Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sweaty Sunny Days and Dark Sweaty Nights

Ah summer in the campo…Mothers bring their undisciplined children to stay with Grandma , children are finally liberated from their strenuous three and half hour school day, the sun kills any lingering ambition to motivate host country nationals to do something outside of their plastic chair, and the mosquitoes morph into giant specimens overnight, it truly is a special time of the year. The moments in my day where I turn around in circles in the oven that is my bungalow and struggle what to do with myself in the heat are increasing, those hours have turned into the hours between 10 AM and 6 PM. The heat makes me sluggish, irritable, and very very sweaty. It also makes me extremely sensitive to Dominicans very loud way of talking, aka yelling and screaming to each other from their respective porches.

One blaring difference I have noticed between the Dominican Republic and the States are the parenting styles. As Americans we prefer free-range poultry while here, my island friends and neighbors raise nothing but free-range children. Children as young as three wander the streets from sun-up until long after sun-down only stopping at home when hunger compels them to visit the rice pot. Some of the older children organize baseball games but for the most part, there is a lot of idleness, littering, and throwing rocks at chickens and dogs. Unfortunately, as one of the only adults in town that engages the children with eye contact and questions in a non-aggressive tone of voice, I have hordes of children at my house all day every day. There is one little terror in particular that I have had to bar from entering the house. Oliver is staying with grandma for the summer, he has a very prominent stutter and has not learned how to talk yet without yelling (which, judging by the society, he might never learn). He also continually asks me why I talk strange, look strange, and if my dog will bite him. I am almost positive I am the first gringa he has come into contact with in his four years of life. I now say that yes, my dog loves the taste of little boys named Oliver, but this has not deterred him from stamping out my flowers and throwing candy wrappers in my water tank. It is going to be a long summer for sure.

My last week was spent trying to get some Dominican friends excited about starting a youth group but everyone keeps saying it is far too hot to do anything but sip sugary-sweet coffee and talk about how hot it is. Therefore, I took advantage of the free time (of which I am never short on) to do some baking and plant a garden. The baking has been a big success as it gets me a little “street credit” with the doƱas. So the Americana does know how to do some things they say. Banana bread and oatmeal raisin cookies have been big hits, although everyone is confused why the treats are not more sweet, think: so sugary that the granules cannot incorporate. I dovetail this complaint with the conjecture of why so many Dominicans have developed Type II diabetes: I believe that is what we call a teaching moment.

Since I started baking and because I walk my dog daily, I am seen as the epitome of good health here in Judea Nueva, a bit like the island version of Richard Simmons. Although I still get called fat each and every day I have to remind myself that that is a compliment in this society, sometimes. Hopefully my women’s group will enjoy a cooking/nutrition class this summer. Dominicans do take a lot of pride in their cuisine. To my outsider’s opinion, it is bland, overly salty, and overly greasy. That sounds harsh and that does not mean I have not had delicious Dominican food and I definitely crave my MSG filled beans and rice every day. However, a scary number of Dominicans are developing high blood pressure and diabetes and it is a direct result from their horrendous dietary habits. For me, the most tragic part of this whole scenario is the abundance of delicious fruits, vegetables, and tropical delights that thrive on this diverse island. The island supports strawberries, mangos, avocados, bananas, tamarind, papaya, pineapple, legumes, cocao, coffee, spinach, beets, peppers, tomatoes, coconuts…and the delicious list goes on. However, most of the national dishes do not revolve around fruits and vegetables; rather, the national dishes all seems to be descendents of slave food brought over from Africa. Lots of stews with starchy tubers, rice and beans, boiled platano with fried cheese, etc. The average Dominican is not friends with spice; rather, they prefer los amigos MSG, sugar, and soybean oil to flavor their food. Perhaps this diet worked fine fifty years ago; however, like we have seen in the states, the culture is increasingly sedentary and people can no longer get away with this horrible nutrition. Hardly anyone walks. If one is going five minutes away, they will take their motorcycle; walking is deemed below them. Haitians walk and Dominicans ride their motos…

