March 31, 2013

Hace Frío

While sitting at the kitchen table with my host brothers on Friday afternoon one of them begins to shiver and proclaims, "Hace frío." I respond my laughing out loud, and we then debate what is considered cold and if it is fair for me to make fun of my host brothers for being cold when it is 77 degrees outside. Yep, my host family considers 77 degrees cold. To be fair my host family had the last laugh because in the evening I caved and put on a sweater.

     During the past couple of weeks most of my time has been spent at the Peace Corps training center where I have learned how to: ride a motorcycle, recognize the signs of scabies (50% of Volunteers will get the critters), and cook campo (country) style. However, last week I got the chance to see more of the Dominican Republic during a four day Volunteer Visit. The Volunteer Visit is a chance for myself and the other trainees to learn what life is like for Volunteers in the field. 

Motorcycle Lesson

     I visited a Volunteer, Charley, an hour from the capital in the eastern part of the DR. The eastern part of the DR is known for sugar cane and that was very apparent during my visit. Charley's site is the the campo in a town of 250 people and it is surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by sugar cane fields. The town itself has a colmado (corner store), one alcohol store, 5 churches, and a mosque. Charley is not sure how the mosque came to his community but it does have an active congregation, and a loudspeaker to announce to call to prayer 5 times a day. The town's main road recently was paved, and now the community considers themselves a city.  Charley's home is made of wood and zinc with a cement floor, and has two rooms. He normally gets running (non-potable) water for a few hours in the morning and electricity for most of the night. However, both of these can be inconsistent or non-existent for periods of time. He has a tabletop stove and a mini fridge but he takes bucket baths and uses a latrine. He considers his living arrangements "deluxe camping." 

Cut Sugar Cane Field

Main Road in Town

Charley's House

     During my visit I played dominoes, learned how to make bread from auyama (similar to a pumpkin), and played with neighborhood kids. I also visited a batey, which is community created to house sugar cane workers who are predominately Haitian immigrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent. It takes an hour to walk from the main road to the batey. Along the dirt path you are surrounded by sugar cane, sugar cane, and more sugar cane. There even is a train sole purpose is to collect sugar cane. The batey is very isolated, all that is there are maybe 8 buildings split into 4 houses that hold 100 people. There is an outdoor communal cooking area and communal bathrooms, and that is it. I think I would go stir crazy if I lived there.

     On the last day of my visit I got to go the beach and swim in the Caribbean Ocean. I also got quite a bit sun burnt, as in got blisters three days later. But on the plus side I got significantly tanner, enough that my host sister joked that I am now a Dominican.
Caribbean Ocean

March 18, 2013

Showering in the Dark

     One day last week I came home from training to find no one home. "How wonderful! I have the house to myself. Let me take a shower and enjoy the solitude." I thought is was going to be a great night. I was wrong. As soon as I put shampoo in my hair the power went out. The bathroom became so dark that I couldn't see the floor, nonetheless I continued with my shower. Side note, my family has a backup generator to circumvent the almost daily power outages but it must be manually turned on, which I do not know how to do. Now back to the story, only a few minutes after the power went out my host family starts knocking on the door. I ignore them assuming they have their keys. When I get out of the bathroom I realize they are still outside; they had all forgotten their keys! I try to open the front door in the pitch blackness of the house but the door won't open. I hand my keys through a window to my brothers who try to open the door from the outside under the glow of a cellphone. They can't get it opened either. They hands the keys back to me and I go to the backdoor and, thankfully, I am able to let everyone inside. My brothers then unjammed the front door, my dad turned on the generator, and everything returned to normal.

     I keep encountering unexpected situations like the one above here in the DR.  I have seen the largest avocado of my life, it was nearly the size of a dinner plate. I have petted the dog my host grandfather keeps on the roof of his house. I have watched my host family freak out during the D.R. - U.S. baseball game; the U.S. lost, I was hugged, and my host mom apologized to me for her happiness about the outcome. Everything here has been so much fun and surprising, I cannot believe I have been here less than two weeks.

     I finally was able to upload my photos onto my computer, enjoy!

Ready for my first night under a mosquito net

Typical classroom at training center

Oldest Cathedral in the New World

Tomb of the D.R.'s founding fathers; like Napoleon you have to bow

Cemetery near my house

March 10, 2013

Do the Harlem Shake

In the middle of the cereal aisle at the supermarket my host sister did
the Harlem Shake.

