Friday, December 4, 2009

My first month in site and a funny story

I have been in my site for over a month now. Things are starting to fall into place a little more each day, although readjusting back at my site after three fun filled pseudo debaucherous days in the capital proved more difficult than I thought it would.

So what exactly have I been up to?

I have been working on my community and organizational diagnostics, and getting to know my community. The first three months of Peace Corps service are a diagnostic phase. As a community economic volunteer you complete two diagnostics: the community diagnostic and the organizational diagnostic in order to form needs assessments for both and to design your projects. Part of the community diagnostic is a community map, where you walk around recording streets, houses, churches, identifying small business and resources for the community (example: where the water comes from; public transportation, etc.).

I started the community map about a week after being here, which I am about ¾ done with at this point. The town, which is a Municipal District already had a map of the streets from the early 90’s when they paved the majority of the roads. I got a copy from the local ayuntamiento (city hall) and it proved useful in navigating and adding houses, new streets that aren’t on the map and filling in the 100 plus micro, small and medium sized business in the town. Walking around I have been meeting a lot of people that don't live in my area but in one of the five other sections, talking to kids, business owners, sitting with residents in plastic chairs under the shade of trees in the street in the early afternoons, to compartir (share) and gain confianza (trust) with the members of the community.

Just getting my face out there and getting to be known is good, even though the crazy and bewildered looks are a bit draining sometimes (although less frequent). Sometimes it is overwhelming, with so many new people that I can hardly keep track of whom I’ve met, who is related to whom, and who is a member of which group(s). Although a town of 6000 seems small and tangible enough, it is a lot at times to be one person trying to remember so many people. I keep reminding myself that it will take time to integrate, and after a month I finally feel like things are slowly beginning to fall into place.

I am just beginning to interview households in order to conduct survey of the community with the help of the local church youth group. With this I can gather basic info on the community, identify needs and potential projects to work on with the community while I am here.

As my town is very organized, I have been going to many community group meetings.  I sit in on many, many conversations involving a lack of water in this dry region that has barely received any rainfall yet this year, affecting the crops, business and life in general.  They are working diligently to get wells working to extract water down below the dry river bed of the Rio Ocoa, but are waiting for government agencies to provide the much needed equipment and resources necessary to get all of them to function. Daily conversations consist of farming and local crops, which I expect to be an expert in by the time I leave (mainly mango, onion, papaya, plantain and banana). 

I also hear a lot of chisme (gossip) about people who I’m not yet familiar with being so new, so it’s hard to follow (so and so from such and such town who is related to Fulana who blah blah blah with Fulano).

And of course, I go to the beach with my family. I’ve been to the two busier points nearby- Palmar de Ocoa (8 km) and Punto Salinas (Not many kilometers, but more than 8):

(Salt mines at Punto Salinas)

(Boats at Palmar de Ocoa)

Now I am about ¾ done with my organizational diagnostic, which analyzes many areas of an organization in addition to a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis. In the first week of February the CED volunteers in my training group will come together at the 3-month IST (in-service-training) with our project partners to present the diagnostic and then begin project planning.

My cooperative, Fruticoop, Inc., which produces dried fruit and mango marmalade using solar technology has a wonderful product but has accrued losses in the past several years due to lack of commercialization and sales of their products under the brand FrutiSol. I hope to help promote and sell the product, assist in the internal organization and improving some of the production problems that the currently have, and the quality control of the product as well.

My project partner, also the president of the Cooperative is very motivated, and we have been meeting a lot. Tomorrow I will be going back to Santo Domingo to meet with the directors of the Foundation for Agriculture and the Environment (FAMA, a national NGO that initiated and managed many projects within Fruticoop, inc. since it’s beginnings in 2003/4) to discuss the collaboration between the two and see the organic market they have every Friday where they sell our products and also produce from local farmers. 

That is my work/personal life in a nutshell. In addition I read, a lot. I sleep and enjoy my afternoon nap.  I watch puppies and roosters and palm trees in the hot sun and ponder buying a hammock. And I talk to other volunteers and people from back home about it all, the good and bad. I motivate myself to do work and as soon as I do I realize how much there is to do and while living here there will is no shortage of opportunities for projects and willing parties to take on new projects.

And to wrap up this obnoxiously long blog entry, I have funny misunderstandings- even though I feel comfortable with Spanish and feel like I am improving all the time.  And the story goes that one morning a couple of weeks ago my Dona comes in and tells me that one of the dogs, Lila, has a garrapata. I did not know this word yet so I ask what a garrapata is. She says, oh es un pajarito que chupa la sangre (Literal translation- It is a little blood sucking bird). Having just woken up and still deep in slumber I forget that the word pajarito is also used to describe insects and bugs. So I start imagining this crazy big bird sucking on the dog Lila’s blood, and start wondering if Lila is going to die or is dead, or what this crazy bird is that I have never heard of. After this goes on for awhile (way longer than it should have) I finally realize that garrapata is the word for tick.

Dia de Pavo – Thanksgiving in Santo Domingo

Thanksgiving was last week and many volunteers convened in Santo Domingo to celebrate. I went in on Wednesday (about a two hour trip from my site). After dropping off my things at the Peace Corps office I went to lunch at the Embassy, an amazing refuge with mouthwatering hot turkey sandwiches and a refreshing pool where you’re specifically instructed NOT to throw your toilet paper in the trash, you can take hot showers, and no one is looking at you crazily for wearing a gasp*-  bikini!

