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.

Monday, June 25, 2012


A perm in our host family's salon: RD$500

 Supplies for an epic cake: RD$300 (time and talent donated by the chef).

A crowd to help celebrate: 5 minutes of mentioning a party, and 20 minutes to let the word spread.

Grilled cheese and Coke to feed the crowd: RD$300 + 20 minutes of cooking.

Assorted presents: RD$400

The smile on my goddaughter's face when I threw her possibly the only birthday party she has ever had: absolutely priceless!

Halfway through the preparations, my host sister mentioned that if I ever have a daughter, I'll probably dote on her a lot. I don't know where she got a crazy idea like that.

Monday, June 18, 2012

CCLF SHYG+YWAM+PCV=Too Many Acronyms

I had a nice treat last week: a group of high school students from my family church back home came to build houses here in the DR. When I was in high school, I did two mission trips with the same group and the same pastor: one to Mexico and one to Costa Rica. They were awesome experiences and part of what motivated me to join the Peace Corps. Apparently, when they were planning trips this summer, they didn't pay any attention to the fact that I was here, but still ended up coming to work only about 20 minutes away from me!

Best of all, they brought my brother and some other friends from church. Obviously, most of their time had to be spent with the group working on the houses they came to build, but I was able to pull out my brother to visit my site all day Wednesday, and my friend Sabrina was able to visit for a few hours on Friday. I spent Thursday with them finishing up the construction.

My parents visited in February and spent a day getting to know my community, but I think my brother Jason had a more complete experience than anyone. We rode with the church group into the city and got off in front of the cathedral where I go to church. Then we walked through the city (as I do every week) and caught a public bus up to my site. We spent a little bit of time meeting almost everybody, and even made it across the street to see some friends in the other batey. Jason has studied enough Spanish to be able to interact with people directly. He especially connected with one of the local schoolteachers who has been studying English; her English was about as good as his Spanish, so they could communicate pretty comfortably between the two languages, and it was really encouraging to both.

Giving Sabrina the tour had a funny twist. I've told people in my site that I don't have a girlfriend, but they didn't seem to believe that when they saw me walking around with a pretty American girl. And unlike other American women who have visited, I couldn't explain Sabrina away as another volunteer; she was either a 'friend' or 'the aunt of my godchildren' (which I think was interpreted as 'a particularly close friend'). My landlady even mentioned that she had a spare bed know, depending on what the plans were for her visit. I clarified that the plans were to meet a few people and then to rejoin the group from church, and we behaved ourselves and followed the plan, however countercultural that may have been. It does provide an interesting look at Dominican male-female relationships. Apparently there's only really one kind.

Sabrina only met a few families, but I made sure they were fun families, and (as I knew would happen) she connected really well with some of the kids. But the time we were checking out the school, she had a young friend under each arm. I wish there were someone like her to mentor some of these young girls, because lots of them follow the culture and are mothers by 15. I do what I can, but that's limited by the fact that I'm not a woman. But it's late, and I digress.

The visits were fun, the group built three houses, and the trip was considered a great success, which is awesome for me, because that means they're planning to come back next year. Si Dios quiere, I'll end my service in 11 months, go home for a month, and then come right back with the church to visit again for a few days. This may even turn into a regular trip for several years. I know the transition back to the US will be difficult for me, but this could make the shift a little easier. And really, if the group has an alumn who's fluent in Dominican Spanish and eager to participate, why wouldn't they keep coming down to this tropical island?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hablando Dominicano

This post is dedicated to my lovely cousin Caroline, a Spanish student after my own heart. Spanish was one of my favorite subjects in middle school and high school, and I've had the chance to put it to very good use. In a few years, maybe she'll get to use Spanish as much as I do, although I hope her experience involves few mosquitoes!

"¿Aonde tú 'taba?"
"Mete lo guineo en la funda."
"Paco 'ta 'cotao."
"Dame un chin desa lechosa."
"¡Mi mai 'ta guapa!"

