Archive | March, 2013

Happy Easter!

31 Mar

Given that the official religion of the Dominican Republic is Catholicism, la Semana Santa is a big deal here. Many people leave the Capital to go visit relatives in the campo, but mine stuck around here seeing as theirs live right down the street. Semana Santa is primarily a mix of the following: masses and religious processions; traffic/drunk driving/drowning accidents (if I haven’t mentioned already, laws are not followed here – but don’t worry, we’re all safe!); fish dishes; family get togethers; ghost-town-like streets because most businesses are closed; song and dance; strolling and/or swimming at the Malecón; and most importantly, habichuelas con dulce. Practically every doña makes her version of these sweet and pureed red beans; mine’s no exception, though she did substitute the traditional habichuelas rojas for habas. My host mom made a huge batch, 7.5lbs of lima beans to be exact, then called everyone to make sure they didn’t forget to stop by and pick some up. It’s similar to Christmastime in the US: you make sweets, or others do while you taste test (caramels, toffee, cookies, spiced nuts, truffles, pizzelles – Weschler favorites I might add), and then package them up to share with your loved ones. Works pretty much the same here, except everyone makes the same dish. Anyway, it’s certainly an interesting concept, but they’re surprisingly tasty, and very filling!

Amigos at the Botanicals

Amigos at the Botanicals

I’ve been told that it rains every Easter weekend; given today’s the first time that it’s rained since we’ve been here, their almanacs are on point. Training ended at noon on Thursday, and granted nothing tooooo exciting has happened this past week (aside from an Iron Chef competition, a Creole lesson, 2 more vaccines, a surprise birthday party for Caitlyn, and a visit to Santo Domingo’s Botanical Gardens), I wanted to touch base before heading off to CBT; also, because I’m not sure when I’ll have Internet next.

Iron Chef, PCDR style

Iron Chef, PCDR style

We’re meeting at the training center at 9 tomorrow morning, then saying goodbye to our Education friends as they leave for the city of Monte Plata; we’re headed to a pueblito outside Yamasá. Though we’ll be fairly close, I’m sad to be separated…BUT it’s exciting to finally start doing more business-specific training. There’s 14 of us in the CED sector, all of us with varying Spanish levels and business experience. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be living with a new host family until the first week in May, when we’ll come back to Pantoja to wrap up training and swear-in to become actual Peace Corps Volunteers.

Until then, some of our training activities will include:

  • Business Skills Case Studies: Community Based Eco-Tourism, Artisans, and Ruta de Cacao (plus field trips!)
  • Complete a Community Diagnostic based on Monitor and Evaluation lessons
  • Trainee presentations regarding various business techniques – Julianna and I have ‘Customer Service’
  • Micro-business interviews
  • Business modules with Somos Mujeres
  • Income generation projects
  • Observation and hands-on learning activities in local school
  • Construye Tus Sueños conference
  • Spanish, Spanish, Spanish
Cervezas after the Botanicals

Cervezas after the Botanicals

We’ll find out our official project site placements, where we’ll be for the 2 years of service, on May 6th. With lots of learning and waiting to do until then, I’m just happy to be getting out of the city for a while. Despite the impressive history and prominent culture of Santo Domingo, the Capital, like any other city, is loud, dirty, and often dangerous. My family here has been more than hospitable; Peace Corps has provided them with extensive training, and they’ve been hosting volunteers since the 1990s. My family has provided me hearty food, protection, consejos, and even Internet. That being said, I’m excited to connect with a family that hasn’t had as much interaction with Americans – it might be more special, or at least more of an exchange, that way.

Aside from the Botanicals, our training center has to be one of the most peaceful places in Santo Domingo...

Aside from the Botanicals, our training center has to be one of the most peaceful places in Santo Domingo…

Welp, I’m off to finish packing. Later tonight, I’ll give my host family some good ole Vermont maple syrup that I brought with me. Here’s to hoping they like it – maybe they’ll even put it in their habichuelas con dulce next year!

