Peace Corps Blog, Dominican Republic, Daniel Wendt

What I wish Americans knew about the Dominican Republic…

This two minute video is about Dominican Youth and was created by my friend Ryan Browning. Ryan’s focus as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic was appropriate technology but you can see from this video that he was very well integrated in his community and very passionate about youth education and development. 

This video was submitted to the Peace Corps Week Cultural Windows Challenge. You can watch videos that were submitted by Peace Corps Volunteers who served all over the world by clicking here: Peace Corps Week 2014 Videos.

Today, I was great at my job.

When I was an IT consultant in Columbus, my supervisor Joe told me that all of his good technicians leave as soon as they are getting good. While it took most of his technicians a year to get really good, it took me nearly three. What I lacked in technical competency, I made up for with hard work, reliability and by being that IT guy chocked full of personality. At Data Resolutions, Inc., I was immersed in sales, several computer disciplines, remote support, IT training, prioritizing, negotiating, urban navigation, convincing third party providers that they were responsible for my clients’ problems, saying no to bosses at client offices, critical thinking, arguing with thieving insurance agents, deduction and best IT business practices across many sectors. Data Resolutions, Inc. treated me exceptionally well and I will always be grateful for the professional development that came from the sink-or-swim, work well and be independent mentality.

I was a recent college graduate with no money and success was the only option. I put in long hours and I studied after work. I remember that one time that Janelle, the boss’s wife, got a flat tire on the way to the airport. Business casual and all, I grabbed my own tire iron out of my truck, we got in in his care and went to get Janelle, I sent them ahead so that she wouldn’t miss her flight and then left the car in long term parking. I don’t know if that helped me get taken on full time. It didn’t hurt. Useful employees aren’t limited to the parameters of their job descriptions. 

Peace Corps is like any other job in that it takes a bit of time before you really know what you are doing. I will pat myself on the back and say that yesterday, I was in the sweet-spot.

Before starting a new A Ganar (vocational training course) in a community, the team of teachers goes out and conducts market surveys with business owners and managers. We do this to identify career paths that pertain to the area and the subjects that we teach. Yesterday we were not in a tourist zone, so it wouldn’t make sense to teach hotel reception. We were in an area that has a lot of construction, motorcycle sales and a new 90,000 sq. ft. greenhouse project. It sounds obvious, but many do-gooder-service-minded-groups set out to SAVE THE PEOPLE without even trying to understand them. Believe me. This happens more than not. I say trying because I know that I will not fully understand the local situation.

I will say that people avoid doing this type of research because like sales, people are apprehensive and say NO frequently.

Regardless, yesterday, I was on. I warmed up by interviewing owners in a few small shops. There is the straightforward approach. Enter the store, ask for the boss, explain the program, get the phone number and go down the bulleted survey questions furiously scribbling answers. This is not how I went about it when I went to a rather large appliance and hardware store.

Instead, I went to the corner store, bought some gum and asked the name of the boss across the street. I arrived at the giant hardware store, approached the clerk and said, “My name is licenciado (meaning I am a college educated professional, it is a cultural thing) Daniel Wendt and I teach customer service. I am here to speak with (boss’s name).”

No further explaining necessary. They sent me right upstairs. When I got there, the big boss wasn’t there so I asked if there was a human resources manager. There was. I asked her to excuse the interruption. She was happy to handle something for her boss and patiently smiled. I explained that I teach customer service/sales and that I was trying to start a vocational training program in the community and simultaneously figure out how to improve my curriculum by identifying characteristics of good and bad employees.

I asked her about the good and by the time we got to the bad, we were both laughing and telling stories. Nonchalantly, I asked her how many employees she had. 107 employees! ¡Cónchale, anda diache! AND they come from the town and surrounding villages. Perfect.

The next strategy is to get her to say yes before arriving at the true objective. I get her to say yes by asking her if she likes her job and if she studied business in school. Next she tells me that she is getting ready to do her master’s. Me too! Common ground established.

I smile and tell her that as part of our vocational training program, we conduct interview tests with local managers. I explain that the students really work hard to prepare for the interviews, that we have a rubric and that the interviews provide valuable experience for poor students that may have never had a professional interview. She is impressed and smiles. Keep in mind, that I am not lying or misleading my new professional friend. I am telling the truth, persuading, trying to help Dominican students get jobs and also, I am attempting to win her over. In the Peace Corps, I have learned to adapt to win.

