Holy Week, Heavy Month
“Do people there celebrate Good Friday like we do here?” Robert asked me while submerging his nails in some sort of bath that I’m sure had something to do with his roadside manicure. (By the way, “here” always means the Dominican Republic and “there” always means the United States.) I had just been passed by a swimsuit-clad family carrying their lunches down to the river, and I was talking to a 60-year old gentleman mid-manicure. “Uh…no. Not really. Some people go to the beach, but mostly it’s just another day.” He thought on that, then added, “And prayer. There’s lots of prayer, no?” I assured him there was.
We just finished up Semana Santa here in El Seibo. The week leading up to Easter is a huge vacation time for the whole country. Students get the week off from school, most businesses close, and families reunite. “Going to the rio” and “Going to a campo” are the most popular activities. And there is a lot of drinking, starting on Saturday and not stopping until the next Monday morning. Many Americans liken Semana Santa to a week of New Year’s Eves, as much for its revelry as for its drunk driving. For this reason my Doña has decided not to travel, but a lot of other trainees have had the opportunity to go splash in the river or visit family in the campos surrounding El Seibo. We got a 3 day weekend from training activities, and Thursday we just watched a movie and ate chips. Not a bad way to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, no?
The Friday before Semana Santa we had to present our community diagnostics. I decided to ditch PowerPoint and do my presentation on flipchart paper; I figured if I end up in a batey without power I should have a bit of practice in low-tech presenting. Everyone’s presentations were awesome. One guy even presented with a 102° fever (which we later found out was dengue—Jeff is a champ)! There were twelve presentations on the same theme, but they were all so different and each person drew unique conclusions from their observations. As they say, variety is the spice of community diagnostic presentations. I was incredibly nervous leading up to mine, especially since I was going last. But to my amazement, I did really well, and I didn’t even notice how sweaty or shaky I was until after the presentation. I even got high fives from the Spanish teachers! It felt really good to do well on something that I’ve always struggled with in the past.
Last weekend was full of religion. On Saturday I went with my Doña, her grandson, and our neighbor to a bible school graduation. It was in a Pentecostal church, and combined loud singing, applause, dancing children, and forceful speechmaking that eventually culminated in a conferral of diplomas. Another neighbor was graduating, so it was nice to cheer her on. One pastor gave a speech on the current social problems of the Domincan Republic and how these graduates had to use their faith and power as teachers to help change society for the better. It was really reassuring to hear someone speak so strongly about the same kind of issues Peace Corps is hoping to solve here. I also saw another PCV there! Everyone thought we were brothers, so he just started introducing me as “my American brother who I just met.” On Sunday I got up at 7:30am to go to a Palm Sunday mass with my neighbor. For the past month I’ve been living in a completely different world day in and day out, but that mass was familiar. Catholic literally means “universal,” and even though it was in Spanish I felt comfortable with the similarity. And the priest was Spanish, which was cool! I hadn’t heard an Andaluz accent in a while. I feel like mass is going to become my weekly bastion of familiarity here.
Easter Mass was Saturday night. My neighbor Ani talked it up all week—apparently they make a bonfire and people bring candles. Well, it rained all day Saturday. I was playing dominoes at a neighbor’s house when it started. I left to try to get home before the rain, but I got caught in a downpour. Things were not looking good for the storied bonfire. 8:00pm rolled around and Ani and I went to mass. There was still a fire! It was a tiny one under a roof, but there it was! And people had candles! It was my first ever Easter vigil mass, and the first Easter mass I’ve been to where people have been baptized. There was lots of question and answer time with the priest, who was quizzing the kids on their catechism. And at the end it was an open floor, so people could say whatever they were thankful for at Easter. It was musical, different, and fun.
I’ve been in country a little over a month now. And the first word I would use to describe that mes y pico is “heavy.” Every day has just been so full. It has been a month of classes, a month of new friends, a month of speaking Spanish, a month of rice. There have been high points and low points, but they all combine to make this past month a significant collection of experiences. And I’m only halfway done with training! I have seen a lot and done a lot here, and even after just a month I can feel myself changing. Maybe it’s the process of aplatanarme (literally “to become a plantain,” meaning to become Dominican) starting out slowly.
