Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brooke and John Visit

I am experiencing a bit of post-family-visit-loneliness at the moment. I just saw my brother John and his fiancĂ© Brooke to the airport after an amazing week of activity and adventure and good conversation: all things that are not part of my daily life in Judea Nueva. I am now sitting at the Hodelpa Garden Court outside of Santiago enjoying the pool, eating fresh strawberries, and yet, even the post-gym workout endorphins surging through my body cannot buffer against the dark cloud of reality sweeping in that tells me soon I will be back on a Caribe Tours Bus rocketing back at unsafe speeds to my home and “real life.” That is, life in the campo, a life filled with lots of mosquito repellent and water-fetching, and making up games with children, silly banter with the neighbors, talking to my dog and confidant Blue, in other words, a life I have come to love. But after a week of hot showers, gourmet meals, and time with family, you can see how going back to my little hut can be a difficult transition.
The trip could not have gone better. John and Brooke were the third group of friends/family that have come down to see and experience a bit of my life as a PC volunteer in the DR. My first visitor was Laura last November, then my parents came in May, and now John and Brooke. Each visit was unique and amazing although I have learned a good deal after each one and feel I am getting much better about not trying to do so much stuff in the trip that it ends with everyone being exhausted and wearing cranky capris. That being said, because this island is so unique and has so much to offer, I cannot help but want to show my visitor a sampling of the many things to do and see here. Poor Laura suffered the worst as I attempted to take her all across the island on different forms of public transportation, something I have gotten used to but forget that it can be intense for a visitor. Ma and Pa weren’t spared either as I thought going from Punta Rucia to Samana would be a doable afternoon drive, needless to say 7 grueling hours later we arrived and if it weren’t for being family, I’m not so sure we would still be on speaking terms. So with John and Brooke, I planned lots of fun things to do but tried to keep the driving to a minimum and felt that because I had been to all the places we had been before, question marks were kept to a minimum. We had a fabulous time and I think we did a nice mix of fun touristy things with seeing things through a local lens thanks to my status as a quasi Dominicana living in the dusty border town of Judea Nueva.
My favorite part of Brooke and John’s visit was the time spent in my campo. I learned that trying to visit everyone in town is very difficult when one has visitors because everyone and everyone’s cousin wants to meet the shiny Americans. When my parents were here showing them around my community in one afternoon left me stressed out and the neighbors we didn’t get to see were disappointed that they were not included on my tour. So, I planned ahead of time and organized a sancocho or Dominican barbeque of sorts in order to relax and hang out with everyone in one location. Sancocho is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is generally served on special occasions because it feeds lots of people, it is too time consuming to be a weekday meal. It is a stew that slow cooks various classes of viveres or tubers, vegetables, and meat. Generally, different people will bring different ingredients so that no one family needs to bear the brunt of the cost. In this case John and Brooke offered to buy the meat, by far the most expensive ingredient. We bought four pounds of goat (my regions specialty) six pounds of beef, and six pounds of pork. The neighbors contributed carrots, celery, garlic, yucca or manioc, auyama (pumpkin), taoyta (chayote), yautia, and potatos. We started cooking the meat at 2 pm. China was in charge and she set up three broken cinderblocks, got firewood, and placed a huge pot with the seasoned meat on the open flame. China, Josie, and Luisa did the prep work and cooking and were very pleased and surprised that John had some knife skills up his sleeve and wanted to help. In this very machismo society, finding a man that is interested in cooking is rare, let alone one that cooks well. We helped cut up lots of vegetables and clean the caked-on mud off the tubers. By six pm the neighbors started showing up lured to my home by wood smoke and smells of goatporkbeef stew. I tend to forget that in my community people are not all friends, it is not that they are not friends, it is just that not everyone is on hang-out terms with everyone else. Therefore, my presence brings together people that would not normally socialize together. We set up lots of plastic chairs in my carport area and I was touched to see how many people showed up. It had to be close to 50, maybe more. Everyone got something to eat although I was quickly reminded I was in the DR when several neighbors took me aside to see if I could squirrel them away some extra sancocho to take home to their family who hadn’t come. They said if I asked and said it was for me no one would mind. What a pleasant task.
All in all, it was a really pleasant gathering and no one can say they didn’t get to meet my brother and Brooke because I invited everyone I could think of. I think that was one of my best moments in Peace Corps. Anytime you can successfully share parts of your life that are important to you it is a great feeling, in this case it was my American family interacting and experiencing my Dominican life.
After two nights in Judea Nueva where we did an afternoon at the gorgeous El Morro beach in Montecristi, we packed up and set off in our little blue Kia to the remote and gorgeous beach of Punta Rucia. The sleepy beach town is a hidden gem and because it is rather difficult to get to, it attracts little tourism. Most tourists that visit Punta Rucia are driven in from nearby resorts of Puerto Plata, experience the beach and then take the bus back home to sleep at the resort the same day. We found a lovely place to stay that was QUIET! Tranquility is something very hard to find in this country. The following morning we took a boat out to the adorable circle of sand known as Cayo Arena. The little island is visited everyday by groups of tourists who descend on it in order to snorkel and see beautiful coral and fat fishies. This was then followed by a high-speed boat ride through the mangroves whereby our boat capitan almost flipped our skiff trying to take a turn at Nascar speeds. Definitely worth our money. In the afternoon we checked out the gorgeous beach of Playa Ensenada lined with fish stalls and restaurant shacks serving freshly caught octopus, conch, fish, and lobster. We relaxed and read, watching the sunset. The next morning on our way out of town, I was able to fulfill a life-long dream of mine: seeing a manatee, my favorite animal. We took a boat out to observe the gentle giants in their natural habitat and were awarded with three sitings accompanied by our boat driver tapping the boat and chanting sube! sube! sube! sube! (comeup! come up! comeup! comeup!). In the most tranquil of spots, deep in the mangroves of the National park of Montecristi our boat driver had his headset on, listening to bachata and merengue, allowing us to have mood music for the manatee watching. Never a quiet moment in the Dominican Republic.
After Manatee watching I was in a bit of shock, how many people can say they have seen a manatee??? We headed to Jarabacoa, land of eternal spring filled with pine trees that offers lots of adventure opportunities. We decided on whitewater rafting for the following day. Super fun.

