Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Day of the Strike Part 1

Monday was the day of the strike. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I had been told not to travel, and I thought it best to stay put in my apartment building for the day. After sleeping in, I dropped in on the girls to see what was happening. They were still playing with my computer since last night, but I was able to convince Estefany to play a round with me of Settlers of Catan. After that she kept wanting to play and eventually we drew the attention of her sisters, Yanirys and Cristina, who made brief attempts at learning the game but who were eventually peeled away to tend to the needs of their toddler boys.

Mecha's daughters. Left to right: Estefany, Cristina, Yanirys

Sometime around one in the afternoon, I finally mentioned that I had no food to prepare and said if the grocery store was open I was going shopping. What I didn’t realize was that by explaining this to everyone I was making a grand offer. “Hooray,” they said, “Save us, Charlie!” I couldn’t very well renege. Besides, I was sure they would make something far better than whatever I could cook up. Estefany called Pablo who confirmed that the grocery store open even during the strike.

The scene at Milenio on Saturday night

Midday traffic was way below average, and every family-owned business I passed had its metal barrier drawn. Extra shotgun-toting security had been hired at the plaza. After I brought home the supplies, Estafany and Yanirys came over to my place to cook. Finding the conditions there unacceptable, they wasted no time cleaning and organizing the place at the same time as they put on some plantains and pasta.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lazy Sunday

The day after I went out dancing I was exhausted. The scouts were preparing for a big fundraiser and Aneudy invited me to come help prepare. After crawling out of bed and into some work clothes, I made my way to the local where Pablo, Katia, and about fifteen scouts were having a work party. I helped break up the dirt pile with mattock and shovel it into a wheelbarrow so it could be used to patch of up the field. The scouts were also constructing a zip line and Pablo asked that I take pictures.

The scouts begin building a platform for a zipline for an upcoming fundraiser

After a few hours I returned home and collapsed onto my bed. I was awakened after few hours of sleep by Line’s mom coming to borrow some sugar. I decided I had better run some errands rather than go back to sleep and spoil my night’s rest, but I didn’t make it past Mecha’s door. The girls were all dying to see my pictures from last night and put them on Facebook. In my apartment building, my computer has become a community resource. Whenever there’s electricity, there’s internet service and I become even more popular than I already am. I don’t mind sharing, though. It really is what people here do when they aren’t the kind to lock themselves up in a gated compound. And besides, I sometimes even get a free meal out it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moca Nightlife Part 2

After a couple of beers we headed across the street to another place I’ve walked by a hundred times with curiosity. On the corner in front we merrily rejoined the others before heading inside. The place couldn’t have been more authentic and perfect. It was all on the second story; the first was parking. Three concentric terraces fanned outward from the bar, each a step down from the next with the outermost being an open balcony. On a small, dark dancefloor people danced to merengue, salsa, and electronic dance music.

Estefany and her boyfriend, Mayobanex

The girls were eager to see if the gringo was going to dance, and if they expected me to be shy, they were mistaken. Something about casting off my possessions for two years and taking a vow of poverty has made me even less inhibited than I may have been otherwise. If love is the international language, getting down must be a close cousin. At one point I remember I was taking a rest when Chuno got my attention like, “watch this”. He just gestured from the balcony to an attractive young girl who was practically at the bar and next thing I knew they were dancing salsa. Chuno moved her all over the floor and spun and turned like a pro.

Chuno salsas with Estafany

Unfortunately, at the end of the night, events took a tragic turn. While driving back on his pasola (Vespa-style motor scooter) . Chuno drove into an uncovered manhole and fell face-first onto the gravel road. His face was covered in blood, and we worried that he may have a concussion. While a bunch of the group accompanied him to the hospital, I ended up back at the apartment building holding Cristina’s one-year-old and bouncing him up and down to stop his wailing. When the others returned, they assured me he hadn’t lost consciousness and that his memory appeared to be intact. His lip was split clear through.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Moca Nightlife Part 1

This Monday there was a big labor strike. Peace Corps volunteers were prohibited from leaving their project sites and in Moca, people told me everything was going to basically shut down for the day. My neighbor, Mecha took advantage of the long weekend to have her other two daughters and twelve-year-old son come visit her and Estefany. Saturday evening I found them all in plastic chairs in the usual hang-out spot in the stairwell. Mecha handed me a drink that tasted like melon and rum and insisted that I drink more than a little. She suggested not-so-subtly that it would taste better with ice.

