos and other starchy root vegetables. It is quite a treat but it is not something you can eat when you are already full. Little did I know that she was making it that night, even though it was already 10 P.M. When I retired for the evening without sharing in the feast, Alberto, Marcia’s husband, chastised me for not partaking. He asked me what my current weight was and then in an all too threatening tone informed me that by the end of my service they will have made me twenty pounds heavier, all the while laughing demonically. Uh-oh.

On a side note, I am unashamedly hooked to “Las Munecas de la Mafia” a Colombian soap that is pure lunacy and entertainment. I started watching simply to share with the women in the community and I am now the one leaving the house to go the neighbor’s every other night when we do not have electricity.

My favorite Christmas tradition that I have not only witnessed but brazenly participated in is called “la Mañanita” or diminutive morning. In the case of my community this involves meeting out in the street at 4 am ready to sing, dance, and act as obnoxious as you please in the spirit of taking what your neighbors are forced to give. Awesome if you ask me. I was invited to participate in this lovely little tradition on the night of December 6, I was told to meet outside at 4 am and the rest would take care of itself. Wanting desperately to avail myself of new cultural opportunities I set my alarm for 3:45 A.M. and went to bed wondering what the “mananita” was all about. Sure enough, my eight month pregnant neighbor Marcia, who had spearheaded the entire mission, about 10 teenage girls and boys, and two other community mothers were waiting outside as promised, all were dressed in ski-caps and sandals with socks in order to ward off the blustery 65 degree night air. No one could stop talking about how cold it was, I found it nice to not be sweating for once, but what does the gringa know anyway? I was handed an empty paint can, a large rock, and told to play my tambora as loud as I could. For the next two hours I am proud to say that I beat that paint can with so much Christmas spirit and joy that I was later congratulated for my drumming skills. The idea is that you go house to house, pausing outside each one long enough to try and wake up the sleeping people within. Three Christmas songs are sung and when that does not produce a person at the door, lots of shouting, clapping, and banging on the wooden walls of the house ensues. At some houses we were met with straight silence, other people threatened to maim us if we did not move on down the street, and others opened the ventana just enough to throw coins (and in one case a 100 peso bill) into our greedy hands. One house gave us ground coffee, and another neighbor gave us some sugar. As the sun rose we happily marched to Marcia’s house, still singing and dancing in the street, to count up our booty that was so rudely obtained by force and intimidation. All in all we had gathered 300 pesos, the equivalent of about 10 U.S. dollars. Not bad if you ask me. I am told the tradition is to use the money to make spicy hot chocolate (by spicy I am referring to ginger, which is super picante to Dominican palettes) to warm everyone up and start the day right. I had a great time participating in this tradition and as long as I am participating in the merry making it is fun but when one is on the other end, the normal sleeping person, it is extremely irritating. Not only are you deprived of sleep but you are threatened into giving money away so the obnoxious hooligans can enjoy hot chocolate and cookies on your dime…I am going to chalk this up to lost in translation and continue pounding my drum when I am invited.

It has unfortunately been raining pretty consistently this December, which is very rare for this area of the country. With dirt streets, the rain has made simply leaving the house a trying event. I still have not figured out how Dominicans manage to stay so clean in such muddy conditions, but I am always the sloppiest, perhaps because I think not leaving the house because the streets are muddy is a tad ridiculous. Also, I am not sure if my host family senses when the path to the latrine will become slick and nearly impassable and thereby choose to stop themselves up by avoiding all sources of fiber, but I am the only one in the house who has had to suit up for the journey to the outhouse, much to my host mother’s chagrin. “But Claire, do you really need to go to the bathroom? The path is so muddy!” To which I reply, yes, and no, you don’t have to accompany me. This idea of never leaving me alone is definitely a cultural difference. Just last week, both of my host parents had to go to Santiago for the day and my host mother was distraught at the idea of me sleeping alone in the house. I assured her I would be fine, that I lived alone in my last community, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I was informed that Bertina, the fifteen year old neighbor who resents my existence and rolls her eyes at all of my attempts at conversation, would be sleeping in my bed for “safety.” I failed to see how this fifteen year old would help if my security was in fact threatened. I pried further and was told that all the local thugs would somehow sense that I was sleeping alone and take it upon themselves to come in and steal my laptop and soccer ball (yes these are my host mother’s words) but they would not dare mess with me with Bertina by my side. Gracias a Dios my host father decided to arrive late that night and I was spared sleeping with someone who looks like if given half the chance, she would end my life.