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Visit to Dajabón!

25 Mar

I’ve come to the conclusion that few things feel better than a cool bucket shower after a long day of travel, especially if you’re badly sunburned and your host mom served you hot chocolate for dinner…

But anyway, this weekend was a great success.  Each trainee was assigned to visit a current volunteer in our sector Thursday through Sunday.  I got to visit Kaitlyn in El Pino, Dajabón!

Dominican Republic; Dajabón is the region in red, top left.

Dominican Republic; Dajabón is the region in red, top left.

I packed light, and took a guagua early Thursday morning towards the capital to catch a Caribe Tour bus.  The ride lasted about five hours and was really pretty seamless – decently clean, plenty of room, except it was freezing cold!!!!  After meeting Kaitlyn at the station in Villa de los Almácigos, we took a short guagua ride to her house.

Charlie

Charlie

She lives with her newly adopted puppy Charlie in a cute, open, two-bedroom house in the pueblo next to El Pino, where her office and various community groups are based.  She introduced me to her friend Vidal, who lives nearby and is the regional leader of Escojo Mi Vida, a Peace Corps initiative about sexual health education for youth.  The three of us took it easy the rest of the day – getting to know each other, playing cards, listening to music, sitting out on the porch, and so on – it felt great to get out of the city, away from the dust and noise, and to take a break from training.  Towards the end of the night, Kaitlyn mentioned that despite living in the campo, she really hadn’t seen too many creepy crawlies.

look who came to welcome me!

look who came to welcome me!

So of course, when I walk towards the kitchen a couple minutes later what do I see?  A tarantula.  I’m an animal lover, but these things are gross.  And hairy.  And huge.  Kaitlyn and I immediately took to screeching, as any other right-minded person would do, but thankfully Vidal came to the rescue and killed it with a broom.  I will die a happy lady if I never have to do that by myself, because that explosive, popping sound gave me the heeeeeeeeeebie jeebies.

The next day Kaitlyn, Vidal, and I headed to the city of Dajabón to check out its well-known weekly market.  On our way we bumped into another PCV who happened to be from Vermont – small world!

Sidebar: Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispanola.  Given that it was the first place Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, the two countries share more history than any others in the hemisphere.  The Dominican Republic, about 2/3 of the island, was settled by Spain; Haiti, though settled by the French, was populated mostly by African slaves.    In 1822, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic, occupying the territory until the DR proclaimed its independence in 1844.

“First landmass colonized by Spain, one of the last to receive it’s independence, and not from Spain, but from a former colony – Haiti.”

In 1861, the DR reverted back to colonial status, primarily to avoid further Haitian annexation; Dominican independence from Spain was restored in 1865.  Now, in present day, there is still controversy between the two countries, especially regarding immigration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.  In general, Haitians are blatantly discriminated against and are treated as second-class citizens.  For example, many are pulled off busses and asked to prove their citizenship, which often is not accepted until the military personnel receive an adequate sum of money.  Even if a Haitian is born in the Dominican Republic, he/she is still not necessarily guaranteed a birth certificate, or citizenship.  Ultimately, what it boils down to is skin color, but what boggles my mind is that many Dominicans in fact are of African decent.  Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the DR for over 30 years who killed thousands of Haitians to “whiten” the country, was part Haitian.