Mecha and a joven from the group that went out dancing

I had just had what I consider my most successful day since arriving in Moca and I was in a mood to celebrate. I went on an errand and returned with ice and a round of drinks, which were met with much enthusiasm. That evening, Mecha’s boyfriend, Chuno had promised to show me some of the spots on the strip along the autopista (highway) near where I live. It turns out Mecha’s daughters, Estafany, Yanirys, and Cristina were getting ready to party as well with their respective dates and a crew of about four others.

Cristina lounges with her and Yaniris' toddler sons

When I broke out my camera it about caused a riot. I instantly became a fashion photographer and after every shot I heard pónmelo en Facebook (“put it on Facebook for me”) and etiquétame (“tag me”). After much changing of clothes and taking of pictures, Chuno arrived and he and I took to the strip. The first stop was a very crowded bar called Milenio. I had seen the place during the day and wondered how well it was doing, but now I could see it wasn’t hurting for customers. The place was packed to the brim and quaking to the beat of the latest dembow hits.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Teaching At The Library

Every volunteer has what they call a “project partner” who is basically a Dominican all-star community member who helps them set up the activities of their service. Through visiting Heather in Juan Lopez and donating the Free Geek laptops, I became acquainted with Heather’s project partner, Rafael. Rafael wasted no time arranging a class for me to teach at the library in Moca, and on Saturday we had our first class session.

The class consists of five adults (six if you count Rafael) of varying experience and skill level. Two of them are teachers—one in Juan Lopez, the other in Moca—who want to help me set up an Encargados del Futuro group. Encargados del Futuro is a youth group model that volunteers implement throughout the country. It helps prepare youths to become people in charge of community computer labs through participation in activities involving digital media and community service.

It was six exactly six months from the day I took the oath of service and became a Peace Corps volunteer and finally, I felt as though my service was beginning in a meaningful way.

The view from my window at night.

Friday, November 11, 2011

An Angry Neighbor Part 2

No dice, dude, I thought. It was bad enough that he was harshing my mellow. But to insinuate that there was something that I could do about the electricity situation was not okay. I started to break things down for him in an English I was pretty sure was too fast for him, "Look, canchi, I don't know what your trip is, but there ain't shit I can do about the electricity..." and so on, matching his volume and word choice so he could see I was finally as pissed as he was.

Painting on my apartment building: "Love thy neighbor as thyself"

He responded by shouting even louder and more feverishly. I could feel bits of his spit on my face and smell the alcohol on his breathe. At this point, Line was out of her seat, letting out little staccato hisses and shifting her weight from one foot to the other. While she waved a finger at each of us, I was too busy being pissed off to notice the man was backpedalling. Doubtless, his ego wouldn't allow him to apologize, but I wasn't going to stop until it was obvious that I found him far more unpleasant than the power outage.

Painting on my apartment building: "Juan Pablo Duarte, 'father of the homeland'"

When I was good and done, I finally began to hear him again. He was explaining that his two children were American and that he it hadn't been his intention to talk trash about Americans. Whatever the case, there was little left for him to do but go to his room and stop complaining to me. While I remained and chatted with Line a little more, I could see that the vibe was completely ruined. In days to come, however, it became clear from what I gleaned it conversation with her and the rest of the ladies that my neighbor was not all that popular and I was actually somewhat more respected for not just sitting and taking his abuse.