So far, my days in town have been spent sitting with lots of older women and lots of young children. The children are very adamant that I teach English classes so twice a week I hold a class for kids thirteen and under and twice a week I hold a class for high school aged kids. After three classes with the young kids I could not figure out why the kids could not remember how to say, “Hello, My name is….” Some of the kids could say a few things in English but did not seem to be retaining any new information that I was giving them. My poster board examples made the children’s eyes glaze over. That is when it dawned on me, I bet these kids cannot read! After doing a poll I learned that only one 14 year-old out of the group could read. So I decided to change tactics and told the kids that we were going to switch to literary/art class. I think I am doing these children a disservice trying to teach them English when they cannot even read in their own language. So, in the spirit of Christmas, last Saturday morning I brought art supplies and we all made Christmas cards. I taught them how to write Feliz Navidad in English and other such phrases but I think for now, we are going to focus on drawing, painting, and reading.
Los adolescentes are very enthusiastic about my English classes. The enthusiasm does not always translate to good attendance, but I figure seven out of thirty is a good start. Class has been pretty fun so far as the last half hour is always devoted to teaching me lots of slang and dirty words in Spanish, which we all agree is extremely important for my full integration. Class usually ends when my talking is drowned out by bachata or raggaeton music from someones cell phone. I don’t fight it, we usually just end with some dancing and I figure it sure is nice not to have to worry about actually preparing these kids for an exam or having curriculum that needs to be learned.

December, despite the rain, the mud, and comments about fattening me up, has been extremely fun and full of surprises. Although I am headed home to the good ol’ United States of America for the holidays, I feel I have experienced much of what makes Christmas so great in the Caribbean. Perhaps next year I will even eat some Christmas pig on December 25th.

Happy Holidays to all my friends and family!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travels with Laura

Laura arrived Thursday evening, the eleventh of November. Interacting with someone who knew my pre-Peace Corps self was like looking in a mirror for the first time in eight months…scary. I struggled to remember what was jarring for me when I first arrived in the country and what made me nervous. Now, eight months in, nothing seems too out of the ordinary. Why wouldn’t that 90 year old vieja rub Vick’s Vapo Rub all over my legs? Why wouldn’t Tang and hot dog buns be a nutritionally complete breakfast? Why would the guagua stay in the correct lane and not go up on the sidewalk? Why wouldn’t the taxi take advantage of the ambulance and ride its tail through heavy rush hour traffic? Why wouldn’t the Lord’s Day signify rum is an acceptable drink all day, starting in the pre-dawn hours? Why wouldn’t five people get on a motorcycle, especially when the baby fits so well on the handle bars? Why wouldn’t you pee in a plastic bucket inside the house instead of walking five feet to the latrine? Why would you walk across the street to buy something at the colmado when you can send the muchacho? Why would you lower the tv volume if you can just yell into your cellular?...all normal things, right?

Laura sure was a trooper. She had made it clear to me that she was not looking for a pristine beach vacay, the kind most people think of when they hear you are going to the Dominican Republic. To me, this vacation brings to mind the following: laughing under swaying coconut trees, drinking rum on the beach, and dancing the sultry nights away with non-threatening Dominican men who speak English with cute Latino accents. But no, Laura bravely said she wanted to see what my life was like as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer.

Seeing as Laura does not speak Spanish (I’m sorry Laura but knowing Hola, Adios, and Mucho Gusto does not mean that you are conversational), translating became a full time job during her visit. And try as I might to convince my friends and neighbors that Laura did not understand their language, every time I returned from the restroom women and children were crowded around Laura with a family photo or some local item of pride gesticulating wildly at Laura in the hopes that perhaps I was mistaken when I explained that Laura did not understand. My Dominican friends scoffed, “but you understand Clara! And she is white and blonde too, so why wouldn’t she understand?” Deep breaths are a requisite part of surviving here with a modicum of sanity.
So, in a crazed effort to showcase all that this magnificent island has to offer in terms of varied topography and microclimates, we spent a good deal of her eleven days on crowded buses and antiquated carro publicos. However, I think there is definitely something to be said for experiencing first-hand the frenzied chaotic order that is public transportation in the DR. I find myself questioning much of the trip if the bus or motorcycle or car I am in will actually be going where the driver said we would be going and low and behold, we always arrive! Maybe there is not always a seat, maybe the bus does not leave when the ticket said it would, and maybe you find yourself running personal errands with the driver, but you almost always arrive…eventually.