From there I went to the vet with a couple of other volunteers to adopt my adorable new puppy! The cachorro (puppy) is the only little boy out of six from a batch of puppies that another volunteer had been raising at her site in Samaná, then brought them all back to Santo Domingo, where they were adopted by other volunteers. He is about seven weeks old, brown (looks kind of like a chocolate lab) and his name is Choco “Don’t call me Viralata” Late (Viralata is the word here for street dog, named for dogs knocking over trash cans). I was going to go with Hank, but that doesn’t exactly translate well into Spanish, and then it would be something like Eris (what people sometimes call me) y Ank (the H doesn’t really get pronounced), so you can see why I decided against it.

(Choco at home)

That night we had a dance party on the second floor of the hotel where most of the youth volunteers were staying after a healthy dinner of comida criollo china (Chinese and fried food joints scattered around the island). The next day was the Thanksgiving extravaganza at a country club near the Botanical Gardens in Santo Domingo. Lots of pool time, excellent brunch with your T-day dinner staples of Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin and pecan pie, mashed potatoes and a new personal favorite, sweet mashed potatoes. Followed by some more poolside fun, a talent show and then out in Santo Domingo to some places that reminded me those I used to frequent in Barcelona while studying abroad.

And by Saturday morning I was back my site with the puppy, getting back into the campo life. Now at the house we have two dogs, and four puppies.  As my Dona says my dog is still pegado a la teta (stuck to the teet) because he keeps trying to feed off of the Mom that is feeding her puppies that are about a third his size. The photo explains it all:

(Mamando con los otros cachorros)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Project Partner Day and First Site Visit

I finally got my site and have already gone for a visit. I am living in a small pueblo of about 6000 people southwest of Santo Domingo, about 30 minutes southwest of Bani. I am right near the sand dunes that are famous in the Caribbean, a few nice beaches within a short motoconcho or guagua rides reach. It is semi arid desert weather, with lower humidity than Santo Domingo (gracias a Dios) and temperatures usually in the 90s right about now. It is pretty much summer all year round and doesn't rain much. Since it is fall I am coming into their cool season, which is still hot.

Before you permanently move into your project site, trainees go for a five day site visit. It begins with the madness that is project partner day, where we meet our project partners who we will be working with the next two years. After working with them in the morning and having lunch, everyone departs to their respective sites and brings as much of their belongings as possible to make for an easier trip on the permanent move on Friday the 30th. We lugged all of our stuff to Entrena, hopped on buses over to San Pablo where the day happens (this was the same convent we had all spent our first night in the DR two and a half months earlier). I met my two project partners, a man and a women who were both very nice, good first impression. The woman is a member of the cooperative that produces dried fruit (my actual project partner is the president of the cooperative, but she couldn't make it), and the man is a member of the local development association.

Shortly following lunch we set out to my site. First we made a quick stop at FAMA in Santo Domingo, a local NGO that supports sustainable development projects in my site and around the DR. We met with the staff and then headed southwest on the highway.

We finally get there (ok, it is close only a little over two hours) and I am pretty surprised at how nice the town is. Little tree lines streets with sidewalks and paved roads throughout most of the town- notably clean.  Some areas are more marginalized and poorer than others, not all roads are paved but nearly all and there are about six parts of town. There is also a Haitian community here so I look forward to Creole training in the spring to integrate with the entire community.

My host parents are in their early seventies, and their granddaughter in her twenties lives there as well. My host dad is the president of the development association and the granddaughter is the secretary. Also there is a parrot that whips out phrases in Spanish asking the important philisophical questions like hay platano? I get a special gold medal if I can teach the parrot my name, since Erin usually becomes Eris here (parrot in the photo, chilling in its tree in our backyard). There are also a couple of shaggy dogs, a couple of roosters, a cat and her kitten (standoffish but it will come around) and some other birds. The little shaggy white dog is pregnant so I may be getting a puppy very soon.

                                                               Back yard at my new house.

My house is nice, there is a normal bathroom and shower, fan in room, nicest place Ive lived out so far. So its comfy. And there are three cooperatives: two mango cooperatives that sell mangoes domestically and export, and a cooperative that produces dried fruit using a solar powered drier. The dried fruit cooperative is my main project and is mainly comprised of women, with some male members. My other project partner works in the local development association (the president is also my host dad) which is down the street from my house. There seem to be a lot of motivated people that I met at the various community group meetings I went to throughout the week, and a lot of opportunities to work with the community.

                                                                                            Below: View of the Caribbean from a church                                                                                                                 down the street from my house.

The town has the local hospital for the region, highschool, primary school, two baseball fields, a central square, and lots of small businesses (little clothing stores, colmados, colmadons, ferreterias, auto repairs shops, paint shops, cafeterias, etc). There have been a lot of development projects over the years due to some very active a forward thinking community associations and residents, and remittance money being reinvested from the large Diaspora living mainly in the Bronx (also Boston and Florida). Every household seems to have half of their family in the little DR, aka the Bronx. 

The town also has trash collection and organic trash collection that they have a large organic compost, where they make fertilizer and sell it. Basically Ill be learning a lot and working with some sustainable development projects. (See photo at left, the Planta Abono Organico or Compost and my host dad).

So my first impression is good and I am excited to go back next weekend and get started. We swear in as volunteers on Wednesday, and will offically start our two years then. Made it through training and now the real work begins!!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Living in the Campo and shortly returning to Pantoja

We have been in the campo for almost three weeks now, and have about a week and a half left here before we head back to Santo Domingo for the Business Plan competition (something that Community Economic Development Sector works with' volunteers work with youth to form business plans, and the winners of the competition are given seed money to start their business).

