(This blog tracked my journey as a volunteer, and I hope you enjoyed reading along with my experiences during the last three years. If anyone out there is curious about the Dominican Republic or the Peace Corps, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or comment!)
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
Today, I stop the story of my Peace Corps service. After just over three years in the Dominican Republic, I am no longer a capital-v Volunteer. I’m a regular US citizen who is funemployed on a tropical island. Thinking about the past three years inspires a kaleidoscope of memories, emotions and impressions. I recall the intoxicating mix of anxiety and exhaustion that bombarded me upon landing at SDQ on February 29, 2012. A frenetic parade of scenes from Baní flashes before my eyes—Doña Margot laughing, motorcycles roaring by, countless funerals, Bienvito reading on my floor, the teachers raising their hands during a training, the pounding of rain on my metal roof, Benancio’s hug after I dismount from a motorcycle at the front door. My head and chest fill with the sensations from times when I felt triumphant, defeated, excited, terrified, ecstatic, depressed, enamored, indifferent, sweaty, shivering, proud, ashamed, hopeful. Always hopeful.
I have often wondered what treatment my memory will give the raw material collected over the past few years. It’s as if I have shot hundreds of rolls of film, and I am about to process all of them, all at once, in the darkroom of my hippocampus. Will the negatives come out clear and in focus? When I stick them in the enlarger and lay down a piece of paper ready for exposure, what filters and treatments will go into the final image? I can only hope that my memory puts a soft filter on the harsher edges of my service, bumps up the contrast to make the important parts stand out, and finishes with a nice, clean frame to preserve the images for a long time.
For now, I feel content. I wish I had left things at work a bit more neatly closed or packaged, but I also suppose that I would feel that way regardless of how much work I did. I’m proud of my service, and proud to be leaving behind an education sector that is going to do great things in the future. I can only hope that the people I worked with in Baní will have somehow benefitted from my presence. I hope the boys in my Superman group grow up to be happy, healthy and successful men. I hope Niña reads to her children. I hope my teachers feel empowered to succeed in the hardest job in the world. I hope my friend Kenny realizes his potential and does something great for the world. I am also very glad that I chose to stay an extra year. It wasn’t always easy, but I ended up learning a lot and forming relationships with lots of incredible people. Leaving the DR will be very, very hard. I know I’ll come back, though—this country has its hooks in me, and I will return as soon as I can.
So, what’s next? I’m going to spend three weeks traveling in the DR and Haiti. There are still a few places on my list that I haven’t been, and of course I have to say goodbye to my people. After three weeks of adventuring I’ll fly out. The plan is to spend about a month in Virginia to reconnect with family and friends, eat lots of food, and hopefully ride roller coasters. Then the big move to NY happens in August, when I start my masters program in Latin American & Caribbean Studies at New York University. I’m stoked to go back to school, to study something I love, and to live in the greatest city on earth. As a bonus, flights to the DR from NYC are plentiful and cheap! I can’t wait to see what this new adventure has in store for me.
I would be remiss to stop this story without giving thanks. Thank you to everyone who supported me throughout the whole process, from the very beginning when I started filling out the application. My friends and family have constantly been there, even when I am hundreds of miles from them. So, thanks to everyone who fielded panicked texts/messages/emails, sent me letters or packages, or otherwise checked in with me during my service. Jason and Nicole get special thanks for coming out to visit and see what my life in Baní was like! Gracias a todos los dominicanos que me han acogido en su país durante los últimos tres años, especialmente Margot y Benancio y su familia en Baní, quienes me aceptaron como un hijo más. Su hospitalidad, generosidad y energía son increíbles. Y para los que saben quiénes son, su amistad y amor no tienen precio. Los llevo en mi corazón, y ya cuento los días hasta que vuelva a su maravilloso país. Lastly, I owe a huge thank you to my family, my brother Kevin, and my parents Tom & Cindy for never missing a Skype date, sending me care packages, picking me up when things were going badly, and coming to visit me twice. I am so thankful to have been raised by two such loving, generous, conscientious, and hardworking people. I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for their example and sacrifice.
Mil gracias and much love.
“Amidst the worldly comings and goings, observe how endings become beginnings.”
