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Non-Stop Movement

February 27, 2015

(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!

North American Wandering

November 2, 2014

I’m sitting in the airport of Santo Domingo about to board my third flight to the US. (Aside: It’s surprising how robotic and unrushed I’ve become in airports. Weigh luggage. Show passport. Remove shoes and belt. Flash green card and smile.) This trip is a perk of extending service for a year. Peace Corps paid for a plane ticket, gave me a per diem, assigned me 30 free vacation days, and wished me well. I imagine, reading between the lines of the “special leave” policy, the message: “Get out, please, just for a bit. Look after yourself. See your friends. We don’t want you if you’re going to go crazy here.” Or maybe that’s just me.

One month in the US. (I’ve been making a conscious effort to refer to my país natal that way in response to a Venezuelan friend’s constant reminder that “We are BOTH Americans. It’s a big continent.”) I’m excited for a number of things — most of them edible, let’s be real — and nervous for others. I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. I’m going to see a new part of the country when I head to Portland in two weeks. I’m going to visit grad schools and be vago in New York City. I’ll probably speak in horrible Spanglish for a bit and throw my toilet paper in the trash can at least twice. I’m unreasonably worried about complimenting babies by calling them fat, which I imagine most Americans parents wouldn’t like. Cultural readjustment, they call it. Should be a fun ride.

(I’ll try to keep up this blog with short updates during my travels. Recently I haven’t been feeling the behemoth posts that attempt to summarize everything I’ve been doing in the past however many weeks. Bear with me as I try something new.)

Santo Domingo, nos chequeamos.

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.

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