I’ve been putting off writing this. Maybe because it makes me sad. Maybe because I didn’t have all the details right away. Probably a mix of the two.
Long story short, I left Baní.
Last Monday the guy who robbed me got sentenced to jail time. It turns out his family is into some pretty bad stuff, and the Peace Corps decided not to take any chances with my safety. So I left my site on Wednesday and went to the capital. They put me up in a hotel and I’ve been living out of my backpack for the past week.
On Sunday I moved everything out of my house. My boss and our security coordinator came, as did a Peace Corps driver in a big truck. I had gone earlier in the day to spend some time with my host family and pack things up. Everyone helped me put things in boxes and wrap up fragile stuff, all the while with a gloomy feeling hovering over our heads.
When it came time to leave, we didn’t say goodbye, preferring the less-final “hasta luego.” See you later. And it’s true — I will be able to see my host family again soon. But it’s going to be a hard adjustment not to live there anymore.
So what am I doing now? Well, Peace Corps does not want to put me in another site because my group is technically done in May. They don’t want to develop somewhere just to have a volunteer in it for four months. So I am going to be traveling around between now and May. I’ll visit other volunteers, helping them out with their projects if they want me to, and getting to know parts of the country I haven’t seen.
I much rather would have finished out my 2 years in the site I started in, but I really have no choice here. So, it’s time to make lemonade out of lemons.
I figure this post is a good way to follow up the previous post, entitled “Things That Have Happened.” I’ve been doing stuff down here, and now I’m going to tell you about it. Hold on tight.
I have planned and run a two-day conference for Dominican educators and Peace Corps Volunteers. As Southern Regional Coordinator for our national teacher training initiative, Escojo Enseñar, I was responsible for putting it together. Despite my worries, everything went really well. In early October around 15 participants gathered in a rustic little church conference center on the Dominican-Haitian border, and we spent the weekend talking about classroom management, lesson planning, and didactic materials. During processing, one teacher almost cried when she told us how nice the conference had been. Success.
I have attended another educators’ conference for the same initiative. I took a teacher and the vice principal from my school with me, and we did much of the same thing as the first conference, but this time in the Peace Corps office in Santo Domingo. I left feeling tired from running around and making sure the snacks, coffee, and lunch were on point. My teachers left feeling motivated, excited, and empowered.
I have, with those same two teachers, facilitated a number of workshops with the teaching staff in my school. My vice-principal, Jacqueline, has been incredible in organizing the workshops, and I feel confident that I can leave the project in her hands when I move out of Baní. This has been my first brush with sustainability, and it feels great.
I have taken a youth from my site to the Construye Tus Sueños (Build Your Dreams) national business plan competition, where he did really well. My friend Kenny worked on the CTS project with another volunteer, and wanted to participate again. So we worked together on his business plan, and he was invited to the national competition to compete! We stayed in a 4-star hotel (insert obligatory “Peace Corps is hard” joke), and I really enjoyed watching him engage with the other participants and learn from the whole experience. He made it to the finals, and presented his plan to the whole crowd! The judges chose other plans as the winners, but Kenny left feeling very excited about the possibilities that lay ahead of him.
I have ascended to the highest point in the Caribbean (and east of the Mississippi River!), Pico Duarte. I say “ascended” because I didn’t hike the whole way — at one point I had to get rescued by a mule. But no worries, because riding mules is a lot of fun. The peak sits at 10,164 feet (3,098 meters) above sea level in the province of La Vega. I made the trip with Ben and Ginny, two of my friends from my education group. They are awesome travel buddies, and they DID walk the whole way. We went with two guides, Eli and Edi, who carried our stuff on mules, cooked our food, built fires, and entertained us with stories about wild pigs in their crazy Cibao accents. The trip was one of the high points (topographically and mentally) of my whole service.
I have partied at the rooftop pool of a swanky hotel with a bunch of other volunteers for Thanksgiving. Everything was white, the rum flowed freely (or as freely as your PCV budget allowed), the bachata floated over the revelers, and the pool and hot tub were never empty. After the pool party we descended to dinner — real Thanksgiving dinner, with all the fixins. And all the pies. Afterwards I sat in awe of my fellow volunteers, who gave real meaning to the word “talent” in the post-dinner talent show. After a quick nap and shower, we were out on the town dancing the night away. My second Thanksgiving on the island was just about as fantastic as the first.
I have facilitated a basic computer skills class for the staff of my school. The participants were from the administration, from the teaching staff, and from the support staff. We had veteran teachers sitting side-by-side with doormen and janitors. There were people who had never even touched a computer before who were looking up things on the internet and printing out letters by the end of the short course. The course ended with a graduation, which I thought was going to be a short and informal potluck. Silly me. I should have known it would involve delicious food, a toast with wine, rum, merengue, and speeches, all in a kindergarten classroom on the weekend. One student cried when I gave her her certificate, and then they surprised me with my own “recognition” for being their teacher. As much as I complain about my school, I am really glad I agreed to work on this project.