In other news, my women’s group (who so endearingly named the club after me: Santa Clara) has signed up for a domestic sewing class. The course is provided free of charge by a Dominican technical institute; it is scheduled to take place over the course of three months and at the end of the course we will each know how to make a pair of pants, a dress, skirt, and blouse! Personally I was pretty excited for our group to take the baking and pastry class but the women wanted to take this course instead. That being said, so far, our first weekend of meetings was fraught with problems. The instructor, a short, white-haired man who lives in Montecristi and devoted much of his life to working in a sweat shop, will be teaching the course. Because our women’s group is banned from using the multi-purpose room at the grammar school because of certain unsavory outbursts that happened in the presence of the children and teachers at one of our raucous meetings a few months ago, we have been relegated to meeting in a very inadequate one room tin roofed pre-school. There are only about 15 seats and they are all seats with attached desks built for children under the age of 7. The class is supposed to take place from 2-6 every Saturday and Sunday. I will say it is nice not being the one in charge of running the meeting; rather, I get to sit back and watch the women not listen and be rude to someone other than me.

It is eye-opening to witness the lack of book education of many of these women even though all of them have at least an eighth grade education. We spent one hour of the first class having the women practice filling in on the attendance sheet their name in small boxes. The instructor explained that the important thing is to sign your name the same way every time. The box to sign is extremely small so it was recommended to everyone to just sign their first name. However, like most Latinos, Dominicans are very attached to all four of their names and it was painful to watch woman after woman fail at the simple task of picking just one name to sign; rather, they tried and failed to squeeze in at least 2 of their names. The funniest thing about all this is that most women do not even know the real names of people they have grown up next to for fifty-plus years. Almost every Dominican I know has an “apodo” or nickname that everyone knows them by: Coca, Blanca, Morena, Ola…to name a few. Combine the formality of having a multi-part name just right with the fact that no one actually knows each other’s real name, and you run into some big problems. For instance, the other day I was sitting out on the sidewalk with a neighbor “cogiendo fresco” (getting cool) beneath a shade tree, a popular way to spend the hot hours outside of the house so as to not slowly roast one’s self under a tin roof, when a man came by on a motorcycle with a letter. He was looking for the address of the recipient. The three neighbors I was sitting with began asking everyone within earshot who this person was, they all surmised that this might be the correct name of Pipa who lives on the corner, or perhaps it was Lula. Mind you, all these women have lived on the same street with the same neighbors for their entire lives, yet none of them had any clue who their good friend and neighbor was (or what her birth name is), nor did anyone know their actually house number. I was just happy to not be the man on the motorcycle looking for the woman as he was sent from house to house inquiring after a phantom. I ate the rest of my tamarind ice pop and smiled to myself at the funny problems created by this society: which is an amalgam of formal rules and informal realities.

Another example of this is the formality and informality of dress and comportment. For instance, men and women in their homes will often lift their shirts up after eating, walk around barefoot, and wear ridiculous clothes in the house but if they go into town they will suddenly pull out very nice clothes, make sure their hair is just so, and put on very nice shoes. I on the other hand live and work in clothing that can go from beach to meeting, always trying to look less sweaty than the person next to me. In the same vein, when you go to the beach most Dominicans will bathe with all of their clothes on, even though they are wearing a bathing suit; however, in the street they walk around with bare-assed booty shorts and extremely low-cut leaving-nothing-to –the-imagination shirts: and I’m the one who gets weird looks at the beach for swimming in a bikini. The frustrations are endless and hilarious.

I am happy to say that we are expanding the Bio-Sand water filter project to two neighboring communities as well as doing a second round in my community. With two new helpers that went to the training workshop I am trying to pass off a lot of the responsibility to my counterparts, a 17 year old and 21 year old Dominican men/boys. Unfortunately, I still find myself planning the meetings and at our first meeting yesterday we waited twenty minutes for the boys to show up and then one of them was too embarrassed to say anything. That being said, the 21 year old, Edward, is extremely dynamic (he proselytizes at the Evangelical Church in town) and doing a charla with him was fun. It is always helpful to use local counterparts to do the teaching and I think usually more successful. I tend to worry about “dumbing down” the information too much, but when a Dominican gives the charla they always state very obvious things that nonetheless need to be said. Not to mention, people tend to love meetings where they are not learning new information but simply confirming things they already know. For me, the success will be seen with the change of habit: every kid and adult in town can tell me when they should be washing their hands; however, spending lots of time at people’s homes has enlightened me to the reality of the extreme disconnect between knowledge and practice. I do acknowledge that change will not happen overnight, but is a long and tedious process.

