August 19, 2014

Creepy Crawlies

First night in the D.R.

Once, after I had just moved to my community, I thought there was a rat under my bed and I had difficulty falling asleep. In the morning I investigated and couldn't find anything. I told my host-family and they all laughed. They said it was probably just a big spider rustling up the plastic bags stored below my bed. No big deal. Since rats are the only critters that freak me out, I was fine with the idea of sharing my room with a big spider. Plus, I had my mosquito net to keep anything from sneaking onto me in the middle of the night.

I know many people who would not be comfortable with only a net separating them from a variety of creepy crawlies, and none of them are Peace Corps Volunteers.* I even know someone who said they could never be a Peace Corps Volunteer because they wouldn't be able to handle living somewhere where there are big poisonous spiders. In the Dominican Republic we don't have any animals with enough poison to seriously injure a person, but we do have plenty of animals that make sure us volunteers properly tuck-in our mosquito nets when we go to bed. Here is a run down of creepy crawlies that call the Dominican Republic home:

One of the many reasons to use a mosquito net.
Mosquitoes - They can be found everywhere. Many communities, like mine, do not have running water, so there is always stagnate water around for mosquitoes to breed in. They can infect humans with the Dengue, Chikunguya, and malaria viruses. In order to protect us against Malaria, volunteers are expected to take regular doses of a nasty tasting medicine. There is no drug to prevent against Dengue or Chikungunya, but they aren't as deadly as malaria, so no worries.

Tarantulas aren't so scary when they are dead.
Spiders - There are lots of spiders around too, to catch all the mosquitoes. Since spiders kill other bugs, I don't kill them. Spiders can come in all sizes but they are harmless to humans.

Tarantulas - Tarantulas can jump pretty high and bite, so they are not a volunteer favorite. Some volunteers see tarantulas every time they use their latrine, others will go their whole service without seeing one. It all depends on where you live. I have see two. One at an all inclusive, and the the other was in my bathroom. My cat killed the one I found in my bathroom, his hunting skills are why I adopted him.

Cockroaches - Again, the number of cockroaches a volunteer sees will depend on where you live, but they are much more common then tarantulas. Every once and a while I will see a dead one that my cat has caught, which creepily brings a smile to my face.

Black flies - They are my least favorite creepy crawlies (after rats and mice). When they bite they leave a small red pin prick of blood, to let you know they were there. When you first begin to get bit, the bites itch like crazy. I would wake up in the middle of the night because I would be subconsciously scratching at my bites. Eventually almost all of the itchiness will go away, as your body builds up its immunity, but every once and a while you will still get a bite that will drive you crazy. Black flies love to hang-out at one of the schools where I work. I made the mistake of wearing a dress one day, and was treated to over thirty bites which went all the way up my legs. I only wear pants to school now. 

Scorpions - These guys are not to be messed with, they can sting and the sting will hurt. Luckily, they are not too common.

Centipedes - Not to be mistaken with their harmless cousin the millipede, centipedes like to bite. Like the scorpion's stinger, a centipedes bite will hurt. Centipedes have been known to burry into the hair of people who chose not to use their mosquito nets.

Ants - You can never get rid of ants from your home. They will always find a way in. Dishes cannot be left out with crumbs on them unless you want hundreds of ants on your counter in under two hours. They can find their way into almost everything. Many a volunteer has sadly discovered a box of cereal filled with ants. Many a volunteer has then shrugged their shoulders and poured themselves a bowl of protein enriched cereal.

The boy in front is carrying a snake home to torture.
Mice and Rats - Ew, ew, ew, if I have one fear, it is a fear of rats and mice. It's strange phobia for a girl who as a child had pet guinea pigs, but man do those tails freak me out. Plus, I am not about to mess with a creature that helped spread the Bubonic Plague. I have always said that the one thing I didn't know if I would be able to handle a volunteer would be living in a house invested with mice or rats. Luckily, I have not had to deal with said problem, but not all of my friends have been so fortunate.

Snakes - As I mentioned in a previous post, Dominicans hate snakes. Many think, falsely, that snakes here are venomous, and will therefore kill them without hesitation. It's a shame because more snakes would be useful at keeping the rodent population under control.

