Tag Archives: Dominican Republic

mujeres in the mountains

7 Jun

Even the vicious maye that sucked away at my bare legs and dotted my skin with swollen lumps and dainty drops of blood didn’t bother me. We were in the mountains tasting sweet air and basking in the pleasant greenery of Constanza.

The four Sector Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders and a fellow capitaleña/Returned Peace Corps Volunteer had decided to reward ourselves – to escape the sweltering city of Santo Domingo and enjoy each others’ company in a more intimate setting before moving on to our respective next life chapters. We set our sights on Constanza, a region known for its agriculture (strawberries!), refreshing climate, and opportunities for outdoor adventures.

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4 PCVLs: Natalie (Youth), Julie (Education), Silpa (Health), and me (Business)

We booked a cozy-looking cabin nestled in the hills, tickled by the thought of having our own space to bake goodies and lounge around in socks by the fireplace. To our delight, the house was better than we had imagined – quaint and quirky with an idyllic view of Constanza’s lush valley.  It was not the typical setting one conjures when imaging the Dominican Republic, and we were thrilled.

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Our cozy casita!

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Fog lazily hugged the hills as we woke up each morning to snuggle into blankets and relish the tranquility, souls soothed by the cradle of a rocking chair. The crisp air kissed sweet moisture onto our skin and sent welcomed chills down our usually sweaty spines. The vast array of greenery was impressive and revitalizing.  We did yoga, read, played card games, gazed upon the valley, dined on incredible homemade meals, and drank copious amounts of warm beverages (coffee, hot chocolate, and room-temperature wine). We relied on our neighbor and his pick-up truck to find strawberries and take us adventuring high up into the mountains to visit a remote waterfall, a frigid crevice tucked far away from any school or clinic (though we passed several communities along the way); he presented us with fresh, local produce and brought firewood at night to keep us cozy. We reflected on how much we’ve enjoyed working with one another and tried to wrap our heads around the fact that we are just days away from becoming Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

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All sorts of greenery!

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just one of our tasty meals!  black bean breakfast enchiladas

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Hillside agriculture on the way to the waterfall

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Stacey (RPCV), Silpa, Natalie, and me

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Silpa and Julie

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Natalie and me

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mujeres de fuego

Tomorrow I will head to Pescadería to say my goodbyes. How is it that in some ways I feel as though I’m visiting my site for the first time? Anxiety, hope, and disbelief. But, then come the waves of sadness and pangs of grief. It’s a paradox that I will only be able to process with time. Certain crannies of my soul wish that I could have just hidden away in Constanza and have the mountains protect me from the tears and heartache that surely await me. Leaving will be  painfully more uncomfortable than arriving.

Ideally, this “goodbye” is more of a “see you later”, and that I am able to embody the strength with which I was rejuvenated this past weekend. After all, “Beyond mountains there are mountains.”

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toils and triumphs of “los tres cafeteros”

15 May

Immigration processes have been a mess here since the nationalization issues between the Dominican Republic and Haiti came to a head over a year ago. Though we are guaranteed residency as Peace Corps Volunteers, we have not been able to renew our green cards since the beginning of 2015 (they expire after 6 months). Despite not having my Dominican residence card, immigration issues occupied the least of my thoughts as I passed through security and arrived at my airport gate. I was on my way to the States for one more brief visit before touching back on the homeland for good as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

It was May 5th and I was headed back to Annapolis, Maryland for my grandpa’s memorial service at the Naval Academy. My shoulders were light since my workload had lightened up immensely just days before, so nothing else was on my mind except the excitement of reuniting with family and the opportunity to finally try Maryland crab.

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Reunited with two of my former Clemson Lacrosse teammates

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Grandpa’s memorial

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Most of the workload that I refer to is the National Conference of Construye Tus Sueños, one of the largest projects we undertake annually as the Community Economic Development sector. Over 45 Dominican Youth and 20 Peace Corps Volunteers and Dominican facilitators participated in the three-day event that took place the 27th-29th of April and focused on entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and professional development. 15 contestants presented their respective business plans to a panel of judges in the hopes of winning one of the three prizes of RD$50,000 to start their businesses. This was the fourth CTS conference that I have attended, but it was the first one that I coordinated.

The conference consisted of two guest speakers, four professional development workshops, two rounds of presentations critiqued by 12 judges, a panel of previous contestants, and a micro-finance fair involving five financial institutions. Given all of the moving parts, the conference concluded without any regrettable hiccups and the youth left informed and motivated. The youth responded positively to the presented advice and activities and the three winners were well-deserving individuals who now have a greater opportunity to generate economic activity within their communities.

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What’s a conference without ice-breakers!?

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“El Artístico” Jose Ignacio Reyes Morales, one of our guest speakers, is internationally known for his ironwork and efforts to inspire artistry and entrepreneurship in youth.

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Day 2 of the conference consisted of two rounds of presentations during which youth explained their business plans to panels of judges

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Michael, Alejandra, and I with some of the judges from Round 1

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Participants and judges at the end of Round 1

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Prepping the judges for Round 2, where 7 participants competed for 3 RD$50,000 prizes

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Round 2

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Jonathan (teal shirt on right), was one of my students who won the competition last year.  He and three other previous contestants came to share their experiences and advice with the participants of this year’s conference.

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Alejandra, Michael, and I with Jonathan, Raylin, Rosa, and Damaso.  All competed in previous CTS competitions, have since started their own businesses, and are exemplary young leaders within their communities.