We will be doing four lectures or charlas for each community. The charlas focus on improving hygiene and general health practices in the home, how to maintain and care for the filter, etc. Yesterday, my group of about 50 women and children in attendance had a great time with our educational game: spider web of contamination. We had signs with words like poop, fly, hands, water, mouth, etc. and we had volunteers come up and hold the signs and then attach strings to see the chain of events that lead to people becoming sick with GI issues; this knowledge is very important right now as the cholera outbreak is spreading on the island and we have also just entered el tiempo de moscas! (time of the flies)..

In other news, I am heading to the capital tomorrow for a doctor’s appointment, an English Teacher’s Conference and the annual Lowenbrau Half-Marathon! I am a little concerned about my level of fitness going into this physical challenge (especially because doing anything other than sipping a beer poolside in June Caribbean heat is next to impossible), but I think it will be a fun event and I am just hoping to finish and do not mind if I have to walk. I have needed a reason to start moving again. Training for the race this past month has involved getting up at 5 am (before the sun is too hot) and running out into the rice fields. It has been beautiful to watch the sunrise as I am greeted by countless Haitian men giving me the fist pump of encouragement as they meander to their work in the rice and banana fields.

I mentioned to one of my neighbors that I will be participating in the competition in the capital because people started questioning me as to the purpose of my early morning sweat routine. He was so excited about me entering in this race and was convinced that I would not only be on television but that I would win the race. He went on to tell me that he learned some fool-proof method for winning from a movie (I think it was one of the Rocky movies: big hits among Dominicans along with anything by Jackie Chan)…start out slow and then when all my competitors collapse to the ground I will burn by them…he acted this all out while about 10 people waited to buy things from him at his convenience store. I mentioned that I doubt all of the competitors will collapse from the race, but he is convinced I will be on television Sunday night and I am supposed to give a shout-out to all my friends in Judea Nueva. Besides, they say, How could an Americana lose?

The Christmas pig in my backyard

Banana Bread in my new Dutch Oven! Let the baking begin...

Happy Baker

Planting and Preparing the soil with my one and only tool: Machete

The Garden being protected from chickens with banana fronds

My twin and I on Peace Corps Prom night (Dominicans and Americans alike can not tell us apart)

Blue with her foot bandaged after self-inflicted cuts from biting her rash

My neighbor burning her trash in front of my letrine despite my daily reminders that this is bad for the environment and for our health

Summer Baseball Tournament in Judea Nueva: I was asked to throw the first pitch to kick off the community tournament.

My host mother (on left) and the principal saying prayers for a safe and friendly competition

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ma y Pa en La Republica Dominicana!

Mom and Dad stylin in the capital!

It was surreal to be standing amongst Dominicans watching the arrival gate in anticipation for two familiar faces. A little over a year ago I was walking out those same doors scared out of my mind for what lay ahead of me. My fears back then were rather different. Was I supposed to be speaking Spanish with everyone, did my fellow volunteers like me, were we going to have to do more skits at the airport like we did in Washington DC, did I pack enough tank tops, were my feet always going to be this swollen for the next two years? Waiting for my parents to come out of the gate I reflected on how much my fears and anxieties have changed with the past year, they have not diminished, I’m still working on that, but they have certainly shifted. Now I was thinking, am I still motivated enough, do I spend too much time alone in my house watching Glee and Modern Family, do I eat enough Dominican food, are my projects going to be sustainable, what grad school should I apply to, am I enjoying every moment as much as I should be…I no longer worry about my Spanish or my clothes or my friendships with volunteers, I worry about the bigger picture and whether or not I will be proud of my service or if I’ve given up a lot of my drive and chosen to spend countless hours in my house sweating, reading for pleasure, and cooking.

