Tag Archives: coffee

somber social hour

10 Aug

It’s now August, meaning that I’ve been living out on my own for almost exactly one year. People are now more than accustomed and comfortable to approach me in my home, which also doubles as a meeting room for my various courses, internet center, arts and crafts hub, experimental kitchen, and lounge for local youth in search of English practice, hammock time, advice and/or casual conversation. Having created such a pleasurable environment also has its downsides however. In the Dominican Republic, it being August also means that there’s unbearable heat, avocados, and that it’s the front end of peak hurricane season. If it’s not raining (which is still rare for the south, despite the heavy rain and thunderstorms we got during Tropical Storm Bertha), it’s too hot to go outside without feeling like you’re melting. Yesterday it was 91 degrees at 10am. If I can stay inside my cozy home, making friendship bracelets and popcorn with my chicas, why would I go outside?

august avos

august avos

The answer lately? Funerals. In the past couple of months there have been over 14 funerals, compared to the mere two I attended last year; old age, long-term illnesses, and/or weakened immune system after having chinkungunya were the most common causes of death. Albeit sad, they are actually a great way to socialize, to become even more familiar with Dominican culture, and to help me realize how everyone in my town is related. Funerals are an inherent part of any society – everyone lives, everyone dies – but considering that family, religion, and solidarity are three major values of Dominican culture, funerals here are a pretty big occasion. Additionally, Pescadería has an impressively successful and inclusive association that offers RD$25,000 to the family, provides the deceased with a coffin, and loans chairs for all of the attending guests to sit in. Colloquially known as the “Association of the Dead”, it has been around for more than 20 years and collects at least RD$25 from each member, depending on age, position in the household, and how many children he/she has.  Having this local association puts less of a burden on the family to be able to entertain so many anticipated guests.  

The time of a funeral depends on what time of day a person dies. If he/she dies at dawn, the funeral begins that morning and lasts until taken to the cemetery for burial around 6pm; dying in the evening means guests are in for the long haul – arriving that night to amanecer (literally, “to dawn” or wake up) with the family for the burial the next morning. Funerals work on predictable but still very loose schedules; due to the ‘flexible’ timeliness of Dominican culture, the time of a burial can change from when originally anticipated due to delays in a family member’s arrival, need for an autopsy, or the sun being too strong (yes, this has happened).

When a Dominican dies, it is expected that at least one family member from each household of the community pays his/her respects by attending the funeral. The deceased is usually featured in the living room of the family’s house, enclosed in a coffin with a glass pane to be able see the face; though I at first found it disrespectful, it is not uncommon for people to take pictures of the body. Immediate family members and intimate friends surround the walls of the room, and it is assumed that you greet and/or hug each person. This part for me is always awkward and somber but also selfishly enlightening because sometimes I didn’t know it was so-and-so’s brother or aunt that died until I get into that room and realize the connection. Despite whether or not I knew the deceased, I most likely have gotten to know one of his/her family members. Therefore, attending the funeral of either a friend or a stranger is a way to show the family that I am here to offer condolences and to accompany them during a difficult time.

Outside of the house is where it gets real Dominican. Depending on who died and his/her impact in the community, there can be up to hundreds of guests. Get a whole bunch of Dominicans together and what do you get? Gossip, brindis, professional storytellers, swarms of kids, people watching, bedazzled (black and/or white) clothes, and dominoes. Dominoes at a funeral? Yup, and don’t be surprised if the table is surrounded by a group of men drinking rum or beer either. The juxtaposition of the concept is almost unsettling – while groups of people tell boisterous stories or complain that the coffee they’ve been served arrived too late or is too sweet, the family of the deceased is doing their best to entertain guests while mourning a loved one. Personal views aside however, the spirit of a Dominican funeral is, like most occasions here, not intended to be morose or lackluster but rather social and commemorative.  

Once the deceased has been prayed over and is taken to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, the masses disperse, leaving trash and puffy-eyed relatives in its wake (pun intended?).  At first I was quite uncomfortable by the idea of funerals but interestingly enough, I’ve now seen more dead people in the past 6 months than any other time of my life combined.  I don’t even think that I could write such a detailed description of American funerals because 1) I’m lucky to still have most of my immediate family alive and 2) I found them depressing and intimidating. Now that I’ve been to so many here, the majority of those of people who I didn’t even know, I’m gauging the significance of attending events to simply show support and interest. Families are appreciative when they see that I’ve come to pay my respects, and in exchange I’ve enjoyed practicing small talk, comparing cross-cultural traditions, and understanding the intricate interconnectedness of the families here.

