Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pastel hints of sunrise seeped into winter sky, revealing the familiar banks of the river as we drove toward our monthly reunion with facilitators. The faraway black figure of a man emerged from the trees carrying a baby bundled in fleece as he picked his way, carefully yet determinedly, over the rocks, heading in the direction of the town. As we rounded the gravel curves of the path more figures appeared on foot, skirting the truck. “What are they doing out here?” I asked Yennis. “They have to travel hidden and they have no transportation so they have to walk to work I suppose.”


The plainclothes authorities boarded the bus and scanned the passengers, I felt the heat of their stares, or maybe it was the uncomfortable embarrassment burning in my belly as they signaled to see the cedulas of certain passengers for who knows what kind of information, glancing over the laminated identification card that some passengers had taken to wearing on lanyards around their neck for easy access when singled out repeatedly. I wondered how they were trained for such an assignment, these men with “G-2” loudly embroidered on their caps; if they had studied the profiles of hundreds of Haitians until they could pick them out efficiently from a cluster of passengers bound for the capital from Tamayo while the others sat, oppressed into a very un-Dominican like silence, until the comadante finished, or was paid to finish, one of several brief checks along the highway from the southern provinces to the capital, meant to flush the cholera and it’s loathed hosts, out of the DR. The amiable culture however permitted the passengers to rebound quickly from the confrontation—buying cakes, candies and cassava bread from the vendors who mounted bus and murmuring about the officers after their departure.


Having several other programs to mount and only one pickup to carry us through the mountain passes, my project partners divided and conquered. “I’m staying here to do the evaluation” Yennis told me, taking off her jacket and backpack to set them on one of the ubiquitous plastic chairs that was settled next to a plastic ponchera full of newborn piglets. “And I’ll go on to the next?” I asked tentatively, stepping down from the truck to embrace one of my facilitators who was surrounded by her brood of children and looked to be carrying yet another in her belly. I knew the peck on the cheek pleased her, but she was one of the many women of the campo whose gorgeously full, brown features had been hardened to a permanent frown from hard work and squinting into the southern sun. I was nervous going alone but like many experiences here, I used momentum to sling myself back up in the pickup’s cab before thoughts of doubt could filter in. Edy pulled the truck up to a shade tree where a cluster of people watched the powerful truck emblazoned with the foundation logo with hazy afternoon interest. Edy greeted those seated and I followed suit, grasping hands and kissing the cheeks of women and men. Edy accepted the seat they offered and put his feet up on a bench as I finally realized not only were these not the people we were looking for, but that had he ever met them in his life. Have you all seen “Richard, Dulce and Maria?” Edy wanted to know. “Oh we’ll find them,” one woman assured me, while simultaneously turning to shout at a child hanging around the cluster of houses lining the dusty path—“SHE WANTS TO SEE RICHARD—GO GET HIM.” Edy got up from his seat, having to leave to another activity and asked me if I would be alright waiting here alone. “Of course,” I assured him. Why would I not want to wait under a pleasant shade tree in a mountain town called “Beautiful View” with 6 newly made Dominican family members? “Treat her like the queen she is,” Edy warned—“and if I hear otherwise I’m coming after all of you, you understand?” “Of course, we’ll make sure she feels at home” they all chimed in. After several minutes of sitting in silence, I began to chat with a woman affectionately named Ura, (like all Dominicans, she was known by her apodo) who, as providence had it, happened to be a literacy participant in our program. “I want to continue studying, I always tell people how important to keep learning and I’m interested in business too, I was told that the foundation gives loans to small businesses…” She continued about how she was literacy advocate in the community and I sat dumbfounded. How are these people created? Are they born like this? How can a woman who believes so much in education fail to learn how to read and write? Millions of questions materialized in my mind as every time I meet a Dominican in my project area and depending on my comfort level and time limit, I probe for the hidden keys to development. I thanked her as best I knew how for what she had done for her fellow community members and told her I hoped she would keep up the good work as Richard appeared to lead me away from my group of friends—“A pleasure to meet you!” I called over my shoulder as I followed the lanky boy. Richard is a marvel. Through my monthly training sessions and his almost religious participation in every single foundation program for which he qualifies, I’ve come to admire him as one of the strongest youths, one of the strongest people, I have ever met. Being left without his father and having a mother that worked to keep them fed, he worked as he raised his baby sister from an infant. The dark skin of his tall, lean frame is mottled with pink pock marks and rough patches that is just one of the differences he claims has made him special. He finished his education up till eighth grade but his community has no high school. Not being able or willing to leave their communities like so many other young people had, he, Dulce and Maria decided to stay in Buena Vista, without their diplomas, waiting for someone to recognize their request to bring the required education to the community. Over his impeccably clean t-shirt that he wore tucked into black, belted slacks he wore a sunshine yellow crucifix that he himself had strung in a craft class he had taken through the foundation. He embraced me and I was left smelling strongly of his clean, cologne scent. We walked toward the primary school, where the three young people imparted literacy courses to community members. I sat in a circle as we waited for people to arrive. As the timid women and youth filled the classroom I watched the three facilitators work together to do the literacy work as well as anyone could—lovingly and patiently. I made tons of notes, knowing that if I shared them over lunch at the next training that their young, open minds and their attitudes toward community service would take the comments and run with them. They had wonderful planning tools (heck, I was overjoyed that they did ANY planning), and I thanked the lord for yet more wonderful facilitators in my program. I have come into contact with so many amazing, kind Dominicans and many of them I have encountered through the foundation, where I know I have come for a reason.