But as my parents adorably came through the doors with their functional and compact CamelBak backpacks I snapped out of my spacey day dream and couldn’t help but smile noticing that they were flanked by high maintenance Dominicans, dressed to the nines with three inch stilettos and outfits that are normally reserved for prostitutes. Welcome to paradise Mom and Dad. We hopped in our zippy Chevy Aveo and took on Santo Domingo. Owing to my Dad’s prowess as a NYC cab driver, he already had the requisite skills to survive the lawless streets of the DR, I just had to teach him a few things about the frequent use of the horn. Whether you are saying whats-up to a friend, warning a motorcycle you are running him into a ditch, or letting someone know you are passing, you honk; the horn is utilized in any and all driving situations, it is used liberally and without hesitation. I would say the most difficult thing about driving in the DR is the motorcycles. They have no concern for bodily injury and pull in front of you without looking. The idea is that it is the cars and trucks obligation to avoid crushing the motorcycle and this could be why I know a fair number of people without the use of both legs. But we survived without killing anyone and without being killed! Go gringos!

We spent the first night in Santo Domingo at a lovely artsy bed and breakfast owned by a couple from Switzerland. I could not believe I was in Santo Domingo as we sipped Presidente cerveza bien-fria (super cold) on the rooftop. For me, Santo Domingo is loud, abrasive, fun, and generally uncomfortable. All that changes when you are not sleeping in a five dollar a night pension. The next morning we set off on our grand adventure to visit Judea, the wonderful border town that I call home. We arrived around 3 pm and set out to visit a few neighbors and friends of mine. Everyone was extremely excited to meet my parents and sit with us. Most of the time at each house was spent discussing how we should stay longer because no matter how long you stay, it is never enough. My friends in town have already started worrying about the fact that I will be leaving in a year and I how I should marry a local so I don’t ever have to leave. ..umm, something tells me I’ll be ready to go home in a year or so, not that I don’t love the people and the culture, but I would probably go crazy living in the campo for eternity. I was hesitant about whether or not I should give my parents the real campo experience and have them stay at my house, as there are plenty of hotels in the nearby town. However, they said they were game and I thought it would be fun. So we made scrambled eggs, drank wine we had bought in the city, and sat around by candle light. They also had the added treat to see what my community looks like when it rains…it becomes pretty much impassable on foot as the streets turn into one giant mud puddle. Luckily we did not stick around and wait for the mosquitoes to breed. We took the opportunity the next morning to visit my original community located about an hour to the south. Although it is very close geographically, my original community of Tres Palmas could not look more different. Located in the foothills of the mountains, it is green, lush and quiet. It is rural, remote, and overflowing with citrus, mango and avocado trees. Sounds a bit like paradise right? We went back and paid fairly quick visits to all of my old favorite families. Of course, it being mango season, each family made sure we left their house with about 20 mangos. By the time we got to my friend Lucia’s house, we had accrued close to 100 mangos, a pineapple, three cucumbers, and a bunch of bananas. People’s generosity in that part of the country will stay with me for my lifetime. Even though I only spent five months in Tres Palmas, I will always think of that community as my home. Although there was not much room for projects because most families were elderly grandparents raising their grandchildren, I always felt very welcome and well-loved in that community. Going back there makes me feel as though it was my home, something I still do not feel in Judea, probably owing to the fact that it is a very different community, more urban, much larger, and faster paced. People in Judea are not as willing to love me simply because I exist, they are a little more skeptical of my motives and also seem a little more concerned with what they are going to get from me. As cynical as that might sound, I have found that people are less likely to work with me just because, they would like to see how they will benefit first. I am sure this attitude existed in Tres Palmas as well, but it was harder to feel because people had a lot less going on in their lives and with only 40 families, people were much more closely tied, not to mention we never had a project going on in Tres Palmas.

