Thursday, January 20, 2011

Coming Home

My seventeen-day Holiday vacation was just about as good as I could have imagined. Loving family, delicious food, hot showers, plush carpets, basically everything I have been pining for in the Caribbean all came true at once. And precisely because home was so good, readjusting to my life as a Peace Corps volunteer was that much more of a challenge. The showers suddenly felt cold, whereas before they had felt refreshing, the heat suddenly felt oppressive where as it had only been a mild discomfort before my sojourn home. Never before have I appreciated America so much. However, at the same time, I felt nostalgic for certain Dominican comforts: blaring bachata, syrupy sweet passionfruit juice, rice and beans, people stating the obvious, wild street dogs and children prancing about in their birthday suits. It was refreshing to realize that part of me is now caught between these two cultures, inextricably so. Although I complain about the heat and the relentless mosquitoes and the extremely relaxed attitude towards work, I cannot deny my love for the people, their hope in the face of adversity and hardship, and their brightly painted houses, not to mention their God-given ability to rhythmically shake their behinds to the music and make it look good.

I could not help missing home as I sat waiting in the Miami terminal surrounded by seemingly-affluent Dominican families and their infectious banter. Boarding the plane, the fact that I was traveling alone was noticed by more than one sympathetic mother. A few Dominicans even questioned why I was flying alone and when I described that I live in the DR as a volunteer their faces betrayed shock and pity instead of understanding. As I have said before, family is everything to a Dominican, it means far more than career or social standing, it is a source of pride and close family ties are cultivated daily. The plane ride from Miami to Santo Domingo is a mere two hours but in that time I could not help but think how far away I already was from so many cultural and material comforts, especially my family and friends. However, when the plane touched down on the Dominican airstrip and the passengers all clapped and whooped with palpable relief and excitement to be home, I could not help but smile and clap along. Dominicans have a certain something, una vaina (a thing) perhaps, that does not allow an introspective American to be sullen for long. Try as you might, you are swept along in their alegria, in their cojalo suave (take it easy) attitude, and in their brotherly love (which at times is a little much for a rubia, but most of the time I think they mean well).

The ride from the airport to the Peace Corps office was equally eventful and full of Dominican flair. A cab driver that gives volunteers un buen precio named Wilson, picked me up with two of his cousins in tow. As we raced along the autopista, swerving in and out of the lanes and dodging motorcycles there was lively talk about how much the cousins enjoyed their Christmas holiday and the wanted to hear all about American Christmas traditions. They were a little disappointed to hear that we don’t stay up all night on Christmas eve drinking rum and dancing bachata like they do. At any rate, it was really nice to have a familiar face greet me at the airport, even if he kept me waiting for an hour and a half.

The following day I made my way to a suburb of Santiago with all my luggage in tow. I was signed up to participate in a bio-sand water filter training. I took interest in this course, which is offered by the local chapter of the Rotary Club, after seeing that so many people in my community do not have the money to buy filtered water from the colmado (mini-mart) and convince themselves that the aqueduct water is not responsible for their stomach ailments. Unfortunately upset stomach and diarrhea are common nuisances like bug bites and are therefore dealt with as something that is a natural part of daily life. The three day training was comprised of technical training in how to assemble and maintain the filter, as well as instruction on how to educate the families that would be receiving the filters and how to turn this knowledge into a successful, sustainable project in one’s community. Although the filters, which are no more than a large plastic conical receptacle with a tube and several layers of sand inside, have some serious cons (moving the filter ruins it, maintenance usually means replacement, and they do not filter out chemicals) they are, on the whole, pretty amazing. Composed of different levels of fine sand, small gravel, and bigger rocks, the two inches of water that sits on top of the sand creates a bio layer that devours and filters out 96 % of the bacteria and viruses that are present in the tap water. Pretty neat if you ask me. Because I attended the training, I am allowed to request 40 filters from the Rotary Club in Santiago for my community. Sounds easy enough right? I wish. Like with all development work that aims to be sustainable, I will need to enlist the support of a local community group that agrees that this project is something good for the community. Without this backing, it is just another crazy rant by the strange gringa that lives in the neighborhood.