I mounted my second carro of the night as the sun abandoned the busiest street in Santo Domingo and scooted till my body was plastered against the door of the car’s right-hand side, using the handle on the roof for leverage as the others quickly filled in every inch of the rest of the cab. A large bald man who sat to my left squabbled with the spitfire, waif of a doña who occupied the third seat about who would have to be the one to perch forward on the edge to allow the fourth fare to squeeze into the back of the dented Toyota’s compact back seat. After being defeated by her impossible and illogical stubbornness (even the gringa knows that the third person, not to mention the skinniest, should volunteer to move forward!) the bulky man almost comically inched toward the front of the car as much as humanly possible as a lanky youth in a baseball cap, texting on his Blackberry, filled in the opposite window seat. After the large man had settled himself against our legs, his attention shifted to me—“Lower your bag and grip it tight—this area is dangerous didn’t you know that? This street especially.” I had my laden backpack with me as I crossed the city, a habit developed from having to trek for an hour from the foundation to my barrio and having to be prepared for work, travel, and emergencies in whatever circumstances I find myself in around the country or in the unpredictable and sprawling cement city. I glower inwardly when Dominican strangers think I need their advice but luckily I was smart enough to heed him. We heard a dull “thunk” and by the time anyone could identify the source of the sound a thief had slammed the teen’s hand against the car’s exterior, ripping the Blackberry out of it. The poor youth had to listen to the two in the center lecture him the entire way home about how “Did you hear what I was just telling her?!” The big man asks, jerking his thumb rabidly in my direction “Wow!—Haven’t you taken this route before? You should know better—you have to call customer service right away” and from the crazy doña —“that’s exactly why I don’t want one of those expensive cell phones, for what?—So someone will kill me to take it??! Just buy me one of those cheap ones that just make calls, that’s what I told him…There’s rampant delinquency nowadays, people just act up and have no respect—before, you knew all your neighbors and everything was fine, but now, huh! There’s these three tigueres that live by my building and I don’t want anything to do with them…” But my mind was racing with wonder at the close call, how it was not the first nor even the fifth time that I have felt cared for, as if someone was watching my actions here, intervening….


The all volunteer conference had just ended and I was relieved to be leaving the tropically humid training center, its grounds crammed with 250 bodies. As I made my way up the familiar slope up to the freeway I heard a voice behind me “Are you Natasha?” A volunteer asked hesitantly, introducing herself as a business volunteer. “I was in the east for patronales and a Dominican boy came up to me and asked if I was a volunteer. He asked me if I knew you and said that a year ago you guys had worked on a movie project together and about how much fun it was. He said he’s doing junior UN activities now, he remembered your guys’ names and everything. I just wanted to let you know.” I remember the movie project as our first real assignment in country, intended to acclimate us to working with Dominican youth, our group deciding to create a documentary on two iconic companies—one that made a famous soft drink and another that made traditional candy. The movie was fun, but it was the kids’ personalities that stuck out to me—wonderful kids who mysteriously defied the blame that Dominicans (and Americans) place on the younger generations for the problems plaguing the societies they claim were once utopian. They were kids who had a couple of people believe in the fact that they could be good, and one year later, they still remember people who spent time with them, who played a couple of team building games and gave them a chance to create.


I know I should write, but every time I set my fingers to the keys a nervousness surges into my stomach. What if I can’t get it quite right? What if I’ll never be a good enough writer to do justice to the experience? What if the beautiful brown people turn out like simplified caricatures? What if I keep tapping the backspace button on the sad parts and the unfurling moral ambiguities because they seem dramatic or the true revelations because they seem cliché?

