Teach Me How to Creole

For a little more than two weeks now I have been living full-time in Monte Cristi and seemingly every day I find another reason to appreciate this place even more. While I don’t have Internet at my house, I am adept and “stealing” wifi from hotels and restaurants. Keeping in touch with the happenings in the States (not to mention the French Open!!!) is most assuredly maintaining my sanity. During the past week and a half, the city has been celebrating its Patronales festival. Each town has its own patron saint (ours is San Fernando) and it is basically an excuse to have non-stop fun for 12 days. There is live music, food, games, and even a Ferris wheel! I managed to make friends with a vendor who teaches tennis in Santiago, the second biggest city in the DR, and it paid off since he was always willing to give me several extra splashes of rum in the drinks he was serving. All in all, I survived the first Patronales here and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

This past week was a tremendously interesting one. A group of about 25 doctors, pediatricians, optometrists, pharmacists and med students came as a part of a program called Timmy. They save up equipment and medicine all year and do pro-bono work in the poorest areas of the country. In the three days I assisted them as an interpreter, we went to different bateyes (very rural, isolated, poor, agriculture-based, communities) and I got to experience a new aspect of life here. I was honored to be asked to help and I am very glad I went. The entire week we saw 553 patients, some of whom had very serious maladies, and were able to provide some of them with the only access to healthcare they receive. On the last day, the majority of the people who came to the clinic were Haitian, which took our translating to a completely different level. For example, imagine trying to get a medical history on someone when you need to first have someone ask the question in English for me to translate into Spanish so that another interpreter can ask the patient in Creole… Only to go back through the chain in order to get the response. Stressful? Yes. Amazing to take part in? YES! I’m really excited for them to come back next May and do it all over again. It was the first point in my service to date in which I felt like what I was working on was directly benefiting someone else. Instant gratification goes a long way in terms of motivation.

On a different, more sobering note, last weekend I went swimming in the ocean with some friends with my phone in my pocket. And a few minutes later got knocked over by a wave and lost my glasses. It would seem that when you are in a beautiful place with beautiful weather and beautiful people, you tend to overlook the small details. Thank goodness for my second pair of glasses and the fact that the Peace Corps gives me one more phone… But this one has to last me the next 23.5 months, so wish me luck. Entonces, this week I will be making a trip back to Santo Domingo (about a 5 hour bus ride) to get my new phone and my green card. Yeah, I will actually have residency here. Score!

In case you were wondering, yes, it is still really stinkin’ hot here. All that stuff I said about getting used to the heat? Nonsense. Still sweating all day errrryday. But at least now I have a beach to be on while I’m complaining.

I miss you guys! But, in all honesty, I just remembered that I had hidden some Oreo’s in my luggage so I’m probably just going to go stuff myself with them and forget all about you.

Peace, love, and Oreo creme,
-Andrés

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Full Monte

It’s official, folks. This week I took my oath (the same oath the POTUS takes, mind you) and became a Peace Corps Volunteer. With 10 weeks of training behind me, I am so thrilled to actually begin my service. Just before we took our oaths, we sang the national anthems of the Dominican Republic and the USA and it really hit me that this is my new home. The chills our anthem gave me filled me with pride and enough self-assurance to get through these next two years. It was a very bittersweet moment… Leaving behind the world of training and our gated barrios in the capital to disperse ourselves out into the heart of the country. I have made some amazing and surely life-long friends with my fellow class of 517-13-01 and it’s always difficult to say “see you when I see you” without knowing the next time our paths will cross. And now it’s time to make an impact on my own accord… Time to really integrate and become as Dominican as possible. Although, my bachata is still not up to par!

In case you haven’t heard, I will be living in Monte Cristi which is on the far northwest corner of the country (almost to Haiti). It is a beautiful and sleepy beachside city with plenty to keep me from ever approaching boredom. It is exactly what I wanted in a site and I was just lucky enough to get placed here. There is another volunteer who lives just down the road so when I need to get away and speak English for a bit I have the opportunity. I’ll be working with an Eco-tourism group working to increase the quantity and quality of tourism projects and sites in the area. Specifically, I will be working with two hotels, a restaurant and a boat tour company. So WHEN you all visit me I will definitely be able to hook you up. My host family here has been great so far. I have four (count ’em, four!) siblings and they have already taught me some very useful “Dominicanisms.” I am also blessed because not only did I get a site on the coast, but my house has running water and 24/7 electricity… A rare luxury in a life of a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer). The only downside are the omnipresent swarms of mosquitos that seem to like me way more than everyone else. Thank God for mosquito nets or I wouldn’t be sleeping much.

It’s a very surreal feeling being back at my site knowing that there’s no more training, no more info sessions on how to be effective, no more weekly check-ins about how you’re coping. I hope I paid close attention the last 10 weeks because now it’s just me, my notebook, and my mosquito net against the world. Here goes nothing!

If all else fails, I did eat tacos with the US Ambassador yesterday… So I’m pretty sure we’re best friends now. And it’s all about who you know, right?