I’ve heard that nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee or bullet points, so I’m just going toss out some of the changes I’ve noted in myself since landing here at the end of February.
• I’m less afraid of strangers. It’s been hard to be an introvert in a highly-social country, but I’ve started to get over my anxiety upon meeting people. Thinking in Spanish and talking to entire families for a whole day might leave me laying in bed exhausted at 8:30pm, but it’s worth it. The act of compartiendo is an important one here, and it’s the number one way to integrate into a new community. It literally means “sharing,” but it can take on any form, from sitting around in plastic chairs not really talking to playing a raucous game of dominoes while drinking Presidente.
• I read a lot more. While here I’ve finished The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe), which I started in the U.S. I devoured A Dance with Dragons (George R.R. Martin), the most recent Game of Thrones book. My business professors would be happy to hear I read a book on introversion called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a Society That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain). I like to think of it as the pop-psych version of my mommy telling me I’m special. I’ve also read As a Man Thinketh (James Allen)—thanks Tyler. And I’ve burned through some incredibly depressing short stories by Juan Bosch, a Dominican author and one-time President (albeit for only 7 months). Up next are probably The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and a book of Gabriel García Márquez short stories.
• I drink a lot less. Chalk this up to professionalism, living with Evangelicals, the $1.20 a day we make in training, the absence of delicious wheat beers, or all of the above.
• I run. For exercise. And I enjoy it. It’s not as enjoyable as swimming, but it’s more enjoyable than watching myself balloon up from eating a pound of rice daily. Furthermore, I’ve been waking up naturally at 6:30am, which means I can take advantage of the cool mornings before the sun comes up and starts its daily war on comfort.
• I sweat more. Maybe this isn’t worth noting because it’s not really me changing, but my environment. But combine tropical temperatures with the Dominican aversion to shorts and flip-flops, and you end up with a very sweaty gringo. Good thing cold showers are so refreshing!
• I’ve started writing. Well duh, here’s this blog. But I also have a journal that serves both as a chronicle and a repository for my thoughts, worries, ideas, fears, and inspirations. Every once in a while I miss the ease of communication that I enjoyed in the U.S. I would love to be able to pick up the phone or jump on Gchat and talk to my friends and family. Venting through pen and paper isn’t the same, but it helps.
• I talk differently. The Dominican accent is really lazy, and involves chopping off endings of words and smashing words together. And I love it. An example: “está para alla” means “it’s over there,” and here it’s pronounced “’ta pa’lla.” Wonderful. I’m also picking up nonverbal communication. The finger wag is a handy way to tell someone that you do not want a motorcycle ride or a pirated DVD. Scrunching your nose means “What?” and you point with your lips, not your finger. Even my English is different, meaning it’s turning into Spanglish. I’m pretty sure PCDR should just change its official language to Spanglish—it’s what we all speak anyway.
• I cook less. I get three meals a day from my host mom, and the kitchen is her space. But I’ve expressed an interest in learning how to cook Dominican food, and she’s taken me up on it. I’ll watch her cook and she’ll walk me through what she’s doing. During meals, we mostly talk about food, what we like to cook, and how we like to cook it. One night, she even let me cook spaghetti! “Tonight I don’t know anything. You cook it your way, and another night I’ll make it my way.” No pressure, right? I also made Spanish tortilla for her, which was a huge hit. My goal is to be prepared to cook for myself when I move out on my own at my site. Vamos a ver.
• I’m Brandon. I’ve spent the past 22 years constantly correcting people when they call me Brandon. But I’ve adopted it as my Spanish name. No matter how many times I loudly pronounce the last N, or tell people that my name is Irish, or spell it for them, they almost always end up at the same conclusion: “But, your name is a girl’s name! Brenda!” Sometimes you have to choose your battles. So now I’m Brandon, Bran, or Brendón. So it goes.
Enough about me. I know some of you have been waiting for pictures. Next post I’ll put up a random collection of pictures that I took over the past month or so. Get excited!