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!
Well, December has come and gone, and with it, my first round of holidays in the Dominican Republic.
My parents and brother spent a week here. We saw sights in Santo Domingo, played games with kids and compartired with my neighbors in my site, and relaxed at an all-inclusive resort in La Romana. It was great to see them, but time flew by and before I knew I was leaving them at the airport to go back to Baní.
I spent Christmas in my site with my host family. Honestly, it was sad. On Christmas eve my neighbor sent over the typical Noche Buena dinner, which was spaghetti, moro (rice with guandules in it), bread, roast chicken, and potato salad. Apparently times are hard this year, so my host family couldn’t celebrate like they usually would. I went to sleep at 10:00. On Christmas Day, I woke up and it felt like any other day. My host sister was doing laundry. At night everyone got dressed up in their new Christmas clothes and drank. Even the kids drank. Then it started pouring rain out of nowhere. We waited under the roof of a colmado for it to stop, but no luck. I ran home in the rain, watched Love Actually, and went to bed. Merry Christmas.
For New Years, a lot of volunteers got together up in Cabarete, a ridiculously touristy town on the northern coast. It was my first time up there, and it was weird. Apparently the hotel we stayed at was in “the Dominican part of town.” It felt normal to me. Colmados blasting music, street dogs barking, the whole thing. The tourist part of town was what really felt strange. I actually ran away from a bar on the beach because the waitresses spoke perfect English and the menu didn’t include tax or tip. It was strange to be in a place as a white foreigner who, instead of being a wealthy tourist, was a poor(ish) volunteer living here. But I had lots of fun, and it was great to spend time with my friends, many of whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. We rang in the new year by popping champagne on the beach and giving hugs all around.
We celebrated the Epiphany, Día de los Reyes Magos, yesterday. This is the day that Dominican kids get presents instead of Christmas. I gave my goddaughter a package of diapers and two cans of milk (she is 2 months old). The parents who could afford it gave their sons trucks and guns and their daughters dolls. Apparently one of the rich people in town (a senator I think) had a toy giveaway, but the toys ran out by 6:00 in the morning. Kids greet every adult (or maybe just me?) with “Y mis reyes?” Where are my toys?
It’s been strange to come back, like it usually is. This week school officially starts back up, but the kids won’t come until next Monday. I’m preparing for a Peace Corps conference for educators this weekend, which I’ve been looking forward to since getting to my site. After that conference I can start my teacher training course in my school. I’m also looking forward to getting back to work with my literacy groups and my boys’ group. Also in the works are starting a youth group about healthy choices called Escojo Mi Vida and possibly a girls’ group.
2013 is going to be a good one.
I moved into my house a very long time ago. And it took me a while to get it organized and to settle into it. But now I finally have, so here are some pictures of my little zinc casita! I’m living in the same patio as my host family from the first three months, so I still eat lunch with them and see them every day. I bring them food, they bring me food, we hang out on the porch, and we all use the same latrine. It’s a good deal. I feel very comfortable and safe here, which I would not have if I were living in a bigger house with more privacy. So while I’ve given up a great deal of privacy, personal space, and autonomy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
(Rachel, this post is not what you think.)
Okay okay, I know Thanksgiving has come and gone. So have Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So I’m a bit late with this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be thankful for a whole mess of things in my life.
At this point I’ve been in the country for nine months. If my Peace Corps service were a fetus, it would’ve popped out by now. Sometimes I do feel like I have kids…about thirty of them. I also have a goddaughter, for real. Her name is Cyndia and she is adorable. These kids come to my house to play, to learn, to color, to hang out with me, to try my crazy American food. Sometimes I’m strict or short with them, like all parents are, but the next day they’re reset and ready to be my friends again. Last night a bunch of kids were in my house coloring while I was cooking dinner. They were pediring things left and right—“Give me a pencil!” “Give me some water!” “Do you have another sheet of paper?”—and my patience was growing as thin as the broth in my soup. Then I heard the familiar ping sounds from my roof; it had begun to rain. I shut all the windows and doors to avoid the rain soaking all of my things, and the kids continued coloring happily and driving me crazy. The soup boiled, and I boiled. But neither of us blew our lids (okay, there might have been some minor yelling).
I’m thankful for these kids and the daily craziness they bring into my life.