So, here’s to this bittersweet ending, and the beautiful beginning it will become. Pa’lante!
I spent my first two years here working on the unofficial Peace Corps Dominican Republic, the Gringo Grita. Every time a group leaves, the magazine prints interviews with each of them. My interview was published with my group’s issue (shout out to 517-12-01!) last May. A lot has happened since then, and I can do whatever I want on this blog, so I think I’ll take the COS survey a second time and see what’s changed. Warning: It’s full of Spanglish and is largely focused on my third year extension. Dale.
Name: Brendan Fields
D.R. Apodos: Brandon, Brandol, Brandor, Braulio, Rubio, Flaco, Brenda
Site Location: 1) Baní; 2) The Road; 3) Santo Domingo
Program: Education; Peace Corps Volunteer Leader
Project Assignment: Provide programmatic and emotional support to Education volunteers. Assist in pre-service and in-service trainings for Education trainees and volunteers. National Coordinator for the teacher training program, Escojo Enseñar.
Project Reality: Supported education volunteers in planning and organizing three regional and seven local teacher training workshops. Trained a kickass group of new Education volunteers in Monte Plata. Helped out with training a second group of kickass newbies in Santo Domingo Este. Responded to volunteers’ monthly reports with personalized feedback. Answered late night phone calls. Visited new PCVs in their sites. Wrote a quarterly newsletter for the Education sector. Unceasingly told people to text whereabouts and wear their helmets. Random tasks for any number of staff members in the office. Hosted couch crashers.
Most useful thing brought into country: Chef’s knife. Camera. Persistent optimism.
Least useful thing brought into country: Vergüenza. Although I’ve gotten rid of a lot of it along the way.
Best “I-know-I’m-in-Peace-Corps-now” moment: In my first months as PCVL, I spent about a month visiting the 20-something new volunteers in their communities. At one site, I got there incredibly early because I had to leave the previous site on the only bus, which left at 6:45am. I did my visit, hung out with the volunteer, met her family and project partner, and then started to make moves to leave. The host family told me there was no hope that I would get a ride, so I should stay for lunch. I’m a lambón to the core, so of course I didn’t say no to free food. After lunch I waited another two hours, chatting and playing with kids, before a vehicle passed that was going my way, and the longest (but very enjoyable) PCV visit was over. It ended up lasting about 7 hours. Ah, the realities of this job…
I felt most integrated into Dominican culture when: I was invited to a reunión de primos in Baní, with all the cousins and their kids and some older family members. We ate and talked and took pictures and danced and blasted our music in the barrio. It was clear that I was solidly another member of the family. The day ended with my doña scheming ways to get me to stay until July to celebrate her mom’s birthday. I wish I could.
Also, any time I play tourist or cultural ambassador for another foreigner in Santo Domingo.
Funniest experience in country: So for Christmas, a group of four of us, all RPCVs or extenders, went up to Río San Juan to celebrate. On Christmas Day, we went to an awesome lagoon with a zipline that drops you right into the middle of it. After, the plan was to go to the nearby beach, Playa Diamante. Like any tacaño volunteers, we tried to flag down a free ride. The first truck that stopped rolled slowly to a halt as the driver hung out the window, looking back at us with a look that said he didn’t believe we would get on. We immediately saw why — the bed of the truck was occupied by a wiry old campesino and a MASSIVE pig. I didn’t even know pigs got that big. Surprised but unfazed, we hopped up. My three companions quickly filled the side where the pig wasn’t, which left me sitting on the rail with the campesino and his pig. I wiggled my way in behind it, my legs open and the pig’s ass right between them. We start rolling, and the campesino assesses the scene, looks up at us, and says, “Cuida’o si le caga!!!!” (“Careful if it shits on you!”). We all broke out laughing, and I spent the whole ride expecting to be shat on by a super-pregnant, mud-covered sow. Gracias a Dios the ride ended shit-free, and we said goodbye to our two new friends and went to the beach.
Most memorable illness or injury: I’ve been pretty healthy this past year, luckily. I guess city living has been good for me.
Most Dominican habit you’ll take home with you: Preferring public transportation over walking whenever possible. Buscaring shade when I have to walk. Making people sit, making people drink coffee or water when they visit me.
