Things That Have Happened
(With apologies to my high school English teacher Mrs. Feil, who discouraged the use of “thing” in writing except in very special circumstances.)
Hello, world! (To echo English-speaking computer programmers everywhere…) I am alive. Sorry for the long absence from this blog. I hope you enjoyed your summer, and that you can find it in your heart to forgive me and read about mine. Without any more delay, here is the blog post with a little bit of everything from my second summer in the Dominican Republic.
Towards the end of May my patience with schoolchildren and schoolteachers was running short, the heat was starting to cook me, and the first world paradise of my native land was calling my name. It was wheels up at 6am after a night out dancing, and a half day later I was home. On vacation, at home. A strange concept when you think about it. My travel fatigue melted away immediately upon arriving home to a house full of my friends and family. A surprise party that actually, 100% surprised me. It was a wonderful welcome home.
The next two weeks seemed to pass all at once, even though they were packed with activity. I dragged my introverted self all over the DC area to see friends, tour the city, eat delicious food, drink good beer, and just enjoy everything. I met a YouTube celebrity in the basement of a Georgetown library, I re-discovered art museums and visited my favorite flying machines on the National Mall, and I got reacquainted with DC nightlife. Also, I learned there is a new type of taxi that comes to find you based on your smart phone’s GPS, and then charges your fare to a credit card. Wild, right? I made it down to Williamsburg for a birthday, and up to Pennsylvania to see my grandparents in their retirement home. Retirement homes, I’ve concluded are basically college dorms with nicer amenities and 60 years added to the residents. All the drama, gossip, and hilarity are the same. I rounded out my visit home in Florida to see my other set of grandparents. We ate steak! We went to an American beach! Then I was hauling my bags out of the rental car, telling my parents “See you later” around the lump in my throat, and rushing through security to find my gate. It was back to the island and back to work.
It’s not a secret that my site is a bit dangerous and crime-ridden, or caliente in Dominican. Whenever I’m in the Peace Corps office people always ask me how I’m doing, if I feel safe, if I’m sure I feel safe, every time I’m there. Gracias a Dios, I went my entire first year without experiencing any crime or violence firsthand. Sure, I heard stories that reminded me to always watch my back, to not go out at night, to be careful showing off my belongings, but nothing had happened to me. Nothing, that is, until I came back from America. I got in late at night so I stayed in the capital. When I woke up the next day, I had about 17 missed calls from my host sister—timestamp: 5:00am—and a text from my boss: Hey Brendan, give me a call as soon as you get this. Great. Turns out, my house was robbed. The joke is that they were “helping me move.” They took everything—fridge, stove, dishes, suitcase, clothes, gas tank, chairs, even my pillow. But thanks to my quick-acting host family and the Baní police, everything was recovered except 3 chairs and the pillow! Peace Corps was wonderful about the whole thing—our safety and security coordinator went to court with me and my host family, and they paid for new locks on my doors. The whole ordeal made for a bit of a bumpy re-integration after being gone for vacation, but I think I’m mostly over it. And thank God for my host family—if I lived anywhere else I would’ve been cleaned out, but they were there to look out for me. I’m thankful every day that I was put with such a wonderful host family and chose to stay with them for my whole service.
About two weeks after getting back from America, I went to my first camp of the summer. I had previously taken two boys from my group to the regional Superman camp, and I got the chance to take two more in the summer for the national camp! We spent five days and four nights at a campsite in San Cristobal, really close to Baní. It rained for almost the whole time there, forcing us on the second day to abandon the tents and put EVERYONE—boys, Peace Corps Volunteers, and Dominican leaders—in two rooms with bunk beds. It took a fair amount of Tetris-like shuffling to fit everyone into the rooms, but we made it happen. We spent the week doing a lot of fun activities, most of which tricked the boys into learning. I helped write a song to the tune of “Gangnam Style” about the steps of putting on a condom—we called it “Házlo Condon Style.” It was a hit. There was also an obstacle course through the male reproductive system, a zip line, a superhero relay race, and lots of art activities. In spite of the rain, the camp was a blast, and it was a pleasure to work alongside the Dominican youth leaders!
Fourth of July
Last year a bunch of volunteers went up to Las Galeras to celebrate the Fourth of July, and this year we repeated the party. My friends and I stayed in a sick house called La Cueva (The Cave). The main feature was the bathroom, weirdly enough. It had a heavy red curtain for a door, and was actually a cave. The walls were stone, the toilet was nestled into a mini-cave, and the shower was just hanging out in the middle of the room. There was also a neat kitchen, which we put to good use to make falafel and cheeseburgers. One day, we took a trip by boat out to a secluded beach called Playa Frontón. Crystal clear water that turned into unbelievable shades of blue lapped gently at the smooth sandy beach, which backed up against rough, rocky cliffs that towered overhead. Awesome, and so tranquil. At another point during the vacation we ate at a new restaurant that our dive shop friends have opened. I had a spicy (!) chicken burrito and iced tea, prepared by a real life British woman. Delicious food, delicious tea. Las Galeras is very far from where I live, so it’s always nice to get up there and relax in the sand and sun. And it’s even better when a ton of friends are there as well!
