First Week’s Impressions
It’s been a week since I’ve arrived in the Dominican Republic. In such a short time, I feel like I’ve been here a month already. Days are always full, be it with class after class at the training site or compartiendo in plastic chairs over a game of dominoes. I’ve already learned a lot, had ups and downs, and started to feel the real sensation of adapting. The people I’ve met, from my host family to the training staff to my fellow Trainees, have all been fascinating and I can’t wait to get to know them all better.
Training is the three-month period before my actual stint as a Volunteer. I’ll spend this time getting to know Dominican culture, learning Spanish, bonding with my Trainee class, learning how to protect my health and safety, and gaining technical skills to help me execute my primary project. Training takes place in classrooms, in the barrios, in my host family’s house, in schools, and in me. The first three weeks happen here in Pantoja, and focuses on the core skills that every Peace Corps Volunteer needs to have. We cover things like how to avoid malaria and treat diarrhea, how to take public transportation, and how to stay motivated and avoid stress. Then we split into sectors (Education, Water, Environment, or whatever they’re calling them now) and head into the interior to get technical training. In El Seibo, my Education comrades and I will learn how to do a community diagnostic, form and run a youth group, write lesson plans, manage a classroom, and a lot of other skills that will help us to be effective Education Volunteers. Then we come back to Santo Domingo, take the final tests, meet our community partners, and get sworn in as Volunteers.
So far, training has been a blast. While it is a lot of information to be taking in and jotting down for eight hours a day, I relish being back in a classroom. I’m a big nerd and I love listening to lessons, taking notes, and working in groups—the whole student thing. It helps that the classes are all in the fresh air, the food is delicious, and my classmates and teachers are awesome people. And the classes aren’t just notes either; the other day, we all had to get up and do the Threat Awareness Level Dance (coming soon to a club near you). Another day one of our lessons was to take public transportation to our barrios and come back. They just gave us money, assigned a language facilitator to guide us, and sent us off. Jamming four people into the back of a tiny sedan was part of my class work. It’s work, but it’s fun. Sometimes I forget that sitting around playing dominos and talking to people and dancing merengue (cultural integration, if you will) is part of my job. Then I remember, and I realize I have an awesome job.
During this whole time we live with host families. The family coordinator knows what she’s doing, and put us in groups in various neighborhoods around the training center. I’m lucky enough to live very near two other trainees (and literally over one of them) within walking distance of the training center. Now when I hear “host mom,” I think “kindly old lady who dotes on you and feeds you too much.” My homestay, based on my peers’ stories, is out of the ordinary. My host “mom” is only 6 years older than me, has two tiny kids (one is three months old, and adorable), lives above her mother, and works with her husband in their colmado. Not to mention, she’s a mean cook and a meaner domino teacher. At first I was kind of caught off guard by my situation. Where was the old lady? Where was the cheek-pinching? Where was the “you must have a wife back in New York?” But I’ve grown to like it here. My neighborhood is not the most luxurious (I visited other volunteers in another barrio, where the streets are paved with gold, by which I mean the streets are paved), but it’s full of friendly people. We pass our time sitting in front of the colmado, a kind of general store that plays loud music, chatting or playing dominoes. While I haven’t been given the attention or instant-celebrity status that they always tell you about, I’m starting to get fist bumps, handshakes, and hugs from the people who live around me. I’m not the most outgoing person, so it takes me a lot of effort to try to jump into a conversation I can barely understand, but I’ve found that sitting in uncomfortable silence for a while will eventually yield something, and that’s my strategy going forward.
The kids in the neighborhood are a force of their own. I don’t think there is a single minute of the day when at least three kids aren’t running around the streets making a ruckus, playing baseball, or bothering the adults. The open-door policy that many Dominican houses uphold leads to a lot of kids in a lot of places. Last weekend the muchachos decided they were going to have a party. They wrote up invitations, bought candy, drinks, and balloons, cleared out the living room, fixed the stereo, and blasted music for the better part of the afternoon. Doña Luisa just let them go for it, and only got mad once, when they took down her porch decorations. It seems odd to me, coming from the D.C. suburbs where parents hover over their children almost constantly during times when they’re not carting them off to pre-planned activities. These kids just do what they want, when they want, and as long as they’re not hurting anyone the adults let them be. Kids are also some of the easiest people to talk to. They’re generally patient, and super inquisitive. When I told one little girl that I did not have a wife or children and was in fact not a widower, she started searching through the newspaper for pictures of women that could be my wife. How thoughtful! And my host family’s kids are the really great. One is a baby and doesn’t do much besides cry, eat, and get passed around to literally everyone who comes by. The other is three and has endless amounts of energy that occasionally gets him in trouble, but for the most part he’s entertaining. If the kids at my site are anything like the kids in my current barrio, I’m excited for all the teaching and youth groups in my future.
Yesterday I had an interview with my trainer and received the information for my PCV visit. Every trainee visits a current Volunteer during training to see the real deal. It’s an opportunity to ask questions and get honest answers, check out a real site with real work and real living conditions, and test your mettle on public transportation to the interior. I’m going to visit an Education Volunteer in a batey (where sugar cane cutters live), and I couldn’t be more excited. That happens next weekend. This weekend we get a tour of the Zona Colonial from a historian who specializes in ancient indigenous cultures (aka the Taínos, the residents of Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’s first voyage). I’m super excited for that too. Look for updates from those two adventures soon!
I miss everyone in the U.S. and I hope you’re all doing well! Abrazos desde Santo Domingo!