East and Back Again: A Trainee’s Tale (With Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien)
At 8:00am, I stood with three other trainees on the side of the road in Pantoja waiting for the guagua into the city. We each had bags packed for four days and our shiny new Peace Corps motorcycle helmets. The guagua was crowded and sweaty (as per the usual) and I got to practice the special brand of contortionism that comes with being 6’2” on Santo Domingo’s public transportation system. We made it to Parque Enriquillo in one piece though, with a good two hours to spare. We saw a bus with one girl’s destination on it and left her there (don’t worry, she made it). Then Jim, Vickie, and I grabbed a soda and sat in the park and spent an hour talking and shooing away very persistent shoe-shine boys. We found our bus by locating the cobrador who was shouting “Hato Mayor! Consuelo! Boca Chica!” to everyone passing by. RD$100 later, I was seated on an air conditioned bus relaxing to the sounds of today’s bachata hits.
The back story: During training, each trainee is sent out into the interior of the country to visit a current volunteer to see what it’s like to actually do work in the Peace Corps. Think of it as the momma training director bird pushing her baby trainee birds out of the Pantoja training center nest…and then expecting them to come back after four days with a detailed report of their trip turned into their technical trainers…who are also birds. Just go with it. We get a taste of the volunteer lifestyle, the volunteers get to show us around their communities, everyone has a good time, and everyone learns something.
I rolled into Batey Don Juan to meet Austin, a volunteer in the education sector, around 11:30am. I jumped off the bus and confidently started down a dirt road toward some buildings. Halfway down, I realized I might be in the wrong place, so I gave Austin a call. “I’m on a road…surrounded by cows…I think I see a guy with a gun?” I said to him. “Oh, those are the nuns. They do good work. But you’re in the wrong place. Hold on, just go back to the highway and I’ll get you.” I was off to a great start. Austin found me on the highway and we went into his community. The 180 houses are laid out around two roads, with one small road connecting them. The roads are dirt, but when I arrived huge earth-moving machines were making them look brand new and well-packed so some candidate could put his stamp on it. Gracias a Dios for elections! Anyway, I dumped my stuff in Austin’s house—which is actually a tool shed attached to another family’s house, but it works for him—and we were off to see the neighborhood.
We walked first to the house I would be staying in and met Elisa and her sister Mildred, both in their twenties and really nice. Elisa’s three year old was terrified of both me and Austin, but whatever. Then we went to see the school, where I met some teachers, including Austin’s project partner Daniel, who is a PE coach and really friendly. The kids swarming around kept asking if we were brothers, which was hilarious, but to be fair we were two white guys with glasses and facial hair. I was presented to an entire fourth grade class, which means some girl stood up and gave me a formal welcome, then it was open question time, then there was applause. Celebrity status!
After seeing the school we went back to Austin’s house, where I drilled his brain about life as an actual volunteer. We ate peanut butter and passion-fruit jelly sandwiches (delicious), he let me check my email (luxury!), and I even met his cat Geronimo. Then I brought my stuff to Elisa’s house, and we started making empanadas. I have never made empanadas. But we started from scratch, and they turned out great. Austin and I had to leave in the middle to teach an English class that didn’t show up, but we came back and started frying. Ham and cheese empanadas, made by hand, bilingual conversation flowing the whole time—that’s a solid meal.
After dinner Austin went home and I stayed with the family. We watched some novelas on TV, which was really good practice for my Spanish. At a particularly dramatic part, the electricity went out and we were left in darkness. We found our way by flashlight to Elisa’s house and sat talking by lamplight until the power came back on, at which point I went to sleep. People were complaining that the luz only comes at night, which is no use to anyone. It’s a good point. I slept like a baby in my giant bed under a mosquito net, excited for what the next day had in store.
Bright and early on Friday, Austin and I went to the school to practice reading with the fourth graders. Seated at the back of the classroom, we worked with the kids one by one while the teacher taught the rest of the class. We started with tongue-twisters, but the kids just memorized them so having them read them was pointless. So we quickly switched to story books. Helping the kids sound out words syllable by syllable was exhausting at times, but incredibly rewarding when they made even the smallest of breakthroughs. I had one kid who kept pronouncing “que” as “ku,” and when he finally got it right I smiled ear to ear. I can tell I’m going to like my job.
For lunch I helped Elisa cook some rice with cilantro and tomato, then she made a delicious meat sauce. I really wanted to eat it, but my stomach felt horrible and that combined with the heat to kill my appetite. We went back to the school in the afternoon for the second session and did more reading practice. During recess, the sky darkened and a cool breeze blew through the schoolyard. We decided to peace out and head to Elisa’s before we got dumped on. Within minutes of getting there, the sky opened up and the rain started pinging noisily off the zinc roof. If you’ve never heard that sound, you’re missing out. It’s really relaxing. We practiced English with Elisa for a little bit, then started cooking. That night we made bollo, which are basically dumplings. Elisa fried some salami and mixed it all together in an awesome sauce.
