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.