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.