Anyway, what inspired this history lesson is that the city of Dajabón lies right on the border of Haiti.  With the river as a natural boundary, Haitians cross over every Monday and Friday to sell their goods in a large warehouse-like building.  The market was a must-see experience, and though it’s impossible to put into words exactly what it was like, I can tell you that I’ve never in my life felt so overwhelmed, or white.  There were thousands of people, hustling through mazes of aisles and stalls, selling everything under the sun.  I unfortunately didn’t bring my camera, but even so, a picture couldn’t do this market justice.  There was lots of shoving, bumping, and shouting (in Creole).  We squeezed through spaces when we could, trying to avoid aggressively-driven wheelbarrows, pick-pocketing children, and overly-persistent salespeople.  So much heat from overly-crowded bodies combined with the unforgiveably-blaring sun, plus the widest range of smells: body odor, various spices, chickens, dust, fruits and veggies (both ripe and past their prime), wood smoke, any and all cuts of meat, trash, fried food, smoked fish, stagnant water, and motorcycle gas.  Two words: sensory overload.  We bought some veggies for dinner from various vendors on the outside of the warehouse, then wandered inside where there was a bit more breathing room.  It was incredible.  You could find anything in that place from Hollister clothes to bed sheets to blenders to Matryoshka dolls.  A lot of the goods turned out to be donated items, sent to Haiti through various international relief programs.  I was secretly keeping my eye out for someone with a Woodstock Lacrosse shirt on, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.  The whole thing was kind of a Wal-Mart meets pawn shop/Salvation Army meets farmers market meets border patrol.  Finding our way out was definitely the most stressful part.  We didn’t pick a very good route because, as it turned out, we were heading in the same direction of the border crossing.  We finally made it out safely, but it took us a good 20 minutes of navigating, standing our ground, and contorting.  And then we were almost the victims of a dog fight.  We laughed about all the chaos over corny jokes and a jumbo Presidente.

The rest of the weekend was far less stressful.  Playing guitar, sipping coffee on her porch, playing with Charlie, cooking, reading, chatting (and drinking cherry juice!) with Kaitlyn’s awesome neighbors, and swimming!  Vidal took us to a great swimming hole on Saturday morning.  After walking 40 minutes or so, we got to a river with rocks to jump off from.  It reminded me of summers in Vermont, and was most definitely worth the sunburn.

burritos, Peace Corps style

burritos, Peace Corps style

I bid adios to Kaitlyn around 10 this morning, promising her neighbors that I’d come back someday to visit.  Can’t wait to see the progress she’ll have made, and hopefully she comes to visit me at my future site 🙂  On the bus back to Santo Domingo, I sat next to a man with an innocent-looking white sack at his feet.  Turns out there was a chicken inside.  He went on to tell me that she was a very high-quality chicken who had ‘given birth’ to some prestigious cock-fighting roosters.  He was going to the capital to breed her so she could lay some more champions.

On that note, I’m off to bed.  Pardon the long post, but it was quite a weekend.  We have one week left of training here, then it’s off to CBT in Monte Plata!  Hasta pronto amigos!!

 

 

qué le dijo el pez al hombre que se estaba ahogando?  nada…  

 

mangú con huevos

19 Mar

… is most definitely my favorite food here, for now anyway.  Mashed plantains with eggs, who woulda thought?  But it’s delicious, and filling!  I get it maybe twice a week for dinner.  Sometimes it’s an egg torta with onions and peppers, other times a fried egg, tonight they made scrambled eggs with tomatoes.  But it gets better.  I top it off with the Cholula hot sauce I brought from the States.  And THEN, mi familia gives me a cold glass of juice (tonight I got mango con cherry) to wash it all down with.  Heavenly.

But on to more important stuff.  On Sunday, we met up in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo – traditional plazas (great people watching, could do without the pigeons though), old buildings, expensive restaurants, cobblestone streets, tourists, and over-priced trinkets.  We gathered at Plaza Colon, which spreads in front of the oldest church in the Americas (construction started in 1512), to meet Lynne Guitar for a tour.

Plaza Colón and the Catedral de Santa María la Menor (construction started in 1512)

Plaza Colón and the Catedral de Santa María la Menor

Lynne has lived in the Dominican Republic for 17 years, and is currently the Resident Director of the Study Center for CIEE (www.ciee.org) in the city of Santiago.  Additionally, she has been studying the indigenous Taíno Indians since she first came to the country, and is now preparing an exhibit about their history and culture for the Smithsonian Museum!  She also told us that she now only gives tours to Peace Corps Volunteers, which made us feel pretty special 🙂  She led us down various streets to impressively historic sites, sharing her wealth of knowledge and story-telling skills, all while carrying her dog Coby over her shoulder.  Pretty neat lady.

