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.