Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Real World: Dominican Republic (A Play in One Act)

(This is something I wrote for the summer Gringo Grita, which is the PCDR publication. It might be a little insider-y but my mom thought it was funny, so here you go.)

The scene: a tastefully-decorated (not even one ceramic figurine or cut-glass objets d´arte in sight), well-air conditioned office. An Important Television Executive (ITE) sits behind an imposing desk, perhaps mahogany, perhaps oak, definitely not a Presidente crate with a board on top. Feeling rather out of place, an intrepid Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) is making her pitch for what she believes will be next season´s biggest hit.

PCV: So, I was thinking a show about a Peace Corps volunteer would be really funny.
ITE: I´m not really looking for anything too highbrow this season. What if he´s a high school teacher? Or a cowboy?
PCV: It´s about a woman, actually, and the Peace Corps thing is kind of central.
ITE: A woman? Do you think Teri Hatcher would be interested?
PCV: Um, maybe. Anyway, so there´s this Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic—
ITE: The Dominican Republic? I don´t even know where that is. No one knows where that is. How about Mexico? Mexico´s hot these days. Or Cuba.
PCV: Well, maybe. Anyway, so this volunteer lives with this host family, and they´re all super strict 7th Day Adventists—
ITE: Adventists? No, how about if they´re Jewish.
PCV: Uh, there aren´t really that many Jewish people in the DR—
ITE: I bet there´s plenty in Mexico.
PCV: … anyway, so this volunteer lives with this really religious family, and then one of her project partners is a Catholic nun. Conflict ensues!
ITE: A young, sexy nun?
PCV: No, more like an older, motherly nun.
ITE: A sexy, mature nun. I like it.
PCV: OK, um, anyway, and her other project partner is a divorced single mom with a 5-year-old daughter. It´s a combination with a lot of potential hilarity!
ITE: Cute kids are gold. Does she have a catchphrase?
PCV: Um, she asks for juice a lot.
ITE: Maybe we can do a tie-in with Hi-C. (Makes a note) OK, so what does this volunteer do?
PCV: Well, she tries to schedule committee meetings. Also, she installs Encarta on computers.
ITE: Potential tie-in with Microsoft. Excellent. Although Macs are so in these days, could she work with Macs?
PCV: … sure. Anyway, so she does that stuff, and spends a lot of time explaining that she´s not from New York—
ITE: Why isn´t she from New York? Everyone loves New York, especially since 9/11.
PCV: OK, well, she also tries to explain to everyone that she works for the Peace Corps, not the Catholic Church.
ITE: I´ll be frank, there´s not a lot of drama here.
PCV: It´s a comedy! A cultural comedy of manners, if you will.
ITE: How about she works in an emergency room? There´s a lot of drama there.
PCV: She could give charlas about AIDS prevention.
ITE: AIDS is big these days! Only African AIDS, though. OK, she´s a doctor in an African emergency room.
PCV: I guess there are a lot of volunteers in Africa, too….
ITE: I´ve got it, we´re going to do a reality show about African kids with AIDS. No! Too depressing. A reality show about African kids with cute animals. Like zebras and whatever. Kind of a Crocodile Hunter thing. Brilliant.
PCV: That´s not really—
ITE: Save your hippie crap for PBS, lady.

(The PCV grabs her Nalgene and leaves, wondering if maybe she shouldn´t have worn flip-flops to the meeting. The ITE picks up the phone and asks his secretary to determine which African nation has the most photogenic children.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

homeward bound!

It's true, today Karina checked out of the hospital and I'm headed back home too.

Without going into too much detail I'll just say that her appendectomy had some complications and she ended up having a much longer recovery period than appendicitis usually requires. Stephanie, Arianna and I mostly stayed in the hospital with her and helped her out, and she had a number of other visitors.

Aside from being worried about Karina, it was almost like a slumber party, complete with air conditioning and cable TV. She's still recovering, but now she's staying at the Peace Corps country director's house for a few days. We're all counting on her to spy out his place and report back to us.

After the frigid air conditioning of the hospital, it's going to be a little tough going back to my bedroom where I don't even sleep under a sheet because it's too hot. Mostly, it'll be good to get back to site... it's been awhile.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hello from the Clinica Abreu

Don't worry, I'm fine. I'm in the Clinica Abreu--the private hospital used by the Peace Corps--visiting my friend Karina, who had her appendix out on Thursday. She's doing better, but still in kind of rough shape, pobrecita. But she's got a gaggle of us keeping her company now. We're all pretty comfortable as visitors--she has a private, air conditioned room.

