Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Volunteer Visit Part 5

This array of inverters and batteries attached to Cassidy's lab collects energy
from solar and wind sources. 

By three o'clock the next day, it was obvious that the driver of the public pickup we had consulted the day before had given us bad information when he assured us there would be a pickup at 1:00 pm to take me to Moca. This is a feature of the Dominican Culture; the answers you get from people often have more to do with saving face or telling you what is supposed that you want to hear than they do with providing accurate and useful information.

Luckily, there was a single seat available in a jeep that was headed my way. It was less than ideal since Andrew was also leaving town and had planned to help me negotiate the bus system on the trip back, but in the moment when the jeep arrived it was a matter of taking it or running the risk of arriving home in the capital after dark. I opted for the former, and as I watched the breathtaking mountain views unfold to the sound of bachata music from the stereo, I reflected that for the first time since I arrived in the country, I was alone traveling long-distance without the guidance or companionship of other Americans. It was interesting to remember all the times I had done likewise in Guatemala and recognize how much more quickly that transition from dependent to independent had taken place.

Hiking up to a viewpoint before lunch

Once in Moca, I found the bus station and headed for what I judged to be the ticket window by the appearance of big letters over it that read "ticket window". Behind the counter I found a woman punching keys on a cell phone. "When does the next bus leave for the capital?" I asked. In response she gave me a look that told me I was the stupidest person possibly imaginable and proceeded to look away and place the phone to her ear. A man who was among five or six people inexplicably loitering in the ticket office must have taken pity on me. He pointed to a bus and said "Santo Domingo". I suppose I was expected to intuit this.

On the way to Santo Domingo, our already full bus took on about a third of the passengers of another bus we found broken down alongside the road. Being based in the northwestern suburbs of Santo Domingo, I was among the first people off. This meant several people had to get off to make way. Even still, it was a tight squeeze with my three bags.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Volunteer Visit Part 4

After Escojo and another round of neighbor visits, it was time for a rousing sermon about stories from Genesis and the sermon on the mount led by Doña Elena at the Adventist church. Aftewards we visited her home where she prepared us dinner and through conversation impressed me as remarkably wordly and kind. Well past ten at night, we returned to the house Cassidy shares with a community member and we shared his comfortable bed. 

Cassidy and Magee demonstrate the proper use of a latrine

The next day held a morning spent with our new friends from Iowa and a visit to Magee's community just up the road where Cassidy had arranged to work on the school's computer lab. As we walked there, Cassidy shared a horrific story about a Haitian woman whose husband has allegedly broken her arm. He said that her ordeal was flippantly mentioned to him one day and that when he found her, she sat visibly suffering while Dominicans stood by playing dominoes and cracking jokes.

The patio of the collection of buildings where Cassidy takes his meals

After several hours of troubleshooting computers, Cassidy found a stopping place and we made our way to Magee's house where she made us a spaghetti dinner and the two volunteers regaled me, among other things, with Peace Corps gossip, insight into Dominican Culture, and a particularly amusing conversation about reality television. Back at Cassidy's a drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain his aluminum roof.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Volunteer Visit Part 3

Cassidy and Magee in front of the Salon Tecnologica

In the morning Magee and I left early in order to catch the one daily pickup that would take us to Cassidy's site. Luckily, we managed after a short while to catch a bola (free ride) with friends of hers in the bed of their pickup. For the next forty-five minutes, we climbed into the mountains, discussing how Peace Corps compared to our lives back home and what it was like to join. Meanwhile I drilled her about her living conditions and made a good deal of fuss over how authentic my experience was begining to feel and how incredible the views were.

Cassidy supervises a class during lab hours

Finally we reached Cassidy's school. I observed as group after group of excited children filed into the salon tecnologica (computer lab) for their turn to eagerly click away Encarta Encyclopedia, Alphabet Rain, and a kind of puzzle game with moving balls. Not long after joining a local familh for lunch, we welcomed a group the likes of which few see during their volunteer visit. About thirty high school students from Iowa and a handful of adult chaperones arrived in a guagua (minibus), led by Andrew, a volunteer from Puerto Plata.

Students from St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa assemble while
Andrew and Cassidy (foreground, right) catch up.

