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!