Experiencing the event as it unfolded from the perspective of coordinator rather than participant was stressful but enlightening. The participants portrayed such bravery, fighting for their dreams while representing their communities’ desires to progress and prosper; the resilience, creativity, and readiness of the people that I am able to collaborate with on a daily basis has always fueled the best feelings and moments of my service here. I thank the Community Economic Development team in particular for their support and guidance – without Michael or Alejandra, I could not be celebrating the event’s success. Having recently secured a new strategic partnership with a local bank, Construye Tus Sueños continues to strengthen its influence on young entrepreneurs who are looking to improve the economic wellbeing of their families through the creation of micro-businesses in marginalized communities throughout the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t be happier to have experienced the ins, outs, and impact of this initiative.

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Michael and Alejandra with the Peace Corps Volunteers who are involved with CTS. 

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Los tres cafeteros” – the best team I’ve had the chance to work with.

Just three days after the conference finished, the CED team informed all of the new trainees where they would be living for the next two years – their site placements. To read about how I felt when I received mine, take a trip down memory lane by clicking here. Matching a Volunteer to a community is a tedious process that takes over 6 months of work. It was through this procedure that I have been able to travel this country, reconnect with my favorite aspects of this culture, solidify the working relationships I have with Michael and Alejandra, and analyze communities’ needs to develop problem-solving skills. Having a say in essentially two years of someone’s life is a powerful feeling; seeing the trainees become bright-eyed when we told them their assignment brought me both nostalgia and peace. All 16 trainees visited their sites and have now sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers, prepared as they can be to begin two years of service in their respective communities.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders with the United States Ambassador of the Dominican Republic, James “Wally” Brewster, before the Swear-In Ceremony.

With the two most trying elements of my extension finally completed, I was set to board the plane and enjoy a long weekend with my family celebrating my own accomplishments as well as the life and legacy of my grandfather. To my dismay, the flight from Santo Domingo to Ft. Lauderdale was inevitably delayed for over four hours. It finally dawned on the employees at the counter to pass out meal vouchers to the impatient passengers who immediately perked up at the offering and seemed to forget about the inconvenience. No longer than 5 minutes after half of the passengers had scattered around the airport to look for free lunch did the attendants decide to stop handing out vouchers and instead announce that they were ready to board the plane. I sat dumbfounded as a group of people protested that they had not yet received their vouchers and that the plane couldn’t leave yet because there were still people eating. Anxious to board and hoping that I wouldn’t miss my connecting flight to Baltimore, I stood in line behind the people that were in fact ready to fly while contemplating the curiousness of cultural priorities I had just witnessed.

Once in Ft. Lauderdale, I realized that my connecting flight was also delayed. Feeling both relieved that I had made my flight and impatient to see my family, I sat down at a bar to enjoy a State-side IPA.   I began chatting to a young man that had decided to celebrate his birthday by flying himself to Colombia for the weekend. Another man joined us, who happened to be from Colombia. Despite how long my day had become at this point, our conversation was effortless and a good reminder to continue accepting (and therefore creating) serendipitous experiences. In the end, the Colombian gentleman footed the bill and I made it to Baltimore with a barriga llena, corazón contenta.

This anecdote, while trivial compared to so many other experiences I’ve had here, encapsulates how much the Dominican Republic has taught me about faith, expectations, and human connection. I couldn’t be closer to the team that I work with – Michael, Alejandra, and I refer to ourselves as the “tres cafeteros” (the three coffee-drinking musketeers) – and it’s intimidating to think that we only have one month left to collaborate on these efforts that we’re all so dedicated to.  Certain aspects of this culture and vein of work continue to surprise, amuse, delight, and touch me; I wish there were a way to bottle it all up – the warmth, faith, camaraderie, and spunk Dominicans have taught me – and drink down when stressful moments overwhelm the peaceful ones. Here’s to satiating these last few weeks with everything this country has to offer those willing to accept, appreciate, and embody it.

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Michael and I with the winners of the CTS conference and their PCV facilitators

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Sometimes this is the easiest way to process change…

visit revelations

8 Mar

Happy International Women’s Day! Though I didn’t do anything in particular to celebrate this special day, these last few weeks suffice.

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Silpa, Julie, me, and Natalie – the Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders for health, education, business, and youth sectors.  Admirable co-workers and superb friends.

To put it briefly, I have a full heart and busy mind. Since returning from a much needed and appreciated month-long visit in the States, I have continued on with the “visit” trend. Work visits with potential groups aka partnering organizations in future site placements for the new group of CED volunteers that just arrived on March 2nd. Visits with host families to prepare them in receiving a new, foreign family member. A quick visit back to the States to celebrate the marriage of one of my best friends, my college roommate of three years. Playing host while three different people left their comfort zones to explore my world here in Santo Domingo and beyond. Reconnecting with two of my best friends from my swear-in group who have since moved on from Peace Corps and are leading successful lives as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  Visiting the volunteer currently living in Pescadería and finally enjoying our community together in person.

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Alejandra and I out in the border province of Elias Piña for site development.

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Pineapples and cabins at the eco-lodge in Rio Limpio, Elias Piña

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Traffic jam in Rio Limpio

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Stacey, former PCV, showing me the ropes of Elias Piña

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Beans in Elias Piña

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Greenhouses in Elias Piña

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Bee hives in Dajabón

 

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Peanut operation in Dajabón

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Work perks!  Marmalade, honey, peanuts, and peanut butter gifted to me by groups interested in collaborating with a business volunteer.