Most beautiful place in country: The top of El Morro. Bahía de las Águilas. Margot’s front porch. The view from a certain farm outside of Moca.
Most creative way you killed time in your site: Yoga. Getting lost in Santo Domingo. Applying to grad school. Finding new things to clean in the apartment.
What Spanish word or phrase have you made up during your service and what does it mean?: Yogar. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
How have you changed during your service?: I’m much more confident in my leadership abilities. The unknown has ceased to intimidate me and instead inspires me. I am becoming secure with insecurity and comfortable with confusion. I’m slower to trust, but trust more deeply. I am more aware of the tides in my mind and the connection among my mind, body and spirit. I like people more, but now know when I need alone time. I stopped drinking. I started meditating and doing yoga. I’m happier.
If your service were a book, what would its title be?: “Pero Tú Hablas Bien El Español!” and Other Unchanging Commentary in the Capital. This is the sequel to my previous book of course, entitled Sisyphus in the Barrio.
What books did you read and/or podcasts did you listen to during your service that you would like to recommend to other volunteers?: Serial and Invisibilia are both solid podcasts. As for books, go into the pack shack and pick up a book that intrigues you. Or check out the list of books I’ve read while here. There are some winners there.
What are you glad you did here?: Stayed. Traveled to new places. Repeatedly forced myself out of my comfort zone. Practiced “fake it until you make it” when I wasn’t feeling particularly social. Invested in people. Accepted my faults and worked to improve them.
What do you wish you had done here?: There is still time left, so I’m gonna go ahead and leave this one be.
What will you miss six months from now?: Dominican food and music, everywhere, all the time. A public transportation system that can take me to beaches, mountains, deserts and cities all for a few dollars. Volunteer friends. Belonging to the PCDR mission. The people I’ve come to love.
What won’t you miss six months from now?: Corruption. A public school system that fails spectacularly at educating the population. Yuca.
What’s next?: Going to Haiti with Courtney, and then traveling in the DR for a bit to hit up anything I may have missed. Then it’s back to DC to reconnect with friends and family. Moving to New York in the fall to start a Master’s Degree in Latin American & Caribbean Studies at NYU!
Big plans for your readjustment allowance?: Haiti trip and DR adventures. A new camera. Rent in New York. Plane tickets to visit friends. Clothes.
Advice to a new volunteer: You’re doing a good thing here. It will get hard, you very well might want to leave, but push through and seek out ways to be happy and successful. It’s very likely that you won’t even see the solution to your unhappiness on your own, so make sure you can be vulnerable and rely on others when you need to. Other volunteers understand your experience, your parents always have your back, and Peace Corps staff, doctors and therapists are always there for you. See and do everything you can while you’re here — 2 or 3 years rushes by quickly. Figure out how to be happy in your community. Be yourself, even as your self is changing and revealing new facets to you. If you treat your service like your life and not like a temporary gig, you will be so, so much happier. Above all, respect this country and its people. Avoid generalizing, embrace relationships with all kinds of people, and trust others (professionally and personally). Be aware of how you talk — often our words can betray ugly and uncomfortable prejudices that we didn’t even know we held. Work hard, but enjoy yourself. Best of luck!
Oh, and always wear your helmet and text whereabouts!
Algo más?: Peace Corps, it’s been a blast. Thank you so much for offering me this experience. República Dominicana, gracias por todo. Casi me voy, pero dejaré un pedazo de mi corazón anclado aquí para siempre. Cuídate mucho, y nos vemos pronto.
(First off, Happy Independence Day, Dominican Republic! The red, white and blue flags are out in force, there’s electricity all day, and the schools are all doing parades to honor the patria.)
If you’re not a naturally itchy-footed nomad before you come to the Peace Corps, then it’s quite likely you’ll turn into one while being here. Well, I can’t speak for Peace Corps in other countries, but I’m positive that the combination of the Dominican Republic’s wealth of natural beauty, public transportation system, and volunteers’ ability to slide almost effortlessly between geographies and social classes turns most of us into wanderers. Over the past few months, I feel like I’ve spent more time on the road than I have in my own house. I knew when I extended that a big part of the job would be travel; I was excited for it, and I have enjoyed it. But I have also learned that I like being able to go to sleep in my own bed for most nights of a given week.
