Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Construir tus Sueños, Mango Festival and Patronales

A couple of months have passed since my last blog, and several things have happened. Beginning in April and ending in June, I taught a business class under the Peace Corps youth entrepreneurship curriculum of Construir tus Sueños (Build Your Dreams). There was a lot of interested youth in my community, so I formed two classes at the request of students, one section held on Sunday afternoons for four hours in the community center and the other section for two hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights in a community church space. The Sunday class was much calmer, with only six students sticking it out to the end from the initial 14. The Tuesday and Thursday group was a much rowdier bunch, with 15 remaining from the initial 25 students that showed up on the first night. Through hours of working through 14 sessions exploring different business themes from entrepreneurship to feasibility studies, business plans, marketing, basic accounting, budgeting, cost and pricing analysis, etc. In the end 21 students graduated from the course on Monday, June 13th. We had our last session followed by a party, giving out certificates, playing a common game El Secreto,  lots of photos, soda, salami, cheese and crackers. 

After completing the course, they now have the option to work on their business plans individually or in groups to enter into a national competition that will take place over three days at the end of September. If their plans are selected they will compete to win various prizes including the opportunity to have their business fully or partially financed. Many are up to the challenge and excited for the competition, and are working out the details of their plans that they started while in the course.
(Photo: Class of 2010, Constriur tus Suenos)


Another happening in June is the Mango Festival/Expo, that takes place annually in Bani. Sun Fruits Cooperative, Inc. (Fruticoop) was there selling their products, along with many other producers and stands. It is incredible I had no idea that there were so many varieties of mango—well over 25 (not sure how many exactly)! The festival was inaugurated on a Wednesday night, with traditional dance and costume performances by youth,  as well as colorful modern dance performances featuring booty shaking provocative routines ‘fit family fun’. Workshops, food, free coffee, mangos to your hearts delight, and live music. And let us not forget the inescapable heat of Bani! I worked three of the four days and we moved a fair amount of product, our new and improved mango marmalade was a big hit.

Photos: Band with traditional dance; Mango Madness at Mango Expo 2010; Mangos
(photos by Gabriel Socias):

It is Patronales season in Villa Fundacion, and the town is alive with nightly live music, DJs, dancing, and fritura (fried foods) on the central plaza. Patronales is an annual 10-day celebration honoring the town’s patron saint, San Juan Bautista. Every town has one that all fall on different weeks of the year. There are nine days of prayer or novena, starting two days before Patronales begins. So far we’ve had an array of musical guests, including Dominican singer Juliana, los Pepes, infamous for their hit single repeating Pepe over and over again with illicit undertones and double entendres. Still to come is Alex Bueno, who sings bachata, salsa, merengue and more, Los Años Dorados, Los Hermanos Rosario (merengue) and and bachatero El Chaval. Relatives living afuera (outside) in the US in NY, Boston, Florida and elsewhere sign into live video chats and feeds of the party, with a camera scanning the crowd and relatives greeting each other via live feed. All is featured on a large screen in the park.

Besides that, I have the usual trips to Santo Domingo to multi-task and get everything done at once.  Beach trips to Juan Dolio and Derrumbao, which is the Caribbean side of Punto Salinas that has beautiful snorkeling. Tarantula hunting in my house (they like to kick it at my place), this usually consists of me grabbing a stack of four or five books for the battle and hurling them across the room. Just living that relaxing campo life, reading, listening to the chorus of farm animals and working on projects. My project is up on the Peace Corps Partnership Program website, check it out and make a tax-deductible donation today to support the women of Fruticoop, Inc. working in dried fruit and marmalade production using solar technology: https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=517-386.

Most of all right now I am looking forward to my visit to California in just one week! Cannot wait for a break and two weeks with friends and family!