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Lovely house I spotted while in Barahona on site development

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La Ciénaga, Barahona

Though all of these visits have had a different vibe and purpose, I have nevertheless enjoyed each and every one of them. These intercambios have not only helped me to reconnect with old friends, but have brought to light certain aspects of my service here on the island that I might otherwise not have recognized.  Gracias a todos for all of our shared conversations and experience.

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Julie, Courtney, and I at Julie and Chris’s wedding #itsementabe

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Reni, my sister from Pescadería, finally came to visit me in the capital!

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Amanda, the current PCV in my old site, and I.

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Reunited with two of my favorites, Samantha and Kaley, who both served with me here in the Dominican Republic.

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Kayaking on Laguna Limón out in the east of the country with a fellow Clemson Tiger in the background!

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Montaña Redonda in Miches

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Playa Limón, part of the Kayak Tour

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Playa Esmerelda, Miches

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Chris, Carlos, and I at the end of our adventure in Miches

 

The culmination of these visits has led to me celebrating THREE WHOLE YEARS of life here in the Dominican Republic. Plenty of ups and downs, plenty to look forward to, so much to be thankful for.

I end this post with some food for thought, revelations from recent visits, goals for the future, and a just a couple more photos documenting this lovely life I’m so lucky to live.

  • Everyday Leadership
  • Preguntar es aprender. On a recent guagua ride, a young man sitting in between two boisterous tigueres and a friendly doña was noticeably anxious. He had missed his bus stop due to the fact that he didn’t quite know how to arrive to where he was going. The two tigueres were unimpressed, scoffing at his lack of street smarts.       As he dismounted the guagua however, frantic to retrace his steps and reach his destination, the doña empathetically encouraged him to simply ask next time, that nobody knows everything.
  • But even if you aren’t learning anything, confidence can help you play it off like it knows what you’re talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S0FDjFBj8o
  • Spoil your taste buds with healthy juice combos! Recent favorites include anything with kale (can’t even taste it, just makes the juice green and more nutritious). Pictured below: mango, kale, cucumber, basil, and honey.

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  • The Art of Getting Things Done. Everyone has their own way of feeling productive, but now that it’s such a busy time of year, a few practices are helping me to survive – smart to-do lists, stepping away from my desk (during lunch and at least every hour), and leaving myself a solid 45 minutes to prepare myself in the morning.

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  • Have a vision, do a bubble map. Though I at first procrastinated this “assignment” from my dad during my time in the States, I now appreciate why he encouraged me to do it. Be it past times, career paths, or fields of study, what are you interested in?       What draws you? What are you good at? What do you have experience in? How are these topics related? Does it have anything to do with what you’re involved in at the moment? How might this image change over time? Having a vision not only helps you focus, but more easily allows you to focus your thoughts when communicating your goals to others.
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My personal bubble map.  Most of my interests – empowerment, food, small business, policy, and education – are rooted in service, an overarching passion of mine.

  • Journal.
  • Travel ≠ Vacation. Vacation ≠ Travel. “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
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Reunited with two of my favorite troublemakers.

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Omailin, Jenna (Go Tigers!), and I in Pescadería

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Amanda organized a trash clean-up at the court.  Very successful event, thanks to Jenna for being such a good sport.  Notice that our court now has lights installed!?

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Omailin and I

 

Peace, love, and mango season!

 

the third fourth

6 Jul

This week marks the THIRD Independence Day that I’ve spent outside of the United States.  How did I celebrate the land of the free, home of the brave in the land of bachata, colmados, and doñas you might ask?  Why, at a German market of course!

Santo Domingo and the campo are two different worlds – it’s exciting to have so many options yet again at my fingertips (big box stores and supermarkets, international restaurants, cultural events, live music, mass Zumba classes in parks, etc.), but also nerve-wracking to think how much more ‘world’ awaits me once June 2016 comes around.  It’s almost more unsettling (but also gratifying) to recognize that us PCVs have a very unique perspective of the Dominican Republic; we in fact know much more about campo culture and hardships than many people who live here in the capital do.  My neighbor here was shocked that I had even stepped foot inside of a latrine, and yesterday, my guagua driver refused to admit that I had lived in Barahona for two years because “donde hay prieto, no hay progreso” (literally, “there is no progress where there are blacks”).  In the campo, most of my time was spent compartiring with neighbors outside of my house (oh how I miss my hammock!) or wandering the streets, peeking in colorfully friendly homes and not thinking twice about denying hugs, juice, or a plastic chair to, as us PCVs like to refer to it, join in on the ‘power sitting’.  Time moved slower, and little interaction or awareness of ‘the outside world’ was always a confusing blend of comforting isolation.  Santo Domingo can be isolating too in the sense that people keep much more to themselves than in the campo, but in reality there are plenty of opportunities to explore and share in an authentic Dominican style (read: loud).

Having spent a good chunk of June visiting volunteers in their sites (or attending a seafood festival, as shown in the pictures below), I turned down the option to spend the 4th on a world-renown beach and opted instead for Kati-time…mainly to do a month’s worth of laundry, but also to continue exploring my new world here in Santo Domingo, where I still got plenty of sun and had the opportunity to enjoy authentic German brews and brat.

