Silly Things Dominicans Do

Silly Things Dominicans Do

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  • Ahorita
    • In the rest of the Spanish speaking world (at least the parts I’ve come to know) ahorita means RIGHT now. Here, ahorita means in a little while, OR a little while ago. Needless to say this created a little confusion.
  • Limón = lime.. and lemon
    • Again, another word that is not only counter-intuitive for English speakers but contrary to other countries that I’ve drunken juice in.
  • Insist on feeding you until you’re in physical agony.
    • “But, John you barely ate anything!!” As I finish cramming my stomach so full of food that its actually backed up through my internal organs into the top of my throat. Like the lines at the bank during December of 1999. It’s common knowledge that doñas here really like to try to fatten up both their children and especially volunteers, though the reasoning isn’t necessarily clear. The theory is it’s a point of pride about their cooking and how well they treat us; and since none of us chubby volunteers have been killed, cooked and consumed by our family yet, we’re sticking with that until proven wrong.
  • Yell everything.
    • This is a nation full of actors and actresses; and they’re good. Street basketball games are half dribbling and half yelling and smacking the back of your hand into the palm of your other while veins bulge out of your neck and spit flies from your mouth. Meetings are a mess of incoherent screaming that always threatens to turn into violent chaos until you realize that they all agree on whatever small scheduling issue was brought up.
  • Put sugar in your coffee when they know you don’t want it.
    • The recipe for Dominican coffee is something like 60% sugar and 40% coffee, and you will never meet a Dominican who wants their coffee bitter. I established early on that I like my coffee bitter and black, but every once in a while my family will put a little sugar in there. I’m easy going so I never say anything and they take that as I want them to continue, so they start slipping it in every day; until I set the record straight and we reset to bitter coffee. Yet the cycle continues..
  • Put sugar and oil in everything else.
    • Cook in oil and pour it over the top.
  • “Si Dios Quiere”
    • There is a really popular saying here that is essentially God Willing and for the most part it is used to say that if I don’t show up to a meeting, or class, or come to pick you up at the airport it’s because it wasn’t meant  to be.
  • Spaghetti Sandwiches
    • Carbs on carbs on carbs.
  • Arrive late to absolutely everything
    • Maybe “ahorita” has something to do with it. Dominican time is its own, well known dimension.
  • Call actors by their character names.
    • Paul Walker will always be known here as Brian O’Conner.
  • Call the USA, New York
    • Due to the massive Dominican population in intercity New York, tons of people who have family in the US, only hear about New York and that’s the extent of their knowledge of the country. It’s always “where in New York are you from?”
  • Insist on blaring music in inappropriate places.
    • There is only one noise level here and it is deafeningly LOUD.

 

Beautiful Things Dominicans Do

  • Dance
    • From the earliest ages people are dancing, and not the dirty sweaty grinding we do in the west. They learn batchata, merengue, salsa and they dance them beautifully.
  • Battle to the death to give you a place to sit.      
    • It doesn’t seem to matter how little people have here they are always willing to help others and share what they do control. My host mother came to me one time almost in tears after a big group of neighbors had been hanging around during lunch and she had fed them all. Without hesitation she gave every one of them a plate of food and something to drink. Yet, after they left she confided that she couldn’t afford to feed all of these people and that they always come around during lunch. The simple solution to me seemed, well, tell them to stop. But, she didn’t even consider that an option.
  • Spend all their free time with their families.
    • The culture is so collective here; it can be a little overwhelming at times. Dominicans are constantly surrounded by friends and family and wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Feed you incessantly every time you’re around.
    • There is nobody happier than a doña receiving compliments on her cooking while feeding a content volunteer, friend, or neighbor.
  • Guilt you every time they see you for not coming to visit them enough, no matter how long it’s been since you last visited.
    • While Dominican guilt can make you grind your teeth until the roots bleed, the sentiment behind it couldn’t be sweeter if it was Dominican coffee. Life moves so slow here sometimes. It’s a tough thing to get used to as an American. When you’ve got your head down marching to the next thing you want to accomplish, it’s difficult to remember to relax and go sit on a neighbor’s porch, chat a bit over blaring music and push yourself a little closer to type 2 diabetes with a hot cup of coffee.
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April 3, 2013 Community Based Training

The next step for us is Community Based Training. The education group is in a city called Monte Plata and we are in a city called Peralvillo. It’s a smaller campo outside of a mid-sized town of around 20,000 people. It’s a good fit because there are fourteen of us and if we were to go train in a small rural area we would be way too visible, not that we’re tough to miss here. Everybody seems to like their host family setup. Some are having withdrawals to not having wifi, and power and water are even more intermittent here than in the city. As I sat to start writing the lights and fan clicked off. It’s an extremely common occurrence with the electricity being off more than it is on.