Whatever the case, I really don't hold it against him. I mean, he paid his damned power bill. It would have been nice, though, if he could have just taken it in stride everyone else seemed to.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Angry Neighbor Part 1

When I arrived back on the roof, my friends had been joined by Mencha's daughter, Estefany. The five of us carried on a little longer before each making our way down to our apartments. I found some pretense to bug Line some more and in due course we found ourselves on the couch in her apartment discussing the finer points of Dominican gender relations. "Nosotras mujeres aguantamos mucho en este pais," she told me, "we women put up with a lot in this country." We talked for a while about Dominican men and when I asked how a woman can know that her boyfriend has other girlfriends and still not want to leave him, she shared with me a dicho (a saying):

Una llave que abre muchas puertas es una llave maestra, pero una llave que abre todos las puertas no sirve. (A key that opens many doors is a master key, but a key that opens every door is no good.)

The best I can do in interpreting this is to suppose that it means that a woman wants a man who is so desirable that he can get other women if wants, but who won't take just any woman.

"Each person reaps what he/she sows"

What happened next was unprecedented. From down the hall came a steady stream of angry shouting, which gradually grew louder before parking itself somewhere in the hall outside Line's apartment. I knew its source to be the overweight single man who lives next door to me and I wasn't surprised to hear vulgar English sprinkled in amongst the Spanish epithets; though I had never interacted with this man, I had noticed he posessed the American habits of smoking cigarettes and going straight to his apartment without spending some time socializing in the hallway.

Fairness: even if your rubio brother can levitate and you can't

He must have heard me and Line because next thing either of us knew, he was venting his frustration at full volume, more or less in my face. Mostly he cursed Pablo, but also there was talk of the people Pablo answers to at the school and in Philadelphia. I reasoned that the best course of action would be just to agree and act disgusted. But gradually it began to appear as if my obvious lack of indignation was only aggrevating him more. Finally, I detected in his tone and choice of words a kind of antagonism that was directed at me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Helping Some Neighbors Move In

The head of the household I help move in across the street is muscle-bound and shaved bald. I don't recognize him at first be he knows who I am and reminds me that he works the corner in front of the rotunda with with the rest of the motoconchistas. The Daihatsu has half-emptied after the time it has taken me to peel away from my rooftop group, but there remain some big items. The ladies remain perched on the roof, silently taking in the show.

Painted on the building where I live: The man says, "son, obey you parent and teachers
out of love [for them]".

First to go up the three flights of stairs is the wooden box of a bed. It is empty, and thus not very heavy, but its ungainly form, combined with the low overhead clearance of the stairway requires the we stand and squat in awkward positions and use muscles in our backs and arms that don't often get a workout. For me, it is another triumph of communication, something I certainly couldn't have accomplished with nearly as much grace or poise five months ago. At critical points along the way, I have to listen carefully and follow instructions. At other times it is I who has to describe how to proceed based one what I can see and my moving partner cannot.

Adorning the street entrance of my building: A shackled taino bride and a Dominican
flag breaking a chain.

Next, in similar fashion, comes the mattress and finally a couch. On the rooftop across the street I can see the ladies watching me, with boundless amusement, no doubt. From their perspective, each trip up the stairs plays out like a play in three acts, taking place in the exposed landings between flights of stairs. I wave and shout to them, but it is clear they prefer that the fourth wall remain intact.

The building where I live. It used to be a school. My window is the one in the middle.

By the time we finish, I am panting and sweating profusely, but I can tell that my neighbor could easily keep going. I'm typical Dominican fashion, nobody says "thank you". Instead I am rewarded with a few minutes conversation and the comfort of knowing that I had done my good deed for the day.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hanging Out On The Roof

For the second night in a row, my apartment building is without luz (literally "light", it means electricity), but for once it is not the unreliable infrastructure that is to blame. The most likely culprit is Pablo Mejia, the good-natured, yet somewhat incompetent man who collects the rent and pays the bills on behalf of our absentee landlady in Philadelphia. Last night, he and some of the other guys living here climbed a ladder to the junction box at the a the school across the street, connecting wires in an effort to circumvent the need to pay. From our limited vantage point, my eighteen-year-old neighbor, Line (pronounced "lee-nay") and I only saw a bright flash and heard a loud electrical pop at which point the street lights went out.