Mongooses - An invasive species, mongooses were brought to the D.R. to kill the snakes. Instead they have become the main carrier for rabies in the country. Rabid mongooses have been known to kill humans, particularly infants. They are therefore ruthlessly hunted down like the snakes they were meant to kill. One morning I got to witness my host family on the hunt for a mongoose. It was a successful hunt.

Pato, my cat, is a great hunter.
Lizards - I will miss the lizards when I return to the States. There are so many different types that can be found around the island. They are cute little things scampering about and eating the annoying mosquitoes and black flies. Look out below for a bunch of adorable lizard photos.

There are many other creepy crawlies to be found in the D.R. like the giant frogs and snails which sometimes wander into my home. I could go on and on, but I don't want to dissuade any of you from visiting me. 

Special shout-out to the amazingly fabulous Karla Kornsey for giving me the idea for this post. 

*I know plenty of volunteers are not happy with the cockroaches, mice, rats, centipedes, etc. that inhabit their homes but for us the creepy crawlies come with the job. You have to be a little crazy to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.


August 15, 2014

Ups and Downs

Wednesday was a good day and a bad day. Wednesday was a typical day.

On Wednesday I woke up not wanting to get out of bed. I was supposed to go to school that morning to help teachers prepare for the upcoming school year, but based on the lack of work that was achieved the day before, I wasn't too motivated to walk 20 minutes under the hot morning sun. It took two hours of arguing with myself to get me out of bed (good thing I set my alarm early). When I arrived at school it looked like it would be another wasted day, but then to my surprise parents started showing up for a meeting. 

Turns out the school principal had invited the members of the parent's association over to discuss the planned events for the first week of school. The day before I had asked the principal when the next parent's meeting would be and she said she wasn't sure. Turns out she thought I was referring to an all school parents meeting, which is different than a parent's association meeting. During the meeting the principal talked about many of the issues I have been harping-on including parent participation and student attendance. I didn't know until then that she had been listening to what I have been preaching over the last year. After the meeting my principal surprised me again by informing me that a teacher-trainer I work with ran into an ex-Peace Corps Volunteer. The trainer said that the the former volunteer wants to help with our library project, fingers crossed I will hear from him soon.

My two phones - one even has a QWERTY keyboard!
After school I went into town. After purchasing a drink at the internet café I was informed that the power had been out in town since the morning. They never tell me when the power or internet is out until after I have bought my food. Ugh. I really should ask before I buy anything but it seems tacky. Anyway, I should have known better, power is frequently out in town on Wednesday so the power company can make repairs (or so they say). I made the most of the situation and paid to get 24 hours of internet on my phone. Internet on my phone is pretty bad, for example I can read emails but not send them, but it is better than nothing. Side note, I have two phones they are supported by different companies so they each get signal in different places. Neither of them work in my house. One of them lets me call other volunteers for free, and the other allows me limited internet and I can call people on my front steps (sometimes).

As I went through my notifications on Facebook my annoyance at the lack of power dissipated. On Sunday a news article was published in a local South Jersey newspaper about the library project. Many of my family and friends had sent me messages of congratulations and support. It means so much to me when I receive those kinds of notes. Kind words make a big difference when you are on the monstrous two year-long roller-coaster called Peace Corps. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank everyone for the well-wishes. I also received a emails from people interested in supporting the library, and possibly some more publicity for the project. We shall see what develops.

When I returned to my community, I stopped by to visit my host-sister who was celebrating her birthday. Last year she didn't do anything special because her birthday fell on Tuesday the 13th, which is the equivalent to Friday the 13th in the U.S., and she was afraid of getting cursed if she tried to do anything. This year her grandmother made her a pizza and they saved me a slice. Score!

Superstitions came up again later in the evening. I recently started a new course called Me Toca a Mí which revolves around a novela (spanish soap opera) made by Peace Corps Volunteers in the D.R. All the actors are Dominican youths and each episode focuses on a different issue. So far we have discussed: self-esteem, bullying, having sex at a young age, family relationships, being a good role model, and the importance of education. On Wednesday night the main topic for discussion was discrimination. Everything was going fine, until we began to talk about Dominican-Haitian relations. Many Dominicans do not like Haitians. Dominicans have accused Haitians of practicing witchcraft, causing the Cholera outbreak on the island in 2010, and in general being evil. The negative perception of Haitians goes all the way back to colonial times. Haiti was the first country in the western hemisphere to end slavery, via a slave revolt. Lead by freed slaves, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic and took over for 22 years. Dominicans have never forgotten the invasion, and it has lead to many more negative, and often bloody, interactions between the two countries.