A girl, riding in a pick-up truck all over this tiny island with frothy water-white rock beaches that crash wooded cliffs, who’s slanted sunlight make it look like the alien planets we’ll find but that also feels like the only world she’s ever known; the memories of the other only tricks of the mind, wisps of ghosts and acrid familiar scents and déjà vous. She finds spread before her a bounty of two-day connections with people who want to help their communities and beam with the sacred and un-dousable light of creation, regardless of the crushing weight of circumstance and those who would not give a care if nothing ever changed, and she feels an ardent love for these people, so much so that after trainings she wants to sleep for days because unknowingly she has given them everything—with encouraging smiles she wants to lift them up, the hundreds of them, over her head and carry them; with the transfer of her energy she wants to fill each one them up with the beauty of the education she received—and also unknowingly she is sad that this is all she can give them. And the flashes, oh the flashes of poeticism that do not fit logically but are the only things worth writing—like the present he brought her of a tiny rainbow colored mango that, when held reverently in the palm of the hand, revealed its one smooth, flat side like that of a river rock that she slid her finger over. Can he even be permitted in this narrative of selfless living? Can he survive the deep silent snows and the people who lock themselves away in their three bedroom, two bath homes with running, hot water and predictable electricity instead of walking tropical heat streets playing dominoes with their neighbors and speaking Spanish late into the night in voices that carry through the cratered streets and up over the palm fronds and into the mango tree where the bats flutter...

How will I give you the eyes to see what I’ve seen and continue to see—I, a strange twine of foreigner and resident who wants to be HOME, a representative, one who is called out as Chinese by strangers and resents it, one who sits and listens to Dominicans speak of America and Haitians and always regrets her hesitation to comment, a little girl of 25.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The campo

Joselo guided the powerful truck along the familiar gravel curves, through the desert bramble that bordered the path, to the river’s edge and tentatively plunged in— no matter how many times we crossed them, I still held my breath as the frothy water surged up to the trucks’ windows, the tires crawling over the rocks of the hidden riverbed.

We pulled up to the first literacy group, seated in plastic chairs in the shade in front of the traditional small, brightly painted house. I cringed as I realized that our driver Joselo, Yennis, Esmerelda--our coworker who decided to tag along and I would all be sitting in on the session. It was hard enough trying to minimize the verguenza, or embarrassing effect, that my own presence had on the group during evaluations and that was without the additional, although well meaning gallery of onlookers that now accompanied me. I could not think of a polite way to ask them to shove off. As usual, one amusingly gregarious personality, a doña, dominated the group and I could barely pick out the altogether introverted though exceedingly beautiful young facilitator from the other participants. She had her baby boy with her, laying in his stroller and her saloned wrapped up in a tubi. Yennis, in her off color manner that always achieved racous laughter and subsequent feelings of ease and affection from the people we worked with ran through the questionnaire that we used to moniter the groups. In a way that would make me blush were it a reaction of which I was physically capable, Yennis announced me as Natasha, who was working with the program in Santo Domingo and who “cares a lot about you all, she calls me every day to ask how you’re doing and if there’s anything you need…” The boisterous doña thanked me for my concern on behalf of the group.

The time came for us to leave and as ususal, much to my chagrin we had not observed any of the natural group functioning that was required for accurate assessment, making me wonder for the um-teenth time if unbiased assessment was indeed possible, although I was slightly reassured by the fact that the facilitator and participants were indeed showing up, and felt good about doing so.

While walking to the truck Esmerelda, spotting a plant that she recognized as a certain type of basil asked the doña to tear off a sprig and before I knew it she was all but uprooting the entire plant to send with us. We put the basil in the truck bed and with much heartfelt hugs and goodbyes we got back in the truck and left the tiny gathering to restore its customarily tranquil operations.

We discussed what we could accomplish with our limited transportation in the huge expanse of the zone before nightfall. "I can do one alone," I volunteered. "That's my girl," Yennis commended me, understanding how much courage it took me to approach a strange situation alone. "We’ll be back at 5:30!" She called as the truck wheels spun over the crunchy gravel road.

This small gathering was taking place on the front porch of the facilitators house on the edge of town. With the approach of each participant I hoped against hope that my presence would not make them feel apprehension. I sat with the women, trying my best to emanate the love and admiration I had for them and their desire to learn despite the many other compromises that begged their attention. The hardest part came when I tried to give feedback to the facilitator, knowing that all the participants were listening and that a private session would be difficult to come by.

I was filled with relief when the truck pulled up two hours later to retrieve me.
In the falling dusk was impossible to see beyond the curves of the road, where a farmer walking home on the road’s edge was often revealed by the headlights of our barreling truck at the last second.

We finally reached the foundation at nightfall. Where Edy was waiting to accompany us to the small village in which he and Yennis lived with their families.
"There’s not even a teardrop of gasoline in the place?" I heard him ask a chofer.
They searched their pockets for enough change to fill up the tanks to make it home.
With that, we hopped on two of the foundation’s dirtbikes. Like many things that happened in the field, I wasn’t sure we were functioning according to protocol, and didn’t ask any questions.

I pulled on the helmet Yennis had lent me and hesitated momentarily, wondering if her sacrificing her safety as a mother was worth my thick skull. I secured my backpack that held my supplies for the next two days, wrapped one arm around Eddy’s pot belly and gripped the branches of fragrant basil in the other.