Right now we're watching Pretty Woman (in English!) on TV and waiting for the doctors to bring Karina a painkiller and for Stephanie to bring Chinese takeout to the rest of us (she's still on a liquid diet).

A quick note on health care for PCVs--we're very well taken care of, with 2 excellent doctors who are always on call for us, and PC sends us to the Clinica Abreu, which is a very good facility (unlike most Dominican public facilities).

Anyway, other than my impromptu trip to the capital, my other big excitement has been that I found a house in my town!! I can move out of my host family's house on August 1st, and I can't wait. They've been very nice to me, but I've been living with strange families for 5 months now and I'm really looking forward to having some privacy again. Not to mention little things like not waking up to 5 dogs barking and being able to make my own food. I can tell you I will definitely make myself fewer rice and beans than I'm currently receiving.

My new house is lovely and I'm very happy about it. It's big--too big, really, with 3 bedrooms for just me!--and has a nice, fenced in backyard, with a chicken coop, a mango tree, a guava tree, and an orange tree. It has a tinaco (a backup water tank system) so I won't be affected when the running water cuts out. And it's in the Barrio de los Profesores (Teachers' Neighborhood), so I live close to most of the teachers at my school, and just 3 blocks from my school.

The only downside is that it's too big and a little more expensive than I was hoping for, but I didn't have much choice. This was actually the only house I've been able to find in my search, and I really didn't want to spend any more time with my host family than I had to. (Again, not that I don't like them... just that I'm ready to live on my own. So ready.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008


At long last, the combination of me having both my camera cord and fast Internet has occurred and I've uploaded my photos! Regrettably, this will be the last batch for awhile, since my maldita camera broke a couple weeks ago.

The whole set is up on my Flickr, but here are a few highlights.

My PCV class on the day of our graduation/swearing-in!

Me giving my speech at graduation. Fancy-pantsy.

One of the views from my hike of death in Jarabacoa.

This is how dirty my clothes were after the hike of death.

Me, Karina, and Arianna at the Embassy on my birthday. I don't know if I've explained yet how my PCV friends and I like to pretend that we're models? But we do. Like all the time. It's kind of weird, but it's vastly entertaining.

Friday, July 11, 2008

incidents & accidents

Hello hello! This has been a fairly uneventful week for me, since my lab is still broken* and so I couldn’t do my technology camp even if kids had shown up. (I keep hearing rumors of kids who want to come, only they don’t know what time the camp is at, or what day it is, or whatever. At first, I was telling everyone to come again on Monday and we could try starting the camp over from scratch, but that was when I mistakenly believed that the inversor would be fixed this week. Instead, what happened this week was that the repairman came and told us we needed to buy new batteries for the inversor, for which there is no money.

*Here is the thing: only the inversor is broken, and by broken I mean the batteries only last maybe an hour. The lab would still be perfectly usable when there is electricity, but the nun refuses to let anyone use the lab. I could maybe understand this if the inversor were flat-out broken—because then when the power went out, the computers would just shut down and that’s bad for them. But the inversor has enough power to allow all the computers to be properly shut down after the power goes out but before the inversor runs out. Instead, the lab is remaining entirely unused.

So, since my primary project is not functioning, and when I stay at home too long I can tell that my Doña thinks I’m lazy, I’ve taken over an empty desk in the secretary’s office and camp out there from roughly 8am-12pm, then from 2-5pm every day. Here is what I do:

    Reach new personal bests at Brick Attack on my cell phone
  • Have long phone conversations with other PCVs about how little work there is for us to do
  • Thumb through my Dominican Republic guidebook and think about all the places in this country that are more awesome than the secretary’s office
  • Make small talk with passing teachers (including the creepy old man teacher who always tries to kiss me on the lips in greeting, instead of the cheek. I always try to turn my head at the last minute to avoid this, with a fairly high success rate, but once in awhile he slips through. Gross. Also, today he asked me to take him back to America with him and pretend like he’s my brother. I could not even make a joke in response, I just said NO.)
  • Steadfastly ignore the telephone. This is an issue; for reasons unbeknownst to me, the office’s sole telephone is on the other side of the room from the two secretaries. It is on the empty desk I have appropriated. I feel as though my proximity to the phone should require me to answer it, but I’ve never been told to do so and I’m not very good at Spanish on the phone. I tried to answer it a couple times when the secretaries had both stepped out, but I could not understand what the caller wanted and had to wait until a native Spanish speaker came back. Also, even if I could understand what was being said, the odds are good that I would not know the answer to the question. So, I feel pretty justified about not answering the phone here, but I also feel awkward about ignoring the ringing phone at my elbow and waiting for one of the secretaries to walk across the room to the phone.
  • Prepare elaborate construction paper-and-marker materials for my English class (which upped its enrollment from 5 to 6 this week! My friend Keane has 30 students in his class, but Keane’s project partner didn’t make him offer classes on Saturday morning. Also, Dominicans love Keane’s hair and he theorizes that many students are there to gain closer proximity to his shining locks.)
  • Stare into space
  • Frequently re-apply lip balm
  • Take over the other office computer to work on my diagnostic PowerPoint, which I will have to present at the beginning of August. I am severely missing my laptop right now, because my version of PowerPoint had WAY more clipart than this one does 
  • Take over the other office computer to write blog entries.

Weirdly, none of these activities were mentioned in the Peace Corps brochure.

Outside of the office, here is what I’ve been doing:

  • Taking walks when it is not too hot out
  • Nursing my walk-related injuries (severe Birkenstock blisters and a puncture wound from when I somehow stepped on a stick and flipped the pointy end of it directly into my shin)
  • Pre-lunch naps
  • Avoiding my host family’s dogs. The only female of the five is in heat, and the other four are all desperate to heed nature’s call. My family is keeping the lady-dog locked in the bathroom, which drives all the dogs crazy. They bark and howl all the time, and try to slide their paws under the front door in a doomed attempt to reach the object of their affections. Aside from the insane noise levels this creates, it’s also very hard to leave or enter the house, because any time you open the door, a herd of dogs attempts to slide its way past your feet.
  • Continuing to attend too-long youth group meetings. I’ve also started going to meetings for planning the town’s patronales (patron saint festival), not that I have anything to contribute, but it gets me out of the house and sometimes there are cookies.
  • Trying to use the Internet. There are now 2 Internet centers in my town. One is painfully slow, but is generally open. The other, newer one, is fairly fast, but has highly unpredictable hours. Granted, pretty much everything here closes down from 12-2 or 2:30 for lunch, but you’d think you could get your business back open by, say, 4pm on a weekday. Well, sometimes this place can, and sometimes it can’t. Same with the mornings…sometimes they are open, sometimes they are not. Also, the faster center only has 3 computers, so sometimes it is open but full. (The slower one has four computers, but is hardly ever full.) I shouldn’t complain, since most of the Environment and Health volunteers have to travel for like an hour to get to Internet at all. But most of the other ICT volunteers have free Internet in their labs, so I feel entitled to a small whine.
  • Playing Uno with my host family. Since there aren’t small children in this household, Uno fever hasn’t taken such a strong grip, but we still play sometimes. Also, this Dominican card game called Casino, which I still don’t understand all the rules of and which my host family thinks I am exceptionally stupid for not understanding. But then, I think they are kind of dumb not to understand Uno, so I guess we’re even.
  • Reading, although I try to pace myself, since my access to English-language books is relatively limited and I don’t want to run out.

Such is the exciting lifestyle of the Caribbean Peace Corps volunteer!

Dominican Fashion Statements

As most of you know, I’ve never been that interested in American fashion (my love for Project Runway not withstanding). I’m not terribly interested in Dominican fashion, either—at least, not in dressing according to Dominican fashion. I am, however, abstractly interested in a few select Dominican fashion trends. I will share these with you, so that if you come visit me you can be oh-so-chic.

-Giant polo shirt logos. For some reason, it’s very popular for men to wear polo shirts where the little guy-playing-polo logo is about 6 inches tall, and done in a variety of colors. At this size, it is quite apparent that the polo player on the polo shirt is himself wearing a polo shirt, which is a slightly meta-fashion statement.

-Hair rollers. Dominican women almost universally want straight hair, but very few Dominicans have naturally straight hair. So women put their hair in rollers to straighten it out. However, they will then walk all around town in these rollers… to the store, to a friend’s house, to church even. I don’t understand why wearing your hair rollers in public is more acceptable than wearing your curly hair in public, but trust me, it is.