For those of you who thought you spoke Spanish, don't worry if you can't decode the lines above; they're written in Dominican, which sometimes seems like it should be classified as another language.
Living here in the DR, I've enjoyed not just learning more about how the Spanish language works, but also learning about what makes the Dominican dialect different from other varieties of Spanish. In this post I'll be explaining some of the features of Dominican Spanish which makes it different than the Spanish I learned in school.


Phonetics is a linguistic term used to talk about the sounds used in language, and it's probably this that sets Dominican Spanish apart more than anything else. 

1.) The most famous example is the letter S: Dominicans almost never pronounce the S a the end of a syllable.

English Standard Spanish Dominican Spanish
I'm looking for the matches Busco los fósforos. Buco lo fóforo.

Not all the S's disappear, but only the ones at the end of a syllable. Also, it's the S sound, and not the letter, so Z and C can also be affected.

English Standard Spanish Dominican Spanish
tailor sastre satre
system sistema sitema
rice arroz arró
pencil lápiz lapi

Not pronouncing S at the end of words can cause some confusion. It's not always clear whether a word is singular or plural, but that usually doesn't impact the meaning enough to cause trouble. The real problem is with verbs, because an S is the only difference between 'you talk' (hablas) and 'he/she talks' (habla) or 'you have' (tienes) and 'he/she has' (tiene). In places like this where the meaning would be unclear, Dominicans use the pronoun (tú), even though pronouns usually get left out in Spanish

English Standard Spanish Dominican Spanish
What do you have? ¿Qué tienes? ¿Qué tú tiene?
How are you? ¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo tú 'ta?

2.) Most Dominicans know that more 'formal' or 'sophisticated' Spanish has more S's, so they'll sometimes add them back in when they want to sound more educated. The problem is, they usually don't know where the S's are supposed to be, so they add them in the wrong places! Linguists call this 'hypercorrection'...they 'correct' things that don't need to be corrected.

My name is Agustín (ah-goos-teen) which becomes Agutín (actually, when a word ends in N it usually becomes NG, so they pronounce my name 'a-goo-teeng'). But my name can pick up one or two extra S's and turn into Asgusting or even Asgustins. I've had someone offer me a ride on a 'mosto' (should be 'moto' – motorcycle), and one little girl asked to borrow my 'cásmara' (camera).

3.) Another common phonetic change in Dominican Spanish is dropping the letter D from between two vowels.

English Standard Spanish Dominican Spanish
tired cansado cansao
nothing nada
everything/all todo


Lexicon is the linguistic term for vocabulary. Dominicans use a few words that don't exist in other dialects of Spanish, although some of them belong to the whole Caribbean, not just to the Dominican Republic. Here are some of the common ones:

English Standard Spanish Dominican Spanish
a little un poco/poquito un chin
bus autobús guagua
thing cosa vaina (sometimes considered impolite)
small pequeño chiquito
banana banana guineo
papaya papaya lechosa
goat cabra chivo
tree árbol mata
dad papá pai (from 'papi')
mom mamá mai (from 'mami')
where dónde aónde (from 'adónde')
to where adónde pa'onde (from 'para adónde')

'Para' very often gets shortened to 'pa' or even just 'p'.

There are also some standard Spanish words that have a different meaning here in the DR:

Word Standard Meaning Dominican Meaning
guapo pretty/handsome angry
bolsa bag scrotum
funda pillowcase bag



Finally, here are the sentences from the start of this post, translated twice: first from Dominican into Spanish, and then into English!
DominicanStandard SpanishEnglish
¿Aonde tú 'taba? ¿Dónde estabas? Where were you?
Mete lo guineo en la funda. Mete las bananas en la bolsa. Put the bananas in the bag.
Paco 'ta 'cotao. Paco está acostado. Paco is lying down.
Dame un chin desa lechosa. Dame un poquito de esa papaya. Give me a little bit of that papaya.
¡Mi mai 'ta guapa! ¡Mi madre está enojada! My mom is angry!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday, Volume 2 (one day late)

1) My parents came to visit last weekend! They were only here for a few days, but it was a great to see them. We spent last Saturday here in the batey; I showed them the community and introduced them to a bunch of people they couldn't really talk to. And everybody gave us food. We had La Bandera (rice and beans), habichuelas con dulce, fresh coconut, dry coconut, oranges, juice, cheese and crackers, and some of my homemade pickles. Then we went back for dinner at the hotel, and most of the meals for the next three days were all-you-can-eat buffets. After my parents left, I weighed myself and found I'd lost a pound. Curse my skinny-person metabolism! At least I know that being underweight doesn't mean I'm malnourished.

