Diaries of an Andariego
andariego (n) – one who travels a lot; wanderer; vagabond
If you read my last post, you’ll know that the Peace Corps decided that my site was no longer safe for me to live in, and moved me out on Monday, January 27. I had already been living out of a suitcase for almost a week in a hotel in the capital, but the 27th marked the definitive end to my time in Baní. Of course, I can still go back to visit, but I can’t live there anymore. And so, I’ve been travelling.
My first trip after converting into a full-time vagabond was to the southern coast, my favorite part of the country. The Peace Corps divides the country into six different regions, and every few months they have regional meetings where volunteers can get together and talk about things they like and things they want to see changed in Peace Corps. They’re generally planned at cool locations, and this time was no exception. The Deep South had their regional meeting at San Rafael in Barahona, on the porch of a secluded house overlooking the Caribbean Sea. We whined about various policies and gave kudos to staff in the office for their good work, all while glancing over at the endless variety of blues rippling in the sea. We spent some quality time down at the beach, cooked up some delicious spaghetti, ate lobster and conch, and checked out the view from a lookout point along the one road that goes through the region. It was good times with some very good people.
The next stop on my Southern voyage was to a tiny community of sugar cane cutters and their families. The South, especially Baoruco province, is home to lots of these communities, called bateyes. They are generally inhabited by Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans, and are very, very poor. My friend Susan is a youth volunteer there, so I went to check out her site and spend some time with the bateyeros. We cooked a lot of good food, and ate a lot of biskwit, a delicious bread that Haitians make. We checked out the baseball field, I met her host family, and I practiced my rapidly-disappearing Kreyol with some kids in her community. One day we went to a nearby swimming hole, where we enjoyed crystal clear water and beer, both extremely cold. After three days it was time for me to go, so I hopped on a bus to the capital.
After seeing the South, I decided it was time to visit its opposite. I’d been up to the northern coast before (Cabarete for New Years), but I had never been to the biggest city there. My friend Kati lives in the city of Puerto Plata itself, in a barrio known as Aguas Negras, which translates roughly to Sewage. I spent five days there getting to know Kati’s host family, her work, and the city. We spent a lot of time in the library that she built during her time here. We organized and labeled books and ran community hour for the neighborhood kids to come in and read. On my second to last day there, we co-facilitated a training session for the future library facilitators, some kids from the local Rotaract club. I was and am incredibly impressed by all that Kati has achieved in her site, and I’m glad I got to participate in a bit of the work of the library.
After coming back from Puerto Plata, I killed a few days in the capital before going to our group’s Close of Service conference. The point of the conference was to get us ready for life back in the United States. We worked on our resumes, edited our Descriptions of Service, talked about our experiences and our new skills, and had feelings. We also ate a lot—every meal was a buffet, and Peace Corps Volunteers can pack away food like nobody else. We also partied, since it was the last time we would all be together in a group ever again. It was a little bit weird to be at the conference, because I am not finishing in May like the rest of my group. I just hope I actually remember all the important information in a year when it’s my turn to COS.
After COS conference, I was kind of in a limbo. I knew I had a meeting on Wednesday, but I needed something to do until then. Then, the solution came to me—COS medical checks! It’s a three-day process that everyone who is finishing up or extending for over six months has to do. You get a full physical, visit the dentist, and give blood, urine, and stool samples. The medical office also pays for a hotel room. Being the practical guy that I am, I decided I could definitely shit in a cup for three days in a row in exchange for a free hotel room that would keep me in the capital until my meeting on Wednesday! It was perfect. I did all my medical stuff and got a clean bill of health!
Campos of Altamira
My next destination was to the campo. I have spent my whole service living in urban areas—Santo Domingo, then El Seibo, then Baní—and I wanted to visit volunteers who lived in little rural towns. So I got on a bus, then another bus, then a motorcycle to make my way to the town of La Solapa, where my friend Ellen is working on a water system. There are actually four volunteers all along the same road, and they are each well known in the others’ sites. I got a tour of the town and got to meet some of the neighbor kids. That night at Ellen’s, two other volunteers got together and we made a kick-ass chicken and veggie curry, with a salad made of greens from Walker’s garden. Good times with good people and good food.
The next day we spent in Santiago, the second biggest city in the Dominican Republic. I got sort of a tour from my friends who live nearby, and we went into a crazy clothing store to buy some flow. (Flow is Dominican for swag.) I got three pairs of sick sunglasses and some shirts. Success. Later on we met up with a friend who had COSed but then came back to visit. We explored the nightlife of the city, including delicious pizza and hanging out on the steps of a massive monument on a hill. I can’t believe I waited two years before going to Santiago!
The morning after a long night out, I got a call from a friend who was planning on going to a coral restoration workshop, telling me to come find them in their van. I was just planning to fly solo up to the location of the event, but instead I got to ride in a van full of friends! We were heading to Punta Rusia, a tiny beach town up on the northern coast where volunteers Jesse and Alexis are working on restoring the coral on the reefs. We learned all about their project, including the whole process of putting pieces of healthy coral in the nursery, letting them grow, then “outplanting” them to the reefs. We went out to a circular sand bar called Cayo Arena, where the nursery is. I snorkeled out to see it, and saw loads of beautiful coral and brightly-colored fish as well. Unfortunately the conditions for the next location weren’t as clear, so I couldn’t see what the divers were doing when they were outplanting the coral. But at least I got to learn, swim, and see one of the most beautiful places in the country. We closed out the three-day event with a bonfire on the beach under a sky full of stars.
Newbs at the Airport
The new group came in on March 5, so a bunch of us went to the airport to meet them! We made signs with clever sayings on them—mostly poop jokes, piropos and requests for candy. I was there with a lot of interview questions in hand as well. In the Gringo Grita, our official magazine, we always run a feature on the new group coming to the airport. We ask them questions that they have no chance in hell of understanding, and the results are often hilarious. After waiting for about half an hour, we finally got a glimpse of the new group. They were so pale, and so well dressed, and walked in a single file line. After they tossed all their bags into a trailer and packed into two buses—one for the business volunteers and another for the education group—I took pictures of them and then they were off to their first night in country. Welcome, newbs!
After receiving then new group and before starting work on the Gringo Grita, I headed out to the East to see Ben, a friend from my swear-in group. He lives in a tiny batey in the East that can’t have more than 300 people in it. To get there, I took a bus to a batey on the highway, then waited for Ben’s neighbor Chulo to pick me up on his motorcycle. After a half hour of bumping along dirt roads through the sugar cane, I made it to Ben’s house. The town has one road, shaped like a teardrop, with all the houses situated on it or just off of it. The first day we took a quick walk around town and met the neighbors, and I practiced some of my horrible Kreyòl with a few people. The next day Ben and a few other volunteers had a workshop for the human rights and documentation project, Declaro Mis Derechos, in a nearby town. The participants learned about how to do a community diagnostic, performed dramas, and of course played dinámicas. After the workshop the three volunteers on the coordinating team and I went back to Ben’s house to cook dinner, hang out, and do puzzles. After all falling asleep in various places, we woke up at 4:00am by the church across the street. Apparently every Sunday morning they get together and bang drums, play the güira (basically an instrument like a cheese grater that you scrape with a fork), and shout about Jesus. In the morning we made eggs, hung out some more, and then dragged ourselves to the highway to wait for a bus out of town. I had wanted to visit Ben for my whole service, and I’m glad that after almost two years I finally had the chance!
The next week I spent in the office putting together the Gringo Grita. I’ve been on the magazine staff since I swore in, and this issue was my second issue as editor in chief. The five days we spent working on the magazine were packed. We read, discussed, edited, took pictures and laid out pages. I think this issue is one of the best we’ve made so far—the theme, “Peace Corps secrets,” really lent itself to a lot of neat designs. There was even a spread based on the popular website PostSecret, with secrets sent in by volunteers! I’m really grateful that I got to work on such a cool project during my time as a volunteer, and with such quality people.
Visiting Other Volunteers
I’m gonna be real with y’all and admit that my memory is failing me here. Constant motion has left my recollections of the month of March more than a little fuzzy, so I’ll just say that I visited other volunteers too! One of my visits was to Alex, another friend from my swear-in group. He lives in a tiny campo north of the capital called Jabonico. It has no cell phone signal, no internet, and the house he lives in was without power (due to a damaged power line) and without water (due to a damaged water pipe). We carted water from his neighbor’s house to bathe and lit up strategically-placed candles when it got dark. The whole thing was very Walden-esque, an illusion assisted by the fact that his “shack” (as he affectionately calls it) is surrounded by trees, mostly cacao. I had a very relaxing time getting to know his neighbors, checking out the school and computer lab, and joking around with kids on the banks of the river. A little campo time is very refreshing. Other volunteers I visited included Julie, Ryan & Allison, and Ivette. The first three live out in Restauración, in the province of Dajabón, which is basically in Haiti. It’s a bitch to get there, but totally worth the 7 hours on buses. There are pine trees, fog, and gorgeous views, and at night it is actually cold! I can’t wait to go back and visit them during the coming year. Ivette lives in a barrio of Santiago, the second largest city in the country. Her house is excellent, she has a cute dog, and she seems well-integrated in the barrio. I visited all of them to talk about their presentations at community-based training for the new education group.
I’m helping out with training this round, which has been really exciting. The technical trainer for the education sector is Dominican, and she is amazing. Unfortunately, she has never been a Peace Corps Volunteer, so she can’t talk to the trainees about that experience. That’s where I come in! I was originally slated to spend just 3 days a week at the training site, but since I’m homeless I negotiated to spend the whole time there with them. I spend my time planning and organizing with Raini, the trainer, hanging out with the trainees, assisting during other volunteers’ presentations, and facilitating a few technical sessions of my own. I have a host family again, but they are more like roommates since they hardly ever spend more than 20 minutes in the house. It’s been interesting to do CBT again, but in a different community and from the other side. I like this gig, and I think it’s preparing me well for my year-long extension as the PCVL for education.
So there you have it—my life as a vagabond for the past few months. I tried to hit all the highlights, and some of the details got buried in the sands of time, but I hope it was enjoyable to read! Stay tuned for my new life as a capitaleño when I finally have a home in May!