Our training sessions our pretty similar to the way they were in the capital, however in CBT they are concentrated more on the business development aspect and less on overall Peace Corps rules and processes. Somehow, I ended up in the highest level Spanish class, which I’m happy about even though I’m on the lesser skilled end of the spectrum there. Because we are already qualified linguistically we spend the majority of our classes discussing borderline inappropriate topics (our loves lives, and whether or not animals feel pleasure while fornicating (one didn’t lead to the other)). Each class is doing a mini-community diagnostic. It essentially consists of examining the community, conducting interviews with people from different demographics, and researching how the community functions. The point is that during our first three months in our sites we will perform a more extensive community diagnostic to address the needs and strengths of the community.

So much happens every day here that it’s difficult to accurately track time. It feels like we’ve been in the country for months but it will be exactly one month this weekend.  From my point of view a lot of us have bonded really quickly and really well. Some of us click and converse with such comfort; it’s as if we’ve been friends for years. I think we make a solid effort to keep clicks from forming, however, we’ve had to strike a balance between including everyone and rolling 33 deep to events, and choosing to attend activities separately.

During volunteer visits, we went to visit seasoned volunteers at their sites to see what the life is actually like. My situation was rare and exciting. I went to visit Andy who I also happened to go to college with. I had found out he was here just after I got my acceptance letter. We spent a couple of days at his site, which was, informative; then we proceeded to fuck off to the beach. We met a group of about 6 other volunteers and spent a serious amount of time drinking rum, swimming, and beating up on Argentinians on the beach volleyball court. The thing about Peace Corps Dominican Republic is that it hasn’t really felt like the Peace Corps yet.

Don’t get me wrong, out in the countryside, away from the major cities, people live in rough conditions. The Haitians are particularly susceptible. Disease, poverty and lack of infrastructure are endemic here. Tourism has become a massive part of the economy here, but like in many developing nations that rely on tourism for growth, problems arise. Pollution, labor exploitation, inflation of prices and property all put stress on the local population while foreign investors manipulate local laws and accumulate wealth. However there are opportunities for Dominicans and I am incredibly excited to be a part of the growth of this country for the next 2 years y pico.

                Looking back CBT was the best 5 months of training. Life slowed down a bit and living out in the country-side was so much more relaxing than in the busy, noisy capital. Without internet and all the distractions of the outside world, we had nothing else to do but bond with friends, new and old. In our free time we would swim in the river or have bonfires on its banks, play basketball and dominoes, and go to the “Bomba” which was a gas station by day and the only club in within reach by night. I would also estimate that I spent 25 percent of my waking hours sloppily learning to dance Batchata and Merengue.  My beautiful and very professional dance instructor Addy assured me that I was a level 9 by the time we went to leave. In Santo Domingo I knew exactly one of my neighbors and it was because she ran the small store that we drank beer and played dominoes at all the time. In Peralvillo we all knew each other’s host families and their friends. The town was small enough that everyone knew us along with all the other residents. Many of us made connections that will draw us back to Peralvillo; some of us more than once.

March 12, 2013 Host Family

“The families are here, so if you’re ready, you can come meet them.”

My Spanish class had been let out early and we were preparing to go home to our host families for the first time. It was only the second day in the Dominican Republic and already so much had happened. Now we were waddling, dragging our backpacks like ducklings following their mother to the larger of our two outdoor meeting areas to meet our host families. We would be spending the next three months living with, being taught and looked after by a Dominican family.

It’s a strange feeling when something can’t live up to your expectations because of the impossibility of knowing what to expect.

As we entered the hall, members from thirty-three families sat staring at us in awe. It felt like we were on display or up for auction, only the decisions had already been made and we were stuck, for better or for worse, with the luck of our draw; as were our new families. You couldn’t help but stare around the room and make preconceived assumptions about the bewildered faces looking back at you and wonder who you would be dragged home with. Another trainee went first. He walked up to one of our instructors who read out the name of his new family. An older woman stood up and greeted him in a friendly way, albeit a bit awkwardly. Fantastic I thought. I was up next. Scanning the room the instructor called out the name of my family. A woman in her thirties, who I would later find out was my host sister, stood up. She had an extremely welcoming and friendly looking face.  We had gotten a very sloppy answer on how to greet people here. Different cultures vary so much on what is appropriate, from bowing in Asia to hugs and cheek kisses in Latin America, though I had all but ruled out bowing to my new Dominican host sis.