Photos: On way to snorkeling spot Derrumbao walking past salt pools in Salinas, sand dunes of Bani in background in middle photo, man working in salt pools: 

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Samana and familiar faces

My friend Mariange came to visit from home and we went to Samana for a few days. Samana is a gorgeous, idyllic peninsula that juts out in the north east, filled with rolling hills of palm trees, turquoise Caribbean waters, and white/yellow sands- truly breathtaking. We met up with another volunteer in the capital who lives in Samana and headed up to her site for the day.  After getting to her house we got ready to go to the beach in her town, across the road, down a river where locals bathe and wash everything you can think of, and down a dirt road to the beach. The beach is beautiful, and has an enclave of Italian summer (or year round) bungalow dwellers who try to claim one side of the beach is ‘theirs’ with no legal backing whatsoever. So the kids from the town still head down to their beach and enjoy the seaside swimming despite the foreigners protests, as they should.

Kaitlin’s Brigada Verde ('Green Brigade') group came down for Water Day activities, with another volunteer and her brother visiting, my friend and I. We swam in the warm water with a nice crisp breeze upon exiting. While there I got to see the site and the town, and meet my dog Choco’s parents. He kind of looks like his mom, a yellow lab type happy dog that looks like she has gotten in a few fights in her life. And the father is an unlikely match- he looks nothing like the dad, who is short, spotted and well…. lets just say Choco takes after his mom.

That night we got a ride to Samana to head to a resort. Equipped with wrist bands for an all inclusive, we covertly slinked pass the armed guards of the place to mingle amongst the guests of the all inclusive- enjoying an all you can eat buffet and cocktails galore on the house.  A little piece of heaven.

The next morning Mariange and I decided to stay the night in Las Terrenas, a small touristy fishing town about an hour away on the north coast.

Fisherman at Las Terrenas:

After several gua guas (buses), we reached the town and found a reasonably priced place right across the street from the beach. The crystal clear blue waters and white sands make for mouth watering beach enjoyment, with the only downfalls being topless European tourists (not exactly culturally respectful here) and a narrow beach that lines the main road.

There are pleasantly decorated, not too crowded beachfront restaurants, and bars with beanbags right on the sand.  The few bar/discoteques at one end of the town had an interesting crowd, lined on one side with sex workers and the other with awkwardly dancing tourists, waiting for the rum to kick to make some questionable decisions... slightly disturbing.

The next morning after a brief beach stint, we began the 6 hour trek back to my town (4 gua guas and a taxi), with a three hour stop in the capital for groceries and a late lunch. By 9 we were back for the next few days in my town.  The next few days were spent with many rich meals, experimenting nervously with my gas oven, walks with the dog around town, and compartir-ing in many a plastic chairs along the way. Thursday night we had a late night domino match with an older couple that lives next door and then went to the beach at Punto Salinas with them the next afternoon for okay snorkeling, Presidente at the colmado and stopping to try majarete, a sweet corn desert on the way home. And Mariange was off the next day, closing a wonderful week—so nice to have company from home!

Punto Salinas, Caribbean side; Mariange and a starfish; Me and Mariange:

Centro de Madres: Taller de Muñequeria. The Women's Center Doll Making Shop.

As a secondary project (or complimentary as some prefer) I work with the local Women's Center, or Centro de Madres, giving business charlas, working on organizational strengthening and helping with marketing and sales of their products. The Centro de Madres is a group of 35 or so women of all ages, mainly 40 plus, but there is an entry point for youth to work with them as well. The group meets every Wednesday at the Taller de Muñequeria (Doll making shop), opening each meeting by standing and singing the national anthem Quisqueyanos valientes (or Valiant Quisqueyans). 

Taller de Muñequeria (Doll making shop):

I took photos of women making the dolls. The women have a set labor price, getting paid for each part they do in the process. 

Like filling the dolls:                
Or painting the faces:       

Making the dresses:

 They have a variety of doll products, each one with a different names such as Lolita and Ary:


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Delinquency, corruption and vigilantism- Oh my!