Campo life is definitely very relaxing, and I enjoy my outdoor shower under the stars, or in the plain daylight dumping refreshing cool buckets of water on my head while looking up at my avocado and cherry trees.  (Photo at left: in my favorite avocado tree next to my house). It is nice to get to know the community more because it is that much more tangible because it is smaller. The volunteers are spread out between four different communities, so we all come together for technical training and the occasional get together.

Two of the more recent eco tour sights included a trip to 27 charchos, beautiful waterfalls near our sites that boast 27 pools of water beneath a canopy of trees. We hiked only half of them in the interest
of saving some time and cash since we had to get back before the afternoon to go to community meetings. We went equipped with helmuts and life jackets and fun guides with interesting animal calling talents that jumped out at us from randomn spots in the bushes. My ego definately came down a few notches after being tricked way more than once. But the water was beautiful, we for the most part all made it off of even the larget charcos, and enjoyed swimming in the cool blue-green waters underneath the trees in stone water ways, sliding in some parts through rocks that were crafted into natural water slides falling into pools.
                                                                                                  Below: The jeep we roll 20 deep in...
The second of our ecotourism trips was, well, interesting. What was supposed to be a three hour round trip hike turned into a bushwacking extravaganza up the face of a mountain and back around the other side to the much anticipated water falls, the source of the 27 charcos and was supposedly well worth it. After hiking up the front of the mountain to a dry pool at the top (where I think the guides thought the pools were, but they were actually way on the other side), we scaled back down and went right up the face of the mountain to the top in order to hike down the other side to find the what seemed to be imaginary pools. We made it up eventually but were at times quite frustrated beacuse we ran out of water and didnt anticipate such a trek nor were we prepared for it at all. We hiked down the other side to a trickling pool and filled up our water bottles with fresh spring water. Good thing because on my way back up a few of us ended up having to drink the water (I had to have water) but took anti-parasitic medication after we got back. But in the end it was worth it with a beautiful view from the top and a wealth of experience, plus we had a good group experience to tell the others. I definitely will be asking more questions beforehand next time around.

This past weekend members of the Junta de Vecinos and all of us living in Los Claveles went to the beach in Puerto Plata to take in the sun. It was beautiful and right on the beach, one of the days that truly reminds me that I live in the Caribbean, except for the fact that I am sweating in October. And since it took us four hours to go in a big group to get there, when it was only 45 minutes away, I was also reminded I live in the DR. The beach itself was amazing, with crystal blue waters stretching out for miles, palm trees and white sands stretching on either side as far as you can see. And the water was relatively shallow and calm. I am getting used to the fact that I have to wear my tank top and shorts in the water, since I was around the community (although I prefer the bikini, what can I say). But it was also a tourist beach, so it wasn´t a huge deal if you were in a bikini, but it is definitely weird for Dominicans, who like to cover up while swimming.

The way to and from the beach was crazy and wild. We were piled eleven in a minivan while the rest of the people were piled in an old school bus. The entire way there the two drivers enjoyed a fun game of chicken, darting in front of oncoming traffic to cut in front of each other. My life flashed before my eyes several times but I wasn´t about to get around in walk soooo, I hung on for the ride. Most of the drivers here are pretty crazy and questionable two lane roads are often three lane roads with the middle (and the other lanes) used for passing no matter if you are in a blind turn, hill, or whatever. I guess I am not that disappointed that we don´t get to drive here!

Besides all that, lots of technical training and I have become surprisingly accustomed to certain aspects of campo life. For example large spiders in my bed, effective latrine use and flicking off ´pajaritos¨, which literally means little birds but it is the word used for insects. I often get laughed at for dodging the pajaritos and ¨mariposas¨(Literally a butterfly, but no this also means big moths), but all in good fun.  

So far it has been fun, ups downs, we are all getting closer and I am especially excited to see all the other groups of volunteers when we reunite in Pantoja in the coming weeks!!
                                                                                          Photo above: Ladies of Los Claveles

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Community Based Training and Campo Life

We have arrived in the campo to our campo site for community based training. Our training group for Community Economic Development has been placed in four small communities off of Altamira, a small pueblo off of the main highway. Of the four communities me and six other volunteers are placed in the most remote of the communities, called Los Claveles, which is a community comprised of about a couple of hundred people. Our Spanish teachers are placed in the community with us, so we can have intensive language courses daily, mostly applied Spanish and pretty relaxed. The other half of the day is spent in technical training, which was initially going to be in the community furthest from us at 8 km away, called La Fundacion, but since it seems to be cooler in our site we will now have the technical courses in the cooler mornings of Los Claveles, a bit higher up.

I live quite high up on a mountain, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. There are lush green sub tropical mountains rolling for miles, as far as the eye can see. It is quite a hike to get up to my house, so I am expecting to be in great shape! And about a twenty minute hike up the road you reach another town called La Loma, where there is a magnificent view. Below: view from my house.

Leaving Santo Domingo was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. This last week was fun, but also intense and filled with ups and downs. Three people left so far, and I hope that we will not be losing many more during CBT training. We all went out to the car wash (car washes that are also make shift dance clubs at night, with merengue, bachata, reggaeton and el presidente, a popular beer to your hearts content) on Wednesday night to have a big send off and let off some steam before we all went our respective ways for the next five weeks. Good times.