John and Brooke: Thanks so much for visiting and sharing in my life in the DR...Now its back to latrine construction

Oliver with the yucca

one of the two giant stew pots

Prep work outside

China Cooking the Meat in her Backyard

Washing the dirt off the yuca

Awaiting our water taxi at Cayo Arena

Sibling Love

The happy couple

cooking breakfast in my casa

Water taxi to the isla

high speed race through the Mangroves

Beautiful Punta Rucia

Brooke and I with our highspeed boat


John and I at sunset, leaving Playa Ensenada

Our Manatee guide, calling the sea cows to the surface

Happy as clams, posing like true Dominicanos, outside of the Manatee Park

Post Rafting High speed Guagua ride through Jarabacoa

John, Rosie, baby Brian and I at the Sancocho

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Caribbean Christmas

Oh Christmas tree

The jeep, ready to take us down the mountain!

Enjoying my morning joe

our moto taxis couldnt make it up the muddy hill with fat gringos on the back, so we walked up the hill then got back on


I made cinnamon buns, my Mom's Christmas tradition.

being a family in front of our painted tree

I spent an amazing Christmas in the campo with friends I couldn’t have imagined making 2 years ago. The best thing about Christmas was the lack of stress and lack of consumerism. We painted a tree on the wall of Anna and Leon’s clapboard house. We made ornaments with paper and markers. We exchanged small gifts, nothing worth more than $10. We cooked together, we rode Anna’s horse, we went hiking, we drank hot rum punches, we talked of home, of family, and of our service. It was certainly a Christmas to remember. It was everything Christmas should be: relaxing, focused on sharing with friends and family, good food, and lots of laughter. We even made little stockings with some of my socks I had packed. The cold mountain air made it feel rather Christmassy, despite being on a Caribbean island. A few days later we were lying on a beautiful white sand beach eating fried fish, drinking ice cold Presidentes and appreciating that Peace Corps life can be fantastic.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the DR!

