Merry Gringomas

Here we are again… Christmas time. The lights, the candy, the music, the mosquitos, the sunny days, wait, what?

In honor of the holidays, I’m going to give you a breakdown of how daily life was different back in the States compared to my new normal:

Electricity

Ohio: 24/7. Except for small outages from storms, electricity was regular.

Montecristi: The electricity here is called “la luz” and the luz goes out everyday. In my neighborhood, we generally have luz all morning until around noon or 1pm at which point it goes out until 6. While this generally means going the hottest part of the day without a fan, I’m lucky enough to live in a building with a generator that provides me with 24/7 luz. I know, I know… I get enough grief from the other PCVs already for it.

Average PCV situation: Each community has an unique luz schedule. It can also vary depending on the day of the week. Most volunteers do not have generators and go most nights without power.

Water

Ohio: Even more regular than the electricity. Plus hot showers! You can make ice cubes with it, you can cook with it, you can even drink it straight from the tap!

Montecristi: We have water most days of the week. There is a tank on my roof that holds extra water for the times when there isn’t any coming out of the tap. However, this water is strictly for bathing, washing clothes, and cleaning dishes. More often than not, I make use of the PC-issued water filter to process this water for drinking. I do have a shower in the bathroom, but all bathing is done with cold water.

PCV: Some volunteers have running water, some do not. In the communities without, they use river water and rain water for everything short of drinking. This means bucket bathing and storing all the water outside in big tanks to use as you need. For drinking, you can purchase a 5 gallon jug for less than 30 pesos.

Bathroom

Ohio: Clean bathrooms everywhere. Public and private. Ample and soft toilet paper.

Montecristi: There are some clean bathrooms at a few restaurants. No more than 4. I have a toilet inside the house with a magazine rack and a sink.

PCV: I would say more than half of volunteers have a toilet inside their homes. A few have bathrooms that are just separate from the house, and some have latrines. Obviously, in the communities without running water, latrines are the norm.

Laundry

Ohio: Washer and dryer. Dry cleaning if necessary. Sometimes the instructions say to hand wash, but nobody ever does that anyway.

Montecristi: I have a two sink set-up in the patio behind my house. That’s where I wash all my clothes by hand, once a week. Saturday is always laundry day. I hang them up on the clothesline in the sun and wait for them to dry.

PCV: Several PCVs have people wash their clothes for them. Whether it is their former host mom, or a nice lady across the street, many volunteers opt to pay someone of confidence to do their laundry for them. This is very common for male volunteers since most of the doñas don’t believe that we know how to do it. Female PCVs do it too, but usually not as frequently. Others have their own washing machine that they use at their houses or they borrow one for the afternoon. Dominican washing machines are small and portable and you just plug it into the wall and go. Nobody in the DR has a dryer. Maybe even the president himself air dries his boxer shorts.

Food

Ohio: Typical Midwestern diet. You have your choice of supermarket, farmer’s markets, the whole gambit restaurants, and fast food chains.

Montecristi: Dominican food always and forever. I sometimes eat with my host family but mostly I cook my own food. While I actually enjoy the food here when someone else is cooking it, I have never once made myself rice and beans. I eat a good variety of root veggies (potato, yuca, batata) and lots of plantains. No wonder I’m always constipated. These goodies are called víveres and they are commonly served with eggs, salami, fried cheese, onions, or some combination of the like. Dominicans traditionally eat a big lunch and a small dinner. A lunch is always meat, rice and beans, and a green salad. Always. The type of meat and the preparations are constantly different, but the basic components never change. Dinner is usually very casual and in my host family’s house it was either víveres or bread and a smoothie and TV time.

I have a little four burner gas stove that I use to cook my creations. There is an oven, but it doesn’t work. I found that out after trying to turn it on one night after already having mixed up brownie batter.

I have a choice of two grocery stores in the city and their are various colmados around where I can purchase small items.

PCV: You’d be hard-pressed to find a volunteer who actually cooks rice and beans in their house. We get plenty of that. Most PCVs end up cooking their own food on stoves or eating with their former host family. Some families without gas stoves use wood or charcoal fires to cook their food.

Few PCVs have grocery stores in their communities. Most have to take public transit (or hitch a ride) out of their sites and ride anywhere from ten minutes to two hours to get to the closest grocery store.

Transportation

Ohio: I had my own car, just like most other people my age. Walking was purely for exercise.