During the past nine months I have been a passenger—willing, but at times forgetful of that fact—on the wildest emotional ride imaginable. If you could combine the speed of Top Thrill Dragster, the twists of Volcano, and the nausea of that Scrambler ride, you would have the approximate physical representation of what I’ve gone through emotionally as a Peace Corps volunteer (you’d also have one kick-ass amusement park ride). I’ve sent panicked emails to friends back home, I’ve had hour-long bitch sessions on the phone with volunteer friends, and I’ve laughed until my stomach hurt with my host family. One hour I can be riding a high from my literacy classes (“They all knew how to read the sentences with M and P!”) and the next I can be holed up in my house trying to cool down after having to physically break up a fight outside the school. But I’ve always been able to find an outlet for my giddy highs and devastating lows.
I’m thankful for my support system, both here and back home.
Every once in a while someone will ask me, or I will wonder myself, “What would you be doing if you were in the US?” And honestly, I draw a complete blank. I like to think this doesn’t mean that I would be dead if I were in America. Just that…I’m where I should be. There’s no other place in the world that I need to be right now. Sometimes I pine for the cultural mish-mash of the border, or to live in a batey, or that Peace Corps would reopen their Haiti program, but in the end Baní is my home and where I should be living and working. And I get to not only teach kids how to read, but also be a role model in everything that I do. My employer pays all my needs, so I don’t have to worry if my next paycheck is going to cover my rent and food and loan payments. I live on a beautiful island with a warm and welcoming culture, where all my friends live at most a 7-hour bus ride away. (Realization: In America I would not spend 7 hours on public transportation to visit a friend. Sorry guys.) I’m becoming fluent in one language and stumbling my way through another. I’m teaching and learning, all day, every day.
I’m thankful for this experience and the opportunities that come with it.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, hands down. I was worried when I first came here that I would spend the holiday holed up in my house crying and missing my family. Luckily, that was not the case. Every year Peace Corps Dominican Republic puts on a huge dinner for all the volunteers so that we can celebrate the best American holiday (don’t argue—it is known) with other Americans and get a break from our grueling campo lifestyles. The day started at 5:50am, when my alarm woke me up to get ready for the 5k Turkey Trot. Ben and I met Ginny on the street, and we rolled over to the office to catch the bus to the park where all the sports were to be held. I ran my first 5k ever (28:20!) and felt like dying afterwards, but there was no time for dying because we had to play football! Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without football, as the Fields family can attest (Turkey Bowl!) Played a game of football, then two games of ultimate Frisbee, then another game of football, then a game of kickball. By the time we finished with sports people were covered in blood, sweat, dirt, and grass. We got on the shuttle to the hotel as the driver looked worried that we were going to bloody up his nice seats (probably a legitimate concern). We got to the hotel and took the elevator up to the rooftop pool. The doors opened onto a scene from a music video—people jumping into the pool, lounging around, listening to American party music, sipping on tropical drinks. We made a whirlpool in the pool, I sat in the hot tub with my friends, and had a piña colada because, come on, you have to. Then it was time for dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and…rice and lasagna. A nice, if weird, mix of American and Dominican foods. I ate it all. Then the pies came out. Some volunteers had come in early in the week to live with Embassy families in their palaces and take hot showers and bake delicious pies. Dinner ended with a talent show, and then we all bussed off to our hotels to nap, shower, and go out to dance the night away to a mix of bachata and American music. For at least one day, those smug jerks in other countries who call PCDR “Posh Corps” were right.
I’m thankful for Thanksgiving. (Is that meta?)
Now I’m back in my site for a solid few weeks of nose-to-the-grindstone work. I’ll admit, it was hard (depressing, weird, awkward) to come back to my site after Thanksgiving. I’ve been struggling to start a new literacy group in the afternoons, but my morning kids are going strong. They’ve got all the vowels and five other letters under their belts, so we are on a good track. I’ve got a lot of mornings left with them before school lets out for vacation. I also have a few more meetings with my boys’ group. We’ve been playing a lot of chess, and I’m hoping to hit on the topics of values and alcohol with them before the December party season. After those weeks of hard work, my parents and brother come visit me in the middle of December! I seriously can’t wait for them to get here, see my island, see my home, meet my Dominican family, and of course enjoy some time relaxing at a beach. It’s going to be great.
I’m thankful for this life.