Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My first month in the DR

My first blog entry! I’ve been in the Dominican Republic (DR) for about 3 weeks. I am having a great time in Santo Domingo. After a month of goodbyes I said my last goodbye Feb. 14th and departed to Miami Florida for 2 days of "staging" to meet the other volunteers and to get prepped for the big flight to the Dominican Republic.

During "staging" we met for the first time and it was exciting to see who we would be spending the next 2 years with. My group is great and I was really impressed with all of the other Peace Corps trainees. There are 2 returned volunteers who served in the 60’s and 70’s, 1 married couple, 21 females, 9 males and the majority of the volunteers. We were all so excited to be there that we were jumping on the beds and acting goofy. During staging we basically went over our hopes fears, expectations, aspirations, and of course safety and policy.

The Peace Corps staff led us through many activities/"dinamicas" together which is the Peace Corps way of doing things. I felt like I was in summer camp. For example one of my activities involved writing a song regarding integrating into our communities and singing it to our group which was fun and silly.

After much prepping from the staff we were ready to go to the DR on our own. Imagine 28 people each having 2 years worth of baggage trying to check in at the airport at the same time. As one of the PC trainers put it, the Miami airport is like a fiesta.

The airplane ride to the DR was absolutely beautiful with clear blue waters and sandbars visible from the plane. We landed in the DR and were greeted by the country director and training officer. They welcomed us with open arms and guidance. As we walked to baggage claim, there was a brief blackout or "apagon", as they call it here. We had been warned about electricity outages but I didn’t expect to experience it immediately at the airport.

On our way out of the airport we were greeted by current volunteers and staff holding up Peace Corps signs waving at us and welcoming us. It was so nice to be met at the airport by so many people who were happy to see us and yet had never met us. It was a sign of how the volunteers take care of each other and how they were going to be our family for the next 2 years.
This is Jenny and Becky who are both IT volunteers on our way from the airport to the retreat center.

The first day in the DR we are taken to a monastery/retreat center where we are given our first dose of malaria pills, our mosquito nets and repellent and a quick overview of things to come. That night was fun as we had dinner and then played cards outside enjoying our first beautiful Dominican evening. The next day was Friday and we had training at the training center and met our host families that we would be living with for 3 months of training in Santo Domingo.

My host mom, or dona as they call it here, is named Angela and has a husband and 2 sons who are living in New Jersey. For a while it was just Angela and I at the house but her husband came home on Sunday after a long trip to the USA. Angela is super nice and really goes out of her way to look after me. She calls me her daughter. As for my living conditions, I live in a neighborhood called Los Angeles in a cement house with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. There are 5 other volunteers that live in my neighborhood. The neighborhood is packed with small houses right next to each other. It’s a typical city neighborhood with butcher shop, bakery, internet café, pharmacy etc but the houses are no bigger than 2 stories and there are cows, goats, chickens and roosters. Mix the roosters with the loud dogs, motorcycles, and the music that is usually blaring from all over the neighborhood and you get one sleepless night. There is no running water in the house which has been a learning experience, especially to take a bath. I have to take bucket baths with cold water but it’s not as bad as it sounds or as I thought it would be mostly because it is hot and after a sticky day it feels good to get cleaned up. Also, the electricity goes out at specified times during the day but it has not been a problem because my dona has a back up generator. ohhh they also have the biggest roaches and spiders here EVER. I won't be spending a lot of time in the bathroom. One morning there were 3 overturned roaches in the bathroom at least 2 inches big. The first night I was here was exciting to me as I took in all the sights and sounds and met people from the neighborhood. There was a political parade that night which was exciting to watch the people rally around a box truck. The truck had the candidate’s pictures and was blaring meringue from large speakers on the back of the truck. My dona made me go inside because she said sometimes the rallies get out of control and people start hitting each other.

So everyday during the week I go to the training center which is in a different neighborhood. The training center is beautiful. . The center has beautiful coconut and mango trees that offer the perfect amount of shade and breeze. Yesterday for our Spanish class we walked around the training grounds and picked fruit of the trees. We had banana, mango, guanabana, tamarind, cocoa etc. I love it; its so cool to be able to go to the tree and have a little fruit tree during break. Our classes our held outside in little gazebo like shelters.