Eating fried fish on the beach

Christmas, Caribbean style


"Going Back"

They drop everything when I return
Angel and Mathilde beam proud smiles
as their prodigal
rubia returns.
Walking down the rutted path,
My old home sits overlooking the
Muddy river Manati.
I slip and slide into Mathilde’s arms.
I almost forget our tradition: three kisses on the cheek.
I find my friends as when I left.
Mathilde handwashing threadbare clothing.
Angel ordering Yefri, his grandson to work
Anything but sit idle: he makes up chores.
He yells, he curses, he throws up his hand
In the next breath,
we embrace.
He is smiling, he is yelling at his son.
Never realizing that I am disturbed by this
Emotional and verbal abuse of my second family.
It has been raining.
they say, you shouldn’t have gotten wet.
You should have visited us sooner.
We are so happy you have come.
You better be staying for Christmas.
I am already disappointing.

I think back to
My first night in their home.
I arrived at ten pm. Stomach in knots.
Welcome to your new community
For the next two years.
Their smiles could not hide their nerves.
Two adolescents, mom and dad sat around me
In a half-moon not hiding their desire
to see how I ate.
I lifted up the bowl. The gas lamp illuminated a fried egg, swimming
In oil, floating above the cassava root.
Warm guayaba juice was served.
Flies instantly fell in the sweet syrup.
I drank it anyway. I feared being rude.
I feared being a disappointment.
we picked mangos that first morning, Yefri and I.
He was 15, I was 24, he taught me about the campo.
He and Yenni laughed that I tripped in the darkness.
They joked I did not know how to peel platano.
I had never seen a sour orange.
They held my hand, helping the gringa baby in the pitch
Black find her way home after endless late night dominos.
Poppi, my uncle, smiles a crooked grin
To tell me he is using the Harry Potter series in Spanish
As toilet paper.
He is impressed with his resourcefulness
I am disheartened.
There is fruit, there is gossip,
There is boredom as thick
As cold honey.

Five months spent among
Humble, kind campesinos. They are real
Real family now.
A year spent missing them
Wondering if I made the right decision
To move to a new community
But walking down the muddy path,
I watch the rain doodle and draw the path anew.
And I know
I am home.

"Dawn in the Rice Field"

Beckoning horizon
Spread out before you
Inviting you to wake with a start
Silent crusty-eyed Haitians
Avert their eyes and
Steal a glance with the
Reflection of a machete
My ipod costs more than
Their toil earns in a month.
What does she run from?
They ask with their eyes
No, Im not late
Our sweat,
Our otherness
Our non-Dominican accents
Bring us together on the gravel path
I worry about finding fruit for breakfast
They Fear deportation.
We share a passing fist pump
I practice my broken Creole
They laugh at my acknowledgement
I am thankful for their presence
The heat unabashedly announces itself
Well before the sun
Exchanges places
With the moon
A motorcycle passing provides
The only movement
Among the static rice stalks
Tiny lizards dart under my feet
My body wakes on my way home
Still worrying if a neighbor will gift
Me ripe bananas
We are the other
I am too white
They are too black
To avoid being told we are foreign
What does it matter I silently scream
I wear sunscreen
You eat green bananas
And she walks out of necessity
We are different
But why
Must we talk about it so much?
I just wanted to run
To watch the sunrise
You just wanted
To state the obvious
These are mornings in
The Rice Fields
Rice Fields on the border.

Let the Construction Begin!

A muchacho that has been there every step of the way....
He is always in the middle of the action, even when we dont want him to be

Digna watches over construction
She has become my main project partner. She is in charge of all the other health promotors and without her my project would not have gotten off the ground.

Anacelia y Glenis. We are building Anacelia a latrine.

Anacelia's pup deciding that after we cleared the sand and cement it would make a perfect bed

My two masons: Rafael y Jodolis sawing plywood in the Catholic Church, we are also storing all of our materials inside :)

Everyone is helping: Thank goodness I dont know of anyone enforcing anti-child labor laws in the DR

Filling the toilet mold


mixing cement

one of the beneficiaries looks on

Early morning tools

Putting up the walls and putting in the rake holes


making a chicken wire, rebar sandwich

Getting the tools ready

Inside the warehouse for our tools: the Catholic Church. Jesus has been watching over the project as my neighbors like to say and making sure no one steals our materials.

