And Then There Were 13
Well, it’s Tuesday here in El Seibo, and you know what that means. Yep, an open-air market sprang up outside my front door and woke me up at 5:30 in the morning. Trucks rumbled down the road, tables clanged as they were set up, and women chatted over piles of guandules and yuca they were selling. Normally I would be slightly miffed at being woken up at 5:30am, but since coming to the Dominican Republic I’ve adopted the circadian rhythm of my grandmother. I’m in bed by 10:30pm at the latest, and up before the sun at 6:45am. Recently I’ve been getting up at 6:15 to run. It hurts and breathing the exhaust of motores isn’t ideal, but the city is calm in the morning and I get to see fog-shrouded mountains, so I’m going to keep on doing it. Plus, I have to do something to work off the pound of rice I eat every day for lunch.
So what am I doing here? Well, core training was fun and everything, but at some point Peace Corps realized we have to learn more than just how to avoid malaria, AIDS, and tigueres. So at the three-week mark we split up by sector and shipped off to our community-based training (CBT) locations. Education came to El Seibo, a small city in the East. The site was originally chosen back when Education was an IT program because the city has 24 hour electricity, but now we’ve switched to literature so we just get to enjoy the meaningless luxury of having luz all the time. Also, we have running water. So I got to take A SHOWER my first night here. I haven’t had a shower in three weeks. Bucket baths work, but having the water fall on you is just so much better. My Doña here is wonderful. She likes me because I speak Spanish claro, I’m nice, and—most importantly—I eat everything. It’s just the two of us during the week, but her grandson comes to visit every weekend. He’s already schooled me in dominoes. It’s going to be a good home for the next five weeks.
After having spent a few days actually working in El Seibo, I’m starting to understand that community-based training really is community-based training. All of us, including our trainer and the Spanish teachers, live with host families. We have our technical sessions in the high school library, and our Spanish classes are at the homes where our teachers are staying. It’s very different from the oasis that was the Pantoja training center. I’m no longer isolated from the community, surrounded by fruit trees and 39 other gringos every day. Here, I’m a part of the community. It’s small enough that I can actually get to know the people I wave to every day. And being a six-foot tall white stranger, I’m sure I stick out like six-foot tall white stranger, so people at least recognize me. I hope that poco a poco I’ll be able to carve out a little bit of El Seibo for myself and manage to leave something beneficial behind.
Our activities here have been a complete change of pace too. In Pantoja, I went to structured presentations, discussions, team-builders, and Spanish classes every day. Here, our first activity as a group was a scavenger hunt. It was, sadly, a short-lived activity due to the massive rain that dumped on us within 30 minutes of starting. But I did make a friend while taking shelter under a tent. Ángel sells clothes at a road-side stand, owns upwards of twenty fighting cocks, and used to work as a bartender at some resort down the road. I saw him again while running one morning, and we exchanged saludos. It feels nice to know people. Since Dominicans hate being in the rain and I’m often without an umbrella, I foresee making a good deal of friends while taking shelter under the closest awning. I also got to taste mabí, a drink that El Seibo is famous for. It’s a fermented root soda, and tastes like…well…like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. During our group taste test, the phrase “vomit undertones” stuck in my head. I don’t think I’ll be drinking much mabí.
Our primary project since arriving has been to carry out and present a small community diagnostic. This involves interviewing families, youth, and teachers, and using information from those interviews and our observations to present some kind of picture of El Seibo as well as ideas for plausible projects. I have definitely been living out of my comfort zone since beginning this project. My skin crawls at the prospect of shouting into some nice old doña’s house, making chit chat with her, and then asking her questions about the problems with the education system. During the interviews I sit and smile through a lot of awkward silences. And while observing classrooms, it’s hard to convince kids to focus on the teacher instead of the foreigner in the room, and it’s hard to ignore the incredible dearth of basic school supplies. It’s been a struggle, but I guess part of Peace Corps is to do things that make you uncomfortable if your job requires it. We’ve also been learning and practicing “quantum learning,” a fancy phrase that basically means “how to trick people into learning something while you play games and throw candy at them.” I am not a strong public speaker, but my spring break service trip days instilled a healthy love of icebreakers (called dinámicas here) in me. At least I’ve got that going for me. My main struggle here will be to shed my inhibitions, be energetic, and somehow convince people that they want to listen to what I have to say. It’s going to be a difficult five weeks, but by the end of it I’ll be good to go.
The project we have after our community diagnostic presentation is to work with youth groups. Our first meeting with the groups was Tuesday night. The entire evening seemed to be an excellent representation of what CBT will be like and likely how our service will be. We arrived half an hour before the kids were told to show up, and eagerly looked over our agendas and reviewed our dinámicas. The thunder and dark-blue rainclouds outside threatened to shut down everything, but we crossed our fingers. Kids would show up, si Dios quiere. It turns out God did indeed want kids to come to our activity, just not the kids we had planned on. The class whose teacher had assured our trainer they would be there was nowhere to be seen. Calling an audible, our trainer and a Spanish teacher went down the hallway and advertised our activity to every class. We had about 20 kids show up. We played bingo for candy, which they went NUTS over, then split into groups. Our group had the kids make daily schedules and discuss the differences between the boys’ and girls’ schedules, while some other groups did the same but with community maps. I was worried the whole time that our group wasn’t having fun, but that was unfounded. They had a good discussion and all said they had a blast. And I got to talk to some really interesting, dynamic jóvenes. What did I learn from this?
• Be flexible. If something doesn’t go as planned, swap it for the next best thing and run with that.
• Kids lose their shit for free candy. It’s actually astounding.
• As much as teenagers scare me, they’re pretty fun to talk to and work with. Once I get more comfortable, I think I’ll really enjoy the youth group.
• I stress way too much over making things turn out perfect. The activity wasn’t perfect, but the kids had fun and I learned something, so it was productive.
• Dinámicas make anything better.
So, that’s CBT so far. It hasn’t even been a week, but we hit the ground running and every day has been full of learning. Unfortunately, we’re losing a fellow trainee to knee surgery in DC. (We love you Heather, good luck and come back soon!) So our already small group will shrink by one, and we’ll be without an amazing energy and unparalleled artistic talent for the next few weeks. I guess it’s another practice in being flexible and rolling with the punches, both for her and for us. That’s the tricky Peace Corps for you, trying to teach us something at every turn.
Whew, that was a long one. I hope everyone is doing well and that you’ve been enjoying my take on life as a Peace Corps trainee in the DR. I miss everyone back home!