My town has had a series of delinquent events occurring since I have been here. Several fires have occurred in the early hours of the morning, burning down a political building, a house with a cane roof, and another home. There have been robberies of motos and batteries (expensive batteries that run the inversors, giving houses and businesses electricity when there is no electricity, which is often. Some say that the ‘mafia’ that runs the electricity in this country are also investors of such goods as these batteries, who have an economic interest to keep the electricity problem from improving). There is a lot of drug activity in my town, nothing which I see with my own eyes but hear about. Apparently a group of delinquents (drug users, dealers, robbers, this is a term used to encompass them all) meets after midnight at different locales, usually banquitas or gambling joints along the main road.  The delinquency reached a high point a couple of weeks ago, when an 18 year old girl was violently murdered in the early morning, with the main suspect being her boyfriend who was supposedly deep into drugs, also a case of suspected domestic abuse. Nothing like this has happened before in the town. People die prematurely of motorcycle accidents by popping wheelies and doing tricks, racing, etc.- but never a murder like this.

The town has taken to meeting weekly to confront the problem. A town hall meeting was called last Saturday to see how they wanted to tackle the problem of delinquency. I could not make the meeting, but several community members filled me in. My neighbor told me this morning that the police rounded up suspected drug users the night. I told her that was great it should nip the problem right in the bud. She then informed me that after bribes to police officers and judges, they would be let free. She tells me a story about her brother. Basically one time her brother turned in youths that robbed his house, and they have since been released. Now they are threatening to kill him since he turned them in. He decided to no longer press charges for his own safety. She said that the town decided to take matters into their own hands, since the police wouldn’t do their job, and you cannot trust the authorities due to heavy corruption. How? Scare them by killing them. If they come into your house, don’t let them leave, deal with the problem yourself. Some people in the town believe they must resort to extreme measures, taking matters into their own hands to restore order- vigilantes. I countered with her that this is an extreme measure, that it is one thing to kill a person in self-defense but quite another to look them in the face and kill them to send a message to others. That is murder and a brutal crime. She counters that everyone in the town knows who the delinquents are, and no one says anything for fear. They do not turn them into the police because they don’t think anything good will come of it. The conversation ends with her telling me that they won’t exactly kill them themselves- no, no- they will HIRE someone else to do the dirty work, because there are people that do it for a living. Intense.

But this is one extreme view, as I learned of a more rational standpoint from a community leader. First, before taking matters into their own hands a la vigilantism, they are compiling a list of all the delinquents in town, a list that they will give to the police. That is where we are at as of now. He concluded by saying that if the police don’t do their job, the town will be forced to take matters into their own hands.  To be continued...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A recap of 2010

As I approach my seven-month mark of being in the Dominican Republic on March 20th, my five-month mark of being in my town is approaching on the 30th.                                                          

A recap of 2010 thus far...... most of January I was scurrying to finish my organizational diagnostic, or rather I had been working on it for awhile so I was more struggling with trying to finish community interviews (a survey of 100 households in my community). I did about 2/3 of the interviews myself, with the other 1/3 completed with the help of the local youth church group as a part of the community service required while in high school. Interviews were a really good way to get to know different households in the community. At times they are also very humbling, grounding my over confidence and self perceived expertise in Spanish when I encounter a 90 something year old woman and have absolutely no idea what she is saying as she animatedly responds to my questions amidst an intermittent cackling laugh.

At the end of January I dropped all of my things at my new house and then headed early the next morning to the capital for 3 month in-service-training, which was held at a retreat-type convent right on the ocean in Santo Domingo (ironically surrounded by love motels with names like Si o No?). The whole Community Economic Development crew reunited for a week-long training session, filled with dinamicas (icebreakers- a Peace Corps favorite), helpful sessions, and two nights out playing miniature golf and seeing Avatar (the first movie I had been to in five months or so, must be a record for me). Everyone arrived with their project partners for the first two days. 

In my case the treasurer came with me the first day to present the cooperative's organizational diagnostic, went home that night and then the President of the cooperative came the next day for a day of Project Planning. It was hard for me to get people to commit to coming to the training because I mainly work with women in the community whose primary job is being an ama de casa, or housewife.  Spending the day away from the household is difficult, as they have to arrange for meals to be made, children/grandchildren to be taken care of and household duties to be covered by in-laws or neighbors. This took some adjusting on my part as far as understanding certain cultural differences and norms that I will be working within as a volunteer. The compromise was one member came the first day, then another the second, but no one could spend the night away from their houses because of compromisos (or commitments) in the house. For the third morning no one was there, which in the end was not a problem.