Back to my class. Samaná does not have many Haitians. It is far from the border, and there are no sugar cane fields to entice migrant workers. I had never heard any youths speak negatively about Haitians before, so it shocked me when many of them stated that Haitians were evil curse-casting witches. Some even said they would never speak with a Haitian if they could avoid it, even though most have never met a Haitian before. When I tried to explain their shared history and the culture roots of voodoo, my students just shook their heads. One declared that Haitians want to invade the D.R. again. I asked how they could do so, as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Other students then interjected that Haiti was poor because it is filled with bad people. By the end of class I was still unable to convince my students to change their minds about Haitians. I told them we would discuss the issue again next week, so if anyone has ideas on how to combat this issue please let me know ASAP.

I keep all the cards I receive on display
Wednesday ended as it began, on a negative note, but the positive news I received through-out the day kept me buoyant. My service would be a tougher, bumpier one if I didn't have the support of both my American and Dominican friends. Thanks again to all of you for making my life a lot easier.

August 8, 2014

How to Live without Running Water

This week Tropical Storm Bertha passed over the D.R. When I received notification from Peace Corps about the storm's approach my first thought was, "YES! I get to do my laundry this week!" One's concern about tropical storms changes a lot when you live without running water.

Overall, living without running water isn't too bad. I definitely prefer no running water to no electricity (dinner by candlelight is depressing when you are alone). Still, it can be a tough to adjust to life without running water. When my sister visited this summer I had to teach her all the things I had learned when when I first moved to my community. Here is what she learned:

Collecting Water: My community primarily relies on rain for our water. Every house has at least one gutter that deposits rain water into a trash can, old oil drum, or a tínaco, which is a big water container. Mine holds 150 gallons. During dry spells children are sent to local springs or the river to collect water for the family. Water can also be bought via trucks that pass by daily, but the water is too expensive for most of my neighbors to afford. Since I moved into my own home last September I have been able to rely on just the rain water I collect. That is because I live alone, Samaná gets above average rainfall, and I am a water hoarder.

Storing Water:
My 150 gallon tank cannot store enough water to make it between long dry spells. It is also located outside my house, which means that on occasion my neighbors borrow some (or all) of the water stored inside. So in addition to the tank I keep two more trashcans filled with water inside my house (another 60 gallons). Also, whenever I empty a gallon sized container of anything (bleach, soap, vegetable oil) I fill it with water and store it under my sink (another 10 gallons). I fear that my water-hoarding tendencies are going to turn me into a emergency preparedness crazy-person when I return to the States.

Drinking Water: Thanks to the previous volunteer in my community, almost every house has a bio-sand water filter. The filter allows us to safely drink all the water we collect. The filters last up to 20 years and maintenance is minimal. Bio-sand water filters are awesome. Previously, families had to buy purified water, many could not afford to do so and instead drank the non-purified water they collected. Many people suffered from amoebas and other diseases because of the non-purified water. Many Dominicans continue to suffer from water borne diseases because there is no purified tap water in the country. Everyone has to either buy purified water, filter the water themselves, or risk getting sick.

Washing Dishes: Dish washing is a multi-stage process involving many buckets. You have your bucket next to the sink with clean water, your bucket in the sink with soapy water, and your buckets on the floor with dirty water. You use the clean water to rinse off the soapy dishes and after all the dishes are done you pour the soapy water into a dirty water bucket. You will need the dirty water to bucket flush.

Bucket Flushing: No running water means you cannot push a level and make the toilet flush. Instead, you have to take a bucket of water, preferably dirty, and forcefully toss the water into the toilet. The pressure caused by the water will flush everything down into a septic tank. Note: it is important that you put the seat up when you flush, nobody water dirty water on the seat. Also, flushing is trickier than it looks. Many volunteers have stories of accidentally overflowing the toilet or embarrassingly having to ask a member of their host-family to flush the toilet for them. The latter happened to my sister. The month she stayed with me was not enough time for her to master the bucket flush.