We had a special lunch that my best friend Lucia and her mother prepared. Despite being one of the only families with a dirt floor in the community, Lucia has always gone to great efforts to invite me to her home and make me feel comfortable. Her family has never seemed ashamed of their obvious poverty, maybe because there is nothing to hide. With seven children, no father, and Maria without work, the family survives by growing all of their food and accepting food stamps from the government once a month. And yet, of all the families I knew in Tres Palmas, Lucia, her brothers, and her mother always seemed the most carefree and content. Lucia, one of the brightest people I have met in the country, has been unable to finish high school for the past 3 years because of a mistake in her papers. She was born in Haiti and some of her documents have misspelled her name and therefore, in the middle of her junior year of high school, she was forced to drop out until the government can fix the error. To me, it is such a shame that someone so bright, with such drive and lofty aspirations, should be kept at home cooking for her younger brothers simply because she was born across the border and a spelling error was made. Regardless, it was lovely to see my friend and have my parents see where I spent my happiest moments in Tres Palmas. Melting into a plastic chair in Lucia’s back patio while the family made me exceedingly sweet fresh juices and we chatted about anything and everything under the sun, that is what I miss most about Tres Palmas. I feel blessed to have met Lucia. It is extremely hard to find a young woman on this island who I can relate to. Most girls my age have at least two kids and spend most of their time inquiring as to why I am not married or why I don’t have children. Looking pretty and having kids are pretty much on the minds of these women all the time, and I struggle to relate.

We made a quick stop in Dajabon, the border town with Haiti, to look at Immigration and the border crossing. My Mom insisted that she did not want to spend another night in my campo, she claims it was because I had slept on the floor but something tells me it also had something to do with my less-than-pristine latrine out past the scary mangy dog. I did not protest, a cockroach had crawled on my face the night I slept on the floor and I vowed that from now on I will either sleep in my hammock or under my mosquito net but never again on the floor. So we drove to MonteCristi, the unique dusty town that feels a bit like a scene out of the Wild West, if you let the Wild West have hundreds of noisy motorcycles and scooters. We had dinner at my newly discovered favorite pizza garden. A local dentist proceeded to buy us several beers and we closed down the restaurant having drank our water weight in courtesy beers (I think the locals were blown away by the fact that gringos had found this hidden gem and wanted to welcome us).

The next morning we enjoyed the beautiful beach of El Morro and par usual, we were its only visitors. The waves were mellow and revealed about a mile of pristine sand. We walked to the top of El Morro and enjoyed beautiful vistas of the sea. That afternoon we set off for Punta Rucia, a sleepy beach town I had been told to visit but had never been to. The only thing I knew was that it was difficult to get to and there was one small hostel that everyone told me I had to stay at. We called the hostel and found out it was booked for the night; I was hesitant to head all the way out to a place I had never been to, especially if there weren’t any other places to stay. But it isn’t an adventure if you don’t think there could be some problems along the way.

The trusty Aveo delivered us to the sleepy little Dominican town where the cows grazing in the dry-thorn forest looked like they hadn’t had a good meal in months. We found a gorgeous hotel to stay in with beach views and spent the afternoon on a drizzly beach. Dinner was a great example of how things work sometimes in this country. We were told to go to this one restaurant. After some pre-dinner cocktails, we set off with quite an appetite. When we arrived around 7 pm the man at the place told us to come back in an hour. When we returned at eight, he looked a little nervous and said the woman was in a meeting and should be back shortly. When she finally arrived she seemed very embarrassed to have kept us waiting. It turns out she was the host mother for the last Peace Corps volunteer that lived in that town a few years ago. She made us fried fish and fried plantains and we went to bed full and content. The next morning we decided to take a local fisherman who had become our confidant and tour guide of the town, up on his offer to visit an island off the coast for snorkeling and a morning excursion. So we boarded the boat and were whisked away to a miniscule island several miles offshore. Once out there we were given several pieces of bread and went snorkeling over the coral reef. In my past year in the DR I have never seen so many tropical fish. We were literally swimming through schools of fish. If you didn’t let go of the bread they would gnaw at your finger. After several hours on the islita, we ended the trip by doing a high speed trip through the mangrove forest. I could not help but think that the mangroves would be a perfect filming spot for a James Bond movie, especially with our zippy driver. It was super fun and probably something I would not have done on my Peace Corps budget so thanks Mom and Dad!

