¡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

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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