Because I have spent very little time at my new site, I felt strongly about showing Laura my original site. We arrived mid-day and were greeted with impressive Dominican hospitality in numerous different homes. We lunched at Judy’s house where she had cooked up an even-bigger than normal midday spread because they were entertaining their visiting relatives from New York. We then visited one of my all-time favorite Donas, Dulce, to pass the afternoon over my favorite coffee and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, WITHOUT sugar. Dulce (ironic because her name means Sweetness) might be the only Dominican woman who allows me to drink juice without sugar in it, not succumbing to the belief that unsweetened anything might cause real physical damage. After popping in to many neighbors’ homes and introducing my new shiny American friend, we finally settled at my best friend Lucias’ house, for the evening festivities. Lucia, in typical fashion, had taken it upon herself to throw a dinner party in our honor. Quite possible one of the poorest if not THE poorest family in Tres Palmas, Lucia always astounds me with her ability to entertain and share what little she and her family has. Lucia and her mother prepared a delicious dinner of pollo, casava bread, yucca, and a special dessert treat of whipped cream with “Cheetos” (and no, you don’t have to be under the influence of drugs to appreciate that that combination is culinary genius.) Also, it is, according to Lucia, very popular with the kids these days at Christmas parties. Because Lucia’s home is one of the few homes in town that is not connected to the power lines, Lucia insisted we finish off the party in style by painting Laura and I’s nails by flashlight. Lucia, aside from being innovative in the kitchen, could probably be hired by any nail salon in New York City that specializes in putting bling and rhinestones on toes. We wrapped up the evening by visiting with my host family until it was way past our campo bedtime.

The next day, Saturday, we set off to visit my new community. We made a stop just long enough for me to unpack and repack my bag for the next week and to explain to my neighbors that I would be back to begin working within the next ten days. We decided to spend the day at the local beach of El Morro in Monte Christi. Unfortunately, because of the recent storms, there was nothing left of the sandy beach and the giant waves had left rocks and boulders on shore. The formidable waves prevented us from swimming (even on a calm day, this area is known for its riptides) but we enjoyed the sunshine over our frosty beer nonetheless. In the afternoon my friend Andrea met us at the beach with two Dominican male friends in tow. We went out dancing and drinking at a “discoteca” in Monte Christi and I was happy to give Laura a taste of the local music, always deafeningly loud. Our new male friends insisted that I allow them to come and meet my host family when they dropped me off in my community. I said they could use the latrine, but I really did not feel comfortable having my new friends over when I had only been at the house for three full nights. I did not want to send the wrong message to my host family: that I was a late-night partier who brings Dominican men home on Saturday nights, at least I did not want to send that message in my first week.

The next morning Laura and I set off on the long journey to reach the beautiful mountain site of Jarabacoa. This required taking about 6 different forms of public transportation, from taxis, to guaguas, to pick-up trucks. When we arrived at Jen’s site in Manaboa, up the mountain from the outdoorsy, adventure city of Jarabacoa, it was mid-afternoon. I was immediately struck by the change in temperature. It seemed impossible that we were still in the Dominican Republic as the temperature had dropped a good twenty degrees. Not only that, the mountainous scenery and rushing rivers seemed more like Colorado than a tropical island.

