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 MaƱanita” 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)