Next, we packed up and set off for our final destination: the peninsula of Samana. I was a little nervous because we were at least four to five hours away, if we didn’t get lost, and it was already 1:30. After a very long day of driving through rainstorms and avoiding hordes of motorcyclists with death wishes, we arrived at the peninsula in the town of Las Terrenas around 8:30 pm. Yes we got a little lost several times and yes the rain slowed us down. We spent three nights and two and a half days in the Italian and French ex-pat vacation spot. The beaches are gorgeous and with the amount of rainfall the peninsula receives, it has a rainforest micro-climate. On our second day we hiked to El Limon waterfall. I am happy to say we were the only gringos that didn’t ride the horses; rather, we walked. And I apologize Mom, the last time I did the hike I came from a different direction and it really was relatively flat, I was not trying to lie to you. But we made it to the gorgeous waterfall! The following day we traveled back to sticky, muggy Santo Domingo. We attempted to tour the colonial zone but it was far too hot and uncomfortable. We had a lovely dinner in the colonial zone and the next morning I accompanied my folks back to the airport. We had seen a great deal of the island in a little over a week.

I could not help laughing at the fact that as soon as I kissed Mom and Dad goodbye and sat outside waiting for the bus back into the city, I was surrounded by four different airport workers asking me who I was, how long I’d been in the country, if I was married, and if my husband lived in the country…etc. I quickly snapped out of my blissful tourist high and gave them a piece of my mind. No I was not born yesterday, I have been in the country over a year, and could they please find out when the next bus would be coming.

Thanks for the great visit Mom and Dad! Love you!

The beautiful El Limon waterfall

Mom and Dad surrounded by stray dogs

On the boat heading to the island, early morning

Dad and I at the top of El Morro, MonteCristi

Dad shaving outside at my house,campo style

Lucia and I reunited

Host brother eating a mango

Mom and I with my Dominican mother

with neighbors in Tres Palmas

Buying a Pina

Back in Judea Nueva

With my host family and all the local kids eating mangos

After the rain in Judea Nueva

El Morro, beach by my house

My friends in Judea

Back of my house

Why did the Guinea hen cross the road?

Mom and I in Santo Domingo

Trash in the Streets, Water Filters in the Homes, and Plenty of Patience

Trying the water from my filter project so people trust it!

The month of May held lots of new and exciting experience for me and a very extended amount of time outside of my community. In the first week of May I hosted a Dominican visitor who is the project manager for the Dominican branch of the Rotary Club. My filter project was completely funded by Club Rotaria and therefore, in order for me to continue requesting filters for my community they wanted to see how my pilot project of forty filters turned out. It was a joy to host Rossi. She has a graduate degree in architecture, is unmarried, and in her forties; she is not the type of Dominican woman I am used to mingling with. It was very refreshing to see Rossi struggle with some of the same things I struggle against in my community: ignorance, stubbornness, machismo (so it isn’t just because I’m American I thought). Rossi showed me that much of what I thought were cultural differences are really just educational differences. We spent three days cooking together, swapping stories, and visiting homes where I had installed filtros. It was a very positive experience and left me wishing that I had a highly educated Dominican woman in my campo with me.

Another project I can no longer ignore in my campo is TRASH. Solid waste is by far the biggest eyesore in Judea. When I conjure up images of the Dominican Republic I wish I saw coconut trees and pristine beaches. Rather, my view of these pristine vistas has been compromised by my experience on the ground. I see a beautiful landscape filled with trash. I see raw sewage flowing into the drinking water for lack of any sewage system and I witness our dirt roads turn to mosquito breeding grounds with one rainfall as we have no drainage system and the pools of water turn to green slime in 24 hours. I see people content to burn their trash daily for lack of any organized system. And most worrisome to me, my neighbors are more concerned about sweeping their yards and patios free of organic waste such as leaves and grasses and are perfectly content to throw glass beer bottles and dirty diapers behind the house. Solid waste management in the Dominican Republic is not something that can be tackled overnight. Nor do I feel that changing people’s habits and attitudes towards solid waste will do much good without the support and initiative of the government to do something about the growing waste produced on the island of nine million inhabitants (that number does not include Haiti). For me, as a lowly volunteer fighting the smoldering stink that swells around me in this island paradise, I will begin by planting the seeds of change. What greater tool to use to wake people out of their heat-induced malaise than fear! Dominicans in my community fear the reality of cholera, as well they should; it is on the island and I do not see this bacterial infection leaving anytime soon.