     Yes, I have arrived safe and sound in the Dominican Republic. Many things here are not how I envisioned them Stateside, and that's a good thing. During my first full day of training myself and the other Peace Corps Trainees were taught what we might encounter when we arrived at our host family's house. I was prepared to need to take bucket baths and answer a lot of personal questions. I was not expecting my current reality of 24/7 electricity, running water, and even WiFi. Not everyone has been so lucky - some Trainees live in communities that only receive water once a week. I feel very blessed but I have a feeling it will be harder to adjust to the campo (rural area) when I move there in a few weeks.

     Everyday since I left for DC has been a whirlwind. In the past four days I have: met 32 other Peace Corps Trainees, flown to Santo Domingo, learned how to use a mosquito net, been fitted for my motorcycle helmet, drunken countless bottles of water, eaten: platanos verde, yucca, tostones, harina de la negrita y mucho más, spoken Spanish for countless hours, met my host family, received vaccines, used public transportation, and had my wallet stolen...kinda.

     During our class on how to use public transportation, we also learned how easy it is to be the victim of theft. At one point all 33 of us had to cram into a small roped off area - in order to understand how cramped we will become on guaguas and carros publicos (buses and public taxis) - eventually we all squeezed in with only minimal injuries. After the exercise people began to discover pieces of paper slipped into their pockets and purses that said, "Your wallet has been stolen." I was one of the unlucky Trainees who was "pick pocketed" but at least I didn't find two papers like some people did!

This is a normal, and not illegal amount of passengers for a guagua.

     Aside from being the victim of an imaginary theft everything else has been wonderful! All of my fellow Trainees are super nice and excited to be here. We are a pretty young group - the average age is 25. My host family is also great. I have an 11 year-old sister, a 13 year-old brother, and a 16 year-old brother. I am continually surprised by how much American pop culture they know. My sister is in love with Zane from One Direction, and my brothers are always singing songs by Bruno Mars. I also have a perrita, Rubí, named after the famous telenovela that I happen to have watched. There have been so many weird coincidences here, and I am looking forward to the next one!

     One final note, my host sister and I both agree that this is the best Harlem Shake video.

March 1, 2013

Peace Corps on the Hill

     Yesterday I, along with 90 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), was in DC talking to legislators of both houses and their aides about the importance of the Peace Corps and its current issues, including funding and health care. Did you know there are 5 RPCVs currently serving in the House? Including an RPCV who served in the DR, Joesph Kennedy III (President Kennedy created the Peace Corps). I was told by other RPCVs that the DR has an unfair share of high-profile RPCVs (obviously why I was selected to serve in the DR). Other well-known RPCVs from the DR are: Senator Chris Dodd, former Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, and NASA Astronaut Joe Acaba. No women on the list, I guess I will have to change that!

Congressman Kennedy speaking about the importance of the Peace Corps

     A summary of what was said at most meetings:
  1. Peace Corps is cost effective! A volunteer costs less than $50,000 a year - half the cost of a foreign service member and a third the cost of a member of the armed services. Volunteers also serve as capacity builders. Volunteers don't build a road and leave, they teach a community how to build a road, allowing the community to continue to develop after volunteers leave.
  2. The Peace Corps budget, like many agencies, was cut during the recession ($25 million cut, budget now at $375 million) and sequestration will result in 700 - 800 fewer volunteers (Currently there are less than 8,000 - peak was 16,000). 
  3. Countries want Peace Corps Volunteers! There are over 20 countries who have requested volunteers that Peace Corps including countries like Vietnam and Burma. Peace Corps is also beginning to investigate re-entering Haiti.
  4. Peace Corps Volunteers sometimes get sick or injured and have to return to the States, where they find the red tape to get medical coverage difficult to cut through. 
  5. RPCVs would like to create a commemorative in DC to highlight the ideals of the Peace Corps; helping others, cultural awareness, etc. This last point has been in the works for the past several years, one session the House would pass the bill and the next the Senate but never both at the same time! If you want more details about the above points click here.
    In between meetings I got to speak with RPCVs and ask advice about my upcoming service - 4 days left! All of them were very excited for me and told me inspiring stories such as one RPCV who helped a student get into college in the U.S., said student eventually became the vice-president of Malawi!

For those of you wondering I have not yet started to panic but I also have not started packing....

As a side note, there was an RPCV happy hour at Hawk and Dove; that place is so much classier now that it has been renovated but I am sad they got rid of the dance floor!