Visit from Americans!
Almost immediately after the Independence Day celebrations, I got to go pick up some visitors and show them around for a few days! Nicole and Jason, good friends of mine from William & Mary, came down from DC. It was GREAT to see them, and I felt proud playing tour guide to a place I’ve called home for almost two years now. We tooled around the Colonial Zone in the capital for a bit, ate yummy food, and even danced a bit. Then we went to Baní, where they got to meet my host family and friends in my site and see what Peace Corps living is like. Within the first few hours we ate a load of food, courtesy of Margot, and got stuck in the house of one of my students during a rain storm. Later on, I learned that a tropical storm was coming to the island…great. We rode out the storm in their hotel downtown over wine and chips, and the next day I sent them off to the beach for some long-awaited Caribbean relaxation. I was stuck in Baní because of a Peace Corps standfast, but early the next morning it was lifted and I went to join them at Juan Dolio. A few solid hours of relaxation and swimming, and then Nicole and Jason were on their way to the airport. I loved having my friends come and experience a bit of what my life is like down here! And I’m always welcome to the idea of more of my friends visiting! (Subtle, I know. Let me know when you book your tickets.)
Campamento Esperanza y Alegría
After my visita left, I worked a bit on my summer projects—my boys’ group and my adult literacy classes. It was good and educational, and then it became time for another camp! I spent two weeks working as a tío (that’s what they call counselors) at Camp Hope & Joy, for Clinica de Familia in La Romana. Each year they put on a camp for around 80 kids living with HIV where they get to play, swim, dance, sing, do crafts, and learn. The bus to the camp, which was up in Bonao, was a good preview of the energy level of the next two weeks—people were up and dancing to the music being blasted through the speakers, and there were plenty of wigs and masks and other costumes. We spent the first weekend being treated like campers as a kind of training, so we would know what to do when the kids got there. The first week was young kids, and the second adolescents, and both weeks were jam-packed with energy. As a tío, my responsibility was to accompany the kids everywhere they went and make sure they were enjoying themselves. It was awesome to see the campers learning and doing things that they never had the chance to do in their day to day lives. A lot of them live in really tough situations, so giving them a week of fun and love was an incredible privilege. I also bonded a lot with the other volunteers at the camp, an impressive mix of other Peace Corps Volunteers, Dominican volunteers who work in health and youth projects, and American college students. Their knowledge, enthusiasm, and kindness made for a wonderful two weeks!
The day after the camp ended, I went to the capital for a meeting for my region. We get together quarterly to talk about issues we have as volunteers and to ask questions, make suggestions, and give kudos to the staff. This time, we had our meeting at the Santo Domingo zoo! The zoo is really cool—it has very few caged-in pens, relying more on deep trenches surrounding the animals’ areas to keep them from getting out. There were a lot of different kinds of animals, as well as a train! Lots of people say it’s a depressing place, but I had a good time and didn’t get a bad vibe from it (except for one really sad-looking chimpanzee). Oh and the massive bird enclosures…no thank you. Getting some work done, seeing friends from my region, and being touristy in the zoo? Great idea! My next step in seeing captive animals should be to the National Aquarium!
I went to 3-month in-service training, again! But it wasn’t for me—I was giving a presentation. Last year I sat in the quantum learning-approved semicircle and watched the older volunteers impart their wisdom and knowledge after a year of service. Now, I was that older, wise(ish) volunteer giving the presentation. I threw together all the tools, challenges, and lessons learned that my group had shared at our one-year training and presented them to the new guys. They seemed appreciative and attentive. I love getting questions from new volunteers, because I know how helpful it can be to have someone who has been here awhile talk straight to you about a concern you have. Plus, this group of Education volunteers is really sharp and really fun, so hanging out with them after the day of training was over was really neat. They’re a good group and they’ll do good work. Also, the room they put me in at the training center was really nice and the shower looked like a spaceship. So all in all, a good experience.
First Week(s) of School
School officially opened for the year on August 16th. Four students came. This is normal. The teachers took this week to decorate their classrooms and get some planning done. Nationwide the first week of school is always a wash—the kids start coming the next week, some even waiting until September to start attending classes. We were supposed to transition to the all-day school day this year, but due to corruption the construction on the new school is halted, which means we have to continue in the old two-tanda system. So 900 kids are still getting a sub-par educational experience in their public school because some engineer was too greedy to actually do the work he was paid to do and build the second school on time. It’s things like this that make being a volunteer in the Education sector incredibly frustrating; grassroots work is difficult enough, but even harder when the powers that be repeatedly stomp on your grass. I’m starting off the year slow, evaluating reading levels and forming groups of students who will learn how to read. This will be my last school year here—I finish up in Baní in May before the students even finish class. So everything I do is instilled with a feeling of gravitas and urgency—this is my last shot to leave this school and its people better than it was when I arrived.