After a brief interlude with the Americanos we were returned to the lab for Cassidy's afternoon session and, at the end, a lively youth discussion group called Escojo Mi Vida ("I Choose My Life") which many volunteers nationwide are using to encourage children to make healthy choices and steer clear of unprotected sex. This session focused on values and self-esteem. Cassidy performed admirably given the distinctly hormonal circumstances occaisionsed by 27 enthusiastic youths whose only prior exposure to the subject matter was sometimes in the context of admonishments about the potential ills of not pleasing your man or turning into a homosexual.
Escojo Mi Vida discussion group

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Volunteer Visit Part 2

The place where I found myself with the five girls was incongruous with the rest of Moca. Indeed, upon entering I felt as if I had left the Dominican Republic. The interior was done in a kind of wooden style that resembled the hold of a ship and one entire wall was devoted, ceiling to floor, to wine, beer, rum, whiskey, and scotch. By the way the men working there were dressed, I may have guessed they lived in L.A. At one point, the TV in the corner played a public access program featuring two of them talking about liquor.

Chilling at Heather's (from left to right): Zenia, Keeton, Heather

A round of coffee drinks were ordered including mocha frapucinos and we discussed life in the DR, and talked about relationships. A volunteer named Phil arrived and rounds of beer and mojitos began to flow. Day turned to night and house music started blaring from a speaker somewhere. Though tested in my resolve not to drink, I found it quite easy to enjoy myself sober given the company.

After a cab to Heather's place we ventured out for fried chicken and karaoke, the latter of which was quite the scene. About a block of the main drag in Heather's neighborhood was astir with people milling loosely about the focal point of a some lyrics projected against the wall of a colmado (general store). On both sides of the road, people sat in green plastic patio chairs, watching as patrons belted balladas into the night air.

Phil and Sabrina hang out at Heather's place

Heather's admirer, a drunken thirty-something named Horse with slicked-back hair and a shirt that read "Soy Dewarista" acosted the poor woman, fawning over her and pawing her with such dogged persistence that we felt a need to stall while she got rid of him to keep him from following us home.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Volunteer Visit Part 1

On Thursday, I left Santo Domingo for the first time. One of my activities as a trainee is to go visit a volunteer assigned to me by the Assistant Peace Corps Director (APCD) and Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) for my sector (Information and Communication Technology). Based on information I gave them during a short interview the week before, it was decided that I should go visit an ICT volunteer in a small community outside the town of Moca, about an hour from the north coast.

A preview of what I had in store: Indotel contructed the community computer
lab. My volunteer would describe them as the Johnny Appleseed of Computers,
Installing them wherever in hopes that they will one day be of use to someone. 

With me on the Moca bus were Zenia and Keeton and we gabbed about hair, and food and our respective places of origin as the windows of our air-conditioned charter bus revealed an autopista flanked by mountains, subtropical forest, and even a rice field planted in cooperation with the Taiwanese government. In Moca we were greeted by volunteers Heather and Sabrina who would be hosts to my travel companions and Magee, who was going to help me find Cassidy, my volunteer. After an unremarkable hamburger and delicious Zapote shake. We settled in their favorite hangout for mojitos and beers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

History Tour

The western hemisphere's oldest cathedral

You'll have to forgive me. Today I'm two hours north of Santo Domingo in the rural hub of Moca, a town of about 30,000 just across the Septentrional mountain range from the island's north coast. The sad part is that I somehow managed to leave my camera at my host home in the capital so there will be no images for the next few updates.

New soldiers used to swear allegiance to Spain in this tower

On Sunday we had a tour of some of Santo Domingo's historical sites. Our guide, Lynn Guitar is an anthropologist and historian who expatriated to the DR after her doctoral work brought her here for primary research. Lynn's insights and stories were many but in particular one stood out about a wealthy family that adopted a chimpanzee in order to overcome its childlessness.

The ruins of the New World's oldest sanitarium overlook the mouth of the Ozama 

Another story involved a despicable member of a catholic order who used to have his way with the daughters of Santo Domingo's upper class who were placed in a convent a safeguard while their families sought suitable. According to the story, this man bragged to a visiting member of the church heirarchy from Spain who went on to fictionalize the man in order marshal the powers that be to bring him to justice. The fictional account was none other than that of Don Juan.

Julie checks out the country's most-filmed street. It is often used in cinematic portrayals of Cuba.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Getting Around Downtown

On Wednesday we had our first outing from the training center to visit the historical Villa Bellisa, a distiguished old estate next door to the American embassy which was once home to one of Trujillo's cronies. Located in Santo Domingo's upscale Gazcue district, the property is now home home to Peace Corps Dominican Republic (PCDR), housing its administrative offices and medical unit, plus a lounge, two libraries and a computer lab for the use of visiting volunteers. After a tour there, we were shown the way to a nearby pension (hostel) where volunteers often stay when visiting the capital.