I have gone to court in Baní for my burglary. Yes, still. On the upside, I’m getting insider knowledge of how the Dominican justice system works, something that few other volunteers can say (gracias a Dios). On the downside, I’ve now spent one quarter of my service dealing with this bullshit. And it keeps dragging on.
I have gone to Christmas parties. Our country director had one on his rooftop for the whole Peace Corps family. The views were incredible, the company more so, and the food was out of this world. After, we danced. Another Christmas party was held for the whole Escuela La Saona family. After celebrating the Day of the Child at school with cakes and toys and soda, the grownups went out to play. We went to a pool/bar/dance place in a town just outside Baní, and spent the night dancing, chatting, eating, and drinking. Good times.
I have spent Christmas in the United States. Last year I did Christmas in my site, and I’m glad I did because my host family is amazing. But it just wasn’t the same. So this year I went back to Virginia for a quick trip to spend Christmas the way I like it. I saw snow, I basked in the warmth of my parents’ fireplace, I watched our Christmas tree twinkle, and I spent Christmas Day cooking and relaxing and eating. It was definitely bizarre to be back in the US, but not as shocking as the first time. I got to see friends, but not as many as I would have liked to. One week went by pretty fast, and before I knew it I was on a plane back to the DR.
I have rung in the New Year on the beach surrounded by people I love, again. Days spent lounging on the beach, nights spent drinking and dancing. I’m incredibly lucky to be here. Of course there were some shambles that needed managing, but so it goes. To be on the beach on January 1st kicking up sand to the beat of a bachata song in a crowd of some of my favorite people…blessings don’t get much better than that.
Now I am back in my site, writing this in my little zinc house while a warm breeze blows in through my front door and windows, pondering my third calendar year on the island. I saw and did a lot in 2013, and I am excited to see the ways that I grow and what I can accomplish in 2014.
Siempre pa’lante, amigos.
(With apologies to my high school English teacher Mrs. Feil, who discouraged the use of “thing” in writing except in very special circumstances.)
Hello, world! (To echo English-speaking computer programmers everywhere…) I am alive. Sorry for the long absence from this blog. I hope you enjoyed your summer, and that you can find it in your heart to forgive me and read about mine. Without any more delay, here is the blog post with a little bit of everything from my second summer in the Dominican Republic.
Towards the end of May my patience with schoolchildren and schoolteachers was running short, the heat was starting to cook me, and the first world paradise of my native land was calling my name. It was wheels up at 6am after a night out dancing, and a half day later I was home. On vacation, at home. A strange concept when you think about it. My travel fatigue melted away immediately upon arriving home to a house full of my friends and family. A surprise party that actually, 100% surprised me. It was a wonderful welcome home.
The next two weeks seemed to pass all at once, even though they were packed with activity. I dragged my introverted self all over the DC area to see friends, tour the city, eat delicious food, drink good beer, and just enjoy everything. I met a YouTube celebrity in the basement of a Georgetown library, I re-discovered art museums and visited my favorite flying machines on the National Mall, and I got reacquainted with DC nightlife. Also, I learned there is a new type of taxi that comes to find you based on your smart phone’s GPS, and then charges your fare to a credit card. Wild, right? I made it down to Williamsburg for a birthday, and up to Pennsylvania to see my grandparents in their retirement home. Retirement homes, I’ve concluded are basically college dorms with nicer amenities and 60 years added to the residents. All the drama, gossip, and hilarity are the same. I rounded out my visit home in Florida to see my other set of grandparents. We ate steak! We went to an American beach! Then I was hauling my bags out of the rental car, telling my parents “See you later” around the lump in my throat, and rushing through security to find my gate. It was back to the island and back to work.
It’s not a secret that my site is a bit dangerous and crime-ridden, or caliente in Dominican. Whenever I’m in the Peace Corps office people always ask me how I’m doing, if I feel safe, if I’m sure I feel safe, every time I’m there. Gracias a Dios, I went my entire first year without experiencing any crime or violence firsthand. Sure, I heard stories that reminded me to always watch my back, to not go out at night, to be careful showing off my belongings, but nothing had happened to me. Nothing, that is, until I came back from America. I got in late at night so I stayed in the capital. When I woke up the next day, I had about 17 missed calls from my host sister—timestamp: 5:00am—and a text from my boss: Hey Brendan, give me a call as soon as you get this. Great. Turns out, my house was robbed. The joke is that they were “helping me move.” They took everything—fridge, stove, dishes, suitcase, clothes, gas tank, chairs, even my pillow. But thanks to my quick-acting host family and the Baní police, everything was recovered except 3 chairs and the pillow! Peace Corps was wonderful about the whole thing—our safety and security coordinator went to court with me and my host family, and they paid for new locks on my doors. The whole ordeal made for a bit of a bumpy re-integration after being gone for vacation, but I think I’m mostly over it. And thank God for my host family—if I lived anywhere else I would’ve been cleaned out, but they were there to look out for me. I’m thankful every day that I was put with such a wonderful host family and chose to stay with them for my whole service.
