July 21, 2014

Mil Gracias


These kids all have brighter futures thanks to you!
You all made my day today. Today I found out that my Peace Corps grant has been fully funded thanks to you. As we say in the D.R., mil gracias, a thousand thank-yous. The $5,628.09 that you all donated will go towards finishing construction of the library. We may even be able to use some funding to buy more books for the library as last week we received a donation of construction materials from the Governor of Samaná. Everything seems to be lining up perfectly. If we are able to get enough volunteer laborers, we will be able to finish construction by the start of the new school year in September! We would not have been able to reach this milestone with out your help.

Onto other news:

Loading everything on the truck
Fates aligned last Monday. After dropping my sister off at the airport, I went shopping for furniture for the library with the president of my Library Committee. We were able to find chairs, fans, and tables all within our price range. But we then had to figure out how to get everything back to our community three hours away. After some calls we learned that some of our neighbors had finished selling their harvest of yams at the market and were headed back to our community with an empty flatbed. They kindly agreed to take all of our items back with them - what luck!

Learning about Menstruation
 I spent the rest of my week an eco-lodge with 70 Dominican teenage girls from around the country. The girls are all members of Peace Corps D.R. girl's empowerment program, Chicas Brillantes, Shining Girls.  The Chicas camp was a lot of fun. There were games which explored inequality, a panel of professional Dominican women from poor backgrounds, a condom demonstration party, Zumba, healthy snacks, presentations on healthy relationships, identity, internet safety, AIDs, hair, violence, and many more. The best part for me was during the closing ceremony several of the girls spoke about how their self-esteem grew while at camp.

I presented twice and both times the girls enjoyed themselves and learned a few things. My first talk was about professionalism. We had a mock interview during our presentation, and I was the bad interviewer. I dressed very inappropriately, wore garish make-up, used Domincan slang, and spoke on my cell-phone. I even wore a tubi, basically a hairnet, Dominican wear them to keep their hair straight while they run errands or work around the house. Then when it is time to go our for the night they take off the tubi to show off their salon perfected locks. The funny part was before the presentation some of the Chicas were complementing me on my outfit and a volunteer admitted that for a second she thought I was one of the Chicas.
Demonstrating Inappropriate Work Attire

 The second presentation I gave was on 1st aid. We taught the girls how to treat lacerations, burns, and animal bites, talked about Emergency Action Steps and the new 911 system (Bill Gates donated money to set it up). We also explained why mosquitoes are the true transmitters of Chikungunya. I think we had at least 60% of the girls convinced by the end of our discussion. Prior to our talk only one girl believed mosquitoes transmitted the virus. 

As we left camp one of my girls saw a mango tree and said, "Look at the mangoes Susi! I can't wait to go home and eat some! Thank you for bringing me, I had a great time." She then hugged me and started to cry. It was one of the funniest and sweetest things I have experienced during my time here. I would have started to cry too if it wasn't for the part about the mangoes. The idea of getting homesick at the sight of mangoes is something I had never considered until then. But I know when I leave I too will miss the mangoes.

July 12, 2014

Living through an Epidemic

Imagine a mysterious disease is sweeping through your community. In the span of a few weeks almost all your neighbors, family, and friends have fallen ill. Your government says the disease is a virus from Africa and Asia transmitted via mosquitoes. Would you trust the government's word?  If you live in the U.S. your answer is probably, "Sure, I trust the government and the Center for Disease Control to tell me the truth." Dominicans are not so trusting.

CDC Warning for Vacationers
Right now the Dominican Republic is dealing with an outbreak of the Chikungunya virus (pronunciation: \chik-en-gun-ye). Symptoms include high fever, myalgia, skin rash, and joint pain. Most symptoms go away after three days. Except for joint pain, which can last up to four months. Thankfully Chikungunya is not fatal. Since the virus arrived in the Caribbean in December 2013 it has been spreading like wildfire. Almost everyone I know in my community has had the virus. Some have even claimed to have had Chikungunya twice, although according to medical professionals once infected, a person should be immune for the rest of their life. But Dominicans do not believe this is true.

Dominicans do not believe most of what the government and medical professionals are saying about Chikungunya. Most Dominicans say that the virus has spread too rapidly for it to be transmitted by mosquitoes. Dominicans are accustomed to dengue, another the mosquito transmitted virus. Dengue has similar symptoms to Chikungunya except you can get it up to 5 times, and it can be deadly. Dengue has been present in the D.R. for a long time, so the transmission rate is not as high as it is for the newly introduced Chikungunya.

