Tag Archives: family

oceans separate land, not souls

29 Aug

This week I visited La Isabela on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, one of the first European settlements of the New World.  Much to my surprise, there were hardly any signs indicating the route to such a monumental location.  Then again, I wasn’t surprised much at all, as this country has its own way of doing things…

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“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

On his first voyage, he landed in the Bahamas and ultimately established La Navidad as the first European settlement in what is present-day Haiti.  On his second voyage, after discovering that La Navidad had been destroyed by Taínos (natives to the island who were [probably] rightly disgruntled with Spanish treatments), Columbus traveled a bit east and founded La Isabela.  After several years of your typical conquest blunders – hunger, disease, quarrels with the natives, etc. – Columbus abandoned La Isabela and ultimately named Santo Domingo as the official Spanish settlement in 1496.

Museum at La Isabela

Museum at La Isabela

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“On this land of the Americas, the Admiral Christopher Columbus founded La Isabela in the year 1943.”

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Admiral Christopher Columbus's house!

Ruins of Admiral Christopher Columbus’s house!  (thatched roof not included) 

I couldn’t help but feel small while standing on such historic ground, unable to process all of the events and people that our world has seen since 1493 (nevertheless before that!).  As I walked along the hot, salty clay and posed with ruins of Admiral Christopher Columbus’s house, one special man naturally came to mind – my grandpa!

Coincidentally or not, Vice Admiral Thomas R. Weschler is being honored this very weekend in his hometown of Erie, PA for his service in the US Navy AND his continuous efforts in providing exciting education opportunities for people interested in both studying and accepting the magnitude of the sea. Furthermore, the wing of the Military Gallery at the local Historical Society will be named in his honor. At 97 years young, my grandpa is sharp, curious, and humble; a stoic individual who, in applying a specific passion to all areas of his life, embodies a wise truthfulness that inspires others to find and develop their own.

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

Like the concept of history, I will never be able to fathom or understand all of my grandpa’s stories at sea. However, I am certain that he deserves every bit of recognition he’s receiving this weekend and more. Not only has he been an exemplary grandpa, but also a beacon of nobility, intellect, and just plain goodness. Wishing I could be there to celebrate, but “oceans separate land, not souls.”

home grown results

16 Oct

I’ll have to admit that when I was awakened yesterday morning at 7:15 am I was a bit bothered. The sun had just risen, meaning that the tin roof hadn’t quite yet turned my house into an oven. The whir of the fan was comfortable in both the breeze it provided and its ability to drown out the around-the-clock roosters. Despite my slumber caused by a full day of traveling, I had mustered to fix clean cotton sheets onto my queen-sized mattress the night before, and they were still crisp on my skin. I was cozy and protected under my mosquito net, which my kitty has begun to use as his own personal hammock; he seemed to be just as perturbed as I was by the unanticipated alarm.

It was two of my oldest Chicas graduates, Oda and Grissel, calling my name through the window as if not to wake me but with enough angst to get my attention. “Qué?”, I managed, hoping I could answer their proposition from my bed. “Háganos el favor,” – a common Dominican phrase literally meaning ‘do the favor’, and used when someone has to ask or tell you something and they make YOU go to them rather than the other way around. I debated telling them to come back later, but I knew that they were on their way to school so I figured it was important. I shooed Mio from atop of the mosquito net and untucked it, stepping barefoot onto the needing-a-sweeping cement floor and accepting an early start to the day. I opened the window and gave them a sleepy smirk, not even pretending that they hadn’t woken me up. “We need the charla paper you have of the woman’s parts. We are going to teach Gris’s class about female anatomy today.” And just like that, my slumber and annoyance vanished and I felt on top of the world; I was home.

“Where we love is home,
Home that the feet may leave,
but not our hearts.”

I just spent five days surprising and visiting friends back at Clemson University. Clemson was home for four years – a quintessential college experience that provided me with a sturdy academic career and a friend group I wouldn’t change for the world. Now that we’re each living a new chapter, it was refreshing to come back and catch up.

Carrie and I

Carrie and I

Tiger family

Tiger family

My college roommates and I :)

My college roommates and I 🙂

My mom even surprised me!

My mom even surprised me!

“Travel does not exist without home….If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.”

After recognizing a pattern among a few of my friends, I reflected on my time here in the Dominican Republic. Am I happy? Do I take care of myself? Am I loved? Do I love?  Am I giving this my all? How am I helping? What am I learning? What’s not working? What should/can I change? Will I be happy to do what I’m doing tomorrow?

Most recent birthday party I attended...

Most recent birthday party I attended…

...with these cats.

…with these cats.

All in all, life here is pretty dang fulfilling.  So fulfilling in fact that I seem to be abandoning this blog 🙂  Every day is different and unexpected, which is both challenging and liberating. There’s a typical routine, but more often than not I diverge from it, and it’s satisfying to have the freedom to be able to do just that. My projects, in terms of audiences and themes, have been all over the place, and have recently been based around my knack for sexual education (local high school) and slight knowledge of marketing (goat group). I am witnessing and experiencing progress, not just in terms of ‘work’ but also in my level of integration within the community. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m not just a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, but also a colleague, running buddy, daughter, girl-with-the-WiFi, and trusty dance partner.

Sexual Education workshop at the local high school

Sexual Education workshop at the local high school

High school parents at Sex. Ed. workshop

High school parents at Sex. Ed. workshop

process of straining milk before pasteurization

process of straining milk before pasteurization

cheese!

cheese!

yogurt

yogurt

The secretary of La Cabrita and I at an artisan market in the capital

The secretary of La Cabrita and I at an artisan market in the capital

What makes Peace Corps challenging, particularly for outcome-based folk, is that here results come slowly, and typically not in the form that one might expect. They are rarely grandiose in numbers, but rather moments that shimmer amidst frustrating dark ones; results are witnessing a slight but positive change in behavior and recognizing a signal of potentially sustainable progress…The family across the street not allowing the photographer at Reni’s graduation to take the family portrait until I was in it. A student in my environment course commenting that her backpack is now always full of trash because there are no trashcans at school and she feels bad throwing it on the ground. Oda and Grissel stepping up to share what they’ve learned about the human body with their class, striving to protect their own peers from an unwanted pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections.

Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) students at International Beach Clean-Up Day

Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) students at International Beach Clean-Up Day

The beach of Barahona, where there seems to be more trash than sand.

The beach of Barahona, where there seems to be more trash than sand.

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Reni and I at her graduation

Reni and I at her graduation

high school graduation

high school graduation

my family.

my family.

These kinds of results are heart-warming and significant, but they are also the ones that are most difficult to communicate or validate with others. Their attainment is as sweet as it is complex, and can be accomplished regardless of a Peace Corps’ service. They don’t occur within a given environment actually, but rather where the individual that accomplishes such results is in his/her element; where there is a feeling of both ease and motivation; when feet hit the floor once a challenge is accepted; where she is at home.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

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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.