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.