What else has happened…Got two more vaccines…Played Scrabble in Spanish class today…Had a whole hour and half lecture on malaria, dengue, and diarrhea…Oh!  We got phones!  Each PCV/T gets a phone with a basic network plan.  We get something like 150 minutes and 75 texts per month, free of charge.  There is service throughout the majority of the country, and it will be a great way to keep in touch with fellow volunteers, especially if we don’t have reliable access to the Internet.

hangin' out with some gargoyles

hangin’ out with some gargoyles

Today we took guaguas to the Caribe Tours bus station, which is where we’ll leave from to get to the sites of our volunteer visit.  As I mentioned in another post, each trainee goes to visit a volunteer currently working in his/her sector, Thursday-Sunday.  I’ll be going to visit a PCV in the northwest region of Dajabón.  Aside from the fact that it should be about a five hour bus ride, I don’t really know what to expect – I’ll make sure to fill you in when I get back.  She did tell me to bring a bathing suit though, so hopefully we go swimming!

Si dios quiere…

 

new page!

15 Mar

I’ve created a new page (“Dominicanismos” – located at the top right of my blog) to share various aspects of the Dominican culture with you.  I plan to update this as I go…hope you like learning about my new home!

feliz cumpleaños a mi!

13 Mar

So today I turned 23. Sure, I’m still one of the youngest people in our group, but it’s no ‘milestone’ age. It’s not the first birthday that I’ve celebrated without my family, not even my first birthday out of the country (I turned 20 in Argentina), but nevertheless it’s been quite a special day. Here are some highlights…

  • My host mom greeted me this morning with a huge hug and a felicidades, then served me the biggest bowl of fresh papaya, mango, and pineapple yet
  • As soon as I walked into the training center, all of the other trainees that had already arrived sung me happy birthday! Literally, as soon as I walked in the door – so surprised that people I’m still just getting to know remembered!
  • I got my second Rabies vaccine, and took my chalky, makes-you-have-the-most-vivid-dreams-ever Malaria medicine (happy malaria miércoles!)…not the best part of the day, but figured I’d add it to the highlights considering this is my first birthday to have done either
  • For the first time, we split into our sector groups – community economic development (CED, my sector) and eduction. The 13 of us were officially introduced to our training staff; we talked about the basic logistics and objectives of our community based training (CBT) that takes place in a couple weeks. During CBT we’ll be living in the region of Monte Plata, known for its agriculture, primarily cacao; it’s also where fair trade and organic products really took off in the DR. One of the staff brought us cacao rolled in sugar and a cacao marmalade (YUMMM), both made by a women’s cooperative we’ll have the opportunity to work with. We also received the details regarding our visits to a community of a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I’ve been assigned to visit a girl currently in CED who’s living in the northwest region of Dabajon – more on this to come.
  • We spent our Spanish class cooking! For those of you who don’t know, cooking is one of my biggest hobbies and I find food culture fascinating. Eating isn’t bad either. Today we made arepas and empanadas de jamón, queso, cebolla, ají de morron, maíz, y tomate
  • During the last hour and a half of training, we learned how to play dominoes, a huge Dominican pastime – still figuring out the strategies, but what a relaxing, fun, new, and cultural activity to end a long day
  • After training, a group of at least 20 of us met up at a colmado, which is more or less a corner store where they sell everything from cooking oil to rum (both of which are Dominican staples I might add). We played cards and dominoes (we’re professionals now after all), drank Presidente, enjoyed the afternoon sun, and chatted like old friends – the people that own the colmado even brought me two little muffins stacked together with a birthday candle stuck on top!
  • Even in the midst of a power outage, my host sisters and mother hovered around the stove to make pasta Alfredo and garlic bread for dinner
  • I got to open the envelope my mom had given me the day I left. She told me not to open it until my birthday so that I’d have something to look forward to, even if she wasn’t with me in person – thanks mama 🙂
  • And last, but certainly not least, my sister just brought me a glass of fresh mango juice
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    en realidad, no podía haber pedido un día mejor…

    happy domingo!