Montecristi: Walking is pure necessity. I walk everywhere. Since my house is on the top of a hill, some days when I’m feeling particularly sweaty I’ll take a moto taxi the rest of the way up. But only when I have my helmet, of course. Nobody else walks. Most Dominicans use a motorcycle or a scooter for transportation in the city and they think I’m the weirdest kid ever for not owning one.

PCV: Everybody walks. The ironic thing is that most people we interact with have the misconception that all Americans like to walk everywhere all the time. I let them think that. Transportation between parts if the country is effective, if not chaotic. There are several different sizes if public buses around, and there is always room for one more person. Always. I once rode in a 13 passenger van with 27 people in it. Including the two babies who were ostentatiously breast feeding the entire time. In the more urban areas, there are regular taxis and public cars. Public cars follow a specific route and can carry 6 passengers (four in back and two sharing the front seat).

And now ya know. I never thought I would miss the cold… And I was right. Winter in the DR has treated me well this far. The only things missing are my family and the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story.

Happy Holidays everyone! ¡Y un próspero año 2014!
-Andrés

¡Dame Cinco!

Construye Tus Sueños. Build Your Dreams.

As a Community Economic Development (CED) Volunteer, one of the initiatives am expected to take part in is called Construye Tus Sueños (CTS). Peace Corps LOVES acronyms. Designed for young adults from the ages of 18-25, the course teaches business tactics, basic accounting and marketing, and the general process of creating your own business. Although our swear-in date did not give us the opportunity to participate in the course this year, we were still invited to take part in the national conference, which was amazingly inspirational. Basically, it works like this: at the end of the course, each student is encouraged to write a business plan for a potential business they would like to start. Every Dominican who submits a plan is invited to the conference, but only the top 15 are allowed to compete. The plans are all graded by us (PCVs), and the most feasible, well-thought ones are presented in front of a panel of judges (composed of micro-finance gurus, banks, business professionals, and other people of national importance) to determine a winner. Each winner wins the amount of money they have budgeted in their proposal to start their business.

This year there were about 40 young Dominicanos at the conference, and it was the highlight of my service to date. It was so overwhelmingly inspirational to see these kids with such talent and drive. In a country where everyone seems to be looking for a handout, these young adults have planned out their future and will do anything it takes to build their dreams.

But unfortunately, not everyone has that sort of drive. One of the things that Peace Corps Volunteers have to constantly battle is the assumption that as an American, you naturally have tons and tons of money. When I first got to this country, all the kids would always follow me around and say, “dame cinco! Dame cinco!” Naturally, I took it as an adorable gesture of them wanting a high five, right? Wrong. They just really wanted me to give them each five pesos. It never really bothered me too much, because who can get upset with children? But when grown adults start saying that they want you to gift them dollars, things start to get out of hand. “I know you have money in the bank, you’re American.” As extremely upsetting and off putting this attitude is, it is my job to not judge but rather to analyze the situation. Many foreigners frequent Montecristi through various organizations that specialize in “feel-good tourism” where they come and spend one week teaching English so they can claim to have saved the world. When these folks come, they generally bring things from the States and simply pass them out like candy. While I can’t say that this practice is in itself a horrible act, it presents the idea that Americans come here to give things out for free. Or that Americans always carry an iPhone in their pocket to take pictures with. Or that they never understand the local language and culture and are therefore easy prey to the “gringo tax” in stores. If you are reading this and thinking about doing a service project abroad, please do your part and be aware of the image you are creating. There are countless communities in this country where the people are so poor that they cannot afford to eat, but they all have new Abercrombie shirts and Nike shoes simply because they were given out for free by Americans with a guilt complex. So what do those people do when they have a desperate need? Wait. They wait for the next batch of gringos to come. There is quite a surplus of foreign aid organizations, but a real deficit in ones that actually care about the needs of the communities in which they serve.

Sustainability is hard. Making a measurable change in someone’s life is hard. Fighting stereotypes is hard. Acting in a way, however briefly, that confirms those stereotypes is easy. I’m not here to save the world. I’m not here to impart some great American wisdom on these people, either. I am here to make sure that Dominicans can believe in themselves. That they don’t have to rely on remittances from their cousins in “Nueva Yol.” That they don’t have to rely on handouts. That they have the resources and the know-how to make their own lives better. The big picture is there, they just have to step back and see it. Step back and build their dreams.

-Andrés

Long Hair and Four Square

Long time, no see.