About two weeks after getting back from America, I went to my first camp of the summer. I had previously taken two boys from my group to the regional Superman camp, and I got the chance to take two more in the summer for the national camp! We spent five days and four nights at a campsite in San Cristobal, really close to Baní. It rained for almost the whole time there, forcing us on the second day to abandon the tents and put EVERYONE—boys, Peace Corps Volunteers, and Dominican leaders—in two rooms with bunk beds. It took a fair amount of Tetris-like shuffling to fit everyone into the rooms, but we made it happen. We spent the week doing a lot of fun activities, most of which tricked the boys into learning. I helped write a song to the tune of “Gangnam Style” about the steps of putting on a condom—we called it “Házlo Condon Style.” It was a hit. There was also an obstacle course through the male reproductive system, a zip line, a superhero relay race, and lots of art activities. In spite of the rain, the camp was a blast, and it was a pleasure to work alongside the Dominican youth leaders!
Fourth of July
Last year a bunch of volunteers went up to Las Galeras to celebrate the Fourth of July, and this year we repeated the party. My friends and I stayed in a sick house called La Cueva (The Cave). The main feature was the bathroom, weirdly enough. It had a heavy red curtain for a door, and was actually a cave. The walls were stone, the toilet was nestled into a mini-cave, and the shower was just hanging out in the middle of the room. There was also a neat kitchen, which we put to good use to make falafel and cheeseburgers. One day, we took a trip by boat out to a secluded beach called Playa Frontón. Crystal clear water that turned into unbelievable shades of blue lapped gently at the smooth sandy beach, which backed up against rough, rocky cliffs that towered overhead. Awesome, and so tranquil. At another point during the vacation we ate at a new restaurant that our dive shop friends have opened. I had a spicy (!) chicken burrito and iced tea, prepared by a real life British woman. Delicious food, delicious tea. Las Galeras is very far from where I live, so it’s always nice to get up there and relax in the sand and sun. And it’s even better when a ton of friends are there as well!
Visit from Americans!
Almost immediately after the Independence Day celebrations, I got to go pick up some visitors and show them around for a few days! Nicole and Jason, good friends of mine from William & Mary, came down from DC. It was GREAT to see them, and I felt proud playing tour guide to a place I’ve called home for almost two years now. We tooled around the Colonial Zone in the capital for a bit, ate yummy food, and even danced a bit. Then we went to Baní, where they got to meet my host family and friends in my site and see what Peace Corps living is like. Within the first few hours we ate a load of food, courtesy of Margot, and got stuck in the house of one of my students during a rain storm. Later on, I learned that a tropical storm was coming to the island…great. We rode out the storm in their hotel downtown over wine and chips, and the next day I sent them off to the beach for some long-awaited Caribbean relaxation. I was stuck in Baní because of a Peace Corps standfast, but early the next morning it was lifted and I went to join them at Juan Dolio. A few solid hours of relaxation and swimming, and then Nicole and Jason were on their way to the airport. I loved having my friends come and experience a bit of what my life is like down here! And I’m always welcome to the idea of more of my friends visiting! (Subtle, I know. Let me know when you book your tickets.)
Campamento Esperanza y Alegría
After my visita left, I worked a bit on my summer projects—my boys’ group and my adult literacy classes. It was good and educational, and then it became time for another camp! I spent two weeks working as a tío (that’s what they call counselors) at Camp Hope & Joy, for Clinica de Familia in La Romana. Each year they put on a camp for around 80 kids living with HIV where they get to play, swim, dance, sing, do crafts, and learn. The bus to the camp, which was up in Bonao, was a good preview of the energy level of the next two weeks—people were up and dancing to the music being blasted through the speakers, and there were plenty of wigs and masks and other costumes. We spent the first weekend being treated like campers as a kind of training, so we would know what to do when the kids got there. The first week was young kids, and the second adolescents, and both weeks were jam-packed with energy. As a tío, my responsibility was to accompany the kids everywhere they went and make sure they were enjoying themselves. It was awesome to see the campers learning and doing things that they never had the chance to do in their day to day lives. A lot of them live in really tough situations, so giving them a week of fun and love was an incredible privilege. I also bonded a lot with the other volunteers at the camp, an impressive mix of other Peace Corps Volunteers, Dominican volunteers who work in health and youth projects, and American college students. Their knowledge, enthusiasm, and kindness made for a wonderful two weeks!