We spent the next two days hiking around Jen’s beautiful site, cooking, and relaxing. After our mountain adventure we set off for the beautiful Samana peninsula in the northeast of the country. Arriving at my friend Sarah’s site in the late afternoon we relaxed and took in her gorgeous view while Sarah attended a meeting. I was flabbergasted to discover that not one local colmado could sell us beer because they were all owned by Evangelical families. It felt like a bad joke. We spent the next four days traveling around the peninsula. We went to the epic El Limon waterfall, a resort beach in Samana, and three different secluded, white-sand-swaying-palm-tree-beaches, in the area. All-in-all it was a relaxing change from my normal scramble to survive in the DR.
Laura and I returned to Santiago on Sunday. We ended the trip in epic fashion by watching Jersey Shore in our hostel. I feel that Laura was able to get a small taste of the many indescribable things that make the Dominican Republic so familiar, so special, and so jarring all at the same time.

Perhaps our adventure vacation would have gone a bit more smoothly if we had simply checked into an all-inclusive hotel, but that would not have been nearly as fun. Showing Laura what it is like to be a Peace Corps volunteer was stressful at times, uncomfortable, and trying, but those emotions are so much a part of my daily life in the DR that I had to remind myself to take care of Laura and reassure her that we would in fact survive the vacation. For me, the DR has brought out more tears and more laughs than any other time in my life, and I think I was able to show Laura just a glimpse of why that is.




AT EL MORRO (the beach by my house)




Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starting Over

Adjusting to my new town has not been super-suave, but then again, I have only spent 2 full days there. My biggest challenge thus far has to do with the fact that I am pretty much on my own after 7:30 AM when Josefa leaves for her full work day as a school administrator. Unlike a typical Dominican household, where there is always a Doña willing and able to fix meals and the like, living with a woman who has a career outside of the home has made fitting in a little hard. Her husband tends to his rice fields throughout the day and pretty much only makes short stops in the house in order to fry cheese, fry chicken, or to make a chocolaty oatmeal drink. He thinks I am weird and do not understand Spanish when I turn down all of the aforementioned foods. That being said, I found myself walking down the dirt road the first day hoping to be invited in to people’s homes in order to chat and explain why I was living in town. This was easier said than done. Most scowled at me and did not invite me in. The local hairdresser (a woman with a large blow dryer in her house) did take one look at my unacceptable hair and invited me to let her fix my mane as soon as I deemed it necessary. Basically, she was embarrassed that I was showing my face in public with my unkempt nest and was politely offering me a way to remedy the situation. I thanked her and ended up spending most of the day with her and her husband. We watched CNN Español, ate white rice and fried chicken for lunch, of course drank some afternoon Tang, and had a long conversation about the banana export industry in Monte Christi. All in all it was a great first day.
On Monday I made my way down to the grammar school. Because my new town has never had a volunteer they assumed the only thing I could offer them would be English classes. Talk to any other volunteer and they will tell you that teaching English is a bit of a sticky situation. Most Dominican children want to learn English, but they also believe that this knowledge will spread through osmosis simply by standing near an American for a long enough period of time. Studying, practice, and effort will not be requisite parts of the process. Now, I understand that that is an unfair generalization; there are many Dominicans that do in fact learn English. However, teaching middle schoolers English is not how I want to spend the majority of my Peace Corps service. Visiting with the principle on Monday morning, I was informed that the primary school, grades fifth through eighth, was expecting me to teach their English classes because the “teachers did not know English” and were therefore not currently teaching English. It is a very similar situation to one from my own grammar school when my sixth grade teacher would teach double religion class instead of science because she did not know any science. In order to remedy this situation and walk the fine line of appeasing my new town and not becoming a babysitter at the grammar school, I have decided to offer the school my services in the form of a teacher training class after school hours. Also, I have decided to teach several English classes outside of school that will be open to all community members. I might upset the Principal with my unwillingness to work as an unpaid slave at the school, but hopefully, with time, the community will understand. As of now, I want to save my energy to work on projects that I deem more sustainable and more necessary for the community than teaching an eight year old how to say “Derek Jeter is my favorite baseball player.” Be it latrines, a community garden, a nursery, or environmental education classes, I definitely will have ample projects to keep me busy in my new home.
On the first Tuesday of November, I received a call from the Peace Corps informing me that all volunteers in my region were being consolidated in a hotel in Santiago to wait out the arrival of Tropical Storm Tomas. Having just arrived in my new community it was uncomfortable explaining that I was taking off so soon. For me, it also drove home the reality that no matter how hard I try to live at the level of my community, I will always be different. If an emergency comes up, Peace Corps and the United States government can intervene on my behalf to ensure my safety. This is a luxury that the average campesino will never enjoy. The principal asked if she too was supposed to come with me…I politely said she was welcome to accompany me to Santiago but Peace Corps would not be paying for her hotel room.
That being said, staying at a fairly-fancy hotel with hot water and air conditioning and buffet food was a luxurious change from my vida diaria. However, by day four of consolidation, I was ready to get off the cruise ship. Too much heavy-saucy foods, mixed with too little exercise, mixed with too much free internet and contact with the outside world is a recipe for disaster. We made the most of our experience by venturing out infrequently to play some hoops with some local youngsters who had obviously all been watching the AND 1 video series because I recognized more than one of “Hot Sauces” dance moves. Also, a bunch of volunteers and I played some pick-up soccer on the basketball court. We also kept busy by frequenting the casino at our lovely hotel in order to try and increase our measly wages, which ended for all but one volunteer, in less money than we had before. The Peace Corps budget does not really factor in a gambling cushion in our monthly salary, but at least the cocktails and sandwiches were free at the casino. It was not a total loss.
When we were finally released on Sunday, I headed to the capital to attend a week- long in-service language training. Basically if you left training in May as anything but an advanced speaker, Peace Corps wants to make sure we receive some more help in the language department to avoid offending our communities any more than we do already by wearing Chaco sandals and unbedazzled jeans (a girl asked me if I could even call my jeans jeans because there was no butt bling.) I don’t think I know the answer to that question anymore, at least not in the Republica Dominicana. I found myself meeting and living with yet another host family (I have now lived with five in the DR) in Pantoja, the barrio near our training center on the edge of Santo Domingo. It was a pretty typical meet and greet, I ate dinner while the six year old showed me his break dance moves to club-level blaring raggaeton courtesy of Daddy Yankee while the mother proudly expressed her approval of her son’s dance prowess and even made him rap for me. After dinner she made sure I was content by letting me watch Bad Boys II with her son in the downstairs bedroom. Because it was in English we fast forwarded a lot to watch and re-watch all the action scenes.
I left the capital a day early on Thursday afternoon to meet Laura at the airport in Santiago. I was entertaining my very first visitor!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Moving Day, Cholera, and Soda Pop