I will begin my trash initiative by linking the presence of solid waste and sickness. People in my community do not leave the house if it is raining because this will make you sick, they do not drink something cold when they are eating something hot, because this will make you sick, they do not take off their socks until they cool down and they don’t like mixing different fruits together in a smoothie, all these things make you sick. However, having exposed piles of trash sitting next to one’s latrine, washing one’s hands only when taking a shower, and drinking contaminated water are rarely linked to illness. Soap in public bathrooms is like a good intention never realized. There is usually a fancy hand dispenser but 95% of the time it is dry as a bone. I was in the dentist’s office the other week in a fancy up-scale part of the capital and the office did not offer soap! AH! At least the dentist put some gloves on before he filled my cavity without the use of Novocain, explaining to me that it was such a small cavity it would be quicker to just fill it without anesthetics, and I stupidly did not protest, my thinking being well I guess if it just hurts a lot for a little bit that’s better than hurting a lot for a long time. The heat really does impair your judgment, I think that would be a viable research project for grad school, the equally harmful effects of heat and alcohol on your brain and your decision making. I digress…
So I think a great way to get people fired up about trash is by having a new and shiny receptacle for them to put their trash into. If there is one thing I’ve learned here, it’s the more glittery and shiny the better. I met with the new governor in MonteCristi to see if he could assist me in my new trash initiative and clean-up project in Judea. My host mother made a few calls (she works at the Ministry of Education) and I was quickly ushered into the governor’s office past about 50 disgruntled Dominicans that had obviously been waiting all morning. The portly governor made a very convincing show of his dismay and concern about the “dirty” reality of my community’s waste problem. I explained that the government had not picked up trash in my community once in the last fifteen years and his answer to this was to donate five trash cans to me (discarded metal tanks). I was very grateful for this gesture because I have already written and received grant money to buy these same metal tanks and paint to put around the community in public spaces. However, having a place to put the trash is very important but it still does not solve the issue of getting rid of it. Having smoldering buckets of trash is really not much of an improvement over the current individualized piles of trash that get burned. But at least now people can feast their eyes on prettily painted trash receptacles while they burn the ozone layer. More meetings with a different branch of local government will hopefully produce weekly trash pickup.

The best thing about visiting the governor was what happened after he promised me the trash cans. He asked if I wanted to go with him on a house call. Having nothing else to do that day I figured I should go along; always saying yes to invitations usually adds an unexpected outcome to the day. He told me to wait downstairs with his driver (Yes, he has a driver and a heavy-duty looking SUV). We left MonteCristi, took a few turns down some side streets and were suddenly in a very poor barrio. We pulled up a dirt road and got out next to a lean-to where there was a tarp covering a table with three large cauldrons, and utensils for about 40 people. In the shade of a mango tree sat about 20 children between the ages of 5 and 15 waiting hungrily for their first and probably only meal of the day. I suddenly felt a tinge of embarrassment as I noticed a lot of the shoe-shine boys that constantly pester me to shine my flip flops as I use internet. I never give them anything but a banana or orange, worried that giving the money will only go to the purchase of candy or soda. As soon as we pulled up and got out two more high-end SUV’s pulled up the road and men with video cameras got out and all jovially made small talk. As the governor began talking with the woman in charge of this ramshackle soup kitchen, I pieced together what was going on. A very kind woman has taken it upon herself, for the last three years, to provide a proper lunch-day meal to about 40 poor children every day. She has requested grant money and looked for hand outs from the local government in order to come up with the food staples to feed the children. The governor was deeply touched by her story and has resolved to build a proper building and kitchen, complete with tables and chairs so that the children will no longer have to eat in the dirt. I was placed in front of the camera and asked my opinion on this project that I had just heard about. I agreed that it was important and then the governor went on to speak to the fact that waste management is extremely important how he is working in close connection with me to clean up the province. I couldn’t help but smile thinking about how the governor had just met me an hour ago and how we were already doing publicity television spots. I guess it never hurts to have friends in high places, especially in this country.