My host brother Koiki and I have been talking about going to Constanza for about a year. He would ask me, “So, when are we going to Constanza?” And I would reply, “Well, not this month because I have a lot of work to do. But next month, definitely.” This exchange replayed many times, until finally we nailed down a date and committed to it. I would not be too busy with school, and he would be on vacation from his work in the La Famosa food factory. Perfect. We took a three day weekend and rolled up on motorcycle to La Horma, the small mountain town that my host family is from in the province of San José de Ocoa. We stayed Friday night there and spent Saturday relaxing, visiting with distant family relations, and eating. Early on Saturday morning the death screams of a massive pig pierced the valley below us, and we arrived to the slaughter soon after to buy some meat. I sat and watched as the pig was shaved with machetes, cut open, gutted, rinsed out, and cut into quarters. Amazingly, the man whose pig it was estimated the weight of each part of pig to within two pounds! We bought a few pounds and immediately put the pot over the fire to start cooking the fatty skin. As the water in which the fat had rendered evaporated, the meat started to fry and smell delicious. We ate the chicharrones with some boiled green bananas. Breakfast in the campo—yum! In the afternoon we went down to the river, knocking down avocados, mangoes, and limes on the way. At the bottom of the valley we swam in the cold water of the river, and then trudged back up the mountainside to the houses. That night, under the brilliant Milky Way that is sadly invisible from where I live, we cooked up an arepa—a kind of cornbread—and hot chocolate to take with us the next day. By that point three more friends from Baní had arrived, and would join us on the trip to Constanza.
The next morning we got up at 5:30 and were on the road by 6:00, shivering a bit in the cold and dark of morning. Four motorcycles on a lonely mountain road, bouncing over rocks and through holes and puddles of mud. We made it to the guard house at the entrance to the Valle Nuevo National Park at 7:00, and were eating breakfast in the fog and chill of what they call La Nevera by 8:00. Nevera means “refrigerator,” and it is a fitting name. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see fifty feet ahead or behind on the road. I could even see it falling in ghostly whorls as it condensed out of the sky. When we had finished breakfast, it was back onto the bikes to continue the trek to Constanza. According to a sign I glimpsed on the side of the road, it was around 40 kilometers between the entrance to the park and the town of Constanza, on the other side. When we made it out of the northern side of the park, we stopped at the house of my host-cousin’s cousin, Chiquito. We ate the lunch we had brought with us a in a bucket—locrio de puerco, or rice cooked up with more of that delicious pig, prepared the night before. Then Chiquito mentioned a waterfall and decided we needed to see it. It was back on the motorcycles for some intense mountain climbing—at times I had to get off the back of Koiki’s bike and walk up a steep incline to give the motorcycle a rest. The view at the top was breathtaking. A massive waterfall cascaded down the side of the mountain, and we stopped at observation decks at different heights to take it all in. The path looked out over the valleys surrounding Constanza, which are split up into fields of strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, flowers, and countless other products. Agriculture is the lifeblood of Constanza, even if it doesn’t pump as strongly as it used to.
After leaving the waterfall we made the final stretch of our journey and finally made it to the town of Constanza, around 2:00pm. My cousin Guzmán called another relative of his, and we were taken to his house. Embarrassingly, I fell asleep on the couch. But after eight hours bouncing around on the back of a motorcycle, can you really blame me? We drank some delicious milkshakes and then left, explaining that we had to get back to Baní. We stopped briefly at Chiquito’s house, and he took us to an orchard where we filled up our bags with passion fruit, strawberries, and peaches (PEACHES!). Then we mounted up, entered the park again, and zoomed along the dirt and rock roads surrounded by tall trees. We made it to La Horma in the early evening, picked up our avocadoes, drank some water, and got back on the road by 6:00pm. In 45 minutes we were in the town of Ocoa at my aunt Paula’s house eating some delicious food she’d saved for us. Against her objections we had to eat and run, and got on the road at 7:00pm. We made it back to Baní at 8:30pm, tired, sore, but incredibly happy. After sharing stories with Margot, Benancio, and the rest of the family, I washed off the dust and grime from the road—after three days without bathing…oops—and passed out in my own comfy bed. The trip turned out to be much more about the journey than about the destination, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
There, now we’re all caught up. School has started, work is chugging along, and life goes on. I’ve got 8 months before my COS date, and I’ll be blogging about it all. Thanks for reading!