Until next time, friends. Oh, and would someone see if Jimmy John’s delivers to here? Thanks.

-Andrés

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Backpacks and Bucket Baths

Beginning to wrap up other eventful day here in Peralvillo. Every Thursday we give a presentation to local women who are looking to start up income generation projects from their homes. The program is called Somos Mujeres (We Are Women) and it has become a very interesting event every week. Today we made liquid hand soap and taught them basic accounting to make their projects feasible. While I think it would be difficult to facilitate this group at my permanent site, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with these women.

After this charla, a few friends and I decided to go on a hike. Off in the distance, we could see a giant hill, or really more like a small mountain, and wanted to see what the community looked like from up there. So, we waded across the Ozama river and began our ascent. After about half an hour, we realized the quickest way would be to (carefully) cross the barbed wire and trespass our way up to the top through some pastures. And that we did. Even though it was a short 2 hour excursion, it was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve had in this town. When you’re up top with the cool breeze at your back you start to realize how small you are… And then you look at the community and you feel so connected to the rest of humanity in such a simple yet profound way. One thing is for sure… That I really hope I never get used to how stunningly beautiful this country is; the lush greens, the deep reds of the cacao fruits, the bright orange of the tierra, the endless blue expanse of the sky all swirl together and form this paradise.

I can tell that I love it here because I’m even starting to enjoy bucket-bathing. It takes a lot of careful planning to know when the best time to bathe is… You want to do it as close to daytime as possible because that’s when the water is warmest since it’s been in the sun. However, you have to consider that you will definitely continue to sweat post-bath so you may as well just wait until before bed to avoid that mess entirely. Night showers are usually the best option, and once you get over the first few seconds of near hyperventilation, it’s all downhill from there. You end up using muuuuch less water, and you get really strategic at figuring out how to get the cleanest. Don’t get me wrong though, a long hot shower sounds like heaven right about now.

10 more days left in Peralvillo, then back to Santo Domingo to get the permanent site placements! Eek. I’m closing in on two months here, with 25 left to go. Giddy up!

Les quiero mucho!
-Andrés

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Peralvi-Bro

I’ve officially spent as much time here in Peralvillo than I spent in Santo Domingo, and yet the time has gone by twice as fast. It seems a bit counter-intuitive that in such a tranquil, relaxed town that time can somehow speed up, but time flies when you’re… You get it.

My new host family is AMAZING! My Doña runs a cafeteria out of the house and so I am consistently getting force-fed some of the best food available in town (lucky me!). Across the street from is a big colmado, or corner store, with tons of tables to play dominos and a never-ending stream of bachata flowing from their huuuge speakers. So naturally, I have no option but to play (and lose) dominos and dance with the neighbors every night. This place has me feeling more and more Dominican… Even if I am still the only gringo in the neighborhood. Peralvillo is a tremendously beautiful town in the interior of the country and the economy here is based almost exclusively on cacao. Yes, that cacao. The one chocolate comes from. Never have I ever had such rich, natural, flavorful chocolate! The fruit itself is also quite tasty, and they use it to make cacao wine… Also delish. And strong. It’s almost as if they decided to make our training site based on a list of my favorite things. So before you get carried away, we really do have work to do here. Between our technical sessions, Spanish classes (and projects), community diagnostics, and business interviews, we have been quite busy. A few of us are enjoying ourselves here so much that we are taking our business training and turning it into an excuse to open a business of our very own after our service. Good thing we still have 25.5 more months to brainstorm!

We find out our permanent sites and our projects in 17 days, not that I’m counting or anything. The suspense can be kind of overwhelming, but we have had several meetings with our CED director to figure out our skills, projects of interest, and general desires for service so I’m confident that I will get placed in a site where I will be successful (and hopefully beachside). In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter where I’m located because I haven’t stopped sweating in 6 weeks. They say that you get accustomed to the Caribbean heat and humidity, and I sure hope so. It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing business casual clothes if they’re drenched anyway, right?

This week I got my first package from the states (thanks Mom!!!!). Some clothes, shoes, candy, but most importantly, hand sanitizer! I never knew I could be so dirty all the time and that shit is like absolute gold here among us volunteers.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes to be constantly so busy (and don’t forget sweaty), all I have to do is look outside my window at the palm, mango, cacao, and banana trees swaying gently in the island breeze to remind myself of how truly blessed I am to have a chance to take part in this adventure. Speaking of trees… Gotta go get some firewood for our bonfire down at the river tonight!

I can’t wait for some visitors! (Hint, hint)

Until the next time, everyone. Besos y abrazos,

-Andrés

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Si Dios Quiere

It’s the tagline of every Doña and otherwise God-fearing person in the DR: Si Dios Quiere. Literally translated it means “if God is willing,” but it’s also a handy way to get out of doing things you would rather avoid… “Sure I’ll take your dogs for a walk, si Dios quiere.” The people here are so independent of time, that they even use the phrase when setting a time and place to meet up. While the tardiness can get old, I highly doubt this phrase ever will. It’s an elegant way of saying you might not come good on what you promised while still not claiming any culpability.

