December 12, 2014

The Library Inauguration

"Susan, I am impressed. You are so calm right now." 

The room was already packed 30 minutes before we started
That is what a friend and fellow volunteer said to me as I walked, not ran, around completing last minute details for the community library inauguration which was to happen in under an hour. I attribute my part of my calm demeanor to my integration into Dominican culture. Nothing ever starts on time here, so me taking a few extra minutes to set things up wasn't going to ruin the event. Really though, nothing could ruin the event for me or the other member of the library committee. We had worked so hard and long (over 3 years) to make the library a reality that nothing was going to spoil the day for us.

My youth group presenting their acrostic
Only an hour after the scheduled start time, basically on time by Dominican standards, the inauguration of the Ernestina Hidalgo Community Library began. During the ceremony there were speeches given by the Governor of Samaná, the Director of the Education District of Samaná, the Peace Corps Librarian, the mayor of my community, a daughter of the library's namesake, the president of the library committee, and several other local political leaders. The most exciting speech for me to hear was that of the Director of the education district. She promised to send a teacher to work full-time at the library! Otherwise the speeches were all pretty similar: praising the community and extolling us as an example for the rest of Samaná. Not too bad of a thing to hear over and over again. Still to keep the audience entertained the speeches were  broken up by a few special performances. My girl's youth group presented an acrostic of the word biblioteca (library) and students from one of the local schools performed two dances, including a traditional merengue ripiao, a dance special to the north-east coast of the D.R. 

I spoke briefly during the ceremony, mostly using my time to make announcements about upcoming events at the library. But I also said something I would like to make clear with all of you readers. My community would have made the library a reality if I had not been present. But I could have never made the library without my community. I served as a treasurer, grant writer and book cataloger, meanwhile my project partners harassed politicians for donations, got permission from the privately owned road company to perform construction, corralled community members to help with construction, and fed all the workers at least twice a day. The library is 100% the result of my community's effort to achieve their dream of a better future for their children.

The inauguration lasted 2.5 hours, at which point refreshments were served to the 200 or so people in attendance - most craning their eyes through the windows to get a glimpse of the event. Refreshments or brindis as it is know in the D.R. is a big deal. No event is complete without it, and it can serve as a marker for how much detail and preparation went into the event. For our brindis everyone received a plate with an empanada, a quipe, a mayonnaise sandwich with cheese, and a marshmallow which is considered a Christmas sweet in the D.R. Everyone also got a cup of fruit punch filled with apples, melon, pineapples, and passion fruit.

Dancing at the after-party
Once the masses were filled with food and had dispersed back to their houses, the real party began for myself and the library committee members. The library was turned into a dance floor and rum and wine flowed. I kept my promise to the construction workers and danced with all of them who asked my hand. One of them laughed as we danced and when I asked him what was funny he responded, "You can dance!" (Since arriving in the D.R. my love of dancing has grown and I now take every opportunity I can to dance bachata and merengue.) 

Dancing ended at 9pm - most of the committee members were exhausted from the inauguration preparation. However, myself and the other five volunteers visiting me continued the party at my house. We played music, made smores, and when the power went out at 1am we proceeded to play with candles. At 4am we all headed to bed, but with only two beds and six people  it took another hour before we got the bedtime giggles out of our system and went to sleep. I felt like I was back in middle school having a sleepover with my best friends. We then all got up at 8am, ate bacon (a rare find in the D.R.), and went to the beach for the day. When I returned from the beach a few of the neighborhood kids commented on how loud we had been the night before. I took the comments with a smile on my face - I had finally managed to out noise my neighbors.

Kids learning to play Scrabble
Back to the library.  So far everything has been up and running fairly smoothly this week. Kids are learning how to use the simplified dewey decimal system (numbers 0-9), and keep the 700+ books organized. Another new experience for many visitors are the computers. For many people the first time they use a computer is when they type their name in our attendance tracker. Similarly using the printer has become a big event with wide-eyed kids crowded around the machine. Technology isn't the only enticement at the library - the kids can't get enough of Monopoly. (I have a rule that they have to read a book before they can play games.) 

This was the first time these girls saw a printer
However, we still have a door issue. The mayor of Samaná promised to donate two doors for the building. They finally arrived the day before the inauguration but the one for the library side of the building was not the right size. We finally got a door for the library side, but of course it is still too small, so before we move everything over we have to fill the gap with wood or something else. For now we are using the meeting room for the library. Since the room is smaller things have been a little cramped. I have had to place some tables in the empty library so that visitors have enough space. We have been averaging about 25 people a day at the library. My goal is to get 100 individuals to visit the library by Saturday, so far we have 55 so I think we can get there.
The temporary library location
Kids outside the now - almost - complete library

The true test for the library will be how my community manages it while I am gone on vacation in the U.S. Thankfully I don't think there will be any major problems while I am away. My community has fought too long and hard to let the library fall by the wayside after only a week. Plus considering how the kids have started lurking around my house waiting for me to open the library, I can't imagine them letting the adults in the community off the hook. 

