Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tropical Christmas

Here in the DR, the 24th is a bigger holiday than the 25th, and it's celebrated Thanksgiving-style: a massive meal with the extended family! My day started with brunch at a nearby volunteer's house. We had American food (pancakes!) and spoke English and I got to meet a couple of newly arrived volunteers. It's strange that I'm already a 'sophomore'.

For the real meal later on, I had too many invitations (not a bad problem to have)! I started out at the house of my project partner. The food was delicious, and there was more of it than I have most days. Exactly how holiday meals are supposed to work!
From there I dropped by to say hi to some friends and went on to my former host family. Again, the food was delicious, and again there was a lot of it. I made it about 80% through this plate before I had to quit. And then the food coma set in...
I stopped by just to see one more family before heading home, and they borrowed my camera and got a bunch of good pictures of their beautifully laid out table:

Christmas was a fairly normal Sunday for me. I went into the city for church and had McDonalds for lunch. In the afternoon I Skyped with some friends and family, and my house was crashed by a bunch of kids (fortunately while I was talking to a friend who speaks Spanish, so they were able to chat for a bit). In the evening I made grilled cheese sandwiches again for one of the families I didn't get to visit the night before. And they had saved me a plate, so while they had grilled cheese, I had another heaping plate of holiday food.
Dominicans don't typically exchange gifts on Christmas (Jan 6 is the day celebrating the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus, so that's when the kids get presents). Instead, Christmas is a time to show off nice new clothes. Unfortunately, my camera always seemed to be either out of charge or not with me, so I only have one (blurry) picture of a girl in her fancy new dress with grilled cheese in each hand!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

El Seibo Visit

Such a lovely little town. It's a shame my site doesn't have views like this.
This weekend I finally went back to El Seibo to visit my former host family. When we first arrived in the country we had ten weeks of training: five weeks in the capital (Santo Domingo), and five weeks in 'Community Based Training' (CBT) getting hands-on experience. For those of us in the education sector, our CBT was in El Seibo, a wonderful town in the east with 24 hour electricity and very low crime. I really loved the host family I lived with, and even requested to be placed in the East so I could go back and visit them. But despite getting my request, it took me eight months to get back there (I almost made it out in October, but they were sick when I was free).

It was great to see them, and they're all doing well. They're not wealthy, but they've found some additional sources of income (selling paintings for a friend and selling meat pies from their house) and seem to be doing better than they were when I was living with them. But maybe it's just that my perspective has changed: they're probably wealthier than anyone in my batey. The house had been fixed up and repainted some though, and the mom is studying nursing, so I really think their situation is improving.

We didn't do anything very exciting, but still managed to have fun. I taught them UNO and Kings on the Corners, and we made grilled cheese sandwiches one night. I visited some of the other people and places I knew. There used to be a cousin living with us, but he was back with his family in another town, so I didn't see him or the neighbor girl who moved away to live with her mom.

I didn't get many pictures worth sharing, but I did want to show off the ghetto basketball hoop that my host brother (just turned 13) made with some neighborhood boys.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happiest Post Yet!

I haven't yet mentioned this on my blog for privacy and security reasons, but now that everything is resolved I'm going to share about a side project of mine that's been going on for almost 6 months.
On June 25, a young girl came to live with my host family (I was still living there at the time). I've heard conflicting stories about her history, but there was certainly abuse and neglect, and the police had finally taken her away from the grandmother with whom she was staying (when not left to roam the streets). My host brother is a police officer, and he brought her to our batey to live while somebody found her a permanent home.

Once she was no longer with the police, they forgot about her, so I became the 'somebody' who needed to find her a home. The nuns next door helped, and even found a couple of families willing to adopt her, but she refused to leave my host family, which was the best home she'd ever known (not that that is saying much). While I'm grateful to my host family for housing her for so long, there is a reason I moved out at my first opportunity, even if it meant moving into a toolshed. The way I see it is that there's a severe lack of love in that house, and the more this girl realized that, the more she misbehaved, and the worse they responded. While I don't believe they broke any Dominican laws, the psychological and emotional environment they created was painful for me, not to mention how hard it must have been for an 8 year old orphan.

