viernes, 4 de diciembre de 2009

Leaving



This was the hardest post to write. When I arrived in the DR three Septembers ago, I looked forward to over two years of time in the Dominican Republic, and saw the day that I would leave my adopted country as so far off in the future as to not merit thinking about. Well, that day has come and gone. I have left my home, my neighbors, my friends. I felt, however, that it was time. Sure, I was comfortable there, I was used to my way of life. The comforts that we take for granted so much here I might have lacked, but I didn’t miss them, I functioned and even flourished and in the context of my environment. Maybe that was a sign that I had to move on. I had found living there (relatively) easy, effortless. I knew what to expect, how to deal with problems and challenges. I knew what was going to work (not much) and what wasn’t. I did what I could with my project and community partners. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to, but I don’t leave empty-handed. We worked hard, and met with some success. Plenty of people doubted that we could even get anything done, and certainly did their part in trying to hamper progress. As my sector coordinator said, I definitely arrived idealistic and optimistic that I could affect some sort of change in my little corner. My hopes were quickly dashed on the rocks of historico-cultural inertia, and what I saw as a lack of institutional support from my local partner agencies.

Pero nada, as they say, I moved forward. I ended up loving my campo, and the people in it, for all the difficulties we had on a professional level. Personally, they welcomed me with open arms. They couldn’t have been more warm and open. I moved into a community of people I had never met, and who knew nothing about me besides my nation of origin, and became family. I know I could never really become a Dominican; I felt more like a long-lost cousin who came back for a bit from Nueba Yol. Their ability to act as they did towards me was astounding – no American community would be able to do that.

So leaving all of that was difficult. Of course, I also had all of my Peace Corps friends, many of whom were extending their service in the country. I had also met people who arrived in country after me, and I would be leaving them, too. At times it felt like I was the only one who was leaving the country.

The night before I left my village, my friends and neighbors put on an inauguration of the stove project, and put on a despedida, or goodbye party, afterwards. All sorts of people showed up, including my erstwhile project partner, my APCD, and various Peace Corps friends. There were speeches, certificates, and tears (from doñas, not from me). The doñas didn’t stop there – they made an enormous sancocho that fed at least all 75 people that were there. It was pretty expensive, but well worth it. And finally, my host mom, forever the politica, finagled a set of giant speakers (the ones they have on the back of the campaign trucks) to play all the hits for three hours. We had a dance party on her lawn. All the muchachos were there. It was glorious. After that madness was over, a few PC amigos came to stay at my house, where we had our sort of afterparty, and ended the evening with a bang. It couldn’t have been a better last evening.

I am sad I had to go. It was a bittersweet farewell, but well worth it. I wish the best to my PC colleagues and friends and hope that my neighbors continue to work to improve their quality of life as I know they can. Siempre tenga esperanza.

jueves, 19 de noviembre de 2009


I can hear the questions now, bearing down on my being like a winter snow in Nueva Yol.

“Wow, two years! That’s a long time. What was it like?”

“ Well, that’s sort of a complicated question. I learned a lot, I guess, and I had all these great experiences, and I tried to help—“

“That sounds great. Did they have real food there? Haha! And I can’t believe you were without electricity all the time. How did you live?”

“Um, it really wasn’t that bad…”

And repeat. Ad nauseum. Until all I want to do is go back to my campo, where people asked me where I was and if it rained there, because they really wanted to listen the answers. And when I didn’t want to hear anymore I could remove myself to my house, close my door (or leave it open for the brisita), turn on my iPod and lie with my shirt off on the cool cement floor, praying for rain to hear the light patter of drops on my roof. And all would be good.

But this will not be my reality now. My reality will be far, far away from the breeze coming off the conuco, the mound of rice and beans for lunch, the naked screaming children. I won’t be able to hide in my house, because my house will not be mine, but I will also not be able to go next door, welcomed with a smile and kiss, and be fed lunch with the family. This is not to say I am not looking forward to being back. In the course of writing this, a scorpion ran across my keyboard and jumped onto my leg. That sort of thing will not be missed. I look forward to seeing my friends and family, my native land. I look forward to the comforts of developed-world life. But after living here, I appreciated so much more everything that we take for granted in the States.

Take electricity, for example. I am not fool enough to say that life is better when we don’t have it all the time; I appreciate this situation from a rich-world point of view. I understand electricity as a necessary condition for economic growth and for basic household comforts. Yet for someone who never knew life without electricity except for the rare winter-storm blackout, it was an opportunity. When there is no luz, people often move outdoors. Families are forced to spend time together, to talk to each other. At night, the moon lights our faces, and we admire the stars. I hope that sometime soon, EDENORTE gets its act together and provides sufficient electricity to its clients. But this was an opportunity for us, and I hope that we all took advantage of it. I hope we also understood that although for us this was a two-year stint in the campo (or pueblo), that this is the permanent situation for our friends and neighbors, and what that means for us and for them.

