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Here, There, Everywhere

July 19, 2014

My first big job as PCVL was to drop in on the new education group and see how they’re doing in their new homes. My boss, Ann, had already rolled around the entire country and done “introductory visits” with everyone—where she held meetings with the volunteers and their community members and gave them a VERY quick rundown of everyone’s responsibilities during the first few months. The meetings were fast, and she traveled in a Peace Corps SUV. My visits were neither fast nor in private vehicle. I spent the last month visiting 20 different communities around the country, getting there on whatever conveyance was the least inconvenient in the moment. It was an adventure.

I wrote a bit about transportation in one of my very first posts, back when I was still in training in the capital. Guaguas and carros are fun, but transportation out in the campos is a whole other ball game. Let’s start off with the word “guagua.” For most of my service—and still today—when I think of that word I imagine the typical 40-something seat bus that looks like a loaf of bread made of metal and glass traveling at breakneck speeds. (Fun fact: The Mandarin word for “van” literally translates to “bread car”. The more you know!) But in the campo, pretty much anything can be a guagua. A bright yellow Caribe Tours bus that operates on a schedule, uses paper tickets, and has reclining seats and a bathroom? Guagua. A huge, blocky city bus that travels from the end of the road on the Haitian border all the way to the capital and a crawl? Guagua. Rusted, busted, doors-falling-off van that somehow still climbs mountains, even if it has to cough out noxious black exhaust to do so? Guagua. A pickup truck with holes in the bed and on which your traveling companions are just as often animals as humans? Guagua. After so many different experiences, I no longer have a set image that jumps to mind when I hear “guagua”.

And then there are motorcycles. Oh, motores. How I love them. They can take you anywhere you need to go…but for a price. They’re always more expensive than any other transportation available. When I was out in the province of Elías Piña, I had to get from one campo along the highway to another one set waaaaaay back, far from everything. The only way to go was on a motorcycle, and almost every driver I talked to about taking me was terrified of the road to get there. They said t was the worst road they had ever been on, and dangerous for people who didn’t know how to drive on it. I finally found someone who would take me, and after about a half hour (they said it would take an hour) on a pretty bad road I made it to the next community on my visit list. (For the record, I’ve seen worse roads.)

Anyway, learning about and expounding upon the different types of transportation in the campo was not the point of this adventure. The real purpose was to check in on the 21 new education volunteers who are settling into their sites! They got there in the middle of May, and have been spending their time getting to know their communities, finding people they can work with, and completing what we call a Community and Sector Assessment (CASA—cute, right? Peace Corps loves its acronyms.). They go around interviewing people about what they think of the community, with the end goal being to understand the current state of the site and what kind of projects they can work on as volunteers in the future.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of challenges and difficulties that can present themselves during this adjustment period. That’s where I come in! I got to spend more time than Ann could at the visits—a few hours, usually. That gave me a lot of time to talk with each volunteer, walk around their communities, and meet their people. We talked about the good, the bad, the ugly—volunteer support is a pretty great part of this job. We have been clustering volunteers close together in a few strategic places around the country, so I got to see lots of different places. Some sites are within an hour of the capital, and others are a 7-hour (at least) trip that puts you in sight of Haiti. Some sites are urban, with buildings and people almost on top of each other; other sites are rural, with cows and goats and mountain vistas and fields of crops stretching out in all directions. It was fascinating to see the variety in the volunteer experience, especially while recalling my first three months in Baní. Everyone has such a unique experience, and I got to peek into 21 of those experiences. At the end of it I was exhausted (I saved the farthest destination for last), but thankful for the opportunity to travel and get to know new places!

La Ñapa

June 3, 2014

Peace Corps is generally a 27 month commitment. Three months of training, followed by two years of service in a community. Ya ustedes saben. Some people choose to stay a bit longer on top of that, either to finish up their projects or to start a new project entirely, sometimes even in a new site. As I hinted at in my last post, I’m choosing to extend my service. A whole 13 months. So I’ll be here until June 2015, con Dios adelante. The only other volunteer in my group who is extending a year recently called it “the bonus round,” which I really like. And in Spanish, we call it a ñapa. Basically, the ñapa is that little bit extra that you get when you’re buying something at a colmado. If you order ten pesos of cheese, the colmadero will measure it out, then slide the knife over a bit more to give you that little extra somethin’ somethin’. I like to think of my extension as a ñapa.

I live in Santo Domingo now and work in the Peace Corps office, which is quite a change from my two-room zinc house and overcrowded school in Baní. My job is Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) for the education sector—I’m there basically to support education volunteers in their work, facilitate trainings, and make sure the education program continues to progress. I’m also the new national coordinator for PCDR’s teacher training initiative, Escojo Enseñar, which is pretty exciting. That’s the project that I enjoyed most in my site, and I am excited to take on a leadership role in it.

