Friday, August 26, 2011

What I've been up to...

I have been thinking a lot of late about my life after Peace Corps, aka, transitioning back to America. This makes me compare how life is here vs. life in the states. When I tell my neighbors I want to go to med school when I go back to the states they all respond that I should go to med school in the DR...hrm...the DR is not really known for its high caliber medical programs.

My interactions with professionals has always left me feeling that being a professional in the DR might just be more fun than in the US. For instance, doctors seem to operate on a code of naps, teachers do not protest the shortened school day and increasing recess hours, and government officials are harder to track down than a misplaced pair of keys. My host mother, the assistant director at the Ministry of Education (a seemingly high-end position), did not go to work this past week because she wanted to go shopping for a small fan at the Haitian Market in Dajabon. Shes says it is a legit excuse because her room is not air conditioned. She has also cited getting her hair done as another legitimate excuse for skipping work. This past week a community meeting was held with members from the Public Health Department. I was unable to attend their last meeting but according to community members it was a great success because refreshments were handed out. The doctors spoke about the dangers of cholera (now that there are eleven new confirmed cases in our neighboring community that we share our water with) and how to prevent it.
Although I had given the exact same talk the week before, I think because I overlooked the all important task of bringing “brindis” or soda and snacks, my lecture was deemed inaccurate hooha by the gringa. However, the one time I made banana bread for my women’s group meeting I did not hear one thank you, only violent shoving and name-calling as women clamored for a hunk of something most thought tasted too healthy and “rara” or strange after all their struggling. After that unpleasant incident I vowed I would not use treats to lure grown people to come to my meetings, they should come of their own accord.

However, after a scintillating talk about the dangers of dengue fever and lectospirosis, the doctors and public health officials handed out birthday cake and soda. As aforementioned, this second health charla was deemed a huge success. Perhaps I should change my self-imposed rules and lure people in with brownies and juice.

Because I have not written in quite some time let me try and touch on the most interesting things I have been up to of late:

The half marathon! Although I was not looking to break any speed records, I would be lying if I said I was not worried about the prospect of running 13.1 miles at 5 in the afternoon in the middle of June in the Caribbean heat and not being in shape to boot. However, it ended up being a really great time and probably one of my fondest memories in Peace Corps this year. About 18 Peace Corps volunteers ran the race and one volunteer even raised money to have 15 kids from her campo come to the capital and participate. We definitely have some athletes in the group: a male and female volunteer who both ran Division 1 long-distance…I decided I would not be attempting to keep up with their blazing pace. It was also quite a treat to see so many fit Dominicans (most upper class capital dwellers) because exercise and working out are not the norm where I live. The funniest part about the race was that every 2 kilometers there were water stations; however, Dominicans are very fond of the plastic bag with water inside, but try running while tearing open a plastic water balloon and drinking. I definitely got more on my body and my fellow runners than in my mouth but it was necessary to keep my face from overheating. I ended up running the first 11 miles with a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in the South Pacific that was down visiting. We quickly realized we were the same pace and chatted most of the run (I guess I wasn’t pushing it that hard if I was able to keep up a conversation, but it certainly made the time pass nicely). The last two miles I put on some bachata hits and some Shakira and saw what my legs had left. Dominicans are really enthusiastic and loud in all areas of life so it was great to sprint across the finish line being sprayed and cheered on by my Dominican fans. I obviously still had some energy left at the end but not wanting to die midrace I decided to make sure I didn’t have to walk. Success! Climbing and descending stairs the next day was a bit difficult but nothing a swim in the Embassy pool couldn’t fix.

I think the best part of the race was knowing so many people that were participating. The last 7 miles was a loop so you could shout out to your fellow running buds as they went by. I am not in the shape I was in the states before I left, but at least I know I will be able to get back there someday when my diet improves and the heat abates.