Danielle (CED PCV), me, and Michael (Associate Peace Corps Director for CED)

Danielle (CED PCV), me, and Michael (Associate Peace Corps Director for CED) at the Festival Marisco Ripiao in Sanchez

Festival Marisco Ripiao, Sanchez

Festival Marisco Ripiao, Sanchez

They put us in charge of face painting...

They put us in charge of face painting…

Artisan booth - Faceless Dolls

Artisan booth – Faceless Dolls

Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil

Eco-Tourism Lodge

Eco-Tourism Lodge

cooking show !!

cooking show !!

Cooking show - ways to use local seafood

Cooking show – ways to use local seafood

Took a break from face painting to judge a food competition !

Took a break from face painting to judge a food competition !

In this new city and new role, rather than being partnered with a community group or organization, my new primary project is essentially supporting the volunteers of the Community Economic Development sector.  While it’s not as hands-on as my first two years of service, Sector Leader is still grass-roots in the sense that we help prepare the community to receive a volunteer before he/she even gets there, and then continue to give follow-up support/visits throughout the PCV’s service.  Though these visits allow me to gain context – understand who the volunteer is working with, current activities, site conditions, etc. – and to better connect with my peers, I STILL have to be proactive about not comparing my service to theirs.  I am striving to use this retrospect in facilitating the service of my fellow PCVs and not to deplore or regret aspects of my own.

Learning about vermiculture (fertilizer from earthworms) in San Jose de Ocoa

Learning about vermiculture (fertilizer from earthworms) in San Jose de Ocoa

PCV visit to Montecristi

PCV visit to Montecristi

"The Shoe" at El Morro Beach

“The Shoe” at El Morro Beach

View of El Morro from the Salt Mines

View of El Morro from the Salt Mines

Loading salt into the truck

Loading salt into the truck

Salt!  Extracted from salt water, filtered through mangroves, and passed through a series of pools until...

Salt! Extracted from salt water, filtered through mangroves, and passed through a series of pools until…

it's salt!

it’s salt!

One way I’m choosing to be proactive about this – learning from my peers and applying it to my own work – is by continuing to visit Pescaderia and interacting on the ground level.  As you might recall, two of my Construye Tus Sueños (Build Your Dreams) students each won $RD50,000 to start/strengthen their own businesses.  Chamila took advantage of the local week-long patronales party to sell clothes to interested party-goers and plans to save the profit to eventually build a locale; Jonathan is using this investment to widen his product line, encouraging customers to buy all of their agri-veterinary needs at his business rather than making the trip to Barahona.  To learn more about the Construye Tus Sueños initiative and the national conference where these two young entrepreneurs showed their stuff, watch the video below.

Lastly, I’d like to make a special shout out to someone who has helped me to create and seize opportunities – my MOM!  In under one week she’ll be headed to Washington D.C. to participate in her very own staging for Peace Corps service in Malawi!  To learn more about the adventure this incredible woman will experience, follow her blog here.  Suerte, amor! 

Alejandra and I on top of Montaña Redonda near Miches

Alejandra and I on top of Montaña Redonda near Miches

Mangoes on mountaintops

Mangoes on mountaintops

see we can sit in a distant haze and watch rain clouds pour thoughts of greatness to help our troubles sail real far away

see we can sit in a distant haze and watch rain clouds
pour thoughts of greatness to help our troubles sail real far away

confessions of a capitaleña

12 Jun

Exactly one month has passed since I packed away my hammock and bid hasta luego to my neighbors, backyard full of plantain trees, favorite colmado, goats, and other familiarities of the campo lifestyle to move to the capital city of Santo Domingo.  With a metropolitan area of around 3 million people (compared to 4,000 in Pescadería), one could imagine how much of a contrast this next year will be from my last two here in the Dominican Republic.

hugging this munchkin goodbye was no easy feat

Omailin — hugging this munchkin goodbye was no easy feat

Reina (Omailin's grandmom),  who started sharing her rice and beans, advice, washing machine, culture, and home with me from the moment i moved across the street from her family

Reina (Omailin’s grandmom), who started sharing her rice and beans, advice, washing machine, culture, and home with me from the moment i moved across the street from her family

Ultimately, the transition from campo life into office culture has opened my eyes to a number of things (leadership, diversity, and an endless thirst for learning being the hot topics).  I’ll get into more specifics about the context of these events later, but first, understand the source of some of these realizations below:

  1. The Power of Introverts: a TED Talk about the importance of accepting and celebrating introversion.
  2. Quiet Leadership: a book about how to be a more effective leader by helping people think.
  3. Empathy: a short cartoon about the difference between empathy and sympathy.
  4. The Danger of a Single Story: a MUST WATCH TED Talk about stereotypes, diversity, and perspective.
  5. Fast Company Magazine: old magazine, new information about ingenious companies and organizations.
  6. The Guardian: dynamic news source from the UK (introduced to me by my new friend Mike – owner of an authorized Apple repair store down the street from the office who served here in the DR with Peace Corps in the 70’s).
new apartment!

new apartment!

temporary house guest - yes I still have my cat, and NO he did not like Rufus.

temporary house guest – yes I still have my cat, and NO he did not like Rufus.

easy access to tasty ingredients = tasty new weschipes

easy access to tasty ingredients = tasty new weschipes

As the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development (CED) sector, I am now based in the main office where I share a work space with the other Sector Volunteer Leaders (health, education, and youth).  I work closely with both the Program Specialist and Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector to provide support to volunteers, to monitor current projects and initiatives, and to develop future sites where business volunteers could continue collaborating with locals to make a positive impact on the economic environment of the Dominican Republic.  As PCVL, I am no longer working on-the-ground alongside members of my community (though I still go back to Pescadería whenever I get the chance), but rather with Peace Corps Volunteers themselves.  From this perspective, I am able to draw on my own experience as a volunteer and a new-found proximity to PC staff to facilitate information between PCVs and the office, be a sounding board, and help to ensure that aspects of volunteers’ service and office politics suit and are understood by all parties involved.