A painting on my apartment building. The boy says, "I'm Sorry I broke your doll house with
my ball". The girl responds, "I forgive: you."

This evening, I climb the stairs to the roof to sit in the cool while leaving my apartment downstairs with the window and doors open in hopes that it will air out in the breeze of passing cars. On the roof I find Line haciendo coro (hanging out) with Mencha and Estefany who live across the hall and next door to her, respectively. They offer me a seat which I accept, and gradually I come up to speed with the conversation. The women mostly talk about how how fed up with they are with Pablo and complain about what it's like in this cinderblock apartment without electricity at night, but there are also moments of gossip and what feels to me like campfire talk; stories of supernatural things that have happened to friends, tales emphasizing the importance of listening to one's mother.

Another painting from in my apartment building. This one is in English.

Little by little, I elbow my way into the conversation. It is not my custom, but over time I have managed to grasp the etiquette involved when talking over someone the way they do here. And after five months of digesting the slurring, mush-mouthed dialect of the Cibao region where I live, I have begun to develop an ear for it's intricacies and modismos (turns of phrase). A man coming upstairs to a group of chatting women is certainly not taboo in this country, but I wouldn't exactly call it the norm. Without a doubt, my status as a foreigner and reputation as a limited speaker of Spanish has helped me gain access. Also, it doesn't hurt that they're tickled pink to live next door to an American. But, for my part, I couldn't be happier to have them for neighbors, either.

The neglected emblem of CEPBIEN (CEntro Psicopedagogico BIlingue ENmanuel) greets
visitors at the carport entrance to my apartment building. The school has moved to a newer
building across the street.

It's hard to imagine any place I would rather be on this night than with these three patently adorable dominicanas, getting to know them and swapping stories and complaints. Every gesture and intonation is a delight to behold and as I observe and contribute I can feel my palette of dominicanismos grow and expand. By the time a Daihatsu truck pulls up to the three-story apartment building across the street, full of a families belongings, I am so much a part of the group that they don't want me to leave when I go downstairs to help my new neighbors move in.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"Pisa'o Pisa'o," say the kids as they play hackey in the hallway and I am transported back in time to just less than three years ago when first I heard that word. In Guatemala, pisa'o was a vulgar word one of my colleagues at Ajb'atz' Enlace Quiche convinced me to say to a female coworker.

I see this mural every day in the hallway that leads to my door.
It reads "It's good to have patience."

Stumbling out into the unlit, cavelike passage that connects two other hallways in my apartment building, I find my adolescent next door neighbor and a playmate I don't recognize. When I enquire as to the meaning of pisa'o one jabs his finger enthusiastically toward the other as he plays, explaining, "Tu sabes, aquí hay mucho pisa'o." I surmise it has something to do with getting big air with the hackey sack.

Cartoon, super-hero Jesus greets me at the bottom of the stairs every morning.

After my first brush with the word, I never really much cared to know what it meant. I just felt annoyed by it. What Mikey actually told me to say to her was "peace out" because it sounded like saying I was saying the same thing. When I look in the dictionary today, I find a verb, pisar, the past participle of which would be pisado; almost certainly the word they are using if they are speaking Spanish. It means "to step on, to tread on, to mash".

Inside the "cage" of metal bars downstairs. It says, "The fruit of the spirit is..." The fruits
include  "Peace," "Happiness," "Love," "Self-Control," "Faith," "Patience,"
"Meekness," "Goodness," "Kindness"  

Tonight it's sticky and hot without electricity to run my fan. Even when I'm not standing over my gas stove, my back runs with sweat. Leaving my curtains completely open is usually a forgone conclusion on nights like this, but unfortunately this time the street lamp blaring into my room would display my naked bod for the world to see. You see, the power outage this time was quite avoidable. Pablo just ran out of time before paying this month's electrical bill.