July fourth: I celebrated America’s birthday with eight of my closest Peace Corps friends in the mountains of Constanza. Constanza is the highest town on the island and the climate and landscape is another world compared to where I live. Constanza sits in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains and it is the agricultural mecca of the DR. Fruits such as apples and strawberries which cannot grow anywhere else on the island, are cultivated there. Receiving frequent frosts and downright pleasant temperatures, one forgets that you are in the Caribbean. While most Peace Corps volunteers took off for the Peninsula of Samana to spend the fourth on a beach, I could not have been happier escaping the heat for a weekend in the mountains. We met up and spent the night at a ranger station that is the starting point for many hikes to Pico Duarte: the tallest peak in the Caribbean. We decided we would hike to Constanza. No locals could tell us for sure how long that would take as there is a series of connecting fireroads and we received estimates between 30 and 60 kilometers. All Dominicans warned against such a stupid idea as hiking. We figured that if we brought enough snacks and because vegetable trucks often pass through, if it was getting late we could always hitch our way to the end. Setting off at 6 AM we were blissfully unaware of the distance. We hiked until 4, probably covering close to 15 miles and decided to take the last bit in the back of a Dihatsu truck. The flat bed happened to be full of lumber and 10 Haitian laborers. We piled on up. Driving into the beautiful valley of Constanza while the Haitians sang and played a bucket like a drum. It was a perfect end to a great hike. We spent the next day cooking and relaxing at a beautiful bed and breakfast type inn.

Medical Mission: I participated in my second medical mission for eleven days at the end of July. It was a great contrast to the surgical med mission I had worked on in February. The mission was comprised of a group of nursing students, nurse practitioners, athletic training students, and one sole physician and about 15 interpreters (Peace Corps volunteers and other bilingual volunteers from the states) from the University of Southern Maine. This group travels to the mountainous villages around Santiago every six months, in January and July and keeps records of all of their patients in order to ensure consistent follow-up care. For many of the patients in the rural villages, the nurses from the Univ. of Southern Maine are the only medical personnel they see because their communities are far from any clinic or hospital. For me, it was a great opportunity to see rural medicine in action. We traveled by foot or by pick-up truck to a different village each day. Most of the patients suffered from hypertension or diabetes. The program is able to function so well because it functions in conjunction with local health promoters in each village that keep the University aware of any sudden changes in the patients as well as informing the nurses of which patients need to be seen in their homes because they are shut-ins. We would set up clinic in the local school or church and were able to see many patients each day. I especially enjoyed the mission because I was among students and therefore felt very comfortable asking fundamental questions about medicine and procedure whereas the last mission I did involved surgery and was not as conducive to teaching me the ins and outs of rudimentary healthcare. I left the second medical mission even more sure of my decision to pursue a future in healthcare. Not to mention, I realized how much my Spanish skills have improved. I tend to doubt whether or not I have learned any Spanish in country because my Dominican neighbors and friends are constantly telling me I don’t speak Spanish, they don’t understand me, etc. and yet when I was around Americans that truly do not speak Spanish, I realized I at least know more than some people. Ha

Transitioning back to the syrupy slow pace of life in my campo was especially difficult after being so occupied and needed for two weeks, not to mention I had been hanging out with Americans which I still find to be more comfortable than hanging out with Dominicans, at least more predictable.

Youth Conference: I took two adolescent girls from my community to a health conference called Escojo mi Vida (I choose my life). Escojo is a Peace Corps initiative for youth under the health sector that trains youth in subjects ranging from HIV and AIDs prevention, proper self-esteem, healthy relationships, and overall sexual health. The idea is that after youth are trained and attend all 12 sessions and pass a test, they will continue the class with other Dominican and Haitian youth, but as teachers. The group has been highly successful throughout the island and numerous local youth now have their own groups. I brought two youth in the hopes that they would be inspired by the conference and will help me start up this initiative in my community. We have our first planning meeting this afternoon to see which youth we are going to invite. Picking the right group members is always fairly tricky because there is always initial enthusiasm and then numbers inevitably dwindle once the kids realize they will not be given more than a new way of viewing the world if they come to my classes, they are usually disappointed by my lack of giving away soft drinks and lack of English knowledge imparted by my presence.

Club de Madres: My women’s group continues to be both a frustration, a pain, and a weekly occurrence with occasional breakthroughs. We are currently planning the village-wide “semana cultural” (cultural week). Near as I can ascertain from conjecture (Dominicans do not like providing me with concrete details) this is going to entail renting booths to sell copious amounts of beer, soda, fried chicken, lots of loud music, dominos tournaments, and baseball and softball games. People where I live really enjoy over imbibing so I can only imagine what will happen when the whole week is geared towards this goal. The women’s group is adamant that I should man one of the two booths selling beer because more men will want to buy from me. They also confiar en mis abilidades matematicas (believe in my math skills). Every suggestion I offer to change the cultural week to include more culture is shot down with the statement, no we don’t do that at culture week. I have suggested a youth dance competition, a yucca cook-off: think iron chef, ingredient: starchy tuber, poetry readings, drama…but apparently we should not change what has always worked so well.