So, the big question: WHY did I choose to stay here for another year? There are a number of reasons, and each of them has jostled for the primary spot in the past few months. First off, I like this country. Yes, it has its problems, but so does any developing country. And I’ve found that the charms far outweigh the weaknesses, and I want to keep experiencing life here for another year. Along with that, I don’t really have anything going for me professionally in the United States, so staying here is a way to avoid being unemployed and homeless for a few months. It’s not every day you have the opportunity to live in the capital of a Caribbean country with all your needs taken care of by the U.S. government! (Although it’s going to be quite a challenge to stretch that modest volunteer stipend here in the expensive capital.)

My work during the next year is also appealing. As a PCVL, I’ll get to visit education volunteers in their communities to see how they’re doing. We have volunteers all over the country, and I look forward to seeing what kind of positive change they can make happen! My role is also “volunteer support,” a kind of vague term that basically means that other volunteers call me with any kind of questions or concerns, from project-related to personal. I know how hard this job can be sometimes, so I’m excited to be able to support those who are going through it for the first time.

As the Escojo Enseñar national coordinator, I get to head up a relatively new initiative that aims to improve teaching practices and increase teacher motivation in a school system where those two things are lacking. I believe that training better teachers is key to improving education in the country, and by reaching these teachers we in turn reach each child who is learning in their classrooms. There are three regional coordinators of the initiative as well, and we have just started planning for our regional conferences in the fall. I’m excited to see how this project develops over the next year and what part I can play in that progress.

Lastly, I’m extending as a chance to make something good out of my Peace Corps service. I can’t say I’ve had an easy time during the past two years, and I hesitate to say that I’ve been “successful” in any of my projects. So by extending for one more year with new projects, I’m trying to make my service something I can be proud of. Wish me luck!

Diaries of an Andariego

April 17, 2014

andariego (n) – one who travels a lot; wanderer; vagabond

If you read my last post, you’ll know that the Peace Corps decided that my site was no longer safe for me to live in, and moved me out on Monday, January 27. I had already been living out of a suitcase for almost a week in a hotel in the capital, but the 27th marked the definitive end to my time in Baní. Of course, I can still go back to visit, but I can’t live there anymore. And so, I’ve been travelling.

El Sur

San Rafael

My first trip after converting into a full-time vagabond was to the southern coast, my favorite part of the country. The Peace Corps divides the country into six different regions, and every few months they have regional meetings where volunteers can get together and talk about things they like and things they want to see changed in Peace Corps. They’re generally planned at cool locations, and this time was no exception. The Deep South had their regional meeting at San Rafael in Barahona, on the porch of a secluded house overlooking the Caribbean Sea. We whined about various policies and gave kudos to staff in the office for their good work, all while glancing over at the endless variety of blues rippling in the sea. We spent some quality time down at the beach, cooked up some delicious spaghetti, ate lobster and conch, and checked out the view from a lookout point along the one road that goes through the region. It was good times with some very good people.

Batey Isabela

The next stop on my Southern voyage was to a tiny community of sugar cane cutters and their families. The South, especially Baoruco province, is home to lots of these communities, called bateyes. They are generally inhabited by Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans, and are very, very poor. My friend Susan is a youth volunteer there, so I went to check out her site and spend some time with the bateyeros. We cooked a lot of good food, and ate a lot of biskwit, a delicious bread that Haitians make. We checked out the baseball field, I met her host family, and I practiced my rapidly-disappearing Kreyol with some kids in her community. One day we went to a nearby swimming hole, where we enjoyed crystal clear water and beer, both extremely cold. After three days it was time for me to go, so I hopped on a bus to the capital.

El Norte

Puerto Plata

After seeing the South, I decided it was time to visit its opposite. I’d been up to the northern coast before (Cabarete for New Years), but I had never been to the biggest city there. My friend Kati lives in the city of Puerto Plata itself, in a barrio known as Aguas Negras, which translates roughly to Sewage. I spent five days there getting to know Kati’s host family, her work, and the city. We spent a lot of time in the library that she built during her time here. We organized and labeled books and ran community hour for the neighborhood kids to come in and read. On my second to last day there, we co-facilitated a training session for the future library facilitators, some kids from the local Rotaract club. I was and am incredibly impressed by all that Kati has achieved in her site, and I’m glad I got to participate in a bit of the work of the library.