We took the ride all the way up north and I was a bit nervous about how the site was going to be. Our technical trainer used an effective strategy that painted a picture of the worst scenario possible, so our expectations were very low. I think that it worked well because my house was described to me as the humblest and I was to share a room with my host sister who was living there, and if I was lucky I might have a sheet dividing our room. But, upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised to find a large space enclosed by sheets as my room. And a home nestled on the top of a hill with a view, and a very welcoming family!! I live with my host mom, Ramona, her husband Seney (in their forties), their daughter, Fanny (20), grandpa who is visiting from Santiago, grandson Carlos (5) and cousin Juan (16). The walls of the house are made of old soy oil tin(or zinc) of a faded blue and green painting a colorful picture of a soy field, reminiscent of warhol in that it is one label on top of another, and some wood with a zinc roof. It is very communal living, in that you can pretty much hear everything, especially since most of the rooms are divided by sheets. But families here are very close and spend a lot of time together, so they are all very close anyway and have nothing to hide! I shower outside under an avocado tree, right next to the outdoor kitchen with a precarious curtain clinging to the tin. I listen to mom and dad and the family chatting while I pour refreshingly chilly water down my body and cross my fingers that I don´t see an eyeball peering through a little peep hole (my own paranoia creeping, I hope).

Blackouts are rampant, and often you here apago la luz, or se fue la luz (the lights went out). A while later this is followed by vino la luz,inidcating its welcoming return. So often I fish through my stuff in the dark or sift by flashlight. Mostly I eat by lantern, too. Or outside on the patio, which is nice and refreshing. But my best icebreaker now is the joke told to me by a fellow trainee, which has been working out pretty well to lighten the mood upon meeting new people. Q.What kind of wine do all Dominicans, I mean ALL Dominicans love (Que tipo de vino les gusta a todos los Dominicanos). A. The lights came on (Vino la luz!). Of course this does not translate well, but for those of you who speak Spanish it works. And vino la luz can also be substituted with Vino el agua, because the water often goes out as well.  

Some photos of the campo (below: my sweet ride up the Loma)

As an ending note, there is lots of dancing. Merengue, bachata, less reggaeton than I thought so far. I am thrilled to report that my Merengue is coming along quite nicely, so I expect to be up to speed by the end of CBT. We have been out dancing a couple of nights with people in the hood, and everyone knows each other so each of us volunteers are always going out with our little brothers, cousins, sisters, the works. Chisme also travels fast here. One volunteer wasn't allowed to go out one night and the next morning three people stopped by my house to talk about how so and so didnt let her volunteer go to the dance. No puede ser. She was definitely allowed to come out the next night after all that chisme.

And last but not least the motoconcho rides, the crazy motoconcho rides. I love riding around on the back of these tranport motorcycle taxis, and enjoying the lush green sub tropics around me and warm breeze through my helmut while I ponder in wonderment that this is my job, but I can´t help but imagine flying through the air and crashing and burning on one sometime. Hopefully I will never see that day, or it will be minimal damage! They arent so bad and these choferes (drivers) know what they are doing, so I think we are in pretty good hands. And pictures will come up next week to make things more intersting, si Dios quiere (common Dominican phrase used to say something may or may not happen!).

                                                 CBT host dad's parents a few houses down

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Volunteer site visit and last week or so

A lot has happened in the past week and a half.

Where to begin, well as a recap we had a visit from Aaron Williams, the newly appointed director of the Peace Corps last Tuesday. He began his career as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic and served with another returned Peace Corps volunteer, Senator Dodd. He spoke to our training group and then had lunch at the Entrena center. He is a charismatic and very friendly guy--it was inspiring to think that he had come full circle all of this way, beginning in the DR and ending up as the director of PC- afterall, that could be one of us some day.

Moving on, we had our volunteer site visit this weekend. Thursday morning I got up early and headed to the bus stop to go to Hato Mayor, a province (and small city) about two hours north east of Santo Domingo. From there I took another small gua gua (gua gua is literally a word for baby, but also a local term used for bus- generally over crowded and packed to the brim in Santo Domingo, but not so bad in the outer city buses SO far) to Vincentillo in the El Seibo neighboring province. Thirty minutes later, after passing across a couple of small rivers and through small towns I arrive at the volunteer´s site who I am supposed to visit, who has been in her site for a year in a campo (small rural town).

We have lunch and begin chatting. The point of the visit is to gain perspective on what life will actually be like as a volunteer serving in the DR. We go next door to a local cafteria-auto part store and have a tamarind juice replete with sugar. We are chatting with some local communiy members and I know I am getting in good with them when I spill juice on my shirt, and one of the locals feels comfortable enough to laugh and say oh, just like a baby!! I think he was laughing with me not at me.

As far as project sites there are four different settings you can get placed in: Batey (poorest communities, majority population comprised of Haitians or of Haitian descent, usually nearby sugar cane fields as the communities would generally harvest sugar cane), Campo (small rural towns, can be very remote or nearby small town or city), Pueblo (small town or city, larger than campo), or city (bigger city, regional urban center, etc). She has project partners in the campo and in the pueblo, as she works with a cacao block based out of Hato Mayor, and also has a project partner at the women´s association in her town where she lives (rough population of 1500 people). Half of the time she is working in town and the other half she is hanging out in the campo.

She works with the cacao block that is made up of 27 small producers or so in the region. I learned all about the process of growing, harvesting, fermenting and drying cacao, the different grades, fair trade processes, etc. She is also working on a local chocolate tour where tourists leave from Hato Mayor to visit different fincas (small farms) nearby and then stop at the women´s association in her town for lunch, where they also produce sub products such as cacao marmelade and wine. I definately wouldn´t mind working with a similar project with cacao producers, eco tourism, coffee producers, etc. She also has a bunch of side projects working with local youth and artisans, developing a business plan through one of the CED initiatives Construir tus suenos (build your dreams).