Anyway, everybody was happy to finally meet my parents in person, and my parents were happy to see my site and my friends. We spent a couple of days taking advantage of the fact that I live on a tropical island with warm weather and beautiful beaches (I took advantage of the air conditioning and warm showers). It was a great break from my typical routine.

2) My cat is a chicken. Not literally, although he would fit in well here as the bird. He's a wuss, a wimp, a fraidy-cat. My parents could hardly meet him because he was frantically trying to get away from me so he could hide. Any time I have a guest, he makes an undignified scramble under my bed. He's supposed to be a fierce tomcat hunter that keeps away the rats and stray dogs. So far he just keeps away cockroaches (although the rats don't realize he's a wimp and they stay away). Oh, well, he's still small, maybe he'll get a bit tougher as he grows some more.

3) A couple of weeks ago I was able to visit the children's home and see my friend. She's still adjusting, but doing pretty well! She's always quiet when I first host family had the same experience when they visited. It could be that she's upset that we 'got rid of her', but that just means it's more important that we visit to show that we do care. She manages to open up a bit after a while (and after I pull out some gifts), and it's great to see her in her new life. She's finally in school, and by all accounts is enjoying it. She has two or three close friends and some adults that she's really close to. I was officially there to help translate for sponsors who were visiting from the States, but I was able to step in as her sponsor and pull her out of school for the afternoon so she could join us for some of the activities (skipping school is always exciting). I got to show her off to some other PCVs who were there to translate, and we agreed that she was the cutest one there.
I love the organization. It's called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos and it has homes all around Latin America. None of the kids are available for adoption, because they want to provide a loving family and a home that the kids will never lose. It was founded by Father Wasson, a priest from Arizona who gained custody of several boys instead of pressing charges when they stole from his church in Mexico. The man deserves to be sainted. He had a huge heart for kids and has made an incredible impact on the lives of thousands of children who came from desperate situations. Seriously, if I could invent from scratch an organization to take care of hundreds of needy children, I couldn't make any improvements on NPH.

4) Everybody wants to learn English. I have several steady students and several more who are asking me to start a class that they may or may not show up to. I think I'll set apart a day to have a large class, and then I can tell people to go to that. If (when) they stop showing up, they won't be able to complain that I'm not teaching. But those who make a genuine effort can learn.

5) It's good that English classes have picked up, because my work in children's literacy has hit a hitch: a local bureaucrat has banned me (at least temporarily) from helping with reading in the school. In a meeting with some school officials, she actually accused me of illegal activity because I was helping kids learn to read...from the wrong textbook. I'm not kidding. It seems there's a new government-mandated methodology, and I'm harming the kids by following the old one (which is how I learned, how most of these teachers learned, and the only method anyone at the school is familiar with). I may have gotten some of the other teachers in trouble because it came out that they were also supporters of the old method. But honestly, the situation is kind of funny, except for the fact that the lots of the kids truly can't read and somebody has to do something with them. I can wait until I get trained in the new method, or I can 'go rogue' and teach in the homes instead of the schools. I'm such a thug with my contraband textbooks. Fo shizzle.

6) February 27 was Dominican Independence Day. I would tell you what it was like, but I was hanging out with tourists in the hotel, and nobody seemed to notice. Yeah, I should have been in my site integrating. Maybe next year.

