Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November in Judea

I am deep in thought over my third cup of morning cafĂ©. My door is open, but even if it were closed, life invades my small wooden home: the raggaeton thumps in through the windows, the pig stench envelopes my room and the fruit vendor’s staccato microphone punctuates my every heartbeat: Platano! Batata! Lechosa! Platano! Batata! Lechosa! Smells, sounds, and emotions of my campo. The vine ripened guava mixed with the fumes of smoldering trash as I walk the path to my wooden latrine. My afternoon nap is punctuated by street dogs fighting over a chicken bone while children laugh and evade their parents calls to take a bath. (CONO! Banate!) This is home.
My campo, Judea Nueva, is not an idyllic, cozy place. It is gritty, dusty, unapologetically noisy, hot, and redolent of trash and survival. I call it home. It is filled with people: open, inclusive, warm, generous people. The Dominican Republic is many things to me. I will never again see it is a beautiful resort destination. In many ways, I wish I still could. It has tremendously beautiful beaches and equally impressive mountains, but for me, the Dominican Republic will always be the people, their struggles, their joy, and their pride, not to mention fried cheese, salami, and bachata. The Dominican Republic is a difficult island. The people’s smiles mask an underlying acceptance of the inequities of life here. They are not ignorant. But I see the people choosing joy in life rather than lamenting things that for all intents and purposes they cannot change.
The other day while I was using internet on the second floor of a popular restaurant in Dajabon I witnessed an electric-company worker get electrocuted and eventually die while fixing the powerlines. It was market day and therefore Dajabon was more crowded than normal. People jostled to get the best photo on their camera phones of the large man hanging lifelessly two stories up, strapped into the power line until a cherry picker was able to cut him down ten minutes later. I was in shock but surprisingly most Dominicans witnessing the scene were not. They said this happens all the time, people die fixing the electricity, something that is constantly broken, because they do not take proper safety precautions like wearing gloves or shutting down power before touching the lines. These are things I cannot change.
I was recently asked to make a friend of mine (he is the mason that will be in charge of building all of my latrines for my latrine project) his wedding cake, I was asked the day before the wedding. Quite a tall order. I made a small chocolate cake for a friend’s birthday several months ago and ever since my community has decided to change my official project title to pastry-maker. Despite not having an oven or a cake pan, I was somehow put in charge. I decided to make a double-decker cake using my neighbors stove top dutch-oven and my own. Pretty much a donut shaped circle with a hole in the middle. Although the family asked me the day before all of a sudden they started dropping hints like, we want a strawberry cake, with blue icing, and a miniature plastic bride and groom for the top too. Oh and we hear you can buy decorative sugar flowers for the top at such and such store in Montecristi, you know if you are going to be over there, and make sure they match the flowers on the brides dress….hrmmm pretty picky for someone that just asked me to do this. I accepted the challenge and unable to find the flower store, bought the largest plastic bride and groom I could buy, which was a tad out of my Peace Corps budget but I figured, it’s a wedding! Having no way to make a strawberry cake, I stuck with a classic vanilla base and chocolate top. I made home-made icing, died it robin’s-egg blue and sadly realized that my plastic figurine was dwarfing the wedding cake, I had dreamt too big. I left the two cakes and the icing for my friends to assemble the next day because I was leaving early the next morning for a conference and the wedding was not until the following evening. Unfortunately, although we were scheduled to have electricity that evening, it never came, the fridge never turned on, the icing never hardened, but the cake soldiered on. I am told the cake was beautiful but a little wobbly. All in all everyone was impressed and I have started to get requests for holiday parties, quinceneras, and graduation parties. I might have to start charging for my services.