We sped along the highway to the gas station, where we pulled over so that Yennis could fill up her tank and once accomplished, she pulled the bike’s handlebars into position and kicked the motor to life--I thought for the innumerable time that she was indeed a force to be reckoned with. We took off into the dark. My neck soon tired from trying to keep Eddy and mine’s helmets from clacking together— I don't think Dominicans are accustomed to having more than one helmet clad person aboard their motores. I looked to the horizon, where the indigo dusk betrayed the torn paper outlines of the hidden, black Azuan mountains. I released my grip on Eddy to leeeeaaan back, my head spinning with combination of the enveloping expanse of twinkling sky where I soaked in a rare glimpse of Orion and his companions and the hurtling motion of the motor pulling us through the night. The whipping wind brought gusts of all the smells of my childhood—sweet, open, air laced with the acrid tang of bitter weeds and livestock and the rich, heady aroma of black earth.

Yennis kids, Yeisa and Yeison, greeted us at the door and Yennis brought me and my bags to a back bedroom and then led me to sit down in a rocking chair that was placed at a small wooden table on the patio. She asked me what I wanted for dinner. As usual when Dominican’s asked me this question I was at a loss, knowing that if my answer included anything other than salami or yucca that the chances were slim of fulfilling my request. Luckily she mentioned fried chicken and fritos, an incredible unhealthy alternative that I often chose as it was one of the tastiest.

I watched Yennis as she peeled platano. Darkness fell suddenly and completely. I had luckily become almost entirely accustomed to the daily blackouts, only one of which would have caused a right panic in the states. In the campo however, the blackness was so engulfing that my eyes did not adjust. I waited in my rocking chair.

"Here’s my husband Jason." Yennis's voice came from the dark near the kitchen. I felt a presence approaching from the left and instinctively reached out a hand. "Natasha, mucho gusto." I tried to project friendliness with my voice to make up for the inability to utilize my usual reliance on facial expression.

Yet another figure approached from the left, which appeared to me to be nothing more than a backyard…where are they all coming from…?

"Here’s my other brother Otto," David announced "Be careful, he likes to fall in love."

"Here's my other brother-----..."

I was at this point utterly baffled at their ability to maneuver in the blackness as if it there were full light, but also, my mind was blurred from the day of travel and could no longer absorb the names of the people to whom I was being introduced and who seemed to have no problem remembering mine.

"How many ARE there?"

“There’s a lot," David laughed. "We are nine”

I then commenced a pleasant conversation with David, who was situated in a chair on my left(and who of course was actually named Jaison but was called David) that put me at ease in the obscured social situation.

"I hope you don’t mind me asking you questions, Jenny gets embarrassed but, I like to get to know the people who are in my home, you’re welcome here and a friend of Yennis’ is a friend of mine."

Finally, the candle arrived, brought from the colmado by one of the many relatives and I thankfully ate the most delicious plate of fried chicken and platanos that I’d had in country.

Jeisy and Jaison sat piled in a single chair. They giggled and their precocious mannerisms as well as the sheer peacefulness of their sibling relationship struck me, and it was one of the moments in my life when I reconsidered my reluctance to have my own children.

Over the course of the night I met a parade of other relatives and neighbors and although sleepy, I used my last bit of energy to converse with them after being introduced by David as such: "Hey-----, come meet my friend Natasha!"

When I was in my pajamas, I went to say goodnight to the family and those seated on the patio. A friendly looking doña who referred to me in the formal "usted" was visiting. I sat down next to Jeisa and Jeison for a moment when I heard from the doña saying
"The only people I absolutely won’t talk to, God forgive me, are Haitians. They'd kill you as soon as look at you."

A hot mixture of embarrassment and fear churned in the pit of my stomach. I searched the faces of the children to see if I could find traces of acceptance or scrutiny of the poisonous statement, hoping for the latter.

It was one of those Peace Corps moments that I still, did not know how to maneuver with grace. Should I say what I knew to be true? Instead, the fear of creating an uncomfortable moment engulfed me, causing my stomach to tie itself in even tighter knots knowing that the moment for righting the course of the conversation had passed and that I had not made the proper decision in hindsight. It amazed me that Dominicans, although part of the most giving, generous, and warm culture I have ever experienced, could fall victim to the same dangerous biases that I had heard in the states with regard to immigrants or other minorities. And with the earthquake effects still apparent and tropical storm Tomas and a cholera outbreak on the way, the relationship that the Haitian community shared with that of the Dominicans was about to become even more complicated.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Literacy journey

I went on a trip to bring back a piece of the South.

I went with my favorite chofer from the foundation--Pablo, the one that has three daughters and a bakery. We picked up the production company crew as the sun began tinting the sky pink above the parking ramp of the foundation: a stout director in glasses and Chuck Taylors and his lanky assistant whose tanned face bristled with stubble.