7) March 1 marked the 51st anniversary of the Peace Corps and the 1st anniversary of my leaving home. I didn't arrive here in the DR until several days later, because I was sick in Washington DC. But still, I'm a year into my PC experience, and I have about 14 months left. It's shocking that I'm almost halfway done.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Medical Mission

I spent the first couple of weeks of the new year out in the mountains (in the province of Santiago) on a Medican Mission. There is a group from the University of Southern Maine (students, teachers, and local doctors and nurses) who come in twice a year to run clinics for several small towns, and they ask PC to send volunteers to translate. Medical Missions are always popular with PCVs, so I was glad I got the chance to go on this one. I wasn't disappointed.
 Everyone kept telling me how beautiful it is out in the Cibao (the central region of the DR). There really was some spectacular scenery, although the rainy/foggy ('Bellingham') weather often obscured the view. In a typical day, the ~80 of us would split into two groups and each group would visit a different community. Patients would line up and be shown in whenever a medical provider was ready. The providers were usually med students under the guidance of an experienced nurse, and whenever possible we (the interpreters) would stay with the same student all day. The patients tell us their problems, we relay it to the student, the RN guides them along if they have any questions, and they check with a Physician to be sure of the diagnosis and medications.
A typical setup, this time in a church. We also set up in schools.
There was also a team of Athletic Trainers (and one Occupational Therapist) to help people with some aches and pains. They were notoriously difficult to interpret for, because they would describe obscure motions and excersizes and talk about ligaments and strange muscle groups. But they (along with everyone else in the group) were fun people to work with, so we could forgive their complicated language.

I've never done any interpreting before, and I really enjoyed it, although there were some difficulties. Obviously, there was complications whenever a patient used a word I didn't know ('gallbladder' wasn't a vocab word in my high school Spanish class). Also, we were supposed to use 'first person' interpreting, which means when a patient says, "me duele la pierna," should say "my leg hurts," instead of "she says her leg hurts." That style of interpreting allows the interpreter to fade into the background a bit more, but it was really difficult to get used to. Especially when I was helping a female patient with a yeast infection, and I had to tell the provider about my itchy vagina.

Besides translating for patients, I often helped run the program for kids. I opened with a short song, and then I translated while someone gave a quick lesson on nutrician and dental hygiene. We usually also painted their teeth with flouride and the doctors checked their hearts and lungs, but that was really just for fun, because if they actually had any problems or complaints they would have a full checkup along with their parents.
Kids gathered around for the nutrition lesson.
Our felt display, with some fruits and veggies in the 'good' category.
The first group I worked with, just before our song.
Your truly painting flouride on a girl's teeth. It apparently tasted pretty bad, because they'd stay still until we finished, and then run off spitting.
There were also small groups (couple of students, a doctor, an Athletic Trainer, and an interpreter) who would go out on home visits. Patients who could leave their house could receive in-home care. In one home visit, I saw a family with a formerly alcoholic father, a currently alcoholic son, a severely schizophrenic son, and a daughter with Down's Syndrome who has refused to leave her bed for eight months (and believe it or not, the mom has high blood pressure). We were able to supply some medications for the schizophrenic man and his mom, but there wasn't a lot we could do for the others. On another home visit, we checked up on a man who had recently started chemotherapy. He already had the meds he needed, and his family was taking good care of him. My favorite home visit, though, was this couple:

He's 89 and after multiple strokes is very limited in mobility. His 78 year old wife is amazing. She helps him move around, prepares the few foods for which he has any appetite, keeps track of all his medications, and still manages the housework. Her only complaint was occasional back pain after chopping firewood(!). She said they'd been together since she was 13 and had 11 children together (many of whom are around and helping out), and "either he'll take me to the grave, or I'll take him to the grave." The world needs more people and more marriages like this one (actually, better that they start a little later than 13 year old, but besides that).

The place we stayed was also really neat. It's a Claretian retreat center, and it had a wonderful serious of trails through the woods with signs displaying the Stations of the Cross. There was also a nice little chapel hidden back in the woods. The accomodations were fairly comfortable (at least by Peace Corps standards), we had hot meals prepared for us, and there was a group of women who did laundry every day. We Peace Corps Volunteers didn't get paid, but we also didn't have to pay anything to be very well taken care of for two weeks.
This guy was staying at the center with us.
This was definitely an experience I want to repeat in the future. I got to see old PC friends (and make some new ones), to meet some quality people coming in to run medical clinics, to help out a bunch of Dominicans who don't likely have any other medical care, to see another region of the DR, and to try my hand at semi-official interpreting. And I got to speak English and eat PB&J, and no PCV can refuse that!