Since Christmas I would say one of my own personal milestones/bigger achievements has been moving into my own house. I had this milestone etched in my head when I began service, thinking only six months with host families and I’ll have my own space! I think that Peace Corps DR policy regarding volunteers living with host families is completely necessary, it gives you a full time crash course in culture, communication and integration into the community through trusted, well known members of the community (ideally, but some volunteers are not as lucky).   Luckily my experience has been positive and I haven’t really had any complaints when it comes to the host families I was placed with. But it is a feat in itself adapting to a new culture, a new job as a volunteer, and not one, but three different host families in three different towns or cities before settling into your own place.  To sum it up, it was a rollercoaster of ups, downs and in-betweens with a constant adjustment period. Finally I feel I am  adjusted to the country, and my town is feeling more and more comfortable and I see many familiar (and many still unfamiliar) faces around.

It is nice and quiet in my new place, and of course at times a bit lonely.  Luckily I have my dog to keep my company, even though he is a handful himself sometimes, burning bridges left and right. He’s banned from overnight stays at my old host families house (they also have 4 other dogs so five puts the Dona over the edge). Most recently, while I was in the capital for two days working, I asked the neighbor to give him food and water while I was gone, and left her with my keys. I came back to an exasperated woman who had to chase him around after he escaped from the backyard, who then fixed my back fence around the patio so he could no longer get out. Mind you this is after her and her husband helped me construct the fence around the patio so he would have somewhere to run instead of having to be tied to the fence. Add five amendments to the fence because Choco found some new way to Houdini himself out of the backyard, one case in which her husband had to chase him all the way to the police stop about two blocks away. So I will be exploring other options next time I need to leave my site! But Choco is definitely a crowd pleaser and quite a favorite with the kids in the neighborhood. When ever I am out walking without him  they ask where he is—which is funny because I think they remember his name better than mine!

The house is wonderful. I have a nice view of the mountains, which are especially gorgeous in the crisp morning.  It is a three-bedroom house so I have my bedroom (which I just painted a couple of walls a turquoise green color), a smaller room that will be my office, and a guest room. The Mother’s Center let me borrow a stove with an oven and some pots and pans- a huge expense spared. It already had a fridge, a bed for the spare room, and then my project partner loaned me a gas tank, a bed for my room and an armoire. After my essential fan, dishes and silverware and used washer purchases I have a solid base. Finally I have a table to eat and work on so I am set for now.

My little yellow house:

They say that to never be disappointed or deem anything as a failure you ought to go into things with no expectations. Well here in the DR, I feel that an entirely new definition is brought to the idea of NO EXPECTATIONS. Take the monopoly internet-phone service provider, Codetel (also in charge of the phone network Claro, all under a more commonly known little service provider, Verizon). There is no competition for Codetel here (at least in my area), therefore there is no need no compete to provide quality service to keep that customer coming back for more. The customer, unfortunately, HAS to come back for more. And thus there is no reason to provide excellent customer service but rather barely meet the customer’s needs because, well, the customer has to put up with it. I order a phone line in my house on a Friday, the technician will be at my house within 3-5 day period. The next Friday he calls in the morning, he will be in past 2 PM. Luckily I ask for a contact number just in case. I call him at 4 PM, are you lost? Technician: Uh, um, no well I am in Santo Domingo, I can’t make it out today. Me: And why didn’t you call me and let me know? When will you be coming? Technician: I will be there first thing in the morning, between 8:30 – 9 PM. Me: Ok, well come early because I have appointments in the afternoon.  Come the next morning, I call at 10 PM to ask where the guy is. Technician: oh, I’m at my house, um Ill be there in an hour and a half. Of course I need to catch the Dominican translations to these clues. 8:30 in the morning, I can’t believe I believed that one! It really meant three hours later. Or rather they will make you wait a day without telling you and it is completely normal.
Guy finally comes and installs the phone. Doesn’t work. A week and a half later another guy comes, same process. But this time the guy does a good job and everything is set.