She didn't have anywhere else to go, however, except back to the abusive grandmother (which was a frequent threat from my host family). I seriously considered adopting her: I have a better education, more money, and certainly more chances to make money than almost anybody in my community, and my interaction with kids doesn't involve whacking them with a stick. If my adopting her had been her best option, I'm not sure how I could have refused, but I found a nearby children's home that will be better for her than a 24 year old single guy from a foreign country.

Thus began months of slogging through the Dominican legal system. We're not her family, and we didn't have the legal rights to send her anywhere, so we had to wait for the children's tribunal to prepare her documents. I don't know all the legal issues we had to deal with, but I made a lot of phone calls to a lot of people who all sent me to someone else. I went with the girl herself to the Tribunal to deliver a paper I wrote explaining her situation. I went to try to gather information from her grandmother. I went to the children's home to take pictures of all the playgrounds and homes to convince her that she wanted to go (she immediately did want to go...I think she was already realizing that the host family wasn't a good permanent option).
The start of her brief school career
I waited. I convinced my host family (repeatedly) to keep her for just a few more days and not to send her to her abusive relatives. We all waited. I found people to go with me to the Tribunal to convince the woman working there to hurry up.I  found people to help me make phone calls so they could understand when people explained the situation in Spanish. The girl dropped out of school after a month because she was getting into too many fights. I tried (and failed) to convince my host family that violence doesn't teach people not to be violent. We waited, and called, and visited, and waited, and sent off to Haiti for a Haitian birth certificate, and called, and finally, FINALLY, I got a call on Dec 13 from the children's home saying she could come in the next day.

And fourteenth day of the twelfth month shall henceforth be a day of celebration throughout the land!

Today started with more drama, because a few days ago she finally ran away from the host family and was living with another (wonderfully gentle) woman (where she behaved like an angel), but my host family was still involved and upset. I hope this isn't the cause of another small-town feud, but some people just end up in conflict with everybody anyway. The girl and I and two social workers loaded into a truck and after 5 months and 20 days in limbo, my smart, beautiful little friend arrived at her new home.

As we drove up, she recognized the water tower from the pictures I'd taken and got really excited. She had already warmed up to the friendly social worker (who lives there). She immediately befriended the doctor who did her initial checkup, and laughed about how much one of the nuns there resembles one of the nuns here next to the batey. I think she knew what a big transition this was, because she knew that she wasn't going back and I was going to leave and not take her with me, but she remained happy and confident almost the entire time (she even told me to say hi to some of the people back in the batey!). I left her with people we both trust, happy, safe, and surrounded by toys. In Internet lingo, this was an epic win.
She's actually there! This photo is one of the greatest rewards I've ever earned.
The only way I could possible imagine it going better would have been if she'd already made friends with some of the other kids, but she didn't have a chance to meet them before I left. There was already some chatter going around as I left ("She's 8? So-and-so was wrong, she said 6. What's her name?"). Every time I've seen her out of the influence of my host family, she's befriended other kids very quickly. I'm sure she won't have any problem among all those children who share similar histories.

The children's home has an elementary school (K-8), and they're building a high school (even though she's never spent much time in school, I started teaching her to read and she's a very bright girl. I think she'll be able to catch up quickly). They have doctors and psychologists. They have a church with a priest and nuns (it's a Catholic center). They're growing plants and caring for animals to produce their own food. The kids can stay until they're adults, and there's even money to send them to college. They've got everything. She went from being an abused and neglected orphan to having more support and better opportunities than any of the kids in my batey. And I'm floating! I think if I jumped high enough, I could fly over to give her a hug!

Today was a very happy ending to the 8 difficult years that have been her life so far, and a very happy beginning to her hopeful future. I can go in a week or so to visit and see how she's doing, and from time to time after that. And I'll be one of her padrino/sponsers once she enters their program in a few months. But my job is mainly done, and I'm very content with the result! I set out from the beginning to fight for her best interest, and by the grace of God, we got there. If my PC service ends tomorrow, I can hold my head high and call it a success!