Some tools

Cutting electrosoldado: Day 1, 7:30 AM

Andrea and I, working hard.
Andrea came to help me the first week and as a volunteer who has made quite a few of these eco-banos she got to boss my masons around.

I am tired, no, I am exhausted. Spiritually, mentally, and physically, in that order. Please don’t think I am complaining though. It feels wonderful to feel tired. Peace Corps, for me, and I am sure this is not unique to my situation, has been rife with extremes: highs, lows, happiness, loneliness, frustration, but above all, lots of growth. I told someone recently, a fellow volunteer, “You know, I think I have changed and grown so much in my service but not necessarily in ways I imagined or even wanted to, but I am certainly not the same person that came into the Dominican Republic in March 2010.” As my service draws to a close, I have taken a bit of time to reflect on how I have changed in the past two years. I am more trusting, more confident, more willing to ask for help, more likely to wait patiently (sometimes), less idealistic, and more certain of what I need and don’t need to be happy. I am also less shy, and because of the endless embarrassments that I have committed in front of a crowd, I take myself a bit less seriously. Did I say I am much more willing to let people know I need help? Que mas? I can drink a lot more juice, I can eat more mangos, avocados, and rice (and crave rice and beans around noon everyday), and I know and appreciate what it means to live in a community: the sharing of gossip, food, coffee, and opinions.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in Peace Corps were the months when it seemed there was nothing to do. As a volunteer, you have lots and lots and lots of free time and then all of a sudden, you are so busy you need an assistant. This is not really free time, because if you don’t have a 9-5 job, and hardly anyone does in Peace Corps, then every moment in your campo is basically free time, deciding how to fill your day. The difference between Peace Corps “free time” and what I would consider free time in the states, is the guilt factor. 90% of my service was spent hanging out in the community. This is hard to explain when someone says what did you do, because sometimes other than throwing rocks with the kids, laughing at the chickens and helping neighbors cook, not much else happens in a day. Sharing my free time, sitting in a plastic chair, and learning about life in a small rice and banana community on the dusty border of Hispaniola. That is what I did. There was a lot of,"Ugh, I have nothing to do, ugh I am a lazy volunteer, I should be constructing a school, giving classes, filling my days, checking things off lists." But I sat, and I planned, and I shared my dreams and you I was taught life lessons from old women and young mothers while I helped peel the yucca.
But then, all of a sudden all the two years of gaining trust in the community and organizing groups and looking for funding all came together and I am ready to do something that will be able to answer the question: so what did you do for two years in the Dominican Republic? I will say, oh, I built composting latrines. But to people that have kept in touch with me through my service or that have done Peace Corps, they know that this is only the manifestation of the real work I put in: sitting, drinking coffee, sharing my time and learning about my community and Dominican culture for the past 20 months. When I leave people will say an Americana, a rubia lived here, she had a dog she loved, she drank coffee at my house, she walked around a lot and said hi to everyone, oh and she built composting latrines!

I returned to my campo on January third after taking a two week break for Christmas. I had relaxed, I had seen my friends, and I was finally ready to begin the daunting construction of the Eco-Banos, a project that I have wanted see come to fruition for a long time. Last March, I had a planning meeting with the community, formed a committee, worked out a preliminary budget and wrote two grants. As soon as I received grant money in September, I began the most crucial component of the project: education. An eco-bano is really neat, but it only works if you are using it correctly. That involves teaching families individually how to use their bathroom: Not peeing in the poop part of the toilet, not putting bleach down the hole, putting ash down after every use, moving the rake once a week to move the poop, etc. I organized a group of wonderful health promoters, eight in all. They continue to astound and impress me with their dedication to the project and their belief in its importance. I am certain that without these women the project would not have continued. Each health promoter was put in charge of four families and they had to make four house visits before construction began. They are going to make 4 more house visits over the next few weeks as well.

This week I started construction. It has not been a simple project. We are planning on building 30 latrines even though I budgeted for 35. Material costs have all gone up exponentially and unforeseen costs have come up, but I am proud of the project and the people involved. Stay tuned for more updates.