The day after the camp ended, I went to the capital for a meeting for my region. We get together quarterly to talk about issues we have as volunteers and to ask questions, make suggestions, and give kudos to the staff. This time, we had our meeting at the Santo Domingo zoo! The zoo is really cool—it has very few caged-in pens, relying more on deep trenches surrounding the animals’ areas to keep them from getting out. There were a lot of different kinds of animals, as well as a train! Lots of people say it’s a depressing place, but I had a good time and didn’t get a bad vibe from it (except for one really sad-looking chimpanzee). Oh and the massive bird enclosures…no thank you. Getting some work done, seeing friends from my region, and being touristy in the zoo? Great idea! My next step in seeing captive animals should be to the National Aquarium!
I went to 3-month in-service training, again! But it wasn’t for me—I was giving a presentation. Last year I sat in the quantum learning-approved semicircle and watched the older volunteers impart their wisdom and knowledge after a year of service. Now, I was that older, wise(ish) volunteer giving the presentation. I threw together all the tools, challenges, and lessons learned that my group had shared at our one-year training and presented them to the new guys. They seemed appreciative and attentive. I love getting questions from new volunteers, because I know how helpful it can be to have someone who has been here awhile talk straight to you about a concern you have. Plus, this group of Education volunteers is really sharp and really fun, so hanging out with them after the day of training was over was really neat. They’re a good group and they’ll do good work. Also, the room they put me in at the training center was really nice and the shower looked like a spaceship. So all in all, a good experience.
First Week(s) of School
School officially opened for the year on August 16th. Four students came. This is normal. The teachers took this week to decorate their classrooms and get some planning done. Nationwide the first week of school is always a wash—the kids start coming the next week, some even waiting until September to start attending classes. We were supposed to transition to the all-day school day this year, but due to corruption the construction on the new school is halted, which means we have to continue in the old two-tanda system. So 900 kids are still getting a sub-par educational experience in their public school because some engineer was too greedy to actually do the work he was paid to do and build the second school on time. It’s things like this that make being a volunteer in the Education sector incredibly frustrating; grassroots work is difficult enough, but even harder when the powers that be repeatedly stomp on your grass. I’m starting off the year slow, evaluating reading levels and forming groups of students who will learn how to read. This will be my last school year here—I finish up in Baní in May before the students even finish class. So everything I do is instilled with a feeling of gravitas and urgency—this is my last shot to leave this school and its people better than it was when I arrived.
My host brother Koiki and I have been talking about going to Constanza for about a year. He would ask me, “So, when are we going to Constanza?” And I would reply, “Well, not this month because I have a lot of work to do. But next month, definitely.” This exchange replayed many times, until finally we nailed down a date and committed to it. I would not be too busy with school, and he would be on vacation from his work in the La Famosa food factory. Perfect. We took a three day weekend and rolled up on motorcycle to La Horma, the small mountain town that my host family is from in the province of San José de Ocoa. We stayed Friday night there and spent Saturday relaxing, visiting with distant family relations, and eating. Early on Saturday morning the death screams of a massive pig pierced the valley below us, and we arrived to the slaughter soon after to buy some meat. I sat and watched as the pig was shaved with machetes, cut open, gutted, rinsed out, and cut into quarters. Amazingly, the man whose pig it was estimated the weight of each part of pig to within two pounds! We bought a few pounds and immediately put the pot over the fire to start cooking the fatty skin. As the water in which the fat had rendered evaporated, the meat started to fry and smell delicious. We ate the chicharrones with some boiled green bananas. Breakfast in the campo—yum! In the afternoon we went down to the river, knocking down avocados, mangoes, and limes on the way. At the bottom of the valley we swam in the cold water of the river, and then trudged back up the mountainside to the houses. That night, under the brilliant Milky Way that is sadly invisible from where I live, we cooked up an arepa—a kind of cornbread—and hot chocolate to take with us the next day. By that point three more friends from Baní had arrived, and would join us on the trip to Constanza.