ECO-Banos: Thanks to everyone’s very generous donations at home, I have almost reached my goal for my latrine money!!! A small piece of bad news however: I wrote two grants to fund this latrine project. One is the grant that so many people at home have contributed to: A PCPP or Peace Corps Partnership Program. The grant I wrote for the remaining funds was a Community Challenge grant funded by returned Peace Corps volunteers. Unfortunately, I was recently informed that this grant ran out of money for the fiscal year and will therefore be unable to fund the remaining $2000. Because applying for grants is such a lengthy project I figure it might be easier to put up another PCPP grant for an additional $2000 in the hopes that people I know are still willing to give to my project. I cannot help but think how great it would be if I had just one really rich friend… haha. But hopefully I will be reaching out to new communities such as my family’s Church and former high school classmates in order to fund what remains. Thank you to all of my family and friends that have already donated to my ECO-Bano project! I cannot wait to send home videos and pictures of this project actually in action!

On Wednesday I will be taking a mason from my community to a four day training workshop outside of Santiago so he can learn how to build this type of bathroom. We are using ferro-cement technology which is much more cost effective. It is thin layers of concrete bolstered by chicken wire and rebarb and then covered in a non-porous coating to cut down on leaching of waste into groundwater. Because the mason in my community built an eco-bano with another NGO about 5 years ago everyone in the community keeps telling me that he doesn’t need the training because he already knows how. I keep insisting that Peace Corps uses a different technology and that he does not know how to build our prototype…

On Monday I am calling the first meeting of my health promoters to begin training them how to conduct the interviews and how to make the 9 home visits that will be required of each promoter and beneficent family. This is going to be retraining these women with proper methods because the NGO that has worked in my community only requires the health promoters to make 2 home visits whether or not the entire family is present at that time. These women don’t even know what they are getting themselves into working with me… They better get ready to work!

Water filters: trying to pass on the responsibility of this project to members of my community has been a nightmare. Of the four people I sent to the training, one boy moved to another city to find work, one is helping me, and the other two refuse to do any community work without pay. In other words, instead of watching the project organically work without my input, I am instead accosted daily with why the community has still not received the second round of filters. Once again, I will be forced to play hardball because many community members have decided they will not pay until the filters get here even though I have been very clear that I will not be going to get any filters until everyone has paid. Therefore, I will be making an announcement today that people have a week to pay and if they don't they will be scratched off the list. Why cant people in my community act like adults? Why do they insist on raising my blood pressure everyday with their mind games?

I have caved in and decided to spend a good portion of my monthly budget on internet in my house. Since I came into the country 16 months ago, this option was not readily available. Not many volunteers other than technology volunteers, whose projects are based around computers and generally live in the pueblos or in cities had internet in their homes. Also, because the internet only works where there is cell phone service, this was not an option my first 8 months in the country because my first community did not have cell signal. I therefore got used to going to the pueblo every time I wanted to use internet. However, now that I am applying to grad school programs I noticed that I was spending a frustrating amount of time at a little cafe in Montecristi using their spotty Wi-Fi and was leaving my community every other day. Therefore, I decided to buy internet for my house yesterday. It is a little flash drive that I plug into my computer and pay for monthly. It is not unlimited so Ill have to see if I use it up quickly or not. I cannot help but feel guilty as the image in my head of Peace Corps life comes into sharp contrast with my actual life here in the DR. In addition, being on facebook and having such a strong connection to the US also makes me feel that much more isolated here in my little part of the island. However, I think it will be a great help to be able to work on my applications in the relative comfort of my shack. No running water, electricity 10 hours a day, no plumbing... but I have internet! I guess this is the fate of modern development work. That being said, I cannot wait to Skype with lots of people at home!

Cooking Espaggheti! church cook out! Dominican version of pancake breakfast, i cant even tell you how many pounds of pasta were cooked.

Birthday party with a super cute neighbor

My girls and I at the Escojo Conference

Reading club at my house: the book about Prairie dogs is a big hit!

Birthday party: I look like a giant!

Lovely neighbor friends!

the birthday kids putting cake on each other

Devils food cake I made in my Dutch oven. All my baked goods come out in doughnut shape