While the honeymoon phase may be past, I still find myself in awe at the beauty of this country and the people who have come to serve alongside me. It’s an amazing feeling being surrounded my so many like-minded individuals… It’s like having someone pre-select 32 best friends for you. The only caveat is that this is the last week of training here in Santo Domingo. Beginning next week, we will be separated into our sectors: Community Economic Development and Education. My group (CED) will be heading to a smaller town called Peralvillo where we will be focusing on the specific skills and training we will need to be effective volunteers. From what I gather, this community-based training will be much more intense and detailed than what we have experienced thus far. It is 5 weeks of presentations, hands-on projects and lectures. At any rate, I’m thrilled to see a new part of the country and meet my second (of three) Dominican host families. It will be a great test of how we are progressing, and we may even still have Internet and running water… si Dios quiere.

This last week has been quite a challenge. They tell you in training that the word diarrhea makes you giggle until it actually happens. Welp, it happened. Often. Some contaminated Chinese food that was catered in to our training site affected several of us. The worst seems to be over, but what made it really interesting was that this weekend, I had to travel waaayyy up in the mountains to visit a volunteer site to get an idea of the different types of projects CED volunteers are involved with. With my antibiotics and oral rehydration salts in tow, I managed to make a successful trip. I’m sure this will not be the last illness I will have while in the Peace Corps, but I will definitely remember it as my first.

Tomorrow is my first written exam and Spanish evaluation… So perhaps I should go crack open the books. Plus I just really want to go try and catch one of the many lizards who keep darting past me on the porch.

I love you all and miss you like crazy, but I wouldn’t change places with anybody in the world right now. I will try and give you one last update before I head up to Peralvillo… si Dios quiere.

Paz y amor,
-Andrés

Spit, Spit… Think about it, Spit

Well here I am… In the country I have waited for months and months to experience. They say that the DR is the third loudest country in the world, and I surely believe it. If people aren’t singing at the top of their lungs, they are shouting for their neighbors to come join them in a game of dominos or to have a little coffee and chat. If they aren’t blasting their bachata or reggaeton, the rooster songs take their place.

The very first thing we learned was how to safely drink the water… Which was basically not to at all. Even when brushing our teeth, we were instructed to spit twice and then come back to the sink later on to spit again just to be sure. So far so good! As long as I fill up my water bottles at the training center during the day, no pasará nada.

I have only spent 4 days here, but I already feel completely at home. Within minutes of meeting my host Doña, I was her son. She took me by the arm and proceeding to introduce me to all of the neighbors that would listen. Then, she asked me if I knew why she would do such a thing. She said that now if anyone gave me any trouble, they knew exactly who they would have to deal with as a result! I will never forget when she asked me which foods I prefer. I told her that I will eat anything that she prepares me and she began to chant and sing and dance wildly, saying “Andrés come de todo!!!!!” Evidently, all of the previous volunteers she has had in her house have been vegetarians… Something Dominicans do not understand well. But I promise you that the food here is FANTASTIC! I have tried yuca, plátanos hervidos, mangú, cacao, and so many new delicious foods that my taste buds are dancing with excitement. On top of all that, they have the absolute best fresh orange juice I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Maybe I will gain weight here after all.

I’m currently living a short 15 minute walk from the Peace Corps training center in the Pantoja neighborhood of Santo Domingo. Perhaps the most difficult thing I have had to deal with so far is simply hanging my mosquito net… Some instructions would have helped! Although everyone keeps remarking at how white I am, I’m confident that once I get a tan and learn to dance, I will fit right in. These are some of the nicest, warmest people I have ever encountered and I cannot wait to see where this adventure takes me next!

Until we speak again,

¡Nos vemos!

–Andrés

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Maletas by the Door

¡Bienvenidos!

Some people call me Brice, some call me Andy, and to others I’m Landy. As I prepare myself for the 27 month journey ahead, I look forward to once again being Andrés. The República Dominicana is calling and I am ready to disembark. The past 10 months I spent applying for the Peace Corps is now behind me and I can focus on (and celebrate) this great opportunity.

One week from today my staging in Washington, D.C. will be complete and I will be Caribbean-bound. The major task impeding my journey? Packing. It’s something of a Sisyphean effort at this point… I mean, how many sweaters can a person have accumulated? As the paperwork and boxer shorts start filing themselves into these suitcases, I can’t deny getting a bit antsy. There has been so much buildup to my departure that it has always seemed so far in the distance. Although I have yet to formally meet the 30 or so others who will be leaving with me, I am sure they are feeling the same way.

I’m confident that this journey will be be a transformative one. I am extremely lucky to have this chance to serve and while the USA will always be my home, I hope to find a new patria in the DR.

I hope to share my adventures with you all!

“No existe la libertad, sino la búsqueda de la libertad, y esa búsqueda es la que nos hace libres.”
–Carlos Fuentes

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