The next morning we got up at 5:30 and were on the road by 6:00, shivering a bit in the cold and dark of morning. Four motorcycles on a lonely mountain road, bouncing over rocks and through holes and puddles of mud. We made it to the guard house at the entrance to the Valle Nuevo National Park at 7:00, and were eating breakfast in the fog and chill of what they call La Nevera by 8:00. Nevera means “refrigerator,” and it is a fitting name. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see fifty feet ahead or behind on the road. I could even see it falling in ghostly whorls as it condensed out of the sky. When we had finished breakfast, it was back onto the bikes to continue the trek to Constanza. According to a sign I glimpsed on the side of the road, it was around 40 kilometers between the entrance to the park and the town of Constanza, on the other side. When we made it out of the northern side of the park, we stopped at the house of my host-cousin’s cousin, Chiquito. We ate the lunch we had brought with us a in a bucket—locrio de puerco, or rice cooked up with more of that delicious pig, prepared the night before. Then Chiquito mentioned a waterfall and decided we needed to see it. It was back on the motorcycles for some intense mountain climbing—at times I had to get off the back of Koiki’s bike and walk up a steep incline to give the motorcycle a rest. The view at the top was breathtaking. A massive waterfall cascaded down the side of the mountain, and we stopped at observation decks at different heights to take it all in. The path looked out over the valleys surrounding Constanza, which are split up into fields of strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, flowers, and countless other products. Agriculture is the lifeblood of Constanza, even if it doesn’t pump as strongly as it used to.
After leaving the waterfall we made the final stretch of our journey and finally made it to the town of Constanza, around 2:00pm. My cousin Guzmán called another relative of his, and we were taken to his house. Embarrassingly, I fell asleep on the couch. But after eight hours bouncing around on the back of a motorcycle, can you really blame me? We drank some delicious milkshakes and then left, explaining that we had to get back to Baní. We stopped briefly at Chiquito’s house, and he took us to an orchard where we filled up our bags with passion fruit, strawberries, and peaches (PEACHES!). Then we mounted up, entered the park again, and zoomed along the dirt and rock roads surrounded by tall trees. We made it to La Horma in the early evening, picked up our avocadoes, drank some water, and got back on the road by 6:00pm. In 45 minutes we were in the town of Ocoa at my aunt Paula’s house eating some delicious food she’d saved for us. Against her objections we had to eat and run, and got on the road at 7:00pm. We made it back to Baní at 8:30pm, tired, sore, but incredibly happy. After sharing stories with Margot, Benancio, and the rest of the family, I washed off the dust and grime from the road—after three days without bathing…oops—and passed out in my own comfy bed. The trip turned out to be much more about the journey than about the destination, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
There, now we’re all caught up. School has started, work is chugging along, and life goes on. I’ve got 8 months before my COS date, and I’ll be blogging about it all. Thanks for reading!
In about three weeks I’ll be hanging out in the capital waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport at 3:00 a.m. I’ll exit the taxi, take off my shoes, go through a metal detector, sit in sleepy anticipation, board a plane, and leave the ground of this island for the first time in 15 months.
I can’t wait.
There’s a phenomenon here that happens whenever I make plans well in advance. I see the date on my calendar, and in my head, and then just fixate on it. And then circumstances conspire to make me really want that date to arrive as soon as possible. My groups fall apart, the kids drive me crazy, my classes don’t go well—it could be any number of things. And then all those bad things make me want to get out of my site, and I see that calendar date approaching, and take comfort in it. By the time it arrives, it’s perfectly timed to be at the absolute worst, most difficult point in whatever troubles I’m having. So I get to leave my site, take a break, and then come back refreshed and happy and ready to tackle my projects again.
So that’s what’s happening with my American vacation. It’s still three weeks out, and things in site have been rough. Upon talking to my friends in my group, it seems that every one of us is in a one-year slump. Our projects are stalled or weak, our group attendance is far from 100%, and our optimism is at an all time low. We have a 1-year training coming up, and one of the sessions is simply entitled “Resiliency.” It sounds like Peace Corps knows what’s up as well. A day after the training ends, I’ll be flying out of Santo Domingo to Miami, hang out in Miami for a few hours—and probably go crazy from Americanness—and then touch down in Baltimore. And surely it will be at the perfect time.
In honor of being three weeks out from first-world bliss (or something like that), I’ve made a list of things I am most looking forward to in America.
- My friends. It will have been 15 months since I’d seen them. I’m excited to have time to catch up with some of the best people in my life.
- My family. My parents and brother came in December, so it’s only been a few months since I’ve seen them. But in the two weeks y pico that I’ll be in America I’m going to be visiting both sets of (living) grandparents, which will be great!
- Food. I’ve told my Dominican friends that the food I miss the most from America is foreign food. Pho, Korean food, Ethiopian food, Mongolian grill, I could go on and on. Northern Virginia and D.C. are a paradise for ethnic food, and I’m going to go to town on it when I get home.
- Driving. I miss my car something fierce. Considering Rosie is still in a state to drive, I’m going to take her out for a spin or two. I just hope 15 months without getting behind the car hasn’t ruined me.
- Good beer. There are three beers here, and they are not very good. To be fair, I’ve grown to appreciate a Presidente bien fria on a hot day, but I miss beer that is actually delicious. Happy hours and grocery stores, get at me.