We held moral forums in the truck as we climbed slowly into the hills of Azua. Me, proclaiming my love for bachata as it floated from the radio and Pablo, responding with the biblical wisdom of late fatherhood “ I used to dance every weekend when I was young and when I was with a girl who really know what she was doing, phew, we looked like professionals. But I left all that behind for god. The church, it never fails me.” And the director pointing out “I think the biggest problem in this country is that no one has any moderation…”

We picked up Yennis as a crossroads. Her moto zoomed to a stop in front of our truck and she relaxed her hold on the driver’s waist, hopping off her perch on the back, her hooded sweatshirt cinched tightly around her sunglasses. Once in the truck I asked “Yennis, how much of your job would you say you spend on a moto?” “I’d say about 90%” she replied quite casually. As an employee of the foundation who was familiar with each rural pocket of the mountains, she was to serve as our local guide to the vivero of Guyuyal.

Pablo expertly threaded the truck through the mountain curves. “At least the desert looks nice now,” he remarked, “all green and decorated with butterflies, when you come here in February it looks like a different place, everything scorched and dry.” We wound up and up and up revealing impossibly wide, green vistas of arroyos and palms, clusters of animals and thatches of farms.

The dirt road leveled off as we entered the tiny pueblo of Guyuyal and we slowed to drive through a grassy space between two houses -- the vivero opened in front of us. I stepped out of the truck and spotted Yennis on the small patio of the seed shack where she was already eating a bowl of boiled platano and onions she had taken from one of the women. I envied the comfort she felt among them, something I didn’t know I’d ever achieve as a gringa from the capital.

Yennis pointed out Priscilla, the woman we had been sent to see. She had a beautiful, round face that’s coffee color contrasted with the colorful combination of clothing she wore to work in the earth: bright blue fleece pants and yellow striped shirt, with a well worn crocheted hat pulled down over her hair. As I seated myself on a bench in the warm, silent air next to Priscilla life slowed down around me; the camera crew hadn’t noticed, they were bustling about, checking their equipment in the slanted morning sun. I wanted to know her. I tried to think of what to say—something that would let her know I wanted more than the video, how truly I wanted to hear her experience; I began quietly “I’m a Peace Corps volunteer working with an adult literacy program and—Yennis saw me trying to speak and kicked Priscilla playfully, signaling at me with pursed lips. We all laughed and eased as Pricilla turned her body toward me to listen… “and if it’s possible we’d like to hear your story in hopes that it will inspire other people to join in the literacy effort, giving more people a chance to participate in a program.” “What we know, we’ll gladly tell you,” she offered me graciously.

The director led Priscilla through a series of activities to capture on camera, kneeling down between the rows, weeding and arranging the dirt around the tiny infant plants, always reminding her to smile and not look at the camera as the light from the reflector held by the assistant shone on her face. Acknowledging the ridiculous requests for artificial behavior, I tried to make her laugh by rolling my eyes.

Yennis brought me a cucumber she had picked, warm from the sun which she told me to eat cascara and all, and after a moment’s hesitation about its cleanliness, I bit into it, crunching as I watched the production unfold.
The director set up the shot for the interview portion, positioning the other laborers in the background as the assistant threaded the microphone through Priscilla’s shirt. The director led me to stand next to the lens of the camera about five feet away. “Now,” he projected across to Priscilla who stood with her hands crossed in front of her, clasped around a notebook, “I want to you to talk right to Natasha. I grinned broadly, attempting to ease her nerves. “Pretend like you’re talking to your best friend in the world and telling her how you really feel about literacy.” He nodded at me to begin reading the interview questions I had prepared. I unfolded the paper and carefully annunciated each word “Do you feel there is a difference in the person you were before literacy and the person you are today?” I waited expectantly. “Yes, I feel like a very different person,” she started. She elaborated on how she had a new appreciation for the education of her children, how she felt more confident about going to the colmado because now she knew how to read a receipt and how she is motivated to continue learning. My heart swelled as I nodded and tried to return her smile as brilliantly as she shone.

We finished the questions and the crew gathered their equipment. As we walked through the black earth I thanked Priscilla and she thanked us for coming. I pulled her into a hug and she gripped my waist, her small frame coming up only to my chest.
We resumed our seats in the truck for the ride back to the city. Well, what do you think Natasha,” the director asked as Pablo steered us over the gravel path, “did you like how it turned out? Do you think we got what we came for?”
“Yes, I think it went quite well”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wow, neglecting the blog much? I CAN’T believe I’ve already been here 5 months---can you?

I finally had my three month In Service Training presentation. Everyone has told me that service gets better after it’s out of the way. We spent three days in a beautiful mountain retreat center in a town called Jarabacoa listening to presentations on computer labs in schools, community centers and even dentists offices haha, as all of the ICT volunteers explained the research they carried out on their communities. As literacy is a new project and doesn’t truly have its own sector, Chloe and I sat like odd ducks and gave our powerpoint aided speeches to a glazed over audience of our friends. I was still overjoyed though because: Chloe’s presentation on the project she’s developing with our foundation went very well, my research ended up pinpointing some things that have the potential to improve the program, because I spoke in loud, clear spanish without using notes, because my partner showed up in a dramatic last minute entrance so that I didn’t have to give my presentation alone, and because my our director gave me some good feedback during the question/answer.