The Capital

COS Conference

After coming back from Puerto Plata, I killed a few days in the capital before going to our group’s Close of Service conference. The point of the conference was to get us ready for life back in the United States. We worked on our resumes, edited our Descriptions of Service, talked about our experiences and our new skills, and had feelings. We also ate a lot—every meal was a buffet, and Peace Corps Volunteers can pack away food like nobody else. We also partied, since it was the last time we would all be together in a group ever again. It was a little bit weird to be at the conference, because I am not finishing in May like the rest of my group. I just hope I actually remember all the important information in a year when it’s my turn to COS.

COS Medical

After COS conference, I was kind of in a limbo. I knew I had a meeting on Wednesday, but I needed something to do until then. Then, the solution came to me—COS medical checks! It’s a three-day process that everyone who is finishing up or extending for over six months has to do. You get a full physical, visit the dentist, and give blood, urine, and stool samples. The medical office also pays for a hotel room. Being the practical guy that I am, I decided I could definitely shit in a cup for three days in a row in exchange for a free hotel room that would keep me in the capital until my meeting on Wednesday! It was perfect. I did all my medical stuff and got a clean bill of health!

The Cibao

Campos of Altamira

My next destination was to the campo. I have spent my whole service living in urban areas—Santo Domingo, then El Seibo, then Baní—and I wanted to visit volunteers who lived in little rural towns. So I got on a bus, then another bus, then a motorcycle to make my way to the town of La Solapa, where my friend Ellen is working on a water system. There are actually four volunteers all along the same road, and they are each well known in the others’ sites. I got a tour of the town and got to meet some of the neighbor kids. That night at Ellen’s, two other volunteers got together and we made a kick-ass chicken and veggie curry, with a salad made of greens from Walker’s garden. Good times with good people and good food.

Santiago

The next day we spent in Santiago, the second biggest city in the Dominican Republic. I got sort of a tour from my friends who live nearby, and we went into a crazy clothing store to buy some flow. (Flow is Dominican for swag.) I got three pairs of sick sunglasses and some shirts. Success. Later on we met up with a friend who had COSed but then came back to visit. We explored the nightlife of the city, including delicious pizza and hanging out on the steps of a massive monument on a hill. I can’t believe I waited two years before going to Santiago!

Punta Rusia

The morning after a long night out, I got a call from a friend who was planning on going to a coral restoration workshop, telling me to come find them in their van. I was just planning to fly solo up to the location of the event, but instead I got to ride in a van full of friends! We were heading to Punta Rusia, a tiny beach town up on the northern coast where volunteers Jesse and Alexis are working on restoring the coral on the reefs. We learned all about their project, including the whole process of putting pieces of healthy coral in the nursery, letting them grow, then “outplanting” them to the reefs. We went out to a circular sand bar called Cayo Arena, where the nursery is. I snorkeled out to see it, and saw loads of beautiful coral and brightly-colored fish as well. Unfortunately the conditions for the next location weren’t as clear, so I couldn’t see what the divers were doing when they were outplanting the coral. But at least I got to learn, swim, and see one of the most beautiful places in the country. We closed out the three-day event with a bonfire on the beach under a sky full of stars.

The Capital

Newbs at the Airport

The new group came in on March 5, so a bunch of us went to the airport to meet them! We made signs with clever sayings on them—mostly poop jokes, piropos and requests for candy. I was there with a lot of interview questions in hand as well. In the Gringo Grita, our official magazine, we always run a feature on the new group coming to the airport. We ask them questions that they have no chance in hell of understanding, and the results are often hilarious. After waiting for about half an hour, we finally got a glimpse of the new group. They were so pale, and so well dressed, and walked in a single file line. After they tossed all their bags into a trailer and packed into two buses—one for the business volunteers and another for the education group—I took pictures of them and then they were off to their first night in country. Welcome, newbs!

Batey Margarita

After receiving then new group and before starting work on the Gringo Grita, I headed out to the East to see Ben, a friend from my swear-in group. He lives in a tiny batey in the East that can’t have more than 300 people in it. To get there, I took a bus to a batey on the highway, then waited for Ben’s neighbor Chulo to pick me up on his motorcycle. After a half hour of bumping along dirt roads through the sugar cane, I made it to Ben’s house. The town has one road, shaped like a teardrop, with all the houses situated on it or just off of it. The first day we took a quick walk around town and met the neighbors, and I practiced some of my horrible Kreyòl with a few people. The next day Ben and a few other volunteers had a workshop for the human rights and documentation project, Declaro Mis Derechos, in a nearby town. The participants learned about how to do a community diagnostic, performed dramas, and of course played dinámicas. After the workshop the three volunteers on the coordinating team and I went back to Ben’s house to cook dinner, hang out, and do puzzles. After all falling asleep in various places, we woke up at 4:00am by the church across the street. Apparently every Sunday morning they get together and bang drums, play the güira (basically an instrument like a cheese grater that you scrape with a fork), and shout about Jesus. In the morning we made eggs, hung out some more, and then dragged ourselves to the highway to wait for a bus out of town. I had wanted to visit Ben for my whole service, and I’m glad that after almost two years I finally had the chance!