Our instructors, who are all Dominican, have us do crazy things to get us energized like they make us makes us dance to a song and clap hands with each other, like a conga line to wake us up. This week we are going to be making traditional Dominican food and having a potluck on Thursday and Friday we are having a little party for all of the host families. I’m in charge of the welcome committee which is going to be bomba. They teach us absolutely everything you can think of like how to dance meringue administer CPR , make your own re-hydration liquids , cook traditionally Dominican food, take public transportation and of course Spanish. You name it and we will probably be trained in it. They really prepare us for living here on our own in all conditions. We have Spanish 4 hours a day but I have the best class and the girls in my class are so goofy they always have me cracking up.
Public transportation here is a trip! I have 2 choices to get to school, "carro publico" or guagua (pronounced waawaa). The carro publico is a beat up 4 door car that is pretty much stripped in the interior and the doors are ready to fall off the car. You have to gently nudge the door closed or the "chofer" will throw you a look probably because he is afraid that his door is going to fall off. So the name of the game is to pack it in with 3 adults in the front and 4 adults in the back. Let’s just say it’s a tight squeeze most of the time. We were told by the trainers to remove all jewelry and watch your pockets at all times in the carro publico. It’s such a tight squeeze I can’t imagine how anybody could manage to pickpocket but I guess it happens and we need to watch our stuff closely. To catch a carro publico we stand at the side of the road and point backward with our thumb. We always have to point in the direction that we are going and the carro publico will pull over if he is going in your direction. Its sounds a little sketchy but it has been pretty easy and we have yet to choose the wrong car. The drivers and the people are really helpful when we have questions. The first time I took a guagua was an experience. It was so packed that I don’t know how we squeezed in. I was trying really hard to get up the steps and away from the door. They don’t close the doors in the guagua so somebody could easily fall out as there is hardly anything to hold onto. I squished myself between 2 people and hand me face in somebody’s back and I kept grabbing somebody’s boob on accident when I lost my footing. It hasn’t been that bad since then thank goodness. The guagua is the mode of transportation used for long trips and people can be packed in like sardines for 5 hours with chickens too. It definitely makes for an interesting ride. I don’t really mind taking either form of transportation and have already adjusted to it and find it easy now. You get to know the people and integrate when you are in such close proximity that’s for sure.
Next Monday I will be going to another city called El Seybo for 5 weeks with the IT group. This will be the intensive sector training where we will get trained on IT stuff. After that we will come back to the capital for 1 week, receive our permanent sites, and swear in as official volunteers on May 5th yeah!
There is a lot of observation and changes in personal habits that will go on in the first months. I can say thus far that the people here are very nice , happy, and helpful. Even when times are rough I don’t hear people complain. We have not had running water in more than a week now and our reserves are almost gone but I don’t hear complaints or worries. Yesterday a semi came to our neighborhood with water. It was a politician that had donated the water and his name was painted on the semi. We took our buckets to the side of the street be filled with water. People didn’t push or shove or try to steal anybody’s water even though the semi ran out of water. I watched the people fill up their buckets and wondered how it is that we don’t have running water? I wondered what the solution was but didn’t really come up with an answer. How can I complain about not having a hot bath when we don’t even have water. Well, it all works out in the end and you live in the moment and make the most of what you have because you have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. People here look after one another, they know their neighbors, and they welcome visitors with open arms. They enjoy life and love God.
Check out my pictures for a better idea of what it’s like here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent description. I'm there, but not there. :) THANK GOD! I'm not down sharing beat-up car space with chickens or washing with the roaches. And to think that we were tripping about a teeny weeny New York roach.

It's amazing how you can adjust to a situation. People can get used to anything, really, especially with a solid community mindset. But adjusting is not always a good thing, which is why you're there. Hook 'em up!

I'm glad the dona and the peace corp group is looking after you so well. Enjoy your DR crash course. Very exciting!