After-dinner discussion (again by the light of a gas lamp) covered a wide range of topics. We talked about Chris Brown, and differences between men and women, American music, and sugar cane. Then a few of us went to Austin’s house to watch Karate Kid. During the movie Geronimo the cat caught a cockroach and was playing with it. At one point I lost track of him, only to see him appear to my left. He was staring intently at my shoe, and pawed at it once. At that, I lifted my pant leg to discover the cockroach that he had put ON MY ANKLE. Stupid cat. I flicked the bug off of me, we finished the movie, and I went back to Elisa’s to sleep.
Saturday was tourist day! I slept in a little and got delicious oatmeal for breakfast. Despite Elisa’s insisting that I would freeze to death if I showered in the morning, I took my bucket bath. The bath is basically a five and a half foot tall zinc box with a curtain, a tile floor, and a spigot that empties into a basin. I could see out into the field while bathing, and caught a nice breeze. And the water wasn’t even that cold! Outdoor showers are the best. Anyway, after that Austin and I left to walk up to Consuelo, the closest city. On the way we decided to drop in on Sasha, another volunteer who lived nearby. To our surprise, there were two volunteers and two trainees already visiting her house. We sat and chatted, then left to go to San Pedro, the big city on the sea.
San Pedro is a really nice city. It’s smaller than Santo Domingo, and cleaner thanks to brand new trash cans that the government installed. There are also quiet zones, which you don’t really appreciate until you find yourself in one. We checked out the cathedral and a monument to the Fathers of the Country. Then we walked along the malecón, a road along the sea, until we found our destination: Paco Taco. Yes, a Mexican restaurant. It was glorious. It felt so good to eat spicy food again. We had a lively discussion about Peace Corps rules and reporting, accountability, and American politics. It felt good to talk to other volunteers about how the organization is changing. I’m excited to be getting to the country in a transitional time for the Peace Corps.
Austin and I left the group early so we could help one of the teachers at the school prepare for an English test. She can speak very well, and we practiced talking about a variety of topics. She had a test on Monday, which I hope went well. It was inspiring to see someone who works full time and has two kids so dedicated to learning another language. After English lessons we were scheduled to meet up with the volunteers from earlier for an American meal and party. It was St. Patrick’s Day, which we didn’t realize until halfway through the day. It’s funny how things like American holidays can almost slip by unnoticed here.
The American meal was at Tim’s house in a batey about a half hour away. That meant a half hour on a moto. Motorcycle taxis are often the only way to get somewhere in this country, so they’re pretty much everywhere. It had been raining for a while and there was lots of mud and holes in the street, which made for an exciting ride. It was even more exciting for me because it was my first time on a motorcycle! By the time we got to Tim’s house, my shoes, pants, and shirt were splattered with mud and my shiny new Peace Corps helmet was no longer shiny. But I was alive, and hungry. We made cheeseburgers, pico de gallo, and tostones, which are basically plantains that you fry, squash, then fry again. They’re great with salt. Throw in some Presidente beer in green bottles (in honor of St. Patrick) and some kids from a youth group who swung by to say hello and share some food, and it was an awesome time.
I only spent about two hours in Don Juan on Sunday. I had to get back to the capital to write up a report on my visit and do some Spanish homework. We had a nice breakfast, I interviewed Austin for my report, and I said goodbye to Elisa and everyone else. Her family kept asking when I was going to come back. When I told them I didn’t know where my site was yet, they said I should come to the East so I could visit. I agree. It felt really nice to be welcomed into a community, even for such a short time. And I really would like to go back to visit.
I caught the bus on the side of the highway back to Santo Domingo. You signal that you want to go somewhere by pointing in the general direction of that city. If the bus is going that way, they’ll slow down and let you on. I got a seat right in the front, which was nice because I could see the road, but terrifying because I could see the road. Guagua drivers have no fear, and are very cognizant of the precise dimensions of their vehicles. By chance there was another volunteer on my bus, and she directed me to the Peace Corps office. It was a hot day and I just wanted to be home, but I decided to walk from the office to the gas station where I catch the bus to Pantoja. It took me a good while, and a sweated a lot, but I’m glad I walked. I got to see the city and I managed to navigate a huge crowd who was demonstrating for one of the presidential candidates and creating quite the traffic jam. But I made it home in one piece.
Sunday night I concluded my journal entry with the sentence, “I know am in the right place.” This past weekend I had a lot of what I call “this is my job” moments. Waking up early in the morning to see treetops poking out of a fog that had settled over a field of caña. Cheering with everyone else when the luz comes back on, then groaning and re-lighting the candles when it goes out again ten minutes later. Sounding out a sentence, poco a poco, and then recognizing the light of recognition when a student stops fumbling over the word “que.” All of those moments, and more, helped me know without a doubt that I am indeed in the right place.