The transition to my new site has been…awkward. Last Thursday was a landmark day in my Peace Corps service. As I sipped coffee with my host mother, Mathilde, she made me promise that I would still sell her my new bed at the end of my service, even though I was moving anyway. I felt both disheartened to be leaving such a loving host mother and excited about the change. Mathilde was visibly upset that her self-proclaimed whitest daughter was not going to be living up the street anymore. As the cloudy morning turned to drizzle I could not help but think that the weather was a direct reflection of my mood. Knowing that Mathilde really enjoys my religious metaphors, I comforted her by remarking that even God was crying, in the form of rain, because of my departure.

I am a rather indecisive person who suffers from buyer’s remorse and an irritating tendency to mull over things that cannot be changed; therefore, I was plagued with the thought that I was making a horrible decision. The decision being that I wanted a site change; I thought, ‘what if my new site proved to be “worse” than my current situation?’, ‘what if I had not given my current site enough of a chance, and what if my neighbor Popi was right when he said the reason I felt bored in my old site was because I was lazy and read books all day?’ Goodness gracious. However, when the Peace Corps driver Pedro rumbled down my dirt road in an out-of-place looking Land Rover, I knew the only thing left to do was embrace the change I had set in motion. He was followed by a gaggle of 8-10 neighborhood children wondering if I would gift them any of my possessions before parting from town. There was lots of Clara, ¿pero tu te vas de verdad? Followed by lots of, Si, mi amor. Pedro proved himself to be a proficient mover and had all of my things loaded into the Land Rover within minutes. Meanwhile I flailed around trying to be a good hostess and find something for Pedro to eat for breakfast after he told me he was hungry and inquired about what I had for him.