I will never forget my first day in Peace Corps in Washington DC when they told us about village elders resisting water treatment because they were sure that people were getting sick from evil spirits, not the water. So a Peace Corps Volunteer got a microscope, hauled it in for hours, showed the elders the water and said, “You are right, I can see them right there!” She then ran the water through a filter and took out the spirits. No one lost face. Spirits eradicated. Mission accomplished.

I continue.

 “Many of our students are single mothers that haven’t really had a professional female example to follow. As the HR manager at a large business, we could really use your experience, do you think that you could help us out during the next round of interview tests?” Another yes. Perfect.

Finally, I arrive at the true objective. I explain that in our program we teach reading, writing, mathematics, English, teamwork through sports, HIV/AIDS prevention, sales, healthy lifestyle decision making skills and customer service for 4 months. After that, in order to graduate, our students have to complete 80 hour internships with the goal of gaining experience, converting that internship to a job and earning a positive professional recommendation.

Using the information from our conversation about worker tendencies, I ask, “If I train some of the poorest students from the area and address the problems that you have had with previous employees, if I teach them good habits like I have done with over 200 other students, if they learn to speak some English and have a customer service/sales strategy, would you accept a few as interns?”

What do you think she said?

Only then did I ask for her last name and phone number.

Cultural agility.

It was one of those days that made me feel like I have come to master my job. The point of all of this, is now that I am getting good, it is time to fish in another pond. Bittersweet.

Hooorah.

(Pictured above are my current students and some of the other A Ganar teachers.)

Peace Corps Day 1099

5 for 5

Peace Corps Day 1099: The Political Science Department at Bowling Green State University offered me admission to the MPA program, a full scholarship and a living stipend as a Coverdell Fellow / teaching assistant!

I can’t believe that I got into all of the graduate schools to which I applied!

¿Qué vacanería?

March 1, 2014 was my 3 year anniversary in the Peace Corps… 
Day 1,097 was anything but typical and this is how I went about celebrating: 
I got up, drank beet juice and made oatmeal with yogurt.
Sabine, Shira and I went to the beach. 
We then bought Dominican coffee makers (grecas) and met Krista for burritos. 
We went our separate ways and I lifted weights at the gym. 
I got back, had just enough time to shower and then went skateboarding with Yulia. That is right, I went skateboarding once… making me a hipster regardless of the size of my board. O sea… soy una persona en la onda pese al tamaño de mi patineta.
In the evening, I drank exactly two small Bohemia beers, listened to a Canadian/Dominican band play and then retired. 
It was great.

March 1, 2014 was my 3 year anniversary in the Peace Corps… 

Day 1,097 was anything but typical and this is how I went about celebrating: 

  • I got up, drank beet juice and made oatmeal with yogurt.
  • Sabine, Shira and I went to the beach. 
  • We then bought Dominican coffee makers (grecas) and met Krista for burritos. 
  • We went our separate ways and I lifted weights at the gym. 
  • I got back, had just enough time to shower and then went skateboarding with Yulia. That is right, I went skateboarding once… making me a hipster regardless of the size of my board. O sea… soy una persona en la onda pese al tamaño de mi patineta.
  • In the evening, I drank exactly two small Bohemia beers, listened to a Canadian/Dominican band play and then retired. 

It was great.

Fiesta de Palo, San Cristóbal, República Dominicana, 2014, 5 de 6

Fiesta de Palo, San Cristóbal, República Dominicana, 2014, 4 de 6

 Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to say that with the help of Arthur and Marie, I made it to Carnival in Santiago this February.

Believe it or not, I went to Carnival with my host family on my 3rd day in the Dominican Republic. It was Sunday in 2011, Doña Esperanza and Chichi said Carnival, and I got into the car. Shortly after that, I was confused. It appeared that we were at a hardware store. We were.

With my low Spanish, I could do little more than learn to let it wash over me. I didn´t really get what was going on for some time (like 3-6 months) and that became OK. We made it to Carnival and I was overwhelmed by helicopters, costumed devils, beautiful temptresses, overbearing music and disorientation.

You can see that time has passed.

Step One: Put on a badass Ghanian shirt with mad designs and grab a can of beer.

Step Two: Make friends with the pretty girls by telling a joke and by asking the tigüere (streetwise guy) which was his girlfriend and if any were his sister… none. ¡Pariguayo! (meaning that he has no game… he is probably just a nice guy).

Step Three: Joke around, laugh a bunch, dance around a bit, snap a few photos and finish by telling the girl with the half-shirt that you have seen that same shirt on like 5 people today.. pause… and then tell her that she wears it the best (her eyes may roll but she just might smile). Works every time (sometimes).

Step Four: Dominate at shotgunning beers in the street. 