Chicas Brillantes. The Saturday of the wedding, I left town early with three of my young girls in tow. They were members of my chicas brillantes group (roughly translated: shining girls) and I had chosen them for the coveted position of attending a conference with me several hours away in Santiago as a reward for their participation and attendance in our group. Both mothers of the three girls were distraught at the idea of their kids being away from home. One mother pleaded with me to protect her baby as tears streamed down her face. I should have been worried when I saw that all three girls had plastic bags in their hands as we mounted the bus, or when they all took Dramamine for motion sickness. Thirty minutes into the ride, the chofer taking each hairpin turn at Nascar speed, all three girls began vomiting on cue, as if none wanted to be left out of the fun. I watched in horror as my kids threw up all of the platano and fried cheese and fried salami their mothers had given them for breakfast, a breakfast so hearty just in case the kids don’t eat again until you come back tomorrow the mother confided in me. Luckily, if I could pick any place in the world to have a problem, I would pick a high-speed guagua in the Dominican Republic. Instead of being repulsed by vomit, Dominican women flock to help as though free cookies are being handed out. Suddenly breath mints appeared, words of advice such as I shouldn’t let my kids eat before getting on the guagua, etc..Such a wonderful country when you are in need. I could only imagine the situation in the states, people arching their backs, squealing, and looking at the children as if they were venomous snakes.
Once arriving at the conference my girls had a great time. It was a two day conference filled with making clay female reproductive system models, learning salsa dancing, nutrition and avocado making session, and so much more! This Saturday I have my first class with the girls since returning from the conference and I will not be surprised if my numbers exponentially increase due to all the neighborhood chicas wanting the opportunity to attend the next regional conference.
Last but not least, I want to thank everyone who donated to my Latrine project, or even thought about donating, for helping to make this possible. I will be beginning construction on several latrines before Christmas, si Dios quiere (If God wills it.) So thank you all so so so much for being so generous with your money. I cannot wait to build some toilets!

Here are some photos: a few of me installing water filters. and the rest are hiking Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fitting In

The struggles I envisioned for my Peace Corps service I got over within weeks. The challenges I could not have dreamed of remain. Unlike more traditional international aid organizations, Peace Corps puts forming relationships, trust, and friendship head and shoulders above meeting quantifiable goals of tangible project output (we definitely complete awesome projects but only because we earn the trust and love of community partners first). In many ways, our number one goal is fitting in and learning to not just survive but to enjoy life in wherever we are placed. This aspect of aid resonates deeply with me and I believe firmly in its efficacy. The first year is spent making friends more or less and the second in responding with these friends to local needs. However, living up to this goal brings back all of the insecurities and anxieties of ninth grade. In this case it is not whether or not people are talking about you, it is what they are saying. Of course people are talking about me, in their eyes, in their culture, I am insane. I am pathetic and they must take care of me. Why on earth would I leave my country to come to a forgotten dusty town on the border, alone, to make their acquaintance and learn what it means to live in a Dominican community. What’s more, I must have some serious problems because at the geriatric age of 25 I am still unmarried with no children. I am certainly giving the locals some choice conversation fodder for their morning coffee, their midmorning dominos game and their leisurely two hour lunch.
I don’t blame them for constantly talking about my every movement, most days I think I am insane as well for attempting to be accepted into this society. Living under constant scrutiny has done interesting things to me. I rather enjoy the freedom I have to represent an entire nation. Besides having cousins uncles and aunts pa ‘lla living in Nueva Yol, I am, to many Dominicans, their only real-life specimen of the other, the blancita, the rubia, the Americana. Whatever I do, the way I dress, the things I like to eat, etc, are being mentally recorded as representing the habits and preferences of an entire people: Americans. With much power comes much responsibility. I therefore take every opportunity to shock and alarm my Dominican friends with my antics and behavior. Clara you aren’t really going to go on a run are you? Clara you aren’t really going to eat papaya and mango and banana at the same time are you? Clara you aren’t really going to go days at a time without eating (read without eating rice). Clara, you aren’t really going to walk around town with wet hair. Clara you aren’t really going to play soccer with the Haitians are you? Si, Senor! I reply.