A friend recently mentioned to me that the less he kept trying to help his community, the more he actually felt like he was starting to help. Attending funerals by no means pertains to my service or duties as a Community Economic Advisor in Pescadería. However, despite the extreme awkwardness I feel at times, this sort of integration affects how people view me within the community. Rather than seeing me as simply a Peace Corps Volunteer that gives various classes or that built a basketball court, I’m regarded as one of their very own (people don’t even me offer their own chair to sit down in now, which I resentfully appreciate). Instead of an American volunteer, I am a friend, neighbor, hair braider, mango fiend, and lefty. Bridging this gap has allowed me better understand local needs, Dominican culture, and interpersonal skills. Going beyond one’s comfort zone can be difficult, but I’m finding that more often than not there are wildly memorable and surprisingly beneficial outcomes – you’ve sometimes just got to brave concepts as foreboding and daunting as death to experience and appreciate them.  

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

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cups of conversation

3 May

Papaye is 68 years old, and has lived his entire life in Pescadería. As the oldest socio of La Cabrita, he is my favorite person to share a cup of coffee with. We are both addicted to the stuff – he takes his with too much sugar for my taste or his health, and he nearly cringes when I sip my cup of spiced bitterness. But regardless of the sugar content, for us coffee opens the door to an endless array of conversation topics.

Papaye

Papaye

We’ve developed a good amount of confianza – I can ask him questions without him thinking that I’m crazy and vice versa, and we’ll give each other honest answers; he shares wise advice and life stories with me, and I enlighten him with cultural differences between the US and the Dominican Republic. It’s a good trade, and the coffee buzz makes it that much better.

One evening he saw me walking and invited me to join him. Without question I hoped into the back of his son’s truck – they were going to visit his cows, and I hadn’t been to that part of town before. The trail was dusty and rugged; the farmers who had their land located along that road had their work cut out for them. We reached where he kept his herd, and I was happily surprised to see that his cows didn’t look as famished and thirsty as the landscape; they weren’t fat, but they looked satisfied gnawing away on fermenting sugar cane. He cleaned and filled their water tubs, and shut the barbed-wire fence that led to the larger, grassier part of their turnout, settling them in for the night. He explained to me which ones were related, who was pregnant, and which gave the most milk, and then we got in the truck and started back towards town. I thanked him for bringing me along, but he retorted with a response that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

“Kati, do you want to know why I think we’re so friendly? It’s because we’re poor. Sure, it’s a part of our nature out of tradition, but it’s also because we have to be. A millionaire doesn’t have to be friendly because he can buy just about anything he’d ever need. But us poor people, we have to live in solidarity to be able to survive.”

His youthful eyes glistened wisely, recognizing that what he just described to me had really hit home. Though what he said portrays a deeper implication than a simple visit to his cows, Papaye’s words concisely summed up much of what I’m witnessing and learning here about the relationship between culture, development, sustainability, and human existence. Living and working alongside people like Papaye has made me realize that while American culture conditions selfishness, Dominican culture emphasizes solidarity and selflessness. How much of what we’ve come to know as ‘culture’ is developed out of the necessity versus the gratification of a tradition? Does the level of a country’s development shape the morals of its citizens, or do those very morals determine the amount of progress a country makes?

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There are Papayes all over the world – spirited people who work tirelessly to provide for their family; who crave and seek new knowledge, and embody perseverance, humility, and ingenuity. They go to great lengths to gather the fruits of their labor, and whether it is information, food, or money, they’ll share it others so that those people also have the opportunity to grow and sustain the cycle.

Watching Papaye work, especially considering his age and work ethic, motivates me to be a more selfless person. He has helped me to realize that while I might not have too many pesos in my bank account, that I am rich in many other ways – my education, health, spirit for adventure, and upbringing to name a few. I am fortunate, and it is only fair to share what I can with others who may not have had the same opportunities as me.  For people like Papaye, I will always be inclined to bring something to the table, be it as simple as a cup of coffee.

stones.

12 Feb

Peace Corps is all about the little wins.  That’s how I started my last post.  And I’m finding that the longer I’m in service, the truer this holds.  Without capitalizing on the positive moments, no matter how small or insignificant they may be, two life-changing years of Peace Corps service could easily become a disheartening nightmare.

I continue to stress and embrace the philosophy of realistic-optimism because I’m currently experiencing two frustrating conflicts.  It’s the parts of my day that put a smile on my face – usually lasting no longer than a couple of minutes, and pretty insignificant in terms of what goals I’m accomplishing as a Peace Corps Volunteer – that keep me from getting too deflated, encourage me to stay motivated, and remind me that regardless of the outcome, this is the ultimate learning experience.