Driving out of my campo we passed through Capotillo, a small border town with a monument to the “Restauracion” from Espana en 1863. I mentioned to Pedro that there was a monument there and he felt the need that we check it out because he had never been. I felt very much like Pedro and I were on a date as I took pictures of him in the rain at the deserted monument. Priceless. We then proceeded to make our way to my new site in the northwestern province of Monte Christi. Leaving behind the rolling green hills laden with grapefruit, café, oranges, and cacao, less than an hour and a half later we had arrived in the salt marshes of Monte Christi. My new home is a rice and banana growing region: flat, hot, lots of cacti, with mosquitoes that are bolder than most. Pedro and I arrived in the rain. I had visited this pueblo once before, the week prior in order to meet with the “movers and the shakers” of the community, but still did not know if I was supposed to be moving into the home of Josefa or if they had found me a different family to live with. Of course, Josefa was not home when I arrived and her husband looked at me as though this was the first time he had heard that an American was going to be sharing his living quarters. Calling ahead the day before to let them now I was coming should have sufficed, but somehow my arrival failed to come up over dinner the night before between husband and wife. Anyway, I let Carlos know that in fact yes I would be moving into his home. After moving my bed, stove, gas tank, mini-fridge, and suitcase, I put my condiments in the fridge, gave away lots of grapefruits to the gawking children who might never have seen a pale person before, Pedro and I said our goodbyes and left for the capital. It was off to cholera training.
According to Dominican health authorities, cholera has not yet crossed the border into the DR but so far there are at least 300 recorded Haitian deaths due to the outbreak. And in a country such as Haiti where statistical records are not always reliable, one can only assume that that is a low estimate. Both countries share a river, share the same watershed, and neither has any form of water treatment plant. So I think unfortunately it is only a matter of time before cholera rears its ugly head on Dominican soil. The two major Haitian/Dominican markets held twice weekly in Dajabon and Jimani respectively have been closed down. Dominicans are still selling produce but the Haitians are no longer permitted to cross in order to sell or buy. I have also noticed an increase in racial tensions as Haitians are thrown off buses in the ignorant assumption that they are contagious. Referred to as “Haitian diarrhea,” cholera appears to be the newest ammunition in the overt racist banter that I have the misfortune to overhear daily. Learning all about the signs and symptoms of cholera, how to prevent it, and how to treat it, I returned back to my pueblito ready to dole out some truths.

I arrived Saturday night. I walked down my little street and felt the blatant stares and questioning looks of my neighbors imparting the air with certain heaviness. I whiffed the familiar odor of being new and different and smiled to myself at how being a Peace Corps volunteer proffers unlimited opportunities to feel out of place. Much like in the Sesame Street jingle about one of these kids is doing the wrong thing, one of these kids just doesn’t belong, I reveled in my new out-of-place-ness.

Turning down fried cheese and fried salami (a typical Dominican dinner) I requested the safest meal I know that Dominicans can always make for me, a hard-boiled egg. That evening I walked around the streets in order to meet the local colmado owner (a 7-11 type establishment which sells beer and liquor, basically serves as the pueblo/campo grocery store) and Josefa’s sister. We watched part of one of the World Series games at the sister’s home where I was blown away by how large and nice the television was. Not only that, but the family had cable! Having grown up without cable, I don’t think I did a very convincing job hiding my excitement at the prospect of flipping through 300 plus channels of pure Latino/American entertainment. However, in my first three days of observations, I have found that many of the families have satellite tv, multiple cell phones (still have not figured out why more than one per person is needed) and more fly looking shoes than should be legal, but they are also without potable water, use varying levels of hygienic latrines, have electricity about half the day, and have no waste management system so trash is piled in the streets. Welcome to the developing world.

On the walk back to my new home that evening Josefa bought me a soda, flavor: red. Not wanting to be rude but also wanting to make it known that red drink is not my beverage of choice at 10 pm, I politely told Josefa that I mainly just drink water, coffee, and the occasional juice. Big mistake. Juice in my new town equals Tang. Josefa must have told the neighbors because the next day after Josefa left to teach school in a neighboring pueblo, I was offered more Tang than could possibly be normal from various neighbors. Drink up I thought, it is time to integrate and attempt to fit in, even if my stomach and health has to pay the price.
The differences between my last campo and my new pueblito have been pretty stark. My older rural area was definitely easier on the eyes, greener and much cleaner (mainly owing to the sparse population) but my new pueblo exudes youthful energy, not to mention lots of blaring sub-woofers and tricked-out mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters. I finally feel like I am in the Dominican Republic.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In between homes