Another example, this time from the public sector.  My project partner and I come to decision that it is time to call an all cooperative meeting. It will serve for two purposes, the first being to have a learning workshop help by the autonomous government institution that provides assistance for cooperatives. The second purpose is for me to open up the meeting with a presentation of my organizational diagnostic, a talk on project planning and management and to present the project that we will be working on for the next year and 8 months.  Fifty invitations were sent out, it will be the first time the entire cooperative meets as a group, as they rarely meet (only the directive has met monthly since I have been here, the cooperative is at a stand still at the moment and picking back up now).  The day before the event, the institution calls to cancel last minute- they won’t be able to make it. I mention expectations because my having no expectations, or certain low expectations was more limited to a) people showing up an hour late; b) maybe a third of people showing up. I guess I didn’t even think about whether or not the government agency was going to hold their appointment and their side of the bargain. But such is life here in the DR, you can’t really count on certain public services, the more obvious examples being electricity and water. (On a positive note, I must mention the institution has been extremely helpful otherwise- setting up an NGO meeting and providing some good resources!).

In the end a little under one third of the cooperative showed up, or 16 people.  Thirteen of them were women that work in production, so I will be working with them more closely in the coming months.  I can only look at it as a success in that I reached new people in the cooperative, presented my project and introduced myself to a couple of new faces, and talked about project planning. A second small success came right before this meeting at the monthly directive meeting, where we held a session to come up with the vision and the mission statements for the cooperative.

And a third success was a marmalade workshop. The sub Director of the PCDR came out to our campo with his wife two weeks ago to hold a small workshop on making marmalade using pectin. The marmalade product the women had been making was coming out much darker than it should, losing its color and flavor in the extended cooking process it took to make the marmalade. Pectin is a natural  substance found mainly in citrus fruit that works as a gelling agent, reducing the cooking time to just minutes. Six women came to the workshop. We made mango marmalade and now have to work out the details of our own recipe. Now I am doing a cost-benefit analysis, looking into sources for glass bottles and pectin, which can both be quite expensive.

Women making mango marmalade: 

Coming up soon are business classes for Construir tus suenos starting in April with youth in the community, continuing to implement the project for Fruticoop, Inc. and continuing to work with the women’s center Doll Workshop, or Taller de Munequeria.  And soon my friend Mariange will be visiting from home—which I am very excited about!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Holidays in the DR

Holidays in my site…

December is a sleepy month in the DR. The first half of the month was filled with the last meetings of various community groups, wrapping up the year with Angelitos (secret santa), eating the Dulces de Navididad (Christmas sweets of apples, raisins and gumdrops), dancing to bachata and merengue and perico ripiao (very fast version of merengue), and playing a game called El Secreto.

                                                                Dulces de Navidad

El Secreto, or the Secret, is a game with many different versions played at parties. Version 1: Wrap a present and attach a chain link of paper to it, with each paper containing a sentence. A person begins, opening the paper that contains a sentence such as: he who is the biggest flirt, the girl with the lightest eyes, the cutest, and the most voluptuous. It really depends on the party and the crowd at how tame the sentences will be. The person reading it chooses the person in the room they think fits that description, and gives them a kiss, usually on the cheek. The game continues until the chain is gone and the last person opens the present. Version two: Put papers in balloon. A boy takes the balloon and a girl comes up and they pop the balloon using their bodies (usually sitting on the lap works best). They read the strip of paper in the balloon and game continues as such.

As food is an integral part of Dominican culture, there are many, many big late night meals with your bowl/plate filled to the brim with amazingly tasty Dominican cuisine (to give you an idea: spaghetti, moro- beans and rice mixed, yucca, guineo or banana served in more ways than you can imagine, plátano maduro frito or fried ripe plantain, guandules- green beans with the beans stripped out and normally cooked with coconut, bread, chicken and pork, goat, Russian salad, potato salad, stewed eggplant, okra, don’t get me started on deserts, etc.).

There is also the aguinardo (caroling a la DR), where groups of people start at one house and begin singing and dancing in the early morning hours, moving from house to house, waking people up that then join the group. The crowd grows as they move through the community.