Waiting for her move, my host sister, Wendy immediately embraced me in a loving and welcoming hug. We hit it off straight away. She was enthralled that I spoke any Spanish and I felt she greatly over stated my abilities when complimenting me on it, but knowing her now, I expect nothing less. The family has hosted Peace Corps Volunteers for over twenty years. Wendy grew up with volunteers coming and going. I see know, talking to other volunteers who are staying with families hosting PCVs for the first time that that experience makes all the difference in both my comfort and theirs.

When we arrived at the house, I met Wendy’s two children Aldo (6 year old boy) and Aldy (4 year old girl). The first thing Aldy did, not knowing me at all, was to run up and give me a giant hug and squeak “hola John!” She still greets me the same every day when I return from training. In addition to the children and their mother, is Alex, Wendy’s brother. Alex is 30 and a personal trainer built like a professional boxer. It’s extremely difficult to feel like a man when he’s walking around the house in a wife beater. Despite his physical presence, he couldn’t be nicer or more welcoming. He frequently comes out on the patio and just sits around with me to shoot the shit. I invited a couple of friends over in the first week, which ended up turning into and improvised party as more and more volunteers happened by. Alex and Wendy bought beer, put out food and music, and taught about 15 of us to dance merengue and bachata, all without my asking or them even offering. Wendy always tells me that I’m a member of the family now and it definitely feels like it.

The final member of the house is Gladys. She is Wendy and Alex’s mother. She is no different than her children, warm, welcoming, and laughs at my poorly executed humor. Gladys’ sister and her two children who are in their teens (my host nephew and niece) come over every day to hang out and chat for a bit. Ricky, the boy and I get along really well. We both like sports and playing board/word games. He goes back and forth really well and can take as much as he gives.

Before we got our housing assignments, a lot of us were talking about what we wanted in a house. Small children and a dog were universal and popular choices, very high on my list as well. I also said that I would forgo running water, sitting toilets, and food most days, all for wifi. Internet was the only thing I really wanted to have. Somehow I managed to hit the host family jackpot with kids, a 2 month old puppy (Nina), running water, sitting and flushing toilets, and to round it off; wifi. My neighborhood is a gated community of upper middle class families, complete with a full basketball court that sees its share of action.

Acknowledging that it is still early on in my stay, I am ecstatic with my host family placement. If I can think of one complaint it’s that I don’t feel the next three months will be as difficult and life changing in the way that I expected. I’m somehow too comfortable with my situation. But, I imagine I will have plenty of discomfort when we get our rural placements.

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March 8, 2013 Pre-Departure Training

Our first day of training was officially March 5th. I flew out to Washington D.C. three days early to explore the city and play tourist for a bit. On the fifth I checked into the Skyline Hotel to find a lobby full of people my age with travel backpacks and luggage. There were hundreds of us. I hadn’t known what to expect but it seemed like an overwhelming amount. I soon learned that there were several Peace Corps training groups arriving for pre-departure training bound for several different countries. One group was leaving that day for The Gambia while others were leaving the next day for Senegal, Nicaragua, along with my group bound for the Dominican Republic. I checked in and began chatting it up groups of people. I was still a little early and as time passed groups dispersed and I started to find the other trainees who were heading for the DR. There were 33 of us in total. Most of us are in our mid-twenties and have similar experiences, study abroad, some Spanish, college degrees, etc. We also all seemed to have the same expectations, none. The PC has a habit of keeping everything purposefully vague. This in itself is part of the training, to promote and build flexibility, easily the most thrown around word throughout training.

I had heard that Pre-Departure Training was more or less the last chance to bail if you were still on the edge about the 27 month commitment. It didn’t seem to me that this was the idea. We went through a stack of paper work and got some safety training, but what we all really got out of it was the opportunity to start forming bonds and friendships with our fellow trainees. The gnawing in my stomach that had told me that I wasn’t ready to leave home subsided immediately. Where I expected to meet a bunch of unrealistic, self-important hippies, I found 32 people shockingly similar to me. Athletes, musicians (I’m not), and people who love to, and know how to laugh. We all seemed to click instantly, well before we learned each other’s names.

Training lasted all day the 5th and we were scheduled to leave for the airport in the morning at 2 AM. After an hour or so of sleep for most of us, we made our way to the airport and took off just before a massive snowstorm kicked in the front door to our nation’s capital. We found out later that we were the only flight to leave that day.