An effective way to do this new role (but really, pretty much any role) is to ‘keep a pulse’ on things.  We learn this as volunteers by going out and getting our hands dirty – living and working alongside community members to achieve goals together.  This sort of gumption creates confianza, is an authentic commitment, and provides perspective.  Does researching a city via your computer count as visiting it?  Knowing it?  No.  It’s a single story.  Until you’ve met the locals, eaten traditional dishes, explored some back roads or alleyways, and most importantly, gotten lost, I’d be hard-pressed to check that city off of my bucket list.  Same applies to successful, sustainable development work.

“Success is a ladder you cannot climb with your hands in your pockets”

So, in terms of the PCVL position, one of the best ways to continue collaborating with PCVs and supporting the Peace Corps community and mission is to do just that – taking my hands away from the dust-free keyboard, leaving the comfort of AC, and going out to visit current volunteers at their sites.  My goal within the next year is to visit each of the 30+ PCVs in the CED sector at least once (by the end of June I’ll have visited about half, si dios quiere).  These visits allow me to understand the intricacies of each volunteer’s site (project partners, living situations, projects and activities, etc.) and having this contextualized perspective enhances my ability to provide empathetic support.  Recognizing and appreciating the diversity of both the volunteer community and Dominican countryside has been an enlightening adventure within itself.

The Program Specialist, Alejandra, and I visiting a volunteer in Samana

The Program Specialist, Alejandra, and I visiting a volunteer in Samana

Juan and I - Juan supports an association that grows and processes oregano.

Juan and I – Juan supports an association that grows and processes oregano.

Snapped a picture of this fruit vendor right as he was opening up shop where he sells "frutón" - frozen chuncks of fruit served in a delicious blend of their juices.

Snapped a picture of this fruit vendor in Nagua right as he was opening up shop where he sells “frutón” – frozen chuncks of fruit served in a delicious blend of their juices.

We've got lots of business volunteers working with CACAO

We’ve got lots of business volunteers working with CACAO

Countryside

Countryside

The backyard of one of our CED volunteers.

The backyard of one of our CED volunteers.

Campo lunch on a volunteer visit

Lunch in the campo while visiting a volunteer

Pineapple!

Pineapple!

Visiting Rita, one of our newest CED volunteers.

Visiting Rita, one of our newest CED volunteers.

To better educate ourselves on how we can be proactive and cohesive throughout our service, volunteers representing all PC sectors came together this week for a workshop on diversity.  Motivated to highlight the issue within the Peace Corps community (especially considering the legal and political environment of where we’re serving – read more on the issue here), we spent two days telling stories, recognizing privileges, learning what it means to be an ally, and recognizing the true diversity that exists in the world, even among a group of 30 Americans.  This workshop, like the other sources I mentioned above, has empowered me with an experience and information I will continue to reference throughout both my Peace Corps service and life afterwards.  So here’s to continuing to get my hands dirty – the more stories the better.

PCDR's Diversity Committee

PCDR’s Diversity Committee

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

HCD, CBT, and CTS

12 Apr

As I mentioned in my last post, passing the two-year milestone has been both salty and sweet. Good friendships – formed while navigating a foreign culture and work environment on unforgettable bus rides – will now have to be stretched over international waters. All but two other members of my swear-in group are continuing their studies, travels, and adventures elsewhere.

John, Andy, Samantha, and I

John, Andy, Samantha, and I

Andy and I - such good friends that we happened to wear the same outfit.  #tigueres

Andy and I – such good friends that we happened to wear the same outfit. #tigueres

But this transition has been mostly sweet, especially because of Semana Santa! The official religion of the Dominican Republic is in fact Catholicism, but most religious holidays are celebrated outside of the church – wherever there happens to be music, food, and family. Though consumerism is not as prominent as say during Navidad, people buy plenty of new clothes and big plastic pools to celebrate Easter. If you’re not swimming in a pool in the middle of the street with a bunch of your neighbors, you’re not having a very Good Friday. No one here ‘gives up’ anything for Lent, but rather binges on a traditional dish called habichuelas con dulce. Beans (usually kidney but sometimes black or lima) are cooked with coconut water until soft. They are blended in a licuadora (though I like it how my doña leaves some whole), and then put back on the stove with cinnamon, chunks of sweet potato, a touch of salt, and sugar. After having boiled for un ratico, Carnation milk and raisons are added. For a final touch, habichuelas con dulce are served with a few wafer-life cookies on top. Though I find this concoction rather delicious, I can’t decide if HCD are a clever use of a typically savory food staple or maybe just that my food standards have dropped over these last 24 months…and to refresh your memory on how I spent Semana Santa last year, click here.