UPDATE (One week later): I still haven't been able to visit her, but I've gotten a few updates, and things are looking good. She came down with some illness, but it was nothing serious and they've got good medical care there. She had a little trouble the first couple of nights, but is now by all accounts very happy. I just heard today that she's already made lots of friends! It sounds like she's adjusting quickly to her new home. What a Christmas present!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Making American Food for Friends

The past couple of days, I've been sharing American cuisine with friends from my community. Part of my job as a Peace Corps volunteer is to share American culture with locals, so I decided to share grilled cheese sandwiches.

Actually, I started last night with pasta. There's an orphan girl who has been living with my former host family, and I've been trying to do what I can to help with her, mainly struggling through the Dominican legal system to get her to a decent permanent home, but also occasionally keeping her occupied so she gets in less trouble (keeping her out of trouble entirely would be nice, but I like making goals that are actually possible). Anyway, she and my host nephew came over last night and I made pasta while they watched part of The Lion King in Spanish on my laptop. 

No, scratch that. I made pasta while the boy 'helped' by explaining how to make pasta, and how to open cans, and what all the things in my kitchen are for, and how to stir, and what ingredients we needed to add (when I was still living with them, he noticed my toothbrush and explained how to brush one's teeth. He loves explaining things, and sometimes even knows what he's talking about! He's among the 50% of fourth graders who know how to read, so I guess he's pretty smart). Meanwhile, the girl (who's only about a year younger but hasn't ever been in school, but who learns very quickly and is indisputably smart) searched through my things for 'gifts' she could beg from me with her puppy dog eyes. The Lion King didn't go ignored, however, because a neighbor boy of about 12 years (whom I've never really met and whose name I don't know) walked in the door with us and sat quietly watching the movie. In Dominican culture, you usually don't invite guests, they invite themselves, and you feed whoever happens to be around at mealtime, so I added some tomato soup to the pasta sauce and managed to feed four in my toolshed. Then my host sister and aunt showed up and scolded me for not saving any for them, and after chatting for a bit everyone left. It was a little chaotic, but really didn't take very long. My poor kitten could come out of hiding by the time Simba met Timon and Pumbaa. And the kids had fun and liked the food, so I'll consider it a successful night!

Scar singing on the not-so-big screen.

Cute girl with leftovers. That's my host sister on the left.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *
Given the size of my one-room home, though, I preferred tonights strategy. I picked up cheese and bread today while I was in the city for church, and I carried my supplies over to some (other) friends' house. They'd never had grilled cheese sandwiches before (honestly, they're probably too expensive), and they'd never even worked a can opener before, so I looked like quite the master chef as I whipped up some grilled cheese and tomato soup. Once again, the food was spread around to more people than I expected, but it doesn't take much food to fill the bellies of people too poor for grilled cheese. We had soup left over! And then I opened my homemade pickles, and they all got to try some of that. For sour vegetables, pickles are surprisingly popular, although there were a couple of the standard oddballs in the crowd who aren't pickle fans.

My sous-chef slicing up the finished product.

Our big pot of soup. They kept calling it 'salsa' because I told them to dip the sandwiches in it.

Some happy customers. I guess the guy on the left is sad that his is gone.

They wanted me to document their full bellies. I'm also documenting the fact that very few Dominicans believe in zippers.
Another very successful night. When people think 'Peace Corps,' I'll bet they usually think of digging latrines and building houses, but having dinner with friends is at least as important and at least as 'Peace Corps' as manual labor.

Friday, December 2, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 1)

I'm sorry I've been so pathetic about updating this blog. If you're still around to read this, thank you for sticking with me!

In order to cover all (ok, some) of the things that have happened in the three months since I last updated, I'm going to have a:

— 1 —
As most of you probably know, I had my first trip back to the US from Oct 20 - Nov 7. I was home for both of my parents' birthdays, Halloween, the dedication of my youngest goddaughter, and an early Thanksgiving meal with our neighbors. I kept telling people that the two goals of my trip were to see lots of friends and eat a lot of good food, and I was successful on both fronts! At final weigh-in, I was almost 8 pounds heavier than when I first arrived home (I had lost a lot of weight in the PC, so I needed those 8 pounds back). Some friends were busy or far away, but I got to see most of the people I wanted to. Overall, it was a very good trip. I would have liked to stay longer, but I got my vacation's worth, so I couldn't really complain about coming back. Especially since I got to have another warm homecoming with all the kids here!
— 2 —
Thanksgiving, being an American holiday, is a time when all the Peace Corps Volunteers get together to celebrate. We went in to Santo Domingo, swam in a fancy rooftop pool, ate traditional Thanksgiving food, had a talent show, spoke English, and caught up with friends we haven't seen in months.
— 3 —
Before my trip home, my major focus was teaching English and computers to 5th-8th graders in the local school. Computer classes weren't bad, but we only had 8 computers for about 150 kids, so they each got to share a computer for about 20 minutes, and theres only so much anyone can learn in 20 minutes. English classes were worse, because most of the students didn't actually care to learn, so I got the 'substitute teacher treatment' and nobody learned anything. I gave a test the week before I left and caught about 10% of the students cheating. About the same number of students passed. I was thinking of ways to rework the classes by selecting out the students who actually cared to learn, but when I talked to the principal, she just had me drop the classes altogether. Also, she didn't want so many students in the computer lab, because she didn't want anything to happen to the computers, so those classes were dropped too.
— 4 —
I was perfectly happy to lose English and computer classes, because that left me free to focus on what I really enjoy: children's literacy! I used to go in to 3rd grade once a week, but now I have time to visit 2nd and 4th grade as well. I sit in the back with some reading books and the teacher sends students over one by one. We read a few pages together, and that's the only one-on-one work many of these kids get. They love it (and fight over whose turn it is), and I've seen real improvement. Most of them won't ever use English, and those who have access to computers mainly surf facebook, but reading is a valuable lifetime skill. And I'm nice when I'm working one-on-one, but I had to get mean when I was dealing with mobs of students cheating right under my nose.
— 5 —
As of yesterday, I have a kitten! His name is Jerónimo, which is the Spanish variation of Jerome. Saint Jerome was a contemporary of Saint Augustine, so Jerónimo and Agustín go well together! He's tiny, and I have to wonder if he was ready to leave his mother, who lives with my former host family. They've been saying for about a week that he was weaned and ready, but he spent a lot of time hiding and yowling. Recently, though, they've changed from lonely yowls to demanding yowls, even after I give him chicken and salami to complement his cat food (most cats here get fed rice, I hope he knows how luck he is). Also, he's come out of hiding and started getting into trouble, so he seems to be growing up just fine. As soon as he gets a bit bigger, he's going to take charge of Homeshed Security and secure our borders from unwelcome rodents and arachnids. He's got the claws for it...take it from one who picked him up before he was ready.
— 6 —
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, despite the warm weather and the fact that almost nobody here has ever even seen snow. There aren't many evergreen trees around, but some of the families get small fake trees, and lots of people put up lights. I'm happy to learn that most Dominican Christmas songs are just the classic English Christmas songs translated into Spanish. So there are glowing Christmas lights and familiar carols playing, and it's just enough to put me in the holiday mood.
— 7 —
I've learned how to make pickles. They're expensive here, and one of the PC doctors is from Bulgaria, and she told me the traditional Bulgarian method for making pickles. It's surprisingly easy, provides me with tasty veggies, and is a lot cheaper than buying them in the store. Now the Dominicans are getting interested, so I guess pickles will be one part of international culture that I share with my batey.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Home sweet home!

This week I finally moved into my own place.  Living with a host family has its advantages, but it also has plenty of downsides, and most volunteers move out after 3-4 months.  In my batey, there are very few available homes, but a friend managed to find me a place: their neighbor's toolshed!  No, seriously, he was using it to hold his tools, but it's nicer than your average toolshed.  He cleaned it up, painted it, put in a new door, and here I am.  It's about 12x16 feet with two doors and two windows, and it's connected to his house.  He ran me a line from his inverter, so when the power goes out I still have a working lightbulb (which is plenty to light up my single room.

I build a table, a bed, and a shelf a out of cinder blocks and boards, and bought a table from a former volunteer, and that's enough to give me a kitchen, closet, sleeping area, and enough storage space (although I need to get around to organizing...I'm still in a just-recently-moved mess).

It's small, but it's a lot bigger than where I was living before, and I have more freedom.  And after months of rice and beans, I'm happy to be cooking for myself.  After some bean burritos, grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and my beloved oatmeal for breakfast every day, friends are already commenting that I look fatter (that's a compliment here in the DR).