As always it was wonderful to see the rest of our training class and it was fun to bond with the Dominican counterparts as well—most of whom were very cool people which makes sense as they were kind enough to work with and support a volunteer. We played team building games and Mafia—which is like a living game of Clue + Heads up Seven Up--a volunteer favorite that went bilingual, I am absolutely terrible at it because I’m an awful liar and am always either caught or killed.

Our region’s Volunteer Action Committee meeting was very conveniently scheduled the next day in Jarabacoa so Jessica and I walked down the mountain and I took my first motoconcho ride! Jessica got on one and I on another, with the drivers balancing our bags on the handle bars. We asked them if they knew where our hotel was and Jessica’s driver said yes. Unfortunately, they took off before my driver could follow them so we drove around Jarabacoa asking the locals where our hotel was. In addition to my driver, no one seemed to know where to find the hotel. Jessica told me that while they were waiting, her driver had mentioned "He’s probably taking her to Manabao…" and she replied, “Manabao! He can’t take her to Manabao! It’s her first time on a motoconcho!” But they finally flagged us down as we were zooming past and we walked upstairs three flights to our hotel, where we found an airy room with the cleaning staff spraying aerosol insecticide at some uninvited guests—wasps. They were killed but within minutes more were flying in through the Persian blinds. We peeked out and saw several wasps nests attached to the building outside our window and slammed all the blinds shut. We spent the evening wandering around Jarabacoa on a fruitless search for a Mexican restaurant that was heralded in Jessica’s guidebook and were met with the same curious lack of knowledge from the locals, but ended up seeing some lovely views and watching The Birdcage back at our hotel.

The next day we woke up and headed to a ranch on the mountain for white water rafting. We got a good group discount as there were so many people including many girls from an international exchange program and some Russian tourists. After putting on a life vest and plastic helmet, I received advice from the ranch guide to reluctantly relinquish my glasses to the truck driver who hauled all the gear to the river and I picked my way carelfully and fuzzily to the truck. Me, Jessica, four girls from the UK and Guillermo—our nutso guide sat practicing the commands on the river bank, scraping our paddles through the dirt and foliage. The one that made my butt sore the next day was “Down” –which meant scramble off the side of the raft where you are perched and dive into the space where your legs normally go to brace yourself for a big rapid or hitting a big rock. If someone fell out there were three guys in a rescue raft floating down river that were supposed to pluck you out of the water although, most of the time they were splashing people with their paddles and spinning their boat around and round. Unlike the other rafts, we didn’t lose a single person into the river—I dunno if that speaks to our awesome teamwork, Guillermo’s watchful eye or just plain luck. He was encouraging and quite a character—he broke some bottlebrush looking plant stems off of a bush and stuck one piece in each of our helmets so that we looked like Doctor Suess characters. The whole time he was yelling “POWER LADIES” “C’mon ladies!” “AND FORWARD, FORWARD! Thank YOU!” And “Oh my Gato!” when we were plunging toward a rapid. He also had us chanting and singing things like “boom chicka boom” and “let me hear your woooooooo” The river water was cold but refreshing and Dominican kids waved to our team of 7 rafts as we rode the currents past houses on the banks. Afterward we had our VAC meeting, ate some delicious pizza and cheeseckake and were on our way and I rode Caribe tours back to the capital.

Here is a random cultural note for you all--you know the religious literature pamphlets that people hand out? Here, lots of people have them and hand them out in the cramped carro publicos and no one declines them. In, fact they all take them, say thank you and continue to read them. Just thought I'd share

Monday, July 12, 2010


I spent a lovely lazy Saturday, reading the bible with my dona over bread dipped in sweet coffee(my new favorite brunch), sauntering through The Museum of Modern Art examining Picasso sketches and discussing the merits of Stephen King with Paul, a youth volunteer, swimming at the embassy pool with Becca and her friend Estalin from Bohechio until we were so scared of getting electrocuted by the storm that we jumped out, then we chowed pizza and frozen yogurt, and eating with Becca is my favorite, she being my food soulmate. We ended the night with bachata and meringue on Avenida Venezuela and one of many encounters with nerve-wracking transportation in this country where common sense seems to not always be common place.