Next we were shown the way to Clinica Abreu, the facility used by PCDR when a referral is needed for a specialist, blood/urine/stool test, or such a thing as an X-ray or MRI. Here we were broken into two groups, the first of which I was told got a riveting 20-minute overview of the clinic's oncology department before Doctor Ariel established that he was supposed be leading the tour and devoting less time to things like how to cure cancer. I was part of the second group which had the misfortune to losing about ten minutes when 12 of its member got stuck in an elevator that had an eleven-person capacity.

Next came a stroll down the pedestrian-only Conde street whose quaint 19th-century highrises lend it a certain european charm, somewhat broken by the conspicuous presence of KFC and vendors hawking rosaries and plastic sunglasses. Conde deposited us, amid waves of German and Dutch tourists in a pidgeon-filled plaza where the new World's oldest cathedral can be photographed from the comfort of Santo Domingo's Hard Rock Cafe, a few scant yards away. On Sunday we will get a tour of this district led historian, Lynn Guitar. It won't all be fun and games, though, as we are assigned the task of negotiating by ourselves the three busses and two carros publicos needed to get there at back. It's times like these that I am grateful for my Spanish.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Bump on the Noggin

While I beheld the traffic on the Duarte Expressway, my head ached and I could feel my pulse in the bump that was forming on my scalp four inches above my right eyebrow. I watched from my seat in the pickup while all around us, cars honked and drifted lazily from one lane to another or straddled two lanes at a time and motorcycles wove in-between. I was about to become the first member of my training group to get a sneak-peek of Peace Corps' central offices about half an hour from where we go each day for training. According to Doctor Ariel, it was borderline as to whether stitches were needed but it was best to err on the side of caution.

It had been one of those perfectly inglorious incidents you always hear about from someone explaining the cast on his arm or the bandage on his knee. "I tripped and fell," he says, or, "I ran into a doorjamb." Suddenly you discover the exact amount of force you've been putting into each step you've been taking. It happens in that rude instant when the fifty or so paces you have just taken with incredible ease are not followed by the handful you have left to go. In this the force was enough to put a centimeter tear in my scalp.

I just wanted to shrug it off and return to Spanish class. I didn't know how troublesome it was until I saw the alarm written on everyone's face in the aula whose eves I had just collided with. "It's okay," I assured them in Spanish, "it has some kind of rubber coating on it." Indeed, the eve had been coated with some black material for the purpose of absorbing impacts like the one I had just made. But the next thing I knew I was staring at five or so portraits of concern and it was obvious I wasn't going to have my way when Ryan said, "You're going to want to put some pressure on that!" That was when I felt the blood and saw it run off my nose onto the floor.

Inside the medical facility at the Peace Corps building downtown, Doctor Borianna cradled my head and parted my hair while Doctor Lisette stitched shut the lesion with a length of silk thread. I was never fond of anesthetics and I opted not to have one. The needle was very small and I could barely distinguish its prick from the sensation of the thread as it went through the holes. Afterward they gave some Cipro to take for the next five days and a solution to daub on the wound to protect it from infection.

In some ways, that blow to my head is a perfect metaphor for my transition from my familiar world of temperate weather and comfortable routine. Before the beginning of March I trotted along in an environment where I knew exactly what was around every corner and how my every action would be received. And in practically an instant I found myself with boca arriba, my every sense overwhelmed an my state of alert heightened. The only aspect of the metaphor for which I can't account is that of my recovery. While it may seem fair to refer to shock as being the result of the change, it seems somehow crass to imagine that it is a "recovery" that is to follow. It is clear to me that it will be so much more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Scale and Degree

A typical lunch: arroz blanco, pollo gisado, guandole gisado con jama, Coca-Cola

My state of mind in the last three days has alternated between varying levels of acceptance and disbelief. While I am no stranger to some of the sights and sounds of Latin America's developing countries, the comparisons between my past experiences and this overwhelm me in scale and degree. Whereas there were roosters in Honduras, there are as many roosters here times three. If the hour at which they crow is early, their calls are twice as early here. If in Guatemala the stereos and engines of cars and loudspeakers of vendors were loud, here they shake the walls.

A gecko

Scarcely an acre in each block of my barrio is free of asphalt, cement, cinderblock structures, enormous mango trees. On every block there is a building whose walls announce in foot-high neon-colored lettering that it is a banca, a kind of gambling establishment. Another Oregonian could not be blamed for mistaking the noise outside my window on this Saturday afternoon for a parade, fair, or rodeo, complete with booming music, announcer's voice, and the chatter of crowds, both on television and in person. The illusion is only broken by the occaisional table saw, jackhammer, or bomba (motor for pumping water into a rooftop reservoir).