Grita Week

The next week I spent in the office putting together the Gringo Grita. I’ve been on the magazine staff since I swore in, and this issue was my second issue as editor in chief. The five days we spent working on the magazine were packed. We read, discussed, edited, took pictures and laid out pages. I think this issue is one of the best we’ve made so far—the theme, “Peace Corps secrets,” really lent itself to a lot of neat designs. There was even a spread based on the popular website PostSecret, with secrets sent in by volunteers! I’m really grateful that I got to work on such a cool project during my time as a volunteer, and with such quality people.

Visiting Other Volunteers

I’m gonna be real with y’all and admit that my memory is failing me here. Constant motion has left my recollections of the month of March more than a little fuzzy, so I’ll just say that I visited other volunteers too! One of my visits was to Alex, another friend from my swear-in group. He lives in a tiny campo north of the capital called Jabonico. It has no cell phone signal, no internet, and the house he lives in was without power (due to a damaged power line) and without water (due to a damaged water pipe). We carted water from his neighbor’s house to bathe and lit up strategically-placed candles when it got dark. The whole thing was very Walden-esque, an illusion assisted by the fact that his “shack” (as he affectionately calls it) is surrounded by trees, mostly cacao. I had a very relaxing time getting to know his neighbors, checking out the school and computer lab, and joking around with kids on the banks of the river. A little campo time is very refreshing. Other volunteers I visited included Julie, Ryan & Allison, and Ivette. The first three live out in Restauración, in the province of Dajabón, which is basically in Haiti. It’s a bitch to get there, but totally worth the 7 hours on buses. There are pine trees, fog, and gorgeous views, and at night it is actually cold! I can’t wait to go back and visit them during the coming year. Ivette lives in a barrio of Santiago, the second largest city in the country. Her house is excellent, she has a cute dog, and she seems well-integrated in the barrio. I visited all of them to talk about their presentations at community-based training for the new education group.

Training

I’m helping out with training this round, which has been really exciting. The technical trainer for the education sector is Dominican, and she is amazing. Unfortunately, she has never been a Peace Corps Volunteer, so she can’t talk to the trainees about that experience. That’s where I come in! I was originally slated to spend just 3 days a week at the training site, but since I’m homeless I negotiated to spend the whole time there with them. I spend my time planning and organizing with Raini, the trainer, hanging out with the trainees, assisting during other volunteers’ presentations, and facilitating a few technical sessions of my own. I have a host family again, but they are more like roommates since they hardly ever spend more than 20 minutes in the house. It’s been interesting to do CBT again, but in a different community and from the other side. I like this gig, and I think it’s preparing me well for my year-long extension as the PCVL for education.

So there you have it—my life as a vagabond for the past few months. I tried to hit all the highlights, and some of the details got buried in the sands of time, but I hope it was enjoyable to read! Stay tuned for my new life as a capitaleño when I finally have a home in May!

Leaving

January 29, 2014

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.

Stuff I Have Done

January 6, 2014

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.

EE Sur Grupo

The group after the Escojo Enseñar Southern Regional Conference!

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.

The group during an activity at the Escojo Enseñar Capital Region Conference!

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.

Two of my teachers, Beronica and Amparo, during a workshop.

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.

Ben, Ginny, and me at the highest point in the Caribbean!

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.

An awkwardly zoomed-in picture taken by a teenager of the computer skills class at our graduation!

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.

Me at home with Christmas decorations and cold!

Me at home with Christmas decorations and cold!

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.

Things That Have Happened

September 2, 2013

(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.

America

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.

Crime

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.

New, post-robbery locks. Hopefully nobody will bust through this one.

New, post-robbery locks. Hopefully nobody will bust through this one.

Camp Superman

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!

Yeremi and Wandi ready for Camp Superman!

Yeremi and Wandi ready for Camp Superman!

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!

Arriving to Playa Frontón by boat!

Arriving to Playa Frontón by boat!

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 Zoo

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!

3-Month Training

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.

Constanza

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!

T-Minus 3 Weeks

May 4, 2013

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

  1. Toilet paper.  I’m sorry in advance if I throw my used toilet paper in your trash can.  That’s all.
  2. 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.
  3. Rules.  I’m going to have to remind myself that I cannot carry an open beer down the sidewalk with me.  Foolishness.
  4. 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!

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