Step Five: Give beads as presents to little girls and old ladies. Tell them that you love them and of course … Now Dance in the Street… Watch the sun go down… Santiago gets a little seedy… HAPPY CARNIVAL!

I have been trying to go to Carnival for some time, but work always seemed to get in the way of fun… Before February seemed reserved for construction, conference planning, administrative meetings and finding an extension project… Not this year!

Carnival is a time of skullduggery, release, costumes, people watching, hog-bladder fanny bopping, dancing, history, culture and cheap beer. All of these were had (some arguably to excess!).

Dominican Carnival Culture consists of a big parade every Sunday in February with the chaos usually peaking around the 27th (Which is the day that the Dominican Republic claimed independence from Haiti in 1844.).

The parades have reoccurring characters which are portrayed by villages and neighborhoods. Dominicans spend months preparing their costumes and practicing their routines in a friendly competition for best of category.

 

From Wikipedia:

The list of characters included during the celebration is immense, but there are some characters that are seen throughout the countries during the festivities. Such as:

Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil): is the main character during the carnival. A story says that this devil was banished to earth because of his childish pranks. When he hit the earth, he hurt his leg. Most of the towns and cities in the country have their own version of it, but it has some country-wide characteristics such as the use of a mask, showy suits of satin, sleighbells, a “Vejiga” which is an animal bladder filled with air which is used to hit people in the streets or a whip (to hit other “Diablos”).

 

Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken): is a satire of a way that some people used to steal chickens from farms, that consists of a man dressing up with a dress and then using the chickens as their cleavage and hips, in the carnival the chickens are substituted with pillows or sacks.

 

Califé: is a character that shouts poetry during the festivities making complaints about situations, government officials, portraying the people’s voice.

 

Se me muere Rebeca (Rebeca is dying): is woman that portrays another woman from a low social class that has an ill daughter(Rebeca) and can’t pay the medicines, and goes out to the street to shout about it, acting likes she’s psychotic about this.

 

La Ciguapa: is a female character who comes around at night. She is naked with very long black hair, and her feet are backwards. She enchants the men she comes across.

 

Los Indios (The Indians): are a group of men and women dressed in the typical native Taino Indian attire. They travel together showcasing Dominican origins.

There are many more but those are some of the most used around the country, it is important to say that every town has their own variations of these and some original characters.

 

¡Viva Carnival!

Love,

Dan

Cooking for 150-200 people is no joke. When my best friend Joel and I came back from the municipality’s patronal festival at 2 am, my host dad and some of the neighbors had already started cooking. Like old times, they gave me a cup of ginger tea and put me to work stirring pots and moving calderazos (really big caldrons). I just love how it was 75 degrees that night, I had my shirt off and all of my neighbors were bundled up because of the cold.

Earlier that day, my host dad with a hint of shame explained to me that I couldn’t stay in his family’s house because of all of the visitors. This made him uncomfortable and he asked if I wouldn’t mind staying in my old Peace Corps House that I used rent from him. MIND!? Of course not!

The house is split down the middle by a palm board wall and as a joke, he tried to put me on the other side where my 90 year old neighbor (his father) used to live… Cristóbal, what are you thinking? You have to put me on my side! NO! You must be kidding. He was. We laughed about it all weekend.

