Saturday, April 30, 2011

El Campo

I missed blogging for Semana Santa, so here it is, late.  Holy Week is a major national holiday.  There's no school, most people don't work, and the streets are clogged with people going to the beach or visiting relatives.  Even though the DR is officially a Catholic country, the religious side of the week has completely disappeared for most people, and it's just another time for drinking and relaxing.

To celebrate, my host family and I went out to visit relatives in the Campo (campo refers to a rural area).  It's a bumpy ride down dirt roads past cows grazing in their fields.  Once you're out of the city, it's wonderfully quiet...less traffic, less pollution, fewer people, and beautiful scenery.  We've made three different trips to visit two different areas of the Campo, so the picures below are not all from the same time and place.

Many PC Volunteers end up living in a Campo community, and I would be perfectly happy with that.  There aren't as many resources available, but there's enough to live on, and it's a very peaceful, comfortable pace of life.  From the hints I've gotten, though, I don't think I'll be in the Campo, but rather in a Batey.  I'd be perfectly happy with that too, but I'll wait until Tuesday when I (finally!) get my site assignment before I go into detail.

The main attraction to visiting the Campo is swimming in the river.  This isn't the exact river we swam in, but it's another one of the many we saw while we were driving there.
View from a hill overlooking a region in the Campo

There are, of course, lots of animals out in the Campo:

The burro was popular.  He didn't cooperate with me very well, but my host family was able to work with him, even though they're from the city and hadn't visited these relatives before.

My host sister on the donkey

Notice the homemade saddle?

Sitting in a hammock under a mango tree

So far, the Peace Corps hasn't been too rough

And, of course, we had Habichuelas con Dulce.  Here are the beans cooking slowly over a fire, with a plastic bag to keep in the moisture.

The Campo facilities.  The door to the outhouse was a curtain.

This little fort was a playplace for the girl who lived there.  It's way more legit than anything you buy in a store, and it looked like it was used often.

These characters joined us for the river and the Habichuelas con Dulce.  The one on the right is some relative of my host family, and it's her house we visited.  The girl in blue is a neighbor.

I love this photo!  Campo girl eating Habichuelas con Dulce.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not Snow White

In case there's anyone reading this blog who doesn't know me, I'm white.  My hometown is a very 'pale' little town, and there were very few people in my high school who weren't of European or Asian descent.  Race is not something I've had to think much about, and I think the same is true for many of my friends and family back home.  For those of you more versed in racial issues, what I'm about to say is old news, but it's something I've only personally encountered recently.

Disney has been criticized for only recently featuring a black princess in one of their movies.  Neither princesses nor race being a big part of my world, this was nothing big to me.  Most of the US is white, black girls can still enjoy a movie with a white heroine, and anyway, there's now a black princess, so all is well.  Right?

Dominicans (most of them) are black, in various shades.  The lighter shades are considered more attractive, and the darker shades are associated with Haitians, who are viewed very unfavorable in this country.  In all the billboards and TV shows, most people are very light-skinned, as are the politicians.  Movie stars and celebrities are imported from the US, and are all white.  My 10 year old host sister has a skirt with a girl stitched on the side...the girl is white.

As an unofficial side project, I brought a book of fairy tales in Spanish, and I've been reading it with neighborhood kids.  The 7 year old next door is living with her grandparents (her parents are divorced and living in separate provinces.  Family structure is really severely lacking in this country), and nobody ever reads stories to her.  She works hard (at a lot of household chores), seems to be pretty smart, and stays friendly and cheerful most of the time, except when her mom forgets to come visit her.  I love her to death, and I only have a few weeks here in town, and there isn't much I can do for her except read. So we read La Sirenita (the Little Mermaid), in which the beautiful princess is white.  We read Cinicientas (Cinderella), in which the beautiful girl is white.  We read Blanca Nieves (Snow White), and it told how extremely beautiful she was, and how extremely white she was, and I couldn't help but look at the dark skin of my friend and wonder what she was thinking.  And suddenly, it mattered to me that there was only one solitary dark-skinned princess.  None of the stories say 'dark is ugly' in so many words, but if all they ever say is 'light is beautiful,' there is a large population receiving the message that they are 'different than beautiful.'