That was only two days ago and I feel like more has happened than in the three months that I was home. We spent our first night in the country in church retreat center or a convent. It was never really explained. The next day we went directly to our new training center. The Center is on four or five acres of beautiful, lush, tropical, vegetation. Roosters roam the grounds and a dozen or so different fruit trees shade the small outdoor cabins where we have our classes and sessions. Keeping us safe are two very friendly and hilariously bored looking guards with massive shotguns that they wield like little girls with jump ropes. Aside from our mercenaries, it’s so easy to forget that we are in the middle of the biggest city in a country with its fair share of violence, poverty, and drug activity. It feels like Eden.

We have spent the first few days practicing Spanish and sitting in on sessions in safety and Dominican culture. I have started to feel as if we are being a bit babied by the staff and trainers as we don’t really have the freedom to explore yet. It’s certainly understandable and they have been in the DR since 1962, so they surely know what works and what doesn’t; however, it’s difficult to suppress my excitement and curiosity to explore.

Post-College to Peace Corps

 

At the time of my graduation from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, I had two goals for the first few years of my post-college life. I wanted to either see as much of the world as I could afford to, and spend time helping less fortunate communities and people. I have been incredibly fortunate in my life in the support from family, friends, and the inherent situation into which I was born. Before I embark on a career I have decided to try my hardest to achieve, at least to some degree, these two goals.

From August 2011 to September 2012, I spent 13 fun-filled months in Korea, learning and growing every day. I lived in a world more foreign to me than I could have ever imagined. I learned a fair bit of the language, and while nowhere near enough to say that I speak Korean without instantly igniting my pants in a blaze of fire, I was able to communicate and get-a- long day to day without any real problems. Coming from the US, Korea might as well have been another planet. However, as different and exotic as Korea was, I only managed to scrap together one journal entry about a literally larger than life prostitute and her severely intoxicated client in the love motel that I was initially staying in. While everything thereafter was new, exciting and noteworthy, I struggled to find any significant events or ideas that I could write about without blabbering on just like every other English teacher in the country. The kids think I’m hairy and bald. The food is amazing. Soju sucks and makes your brain drain puss and blood from your ears the morning after. Koreans don’t seem to understand sarcasm. All of the stories seemed so painfully similar. So, almost before I began, I stopped.

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After completing my contract with my school in Korea, I got a short visit from my family to Seoul. Mom loved the temples and hated the heat. Charisse hated the food but loved the clubs. Stephen (baby sister’s boyf) seemed to dig it all. Playing tour guide and stammering translator can be a little stressful so after it all I took it upon myself to enjoy a little Asian vacation. I took off for 10 weeks to bum around South East Asia like millions of travelers before me. I started in Bali, Indonesia and worked my way up to Hanoi, Vietnam, and from there I flew back to Seattle just before Thanksgiving 2012. I had only a basic outline of highlights that I wanted to see and a backpack. I did my best to stay on the ground (as opposed to flying) even if it meant 24 hours on a train. I tried to see the things that tourists don’t normally see as much as possible, though I did see a lot of those too. I saw 9 countries in all in Asia, had my fair share of bouts with bed bugs and food poisoning, and made tons of friends and memories that I’ll never forget. It truly was one of the best things that I have ever experienced and I strongly believe that travelling (along with education) is the best way to spend hard, or barely earned money. I know now that I will never spend a significant amount of money on a car or frivolous luxuries until I am satisfied that I have seen the entire world (at least once). Recently I heard a quote by St. Augustine that went:

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  – St. Augustine

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I agree one hundred percent but I believe that this applies to all of life, not just travel. A new page can be anything from trying new foods, to meeting new people, to exploring a career that you had never considered or had previously been too afraid to pursue. Self-help books are shit, but they are right. We are only limited by ourselves. Being in a constant state of discomfort is addicting and the only way to see what we are capable of.

All that said, I intend to stay addicted as long as I can without destroying my family or losing my mind. As of March of 2013 I am a Peace Corps Trainee in the Community Economic Development (CED) Program in the Dominican Republic. I have only been home for 3 months since returning from Asia. In the three months I spent back, I did my best to balance working an oddly enjoyable dishwashing job, relaxing, working out, destroying my work-out by having fun with friends and family, and preparing to leave for the PC. I knew the time would fly by but somehow I was still in total disbelief when the time to leave finally came. I was hoping that I would be sick of home by the time I left but as it approached, I couldn’t help feeling like I wasn’t ready. It had been nearly a full year since I began applying for the Peace Corps and the beginning had always seemed so, so distant. While I loved it all, I knew the time had to come to an end. It was a perfect break and I hope that I’ll be able to at least briefly repeat it again in the future.