We got along really well and it was great to see how she lived, worked and to finally get out of Pantoja! Plus, I was able to get a better idea of what I want out of my service, and what kind of setting I want to be in. At the moment I am thinking I want to be in a pueblo, not a campo. Of course, right near the beach boyeee.

The campo was an experience. It is exactly what you would think, smaller town, fewer people but a tight knit community, a bit slower lifestyle with a lot of hanging out. And beautiful. We went to a river by her house settled in green lush mountains with a climate that is slightly less suffocating than Santo Domingos heat and pollution sticking to your skin. There was a full moon one of the nights right when we were hit by frequent blackouts, so we played dominos and this awesome card game called casino by candle light with some of her friends from the neighborhood. It is peaceful especially once you get used to the occasional dog and cat fight noises in the distance, crowing roosters, etc. And lots of lightening bugs flashing a light green color in the distance (called cucuyos).

Of course I now have important info regarding campo life- including latrine use, latrine use at night (flash light to scare the roaches back down into the latrine or keep your eye on them at least- I gained the courage for this after a couple of nights), bucket baths and dishwashing, amongst other things. Also, dealing with tarantulas that supposedly get prettty big (but we are lucky to have no venomous snakes or spiders in the DR).

Overall I walk away encouraged because I feel that with motivation, a good project parter or two, a lot of perserverance, and hard skin (not taking things too personally), I can be succesful working and living here on a project for two years. And there seem to be a lot of opportunities for good projects for CED. It took her awhile to become integrated into the community, and I think the first three months will be the most difficult, trying to become integrated into the community, respected and trusted, and make strong comnnections and friends within.

To wrap it up Ill say a few random things. One, I think I have heard the several extremely popular DR songs about 100 times since this past weekend. One is called Pepe, and literally just repeats Pepe over and over again. In fact, I´ve heard it three times already since being in this internet cafe!! Not so annoying yet but I suspect it may be in the future. Two, I´m getting better at bachata, a popular partner dance. I got plenty of practice Saturday night. Merengue, a little slower but coming along. And three, I finally went to the beach on Sunday with a group of volunteers. It was awesome, warm crystal blue/green water in the Caribbean, hot, white sands and palm trees. I am ecstatic to be here in this gorgeous country. Thursday we seperate into our sector groups and head up north the Alta Mira to do five weeks of Community Based Training. Will add pictures soon!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Four ice creams and a funeral

Friday night after getting home I got my stuff together to go on my weekend outing to Las America´s to my Dona´s middle son´s house, Leonardo, where he lives with his son, Leonardo. We had dinner and they came and picked us up around eight thirty ish. I sat in the backseat wondering if this really was a weekend of courtship as I listened to Spanish love ballads in the back seat with Angelo drooling on my arm, deep in slumber (I am happy to report it didn´t turn out that way). We got to their apartment half hour later in Las Americas, which is a neighborhood by the airport. It is a new apartment complex, his place is a three bedroom apt. on the third floor of the complex. So there is a very nice breeze coming through it, and it is relatively quiet compared to Pantoja.

The Dona let me sleep in the room she normally sleeps in which was very nice. When I got up in the morning she told me that her sister-in-law had passed away after a struggle with bone cancer. She hadn´t been doing so well the last week, and did not make it through the weekend.

So we cut the weekend short and went back to attend the funeral and be with family. Of course that was after she cleaned her son´s house, cooked breakfast and lunch, and proceeded to do all his laundry- so we actually left around 1 PM or so.

Before I get to that I had breakfast this morning and have been getting more and more meat in the morning. You all, or well, most of you know how I feel about ground beef! I think it is one of the meats I can´t bring myself to eat. So I had a tamale of sorts made with plantain and ground beef with a side of sausage (which I found it is turkey sausage, awesome!). I talked to my Dona explained to her that the plaintain is good but I´ve never really had beef before, and at home I just don´t prepare meat for myself and am really not used to eating so much. I reached my meat limit at that point and she totally understood and was like, ok, so do you like goat then? But I think we got it clear that Í´m fine with chicken, pescado (fish, but there is also bacalao, which is this very fishy tasting dried fish that is rehydrated and added to stuff-- not my favorite), and I am sure the turkey sausage. So for lunch we had a really tasty pescado with coconut milk that was fresh from the market (the place is right by the sea).

We then headed back into town, changed and walked to Los Alcarizzos to go to the funeral. Funerals are a bit less formal here, and people just pretty much stick to anything that is not bright. There was a lot of black and white, but also a lot of jeans and t-shirts. The service literally happens (in most cases) in the same day. Perhaps in this case they knew it was coming, so maybe that is not always the case. The church was packed to the brim, with people spilling out of the back and sides while the ceremony proceeded. It was somber yet there was a lot of singing, reflection and prayer until they brought her coffin down the aisle, and my family (who were here close relatives) were all crying as she was put into the hearse. It was very humbling and I never felt awkward not having known her, because here they really do take you in as family and are so welcoming.

We went in front of the funeral home with the family and sat on the side of the street in plastic chairs. Here you do a lot of hanging out together, which involves a lot of just sitting together. On the porch, on the street, and not necessarily talking. If it were eight days ago I would have felt awkward not having conversation while sitting there. But this was comfortable silence when there was silence. After awhile I declared I wanted ice cream. Melissa sent her boyfriend to come with me to get it.