I called this unassuming wooden house with a zinc roof my home for exactly 2 years, one month and 28 days! It brought back a white-wash of memories. I thought about the vulnerability that I felt in this new place. I remembered the inherent understanding of what 6 months of confusion is like; books that I read; calls that I made to mom and dad; Haitians praying in tongues at the top of their lungs on the other side of the palm board wall just a few feet from my head; finding out that my grandfather had cancer; sitting on the porch with my neighbors; listening to my 90 year old neighbor, Abuelo, talk in his sleep and the stories that would tell me about his youth and growing up in the time of Trujillo; the video that my host sister helped me shoot for Brian and Megan´s wedding reception; the afternoons that I would spend in the hammock; not having enough water to bathe or wash my clothes; resisting the urge to scold neighbors for pilfering my water tanks while I was foolishly out building a community center in the tropical sun or teaching a class (Hey, their kids needed water too and that was OUR reality. It is STILL their reality.); the time that I cut off a chunk of my thumb and a Peace Corps doctor told me to stop the bleeding with sugar (it worked!); the feeling of three weeks of undiagnosed giardia; how much my ex-girlfriend complained, got really mean when she drank (or didn’t drink) and how useless she was when she would visit in general; riding my neighbor’s horse; living in a cramped space with only small paths between ceramic cooking stove parts; practicing Dominican tongue twisters to the amusement of my neighbors; watching little boys drive cattle; all of my visitors; sweating under the mosquito net with no fan in 100+ degree weather at 10pm; the way that people (even Peace Corps volunteers) reacted to the condition of my latrine (it was raw); the countless evenings that I spent looking out my backdoor with Joel; coloring on a porch full of children; the betrayal that I felt when my Associate Peace Corps Director went back on his word and gave the volunteer leader position to my apple-polishing coworker who embellished his involvement in planning stove trainings/youth conferences/soliciting grants; tarantula smashing; studying Spanish; coffee with neighbors; heartbreak; celebrating new grant awards and fundraising efforts; feeding my street dog Bigote rice at noon; how impressive Chip´s immediate assimilation into the campo was; hearing students across the street sing the Dominican national anthem at the school each morning and afternoon; porch talks with Jovanny; sprawling out on the cement floor with a wet towel to beat the heat; making mead; hot yoga; the time that I watched Saydis, my 4 year old neighbor girl, bounce up after being hit by a motorcycle (nearly uninjured); the campo mush that we cooked after a stove training in my house; my chin up bar; cooking with Keisha; general confusion about life; the two times that I accidentally saw my next door neighbor´s boobs (I am not going to lie, they were nice and I think that she meant to do it.); Sunday afternoon meetings; loneliness; the stress that ensued when Dr. John and Mariel had to use the latrine; when I gave up and let the spiders live (minus tarantulas); crying alone at night under the mosquito net because I was homesick and had explosive diarrhea; watching the motorcycles slip in the mud after leaving the cock fighting ring in the rain; giggling because I could hear my neighbors talk about the lottery numbers at 9pm every night even though they didn’t play; bathing in the river; rain baths; believing that pvc rain catching gutter was the best addition that anyone can put on their home; studying for the GRE by candlelight; long bicycle rides; tossing muchach@s into the air; afternoons spent playing dominoes; giving out cups of coffee; and, nursing my aches from months of construction.

 

My existence in Los Montones de San Cristóbal was an incredible corner of my life that catalyzed growth, sharing, inspiration, empathy, devastation, indomitable spirit, work ethic, tenacity and learning by doing. 

 

Link: The Peace Corps Welcomes you to The Dominican Republic!

 

Testimonial

As a third year Peace Corps Volunteer, DREAM Project, the NGO that I work with, asked that I provide a testimonial for Partners of the Americas, ENTRENA and USAID. Here is what I submitted:


“As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I spent two years in a small village directing community projects, falling in love with the Dominican culture and learning Spanish. “Come in, sit down. Have you eaten?” A lot can be learned from the manner in which Dominicans treat each other. After two years of learning to compartir, pretending to dance bachata, enjoying fiestas de palo and developing lifelong friendships, I wanted to continue serving El Pueblo Dominicano in a more professional capacity. DREAM Project presented me with the opportunity to do just that. In the A Ganar workforce training program, I teach customer service, professional development and work to develop relationships with local businesses so that they will accept our students as interns. As for feeling accomplished, imagine an unemployed single mother making a higher monthly salary than either of her parents after immense effort and a few short months of training. At DREAM, I have grown as a teacher, had the ability to develop bilingual training materials and have brought my Spanish to the next level. Most importantly, I have worked with a staff of dedicated development professionals to improve the lives of some of society’s most impoverished and vulnerable young people”.

Daniel Wendt, Peace Corps Volunteer
Profesor de Servicio al Cliente en A Ganar

To learn about volunteering with DREAM Project and student study abroad trips take a look at: http://dominicandream.org/volunteer

My favorite part of the Dominican culture.

When Dominicans ask me what my favorite part of their culture is; I say FIESTA DE PALO, without hesitation. Quizzical is the best way to describe their reaction. You see, fiesta de palo (drum party) is not so much a party but a ritual. It is raw emotion that honors ancestors and a mix of Catholic and African religious traditions. Drums are carved from yagruma, mango and avocado trees; tambourines are covered with stretched goat hides and smashed beer bottle caps that act as the bells; maracas are plastic water bottles filled with small stones; the metal güira may be made from an oil can and carries the 4/4 signature. The songs cover you in joy, call out to the saints, recount the suffering and hunger that comes with poverty. Still together, my neighbors remind each other that life is good.

I step back and reflect. Without tragedy, there is no awareness of beauty.