- Places. Specifically Annandale, Williamsburg, and D.C. Those places are huge for me and I can’t wait to get back to them, be shocked by what’s changed, and revel in the familiar.
- Comfort. Cleanliness, hot showers, self-flushing toilets, CARPETS. I can do just fine without creature comforts, but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful.
- Quiet. My zinc house is currently vibrating to the music coming out of my host-sister’s massive speakers. Every phone call I have is interrupted by motorcycles roaring by. Huge packs of dogs fight in the middle of the night. It’s loud here, and if I recall correctly America is comparatively quiet.
At the same time, there are some things that I’m nervous about. A few friends have asked me if I’ll be overwhelmed and freaked out when I come back. Honestly? Yes, I think I will. But I also spent 22 years of my life there, so I’ll readjust. But some things are going to be strange.
- Toilet paper. I’m sorry in advance if I throw my used toilet paper in your trash can. That’s all.
- Quiet. I know I said above that I’m looking forward to the quiet. But at the same time, it’s going to be strange. I’ve gotten quite used to constantly hearing bachata and dembow in my barrio.
- Rules. I’m going to have to remind myself that I cannot carry an open beer down the sidewalk with me. Foolishness.
- Being polite. It’s not acceptable to hiss at people to get their attention, clack your change on the counter to be served, or shout someone’s name while standing outside their house to get them to come out. I will also probably call at least one baby fat, so, sorry for that. Not trying to curse any newborns over here.
There you have it. The anticipation outweighs the nerves. I’ve got about a week of classes left, then three days of meetings for Peace Corps initiatives, then my 1-year training, and then AMERICA.
This post also comes at a time when my blog has received just over 10,000 views! Thanks to everyone for following and commenting! I’ll keep on doing my best to entertain and inform!
I’m at the halfway point, more or less. It seems like just yesterday I was rolling up to the Pantoja training center on a bus with a bunch of other gringos. We spent ten weeks sitting through training sessions—some fascinating, some dull, some missed due to diarrhea and vomiting. The whole point of training, I guess, is to teach you a bit about the country you’re living in now, beef up your Spanish, and ensure that you won’t die when you’re out on your own. And it does its job. But there are some things that you can’t learn behind the walls of the training center, and don’t come to understand until you’ve lived through the intense experience of adjustment that lasts at least a year (and possibly never ends).
You can read all you want about holidays and cultural events and ask your Spanish teachers all the questions you can dream up. Yes, people get together with their families and cook a huge feast for Christmas Eve. Your town’s patronales will be a wild nine-day party celebrating its patron saint. Independence Day is marked by parades and massive celebrations. During Lent, better known as Carnaval, people dress up in costumes and whip each other. On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing happens. All of these neat little descriptions are, indeed, true.
Then you get to experience them firsthand, and the reality is wildly different from what you expected. The variations are as numerous as the reasons behind them. Your host family bakes an arepa for Christmas Eve because they are too poor to afford the typical meal. But then your sister-in-law sends over covered plates of moro de guandules, spaghetti, roast chicken, salad, and bread, one for everyone. On day two of the patronales celebrations, you’re still considering going down to the park to check out the party when you hear that the police killed someone in his car earlier that day. His music was turned up and he didn’t hear the shouts to pull over, or the sirens, so the police took the next logical step and opened fire on the car. The celebrations stop after two days. On Independence Day, school is out, and you stay at home enjoying the fan powered by 24 hour luz, a gift from the government that day. Nothing else happens. You go to Carnaval in your town, where people from neighboring communities as well as from far away as San Pedro and Haiti represent their regions through costumes, floats, and dances. There are the typical devils with whips, but they are joined by kids painted black dragging carts of sugar cane while other kids dressed as Spaniards whip them, representing the slave history of the island. The “Delegation of Haiti” proudly waves the red and blue flag while dancing around a huge wall of speakers that blasts music in kreyòl. A group dressed as every character from the Batman comics walks behind their banner declaring “The Legion of Gotham.” Halfway through, someone tries to pickpocket you, but you grab him by the wrist, give him a “Really?” look, and watch him slink away through the crowds. On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing happens.
One of the ten core expectations of volunteers is to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary.” Will I have to live in a hut? Will I have electricity? Running water? What will I poop in—a hole or a toilet? Coming in, most of us worry about the physical hardships. Yes, it’s hard to ditch all your creature comforts from the first world and take up bucket bathing, latrine-pooping, and sleeping under a mosquito net. But slowly, those “hardships” become commonplace and new, arguably uglier hardships come to the fore. You see students come to school with bruises on their face from beatings at home, or they don’t go to school at all because they’re “needed around the house.” You see the look of defeat in people’s eyes when they tell you that you can’t make a difference, no matter how hard you try. You hear people—adults and children—put each other down constantly. “You don’t know anything!” “You’re stupid!” “You’ll never amount to anything!” The psychological hardships come as a shock, seemingly out of nowhere, and you have to figure out how to adjust. You also learn how to choose your battles. There are times when you need to confront someone about something that is stressing you out. And there are times when you pull back, let things happen, and try to occupy your mind with something else. ”Conditions of hardship,” indeed.