I promise I didn’t forget about you guys. Things move so much slower here, and it only seems natural that my blogging frequency goes right along with it. Some aspects of this culture make it so easy to live that you may never want to leave, such as being able to walk ten feet to the corner store and get just 5 pesos (12 cents) of sugar or even just asking for something on the premise that they know you’ll pay it back… Eventually. If somebody sees you walking home at midday, they will give you a ride just because being in the sun is simply unacceptable. Everybody always greets everybody. Always. On a bus, in a store, on the street, it doesn’t matter… You have to say hello. Or else.

However, after being here for almost 7 months (only 20 more to go!), certain things are bound to start to get annoying. Primarily, the absolute disregard for anything resembling customer service. If you don’t have the patience for the guy behind the counter to finish talking to his cousin about that baseball game or that group of old women gossiping about who that one lady was walking down the street with yesterday… You’re shit out of luck. Perhaps the most frustrating is when it’s finally your turn, and then someone else walks in and the whole scenario plays out again. Can’t a guy just get a Wal-Mart greeter around here? I don’t usually spend a great deal of time reminiscing about the U.S., but the President of the group I work with just got back from a trip to California and he was more than eager to swap stories with me. He started talking about all the clean bathrooms, the air conditioning, the well-maintained (and safe) roads, the giant supermarkets, the fancy restaurants (read: Applebee’s), and the great weather. While I may not agree with his supposition that the U.S. is the best nation in the world based on those criteria, I have to say it did make me think a lot about home and just how comfortable I was there.

Then I snap back to reality and remember that this is exactly the kind of challenge I signed up for. And even though I sometimes have days where I feel jaded and frustrated, I still feel extremely lucky. Living a twenty minute walk from the beach is great therapy, I promise you.

This past weekend, I was able to get away from Montecristi and head down the coast to visit some other volunteer friends. I can now cross off Puerto Plata and Sosúa off my list of places to visit… Although I definitely plan on more visits in the future. It’s just a great feeling being able to spend time in another volunteer’s world. Meeting their old host families, seeing their houses, and getting to know their community all help you get a different feel for your life here. Sometimes you get some ideas from them, and sometimes you become immediately grateful for getting the site you did. (Because I totally got the best site. Ssshhh don’t tell them I said that).

In other news, this past Tuesday was a national holiday… Day of Mercedes or Day of the Virgin Altagracia… Nobody really seems to know, but they did know that they didn’t have to go to work! So being the good Dominincan-in-training that I am, I followed their lead and didn’t do much of anything besides stay out of the sun. In the afternoon, some of my friends called and said they were going to the Orphanage to play some basketball with the kids and asked me to come. When we got there, I quickly realized the basketball was actually an intense, all-adult, all-out game. Naturally, I decided that I had best not participate. Plus, that would mean another shower. I ended up starting a pick-up game of four square with some of the younger kids. And they were definitely better than me. And yes, I sweated profusely and had to shower again anyway. We ended up playing for something like two hours, and it turned out to be one of the best afternoons I have had in this country. Not only being able to revert to childhood, but to just to spend time with such amazing, adorable, happy-with-what-they-have children. Nobody was trying to cheat, or fight for their turn in line, or calling each other names. They simply enjoyed playing and sharing and being with their friends and feeling cool enough to play four square with some adults! Afterwards, they all wanted their picture taken. And I, the brilliantly unprepared person that I am, only had my stupid Peace Corps phone that takes horrible photos. But I snapped several pictures anyway, and when I figure out how to upload them on there, I will! Those kids wiped away any sort of frustration or lack of faith in humanity that I had developed and I can’t wait to go back and lose at four square again!

I love and miss all of you!

Hasta la próxima,
–Andy

Liberated/Exhilarated/Reinvigorated

I made it. I survived.

I just got back to Monte Cristi after my swear-in group’s 3-Month IST (in-service training) where I presented the results of my community diagnostic. Whew. It still feels strange thinking about having been here for over 5 months… 3 of those here in my community. The conference was actually quite amazing. Since we were told that during our first three months, our only job is to get to know the people and work on our diagnostic (a paper and a presentation discussing the needs of the community) we were all pretty nervous about actually having to start work verdadero. But after IST, we are all on the same page and I am more motivated now than I have been at any other point in my service thus far. In the next week or so, I plan on starting a women’s group called Somos Mujeres (We Are Women) that will focus on how women without any formal training or education can start income-generation projects from their homes. I have worked with a local woman who is now ready to be the “face” of the group and will facilitate most of their meetings and activities. The women in the community seem really excited at the prospect of being able to increase their family’s income, even by just a fraction. Let’s hope it’s a success!