If any of you have daughters or sisters, imagine if all popular media constantly told them they were 'different than beautiful.'  Imagine also that the education system was beyond pathetic, and the standard 'family' model that they see is unwed teenage mothers.  Suppose the only affirmation they got of being beautiful was when men made crude comments as she walked down the street.  Welcome to the DR.  The situation for black girls in the States is often better, but still has its problems.

As a white male, this didn't even enter my radar until I became emotionally invested in the well being of these Dominican kids.  I don't know how well I've expressed myself here, but hopefully it's enough to get people thinking.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dominican Food

I just finished playing an unsuccessful round of the classic Peace Corps game: "Identify what's crawling around near your bed at the wee hours of the morning" (as a side note, this game is way more fun when you have a mosquito net.  I love my mosquito net.  It also protects against malaria, which is the #1 killer of humans.  Seriously, mosquito nets are really awesome).
Since the roosters and I were already up, I decided to do another blog post, and I think it's time to make use of all the food pictures I've been taking.  Here's Dominican cuisine 101:
I'm not a picky eater, and I've been pretty content with everything they've given me here.  If there's any problem, it's that my host families give me way too much, and I don't want to offend them by not eating it all.  When I don't finish everything, I can honestly tell them that it's not because the food tasted bad.  That said, there's a reason there aren't many Dominican restaurants in the US...the food may not be bad, but it's not very exciting.
The foundation of Dominican food are the viveres, which are the general term for starchy vegetables.  Besides potatoes and bananas, they have yuca, batata, ñame, plantain, and several others that I can't remember, pronounce, or spell.  I doubt there's an English word for many of them.  They all look something like either a potato or a banana, and they all have their own flavor, although (like potatoes) that flavor ususally isn't very strong.  The viveres are either boiled and served in large pieces, or made into a mashed-potato-like dish called mangu.
Meat is widely available.  Chickens are running all over the place, so chicken and eggs are pretty cheap.  Beef and pork are also pretty easy to come by.  Fish is plentiful, especially near the coasts, but the local fish often eat a certain algae that makes them toxic, so PC volunteers are told to stay away from locally caught fish.
Salami is a major staple, which surprised me.  Apparently, a lot of Jews came to the country during WWII and started the salami industry, which has been a huge success.  I've had more salami in the last month than the rest of my life put together.  Who'd a thunk.
The DR earned its place on the map as a sugar producer, and that remains one of it's major crops.  They add a lot of sugar to a lot of things.  It can be good, but it can be overdone.
Rice and beans are another major part of the diet.  If you go to a Dominican restaurant and order 'la banders' (the flag), you'll get rice and beans (and probably salami).
The favorite Dominican dessert (served now, during lent) made of sweetened beans.  Basically, they cook beans and viveres and add a bunch of sugar.  It tastes something like Life cereal, with beans added.  It's not bad, but the flavors aren't things that I would put together.
Finally, there's fruit.  I love fruit, and the huge variety on this tropical island deserves its own post.  As with the viveres, most of the fruit here has been new to me, but it's all grown locally, which makes it way tastier than anything you get in a grocery store in the States.
And now, pictures of some of the meals I've had over the last month:
Boiled plantains.  I thought the dish at the front was eggs, but it turned out to be fried cheese, which is a fairly common item.

Mangu and salami.

Yuca and salami.

Fried cheese, something banana-like, and avacado (which my host family told me is pronounced 'guacamole' in Mexico).

Some bread, some fruit, and a bowl of soup that my host mom almost didn't serve me because it was 'too spicy.'  For the record, Mexicans are the ones who eat spicy food, not Dominicans.  The soup wasn't very spicy, but it would have scared away the average Dominican.

Fruit and sandwiches (with cheese and salami).

Mangu with cheese and onions.  I don't know which vegetable this mangu was made from, but the cheese and onions made it really tasty.

Rice, beans, chicken, and a salad.  This was lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day for Dominicans.

This is a breakfast dish based on flour which is a lot like outmeal.  They add a lot of sugar, so it's really sweet.

Another lunch, with fish instead of chicken.  My host mom buys fish that don't swim in the Caribbean, so we know they don't have the local toxin.

Spaghetti with fritos (fried plantains).

Ñame, platanos, and something with salami.

Breakfast with papaya, also known as "nature's laxitive."

Mangu with salami and onions.

Bollos (dumplings) with ñame.  Bollos are tasty.

Chicken, batata, and ñame blanco.

Habichuelas con dulce.

More habichuelas con dulce.