Friday, April 12, 2013


My aunt and uncle are here in the DR on vacation, and I took a trip out to see them today. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of them, but if you don't know them, it doesn't matter, and if you do know them, you've already seen them.

Besides getting a nice lunch at the Hard Rock Café (oh, yeah, and seeing those relatives...hi Aunt Karen and Uncle Dean!), I took the opportunity to visit the eastern city of Higüey. Specifically, I visited the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. I haven't made a point to see many tourist destinations, but this was one I'd been meaning to check out, mainly because it's a church and not just a spot for tourists.


As you can see, it has a modernist style, something that's often disastrous for a church, but it manages (especially inside) to pull it off while still having majesty and solemnity. I was repeatedly reminded of the principle of Catholic architecture drawing your gaze upward toward heaven.

It was surrounded by a beautiful and very well-kept park of palm trees, some of which you can see here. On the other side is a museum dedicated to the Basilica and to La Virgen de la Altagracia (the Virgin of High Grace), which is the title of Mary as patron saint of the Dominican Republic.


When I went to catch a bus home, I noticed street vendors selling something I'd never seen before, so I bought a bottle.

I was a little nervous when I read the label, because 'chicharrones' are deep-fried pig skin, and leche is milk. Chunks of pork floating in milk doesn't sound appetizing or sanitary when sold on plastic jars on the side of the road.

While chewing on the first one, I looked it up and confirmed that it doesn't pork (or any meat for that matter). They're a type of cheese curd floating in a light syrup, and as far as I know, they're local to Higüey. They're not bad, try it if you get the chance.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Independence Day

February 27 is Dominican Independence Day! The Dominican Republic gained its independence from Haiti in 1844, making it the only country in the western hemisphere that doesn't celebrate its independence from a European country.

Instead of fireworks, Dominicans celebrate Independence Day with noise. Lots of noise. They take the mufflers off of the few motorcycles that actually have them and tear up and down the street. Or they just blast music at full volume. Hey, it's safer than explosives, and nobody can sleep through this holiday!

There's also dressing up and dancing at Carnaval, but not much happened in my site this year. That's not to say there wasn't any festive spirit. Plenty of people got dressed up anyway.
 And even the ones who didn't go for the crazy carnaval outfits found ways to have fun.
The Spiderman mask work particularly well with the Tinkerbell dress, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chocolate Chip Cookies!

When I was home for Christmas, I picked up an item that's a crucial part of American culture:

They don't have chocolate chips in this country, so they don't have chocolate chip cookies. As a Peace Corps volunteer, it's one of my duties to help Dominicans learn about the important aspects of American culture (and the world at large) that aren't part of Dominican life. So, obviously, I was obligated to bake cookies with some friends.

I got most of the ingredients (except the chocolate chips) from supermarkets here in the DR. I didn't want to use up my friends' food, but I did depend on them for bowls and pans and a stove (and gas for the stove, which isn't always available).

I started at the house of my friend Eliza, who loves baking and has plenty of supplies. She's mostly familiar with cakes, but picked up on cookies quickly and we ended up with a good batch.
As I said, she mainly bakes cakes, so we ended up baking cookies in cake pans!

The next week, I went to my former host family. They weren't quite as well equipped, and their oven didn't get very hot, and I didn't add enough flour, but they were still the best chocolate chip cookies they'd ever tasted.

Finally, I baked with the family of one of my first reading students. I'd brought them the Spanish version of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," and that was where I got the idea of baking cookies in the first place. They had the least supplies of anyone, but we made do.
They didn't have a 1 Cup measure, so we filled a pitcher with 1 Cup of water, poured it into this cup, and marked it off with a pencil. I think we made it too small, but it worked. More or less.

I left the recipe at all three houses, but I don't know how often they'll get a chance to use it (and they'll have to break up their own pieces of chocolate). It made me wonder which is worse: never having chocolate chip cookies at all, or only having them once?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Flush Toilet!

Not much has changed recently. I've been doing literacy work with kids, and they've been learning, slowly but surely. Some more slowly, and some more surely. The semester is coming to a close, though, and they have tests to take, so I don't know how much more I'll work with them this year.

I also don't know if I'll be working with them much next year. The principal called me in yesterday and wanted me to switch to working in 7th and 8th grade teaching English. My English classes in the school last year were not pretty, but she assures me that the 7th grade class only has 24 students, and they're well behaved and very manageable. I have my doubts, but students have been asking me to help me with their English worksheets, which include English words such as the colors 'bleu' and 'maron' (for blue and brown) and the animals 'superfly' and 'tigre'. If they're going to ignore their English class, they might as well be ignoring real English.

Some good news from about a month ago: after more than a year of living in a toolshed with no bathroom, I've increased my standard of living...I'm now living in a toolshed *with* a bathroom! My landlord has been talking about building something since before I moved in, but I finally pointed out that I could give him an advance on the rent, but the amount of rent left to be advanced was getting pretty smaller each month. I was expecting a latrine out in the yard (he had a hole, all he needed to do was put up some walls and a roof), but they installed a flush toilet and a shower.
I still have no door, but since I live alone, it doesn't seem like an urgent need.

Notice the low-flow, environmentally friendly showerhead.

Seriously, I've got indoor plumbing. If it weren't for the mosquitoes, I wouldn't know I was in the Peace Corps. All that's missing is for all the water to be clean enough to drink and to come in any temperature I wish, immediately. And those machines that do your dishes and wash your clothes for you. Haha, as if things like that actually exist. How about a magic box that produces a hot meal in a couple of minutes, just by pushing some buttons on the side? What would people do with all their time?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Update on my Goddaughter

I have an update on the girl who entered the children's home last December. Unfortunately, it's not a very cheerful update.