The major downside is that there's no bathroom.  They have a latrine, but the walls and roof blew down, so it's 'open-air' and not available for use.  Until that gets repaired, I have to find other facilities, like the school where I work, the church across the street, or inside my landlord's house when they're around.  I have a tub inside where I bathe, and that works for me.

Overall, I'm pretty happy in my converted toolshed.  I've never needed a large or fancy home, and I can do without most creature comforts (that's why the Peace Corps was a good match), and my relationship with my host family wasn't great.  My landlord and his wife are wonderful, and already feel more like family than my host family did.  She brings me lunch, fresh bread, or ripe bananas, none of which is necessary, but it fits with Latin American hospitality.

Speaking of hospitality, I need to start entertaining, but my place is small, I need to practice my cooking, and I just moved in, so I haven't had many guests so far, except a few who came uninvited.  First there was a large frog, then a huge moth, and finally a gigantic tarantula.  Killing them seemed to go against the PC ethos, so I shooed them all out alive, but if that tarantula comes back he probably won't be as lucky the second time.  The thing was enormous.

Some pictures.  Pardon the mess; but given that I'm a bachelor living in a toolshed, it's really not that bad!
Before moving anything in, setting up my table.  I'm standing in the front door.

View from the opposite corner (my closet).  The door on the left goes outside, and the door on the right goes into the other part of the toolshed (still used for tools), and then outside to the backyard.

Most of the roofs in town are zinc.  Since this picture, I added a tarp to avoid leaks and try to shield some of the sun.

My first guest.  Dominicans are scared of frogs.

I don't think they're very scary, so I put my foot in the shot for scale.

I haven't done much to make my place feel 'homey,' but I did get these dishtowels, which reminded me of a little girl I know who loves cows.

My second guest.

I shooed him outside three different times, and he kept finding his way back in.  I finally caught him in a box and didn't let him out until I turned off the lights and went to bed.

My kitchen: gas stove, bottled water, a cooler, and a bowl of soapy water.  What more do you need?

New view from the front door.  The kitchen is to the right.

My bed.  Netalie and I have now lived in four different homes together.

My third guest.  I was literally sitting at my computer editing the pictures of the frog and the moth when this guy came in.  God has a funny sense of humor.

I put a can opener in the shot for scale, because I, um, didn't feel like using my foot.  He's the biggest tarantula I've seen in the country, and I think that makes him the biggest spider I've ever seen in person.  Have I mentioned how much I love my mosquito net?
Fortunately, he didn't move very fast, and when I started taking pictures he decided to find a more peaceful place to sleep and creeped his way out.  Actually, he was just going to wait in the corner, but a long broom and I encouraged the rest of the way out.

Actually, I have had other guests: when I moved the table in, it came with a flock of six children who helped me organize and sweep and eat my chocolate.  Actually, they managed the chocolate by themselves, but that's ok.  Apparently, most of the town avoids my (former) host family, so people are more comfortable coming to visit me now that I'm not with them.

There it is!  Home sweet home.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Singing in the scattered showers

In honor of the latest storm that's passing through, and of the rainy season in general, here's a quick post to present:

Four Reasons It's Better to Shower in the Rain
  1. Conserve Water.  Around here, the water isn't treated, it can give you nasty diseases, and it's free, so it's not exactly precious.  However, saving water is a good habit to get in, and it would be embarrassing if your bucket ran out of water halfway through bathing, so rainwater is a great way use less of the greenish stuff from the bucket.
  2. More Privacy.  My shower has a window at about head level, and there's an excellent view of our front gate.  Even if they can only see my head, there's something awkward about making eye contact with someone while I'm bathing.  Fortunately, nobody goes out in the rain, so rain showers are pleasantly solitary experiences.
  3. Cooler Weather.  Most of the time, it's really uncomfortably hot down here.  And most of the time, I'm sweating.  Like, almost constantly.  It's frustrating to dry off from a bath and immediately start sweating again, but the rain brings cooler weather and that means I feel clean for longer!
  4. The Real Shower Feel.  It may be a bit chilly, and it may be open-air, but if you close your eyes, you can almost convince yourself that you're enjoying the luxury of a cold shower!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