Bucket Bathing: Since shower heads are impossible to use and baths use up too much water, bucket baths are the best way to get clean. To bucket bathe you need two buckets. One filled with water and a smaller bucket or cup is needed to pour the water over your head. Unless you heat up the water on your stove, the water will be very cold. I recommend exercising before taking a bucket bath, but some days all you have to do is sit in the sun for a minute to work up enough sweat to make a bucket bath refreshing.

Doing Laundry: I go to my host-family's home to do my laundry because they have a washing machine, and I get to use their water and not my own. Laundry uses a lot of water, as I detailed in my post all about the process. Read it here.

Sharing: If your neighbors have a ton of kids running around and not a lot of water, share. Don't get mad when people use water you collected, it is inevitable. Can you blame them for taking water to quench their thirst and cook their food? Be a kind and generous person, and people will reciprocate. Just this week I received avocados, plantains, chicken, help organizing books, and one of my students told me I was beautiful in English!

August 1, 2014

Library Construction

This week a new sound has been added to the cacophony of motorcycles, bachata music, donkeys, and screaming neighbors that make up the background noise in my community. The noise is construction work (See the video to hear the noise I love to hear). Finally, construction of the library has begun in earnest. All this week from dawn to dusk the men of my community have been preparing the library for today, the day we pour the cement roof.

Things have gone pretty smoothly this week. Except last night when a truck delivering supplies hit a power line and left my community without electricity. Whoops. Luckily we only had to wait three hours for the power line to be repaired.

Construction is the D.R. is different in many ways from construction in the States. First, almost all of the men helping to build the library are volunteers whose construction experience has been gained by building their own homes. Also, different materials are used. Scaffolds and supports are made of wood, not steel. And instead of wood and shingles for roofs, Dominicans prefer cement.

Laying out rebar on top of the roof.
The cement roof, while rare in the U.S., is becoming the standard roof in the D.R. A zinc roof is cheaper and is still the most common type of roof in the D.R. However, it is prone to leaks and can be torn off a house during a hurricane. Therefore, as Dominican families become wealthier they are choosing to build their new homes out of cement from top to bottom. Until this week I had never seen a cement roof being built. I now understand why they are not common in the States.

Cement is heavy, so any building that is going to have a cement roof is going to need support columns. You also need to set up an elaborate system of wood and rebar to allow the cement to set and dry properly. Setting everything up to pour cement took  10 men four 12-hour days to complete. The word cement roof is also a little misleading. Mixed in with the cement is also sand, gravel, and lots of water. You then have to get the mixture to the roof. Today we have twenty men working on mixing and pouring the cement. We also are using a big cement mixer and lifter that a neighbor is letting us borrow.

Temporary Roof Supports
Despite the free equipment, labor, and other donated materials we have spent, just this week, $123,300 pesos or $3,082.50 dollars on the roof. But every penny is worth it to ensure the safe-keeping of the library's books and the longevity of the community center. Now that construction is underway my neighbors have already begun to talk about how they would like to build a second level where they can hold big meetings with the entire community. My neighbors never stop dreaming, and I love them for it.

The library now has a website:
You can find more information about the library and see more pictures there

Other non-library things that happened this week:

I have a new club. We meet once a week to watch a novela (Spanish soap-opera) made by the Peace Corps with a cast of entirely Dominican youths. Each week the characters are faced with an important issue like teen pregnancy, AIDS, violence in the family etc. My students couldn't get enough of it!

When I returned from camp, I discovered that my cat had disappeared. I thought that he had either run off with another cat or he had been eaten by a Dominican. It is not unheard of for Dominicans to eat cats. Some people think their meat can cure diseases and others think it will make them stronger. Luckily, my cat did return but he was injured. He tore up his leg so bad that the veterinarian cursed, in English, when he saw it. In his first year of life my cat has already lost three of his nine lives (he has also been attacked by a chicken and he once ate poisoned food).

While cataloging books I realized that I took a picture with a statue of a character from a comic book we have in the library when I was in Argentina in 2010. I had no idea at the time who/what the statue was made in honor, hence my desire for a photo.
Me and Malfada in 2010

Sunday was Father's Day here in the D.R. and to celebrate we held a movie night. The film for the night was Sanky Panky, which is about Dominican men on the hunt for rich white gringas to seduce. It was a hilarious movie and I now want to watch the sequel.

On Thursday morning I was woken up by the screams of a pig being slaughtered...not the first time this has happened. At least there was also the sound of men building the library.