She's never fully settled in to life in the Home. She never really settled in here in my site either. From what I can tell, she misses her mom, who generally treated her well. But her mom is mentally unwell and not at all able to care for a 9-year-old daughter. Besides that, nobody's sure where she is, and there's conflicting reports about whether she's even still alive.

Generally, my goddaughter is missing her family, so she insists that she wants to go back to live with her grandmother. She's smart enough to know that if she insists enough (and misbehaves enough), eventually they'll have to let her go. However, the grandmother was abusive and remains unwilling to take her in. Workers from the children's home drove to her house yesterday, and she wouldn't even go visit, instead sending her 13-year-old daughter. If she can't be bothered to visit for a day, surely she won't be much of a parent for the next ten years.

I toyed with the idea of adoption before finding the Home, but that's sounding even less possible now. The social workers aren't really considering that option because they're worried about what she might do in a new family.

And there aren't many other options. The host family here won't take her back, because her behavior is so problematic. We haven't been able to contact any other relatives. Nobody except the children's home is willing and able to take her, but she can't stay there unless she changes her mind (and her behavior). I hope that an encounter with her grandmother will make her change her mind, but the grandmother refuses to visit, and the rule is if a child leaves, they can't come back (otherwise they'd be dealing with lots more misbehavior to get extra vacation time).

Prayers are very welcome.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cleft Palate

I wasn't actually very involved in this, but it's a story with a happy ending, so I'll share it anyway.

Almost a year ago, I was walking through the community with another PC Volunteer, the PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) of the education sector, who had come to see my site. A woman called us over and said her grandson had just been born with a cleft palate, and wanted to know if we could help. Fortunately, Jean, the PCVL, knew of the Garrity Medical Mission that came to the country every year and performed the corrective surgery for cleft palate. I sent in some pictures and helped the family make an appointment for the upcoming February.

The family was very proactive, and found another opportunity for the surgery at a local hospital. Unfortunately, the initial checkup appointments conflicted, and they missed the chance with the Medical Mission, and the other group decided they couldn't help. They were going to wait until February of next year to try again with Garrity, but managed to find someone else willing to do the surgery.

The boy's grandmother sells snacks in the school during recess, so I got updates every week from her, and it sounded like the date kept getting pushed further back. But after after about ten months of appointments, they successfully did the surgery this month!
When I visited, the boy was giving his new smile a lot of use.



I've seen pictures like this before, but it was extra neat to see it right here in my community. And I almost had a hand in making in happen!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Teaching Reading in 3rd Grade

I know it's been forever since I updated this blog, and I'm sorry. It's not forgotten, it's remembered.

My main project here in the Peace Corps has been children's literacy, and this school year I've been extra busy, joining the 3rd grade class whenever it's in session. I've worked in 3rd grade the past two school years, but the first year I was only around for a month, and last year I had other projects and only went in once a week. I didn't see many results last year, so this year I'm focusing in and going every day.
    I'm also actually organized this year. I made a list of all the students and their reading levels, which helps me chart progress and know what to practice with each student (it also helped the teacher prepare her roster and do her own literacy reporting).
    There are over forty students enlisted in the 3rd grade class, and about 36 of them come regularly. They're at all difference reading levels, but at most two or three of them can truly read fluently. The Dominican educational system has a lot of problems, one of which is a law that doesn't allow anyone to be held back in first or second grade...this means 3rd grade can include students who aren't even ready to be in second. Also, there are a lot of students and not enough funding or teachers, so each student only goes to school for half a day, either the morning session (8-noon) or the afternoon session (2-5:30). This year, for the first time, there's only one 3rd grade session, which is in the afternoon. The same teacher gives 1st grade in the mornings.
    My main struggle is trying to teach 30+ students to read in only 3.5 hours a day (significantly less time in practice, with recess every day, PE three days a week, and inefficiency constantly).

    This is my view as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I sit in the back and call kids over one by one. I have a few different activities, but mostly I work from simple reading textbooks that can be bought in any supermarket. I try to focus on the kids who need the most help, but everyone wants their turn. A lot of time is spent shooing other kids away so my current reader isn't distracted.

I set up a camera on the shelf next to my table, so I can have a record of some of the kids' progress. The quality isn't great, but you can get an idea what class is like.

Being a Catholic country, our days start with a prayer. Here, a student is leading the class in the Lord's Prayer/Our Father.

 These are a couple clips of students reading from the first few pages of the books. The girl is reading 'Papá ama a Pepe' (Dad loves Pepe), and the boy is reading a few simple 'P' words.

The kids are almost always eager to take a turn reading and generally focus really well while they're with me. But I don't want to give the idea that they're a bunch of model students...chaos and noise are a defining part of my experience. There's no way my little camera can capture the level of noise echoing around those cement walls, but it did capture a couple things in the background:

Off to the left you can see a minor fight. It's been a while since I was in elementary school, but I don't remember these being common in my classes. Here, there are several of these every day, and this one wasn't big enough for anyone to bother getting involved.


Then there was this guy, near the center of the video. I didn't notice him at the time, and it's too blurry for me to tell who it is, but I have a few guesses!

My camera wasn't hidden. For the most part, the kids ignored it, but this girl called me out. She's kind of a troublemaker, but I like her. I spent extra time reading at her friend's house this summer, and she was often around for that. When I tell her I'm recording, she says, "Ay, no!" and then wants to see the clip. Later that day, I was mobbed by kids who watched themselves on fast-forward and laughed hysterically. I have a fun job.