To get back to the original question posed by my imaginary American: What was my time as a Volunteer actually like, then? A simple summary would never do, it cannot capture two years. I could tell some funny stories, although as we like to say, our entire lives here are funny. I might show some pictures, but they do not tell the whole story. Unless they were here, they do not understand. We worked too hard, gave too much of ourselves, learned too much, (and took necessary of time off), for our experiences to be distilled until meaningless. A lack of luz, a week of sickness, a failed project attempt, these must be placed in context, or we risk misunderstanding what they signify. I cannot attempt to define my Volunteer experience here. I could never do it justice, nor would it speak to exactly what your experiences were either.

As I plan to exit the country at the end of the month, I realize that I am not really leaving the Peace Corps; I am hardly leaving the Dominican Republic. There is so much of this place I am taking back with me, from the unwanted, perhaps a parasite bien metido in my intestine, to the valued, like photos that probably shouldn’t be posted on the Internet. I will do my part of Third Goal activities in America, I will remember why I came and why I stayed, and who knows, I might be back someday to steal Romeo’s job. It seems pretty good right now.

viernes, 23 de octubre de 2009

Illness

After the injury post, I thought a relevant follow-up would be about illness. Disease is too big of a topic to discuss here, so I’m going to stick mostly to personal experience and some observations. An American I met in the capital asked me what the most difficult part of being a Volunteer was. My first answer had to do with work – the lack of efficiency, interest, ability, access, and funding, among other factors, that I have found to be significant impasses to progress. But then my friend pointed out that he thought being sick would have been my answer, sickness being something that happens fairly often to Volunteers here. I was stunned to realized that I had become used to it. Stomach issues don’t faze us; these problems have faded into a part of daily life. However, during a recent bout with another stomach bug, I thought about it more. Being sick is different than being sick in the States. At home, we get colds and the flu. We feel it coming; there is a tickle in the throat, a sniffle. We pop vitamin C with added zinc, maybe some extra orange juice in the morning. We sneeze, we cough, we take a day off work if it is bad, and we get better. No biggie. There is a doctor’s visit for what we can’t tackle at home: a diagnosis, a treatment, a recovery. Straightforward and predictable, for the most part.

Not so here. Being sick often comes from nowhere, from around the corner late at night. It comes when you least expect it, armed and dangerous, with intent to harm. Sometimes we are at fault (eating street food, playing with dirty, dirty children), but usually they are unavoidable (eating food ever, playing with most children). So, we get sick: hit by a two-by-four. Diarrhea for a week, but not after the first episode happens on the bus. We are laid low, doubled over. Sure, we get treatment. Our medical staff is phenomenal and our coverage amazing. But something seems to linger. Even with our medical staff, the diagnosis is uncertain and the recovery can be unpredictable. The thing about these guys is that they never really seem to go away. The bad feeling comes back, the cough is slow to go away, and the sore takes days to heal. There is always the scepter of the serious: giardia, dengue, even tuberculosis.

Nevertheless, we are lucky and we know it. After all, illness did not come first to mind when I thought of the most difficult part of the job (and, after all, we do not live in sub-Saharan Africa). We get sick, we get over it, we get used to it. We get to go home. Our neighbors are not so lucky. Prevention measures are not taken as often as they should be, environmental factors are innumerable, and treatment is often laughable outside major urban areas. In the tropical heat and humidity, problems often take longer to heal anyway, compounding difficulties. We as Volunteers try to do our small part, but we do not have the capability or resources to make systematic reform. Así es. I will be on my way out soon, having survived the hitman and ready to go back to NyQuil. Once I unwittingly harbored a stowaway campo tarantula in my backpack on a trip to the beach. Hopefully I won’t be taking any kind of bugs home with me this time.

sábado, 19 de setiembre de 2009

Injury

Over the past two days, I was witness to three types of unfortunately typical Dominican injury, and I thought it’d be interesting for me to share these with you.

