Friday, November 21, 2008

a few notes on mail

Hello, all! First of all, thank you so much to all who have sent me letters, cards, and care packages! I can’t even tell you how exciting and meaningful it is to get mail down here.

Second of all, let me say that I think some of you have sent me things that I have not received. The Dominican mail system is slow and somewhat unreliable, so it’s possible that these things will reach me eventually, but for the record: if I have not specifically thanked you for a letter or package, I have not received it yet.

Here are a few more tips I’ve gleaned about handling the Dominican mail system:

  • Things in large manila envelopes tend to have better luck than smaller cards. Even if you’re sending a small card, please consider sticking it in a manila envelope. The postage cost will go up a little bit, but it seems like it will be much more likely to reach me.
  • Make sure you have the address right:
    Renata S., PCV (Use my whole last name, I just don’t want to put it on my blog)
    451 Avenida Bolivar
    Apartado Postal 1412
    Santo Domingo
    Dominican Republic
  • If you are sending a package (thanks!!), try for a padded envelope rather than a box. Also, on the customs form say that you are sending me “religious materials.”
  • For letters or packages, it seems to help if you make it look like you actually are sending me some sort of religious materials. Try drawing crosses or writing “Que vaya con Dios,” something like that.
  • This should be obvious, but—don’t send me money! It’ll get stolen.

Also, here my top 5 most-desired things in care packages (just in time for Christmas ;)):
1. Soy nuts! Delicious, crunchy sources of protein and fiber; completely unavailable in the DR.
2. Dried fruit/trail mix. Again—not available here. Nuts you can get (although they are very expensive), but not dried fruit.
3. Non-perishable, vegetarian box dinners—things like Annie’s pasta, Tasty Bite Indian dinners, and Thai Kitchen boxes (check the labels on those please, not all the Thai Kitchen stuff is vegetarian but a lot of it is). Nothing microwaveable though, it has to have a stovetop cooking option.
4. Chocolate, particularly individually-wrapped items (fun size candy bars, etc—they hold up better to this climate) and particularly peanut butter/chocolate combinations or dark chocolate items. But whatever, really, beggars (and Peace Corps volunteers) can’t be choosy!
5. Magazines. I’m partial to celebrity gossip and commie pinko political magazines, but really anything in English is great.

BUT SERIOUSLY I’m super excited to receive anything in the mail, and I promise to return the favor with postcards of my beautiful, impoverished republic.

Also, for those of you looking to support my community with school supplies or whatever—honestly, right now it is best if you don’t send me things to distribute here. Peace Corps tries very hard to get our sites to view us as human resources, not as sources of handouts. So instead, support the volunteer who is trying to teach them English! Also, I usually do share my candy with my classes. (Alternate suggestion: donate some money to Oxfam, they are my favorite charity and they do great things where they are most needed.) Also, later on in my project it’s possible I will write up a Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) grant, which is basically where I beg for money from friends, family, and local (meaning Illinois, not the DR) organizations to support a project and you guys give it to Peace Corps and then they give it to me. Rest assured I will let you all know if I start something that needs PCPP support and will happily accept your donations then :) (Check out the PC donors page if you are interested in this project.)

Anyway, thanks, guys! You are rad, and sorry if the Dominican mail system lost something you sent me.

pretty good day

Hmm, now it’s 8pm, which I’ve (somewhat arbitrarily) decided is too late to visit people. I’ve been putting off visiting this woman in my neighborhood for like… a month now? I’ve visited her a few times, and she’s always very happy to see me, but it’s also always fairly unpleasant. HERE’S WHY: she ostensibly invited me over so she could practice her English with me, but instead she likes to nitpick my Spanish (which, though imperfect, is much better than her English). This is annoying (I know I should just accept and grow from the criticism, but I am frankly not yet a big enough person to do this and not be annoyed), but much more uncomfortable is the way my visits always turn into family therapy sessions, in which she tells me everything that is wrong with her 11-year-old son—while the kid sits across the table from us! I try to stick up for him—I don’t know him that well, but I figure with a mom like that his self-esteem could probably use a hit regardless—but my attempts are always shot down by mom. Still, though, I should visit her and keep working on the kid’s self esteem, and also to stave off guilt trips when I see the woman around town.

Well. Another day, I guess.

But! I will not let this failure detract from my other successes of today!