The rains came to the DR and the streets are swept away. I travel home from the office with my sister Joanna. Plodding through the puddles, dress shoes heavy with water we make our way through the prematurely dark night bordered by fluorescent-lit department stores with Dominicans huddled under awnings on our way to the corner where we catch a carro to our barrio. My eyes are busy trying to keep track of Joanna’s tiny frame, while gingerly picking my way amongst the largest bodies of water until the drops begin falling in gushes so that she turns, laughing, silhouetted by her enormous black umbrella against the bruised sky. Like so many women, her coveted salon fresh hair is wrapped around her head and tucked into a black net— she yells, “Natasha, corre!” I was aware that the rainstorm, and that the two years away from where I called home could have dampened my spirit, but sprinting through the night, seeing her smiling face in that moment I was positive that I was loved.

The volunteers get the fourth of July off and we took advantage of the opportunity to visit one of the little island’s many gorgeous beaches. We camped in cabanas at Clayton's ecotourism site. We also hitchhiked to the nearby “Los Patos” where we ate delicious grilled fish with the heads still on and limes squeezed on them and people tubed to the ocean down a clear, frigid creek, reminding me of hot summer days in Red Lake Falls. At the campsite they made a bonfire and I selected sticks from the forest floor to whittle for hot dogs and marshmallows. In the nights the ocean crashed and shushed, rolling the rock beaches over on themselves and the volunteers danced and danced and talked charged with energy of youth.

The days leading up to my presentation gallop past. I’m quite nervous to be ready by August 9th, when all the Peace Corps volunteers in my training class will get up with their project partners and give a brief history of their communities, the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats and the recommendations for the projects that will be worked on for the two years to come of the volunteers’ service. I hope that by then, all of the documents about adult education on a world, regional and national level, the interviews with authorities on adult literacy and the information collected from the field by my partners Chloe and Becca will all fall into place and that we’ll be able to, in some way, help the program grow for the better.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's a Beautiful Day in the Barrio

I forgot to tell you about my last night in El Seibo. It seemed as though the entire neighborhood came to see me off. I almost teared up when I found that Elida, the pretty young housekeeper had laid a shirt that I had once complimented on my mosquitero as a gift and when we hugged goodbye, she told me in slow, careful English that it was “nice to meet you.” As I walked through the streets to say goodbye to my beloved neighbors, kids shouted my name. I hugged my neighbor Rosa who told me that my time in El Seibo had gone too fast, exchanged kisses and high fives with her kids Jaime and Victor and their sister Rosie handed me a green plastic bracelet and added the achingly sincere parting words that I’ve found to be common with my Dominican friends: “don’t forget me”. As I played cards with my mom, more children congregated at the door, more than I can ever remember being introduced to and they called for me and asked me when I was leaving. I bring it up now because I am reminded of it as I settle into my new barrio in Santo Domingo, where, unlike Cheers, everybody does not know your name and I have three months to find my place again.

I’ve become a transplanted, additional aunt, sister, daughter, sharing meals and taking part in activities like visiting the national aquarium and celebrating mother’s day which is a big deal here, perhaps because motherhood is more revered, perhaps because it’s more ubiquitous. Before leaving the office on Friday the mothers in the office were given felicidades=congratulations, gifts of roses and snacks of cookies, cheesecake, bizcoho, soda, and were brought together to be photographed while the Dominican mother’s day song was sung by all, that’s right--they even have a song. I visited the house of my sister (and coworker) Joanna who has taken such good care of me since my arrival. She looked lovely in a sun dress for mother’s day and while my doña was out having her hair done at the salon, an extremely frequent ritual for any Dominican woman, Joanna, her son Brailyn, and I watched The Guardian, ate mangoes and ice cream cones and played card games—I taught War and Kings in a Corner. I was happy to meet Joanna’s husband Bisman who works with street kids near Boca Chica, and who looks like some bearded folkloric god. My doña pointed out, laughing, the discrepancy of his huge bulk next to Joanna’s slight frame. He brought sangria while I chatted with his brother Giovanny, a jovially father of three who had moved back to the D.R. after ten years in what the Dominicans call Nueva Yol. He had a mean Brooklyn accent to show for it which he told me resulted from hanging out with ‘’all those blacks.” We had the usual banter about how he would like to have someone to practice his English with and I reply that I dislike speaking in English as it stunts my growth. I have also come to detest when anyone analyzes my Spanish skills as lacking as came up here “Ella no habla mucho”: she doesn’t speak a lot or “Ella no entiende todo”: she doesn’t understand everything—these frequent comments, though surely innocuous in the blatant Dominican culture get under my skin, especially as they are always expressed in the third person when I am standing directly in front of them. If I know enough to understand that you’re saying I don’t know much---I think I know enough! ANYWAY. The conversation continued as such (in Spanish mind you as I persisted to respond in Spanish)

G: Well, you’ll enjoy your vacation for two years here (this was after having explained my volunteer situation and him having told me that I needed to find a Dominican boyfriend to pay for everything for me since I wasn’t paid much.)

Me: I’m not on vacation, I’m working.