-Extreme color coordination. The height of fashion for Dominican women is color coordination between your shirt, your jewellery, and your eyeshadow. Ideally, your shoes and purse will also join in. The look can be slightly overwhelming, especially when the chosen color is pink.

-T-shirts with vaguely inappropriate English sayings. A lot of used American clothing makes its way over to the DR, where it is happily worn by most people. However, I often see people wearing shirts that I feel they would not like so much if they understood what they said. For example, my very conservative host sister frequently wears a shirt that says “Cowgirls have it. Cowboys want it.” And I doubt if a “Top 10 Reasons I’m a Stoner” T-shirt would have gone over very well at my youth group meeting if it had been in Spanish. I also saw a teenage boy wearing a shirt that said “I just need to marry rich,” and a small child wearing a shirt that said “You can’t afford me.” (The latter particularly alarmed me, because it means that somewhere someone actually made those shirts in children’s sizes. Creepy!)

-Painfully tight clothing. Another PCV described Dominican women as wearing “pants so tight it matters if you shave your legs or not.” I don’t understand how they can bear it in this heat, but bear it they do.

Meanwhile, I continue to wear loose-fitting khakis, sleeveless LL Bean blouses, and no makeup, but I’m still labelled “bonita” because I have light skin and straight-ish hair. As an unfortunate legacy of colonialism, the beauty ideal here is to be white. This is especially regrettable since hardly anyone here looks white. Dominicans are a blend of African, Taino Indian, and Spanish blood, so they are all various shades of brown. Most look, say, Halle Berry color, although some are darker and some are lighter. It’s not at all uncommon for Dominican public figures to heavily powder their skin for public appearances or photos, to whiten themselves up a bit.

I would like for my secondary project to be starting a new “Black is Beautiful” (“Dominican is Divine”?) movement down here, but I think starting an entire shift in cultural norms might be a steep undertaking for two years. For starters, Dominicans consider “black” to be an insult, and instead call their skin color “indio claro” (light Indian) or “indio oscuro” (dark Indian). “Moreno,” dark, is derogatory. We’ll see, though… the United States still has pretty rigid beauty norms, but they’ve been evolving over the last few decades, and I’m hopeful they can evolve here, too.

Monday, July 7, 2008

¡Feliz Día de Independencia!

I hope all you ‘Muricans had a good Fourth of July alla. We sure had a good one here in the DR! July 3rd was a little rough, though, with over 9 hours of travelling. First of all, about 2 hours to get from my site to the capital, where I reconvened with some other PCVs at the PC office. We all quickly checked our mail (where I hit the care package jackpot, thanks, everyone!) and picked up our free, outdated Newsweeks, then scurried over to get our guagua to Pedernales.

The majority of inter-city travel in the DR is pretty easy. There are several large bus companies which have nice buses, with big cushy seats and air conditioning, and these buses go almost everywhere. Regrettably, the southwest—one of the poorest areas of the DR, blessed with a proximity to the Haitian border, mountains, and poorly-maintained roads—is neglected by these large bus lines. The only way to get there is by small, van-like guaguas. These guaguas are not air conditioned and lack the cushy seats of their competitors.

These guaguas also make frequent stops, since they will pick up and drop off people anywhere along the route, unlike the more regulated larger buses. Thus, our alleged 6-hour trip to Pedernales ended up being over 7 sweltering hours, punctuated by inexplicably long stops.

But we did make it there eventually! We ate some greasy pizza (Dominican pizza is related to Dominican spaghetti, although it is generally far less terrible than the spaghetti) and did a little dancing at the local park before crashing in our hotel rooms.

The morning of the Fourth, we (around 70 volunteers and friends) headed out to the Bahía de los Aguilas crammed into the backs of two large trucks, followed by a short speedboat ride. (Shockingly, the boat captains gave us all lifejackets—this in a country where seatbelts and helmets are unheard-of. Of course, it’s also a country where few know how to swim, so I suppose that might account for it. Or perhaps they have just heard tell of the litigious nature of gringos.)