The first big movement I took was to go back to the U.S. for a 5-week vacation. The timing was perfect. After having a really hard month or so, and honestly considering ETing (“quitting” in layman’s terms), I was able to get on the plane and escape my current reality to reconnect with my previous one (or what’s left of it). Reconnecting with friends, family, and places was, in a word, amazing. I amazed myself by buying a multi-city plane ticket from Washington to New York to Portland to Washington that had me criss-crossing the continental U.S. for two weeks. I read menus in disbelief at the food options and prices, and then ate everything I wanted. I was surprised at how easy it was to engage again with old friend groups after so much time spent apart. After two years of spending Thanksgiving in the D.R., I attended a Fields family Thanksgiving complete with football in the snow, almost 30 place settings at a super long table, and lots of catching up with relatives I hadn’t seen in too long (or at all, in the case of some of my youngest cousins). At the end of the 5 weeks I felt rested and restless all at once. My time off had given me the distance I needed to come back and tackle the remaining six months of my service.
After returning to the country, I kind of got a little bonus vacation. The whole country basically shuts down in the month of December for Christmas and New Years, so I took advantage and made my in-country holidays count. For Christmas I got together with some other oldies who had either extended or stayed in country with other jobs. We went to Río San Juan, a beach town up in the northeast. We rented an apartment, cooked great food, played games, and chilled. We also explored the area, hitting a total of five beaches and one lagoon. On Christmas Day we went to the almost-perfectly circular Laguna Dudú, where you can ride a zip-line out into the center and drop into the clear blue water from about 40 feet up. There were also ostriches. It was rad. For New Years, I got together with some other education volunteers in Monte Cristi, in the northwest. It’s super close to Haiti and right on the water. There’s an awesome mountain looming just outside of town, and you better believe we climbed to the top of it on New Year’s Day. We rang in the New Year the night before at a little park that got jam packed with revelers as the hours ticked away into the early morning. I chose to be in the D.R. for the holidays, and I like to think I made the most of it.
When the holidays were over, I got started again with site development. Site development is the time when we seek out communities that are interested in receiving a volunteer and then prepare them for the volunteer’s arrival. In general, we plan for 20-something volunteers, which means we need to have at least 20-something sites. The Education sector is set up with strategic partnerships in three school districts, so we centered most of our efforts on those areas. The fun part? Two of those districts are on the Haitian border (read: far from the capital) and some of the sites out there are way off the main roads. Luckily, I got to travel with our Program Manager and Program Assistant in a huge, white SUV that could handle the distance and the roads. Over the course of a month or so, Team Education showed up to a ton of rural communities, where we held meetings with community members to talk about Peace Corps. As the resident current volunteer, I talked about what volunteers are like, where we come from, how we’re trained, and what we do once we get to our sites. It was fun to get my spiel down and to tweak and refine it with each consecutive community meeting. We routinely worked 12 hour days, but it was worth it to see all the places we’ll be sending new volunteers and meet people all over the country who are excited about working with Peace Corps!
My last bit of crazy motion was just this past weekend. As the national coordinator for the teacher training project, it was my job to oversee the planning of a bunch of local workshops this semester. In the past we have done a big national conference to kick off the spring semester, but this year we tried something a bit different. One of the goals of the program, Escojo Enseñar, is to create and encourage communities of practice among public school teachers. So instead of bringing 70 teachers to the nearest big city, we took the show to them where they live and work. Volunteers in four different clusters around the country worked together to plan one-day workshops, and I gave them logistical support from the office in Santo Domingo. Keeping track of materials, participant lists, printing, agendas, and budgets for four different events was a challenge. When the weekend of the workshops came, I had to visit all four in three days. It was possible, if a bit forzado, and I enjoyed the opportunity to see how the areas each put their own spin on things. The workshops went very well—our Country Director even gave them a shoutout at a meeting at the embassy, and now the embassy press people want to publish a story about us. Exciting! Knowing that I’m contributing to such an awesome project motivates me for the task of overseeing the NEXT round of workshops, coming up in March.
So there you have it—my last few months have been mostly motion, but in the best sense possible. I’m looking forward to the three months that I have left here, and I hope I can make the best of them!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!