3 Month IST (In Service Training)

Last week I was in the capital with the rest of the education volunteers who were in training with me.  It was a lot of fun seeing everybody, hearing about their sites, speaking English, and eating something besides rice and beans.  We stayed at a Jesuit retreat center, which was beautiful and peaceful and had real toilets and showers (although no hot water, not that you want it during Dominican summers). It felt like quite a luxury!
The occasion was our 3 month In Service Training, which wasn't just for us to get more training, but also for us to present our community diagnostic.  My presentation was well received, largely because I kept it under the 12-minute limit and included plenty of pictures of cute kids!  Honestly, though, it wasn't a high-pressure presentation, because nobody had to approve anything or give me a grade; it was really just to prove I was making progress in my community.

Some of the interesting things I learned about my community in the diagnostic were:

  • The #1 cited problem in the batey is the muddy street, which is already being repaired!  (Progress is slow, but it is moving along.)  
  • The #2 problem is the lack of employment, which is truly the bigger issue.  There was some interest expressed in a Peace Corps microenterprise club/class, so I'm going to find the documentation for that and hopefully help some people start there own small businesses.
  • The #1 reported benefit of our community is the 'tranquilidad' (tranquility).  With so many people up in arms about crime rates and delinquency, it's nice to know that our batey is relatively safe.
  • 70% are legally documented, and most of the remaining 30% are already in the process of getting their papers.  (Without documents, they lose a lot of rights, such as schooling for kids and the use of public transportation.)
  • Only about 21% of the batey speaks Haitian Creole.  Bateys are associated with Haitians, but this appears to be a very 'Dominican' batey.
  • Everybody and their brother wants to learn English and computers (but nobody actually wants to show up for class...).
None of my plans really changed after my diagnostic; I've known from the beginning that I would be teaching English and computers, and that's still going to be my main focus.  I also have plans for the small business club, helping kids with reading and math, and trying to teach effective parenting strategies (i.e. not beating your kids again when they didn't learn from the first beating).

Despite having to sit through more presentations and classes (I thought I'd left college and the corporate world), I had a lot of fun at the IST, and it returning to the batey was a little disappointing.  The average Peace Corps volunteer is a lot than the average bateyano.  Although the IST suffered from a severe lack of cute kids!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Birthday!

Today was my first birthday in the DR.  I took a break from my diagnostic and
from teaching, which was partially my choice and partially necessitated by crazy amounts of rain we had: 

The path river near our house

I never wore crocs in the US, but I couldn't manage without them here!

Our yard

My host sister sweeping water to get it moving out of our yard (and house).

Sweeping muddy water and feeling very Peace Corps!

When the rain and mud let up a bit, I went out to visit some friends.  There are a couple of families living right next to each other; I teach some of the kids reading and math, another teenage daughter is learning English, and their mom is teaching me Haitian Creole.

The teenager (who avoided being captured in any photos) gets credit for remembering my birthday, and ran out to buy something.  Haitians living in a batey don't have a large budget, so I was honored they were spending money on me, and I love what she came up with using only a few cents at the tiny local store:

Cheese puffs and candy, with a candle!

Proof you don't need a cake to feel loved!

 They sang "Happy Birthday" in Spanish and English, but the English version was something like "Happy baby yoo yoo!"  Then we played some games and they insisted on me taking more and more photos:
Showing off for the camera with a song from church

Then I went to another family's house.  These people get even more credit, because they saw me coming, hid inside, and then all ran out cheering when I got there!
 Then someone commandeered my camera
and proceeded, as she always does, to take a bunch of photos of everyone and everything:
Mom in the kitchen


Dad's motorcycle (and another sister)

I decided not to include all the pictures of the ceiling, floor, rocks, dark corners, the same people over and over, and blurry shots of who-knows-what.
Meanwhile, that mom in the kitchen was cooking sugared cherries:

So they gave me a cup of that:
I've had this several times here in the DR.  It's similar to the filling in cherry pie, but a bit more's pretty good!

'Someone' was pouting because her extra-long turn with the camera was over.
 Overall, I'd call it a good day!