Disclaimer: Like it says at the bottom of my blog, these are my ideas and feelings, and mine only.  Also, this post is longer than others (and without too many pictures) because there is a lot of interconnected information that needs to be shared so I can at least try and convey what is going on.  Also because I just had a very large cup of coffee.

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Conflict #1: La Cabrita

Some of you may still be wondering how I managed to end up in Pescadería in the first place, or what I’m actually doing here (sometimes I find myself asking the same question).  Truth is, the Fundación Central Barahona (to make things simple it’s the ‘do-good branch’ of a multi-million dollar Guatemalan sugar company) solicited Peace Corps volunteers to help with various projects they are supporting in the region of Barahona, La Cabrita being one of them.  That’s how I got here.  FCB applied for a Peace Corps Volunteer to be placed in Pescadería to assist the members of La Cabrita, a community project that FCB has helped finance and develop, strengthen their organization, develop business skills, and improve their performance as a business. 

Long story short, FCB and La Cabrita are not on good terms, and actually have not been since even before I arrived to Pescadería in May.  Most of it all stems from lack of confianza (Spanish for trust or confidence, and a key aspect of Dominican culture).  Without being too specific, FCB has said things or acted in ways that the socios do not agree with, so now they feel that FCB or the people that work there cannot be trusted.

The vision of La Cabrita is to become a nation-wide supplier of high-quality goat cheese and yogurt that not only provides the citizens of Pescadería with a nutritional product, but also stimulates economic growth within the community. Unfortunately, the members feel that FCB has ulterior motives for the organization – that the socios are ‘slaves’ to FCB’s grand plan to capture all their profits and take over their project.  If I’m being honest, the idea seems pretty grandiose, but, I have also not been a fan of more than one decision FCB has made in regards to La Cabrita.

So, what does this have to do with me?  To put it short, the members feel threatened when I communicate with the Foundation.  Over time they’ve given me a lot of confianza – at one point knew all their Facebook and email passwords, and had access to documents they were using to applying for various funding projects (including the government loan I mentioned for RD$11,000,000).  All of this information they had provided me with could have made it easy for FCB to meddle with their plans, if they had the intentions La Cabrita believed they did.  After two (and from my point of view, meaningless) interactions with FCB, the members of La Cabrita have decided to put their guards up.  I am not invited to meetings that they consider to be “internal”, and I know very little about what projects they are currently executing.  Why?  Because they’re afraid that I will leak it to the FCB who will use the information against them.  Would I purposefully tell the Foundation information that I think could jeopardize the progress of La Cabrita?  I don’t think I should even have to answer that, but that’s how I have their perspective understood.

How does this make me feel?  Well, frustrated, and kind of sad to be honest.  I’ve given up a life that I was comfortable with to eat every fruit under the sun, to sweat more than I ever could’ve imagined possible, and to make a difference in a group that was provided with the opportunity to take advantage of the skills I have to offer.  I’m sad because I’ve befriended these people, and there has been very little discussion about what I actually did to make them feel like they have to protect themselves from me – and I feel that friends owe that conversation to each other.  I’m frustrated because, without trying to be too selfish, I don’t feel that I’m accomplishing what I expected to, and they’re not taking advantage of a useful resource.

So what am I going to do to fix this?  I think it’s pretty obvious that we have to have a conversation to reach an understanding.  Simple idea, just difficult to coordinate.  I need to recognize why they’ve lost confianza, and what I can do to try to earn at least some of it back; they need to realize that I am in fact not in cohorts with FCB, and that I am here only to help them with what they want to accomplish.  If it’s gotten to a point where for some reason they don’t want my efforts anymore, yes, I will be disappointed.  Bottom line is though, I am here to support people that are looking to be supported; interestingly enough, most volunteers don’t end up working on the original projects they were solicited for in the first place.  I hope that’s not the case with me, because I know that La Cabrita has all the potential in the world to succeed; I believe that I can help them reach at least some of their goals, and they do understand that I’ve done such for them so far.

“Looking-on-the-bright-side” Intermission: My neighbor, Reina, just brought me a ‘tester’ of her new income-generation project – homemade coconut/banana ice cream – and I give it two sticky-thumbs up.

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I can still go to the farm whenever I want, I’m just not invited to some of their meetings, so when I do go I bring my camera and take pictures of all the baby goats!

Conflict #2: La Cancha

Because my efforts with La Cabrita have been on the back burner for a couple months now, I’ve been focusing on other projects to stay involved in the community and still affect positive change.  One of these projects is to construct a basketball court – something that the youth in Pescadería have not had access to in their own community for over 10 years.  As I’ve mentioned, we formed a Youth/Sports group in Pescadería to apply for Courts for Kids, a US organization that brings American youth to other countries to help communities there build basketball courts.  They also provide the community project with US$5000 to purchase construction materials.  In October, Courts for Kids approved Pescadería as one of 7 communities in the DR to build a court, and we’re expecting a group from the States to arrive here June 8th to help finish the construction by June 14th.