I think a lot about the fact that my presence is confirming for my Dominicans neighbors what a “typical” American looks like: blondish hair, pale skin. It disappoints me a bit. However, being an African American or Asian American volunteer must be a tall order in this country because Dominicans are loathe to accept anything other than that all true Americans must be blanco y rubio. I guess I have to pick my battles in the shock Dominicans to death game.
So what have I been up to other than thinking a lot about my place in Dominican society while sweating in my seafoam green plastic chair…November was filled with lots of travel and lots of work and I cannot believe that the Christmas season has already arrived. Technically it arrived before Halloween when my neighbors started putting up their artificial Christmas trees and colorful blinking lights. I hope to get into the spirit of things this year by decorating a banana tree in my backyard with popcorn snowflakes and lights. It is interesting to think back to a year ago at this time. I had only spent about 2 weeks in my new community and found everything uncomfortable, loud, and slightly off-putting. Now, a year later, the people the noise and the community has not changed but I certainly have. I now enjoy and even participate in the silliness that is daily life in Judea Nueva. A shared struggle to enjoy all that life has to offer on this beautiful island. A year ago the idea of not escaping town for Christmas was not considered, not to mention that I sorely missed family and American comforts. This year, I am excited to be staying in town for the Christmas holidays to share the merriment of the season with another culture.
In other news, I participated in a medical mission at the beginning of the month in the nearby border town of Dajabon. This was the third mission I have participated in and as always it was an exhausting, edifying, and humbling experience. Working with plastic surgeons, dermatologists, cardiologists, family practitioners, and internal medicine physicians the team of close to 50 medical professionals that comprise Waves of Health was able to offer treatment to a wide variety of sick Haitians and Dominicans. For me, I felt a certain sense of, let’s call it cultural integration, at the fact that I felt much more comfortable with rural locals than with the American doctors. The American physicians seemed inflexible, impatient, flustered, very sweaty, and disbelieving how a people survives in the way that they do. Ok, obviously not all the physicians acted in that way, but their discomfort at certain aspects of life here definitely made me realize how much I have acclimatized and learned to take it easy under hot and sweaty conditions. I even put an IV in successfully which was a big personal success for me after repeatedly sticking someone last time with no results but a bloody hand. Hooray!
I also hiked the highest peak in the Caribbean last week, Pico Duarte. It was an incredible four days spent relaxing, listening to nothing but my friends banter, laughter, and mule farts. I will post pictures shortly and have more stories about the epic hike when I get a chance to write again. Until then, I will be elbow deep in pecans making pecan pie for over 200 volunteers and staff for the big Thanksgiving Peace Corps celebration. I hope everyone has a lovely Turkey Day and if anyone would still like to donate to my bathroom project, there is still about $1300 left to go…I will include the link.

Friday, November 4, 2011


I was invited to a party this past weekend in my old community of Tres Palmas. My closest friend Lucia and I have stayed in touch despite our separation and she called me a month ahead of time to tell me that she really wanted me to come to the fiesta. I was super excited to go back and see everyone as I have always felt extremely close and comfortable around the campesinos in this small mountain community, not to mention loved. Although I have visited three times in the last year, I am given flack for not visiting enough and am constantly told I have forgotten my Dominican family. However, I feel blessed that I did not move far away and am able to visit whenever I like. In private transport, it is only about an hour trip; however, due to the slow guaguas, it usually takes me about three hours, I have to take two different small buses and then a motorcycle taxi the final half hour. Although close in kilometers, it is a world apart from my current community. The homes in Tres Palmas are organized like a typical campo in the Dominican Republic: they proudly stand or jauntily lean in their garishly bright paint along a winding dirt road. They are spaced apart so that yelling between families is possible but not so close that one cannot plant a sizeable garden around their home. Where I live now in Judea Nueva, there are around 500 homes, in comparison to the much smaller 40 that comprised the campo of Tres Palmas. Judea Nueva was set up like a housing complex for the workers of the rice fields. It is ten feet from a large two-lane highway and sees lots of traffic. The homes are huddled together as if for warmth and one has the privilege of hearing domestic disputes, dinner conversation, and the neighbors television without leaving home.