The fiesta actually starts days before the band arrives. Women come together and organize the food for 200+ visitors. Men go into the woods to cut logs for a shelter house. Neighbors help slaughter a calf. The house’s valuables are secured and locked into one room. Dominoes sets, tables and chairs are borrowed from any willing neighbor. The hosting family bears the financial burden, but everyone does their part.            

Pictured above are my neighbors who brought a Catholic tabernacle and painting of the Virgin Mary.  Together we prayed the rosary and they played for vespers on Saturday. Everyone returned Sunday morning and we celebrated until dusk. During the fiesta, everyone dances; women gossip while they cook; people who normally don’t drink rum, have a little bit; 1,000+ cups of coffee are poured; people who don’t smoke cigarettes, puff one down; children sneak away with wine; voices go raspy; spirits mount people; dehydration headaches come on strong; laughter ceases only for brief moments of reflection; real companionship fills the air and everyone dons their Sunday best.

Dominicans in the cities and the wealthier parts of the country shun this beautiful celebration as antiquated, backwards and hick-ish. I love that Peace Corps has provided me with the opportunity to call this celebration with my host family, “my favorite part of the Dominican culture.”

Fiesta de Palo, San Cristóbal,
República Dominicana, 2014, 3 de 6

Fiesta de Palo, San Cristóbal,
República Dominicana, 2014, 2 de 6

From Wikipedia: 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_the_Dominican_Republic#Palo

Palo is a Dominican sacred music that can be found through the island. The drum and human voice are the principal instruments. Palo is played at religious ceremonies - usually coinciding with saint’s days - as well as for secular parties and special occasions. Its roots are in the Congo region of central-west Africa, but it is mixed with European influences in the melodies. Palos are related to Dominican folk Catholicism, which includes a pantheon of deities/saints (here termed misterios) much like those found in the Afro-American syncretic religious traditions of CubaBrazil,Haiti, and elsewhere. Palos are usually associated with the lower class, black and mixed populations. They can be seen in different regions of Dominican Republic, but with variations.

Palo music is played on long drums termed palos.The word palos means trees, and therefore all Dominican palos drums are instruments made from hollowed out logs. The head of the drum is made of cowhide and it is attached to the log portion with hoops and pegs in the Eastern region, or with nails in the Southwest. There is a master drum (palo mayor) which is the large, wide drum played with slimmer drums (alcahuetes) alongside: two in the East or three elsewhere. Palos are usually played with guiras, which are metal scrapers. They may also be played with maracas, or a little stick used to hit the master drum, called the catá. The Dominican region in which the palos are played determines the form, the number of the instruments, and how they are played.

Palos are associated with the Afro- Dominican brotherhoods called cofradías. Originally, the brotherhoods were composed solely of males. As time progressed, females and family inheritance maintained the brotherhoods’ sanctity. Each brotherhood is devoted to a particular saint. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the brotherhood is to honor the saint with a festival. Historically, cofradías were established on principals similar to those of the Mediterranean guild-based societies and those founded by Africans that inhabited southern Spain. Through colonization and the slave trade, these traditions were brought to the Dominican Republic. However, the cofradías are not limited to the Dominican Republic, they are found in other parts of the Americas as well, where they may be adapted to Native-American folk Catholicism, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

Palo music is generally played at festivals honoring saints (velaciones) or during other religious events. The configuration of instruments present depends on the region in which these events take place. Palo drums are played with the hands, held between the legs, and tied to the palero’s waist by a rope. The three paleros each play a distinct beat on their palos, which ultimately blend together. These rhythms vary depending on the region as well. For example, in the East, the “palo corrido” rhythm is popular, while in San Cristóbal, one may be more likely to find the “palo abajo” rhythm. While they play their drums, one of the paleros simultaneously sings verses of a song. The surrounding audience and the rest of the paleros repeat the chorus of the song after each verse, taking on the call-and-response form present in many Congolese musical genres, emphasizing the genre’s African roots. Contrastingly, however, the lyrics of these songs are often based in Catholic tradition; honoring saints, etc. These religious songs are played towards the beginning of these festivals, and, as they progress, become increasingly secular, their main purpose being to provide entertainment and something to dance to. Sacred palo music that is played at ceremonies often invokes spirits of ancestors or saints, and it is not unusual to encounter participants becoming possessed at these events.

Fiesta de Palo, San Cristóbal, República Dominicana, 2014, 1 de 6

These blog posts will mostly have to do with drum parties that are called fiestas de palo in mostly the southern and eastern rural Dominican Republic. It is a multifaceted and spiritual journey that is about much more than dancing and music. I hope that you enjoy the videos!

Note: This year they let me play the tambourines a little bit. I still haven’t graduated to drums. :-)