Christmas is not as big of a deal as is Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is largely centered on the three F’s- family, food and fun. Preparation for the big Christmas Eve meal often begins the day before, and continues the entire next day. The food is set out and the massive food consumption begins. Many people pass through, sharing the meal and wishing each other a Feliz Noche Buena (Merry Christmas Eve). Some people pass through singing Christmas songs. This continues until very late (12/1 or even later) with music, dancing, and Presidente beer if one so desires.

                                                            Caroling (aguniardo) a la DR:

                                    Host parents' daughter, Yamile with excellent food she prepared:         

                                                              host parents dancing:

Unlike American culture, or at least in my experience Christmas presents are not exchanged. Santa doesn’t pass through the DR or much of Latin America from what I understand. Presents are instead given to children on January 6, Dia de los Reyes Magros, which the government changed to the 4th this year because it fell on a Monday and a four- day weekend just wasn’t long enough. Christmas day is a quite and relaxing day where people eat leftovers from Christmas Eve. It was not easy being away from family this year, and although I was quite distracted on Christmas Eve with all the festivities, Christmas Day held more somber tone for me. Luckily, some family friends were heading to the beach and invited Choco and me to come along. We stopped by Los Corbanitos, which is a remote and beautiful beach that happens to be the closest to my town (5 Km away).  Then we continued on to spend some time at Punto Salinas.

                                                    Me and Choco at Los Corbanitos

Christmas Party in the Capital…

A week before Christmas I was also in the capital going to go the Director’s annual Christmas party, held on the top floor of an apartment building that has an amazing view of Santo Domingo and the ocean. We enjoyed some Chinese food and an amazing array of deserts, and some hanging out time. I was asked to attend an event in Azua, a town thirty minutes past Bani to go to a conference hosted by the Secretary of the Environment  (with Jaime David, former Vice-president and now Secretary of Environment) at an off the road beach. Accompanied by three other volunteers and a Peace Corps driver, we finally found the event after much searching, which was to support a sort of local shrimping project sponsored by the Taiwanese government and the Dominican government.

                                                                  Outside Azua:

The beach was quite nice and the day interesting in so many words, with a flat tire on the way home and a nauseous bus passenger who projectile vomited a hot pink substance all over the cobrador (fare taker) and me on the bus ride on the way back to my town from Bani.  Good times.

The New Year….

Two thousand ten a new year and new decade has commenced. Just to think ten short years ago we were all huddled up in our basements with can openers and stacks of bottled water awaiting the impending doom of Y2K (although I was probably dancing to electronic music in some warehouse)!  This new years I brought in 2010 in Caberete with some great PCV friends and also my friend Julieta who happened to be around to celebrate!

Caberete is a beautiful beach town east of Puerto Plata. From Puerto Plata (roughly 3 ½ hours north of Santo Domingo) continue onto Sosúa, the sex tourism capital of the DR, and take a taxi twenty minutes east to Caberete, a once sleepy surfing town turned tourism and water sports destination.  We lucked out on weather really, with the day time being mainly clear to enjoy the gorgeous beach, warm water, and waves fit for challenging body surfing.  We had a nice place with a kitchen and beds for everyone on a place right on the beach. Caberete is nice because everywhere seems to be pretty much on the beach, with the main road running along the beach and nearly everything accessible to the beach. There are a lot of nice beach side places to eat and beach side bars for afternoon/night time. Accommodations are inexpensive compared to other touristy places.  It was a great time and I could not have asked for better food, company, fun and beach time. After new years we had a quick stop in Rio San Juan, a beautiful quiet neighbor of Cabarete with hotels on the cliffs of the ocean and beautiful picturesque beaches just a 10 minutes bus ride away. Gorgeous and I will definitely be going back.


                                                    Playa Grande, Near Rio San Juan:

My trip up north was just what I needed to start of the New Year running with a very work filled January.  Being back in my site feels better than what I expected.  I have already began chipping away at the mountain of community interviews I have to conduct for my survey, the breadth of the work I have to complete in preparation for 3 month IST (in service training held for one week in the capital).

                                                          Host mom phone outside house:

                                                                      Choco sleeping: