Varilla (Rebar). Yes that. In this country it gets cut, bent and wired together by hand. In the last few days I have learned a lot about making columns, footers, crabs and arcs out of rebar.
Last weekend about 20 people from my Peace Corps swear-in group went to Miches and Playa Esmerald for a few days of rest and relaxation at THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACH I HAVE EVER SEEN. Honestly, I am not much of a beach person. I have lived on a tropical island for 2 years and have only been to the beach a handful of times, but the natural beauty and isolation of Playa Esmeralda are a forces to be reckoned with.
A Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in the same province claims that anytime she has taken a motorcycle to this beach, someone has wrecked, fallen off the bike, burnt themselves on the muffler or experienced some other sort of misfortune. I now understand why this beauty hasn’t been developed. To ameliorate the danger we contracted a flatbed truck with seats to take us there for the day. Being the PCVs that we are, we kept the drivers there too late and they drove like crazy down this road to teach us a lesson.
Besides feeling like I had received several floggings after the ride back, I lost my polarized sunglasses which were perfect for spotting fish or river crabs under the water. These were a gift from my brother so not all casualties were mitigated during this adventure. :( I guess it is 2 dollar pirated RAYBAN sunglasses from here on out.
The beach is isolated. We must have driven 10 miles on gravel, pot holes and sinks of the like. We arrived and hiked our coolers, rice-n-bean-bagged-lunches, sunscreen and other miscellaneous provisions to a point about a half mile down the beach. It was isolated to say the least and we had the entire place to ourselves. Fortunately someone thought to bring 10 gallons of water cooler jugs to ensure proper hydration (cough).
So look at the pictures and how happy these volunteers are to be completing 2 years of service in such a lovely place. During the day we played bucking broncos which consisted of someone sitting on a coconut tree and two broncos shaking the tree until the person fell into the water. We also attempted flipping everyone who came no matter their stature. I figure that I helped throw someone at least 60 times and I am still sore. See the video above.
As a side note, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and his wife were staying at the same place as us and visiting his old stomping grounds 35 years later. He and his wife came along. They also flipped and were a blast to hang out with! Thanks for the great time Jim and Jane!
Everyone in the village is poor by American standards but this boy in the first picture is especially poor. Deworming medication is free and sometimes his little belly is just full of parasites because no one will take him up to the clinic until it gets bad. A swift remedy for repeated infection would be shoes but both of his parents are losers (meaning they have the means to care for their children but don’t) and his poor grandma does her best with him and his two half-brothers. They probably wouldn’t have food if it weren’t for his neighbors Tanya and Guadalupe. Tanya feeds anyone who comes by and Guadalupe assures me that, “you can’t complain if you have food.”
His name is Jonas and I love to watch him color. He hardly puts crayon to paper but he loves it so much! Even before he could really speak I knew that he was threatened by adults. Grown-ups would speak to him and he wouldn’t respond. I thought that maybe he didn’t have the ability to talk until I caught him and his brother laughing and yelling at each other while they picked my unripe watermelons one day. I love my watermelons but I didn’t say anything. Discipline is done with a switch and he could use a break.
Jonas has a unique voice and it is very endearing. I love him and his brothers. He is going to have a hard life and there isn’t much that I can do about it. So we color, I throw him into the air, I give him a hug and we hope for the best.
Community Center CONSTRUCTION BEGINS!
Thank you to all of the faithful community center donors and supporters! After more than 6 months of fundraising, planning, negotiating a land donation, begging the mayor’s office for free sand and organizing our work crew we finally broke ground!
Today ~20 people showed up to mark and dig the footer which is nearly complete. The sun got too high and everyone (including me) wanted their rice and beans so we broke until next Saturday.
More photos to come.
Es pa’ lante que vamos. (We are moving ahead. Dominican saying.)
Here are 6 minutes and 30 seconds of a march through the main drag in my village. We were transporting the santo (Saint? Catholic tabernacle?) back to a neighbor’s house. If you stick it out you can see the great view of Santo Domingo once we get to the top of the hill.
Check out 28 seconds of my best fiesta de palo dance moves. I love the Peace Corps.
(note: I can’t seem to rotate the video on YOUTUBE… bummer/lazy)
My host family just had their annual fiesta de palo (stick party). 300 or so people showed up throughout the day to dance to the drums, pray, play dominoes, drink a tragito of rum and hang out. This was a huge event. The day before my host dad, I and several neighbors constructed a shelter house for the cooks who got started at 4:45 am the following morning. We also put up a big white tent that our neighborhood association had fabricated through local fundraising. Being the tallest of the bunch, I was in charge of hanging balloons as well.
The party was a blast. Barbara and I actually won a game or two of dominoes against some old men. They even tried cheating to avoid losing to the Americans. How embarrassing for them. I danced. I laughed. I got dressed up only to sweat through all of my closes. I gave away 3 gallons of homemade honey mead. I was given a constant flow of coffee, wine, water, rum, pop, wine, rum & coffee. I took photos and made some nice memories.
Drumming started at 10 am but don’t worry. The 6 Haitian laborers who are living on the other side of my house started praying and singing at 5 am so sleeping-in was out of the question (a wood wall with holes separates us so this was happening 6 feet from my head). I got up, made coffee, swore under my breath, loudly in English and after cooling down, helped prepare for the drumming. The Haitians went and worked on the school the entire Sunday.
Interestingly, President Danilo Medina made good on his promise and allotted 4% of the national budget to public education. Given the option of providing more books, better educated teachers or day long classes for high school students; he instead decided to use the money to build more school buildings. Which is needed but nowhere near the solution.
Honestly, most of the boys I know make it through school simply by cheating and it is completely ignored. Recess is given until 12th grade and while the schedule says 15 minutes it is more like 45 or an hour. Not studying at all is the habit. Students don’t go to school because it rains… I could list a million more things. Other than one of the college educated elementary school teachers assuring me that there are indeed 48 weeks in the year (12 x 4).
I digress. Dominicans are great and we all have our things that we need to improve.
Anyway, the Haitian guys next door are providing illegal labor on a contracted government project at a fraction of the cost. Figure a skilled mason lays block for RD$1,000 per day ($25) while the illegal Haitian is paid RD$400 ($10). Better yet, my neighbor tells me that if he eats breakfast (usually starchy roots) they subtract RD$50 and if he eats lunch they take another RD$100 leaving him with only USD$6.25 (RD$250) for 10 – 12 hours of hard labor in sun that exhausts me by 10 am. Try doing that seven days a week.
As an example… Rice, beans and a little meat will cost about RD$100. A 20 minute car ride is about 40 pesos. 5 gallons of purified water is RD$30. A half a pound of bologna is RD$40. A used shirt (like Goodwill quality) from the market might be 50 pesos. As you can see there isn’t much left over for a single male who is not paying rent, let alone someone with a family.
Meanwhile, many under educated Dominicans are out of work and 1,000,000 illegal immigrants are making labor prices so low that citizens would rather not work. Thoughts?
I assure you that I thought of none of this while I was dancing palo. You see, palo is sweet. ¿Tú ves?
A complaint about Dominican child rearing:
Several hundred people came to dance palo, enjoy a libation, eat mountains of rice and pray.
During the chaos of the fiesta de palo at I came back from my neighbor’s house to find my porch filled with kids. Look closely at their red lips. The tint is not from popsicles but dirty red colmado (corner store) wine.
They were quite giggly and although they are ages 9 - 15 none of the 20 adults in the 10 foot radius seemed to mind.
I remind you that they were on my porch. In the States I would probably need a lawyer.Imagínate.
Here are some pictures of the Pormier Cave, Ornithologist Kate Wallace teaching about birds and me showing American football bloopers to my student, Tomas Alfredo. Alfredo got a lot of confidence with the other volunteers at the conference and told us all sorts of English words that he had learned from the Hip/Hop music… In the sense of expanding his cultural understanding of Americans, we then asked him if he had ever played ball-slap-game (juego de bola bofetada). Ball-slap-game… said as one word as to confuse the locals.
Next you will see the excitement in the faces these PCVs. We swore in together, we were at a roof top pool, it was Thanksgiving, we had just won the sports tournament, we have nearly completed our 2 years of service and there was an abundance of booze. Priceless.
Also, here I am at PCDR’s Thanksgiving Dinner with the US Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, our Country Director and 200 other friends. The deputy director was a PCV in Bolivia and I asked him what it was like to work in the State Department and he told me, “Most people who work in the state department are so God damn smart; they can’t find their way out of a paper bag.” That is funny; I have never thought that about Peace Corps Volunteers or the select staff members. Needless to say he is my new hero.
Brigada Verde! Green Brigade! Green Team! However you put it environmental education and awareness is important. I previously wrote about the southern conference that I organized and here are some pictures of our field trip to the Pormier Caves which have a bunch of Pre-Columbian pictographs and petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are carved while pictographs are ash drawings that were preserved by being covered with lard.
Yesterday 9 kids filled an entire Dominican bird themed coloring book on my porch. It was so much fun! Art. Yes. Art. I really blew their minds when I told them that we were going to hang their pictures on my door for all of the neighbors to see. It was a blast! There was even an intra-sibling fist fight over the brown marker! Brown?! Seriously?! There are like 32 beautifully colored endemic bird species on Hispaniola and you are fighting over brown. The irony was completely lost on these children as sister put brother in his place. Palomo.
A Dominican bird coloring book you ask? I got it from former PCV and local bird expert Kate Wallace who operates Tody Tours (http://www.todytours.com/endemics_list.html). They specialize in individualized birding trips and Kate was nice enough to take time out off her schedule to give a workshop at our southern region Brigada Verde conference last week.
During the conference ~60 participants learned about environmental resources, taking pride in their region of the country, HIV/AIDS prevention, birding, astronomy, monocultures, permaculture, biodiversity, endangered species, consequences of gold mining in the DR, the story of stuff (http://www.storyofstuff.org/ in Spanish) and we took a field trip to visit a 55 room cave system that is relatively close to my village. Overall the conference was a success and I was excited to see that volunteers from all 6 of our sectors brought participants.
Also pictured are some designs that barber-Carlos put in my head in preparation for my debut as QB in the Thanksgiving sports tournament and to give me “FLOW” for hosting the talent show with my buddy. It was a blast.
I try to keep this blog honest so I am going to share some good and bad today. The best parts of my job includes working with kids, coloring, throwing kids in the river, amazing them with my tree climbing skills, candle-lit talks with neighbors when the lights go out at sun down, getting all itchy from cherry trees and eating mountains of rice followed by multiple cups of coffee. But it isn’t all so pretty.
I apologize in advance for griping but this is how cultural acceptance and agility is developed.
A few challenges that I have had with local project partners:
· I have planned two youth conferences and I have tried to recruit Dominican professionals to help me by giving relevant presentations. It is one thing to hear it from the gringos but way more believable and sustainable when kids hear Dominicans talk about leadership, environmental issues, study habits, national pride and organizing community activities. The results are in and 4 out of 6 Dominican guest presenters did not show up over the course of 2 conferences. I had money to pay for their travel and food. I sent official invitations to their employers and they did not need to take personal vacation days. Wow. Although they had no less than 10 weeks some didn’t even bother to call until the day of their presentation.
· Silvia Mateo, the Environmental Extension Educator from San Cristobal’s Ministry of Environment gets her own bullet point for being government employee who decided to take vacation to visit the basilica in Higüey instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to speak to dozens of Dominican adolescents about her chosen profession like she had agreed to do 2 months before. There are a bunch of other mean things that I can say, but I do have to say that she did pick up her phone when we got to the caves and saved the day.
· So we arrive to the caves and the military guard and guides do not want to honor the agreement that I had stricken with the Ministry of Environment. Apparently they didn’t send a form or someone in the office didn’t know about the form. This is unclear. I am still unsure that a form exists. We had agreed that we would pay RD$500 pesos to each of the 4 scheduled guides to take our ~60 participants on the tour. Instead they want me to pay RD$100 per person and tip the guides… The difference between RD$2,000 pesos and about RD$6,800. Of course only two guides showed up. This is par but to top it off they wanted to take all 60 people one the tour and I got to use a great word that I so rarely get to use “AntipedagógicoI” (anti-pedagogical or not conducive for effective teaching). I get red faced, I encourage the guard to look at the children’s faces, I guilt him, I drop 6 names at the Ministry of Environment, I suggest that they are looking for personal gain from a government office and that this is sinful and finally I call Silvia. I explain the situation, I tell her that she must get us into the caves and that the guard is being acting in bad faith (mala Fe which is a huge insult down here). In a few moments we are permitted to enter although I have to scream at the guides in front of everyone to get them to stop trying to negotiate for more money in front of the kids and honor the agreement that their bosses had made about taking the kids in 4 groups.
· The field trip was a success and the kids loved it.
· In regards to my personal relationship with Silvia. I will call it a wash and agree that yes, it warrants a thank you card with a smiley face. Thank you for saving the day Silvia.
· If she had not picked up her phone, I realistically may have had to bribe all three of them with my monthly stipend money. Which would have been a bummer, dude.
As part of their graduation requirements the members of my youth group have to go into a high school classroom and present a workshop that they developed to their peers. The idea behind Escojo Mi Vida (I choose my life.) is that members become multipliers of HIV/AIDS prevention.
Last week we met on my porch to discuss what we wanted to include in the workshop. We have about 24 active members and our goal is to present in groups of 4 for an hour. Pictured are students developing the lesson that they will then teach to the other EMV members at our upcoming all night vigil.
At our meeting I did a little bit of prompting, but my major contribution to this meeting was sweeping the porch and making a lime, grapefruit and sour orange juice melody. Believe it. My kids are starting to plan and run their own meetings and this has been one of my most successful projects.
As a side note: 1.1% of the Dominican population are HIV positive. This is rate is 16 times greater than in the United States.
Also pictured: The improved cook stove that we just put in at my host mom’s house. Now she will use 30% less fire wood and won’t have to breathe in so much smoke when she cooks.
Yay Peace Corps. 22 months down, 5 months until my close of service.
Spanish changes between borders. This is especially true in the Dominican Republic where the word coger can mean to take, to catch, to get, to grasp an idea, to pick up and to hold on.
“Take the route 29 B bus.” “Get the key from the director.” “Hold the rope.” “I didn’t get her point.”
I previously wrote about Dr. John who visited my village with his daughter before he and his team provided free ear, nose and throat surgeries for 164 Dominican children. Although he has not studied Spanish, he has picked up a few phrases during his two trips.
Of course I want him to be cool in Spanish too so I naturally teach him: Cógelo suave.
This means take it easy in the Dominican Republic. I however failed to remember that other countries default to another meaning for this word.
Dr. John returns to the land of the free and with a smirk says, “Cógelo suave” to a bilingual nurse at the hospital.
As I read his email, it hits me: He just told her to “F*** it gently.”
Whoops! And so ends my career as a medical translator. I hope that no one calls HR.
Note: Dr. John is one of the coolest human beings ever. I publicly apologize for this oversight and feel really bad… thank you for having a sense of humor!
The introductory video to our Thanksgiving Day Talent Show. Don’t worry, it was all done in one take and isn’t supposed to make that much sense. It is however somewhat funny and very ridiculous.
Here a host country national explains that Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful to God, visit with family, dance meringue, eat a lot and drink a little rum. It sounded a lot like most Dominican holidays so I asked him who the patron saint of Thanksgiving was. He then confirmed that it was the Virgin of Altagracia … of course.