Peace Corps service thus far has been a nomadic adventure rife with extremes. When surrounded by fellow volunteers enjoying a frosty beer looking out at the beautiful Caribbean I cannot help but think I’m on Spring Break 2010.  But the next day I might be digging in the dirt with twenty Dominican farmers planting cacao and discussing the yucca crop.  Peace Corps certainly is filled with extremes and sometimes I struggle with how to navigate the turbid waters separating my life in the campo from my life in the capital.  I feel that I have spent the better part of my first seven months packing and unpacking my camping backpack as I cart myself around the country. I am proud to call three women my Donas or mothers in the country and will soon be meeting a fourth maternal figure in my new community. 

Having spent the last five days in Santo Domingo it never ceases to amaze me how stark the differences are between the haves and have-nots in this country. I left my remote campo on Thursday morning white-knuckling on a motorcycle in the pre-dawn darkness to come to the capital.  Leaving behind dusty dirt roads, lazy days, latrines, and frequent blackouts, I am always both excited and overwhelmed to arrive in the capital in an air-conditioned Nascar-piloted Caribe Tours bus where Pizza Hut, IKEA, movie theaters, and the American Embassy offer endless guilty pleasures (but no, I have not yet been to IKEA).  Everything can be had on this island (even yerba matte and hazelnut extract) but not within the means of the salary of a Peace Corps volunteer. One of the goals of Peace Corps is to engage in cultural exchange by living at the same level as the people in your community. Most days living this way only seems natural, because everyone else is doing it.  Also, human beings are extremely adaptable if they want to be; after a week it seemed plausible that I had been using a latrine and washing my lettuce with bleach to kill the water-born parasites my whole life.  No biggie. But sometimes going from the campo routine to the civilized capital can be a little too much, too fast for this rural gringa. Take for instance this past week.  I was blessed with the unfathomable treat of staying at the HILTON in Santo Domingo with fellow volunteer Jenn and her sweet and gracious mother who adopted me for their vacation in the capital.  My normal digs in the capital is the unsavory volunteer pension, which could be the cause of my constant losing battle against Scabies.  Its not prison, but sleeping eight to a sweltering room is no pleasure cruise. However, it does offer American television in the lounge and free potable water, so normally that’s more than a volunteer could want.  All that changed on Friday. Entering the lobby of the towering, sparkling, luxurious Hilton I was unable to control my nervous giggles as a sharply dressed Dominican man offered me a washcloth and a bottle of complimentary water.  I think he knew by my oversized backpack and dirty feet that I was not paying for the room.  I knew this was going to be good. Making my way to the 11th floor suite with a view out onto the Caribbean ocean and a king size bed with enough down pillows to confuse me, I had to remind myself to breathe and remain calm. I took a hot shower and enjoyed camembert, a steak salad, and malbec vino for dinner. God bless Jenn’s parents.

On Saturday I went to Isla Catalina for a scuba dive trip.  Having just recently been certified, this was my first dive as a “certified diver.” I was slightly worried about the state of my GI system after such a decadent meal and my body was confused why it was filled with food other than peanut butter and bananas (one of my favorite campo dinners).  Arriving at the dock an hour and a half nauseating bus ride later, I convinced myself that being in the water would certainly rid me of my escalating queasiness. Silly me.  Luckily I had paid attention during the safety videos and remembered that it was possible to throw up under water and continue breathing by purging your regulator or breathing apparatus of “unwanted” materials.  The upside of such a harrowing experience is that I got front row seats as all the tropical fish flocked to my face for feeding time. On the second dive I felt well enough or stubborn enough to attempt another dive, thinking the worst was behind me. Silly me. Once again I fed the fish.  Despite the need to spend lots of energy suppressing vomit and remembering to breathe, I was still able to enjoy the dives immensely.  Nothing is in vain when you get to see a puffer fish all puffed up inches from your face. Yay for scuba diving!