Also, potentially even more importantly, I moved out on my own this week! IST also marks the time when volunteers can get a house and live independently of host families. I found a sweet house up on the hillside of town with a strong breeze and a great view. It’s a bit of a walk to the center of town, but it is definitely worth it for the tranquility and friendliness of the neighborhood. There are banana trees growing in my back yard and I would really like to plant some more produce both as a challenge to myself and to cut back on some costs. The most interesting thing about moving out is that nobody here lives by themselves. Nobody. If you aren’t married, you live with your family. If you’re old, you live with your family. If you’re unemployed, you live with your family. If you have your own family, sometimes you still live with your family. Needless to say, community members seem to be quite concerned that I will either starve, accidentally burn down the house, or die slowly of isolation and boredom. Someone even tried to give me a puppy yesterday to keep me company. As much as I truly want a canine companion, I think I should focus on work first and if all goes well, then puppy time. It’s such a liberating feeling to finally be able to have my own space… where I can establish my own house rules. Shoes off at the door, please. I don’t have time to sweep my floor six times a day.

Supposedly, other volunteers had lived there before me so it looks like I picked a good spot! There even seem to be less mosquitos up there! Although, I have plenty of repellent, just in case. The place is a tad expensive, buttt it is completely furnished… Down to the forks and spoons. So I figured it would be worth the extra expenses to avoid the headache of tracking down all of the household necessities. You all know what this means, TIME TO PLAN YOUR VISITS!

I got my second care package this week as well. What was supposed to be a birthday package arrived over a month late, but I can’t complain. The goodies (and the hand sanitizer) were worth the wait. Thanks mom! After giving almost all of it away to my host siblings, I had to lock up the rest of the candy so that I could eat it in peace. Funny how as soon as I brought home that box, I was all of the sudden the most popular person in the house…

Now it is time to get to know the DR on a different level. Not as the brother of so-and-so or the guy who lives with such-and-such, but to develop relationships with my neighbors as just a guy living in the same town, in the same country, speaking the same language. I want to stay up late playing dominos with the old guys across the street, serve coffee to everyone who stops by my house, shout out (by name) to everyone who passes by, harvest some produce and give it to the family next door for no reason at all, and most of all, simply take part in the goings on of my new surroundings. One of the biggest mantras in Dominican life is compartir, or sharing. They take it very seriously. It doesn’t necessarily only apply to splitting your cookie in half to give to a friend (but it is definitely expected!), but also taking the time to get to know people. To sit on their porch and spend an afternoon discussing the weather and letting the rocking chairs do most of the talking. To establish that everyone is an equal. To share means to give a little bit of yourself to someone else and take a little bit of them with you. It’s a beautiful way of looking at life, and I can’t wait to share with all of you.

Until the next time,
–Andrés

Poop Stories

Everybody poops.

So why are we all so ashamed to talk about it? The first noticeable change in me during my service thus far is not only my willingness but my desire to discuss my bowel movements. I’m not exaggerating when I say that whenever volunteers get together, or even frequently over the phone, the most common thing to talk about is poop. Where you had to poop, what you had to use instead of TP, the imperfect geometry of aiming in a latrine, how often you went in one day, how long it’s been since your last, analyzing the color spectrum and consistency, even the emergence of the dreaded Princesa (diarrhea). Having the Princesa in a developing country is about as fun as you’re imagining it to be… Which is precisely why talking about it with other people makes you feel abundantly less savage about the things that just happened to you. Whenever she makes her dramatic reappearance, it’s almost mandatory to text somebody to inform them that, “She’s back.” Just when you think your poop story is going to scar you for life, you hear someone else’s that makes you feel lucky that you didn’t have to endure what that guy went through. My 6-year-old host sister asked me once if Americans go poo-poo, and just as I assured her, I will tell you that not only do I poop, but it has become the thing around which my day revolves.