Riding up the winding dirt road with an old motoconcha driver that remembered my name despite a year of not seeing him, I felt extremely relaxed in my old familiar surroundings. The pace of life is extremely simple and I get the feeling that if I come back to visit in ten years much will be the same, new chickens, new grandkids, but same crops being planted, some complaints about the heat, same sharing of fruit bounty with all. There is a comforting peace that pervades people’s struggle to cultivate the land and to feed their families. There is a small river in town, the area receives high amounts of rainfall, and the soil is extremely fertile. However, if you look around the farmers are not young. They are in their fifties and sixties, working alongside hired Haitian help. The twenty something’s move to Santiago or Dajabon or the capital in search of a job less physically intensive and more lucrative. This campo is filled with the very old and the very young grandkids. Life there has a definite structure and tempo. What brought tears of boredom and frustration to my eyes a year ago now brings reassurance when I go home to visit my neighbors and friends. I know exactly what they will say before they say it: I have gained weight, the mosquitoes are eating me alive, I have forgotten my roots, etc.
Rolling into town on the back of the motoconcho I stopped off at Lucia’s house overjoyed to see my closest friend in the DR. Her mother stopped struggling with the woodstove and came to greet me looking more stoic than usual. She informed me that we wouldn’t be having the fiesta because a close neighbor had passed away two days before and we would be going to the wake. I was invited to the velorio or wake and it was assumed I was going because every person in town was going. I found myself feeling at peace with the fact that I would be able to see everyone in one place whereas my normal visits are usually spent running around the dirt roads trying to say hi to all forty families which then leaves everyone thinking I’m insane because I’m walking around in the sun and as soon as I come to their house, I am leaving again. Not to mention my tolerance for fresh-fruit juice is usually about a three cup per two hour limit making it uncomfortable for me to visit and not partake of the offered gift.
The woman who had passed away was middle aged, no more than forty and had left a strong impression on me. She had down’s syndrome and our weekly interaction was at Catholic Mass when she would collect money from the parishioners. She always made me laugh because despite being mute, she would make guttural noises shaming everyone into giving a donation despite some people’s obvious embarrassment that they had nothing that week to give. Her innocence and persistence combined beautifully to wheedle money out of the poorest hands. I couldn’t help but laugh my first day at Catholic Mass, I had walked from home with my host family and didn’t think to bring any money. When the collection time came I put my head down and closed my eyes in prayer. I underestimated the wonderful Beatra. She stood in front of me tapping me and putting her hand out and groaning at me for coins she knew I had if only because I was a rubia, blanca, Americana. After what seemed like an eternity, my host father finally politely shoved her down the aisle much to the amusement of the entire congregation, all 20 of my neighbors. From that Sunday forward, I made sure to have several coins with me at mass to avoid the embarrassment of another public flogging from Beatra. I like to think of her as the Lord’s vanguard, taking money from people even if they did not want to give.
The body was lain out in the family’s house in an open casket, about 200 people were sitting under trees in the dirt yard or crowded into the small house or out back cooking mountains of chicken and yucca to serve to everyone present. Most people were crying and wailing when I walked in, but they would all pause give me a big hug and smile, tell me I was mas gorda, ask how my family was, and then continue crying. I could not help but imagine how this scene would have played out in the US. If there was an unknown foreigner I doubt everyone would be ecstatic that said person had shown up at the wake, because in my limited experience, death is something fairly closed and personal for American families. But, like most things Dominican, even a death was an event that was loud, fun, crowded, chaotic, and ended with eating chicken, gossiping about the neighbors, laughing, and drinking soda in plastic chairs. Nothing was cheapened or less genuine because people were crying sincerely and at the next moment, laughing with just as much emotion and earnestness. I continue to learn so many things about different cultures by living here on the island and feel so lucky to be serving in a country that is willing to share everything with me: their lives, their funerals, their time, and their root vegetables.