Having had a low grade fever and nausea for several days, I decided to stay in the capital to get looked at by the Doctor on Monday.  My symptoms pointed to Dengue Fever, but my blood work came back negative. The current prognosis is parasites.  I have been parasite free for about two months so I should have known that I was due for the return of mis amigitas.  Therefore, in my decrepit state, Peace Corps is paying for me to stay in a swanky hostel with hot water and Wi Fi.  Too bad whenever such luxuries are available it is hard to fully enjoy it.  But I’m still smiling as I sit watching “The Biggest Loser” on NBC in an air-conditioned room. Going back to the campo is not going to be so easy this time.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

trying out this "blog" thing

It seems that procrastinating is certainly part of my nature as I sit down to write my first blog entry a good eight months into my Peace Corps service.  But hey, sometimes although I'm a little late in the game, I still showed up and put on my uniform (ok, hopefully no more sports metaphors for a while).  That being said, I've decided to start keeping a blog because I think it is a much better forum for sharing my experiences with a wider range of people than my current system of emailing. Great! So this is my first time keeping a blog, and I'm not really sure how one goes about keeping a blog, but here goes nothing...

Trying to sum up my past experiences from two months of training, to swearing-in, to the first five months at my site seems like an exercise in futility.  Therefore, I will begin in the here and now. My current community is located por la frontera, in the northwestern province of Dajabon, about a 7 km walk to the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  As a community enviromental development educator (CEDE) I was solicited by a local group of farmer's to help with reforestation.  In the Dominican Republic there are also volunteers in health, youth, IT, water/sanitation, and business.  As an enviroment volunteer, projects range from cultivating community gardens, nurseries, forming environmental youth groups, improved cook stove construction, teaching organic agriculture, etc, all depending on ones individual community's needs.  The Dominican Republic is overwhelmingly beautiful, but unfortunately, environmental awareness and "green" practices have not kept pace with the industrialization of this developing island nation.  In other words, something I still cannot get used to is the all-to-common practice of littering, sin verguenza (without shame).  There is really no stigma whatsoever placed on eating a candy bar, bag of chips, or any other colmado snack and tossing the wrapper into the wind without batting an eye. This is simply what is done and therefore, the streets, especially in the larger cities, are filled with trash.  So although the past few years have seen an awakening in general awareness that the environment needs to be protected, there is still a disconnect between that knowledge and then what is actually done in practice.  Enter nagging Peace Corps Environment Volunteer always quick to teach local children that no, the ground is not a trash receptacle, at least, when I'm around.  

I was placed on the border in a "cluster" with two other volunteers (a married couple) a mere 20 minute walk down the dusty road from me.  Despite both being solicited by different farmer's groups, upon arrival, I learned that the group that solicited me had decided to disband and join forces with the farmers in Matt and Lydia's town (the marrieds).  That being said, three volunteers had the privilege of working with one organization, which proved to be too many volunteers for too little work.  After sticking it out since May, I finally spoke with my boss and explained that perhaps there were too many of us in such a small area, not to mention, I was a little tired as being viewed not as an individual volunteer, but a third wheel.  SO, I will be getting a site change this coming week! I am extremely excited and nervous to be starting over again with the requisite challenges of getting to know a new work situation, a new host family, and a new community. However, I know it will be for the best because at the moment I am feeling very frustrated by my lack of work and dearth of willing community support or interest in any of my proposed projects. 

Although I have not yet visited my new site, I will be going out to meet the school principal and my host mother this coming week. I will still be on the border except I will now be in the most northwest province of Montichristi, often referred to as the "Wild West" of the DR. It is rather sparsely populated, desert-like, and appears to be a lawless land (just kidding, sort of).  It is also home to a beautiful beach called El Morro which is never crowded, probably owing to its remoteness. According to my program director, this community has never had a volunteer so I look forward to showing them the strange ways of gringos and actually being called by name instead of a laundry-list of past volunteers.  I mean honestly, my town only had to learn one new name and I still got called Margaret or Laura on the regular. I believe my new assignment will be more youth oriented which I am looking forward to because the kids always show up for events, even when it's cloudy out.  Also, they are more forgiving of my confusing Spanish and are easily bribed with lollipops!  

Kids at the Regional Brigada Verde Youth Conference for the Cibao

The only road in my community
Here are some random photos:
My muchachos clearing land for the community garden.
My host brother Yefri is on the left.


The coolest form of transport in the Campo: A trike motorcycle.