We walk across the street and into the shop. I pick up an ice cream and then remember about the sharing aspect of Dominican culture. Everyone shares. If you have a coke, and your at a table with four people- be prepared to only have a portion of your coke, because everything is shared no matter the amount you have. So I pick out an ice cream and ask if he thinks that Melissa wants one. He goes, yes of course, get her one. I pick out another ice cream and he goes, two? Your only getting two? So I am thinking I should get three then, one for mom. Then he asks, wait, just three? And I am like, there are ten people out there- how many ice creams am I supposed to get! I end up getting four- one for him, too. Now I know about the sharing, but am not sure how standard it is that he expected me to also buy him an ice cream as well, or not. Well we go outside and I had them out and the Dona gave the rest of the people out there her´s to share which she didn´t want. Everyone had a bite. I´ll end this with saying that I like the idea that everyone here automatically shares. Angelo is literally always offering everyone his soda, or whatever it is he is eating, etc, its endearing and an all inclusive type thing which I like.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Sunday

Sunday August 23, 2009

This morning I got to sleep in until 9 AM. I didn’t want to sleep any later, because I am sure my family already thought that was a late hour- although my Doña did tell me to sleep in today. She went out on the town today, to church and welcomed me to whatever I wanted in the fridge. I like my situation, I wash my own dishes (this avoids some conversations on me finishing the plate, because I can cover it, stick it in the fridge and save it for later with no questions asked, or at least that was today). Also, I can make my own coffee if I want it, etc. After she left I asked Melissa to take me to the local internet café/call center around the corner.

After I had an enormous lunch of this delicious eggplant concoction with tomato and some sort of picante, rice and beans and a salad with a very tasty dressing. Right after a group of volunteers had passed by to see if I wanted to play baseball. So I changed really quick and we walked across the highway and up the hill to a baseball field in another neighborhood, Los Alcarrizos, which is up the highway.

We decided to sit and share a liter of beer in one of the local colmados, where we ran into other volunteers who were playing at the field we had been looking for. After we decided to play some baseball. You would think Dominos and baseball would be the first national pasttimes of the DR, but there is one ahead- chisme. Chisme is the gossip going arund the neighborhood. I am sure that the whole neighborhood knows what I do, where I go and when. And I was wearing WHAT? And I didn´t eat all the chicken? Ay, que no! I must have hated it!

So we walked around the corner to the field which is nestled in amongst a bunch of house. There are a ton of kids in the area, so even though there were only six or so of us at this point (including one volunteer´s brother, so eight), we picked up about ten more players as a bunch of local kids (girls and boys) ranging in age. It was really fun, and I was the captain and had to keep telling this overly eager little bare foot cherub that he had to wait his turn to bat every minute, he kept being like am I next, when’s it my turn? Why am I last? I was like, no you’re first, but you have to wait! I had about two innings before I left to get back to my house when I said I was going to be there. It took a lot longer to get there than back, since we were back in about 15 minutes.

When I came back I enjoyed a nice lemon juice mixed with avena (literally oatmeal, but more like cream of wheat). Then came out the digital camera. I was totally mistaken about who lives here, because Angelo lives here and not Luigi. Luigi was here when I first got here but so many family members and friends run through the house that it is confusing trying to figure out how exactly every one is related and whose kids are whose. But Angelo and his cousin were running around while I took pictures of them playing baseball, holding up sugar can, or whatever. I also got some photos of the house and some family for everyone to see, but I will have to post them later…. Sorry!

And that night we had the regular mix of Dominicans coming through our house. Doña Isabel’s second oldest boy (she has six children), Leonardo was over with his son. I sat out in the back porch for awhile. The elusive Don came out of his hidden door in the porch and was visiting for a bit. I actually spoke to him for a second yesterday and found out that he is a saxophone player in a band and plays every other weekend or so, and has played for the Embassy. I retired to the kitchen and began to read while they all visited in the back porch.

In our cross-cultural sessions we are told that going to our room and shutting the door is like shutting out the family, sending the signal that we don’t want to talk or hang out. So as long as I am in the common area, and still around everyone- it still is just enjoying the company! I actually managed to eat the leftovers from lunch for dinner, because my Dona had so much company over and I truly didn’t want to eat a huge meal either, so it worked out for both of us! She told me that Friday night Leonardo was going to come pick us up and we were going to stay at his house for the weekend in Las Americas nearby the airport. I said ok, but as long as I am back on Sunday early morning because I have to meet up with my group to go out during the day to a museum! I’m kind of nervous I guess. Where am I going to sleep? Is this a courtship?! Must ask these questions.

After dinner I took a ride with Desiree, Melissa and her boyfriend to drop of Desiree in Los Cocos, where she lives. I really like the family, they are all really nice and welcoming. When I got back I met the oldest daughter, Yane who is mid-thirties and has a 13 year old. We sat on the front porch and had a really long conversation. She sells clothes, and is a professor who currently works in the Department of Education for a business. She was talking about a recent trip to Montreal that she took, and also about cooperatives in the DR, which was super interesting, especially since I may end up working with some sort of cooperatives while I am here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 22

August 22

I woke up early the next morning and got ready for school. I had quite a spread at breakfast, which was a relief because the fruit from dinner held me over just enough until then. Despite telling my Doña I didn´t eat meat very often, if at all, I had a healthy ham and cheese sandwhich for breakfast. I expected this and ate it anyhow, I figure I´ll be open minded and try to eat what they give me. I also had a coffee which was delicious, replete with milk and an abundance of sugar. Angelo had breakfast with me and also had his little cafe con leche to add to his bucket of energy. Desiree, Doña Isabel´s youngest daughter (25) was also there. I haven´t spoken to her as much but we are making progress. I got an eye-roll this morning, but also a smile, laugh and some light conversation so I think we are good.