  • This morning I did laundry a mano! Lots of it! Here is how I do laundry when possible: I take it to the Peace Corps office and do it in the American-style washers and dryers there. However, this is complicated because: it’s tricky to travel with large amounts of clothing, it’s expensive to travel to and stay overnight in the capital, and the high demand on the Peace Corps laundry machines means it’s improbable to get all one’s laundry done in one day. So I can only do laundry there when I’m already planning to travel to the capital for some reason, and also when I’m not planning to be there at a time when lots of other volunteers will be there. When too long goes between acceptable trips to Santo Domingo, then I get out my washtub and my bucket and do my laundry in the shower. I use fresca lavanda (fresh lavender) scented laundry detergent, and white vinegar in the rinse water, and a little scrubby brush which I use (with limited success) on stains. Then I hang everything up on the network of wires that looms over my paved-over backyard. Today I was forced even to wash my jeans, which I strongly resist washing by hand because they are so hard to wring out by hand and they take so long to dry and they can go so long without being washed. Today my jeans smelled really bad. But no longer!
  • Plus I washed my bathmat, which is even more of a pain to wash than my jeans!
  • Also, I finally put some oil on the padlock I use to close my gate at night. For the last, oh, two weeks, it’s been too rusty (or something?? What am I, a lock scientist?) to shut, so I’ve just been putting it over my gate latch and swiveling it so it looks closed. This has, in fact, prevented any break-ins, although this could also just be due to the fact that I live in a very safe neighborhood and also my house is about 6 inches away from my neighbors’ houses. Still, though, now I can actually lock it again.
  • I went to the far-away grocery store (it’s like a 20 minute walk… but that is far-away when it’s 85 degrees out, okay) and bought wheat bread, canned mushrooms, and a tomato! Hooray!
  • I took out the trash today. When I first moved here, Thursday was trash pickup day, but lately they’ve just been picking it up on random days. This morning I noticed that some of my neighbors had put out their trash so I thought maybe… but the trash is still there. Whatever, it’ll get picked up eventually?
  • I swept off my porch! My porch accumulates trash at a rapid rate because Dominicans tend to be severe litterbugs and cough drop wrappers and chip bags constantly fly around this country in a whirlwind of non-biodegradable tidbits. For this reason, most doñas sweep their porches at least once a day. I’m not a very good doña so I shoot for like once a week. Whateverrrr.
  • I did all my dishes from dinner before the power went out! I hate doing dishes in the dark.
  • I wrote up this blog entry. (This I’m doing in the dark, but it’s cool cuz the laptop has 2 hours of battery left.)

So yeah, pretty good day!

my weekend in the wild wild east

This past weekend, Karina and I embarked on a trip out east to visit our old host families from our CBT (community based training, you may or may not recall) days. It’s about a six-hour trip, and the second main leg is in a small, cramped guagua (as opposed to the air conditioned, Greyhound-style bus of the first leg). Actually the trip had five legs: a carro publico from my town to La Vega, a bus from La Vega to the capital, another carro publico from the bus stop to the Peace Corps office, a taxi shared with Karina from the office to another bus stop, and finally the small guagua to our final destination. (FYI: Peace Corps frowns on us giving out the names of PC sites online, hence the vagueness. The reason is so that terrorists don’t find out where volunteers live and, you know, terrorize them? Which is a little dumb since any terrorist would just have to ask around for Donde la americana vive and would not even have to bother with my blog, but whatever I don’t want to get in trouble from any PC PTB who happen to stumble across the Paz Dispenser.)

So anyway! After this long journey (sustained by care package jellybeans and attempts to read People magazines on the bumpy ride), we arrived in our old neighborhood and were welcomed by our doñas. I discovered that I’d come on the oldest daughter’s birthday, although in typical Dominican fashion the family wasn’t doing anything to celebrate it. (Quinceañeros, 15-year-old birthdays, get a party if the family can afford it. Otherwise, the kid might get their favorite food for dinner, but tends to be about it.) I gave out a few gifts to all the kids—candy taken from my care packages, plus a coloring book and a deck of Uno cards, with which I was promptly induced to play. Luckily, I haven’t played too much Uno since I finished living with my training host families, so I’m pretty over my Uno burnout.

I also met their new kitten, who the family keeps tied to a pole on the patio with a short length of string. This is one of the more pathetic sights I’ve seen in this country—people here do generally keep their dogs tied up, but I’ve never seen a cat tied up before! And this one is so teeny, and on such a short string, and it desperately would like off of its string… oh, it broke my heart. (Also sad: the fact that Americans probably spend about as much on pet food as the average lower-class Dominican family spends on human food. But seriously the kitten is cuter.)