My biggest challenge thus far in my new town has been building the trust of the community members. Never having dealt with a Peace Corps volunteer before many are jointly amused and bewildered by my presence among them. It would be an understatement to say they do not know what to make of me. Boys as young as five have already told me that if I am not willing to marry them than I need to find a friend for them so they can achieve the self-proclaimed goal of so many Dominicans, an American VISA! I get stares, I get pitying smiles, I get gifts of tropical fruit, but so far I have not gotten what I truly want, an organized group of people that want to work alongside of me. However, I have to keep reminding myself that this will not happen overnight and achieving tangible projects is only a small part of the interchange that occurs between volunteer and community. For me, the daily inability to make a little list and check things off as I achieve them has been a valuable lesson, albeit an extremely frustrating one. I have been raised in a society that instills and values goal-setting and personal accomplishments. Of course I want to help my community with as many tangible improvements as possible (a library and litaracy project, water filters, new latrines…) but I cannot do it on my own. Sure, I could probably write a bunch of grants, hire out some local contractors and get my chacos dirty, but at the end of the day, if the community does not feel like they had a deeply personal hand in the changes that were made, it will not be worthy change. Empowering the community to help themselves is what sustainable change is all about. But I cannot help feeling the tick of my two year service clock and my ever-present desire to achieve something. And it certainly does not help when a rogue community member will approach me in the street and ask why I have not started any work yet.

However, there does seem to be the scent of progress in the air. I have been trying to motivate and reorganize the local chapter of the Centro de Madres. Dominican women, when banded together, are able to achieve remarkable things for their children and their community. I was told that the women’s group in my community used to do quite a bit. They made cakes, tortas, and other confections to sell, they earned enough to buy three sewing machines to sew and make tablecloths, napkins, and the like, and they helped have a brand new primary school built for the community. In other words, when these ladies wanted to work together, they were a powerful force. In yesterday’s meeting, I was shocked and surprised to see more than 20 women show up, and on time! My previous meetings had depressing turnouts of five or six people. With this number we would finally be able to vote on a president, vice president, etc. and that is just what we did. Although the elections did not exactly pan out as I had expected; we picked the president’s name out of a hat and she squealed with anxiety and shook her head in fear of the responsibility this charge might hold. Now if that is not stepping up to the plate then I do not know what is.

This past Wednesday I called a special meeting to meet with my new dirigente (or leaders of my women’s group). The meeting went pretty well until people started showing up pissed off that they had not been picked as part of this special group. Also, this group of women seemed to think that they had their filter already secured, already in the bag because they were helping with the project. However, for me, because we only have 40 filters and one of those is being donated to the school, I have decided that only families with young children in the house will be eligible for the first round of water filters. This statement sent the women into an uproar. There are certain women on my committee who are grandmothers and no longer have young children in the house. In so many words they expressed to me that what is the point of helping with the project if they were not going to be getting something out of it. So much for my faith in altruism. However, all in all, the meeting went fairly smoothly. I invited the doctor from the neighborhood clinic to give a lecture focusing on proper hygiene, hand washing, and the importance of clean water. The families that come to this lecture on Monday as well as a future talk given by me will be put into the pool of those who can receive a filter.

In other big news, I have adopted a beautiful and affectionate dog. Her name is Blue and she is quite the celebrity in my community. A fellow volunteer that is finishing up her service wanted to make sure that Blue, who she rescued from the street and cared for for two years, goes to a fellow volunteer and a good home. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional small house dog, dogs are seen to have a solely pragmatic role in the Dominican Republic: they are protectors against theft. Most are street dogs that fight throughout the night, get fed just enough to keep them hungry and alert for an intruder, and get kicked and abused. Now you might imagine what kind of spectacle I make walking a dog throughout town. Why would you walk a dog people ask me? Blue and I are usually followed by as many as 10 barking, yapping, growling street dogs as we walk down the street. We are neither unobtrusive nor quiet. Most people come out of their homes to see what all the fuss is about and to greet us with bewildered smiles. Also, I’ve had quite a few people ask if I can give them my dog when I leave because she is so healthy, fat, and strong. When I tell them she is fixed they usually rescind their request. At the very least, Blue gives me something to look forward to everyday and has given my life a bit of routine that I was yearning for. We go on at least two walks a day through the rice fields. Only men work out in the rice fields so there are more than a few stares when I walk Blue there daily, especially when five or six kids come along.

Work is currently taking place on the house I will be moving into next door to my host family. We are building a new latrine, a place for me to bathe, and fixing the roof and two of the doors that have fallen off. It is quite a little hovel: it lacks water, sinks, and counters and has seven foot ceilings. However, it has character, it has room for my hammock, and it will therefore be perfect for Blue and I.