Volunteers are required to live with a host family for their first three months at site. With the three months of training, that adds up to six months of being a guest in someone else’s house. Half a year. The Peace Corps, of course, anticipates the difficulties this arrangement could produce, so they train you in how to be a good guest. You learn phrases—“Where is the bucket to flush the toilet?”—to ensure you’ll survive. You learn about family structure, gender roles and expectations, and how to address people. You arrive at your site with all these skills packed up, ready to use, and by the end of the three months they are well-worn and almost second nature. Sometime during those three months, or a little bit after, you notice a change. You are not just staying with a family—you now have a family. People care about you and look after you, and you do the same for them. You introduce people on the street to your brother or your aunt. Sitting with your adoptive parents and shucking beans is no longer a “strategy to integrate and build confianza” but rather something you simply do. When you leave for a few days, you come back to find your house cleaned from floor to ceiling and all your things organized—the mark of a caring doña. You find yourself as part of a family in another country.
There’s a word in Spanish that tries to communicate the concept of living through an experience that teaches things that you couldn’t have learned anywhere else, and that you might have trouble teaching others. Vivencia. Training works in that it keeps you from dying or going crazy while adjusting to life in a foreign country. But there are some things that you won’t learn until you live them. I’m glad I’m having this vivencia. And here’s to being halfway through it!
“What are you doing?” I ask the secretary, Nancy. She and the school’s psychologist, Virgen, are emptying one of the shelves in our library of all its boxes, books, and didactic materials (“The teachers never use these!” laments Virgen).
“Oh, we’re taking this shelf out to put another one in,” comes the reply from Nancy. Sounds fair enough.
Some fifth graders are called in, which is pretty standard whenever any physical labor has to get done. No worries if it pulls them out of class, right? They get to work moving the old furniture out of the library, maneuvering it through the narrow doors, and taking it to one of the far-off classrooms.
Next piece to go is the smaller bookshelf. The kids empty it and pull it forward, ready to take it out too. This is when the fun starts.
We all see it at once. A little brown flash shoots out of the bookshelf, Virgen and Nancy scream and run out of the library, and the kids are all excitedly shouting “Ratón ratón ratón!” The mouse realizes its error in showing itself, and it pulls a quick U-turn to hide back behind the remaining bookshelves.
But it’s only a matter of time, mouse. See, Dominican boys are pest-killing machines. They sling pebbles at pigeons and then take them home to fry and eat. Once I was walking with a muchacho, and before I knew what was happening he had knelt down, grabbed a rock, and hurled it at a lizard that had appeared on the path and–BLAMMO!–it was dead. Another time, I was playing cards on the porch with a bunch of kids, and someone screamed “TARANTULA!” Everyone jumped up, flip-flops in hand, and ran to where the alleged tarantula was, slapping the ground and the walls and eventually the spider itself, leaving its curled up corpse for the cat to eat.
Like I said, killing machines. This poor mouse doesn’t stand a chance.
The director, Ramón, and the coordinator, Tomás, come in to assist in the mouse hunt. The doorman, Nery, is eventually convinced to help out too, despite his quick and fearful exit when the mouse appeared. The three of them, with a handful of muchachos, are pulling the bookshelves away from the wall, smacking the books, and swatting behind the shelves with sticks. I’m sitting in the corner, paralyzed with laughter.
Eventually, there comes a shout and the room is all action once more. The mouse is found! Swat swat swat CRACK whap! ”I got it! I got it! I killed it!” A muchacho emerges from behind the bookshelf, stick in hand, victorious. But the moment of victory is short-lived.
Another scream. A second furry flash as a second mouse makes its way, lighting quick, through the feet and table legs and out into the lobby. It disappears. We pause, looking at each other, measuring our options.
A distraction from the predicament appears. The kid who killed the mouse appears from the library, scooting his prize along the ground with a stick. He leaves it in the middle of the floor for his curious classmates to examine with prods and pokes. ”Get that nasty thing out of here!” shouts Virgen. He obliges, and resumes pushing the body along the floor, this time with his foot.
Someone appears in his way, there is a loud exchange, a shuffling of feet, and I watch, in amused horror, as one of his sneakers comes down on the mouse. Another scream, this time from Nancy. The guts explode out of the mouse’s bottom, staining the floor red. People are screaming, laughing, looking at each other. The muchacho who struck the blow looks up at me, half guilty, half grinning. I’m struggling to hold in my laughter. It’s all too much.