G: Yeah, but work here, it’s not like “alla” or “over there in the States” where it’s just, go to work, get in the car, come home. You can enjoy yourself, travel, go to the carwash (danceclub)… Here, I don’t have to pay the water bill, I don’t have to pay the light bill, I don’t have to pay for the house…”

(I thought I’d forgo the politically correct model that was suggested in training) “Yeah, but here, sometimes we don’t have water, and sometimes we don’t have lights.

“Yes but, that’s good too, when we don’t have water the family steps up and comes to help us, when there’s no lights, there’s no radio, and no television and you go and sit on the patio and talk, you just have each other.”

I couldn’t decide if the guy was trying to comfort himself after having to return from the states or if he truly felt that way, or both. Peace Corps volunteers (myself included) can have a real cynicism for this island. Why are the people irresponsible? Why doesn’t anything function the way it’s supposed to? I often find myself caught in the middle, sometimes basking in the beauty of the vibrant mess of the D.R.—it’s incredible generosity and tenacity, in some ways, its innocence, sometimes feeling guilty that these ideas may cause me to overlook the problems that make development workers cringe. This country where I have three mothers who have taken me as their daughters in a matter of weeks, where upon asking for directions, a doña will stop what she’s doing and take me by the hand and lead me to where I need to go, where young carro publico drivers tell me “cuidate mi corazon”:take care of yourself, my heart, when they let me out onto the corner at night. The same country where I want to yell while trudging through garbage laden streets when I can’t breathe another lung full of exhaust and someone calls me "China" ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Back in the capitol!

...For two years. I had an crazy week getting to know the ins and outs of the NGO headquartered in Santo Domingo that works in the southern regions of the Dominican Republic—some of the poorest regions. The organization already works with environmental projects like reforestation, education projects like remodeling rural schools and supporting homework clubs and microcredit. My project is their newest, an adult literacy program and I'm extremely proud to be working with a team of two other of my fellow volunteers and friends, Chloe and Becca. Because I work at the headquarters I will have the opportunity to coordinate with their projects in the South.

I spent time with my new host family in an extremely urban barrio about an hour commute from my office. A secretary in my office, Joanna, who has been taking care of me (even though she has her own house and family in the same neighborhood) suggested hosting a Peace Corps volunteer to mother, now my sweet Do~na named Bienvenida (her name means welcome :) . We live in a tidy third story apartment that, thank goodness, has windows allowing lots of sunlight and breeze on three sides. Also making guest appearances: my kind Don, who I don't know very well as he leaves for work before I wake up and comes home after I go to sleep, their daughter Jeisy, her boyfriend and their 5 year old son, and a cast of uncles, cousins, and neighbors who in true Dominican fashion, come in and out of the apartment as if there were a revolving door, having coffee, visiting and using the kitchen to make spaghetti hahaha.

I also became acquainted with the executive office in which I will be spending much time during the next two years. It's not what I pictured when I received my invitation to the Peace Corps, but, everything in my service has thus far defied expectation. My boss is an incredibly driven, progressive Dominican woman who heads up all of our organization's education programs and she introduced me to a barrage of coworkers and Ministry of Education employees. The second part of the visit was allocated for a sweet roadtrip to the south to visit Chloe and Becca's sites. I set out at 6am in a cab (with the help of an uncle who happened to be drinking coffee in my apartment at that time while my Don~a was out exercising) to the office where I was picked up by an amiable driver named Pablo who also happens to own a bizcocho shop--one of my favorite Dominican confections, like a birthday cake, that I hope to visit soon after befriending him. We visited the two offices where the girls were based in varying states of desert pueblos (small towns). They all have hilarious, though not necessarily intentionally hilarious, project partners and coworkers that have become part of our family including Jorchi, Vlad (pronounced Blah) and Dimbo. The most interesting activities included 1. Our visit to a batey: a community consisting of a mix of poor Haitian and Dominican families that developed around sugar cane fields and 2. Our visit to a literacy meeting where a group of women in Becca's village were sitting under a tree outside of the facilitator's home in plastic lawn furniture learning how to read and write. Both of these were rich experiences that will surely guide my work for the next two years. All of us were hosted for dinner at Becca’s quaint little house where we were entertained by a pig, a goat , several dogs and chickens, some very amorous cats and some impromptu english/spanish lessons. The bonding was rounded out as Chloe and I were driven to a hydroelectric dam where our boss explained quite matter-of-factly that we would be sleeping in the employees' dormitories they had rented for us.

Wrapping up Community based training: It was sad leaving my family from CBT in El Seibo just because I hate goodbyes but I was very glad to move on to my project. I ended up teaching part of two computer classes with my group of fellow volunteers--one on an Encarta program for kids and one on how to insert headers and footers in a word document woo hoo. Though that training is now rendered sort of null and void with my current literacy project it was an awesome experience for us to bond with other Peace Corps volunteers and the local youth, with whom we produced a newspaper, documentary film and graphic designs.