Other than the birthday and the kitten, it was a pretty standard weekend with them—I went to church, hung out with the kids, and ate doña food. The latter was an excellent reminder of why I love living on my own so much—she was the best cook of any of my host families, and I still had to cope with things like her having forgotten about my vegetarianness and giving me weird fish, cold rice, gross hot milk, and nasty gluey oatmeal. (Look, I lived with it and tried to keep a positive attitude about it for six months, but I might as well say, cultural sensitivity be damned: a lot of Dominican food sucks!)

Karina & I parted ways with our host families Sunday afternoon and caught a guagua to our friend Stephanie’s site, about an hour further east of our CBT site. The road from the capital to our CBT site is not in the best condition, but it is at least paved. Further east, no such luck! I don’t tend towards carsickness, but that was definitely a nausea-inducing ride. The pain was relived, however, by the fact that Stephanie lives about ten minutes from the beach, where we spent the afternoon relajando and getting to know some of the other volunteers in the area. (Her town has FOUR volunteers, although one of them is officially finished with Peace Corps as of this month and is sticking around to work for an NGO.)

Afterwards, we continued hanging out and also met some of the people who are there doing marine research for Columbia University. (Seriously, Stephanie has soo many people to speak English with! I’m jealous.) It was a fun night, but our 6:30 am guagua ride back was somewhat less fun, and just as nausea-inducing as the ride in. Ah well, vale la pena (worth the trouble)!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

awkward in any language

Well, I didn’t get to post my last entry in La Vega as planned, since the power went out at the Internet center just as I got settled at a computer. We all glanced around, waiting to see if an inversor was going to kick in, but the lab encargada made a throat-cutting hand gesture, understandable in any language, and we all grumpily filed out of the center.

Aside from that, though, it was a pretty successful trip. I went to the post office, where how much it costs to send a letter to the US depends mainly on what size the envelope appears to be, what the clerk’s friend thinks it should cost, and how successfully I am able to make the case that “Siempre cuesta veinte pesos!” (It’s always 20 pesos! Which is clearly not true, as evidenced by the fact that I have to bargain over postage every time. But it is frequently 20 pesos, and I believe it should always be 20 pesos, coño.) Arianna and I had some delicious lunch at our favorite restaurant, and received the best piropo ever: some guy yelled “Americanas!!” at us, which we ignored. Then he followed it up with an excited “Ganó Obama!” (Obama won!) By this point we’d already gone past him, so we couldn’t really acknowledge it, but it was a welcome change from the usual “Americana, te quiero, tu eres preciosa, que linda…”

I had a good weekend after that, too. Everyone showed up for English class on Saturday morning, despite the two-week break. I’ve been following a basic English syllabus that Peace Corps gave us, complete with handouts. This week the theme was hotels & restaurants, and I spent way too long trying to define “concierge” in Spanish. I mean, let’s be real, I barely know what a concierge does in English. I ended up telling the kids something like, “He is someone who works only in expensive hotels. He can help you make a reservation at a nice restaurant, or… find a theatre.” Then the students asked, “Is he a receptionist? Is he a waiter?” “No… those are different people. His job is only to help people find things.” “Is he a tour guide?” “No… he helps people, but he doesn’t leave the hotel.” (Meanwhile, the only time I’ve ever stayed in a hotel nice enough to have a concierge was in Chicago, where I shared it with about 10 other people after a Tori Amos concert, and I had to ask the concierge how to get to the aquarium using public transportation.) We finally decided that there isn’t a Spanish word for concierge, the kids wrote down “guide who doesn’t leave the hotel” on their vocab sheets, and I mentally shook my fist at whoever put “concierge” on the Peace Corps basic English syllabus.

Another exciting adventure in beginner’s Spanish happened when I visited my host family and we talked a little bit about the election…

Doña: It’s strange that a black man won!
Me: But it’s exciting! Barack Obama is from my state, Illinois!
Don: But his father is African.
Me: Yes, but Obama was the senator from Illinois.
Don: He is African, but also American?
Me: Yes, exactly.
Don: (Recalling an earlier conversation we’d had about Americans, when I said my family was originally German but we were still Americans, and how all Americans are from somewhere else except the Native Americans) All Americans are from somewhere else.
Me: Except the Native Americans.
Don: The Indians!
Me: Yes, the Indians.
Host sister: Is it true that the government gave land to the Indians?
Me: Ummm… well… it’s complicated. The government stole land from the Indians… well first of all, there are many groups of Indians, and each one has different… agreements… with the government… and sometimes the government… doesn’t do what it says it will do.
Don: It doesn’t comply with its treaties?
Me: Yes, exactly. Anyway, so some groups of Indians got pieces of land from the government where they can live. But it isn’t enough.