Oh, and remember how it was my birthday recently? Let me tell you all about it:

I’m now one year older (and wiser) and back in Monte Cristi. My birthday celebrations were a blast and I’m convinced that Samaná is the most beautiful place in the country. Nevertheless, the absolute best part of the vacation was meeting up with friends that I hadn’t seen since training, swapping poop stories, and simply relaxing without an agenda. The first day we all just chilled beachside, playing volleyball, eating and enjoying speaking in English. We had heard rumors of a beach not too far away that was supposed to be one of the best in the country (and world!). Thinking we couldn’t pass up the opportunity and being far too stingy to pay for a boat ride or a hiking guide, we decided that we could definitely make the coastal hike ourselves, against the advice of many. If this is sounding like the beginning of a horror movie… Trust me, the thought crossed my mind. The hour hike turned into 2.5 hours of bush whacking, pokey volcanic rock stepping, snake-avoiding, coconut retrieving, cliff scaling (and then unscaling when we realized the trail was NOT up that way), sandal breaking, feet cutting and exhaustion. However, it turns out we really did have it in us to hike all the way there. Without our adventure appearing on the local news or the next Blair Witch franchise, we made it to El Rincón safe and sound. Was the beach as beautiful as I imagined? Not quite. Was the trip and the subsequent aches and pains worth it? Absolutely. After all, when in Peace Corps…

Guess what I brought back with me from vacation? Yep, you guessed it. The Princesa.

The next major step for me is to find my own place to live. If you didn’t know, PCVs are obligated to live with a host family for the first 3 months in site in order to help assimilate into a new area. Now that the time is almost up, I can look forward to having my own personal space for the first time since I arrived in country in March. Now, that’s not to say that I have disliked my host families. They have been wonderfully welcoming. But having lived on my own accord throughout college and in the postgrad world, it seems mildly silly to have to call to say i’ll be late for dinner or to ask permission to leave with friends.

You know you’re in the Peace Corps when seemingly every day you find a new hole, stain or tear in a piece of clothing you’re wearing. It used to really bother me. I would mumble swears under my breath as I donned that formerly white shirt or those unscuffed dress shoes. I’ve come to a new stage in my service, though. One that looks on these things as a new opportunity to become more like my surroundings. One that realizes that clean clothes does nothing to make me a better person or volunteer. The people here don’t care what brand your jeans are, they care about the ideas of the man who’s wearing them. I find it refreshing to think (or to not think) about the status of the various clothing items I brought with me to country. Nevertheless, it’s going to take awhile to attempt to shed my materialistic American mentality… Good thing I have awhile to work on it. Twenty-three more months, to be exact.

Talk to you all soon (si Dios quiere)!!!
–Andrés

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Feliz Coffee-Años

Coffee. One of the basic necessities of my life. Thus, one of my biggest disappointments in the DR. Oh sure, they drink coffee. It’s usually nice and bold and piping hot. So why am I complaining? Unless you buy it at a restaurant (and sometimes even then), the coffee is served as a tiny splash in the bottom of your cup. How on Earth does anyone in this country get motivated to do, well… anything… without at least a full cup of joe in the morning? As far as I can tell, they are all just naturally morning people. People are routinely out and about, up and at ’em, twisting and shouting starting at about 7. I imagine the main reason behind the eagerness to get out of bed is because it is by FAR the coolest part of the day, and any self-respecting person would like to get all of his or her errands done before 10am when the sun starts to really get in the way. Quite a smart plan if you ask me, because afterward they Doñas can relax at home with plenty of reason to take a nice long nap after lunch (but only if there’s electricity and you can use your fan).

Aside from being severely under-caffeinated, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the rest of my service here. My project partners are great and very well-connected and have taken me in with open arms. Plus, I set up wi-fi for my office. (Yes, I have an office.) What’s not to love about that?

I’m getting started on my Community Diagnostic, which is a volunteer’s first responsibility. It entails getting as much information as possible regarding the different aspects of the site by interviewing, chatting, sitting and observing with your neighbors. On the surface it sounds like a great way to get to know more people and the lives they lead, but more often than not it turns into them asking me to fix their garbage collection schedule or complaining to me about the neighbor they had 30 years ago. It’s a very slo o o o w w w w w w process since to get them to really open up to me, I’ve got to spend a few afternoons just sitting with them and taking the tiny coffee shots they make for me before I can begin to ask them about their income and what they would like to see developed in Monte Cristi.

It is ONE WEEK until my birthday. Most of the volunteers in the DR all meet up to celebrate Independence Day so I will get to be with some good friends when I cumplo años. Where are we meeting you may ask? This year we are going to the Samaná peninsula… Supposedly the most beautiful part of the island. Getting there will require no fewer than 4 buses as I am located on the exact opposite side of the country. All I know is that based on what I’ve heard from the locals, this trip is going to be well worth it.

I suppose I should get back to interviewing… I’ll write again soon. Promise.

Happy Early Independence Day friends!

–Andrés

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