You can see more pictures of the library here.


In the past two weeks I have celebrated five big events: Thanksgiving, a school concert, the graduation of my Me Toca a Mi class, Día de Santa Barbara, and the inauguration of my community's library. Miraculously all the events were big successes and I only fell asleep during one ceremony. Here is the run down:

Practicing yoga with my neighbors
Every year volunteers organize a big dinner in the capital so we can celebrate Thanksgiving together. The holidays are a tough time to be away from home, but a pool party followed by a delicious American dinner certainly helps numb the pain. I woke up early on Thanksgiving day to participate in a  5k run with other volunteers. I finished the race in 25:36 - blowing by my goal of 30 minutes. I think I could have gotten below 25 minutes but I wanted to save my energy for the rest of the day's festivities. Side note: I started to prepare for the 5k in September, I had never consistently exercised in my community before then, and the experience has been a positive one. Word has spread that I do yoga, and many women have requested that I start a class, and their wishes will come true in January. I occasionally even have kids come by the house and exercise with me.

The rest of Thanksgiving was a blast, there are only a few opportunities a year for us volunteers to get together in big groups. Most of the time it is too difficult for everyone to get together due to our work and the distances between our communities. One of my friends, Conner, who I talk to on the phone weekly, I had not seen in eight months. Unsurprisingly I stayed up late talking with friends until 5am. But by 12pm I was back on a bus to my community so that I could make it on time to the next celebration.

My host sister (left) and another student singing
When I arrived back home I had just enough time to eat before I headed off with my host family to a school concert. The purpose of the concert was twofold: to promote student creativity and to fundraise money for the 8th grade's graduation. The event was held in a church and the place was packed, with many people staring in through the windows. The concert consisted of a variety of singing and dancing performances. I was bursting with pride throughout the concert as my students took the stage but I couldn't compete with my host mom who was screaming and yelling every time my host sister performed. Afterwards my host mom said, "The doctor says that I am not supposed to jump around and get excited because of my high blood pressure but oh my God - Emely!" And then she proceeded to jump around some more in the middle of the street.

The following day 19 students between the ages of 5 and 17 graduated from the Peace Corps Me Toca a Mi course. As I have previously mentioned, the course uses a novela (soap opera) with Dominican actors to talk about a variety of issues that affect the youth in the D.R. including: HIV/AIDs, drinking, education, family relationships, homosexuality, discrimination etc.  After each episode of the novela we played games and held discussions that addressed the episodes themes. Sometimes conversations were heated, but some minds were changed and perspectives widened.

The 19 Me Toca a Mi Graduates
Prior to the graduation the class hand wrote invitations and gave them to their parents. Unfortunately, only two parents attended the event. This wasn't surprising because sadly, parents do not tend to participate in school and extracurricular events when invited (the school concert was out of the norm). It was shame the parents didn't show because the class held a fantastic talent show which mixed dancing, singing, jokes, and skits. Kids here, just like all over the world, love showing off what they can do, I know they were disappointed their parents were not there to see them shine. Next time I am going to harass the parents house by house. Although parents didn't show, their were at least 30 siblings and friends present to cheer on the graduates.

Patronales celebrations, a week long event celebrating the patron saint of a community, began the same day as the Me Toca a Mi graduation. In the D.R. most patronales have turned into a week of night concerts. I was too tired to go into town for the headliner event, El Alpha, previously highlighted in my music post. But I did make it to the church service honoring Samaná's patron saint, Saint Barbara. My host mom and I arrived at church at 7:30am in order to ensure we got good seats. We thought the service would start at 8am but in typical Dominican fashion it started at 9:30am. While we waited in the pews I fell asleep. I have no regrets. I needed that nap to get through the rest of the service which included: first communion, confirmation, a speech from the bishop about abortion (a topic heating up in the D.R.), a speech from the priest about how the patronales partying has gotten out of hand (it kinda has), communion, and a processional around town with a statue of Saint Barbara.

Finally, on Saturday, the day my entire community has been waiting 3 years to arrive, we inaugurated the Ernestina Hidalgo Community Library. The event was so big that it has its own post.

All the celebrations over the past few weeks have left me in high spirits. I feel so lucky and blessed to be living the life I have now, which is a big change from this time last year. Last december I was counting down the days until my family's arrival and couldn't wait to get out of my community. Now I feel like I don't have enough time before I leave for a vacation in the States. So to all my volunteer friends sick with the holiday blues and/or the one-year slump, remember you will get through it! And to everyone back home, I am super looking forward to seeing you all, but I know this time there will be people in the D.R. I will miss while I am gone.