Virgen, who had pushed herself up against the wall and was holding her hand over her mouth, eventually composes herself and takes charge. ”NOBODY step there. You can get all kind of diseases from the microbes. Someone get me some bleach. And something to clean it wi–NO, not that mop! We can’t get blood on that mop!” The kids are, of course, crowded around looking at the corpse and guts. Then one of them stands up and says, “Look, it was pregnant!” Sure enough, little red baby mice litter the floor next to the big mouse. Gross. The whole family is swept out the door and Virgen gets to cleaning the blood off the floor. I return to the library.
A few minutes pass in silence. And then, yet another scream. ”The other mouse! I found it! It was under the water cooler and I scared it out with the mop and now it’s IN THERE.” Virgen points at the narrow metal door to the cabinet where we keep tools and medicine. The mouse must have gotten in through the crack between the door and the floor. But no worries, the muchachos spring into action yet again. I grab the key and open the closet, and the mouse killer crouches, ready with his stick. ”We’re going to play pool!” he shouts, a little too eagerly. The door opens, the mouse scurries around, and dies with a swift poke from the stick.
The nightmare is over.
I didn’t get very much work done that day.
Teaching is at once unforgiving and rewarding. In the Dominican Republic, sometimes I feel like the challenges far outnumber the rewards. But people still choose to become teachers, to submit themselves to the various tortures of the public education system, and, in spite of all that, to change the lives of kids. I got to meet a number of these people at a conference last weekend. Escojo Enseñar (I Choose to Teach) is a relatively new Peace Corps initiative aimed at teacher training, and this year was the second conference. It was a massive success! The teachers and administrators that each volunteer brought were intelligent, motivated, and contributed a lot to every discussion. After a bit of a lucha during the week leading up to the conference, I finally got two teachers from my school to come. Rudy and Clara were great! Multiple volunteers told me they were really impressed with my teachers; I’m proud of them and glad I could convince them to come.
The theme of the conference was “Building a Culture of Achievement.” On day one we were treated to welcoming remarks from Jacqueline Malagón, the ex-Minister of Education. She was incredibly motivating, and it was great to hear her stories about fighting for the reforms that she headed during her time in office (one story even included a hilarious Joaquín Balaguer impression). In fact, the title of this blog post came from what she said when asked to come up with a slogan for a Ministry of Education project (“Educar es enseñar a vivir mejor.”). I think the Dominican teachers in the audience were really impressed with her talk, and her opening our conference might have given us a boost in credibility.
After the awesome welcome, we jumped right into the charlas (presentations) and talleres (workshops). Volunteers facilitated themes including classroom management, multiple intelligences, learning styles, planning, and working with parents. We had a lot of opportunities to get up and move, whether it was through a dinámica or by going to different breakout stations to put theory into practice. There was a lot to cover crammed into an action-packed agenda—on Saturday we went from 8:00am until 8:30pm, with a few breaks for snacks and meals! But the energy of the conference kept up the whole time. Everyone was excited to be there and participate. And it helped that the location was a Jesuit retreat center with beautiful grounds that ended in cliffs overlooking the sea. It’s easier to learn when you feel relaxed and comfortable and can hear the waves. And the two sunsets over Santo Domingo were nice too.
On Sunday the conference wrapped up with the presentation of our manuals and DVDs as well as training on how to use them to teach the information in our own schools. See, the purpose of the conference is to give the participants the knowledge to go back to their communities and give charlas of their own to the teachers who couldn’t attend. My teachers have been awesome about taking up the role of multiplicadora—this week we gave two charlas and have three more planned. There is a good energy in the school, and it felt really good to watch Rudy, one of the teachers who went to the conference, as she facilitated information about classroom management to the rest of the teachers in my school. I’m excited to keep riding this momentum and help my school seguir pa’lante!
On Sunday, after we had received our certificates, traded numbers and emails, and said “Nos vemos,” most volunteers went with their teachers back to site. I stuck around to visit with two of my friends from William & Mary. They had been in Santo Domingo for the past week or so doing public health outreach and helping run a free clinic. I met up with Betsy and her mom in the park, where we got lunch and talked about Haiti. Betsy’s mom lives and works in Haiti, and Betsy works there every summer running a camp for kids in Port-au-Prince. It was really enlightening to compare our experiences on different sides of the same island, see what was similar, and learn about the often stark differences. Then we found my friend Bruce wandering the streets in search of empanadas. Alex also chose to stay, so we grabbed a room and hung out with the William & Mary SOMOS crew until about 1:00am. It was really great to see some of my college friends again for the first time in a WHILE, and to have the chance to share our experiences in the Dominican Republic. Third Goal in action!