Good Friday

Good Friday

Chicas chillin'

Chicas chillin’

HCD

HCD

I will be moving from Pescadería to the capital sometime in May to start working in the Peace Corps office. As the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development sector, I will serve as a liaison between the office and my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Some of my responsibilities include assisting the Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector in site development for future volunteers, providing technical support to my peers, and helping in the coordination of several In-Service Trainings and conferences. Though I will be working in the office, there will still be a fair amount of travel, especially because I plan to provide continued support to my people, groups, and projects in Pescadería.

the birthday party my Chicas Brillantes planned for me - how could I leave them?!

the birthday party my Chicas Brillantes planned for me – how could I leave them?!

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at home.

at home.

To help prepare for this new role, I’ve been helping with the Community-Based Training for the new group of Community Economic Development trainees that arrived in March. I’m living with the same host family that I lived with in Peralvillo two years ago during my own CBT – a sincere and straightforward reminder of how generous, cohesive, and tranquilo most Dominicans are. I work alongside the Technical Trainer, a host country national who offers culturally aware feedback and advice to the trainees during CBT. Community Based Training lasts for five weeks, and allows trainees to deepen their cultural understanding of the DR by living with host families while also practicing newly acquired information related to business development by working directly with youth/community groups; it is designed to give trainees the basic information and tools necessary for 2 years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the CED sector.

Habichuelas con dulce with my host family in Peralvillo

Habichuelas con dulce with my host family in Peralvillo

my host sister, Mayelin, and I

my host sister, Mayelin, and I

My participation in the training sessions is beneficial for two reasons. First, my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is supplemental but crucial information for the trainees to be exposed to – while the Technical Trainer offers a cultural perspective, I help relate the material to a volunteer’s experience. Whatever information or practice I feel might have lacked in my own training, I emphasize it in theirs to help make sure they are as prepared as they can be for service (which for them will start on May 13th). Furthermore, I’ve now gotten to know the people who I will be supporting for the next 12 months, which will allow me to tailor future advice or technical support to their personalities, learning styles, and experience. Overall, CBT has been productive and positive – the group is a set of talented individuals who all seem eager to apply their skills and knowledge to help make a difference – and I look forward to continue working with both the people of the CED sector and their community counterparts towards increased economic opportunities within the Dominican Republic.

CBT: tour with the trainees at Hermanos Guillen to see and understand how a local business operates

CBT: tour with the trainees at Hermanos Guillen to see and understand how a local business operates

Pottery at Hermanos Guillen

Pottery at Hermanos Guillen

Trainees sculpting clay at Hermanos Guillen

Trainees sculpting clay at Hermanos Guillen

In this same vein, the National Conference for Construye Tus Sueños is at the end of the month. CTS is an entrepreneurial course designed to help youth develop the skills and knowledge needed to start their own businesses. Once they’ve completed the course, students are encouraged to create written plans regarding their business ideas. These plans not only allow the students to apply the course material to a practical concept, but also give the students a tool to present to financial institutions and/or guide the execution of his/her business.   At the national competition, students present their plans and compete to win the money needed to start/expand their businesses (usually capped at RD$50,000). I’ve been facilitating Construye Tus Sueños with the help of my project partner, Mónica, to two young people from Pescadería. Both of our students wrote plans for their own businesses – Chamila hopes to start a clothing store where she can sell both commercial and original clothing designs; Jonathan has already started his own veterinary practice but since CTS has realized the potential of his business and therefore aims to expand his target market and product variety as well as strengthen his marketing campaign and accounting practices.

Chamila wearing one of her original designs

Chamila wearing one of her original designs

Jonathan and his veterinary business

Jonathan and his veterinary business

Of all of the written plans that were turned in to compete in the National Conference, both Chamila’s and Jonathan’s plans were accepted into the Top 15 who will compete for prize money! While not at Community Based Training, Mónica and I will consult with both of them to create an oral presentation that effectively communicates their business concept and also demonstrates their passions and entrepreneurial spirits.

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

Wishing all of my fellow PCVs from 517-13-01 the best of luck.  con los pies en la tierra, y los ojos en la luna //// eres dueño/a de todo lo que puedes imaginar.  

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.

unity makes strength

21 Jun

We did it folks!  After months of anticipation, weeks of preparation, too many errands and pesos spent on phone minutes, and numerous days of tough physical labor in the hot Caribbean sun, Pescadería has a basketball/volleyball court.

the court!

the court!

I’ve always been one for challenging myself, but these last few weeks were hands down some of the most difficult, high-pressure moments of my life. In the end though, it was more than worth it.  I shared my new home with 22 Americans who ate Dominican cuisine, learned how to dance bachata and play dominoes, and helped hundreds of local athletes realize a long-standing dream.  The people of Pescadería who I thought I might never have the opportunity to work with are now some of my closest friends.  

As I continue to relish and celebrate this huge accomplishment, I can’t help but marvel at how various of groups of strangers came together to successfully create memorable friendships and moments, not to mention build a freakin’ basketball court!  While the extensive amount of work, effort, resources, passion, and perseverance put in by both the local community and the Courts for Kids group is not done justice, the video below portrays the construction process from start to finish.

The court was inaugurated on June 14th, 2014 and immediately celebrated through numerous games of pick-up basketball and volleyball.  With memories, sweat, frustration, and passion engrained into every inch of cement, our court is now used by basketball and volleyball athletes from dawn until dusk.

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Many thanks to Courts for Kids for facilitating such a positive experience (read about their time in Pescadería here), and to you all for your continued support.

