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.