    10 Mar

    It’s been a pretty successful weekend I’d say…lots of reading, eating, card games, conversation, good coffee, and even better fruit juices. Pretty sure I’m addicted to guava. And mango…

    We ended this week’s training with a transportation class. There’s six of us staying in the furthest barrio from the training center. Thank goodness for the two teachers that helped us navigate the public transportation because here it’s a nightmare, or very intimidating anyway. There are various forms to get from one place to another, taxis being the safest but also the most expensive. Since we live a bit too far to walk, not to mention the Autopista Duarte that lies in between our neighborhood and our destination, carros públicos and guaguas will be our primary methods of transit. Carros públicos are run-down sedans (read: would most definitely not pass inspection) that cost 20 pesos per ‘seat’. Accordingly, two people sit up front with the driver, and up to four people sit in the back. Add the heat of the DR and some sticky, leather seats, and you’ve got yourself quite an adventure! Guaguas on the other hand cost 25 pesos and are minivan-like busses. They’re a bit more comfortable and secure, but still have the potential of becoming just as crowded. Though having the opportunity to walk to training would help me save money and get more exercise, I’ll be happy to have a solid foundation in navigating from “A” to “B” via la transportación pública

    I went to church today! Can’t remember the last time I went, but my family appreciated it – it’s a good way to compartir and to develop confianza. I have a hard time following a church service in English, not to mention one in a different language, but I understood what was going on for the most part. It seems much more relaxed and informal here – most people wore jeans, and there was a good amount of singing and laughing. The Dominican Republic is predominately a Catholic country, and since it’s Cuaresma, my family is not eating meat on Fridays. This last Friday they made me Ramen. When they asked me if I’d had it before, I thought about saying “yes, when I was a broke, college student”, but I didn’t want to give them the wrong impression. And really, is there anyone who’s too good for a bowl of Ramen every once and a while? Aside from the soup though, I’ve already had a fair sampling of tasty traditional food. Here’s to trying many more, and to becoming a master of public transportation…

  • mangú: mashed plantains with butter and salt
  • sancocho: a bean stew with yucca, plantains, yams, and other starches, often made with chicken or pork
  • moro: rice and beans mixed together, as opposed to being served separate – my host mom made me this today for lunch and added coconut, delicioso
  • concón: crunchy, almost burned rice that’s left at the bottom of the pot – odd concept, kinda hurts your teeth, but is actually pretty yummy
  • Greetings from a Peace Corps Trainee

    8 Mar

    (3/6) Hello from Reagan airport! Local time is 3:24am; amount of sleep was 2 hours. Our flight is at 6:10 to Miami, and the check-in counter isn’t open yet. Yesterday was long, but equally worthwhile and exciting. I took off from Boston at 9:40am and landed in DC at about 11. Grabbing my bags (one carry-on backpack, my guitar, and two checked bags) and getting to the hotel was pretty seamless. There were at least 50 others in the lobby when I got there, all anxious, semi-frantic, and curious Peace Corps people. I found a group of five others in the middle of the room that happened to be going to the Dominican Republic as well. We made small talk and shared various questions until we were called to start registration. We turned in some final paperwork (Peace Corps LOVES paperwork), received our temporary ATM cards, and got back our passports that we had sent in months ago for our Peace Corps passport/visa.