Courts for Kids group

Courts for Kids group

Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them. Start with what they know, build on what they have. But, with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say “We have done this ourselves.” ~ Lao Tzu

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me with some of my basketball guys, without whom this project would have been impossible

 

beans and brilliance

5 May

The following post is picture-heavy, depicting two very different but equally significant events.  But before I describe them, here’s your last chance to donate to the construction of our basketball/volleyball court project – gracias!

Donate Here

This first series was taken on April 18th, the Friday of Easter weekend.  Here during Semana Santa or Holy Week, people don’t go to work (or church really for that matter) but rather spend most of their time bathing in plastic pools and eating habichuelas con dulce (literally, sweet beans).  Maybe I’ve been living on this island too long, but I’m actually a big fan of this culinary curiosity.  Doñas cook beans (typically kidney beans but my favorite version is made with black beans) until soft, then they blend them up, adding cinnamon, malagueta, chunks of sweet potato or squash, raisins, and loads of sugar and evaporated milk.  Served hot or cold and typically topped with wafer-like cookies, habichuelas con dulce are the symbol of Semana Santa in the Domincan Republic, sin duda.

Pool set-up and filling started at the crack of dawn.

Pool set-up and filling started at the crack of dawn.

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Dominoes

Dominoes

Pepelo holding down the fort until his friends joined him

Pepelo holding down the fort until his friends joined him

...which they did

…which they did

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Liliana with her habichuelas con dulce

Liliana with her habichuelas con dulce

The second event is something that over 40 other people and I have been looking forward to since October – the Chicas Brillantes graduation!  All of my Chicas dressed in their best clothes to celebrate their obtained knowledge and completion of the course.  The girls had decorated the church festively, and given that all the participants were able to invite their mothers, there were nearly 100 people in attendance.  I explained to the moms some of the topics we’d covered throughout the course – beauty, self-esteem, nutrition, anatomy, goal-setting, education, gender roles, etc. – and thanked them for motivating/allowing their girls to attend.  We had a guest speaker lead an empowering dinámica about confronting an all-too-common problem here in the DR – violence against women.  The girls performed various skits that stressed the importance of education and respectful behavior, and like most of our reuniones, there was plenty of singing, dancing, and giggling.  43 chicas, ranging from 5 to 17 years old, received a diploma and goody bag for demonstrating an acceptable attendance record, regular participation in meetings, and enhanced skills and knowledge.  We closed the ceremony in the way that any event in this country is expected to finish  – with a bountiful brindis.  Every participant brought food to share, giving way to a spread that even the doñas were impressed with – espaghettis (we made over 15 pounds of it!), empanadas, ham and cheese, bread, coleslaw, soda, and cake.

Rehearsing for their skits

Rehearsing for their skits the day before

Chicas and their mothers at the graduation

Chicas and their mothers at the graduation

A cheery Yisseilis, preparing to lead the group in a special applause

A cheery Yisseilis, preparing to lead the group in a special applause

"Repect" skit

“Repect” skit

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Education skit

Education skit

No Violence Against Women demonstration

No Violence Against Women demonstration

My incredible project partner, Nibia, taking a stand against domestic violence

My incredible project partner, Nibia, taking a stand against domestic violence

Yokairi explaining the importance of balancing uniqueness and solidarity

Yokairi explaining the importance of balancing uniqueness and solidarity

My brilliant graduates

My brilliant graduates

Bustle at the brindis

Bustle at the brindis

Macanita and I after the ceremony

Macanita and I after the ceremony

Some of my Chicas and I after the graduation

Some of my Chicas and I after the graduation

One of my most dedicated students, Cesarina, and me

One of my most dedicated students, Cesarina, and me

All in all, it was an enjoyably interactive graduation.  The mothers left full, enlightened, and giggly, and the chicas were proud to have put on such a successful and educational event for their moms to experience.  I look forward to continue meeting with the girls, mentoring them on whichever topics contribute to their knowledge, promise, and undeniable brilliance.

Avoca(I)do

11 Nov

Seeing as I’m a Community Economic Development volunteer, it makes sense to support local business.  That means I should buy an avocado from every vendor that passes my house, right?  Right.  Where else in life will I be able to purchase 7 avocadoes for 30 pesos (about $.70)?  I justify the amount of pesos I spend on avocados because a) they’re freaking delicious and pair so nicely with almost any savory food and b) because avocado season is very sadly coming to an end.  Good news though is that I’m starting to really understand how to identify an average avocado from a fabulous avocado, so I’ll be fully prepped for when next year’s harvest comes around.  They say that your avocado is ripe and has a good amount of ‘meat’ on it if the pit inside moves around when you shake the avocado.  We learn new things everyday on the job.

In other news, I got married!  Twice actually, to my neighborhood friends Juana (7) and Raimon (9).  It was a starry and luz-less night, and all my neighbors were in attendance for the ceremony.  Definitely an entertaining way to pass the time when there’s no electricity, and certainly an unforgettable memory.