My enormous bed with mosquito net. I heard through the grapevine that this room usually belongs to the don and doña.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Training: Week One

The barrio (neighborhood) where I reside, about half an hour from Santo Domingo's city center is a short walk from the Autopista Duarte, a busy thoroughfare with between three and five lanes in each direction, depending on the time of day and whether or not you're waiting at an intersection. For 20 Pesos (less than a dollar) you can take a carro publico to the guarded entryway of our training center, a mere five or ten minutes away.

Training sesh. Sabine approves!

Our days in training begin at 7:00 and end around 5:00. Typically, a day is divided between three or four sessions. Examples of training sessions have included ways of identifying safe public transit and information concerning how to stay healthy and address health situations that may arise.

Training Manager Jennifer McGowan droppin science

Although it is difficult to gauge after only two days, it appears to me that the staff has found a good balance between holding our hands and a giving us freedom. For example, I had help getting to my host home from the training center yesterday and returning in the morning. Then, today I had a member of the language faculty (a native Dominican named Tonya) walk me through the process of taking a carro publico home with the four other volunteers who live near me. From this point forward it will be up to us how we get to and from training.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Santo Domingo Host Family

Before I describe my host family, it's important to know that I live in a grouping of three dwellings which together contain no fewer than four generations. My host mother, a grandmother, is second-oldest. Her name is Doña Ramona and she is a grand woman, quietly astute and refreshingly casual. Her mother, Doña Ana, is a lady of profound faith who, at 108 years of age, displays remarkable presence of mind when scolding her great-grandchildren or explaining to me the divine love of the Espiritu Santo.

These two never slow down (Isis & Yoelito)

A few steps from my room is the bedroom where four of the little ones watch Cartoon Network and sleep; Isis and Yoelito and their cousins Margarita, and Luisito. Wendy, the mother of the former two, lives upstairs from us with her other son and daughter. Her sister, Mari lives upstairs in the building behind us where she makes cakes and juices to sell in front of the nearby Sirena supermarket. Downstairs can be found the teenage girls, Daly and Michelle in one room and my host mother and father in another.

My barrio friends hang with some of my host family. From left to right: Doña Ana, Doña Ramona, Dory, Margarita, Amanda, Dora.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Peace Corps DR trainees wait in the DC hotel lobby at 4:00 a.m.

Outside my room, a fellow trainee strums his guitar while members of an American Christian high school mission trip sing Katie Perry and Gnarls Barkley against the backdrop of Santo Domingo traffic noise, engines and horns that echo down the halls of the San Pablo retreat center. A few hours ago, we met some members of the medical staff and recieved an injection, the first of eleven we're required to have before we become volunteers.

The last 48 hours went by in a blur. After a tearful goodbye at PDX and a day of travel rendered breif by passing through two time zones, I found myself with two new Peace Corps friends, Ryan and Scott, gawking from Scott's parents' car at the Washington Monument and the White House, all lit up in the night. After a dinner graciously paid for by them, I struggled through jet lag and anticipation to get a decent night's rest.

The next day held a whirlwind of workshop sessions called staging that gave us trainees an opportunity to get to knows one-another and go over some training material pertinent to our experience across the gamut of Peace Corps countries, whether in the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, Peru, or elsewhere. For seven hours we did things like perform skits about proper volunteer conduct and illustrate aspirations and anxieties about the coming two years. Sleep came easily.

Preparing to depart for the training center on our first morning in-country

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In the DR at Last

Greetings, loyal readers. It took me almost a couple of weeks, but I've finally managed to settle in and find an internet cafe near the busy intersection of the freeway that runs by the suburb of Santo Domingo where I live during training. Power outages here happen literally every day. Internet service is spotty and there is seldom running water. Fortunately, I have been successful at charging my computer and having been journaling faithfully while offline.

While I got here today without the SD card that houses my mobile blog software, I have a number of posts already in the queue waiting to be uploaded. Unfortunately, in the beginning, their timing will be characterized by a two-week delay. However, as time goes on, my hope is this will erode until my posts are no more than a few days old when posted.

Also, if you've been trying to reach me via email, please be patient. A couple of weeks without access have rewarded me with no fewer than 200 unread emails. Needless to say, things are a little bit different here.