The first happened a few minutes before I arrived home from a trip to the capital. My neighbor, a 15-year-old girl, had gotten into a motorcycle accident, hit her head, and was taken to the hospital unconscious. I arrived home to see a bunch of people at her house, nervously whispering, praying, or speaking animatedly about what went wrong. She had just begun her first year in high school, which is in town about 5km away. Her family purchased a small motorcycle so that she didn’t have to rely on others to get to school, and she was just learning how to drive. Motorcycle accidents are absurdly common here, as the lack of traffic laws, driving customs, and inattention to safety proves a dangers combination. A Volunteer friend recently was involved in a motorcycle accident as a passenger and had to be medically evacuated from the country. I hear of accidents on a weekly basis from my neighbors. This accident hit home especially hard, since the girl lives down the street and had just learned how to drive. All sorts of people opined that she shouldn’t have been driving in the first place – she is, after all, a girl, and the road is dangerous – and she should now stay off the roads. I found this pill bitter. Her motorcycle was not actually hit, but swerved to miss something, and so people claimed that she was just “asustada,” or frightened, which cased the bike to leave the road, lending credence to the girl-driving-motorcycle theory of the accident. Regardless, I found this piece insulting. She is a girl, sure, but this of course has nothing to do with the accident. My neighbors weren’t there, they just like to talk. It is fairly rare to see a woman driving motorcycles, so I was glad to see her family give her a vote of confidence. We shall see how she ends up getting to school in the future, or if she is even allowed to drive again at all. For now, she is fine, back at home after a night in the hospital.

That same night, relatives came to visit her house to comfort her family and hear news. I came upon one cousin who I hadn’t seen in a few months. I asked her how she was, and she told me that she was better. Well, better from what? She told me matter-of-factly that she had received a “balazo” – she was shot. Driving on her motorcycle (with a male passenger), returning home from university at 10PM, she was stopped by two males. The assaulters forced them off the motorcycle and in the ensuing chaos, shot both the girl and her friend in the leg. Without missing a beat, and as I wore what must have been an incredulous look on my face, she whipped out her cell phone to show me pictures she had taken of the wounds. She was all smiles and confidence – after all, she still goes to university, coming home a little earlier now, and drove to my neighbor’s house on her new pasola. Still, she said, she hardly goes out at night anymore. Here was a smart, driven, university student who refused to let depravity deprive her or her independence. She told me that if her attacker had seen her face, sweet and smiling, he wouldn’t have shot her. Either way, she was on her feet, with no visible limp. She lamented her cousin’s injury, and noted the difficulty of being a female on the road. When you fall off of a motorcycle…

The next day, I went a bit farther down the road to play dominos with some neighbors. It is one of my favorite places to be – community spirit, children running around, all sorts of people playing and watching under an enormous mango tree – and so I spend many an afternoon sheltered from the fierce Caribbean sun, whiling away these hours. At one point, a boy of about three wandered into the outdoor kitchen. His grandmother found him looking slightly suspicious, and he pointed to his nose. She looked up into it, and saw something inside of his nostril. She brought him outside and presented the situation to his mother, while the kid continued to stick his finger up into his nose. Another woman took him into his lap and held his head tight while someone else pinned down his arms. His mother almost instantly pulled out a bobby pin from her hair and put to work. At this point, the child began to scream one of those agony-ridden, high-pitched screams children have that uncanny ability to make. He squirmed and cried as the bobby pin scooped and scraped and came out with nothing. A few tense minutes passed, the women exchanged nervous glances, the mother poked and prodded, the kid wailed, I wondered if we’d have to leave the game I was winning and go to the hospital. A shriek from one of the women brought the boy’s nose back into focus – a bright yellow kernel of corn emerged, intact and soggy. Everyone sighed, the kid ceased his wailing, saw the kernel, and began crying again, and then the domino game continued. His mother gave him a light pop on the head and comforted him. All was good again in the world, minus my serious doubts about wanting children.

sábado, 12 de setiembre de 2009


Celebrando el Cibao 2009

If you remember from last year, I helped organize a diversity and leadership conference for youth in my region of the DR. This year, I was a co-coordinator, and the conference was a big success. Thank you for all who helped make it so by donating online at the Peace Corps website.

This year, we held the conference at a center in a mountain valley by the River Yaque, where we were able to take the participants one afternoon. We were lucky enough to have representatives from the synagogue and mosque in the capital, as well as a Haitian immigration activist, speak to the youth. Fellow international volunteers from Korea visited our conference, and we held an “around-the-world” fair with music and displays from over 20 countries designed by Volunteers and their youth. We also created an activity for the youth to understand a little more about America through the lens of the Volunteers – since after all, we are representatives of America, we are something of a microcosm of American society.

Although the conference lasted just three days, we managed to pack in as much as possible. The conference is an opportunity for us to talk to our youth about topics rarely discussed in school, at home, or in society – the existence of minority religious and cultural communities, the treatment of those with disability and disease, and the entrenched web of money and privilege which these youth can see, but are implicitly left out of.