Happy newly weds - Juana and I

Happy newly weds – Juana and I

On a more serious note, about two months ago some of the members of La Cabrita and I submitted an application for funding to the Dominican branch of the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM-DR).  The project we completed was very detailed – 40 pages of all sorts of information about the organization, as well as a proposed project regarding the commercialization of the association and the products they make.  We applied for nearly RD$200,000 to advertise in the region via radio and guagua (a truck that would drive around various towns blasting the announcement – actually a very effective way to promote here).  Among other things, the money would also be used to develop a website, print over 3000 brochures, plan 4 promotional/sampling events, post signs around the community to direct visitors to La Cabrita, and provide each member with a polo shirt and hat to wear to organizational or promotional activities.  We chose to focus the campaign in the region of Barahona because while the goal of La Cabrita is to eventually distribute their cheese and yogurt on a national level, their level of production is simply not big enough to satisfy such a large market.

There were almost 15 groups that applied for funding, and though AMCHAM had the funds to back all of the projects’ budgets, not all were approved.  But ours was!  The approval of this project will not only increase the sales and recognition of La Cabrita, but it also boosts the confidence of the group members; it demonstrates that they have a realistic and progressive vision, and the capacity to develop a detailed project plan and budget.  More on the AMCHAM project to come, but we hope to start executing the first steps by the New Year.

Laguna Oviedo

Laguna Oviedo

Four times a year all the volunteers in a particular region get together for what’s called a Mini-VAC.  We discuss Peace Corps policies, share what we’re doing in site, and address any concerns or suggestions we have to improve our experience in country.  I’m in Region 1 (the southern-most provinces, also known as the best region), and for our last meeting of the year we split up.  Some went to Lago Enriquillo (a huge salt lake that is officially the lowest point of the Caribbean – I will make it there one day), and the rest of us went to Laguna Oviedo.

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

The lagoon is good-sized, salty, and at this time of year, a stopping point for flamingoes during their migration south for the winter.  There are a number of species of flora and fauna that are found only in the area of the lagoon; rhinoceros iguanas inhabit two small islands.  For those that are wondering, iguanas do have teeth.  My friend found this out while trying to hand feed one.

Rhinoceros Iguana

Rhinoceros Iguana

We submitted our budgets for Courts for Kids – one regarding the construction of the court and another that included the costs for a group of 20 to stay in Pescadería for 7 days.  At this point it looks like the construction of a 28 meter x 15 meter court will cost us RD$580,445.20 (US$13,869.30).  Courts for Kids provides $5000 (RD$212,500) towards construction costs/materials.  Between land preparation, labor, and various materials, my community will be supplying over RD$329,000 (US$7741).  That means that we have about RD$47000 (US$1100) to raise.  Still trying to figure out the best way to go about the grant process, or if it’s still a viable option, but in the mean time we’re exploring all of our fundraising opportunities.

My Chicas Brillantes group - each girl made a mask to practice artistic expression and to understand the importance of uniqueness

My Chicas Brillantes group – each girl made a mask to practice artistic expression and to understand the importance of uniqueness

Which reminds me.  People here love fundraising, particularly raffles.  Every senior class in the high school here is required to raise money for their graduation in June.  Aside from raffles, favorite methods of fundraising include selling beer in tents during patronales, peones (blocking the road with a rope until the passing vehicles give you money) and giras (low-cost field trips with a large group of people).  A couple weekends ago I joined the senior class on a trip to the Marias de Neyba, a crystalline, fresh-water pool located about an hour north of Pescadería.  Not sure how much money they actually raised after driving 4 busloads of people so far (it cost RD$150/person to go), but we all had fun nonetheless.

Marias de Neyba

Marias de Neyba

Back to the raffles.  There’s at least one doña that passes by my house everyday raffling sets of plates or cookware in a large tub.  There’s normally a list of numbers 1-100, and you pay 5 pesos to pick one number – any number that hasn’t yet been chosen.  She’ll take your name down, and if the number you chose gets picked, you win the contents of the tub AND the tub.  Pretty sweet deal, especially because you can never have too many buckets here.

The way my neighbors are raffling off their pig is another option.  Because they paid RD$5000 for the pig, they need to sell a lot more numbers and at a higher price.  They put numbers 1-500 in a bag and charge RD$50 for you to pick one at random.  They keep track of all the numbers that have been picked and by whom (mainly so people can’t accuse them of fraud), and once all the numbers have been sold, they put all the numbers in a bag and pick one out.  The lucky winner will get the handsome fellow in the picture below, who will most likely be used to make longaniza (a traditional pork sausage spiced with lime and garlic that’s especially popular at Christmas time), and my neighbors will have earned RD$20,000.

Porky Prize

Porky Prize

And if the people here love raffles, they’re smitten with gambling.  Every day there’s a new banca in town, a tiny but noticeably colorful stand equipped with a computer where people enter to ‘play numbers’.  Dominicans are intent on justifying which numbers they bet on – they’ll find their luck in dreams, clouds, random shapes, the time, etc. and then use what numbers they saw in their next gamble.  Many people often place small sums on two numbers (Pale), and sometimes break even.  Most lose, and just end up spending ridiculous amounts of money (think 10 pesos/day * 30 days/month * 12 months/year).  Very few win the big bucks, but four months ago one of my neighbors did win RD$153,000.

I’m not planning on betting in the banca any time soon, though I am participating in my neighbor’s pig raffle (wish me luck, they pick the winner December 15th!), but I am counting down the days until I come home.  That’s right, I’m headed back to the US for a 10-day vacation!  In less than two weeks I’ll be mosquito-free, taking too many hot showers to escape the Vermont cold, and stuffing my face with any vegetable in sight.

Flamingo-ing at Laguna Oviedo

Flamingo-ing at Laguna Oviedo