… Anyway, it went on in that awkward fashion for awhile. Later, I talked to my friend Keane about how I felt bad being unable to fully explain the situation, and also how I wanted to make it clear that while my government had done this, it wasn’t something I supported. He told me I shouldn’t worry about it too much, since their government did the same thing to the Haitians. Oh, what a world.

The only other thing I have to report is that we’ve been having tons of electricity here lately! The power will go off and then come back 20 minutes later, instead of 3 hours later! We’re having at least 16 hours a day of power. It’s so weird. The tradeoff—since every silver lining must have its cloud--is that we haven’t really had running water for about a week now. I’m doing fine, since I have a cistern—and we must be getting occasional running water, since the cistern has refilled at least once this week. My neighbors with their working tinacos are doing fine, but since I haven’t been able to refill my tinaco (I don’t have a pump, so I can only fill it when there’s running water and I physically turn the knob), I’ve been making do with buckets. It’s a pretty good workout—if we keep being low on agua de la calle (“water from the street,” which is what we call running water. The first time I mentioned “water from the street” to my mom, she thought I was drinking out of a gutter or something), I’m going to have really buff arms.

dia de elecciones!

Felictaciones a presidente-electivo Obama! (Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure “presidente-electivo” is not actual Spanish for “President elect,” but I do what I want.)

For what it’s worth, Dominicans are generally pretty excited about the US election results, as are Dominican PCVs. The election night party in Santiago was a blast, although I’m feeling a touch of campo guilt for being out of site for the conference AND Halloween AND the election… but, again, I do what I want. Accompanied by intermittent feelings of guilt. (This is standard operating procedure for PCVs, who tend to feel that the more time you spend in your site the more productive you are, regardless of what you’re actually missing out on by being out of site. Peace Corps is a really weird job.)

I haven’t done too much during my time back in site… yesterday turned out to be a school holiday, which also meant that only one student showed up to my English class yesterday. Also, the school building was locked, so we had class for a while just sitting on the curb. In the dark. (If more students had showed up, I probably would have just moved the class to my house, but since it was just the one [male] student, I didn’t want to appear remotely inappropriate.)

However, upon return to my town, my joven asked me to help him form a youth computer group! This was something I’d been meaning to do eventually, like when my school has working computers again, but he proposed having meetings at the town’s other computer center (which is like, across the street from the school), which has a working inversor. The other center’s proprietor is apparently down with this, so I’m going rogue and branching out from my school. (It’s not really going rogue; Peaee Corps supports working with whatever’s available. I just think it sounds a little sexier if I say I’m going rogue, Sarah Palin style.)

So anyway, not much news to report here. Today I’m meeting up with Arianna in La Vega (out of site again! Ack!) for lunch, fast Internet, and fancy groceries (yogurt, tortillas, olive oil). This weekend I’ve got my English class, and I’m planning to andar a bit and visit some people in the neighborhood, since I have been so perdida. Just another glamorous weekend in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer!

Me, Karina, and Justin sporting our snazzy Obamanos shirts.

Monday, November 3, 2008

happy day of witchcraft!

That's what the Dominican phrase for Halloween translates as literally, "Day of Witchcraft." Of course, they don't really need a phrase for it since Dominicans don't celebrate Halloween. This made it all the weirder when a group of PCVs went dancing in Santiago on Halloween and found one Dominican dude with a Little Red Riding Hood costume. I'm also pretty sure Dominicans don't have Little Red Riding Hood... maybe this guy was just visiting from Nueva York.

Anyway, it was a fun Halloween! We started off by eating candy out of everyone's care packages, then got yummy Chinese food, then went on a small Halloween parade. And by "parade" I mean we walked a giant circle around downtown Santiago trying to find a club where we could dance, yet wouldn't have to pay a cover charge. (Hello, Volunteers here.) We finally found a place and danced a few bachatas until the music inexplicably changed to techno. We somewhat awkwardly carried on dancing. It was a good night, though not particualrly Halloween-ish (minus Little Red Riding Hood).

Saturday we lounged around for most of the day, then headed out to Karina's site where we made chili and watched the bootleg of High School Musical 3 I bought outside the grocery store. Now I'm back in site, though I'm returning to Santiago tomorrow for an Election Day party! Obamanos!