So what’s the conflict you ask?  Well, it’s difficult to build a court, or any type of structure for that matter, when you can’t nail down a piece of land to build it on.  Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned but can’t stress enough, politics control (and often ruin) EVERYTHING here.  So, at the moment we have two options:

The “pley” – old baseball field

  • Low-lying area and semi-susceptible to flooding, meaning that if we built a court there the houses around it could fill with water when it rains
  • Surrounded by cow and pig farmers who don’t own the land, but would probably have to be relocated to begin construction = smelly animal poop + disgruntled farmers
  • Pretty central location
  • Rumored plans to use part of the space to build a funeral home – oddly positioned next to a basketball court?
  • PLD (current government/mayor in power) is in complete agreement with this space; mayor has “promised” his support to prepare land by March (sidebar: our mayor was voted as the most corrupt mayor of the southern region)

“Arriba” – next to where they’re currently building the new high school

  • This land was originally donated to the community by former PRD president to build a technical school, but project was never realized
  • Current mayor and the president of the local political party (PLD) “obtained” title to the land and are currently reaping economic benefits from plantains they have planted there – so no, the mayor is not in favor or this site
  • Land to build high school here was originally obtained from mayor because the members of the community held a strike – don’t want that to happen on my account
  • Good walk from the center of town (security of court?), but is the first thing you’d see when entering the community
  • People would regard this space as the “community growing forward”
  • Land is flat, not susceptible to flooding, and would need very little prep work
  • Mayor has said that if we fight to have the court here that he will not contribute to the project financially – what a guy

Basically what it comes down to is, like I’ve said, politics.  The US has plenty of problems to worry about, but political corruption like that seen here is thankfully not one of them.  It’s the PLD (who wants the court built in the old baseball field) versus the PRD (who wants to use the mayor’s land for a community project like originally promised).  And I’m stuck in the middle with an approved project that, regardless of political party, will benefit the community.  I could cancel the project  – not only would Pescadería remain without a court, but Courts for Kids would be very unhappy – but I’m still convinced, though it might not be pretty, that one way or another this can be resolved.

There are two main issues to this court conflict – time, and obviously, location.  Time, in the sense that we have no later than April to start prepping the land so that by the time the group comes, the base and forms of the court are ready.  Time, in the sense that if we do want to go against the mayor and fight for the land that paperwork here can take ages.  Time, in the sense that we still have to raise over RD$300,000 to finance the rest of the construction.

In terms of location, most of my friends and key/responsible community contacts (coincidentally PRDs) believe that the rightful location of the court is where the mayor currently has his crop of plantains.  This is something to take into consideration – have the mayor on our side or listen to the people that truly fight for what their community needs and that have, since the beginning, taken me under their wing (including the people of La Cabrita).

As for the youth/sports group I’m working with, these kids are superstars.  Unlike other parts of the country, the youth in Pescadería are still very safe and sane.  Many are studying or working, and most have found ways to stay out of trouble; despite the fact that there is no official court, playing sports is one of ways they do that.  There are five or six guys (ages 18-27) in particular that have been with me every step of the way, always stopping by my house to share information or to ask what we need to do next.  I try to tell them often as possible that I recognize that because they are the front-runners of this project they are taking a risk, but that I appreciate their dedication and that when this is finished their community will consider them heroes. We have a proposed budget, are working on fundraising (because regardless of the location we’ll need money), and are making the connections necessary to ultimately determine the location of the court.  This is stressful, and not exactly what I signed up for, but helping these kids get justice could be one of the most rewarding parts of my service (once it gets done anyway).

ANYWAY.  I apologize for any ranting or rambling you might have just read, but this is important and this is what is happening.  I am trying to not lose sleep over either of these issues because I know it will all turn out the way it’s supposed to in the long run, but I won’t say that dealing with either situation has been a walk on the beach.  But as easy as it is to feel dejected or deflated when conflicts like these come up, the “little wins” that I keep mentioning are what we as volunteers learn to live for; the photos that I share and/or scroll through when I’m having a bad day; the moments I plan to think of when recalling my service in the Peace Corps.

Omailin helping me water my guandule (pea) garden

Omailin helping me water the guandules (pigeon pea plants) behind my house

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And as my wisest, best, and most honest and loyal source of comfort and advice told me  (can you tell I’m talking about you, Mom?) when I was stressing about these issues: “Kate these are all just stepping-stones on a path.  They are not unimportant, just stones.”