Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One Year in Country

This past month, on March 4th, I celebrated the momentous occasion of my one year anniversary of arriving in the Dominican Republic. The year has brought small victories, countless frustrations, many new friendships, and above-all, experiencias nuevas. As projects in my site begin to take shape and my days are increasingly filled with commitments, meetings, and new routines, I realize how quickly this next year will fly by. It is difficult to avoid comparing my work and my progress to my fellow training group. While the majority of my fellow volunteers are now starting projects, grant money in hand, I am still working on gaining the trust of community leaders and building the friendships that will make future work possible. I try to avoid comparing myself to other volunteers because every community is so different and what can be accomplished in one’s site is so dependent on the people, their attitudes, and the infrastructure already in place.

I have been asked recently to describe a “typical” day in my campo. Although no day is ever “typical” I am starting to develop some semblance of a routine. I usually wake up around 7 am to a pack of wild dogs fighting in the street outside of my house. I make coffee and take Blue on a walk either around the neighborhood or out to the rice fields. I consider these walks the most precious parts of my day because I can think and contemplate my day in a relatively natural setting. Even though large trucks zoom past me on the gravel road, I feel like I can breathe a bit deeper by getting away from the constant yelling and laughing of children and neighbors on my street.

This past month, I have been working on installing the Bio-Sand water filters. After walking Blue, I make a quick breakfast and set out to a neighbor’s house to install a filter. Even though I give the family advance notice that I will be coming by to install their filter, it always seems to catch them off guard. It is a rare family that actually thinks about where in their home they would like to put the filter, has cleaned out the inside, and has the necessary water ready. My communities’ water situation is currently a bit of a “lucha” or struggle. Our aqueduct is controlled by a neighboring community who shuts it on or off according to their needs. That being said, our water supply gets turned on about twice a week. Because we live on a flat, desert landscape, the water arrives as no more than a trickle out of the pvc pipes. Therefore, in order to fill up a plastic tank or bucket, a “bomba” or electric pump must be hooked up to the spout. In order to do this, there must be electricity, something we have about eight hours a day. You can imagine the inevitable frustration when there is luz (or electricity) but no agua or vice versa, agua but no luz. That being said, the wealthier families in town have quite an arsenal of large plastic tanks. Many have tinacos or large tanks they put on top of their homes to have gravity-fed water out of the spout, others have cisternas or 50 gallon or so cement wells next to their homes. However, I, like my Haitian neighbors and poorer Dominican friends, have one large bucket that I rely on my neighbors to fill up for me when the water and electricity gods decide to conspire at the same time to work. You can imagine, my neighbor and landlord fills up her numerous water receptacles first and often, the water runs out before my sole tanque gets filled. This reduces me to the humble position of asking my neighbors bucket-by-bucket for water. And now, I ain't too proud to beg. I use this water to bathe, wash dishes, wash Blue, and mop the house. However, this situation has made me realize just how little water one needs to bathe and do dishes. After a nasty case of ring worm broke out on my legs I have now been adding bleach to my bathing water as the “treated” water that arrives from the aqueduct is not always treated to the standard of “sensitive skin” (tiene piel sencillo) laughs my neighbor. I wholeheartedly agree with her.

In order to install these filters, about thirty gallons of water are needed to fill the filter, wash the sand numerous times to rid it of its clay, and so forth. No matter how many times I tell people this in advance, they are always reluctant to let me use their precious water when I arrive at their house. More often than not, I am told to return a different day when there is more water. You can imagine the difficulty when I have forty families telling me to come back a different day, start with someone else they always tell me, leave me as the last one.

So, in order to appease the powers that be, I have mistakenly begun giving English classes at the grammar school. I teach fifth through eighth grade. The problem lies in the fact that teaching English is mandatory for fifth grade and above and yet, none of the teachers are qualified, they simply do not know English. The text books are plain silly, they are far too advanced for the level of the students and most of the kids fill in the answers without ever learning the English. The students are supposed to have English twice a week; however, when I inquired where we were in the text book, all of the teachers pointed me to page one even though we are halfway through the semester. I have spoken with the principal about the issue of having me act as the only English teacher, to which she gets frustrated and tells me this is my job…even though as a community environmental volunteer, it clearly is not. Because I am not a paid teacher and I often have things come up during the week that force me to cancel class, I feel it is a disservice to the children to have me be the only teacher. To this, the teachers reply, well we weren’t teaching it anyway, so having you is better than nothing. I am very frustrated by the situation because not only are the children uninterested in studying, I am unable to achieve discipline in the classroom because the teachers see my presence as an opportunity to go drink soda in the shade, literally. I continually tell the principal that I am willing to give a teacher-training course, so that when I leave in a year, the teachers will be better equipped to start doing their job, but no one is interested. Class begins with me trying to give a lesson, usually interrupted with kids asking me what “I love you Baby” translates to. We translate lots of movie quotes, inappropriate language they’ve heard on TV, and romantic one liners; I feel like I am wasting my time, and the teachers continually tell me that I am doing such a great job! I plan on finishing out the semester to say I gave it my all, but in all honesty, it is not a sustainable project, the children refuse to do more than copy what I teach, they will not participate or study, and the teachers offer no support.

On a more positive note, I have found five teenage girls that are actually interested in learning English. With them, we have formed the traditional student-teacher contract: I will teach, and they will attempt to learn. We decided to start meeting three times a week in the afternoon. They go to high school in the morning and have the afternoons free. I am having them pay for the textbook I made and copied for them and hopefully this will be a more positive teaching experience for me. We meet at one of the girls’ houses and because many of them are interested in losing weight, they have started walking with me and Blue on our afternoon walks in the rice fields.

In other news, this past weekend, I took two teenage boys to a environmental youth conference on the peninsula of Samana. It was about 6 hours away. I gave two charlas or lectures at the conference. One was on beach ecology and the other was on AIDS and HIV prevention. All fifteen volunteers that attended brought two muchachos from their respective communities. Highlights of the weekend were snorkeling, bonfire with Smores, and a dance party. Next week I am off to a weeklong USAID conference where I will be representing Peace Corps. The conference will focus on how to make environmentally friendly projects in the Dominican republic. We will see how pertinent it is to my own work but at least it will be a nice change from my normal routine.

Will put up some photos soon!