    Just over 30 of us gathered around five different tables for staging – a very general orientation regarding Peace Corps guidelines, policies, and expectations. There are over 20 states represented in our group – Minnesota, Nebraska, Maryland, California, Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, and of course, Vermont. Staging was long (2-7pm with one 20 minute break), and we were all tired and hungry at the end of it. Regardless of how we were feeling though, or what our backgrounds were, it was obvious that we were starting something very important, special, and life-changing. In my opinion, it takes a certain person to not only receive an invitation from, but to then accept one to the Peace Corps. Our group is an odd assortment of people, but nevertheless, we have all made the same 27-month commitment to serve; to live out of our comfort zones; to make lifelong friends; to make a difference; to grow. In some ways, I already have a deeper, stronger bond with these people I’ve known for less than two days than with people I’ve known for years.

    Time to start checking in! And for Starbucks to open…

    (3/6) We’re now in Santo Domingo. It was a long day of traveling, and though we allllllllmost missed both of our flights, we’ve finally made it to the Dominican Republic. And no one’s bags got lost! We were greeted at the airport by Arthur Flanagan (Country Director of the Dominican Republic), Jennifer McGowan (Training Manager), and also by current Peace Corps Volunteers. We split into two shuttles and drove to Casa San Pablo, where I’m writing from now, for an introduction to Pre-Service Training. Jennifer, who has lived in the DR for almost 20 years, explained to us our schedule for the next few weeks. Tomorrow morning we’ll go to the Peace Corps Training Center in Pantoja; we’ll meet our host families tomorrow afternoon! We’ll live with this family for the first three weeks of training, and will then move in with another for 5 weeks of Community Based Training. For CBT we’ll split into the two represented sectors, Education and Community Economic Development (the one I’m in); I’m under the impression that we won’t see the Education group until Swearing In (May 15), which makes me a little sad since we’ve already gotten so close.

    We also got our first out of 10 vaccines – Rabies – and started taking our Malaria medication. We’ll take two pills every Wednesday, dubbed by Andy as Malaria Miércoles. We put valuable items like our personal passport and credit cards in envelops for Peace Corps to store in a safe at Headquarters, which is reassuring because I don’t think that’s a global PC practice. Computers, cameras, and other valuable items are still our own responsibility though. We finished around 5:30, playing cards and getting to know each other before dinner at 7. It’s about 9pm now and given that we woke up at 1:30, I’m headed to bed. Hasta pronto!

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    (3/7) So far, I’ve written three blog posts without internet, meaning that I have to upload them when I can. I’ll try not to overwhelm you, but I also want to write when I can as to not lose momentum or forget a story I wanted to share…

    Here’s few observations:

    • Peace Corps really does love its paperwork, and acronyms
    • This whole experience is already pretty darn great – we’ve been told numerous times already, and by various different PC staff – see there I go with the acronyms – that the Dominican Republic is not only an awesome post to get in general (who wouldn’t want to live on a Caribbean island?), but also that we have some of the best staff worldwide to help us through these 27 months. Not to mention, my fellow trainees are more than compatible.
    • Guava juice is officially my favorite juice ever

    I’m now writing to you from my new host family’s house! I have a mom, dad, two sisters, a granddaughter, and two dogs. Oh and a whole bunch of fruit trees – mango, banana, orange, papaya, guava (hence the juice comment), and some other one that I haven’t figured out how to translate yet. Anyway, Esther met me this afternoon at the Training Center, then showed me the way back home via public transportation, about a 15 minute ride. Their house is simple, but still completely livable. Peace Corps enforces various policies in order for a home to qualify as host family material. For example, they must provide drinking water, meals, a private room, and a door with a lock. My Spanish is still rusty, but I’m certainly able to carry a conversation, and I’ve noticed it coming back quickly. Esther showed me my room, cooked us dinner, had her daughter help me put up my mosquito net (a PC requirement), and showed me how to take a bucket shower. Yes, a bucket shower. At my house we get water on Tuesdays and Saturdays, so all other days we must cook, flush the toilet, and bathe using water from big barrels. My first shower wasn’t as clumsy or even as cold as I had imagined it being, and it was actually an efficient but saddening realization of how much water I normally use while showering. It took me only one bucket’s worth and less than 10 minutes to wash up. Definitely something to consider when I’m living with running water again …