The beach itself was gorgeous, although I have to admit that I think Playa Esmeralda is a little bit more gorgeous. But this is like saying that Godiva chocolate is a little more delicious than Lindt chocolate—technically true, but that doesn’t mean they’re not both amazing. The water was amazingly clear and blue, the sand was soft and white, and we were the only people in sight. A few people had snorkelling gear that they passed around, and we found starfish and stingrays. (Nobody got stung.) Someone brought a Slip ‘n Slide and set it up on the beach. Many people bore bruises and scrapes as battle wounds from the Slip ‘n Slide, but no serious injuries.

Unfortunately, our plans for camping were scratched—the Bay is a national park and they had just closed it for camping because sea turtles were mating. Double-unfortunately, we didn’t see any sea turtles, which are most active at night. Probably just as well, since we’d been hearing rumors of a possible tropical storm and the wind was starting to really pick up by the afternoon, although the weather was perfect other than that.

Saturday morning we headed back to the capital. Luckily, this time we had a much more efficient guagua driver and made it back in the standard 6 hours. We spent the afternoon watching trashy television in the Peace Corps lounge followed by a trip to the S Bar for some delicious, delicious falafel.

Sunday, we returned to our sites. It’s nice to be back in my Dominican home, although I still long for out-of-site food. This week I’m supposed to start my technology day camp, but our inversor is broken so I’m not allowed to use the lab, and also no one showed up for the first day. I did hear from two parents that their kids would come tomorrow, but we’ll see about that. Oh well, maybe next summer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My Educational Weekend

After years of negatively answering the question "Oh, you're an English major? So you want to be an English teacher?", on Saturday I taught my first English class. Of course, being a Peace Corps ESL teacher is a little different from assigning essays on Steinbeck to grudging freshmen. I showed up at around 8:45 on Saturday morning for my class that was supposed to start at 9am. Much to my surprise, I had 5 students there by 9am--the most punctual Dominicans I've encountered! It turns out that they are my only students, but I'm quite content with the small class size, especially since these guys are so punctual and dedicated.

My class is 3 hours long, which seemed way too long to me--my project partner had wanted me to do a 4-hour class, but I rejected that. But I tried to give my students a break halfway through, and they said they just wanted to keep going. Then they asked if they could leave at 11:30 instead of noon, and I said sure, since we didn't have a break or anything. But when 11:30 rolled around, they wanted to keep going again. Kids these days, they just can't get enough ESL.

I ended up using my entire pìece of chalk in the first two hours--I'd forgotten that Dominican classrooms are BYOC (bring your own chalk) and I had to run out and buy a piece of chalk from the stationery store on the corner before class. I didn't realize how much chalk wears out throughout the course of a class. But this lack of chalk didn't deter my students, who copied things down directly from my notes.

Afterwards, I met up with a group of volunteers I'd heard about; it's hard for gringos to spend much time here before I hear about it. They're from an American Catholic group who apparently come to my town every year to do a camp. They told me that this year they're doing the camp in a different town but came back here to do a mini-camp for the weekend. I helped them pass out crayons and stuff and talked a little bit about their organization, which apparently sends money to my town every year and also does this camp thing.

On Sunday I went to teach my other English class--I'd planned to do a beginners' class and a more advanced discussion group, since people are always telling me about their son or daughter who speaks English really well and would just love to practice speaking to me! But apparently none of these mythical children loved speaking English enough to sign up for my class. This is fine with me, I wasn't really looking forward to having a Sunday morning class but my project partner pressured me into it.

Then I went to hang out with the Catholics again, since they'd told me they'd be in town again on Sunday, but I didn't see them. I suppose there are children in other towns with greater need for Biblically-themed coloring sheets. Having a free afternoon, I decided to go visit a guy who'd been pressuring me to come visit his house to speak with--guess--his daughter who just loves speaking English. Unfortunately, said daughter felt incredibly embarrassed about speaking English with me and didn't have that much to say in Spanish, either. I endured an hour of awkward bilingual small talk before taking my leave. I'm definitely going to need to improve my tolerance for awkwardness if I'm going to survive 2 years here.

The upcoming highlight of my week is scheduled to be Fourth of July. I'm going to the big Peace Corps party down south at the Bahía de los Aguilas (Eagle Bay--Stephen Colbert would approve). Apparently PCVs go there every year for the Fourth. It's supposed to be beautiful, and it's very secluded--to get there we have to take a 6-hour bus ride from the capital, and then a short boat ride. Hope the rest of you have a great Independence Day, too!