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
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 Santo Domingo 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.