When asked how Chikungunya is spread, Dominicans will say by the air. The reason why it is spread via the air, however, varies by community. Other volunteers have told me rumors of government experiments gone wrong, a strong wind from Africa, and a chemical spill. In Samaná, the region where I live, the theory is that the cause of the virus stems from toxic trash that was dumped along the southern coast of the peninsula. Apparently when the trash was dumped, over 12 years ago, the people in the surrounding communities began to get sick. The government then buried the trash in a different part of the region, and people there began to get sick too, so the government dug a bigger hole. According to my neighbors Chikungunya is just another chapter in the saga of the toxic trash.

All the rumors have made me wonder, "Why don't Dominicans trust the word of their government?" My neighbors say it is because the government is always lying to them. Unlike Americans, Dominicans have not grown up for generations in a country known for democracy and freedom of the press. Many Dominicans still remember what it was like to live under the harsh rule of the dictator Trujillo. Many of Tujillo's successors were not much better. As a result, Dominicans today are suspicious of politicians and the government, and they worry about backsliding into their autocratic past. Chikungunya is a foreign word, it sounds made-up to Dominicans. In a country where previous governments have covered up assassinations and embezzlement, it isn't too far a stretch to think that the government just made-up Chikungunya to hide another problem.

It also doesn't help that even politicians don't believe that Chikungunya is spread by mosquitoes. When Senator Prim Pujals came to visit my community last month he announced that the government was sending workers out to the rural areas to spray insecticide to kill mosquitoes. He then said, "Not that it matters much, because Chikungunya is in the air."

One thing everyone can agree on is that Chikungunya is not done its rampage just yet. It is expected that by the end of the summer 50 percent of the population on the island will have become infected. I have yet to become ill, but my time may be out shortly. I will soon be spending five nights at a summer camp with over 100 other girls from around the country. It should be a fun, if exhausting, time. The camp is at an eco-lodge so we will be outside all day long, and it just so happens that the mosquito that carries the virus is a day eater (or so medical professionals would have us believe). A good number of volunteers and kids were struck-down during the boys camp a few weeks ago. I am bringing two girls from my community who luckily have already been infected so they are safe. However, I am not. Wish me the best of luck!

So as not to end on a ominous note, here are some awesome things that happened this week:

A portion of my neighbors' generosity
  • It rained a lot so now all my tanks are filled and I got to wash my laundry.
  • Kids came to class in the rain!
  • I have teenagers helping out with my literacy classes.
  • My neighbors gave me 6 mangos, 4 bananas, 6 plantains, 20 passion fruits, and too many limoncillos to count!
  • I made 5.2 liters of passion fruit juice. I gave half of what I made to my neighbors (different neighbors than the ones who originally gave me the fruit).
  • Power was out in my community for 42 hours, that is a new record since I have been here. The awesome part is that it came back on!
  • Romeo played with another dog - Romeo has "issues" and doesn't really like to hang out with other dogs. He isn't aggressive, he just doesn't like to interact with other dogs.
  • Kelly and I played Monopoly with my 9 and 14 year-old neighbors. Kelly and I where called tramposas (cheaters) - it was a blast. More to come about competitive cross-cultural differences next week.
    Monopoly Negotiations

July 7, 2014

The One Year Mark

I have now lived in the Dominican Republic for 16 months, 13 of those months have been spent living and working in my community. To mark the one year milestone, I attended a four day training event with the 14 remaining education PCVs (five PCVs ended their service early).

Often when PCVs get together we tend to down-play our problems because we don't want to bring up complicated and sensitive issues, we just want to have a fun time and forget about our jobs for a few hours. Prior to the conference I was feeling complacent and burnt out. I was tired of being the cheerleader in my community, and at times I questioned the value and purpose of some of my work. At the conference a lot of time was spent reflecting on our success and challenges of the past year. It was nice to see what everyone had been doing, and receive their constructive support.

A  positive take-away from the conference was knowing that despite the challenges we face ranging from uncooperative principals to sexual harassment, all of us remain committed to our jobs. When asked who would stay if our second year of service became optional all of us raised our hands. And when asked if we planned to work in international development in the future, all of us again said yes.

Waterfall in Jarabacoa
On the last day of the conference we hiked to a beautiful waterfall in Jarabacoa, that may or may not have been featured in a Jurassic Park film. The trip was a great reminder of the perks of living in the D.R.

Later that night we all wrote on planks of wood our biggest challenge and how we planned to overcome it. Then we put on "Eye of the Tiger" and chopped our challenges in half with our bare hands...except for me. I have no karate skills and had to kick my plank in half with my foot. I apparently am a better ass-kicker than I am a knock-out boxer.

Ready for Another Year
The day after the conference I flew back to the States for the first time since I arrived in the D.R. The two trips together left me feeling refreshed and helped me quickly resume my role as my community's ass-kicking cheerleader.