At Entrena we had more vaccinations (tetanus and another rabies shot), health policy and cross-cultural sessions, and then a session with current volunteers. We did an exercise where we all stood in a big circle, and picked a statement out of an envelope. Each of us read our statements, one at a time, and whoever the statement was true for had to take two steps into the circle. The statements ranged from political preferences, to past experiences (good and bad, from losing a family member to being physically assaulted, to needing someone to help you out at the moment), amongst other things. They varied and it was a really interesting exercise meant to show the diversity of the group, and kind of breaking into a depth that we had not all reached in the three days we have known each other, especially as asking someone a personal question isn´t exactly an icebreaker. Of course, we all have come here for different reasons, but all with the same objective, to create positive change in the Dominican Republic, overall and within the specific sectors we are working in. And as one volunteer pointed out, it is a representation of America itself, being a heterogeneous country filled with different cultures, backgrounds and points of view. And this is the group (as well as other volunteers and staff in country, Dominican friends made, host families, and other support groups we form, etc) that throughout the next two years we will have to be able to help each other through hard times when we want to quit and go home, and also share successes. And this won´t be a walk in the park or a picnic, it will be a life changing and shaping two-plus years; from what I have heard it is filled with ups and downs.

After lunch I had my language proficiency interview, so that I can be placed in my permanent class on Monday. My Doña´s neighbor picked me up and we went home. Since that afternoon thunderstorms ensued, cooling down the hot climate. You sweat like crazy here, and the rain comes and cools everything down. Also the mosquitoes are rampant and have taken a liking to me (like always) so I have about twenty bites on my lower legs that aren´t always covered.

I went for a little outing and went for a walk with another volunteer in my neighborhood. While walking back to my house, we ran into another group of volunteers who were exploring as well. That night I had a bigger dinner including a whole little chicken, salad with avocado and tomato and rice and beans. I ate some of the chicken and then told me Doña how tasty it all was and declared I was full, and asked if someone might want the rest of my chicken. The little kitten did, who looks a little hungry all the time. She attacked the meat ferociously, ripping the flesh from the bones and tearing through the skin. When the dogs came to get some of the booty she ran under something to protect her dinner.

That night I sat out back with the Doña on her rocker, the kids, and met the oldest son, Eddy. We hung out there a bit and I showed the highly anticipated pictures of my mom and family and talked about my family for a bit, etc. Here in the DR the first thing brought up in a conversation is more along the lines of ¨How is your mother, and your family?¨instead of ¨what do you do for a living?¨".

Staging and my first two days in the DR

August 18-19

The going away and sendoffs were plentiful, and I left when I didn´t think I was capable of consuming any more rich brunches, plentiful dinners, nights out and lunches with friends. After a light sushi dinner with my sister, Stefany, and my mom I slept for a good four hours and woke up on August 18th at around 4:30 AM to have breakfast with my dad and stepmom before leaving for the airport. My mom picked me up at 6 AM and we headed to the airport... Good thing I got there early to discover a canceled American Airlines flight due to mechanical errors (fuel leaking or something that would have been, um, totally fine...). So I was rebooked to a flight out of SFO and was transported there to catch a later flight leaving at 12:45 PM to DC, via Dallas. The hauling of my luggage began, but finally by midnight I made it to DC and shuttled over to the Holiday Inn National right next door to the airport for a much needed nights sleep before staging.

I got to my room and met the first volunteer, my roomate who was also a Community Economic Volunteer. We chatted about important things like what we packed. And perhaps more important things, like what we expected, how excited we were, why we joined Peace Corps, etc. The next afternoon staging began (an orientation of sorts) at 1:30 PM. I was surprised to see so many people- 51 volunteers in total in programs of Healthy Communties, Potable water and electricity, Community Youth Development Volunteers, and Community Economic Volunteers. After registering, getting our tickets, reimbursed for everthing and turning in paperwork, we went through some basic get-to-know eachother icebreaking exersizes, found out more info about this rogue assignment in the DR (yes!), especially what to expect in the first few days. Afterwards we went to dinner went back to the hotel since we had to get up at 2 AM the next morning to leave for the airport.

I got around two hours sleep at most, so I was pretty exhausted (as was everyone else, I´m sure). Pandemonium ensued at the airport, there was a group of volunteers heading to Belize that were in line ahead of us, and our big group, plus other travelers who had no idea what they were getting themselves into that morning when they came to the airport. Finally after getting the bags checked I was able to eat, get some coffee and relax a bit before the first flight to Miami. We flew through Miami and onto the the DR-- finally we had arrived by around 2:30 PM on the 19th.

Our Program Director, Romeo Massey, an older an jovial man was there to greet us. We went through customs and walked outside. The moment was almost surreal as we walked out the gate, a group of volunteers currently serving were waiting out the doors to greet us with signs and applause. We walked out to the vans and hopped in our collective buses that would take us to our first night in the DR, at a retreat center 45 minutes outside of Santo Domingo. We got to the retreat center, a convent of sorts and were assigned rooms- 3 to a room. Then we all headed to have a snack for lunch, meet staff, and then have an initial presentation by the training director of Entrena, Jennifer. Entrena is a training company subcontracted by Peace Corps, and we are one of only two countries who subcontracts trainers. We got the first series of Rabies Vaccinations, went through some policy basics, and an outline for training during the first ten weeks of service.

Outline of 10 weks Pre Service Training (PST):
Weeks 0-3.5: Urban setting, live with a family in Pantoja, a city outside of Santo Domingo. Attend training at the Entrena center in Pantoja.
Weeks 3.5-8: Community Based Training. Go to site in the interior with other volunteers of your sector. My group, Communtiy Economic Development will be going near Puerto Plata on the North Coast. It is supposed to be beautiful up there, I´m excited to see more of the country.