On May 12th we had our annual all-volunteer conference. This is the one time every year where all volunteers are obligated to meet in the capital to learn about new safety and security measures, meet and greet with the new volunteers and share information among ourselves about our clubs and organizations. The following day my fellow volunteer group celebrated our one-year as volunteers by taking a trip to a beautiful beach for three days. The thirty-eight remaining of the 39 that swore-in as a group took the opportunity to catch up on how we have all spent the past year as many of us are not located very close together on the island. My favorite part of the trip was a short excursion we took to a cave located in a national park. After descending into the cave you could swim in the 15 or so feet of water that was there. It was a truly surreal experience swimming around in a nearly-pitch black cave with only a headlamp and a snorkel to detect what was ahead. And yes, there was lots of bat shit!

After heading back to the capital I was giddy with excitement knowing that Mom and Dad were flying in the next day!

Neighbors where I installed a filter

More community members

Rossi with some delicious green coconuts! Posing with one of my favorite women in the community.

Monday, June 6, 2011

April's Travels


at the hotel: Thanks USAID!

Development Professionals

I just found a blog I wrote back in April, so I guess I should publish it.

I feel that each day could be a blog entry because every day is so full of amusing, unsettling, and downright unexpected occurrences. After a year in country, the people of the island of Hispaniola have not lost their ability to shock me with their words and actions.

The month of April held a few interesting excursions for me. I took advantage of the USAID conference location to pay fellow volunteer and good friend Jenn’s community a visit. I have been to her site once before and it is one of my favorite places I have been in the country, mainly because it is so different from my community. When I conjure up images of the Caribbean I do not think of lush mountainous villages where greenery and flowing rivers mingle with guava and coconut trees, but this is the reality of the area of the country around Jarabacoa, known as the adventure capital of the Dominican Republic. Tourists come to this centrally located high altitude pueblo to go white-water rafting, to scale gorgeous waterfalls, and to breathe in the fresh mountain air. After a relaxing weekend spent nourishing body and soul cooking great food (think thai peanut sauces and tons of vegetables), hiking, and swimming in mountain rivers, I remembered the things in life that I cherish and that are often hard to obtain as a poor volunteer trying to survive on the border with Haiti: exercise, recreation, and healthy food. Sigh…I suppose my brother did warn me that part of Peace Corps life is becoming a porker as you eat carb heavy meals and your diet spins out of control with stressful situations while everyone plays the let’s see if we can make the Americana eat until she is in pain and then tell her she is looking fuerte (euphemism for gorda)…It is all a part of the experience I suppose because dino kale, almond butter, rice milk, and countless of my other favorite foods I just cannot seem to fit within my peace corps budget, nor are they readily available at my local colmado.

After the weekend in Manaboa (Jenn’s community) I went on down to attend the USAID conference in Jarabacoa. Representing Peace Corps at the conference made me feel rather out of my element because it was obvious to all involved that one of these people was doing the wrong thing, one of these people just did not belong…me! The seventy some-odd people that attended the conference were USAID employees, employees from various Dominican NGOs and other international NGOs such as Save the Children, The Nature Conservancy, etc. All present were development professionals with fancy cars, a nice wardrobe and hot water in their homes. I guess I was serving as the link to what these agents of change had lost touch with: poverty.

The conference focused on how to mitigate and manage environmental impact from USAID funded projects in the Dom. Republic. Basically if a building project is funded by USAID money then a long and detailed monitoring report needs to be filled out by the organization using USAID grant money. I was attending because Peace Corps volunteers fund many of our projects with Small Project Assistance Grants (SPA grants) from USAID and because they often fund stove and latrine projects, we should technically be filling out these forms. However, we don’t and I suppose that is where my role came in. I learned lots of new things about how to prepare these detailed MPR’s (Mitigation Plan Reports) and how to assess environmental impact and did lots of networking and schmoozing over copious snacks and hor-dourves but so far not too much has materialized from my attendance at said conference. Hopefully when our new country director comes in a few months I will explain the legal importance that Peace Corps comply with these standards and we will begin to add more paperwork to the quarterly reports volunteers fill out.