Then we come together again back in Santo Domingo, have exams to ensure that we have learned enough to qualify as volunteers. After this the group gets sworn in on October 28th, and we are assigned to our respective assignements, where we will be posted to carry out projects for the next two years.

August 20

The next morning we left the retreat center to head to Entrena for our first full day of training. This place is gorgeous, it is removed from any surrounding, full of lush green trees, grass and plants and is an oasis of sorts. Many countries don´t have this environment for training, they may have training in just a room but we are fortunate to have an entire center, where we eat our meals, have Spanish classes in outdoor bungalos, etc. We went through training, mostly around policy and had an afternoon Spanish class. And that evening, at around 4:30 PM our host families came to meet us.

This was a nerve racking situation almost, with all the volunteers standing outside with their luggage, looking around for their new moms and dads and families, and a large group of Dominican Doñas looking for their new kids. Finally I was united with my new Mama, Doña Isabel. We walked down the long driveway to the street and jumped into a coche compartido (a taxi that incredibly fits seven people in it- including the driver). We hop in and drive a short distance to my new house in Don Gregorio, a neighborhood that is about a fifteen minute walk from the Entrena Center. I walk down the corner past an abandoned building to the back, and walk by the mechanic shop right in front 0of my house, then to my front door. She opens the gate and we walk through with a little puppy and kitten following en suite.

The house has a small porch out front with two rocking chairs, and two bedrooms. There is a living room with a sofa that has about ten pillows lined up across, more for show than congregation. My room is connected to the Doña´s room through the bathroom. The kitchen is in back and then the backyard is shared with her sister, who lives right next door, and her daughter, Melissa (31) who lives right in back. They have chickens and roosters that they raise for meat and cockfighting, a favorite pastime here. Her niece, who lives with her sister next door, has a son named Luigi. Luigi is a quiet, wide eyed and adorable little seven year old who sleeps in the Doña´s room. And the Don of the house, Juan I had seen wandering around throughout that first night, but didn´t actually meet him until the next day. There is also an extremely lively and gregarious ham, cousins with Luigi named Angelo. He is about 8 and is definately quite the entertainer.

That first night I got to know my Doña, Melissa and Luigi. Melissa is very friendly, is studying to be a teacher and has a hair salon in her house out back. She was doing the neighbor´s hair, and I sat out there playing catch with Luigi just hanging out. It turns out that another vounteer, Eva, lives right next door. She came over for a bit and we chatted on the porch. After some fresh fruit for dinner I took a shower, which is a showerhead that runs into a big bucket, then you use a bowl to rinse your self and wash off. First experience with bugs came at this point when I looked down to find a centipede had been in the bucket and was now near the drain. I organized my room a bit, put up my mosquitero (mosquito net) and finally laid down. With the fan on, of course.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Before coming to the DR

Less than a week before departure

I am set to depart for the Dominican Republic in less than a week. If you had asked me four months ago when I was set to leave I would have given an indefinite answer: “well… I was set to depart in January 2010, and now it may be as late as May 2010”.

But in the end I am leaving on August 18th, 2009 for staging (orientation) in DC and leaving August 20th with my training group for the DR. Life, as we all know is unexpected, and my Peace Corps experience has begun as a shining example for this truth.

I submitted my application on Christmas Eve, 2008, the idea set in my mind that I would be leaving around August. With this in mind, I decided it best to move from Brooklyn back to the Bay Area to be closer to family. As I packed up shop in NY, I had my first interview with my recruiter in the NY regional office. I learned that the influx of applicants (most likely due to the economy) put my projected departure date at January, 2010- a little longer than anticipated. I had also applied for many other fellowships and jobs to keep my options open, and as family and friends know that I was juggling many different options and ideas up until the beginning of July!

So I went on a month long trip to Central America before moving back to California in mid-March. At this point my recruiter was in contact with me, trying to get me into a NGO Development Program. When I got back I learned that I didn’t have enough consecutive full time experience working with NGO’s to qualify, so my application was withdrawn. I was to contact my recruiter at the end of April and ask her to resubmit my application for a training group leaving May/June 2010. Needless to say I was pretty down about it, and wasn’t sure if Peace Corps was going to happen after all. But a few weeks later she called me and asked if I were interested in recent openings for Central/South America as a Community Developer, set to leave in August. Of course I was interested!

Upon receipt of the nomination I was sent a medical package and began the intense medical process. I finally got through the medical office just in time to get into the Community Economic Development Project as a Community Economic Adviser, serving somewhere in Central America or the Caribbean. I spoke to the placement officer and waited for the package in the mail to tell me exactly where I was going. Finally it arrived. I remember sitting on the couch and opening the package, inviting me to serve in the DR. I was so excited and relieved to finally have received an invitation package, it made it real, it made persistence and all the unknown worthwhile.

That was five weeks ago, and now I find myself leaving in less than a week. I am excited, nervous, anxious, nostalgic- all of the emotions that one would feel before becoming acquainted with an unknown and exciting future.

And I began this countdown to departure five and a half weeks ago. This time has been amazing, with various send-offs, hanging out with family and friends, partying in SF/LA, various dinners, park and pool time. Nothing but good times, to pave the way for an amazing two-plus years of more good, and many hard times. I hope to emerge a stronger, more appreciative and confident person, equipped with a wealth of life experience (professional and personal), creating strong and lasting friendships and really making an impact with the people of the community I work and overall, positive change.