Sunday, May 18, 2008

pa'lante presidente

Just a quick note about politics. The Presidential elections happened on Friday, May 16, with the three candidates:
Leonel Fernandez - purple party
Amable Aristy - red party
Miguel Vargas - white party.
When discussing politics with a dominican, your best bet is to simply ask, "what color are you?". The political season has been quite entertaining, but I am glad that it is finished. Leonel won, so will serve another 4 years in office, time to finish is beloved Santo Domingo metro project. During the season I saw food thrown out of trucks, was handed a "mini pharmacy in a box" by a political party, saw representatives from one party purchasing the ID cards of voters that might not vote for their candidate, endured many, many loud rallies and trucks passing with music and political messages and danced to the Leonel song produced by the beloved group "Omega". I also managed to collect a few flags that hang proudly in my bathroom.
Peace Corps has us on "standfast", meaning we cannot travel right now due to post-election celebrations. Apparently they are known to get violent.
As far as voting goes, one must go to their birthplace to vote, hence election day was a holiday and people still tend to be traveling. Many do not vote due to the distance they must travel. Political parties sponsor transport, but only if you'll vote for their candidate...
ah politics...

DMPs and threatened birds

When being interviewed for Peace Corps, I tried to justify my qualifications to work in environmental education. “I was a Girl Scout… I’ve camped, played in the woods, done arts & crafts with shells & leaves,” I said. Amazingly, that was enough for Peace Corps. In the infinite wisdom of developing countries and youth, they realized that as long as I could show kids to enjoy nature, I could teach them something, so therefore I became an environmental educator.
So I try to utilize what I learned in Girl Scouts (thanks mom!). The best strategy: take kids to somewhere natural and cool and let them enjoy it, while adding to their knowledge of their surroundings. I dreamed of a Peace Corps experience of living on the ocean—walking the beach and snorkeling, then trekking off into mangroves to explore. Instead, I am in a very crowded and trash-filled barrio. There are a couple trees… but mostly there are motorcycles and construction sites. However, it has recently drawn to my attention by some muchachos that “Hoyo Claro” (Clear Hole), a technically-nationally protected area is within walking distance of our barrio. One only has to trek about an hour on a rocky path/ road, with me sometimes jogging in my Chacos to keep up with muchachos in rubber flip-flops missing a heel. The thing is, muchachos pause along the way. To rest? No! To impress one another with their slingshot abilities. The craft of slingshot making is known to any real Dominican little boy. A piece of wittled wood, some innertube rubber and a little piece of leather and wallah, a weapon.
One day I came home to find Yelsi, an 11 year old crying and on his knees (a common punishment, like having to stand in the corner). His crime? His family hadn’t had meat for a few days due to money, so he took advantage of the many roaming chickens and killed one with his slingshot, defeathered it and brought it home to mom. Mom recognized that the chicken had an owner, so Yelsi was punished for stealing. They ate the chicken for dinner.
Back to the road to Hoyo Claro. Being mostly brush and some pastures, birds roam freely and frequently in the area, and the boys enjoy shooting them. Just to shoot. I’ve made a fuss about it when I go with them and try to teach reverence for life. Usually they respect me enough to stop shooting, although after leaving birds alone, they recently aimed for cows, stating that they couldn’t kill them, it was just fun.
On a recent trip to Santo Domingo I paid a visit to the Sub-Secretary of Protected Areas and Biodiversity in an attempt to locate some information and make contacts. A secretary gave me a posted of “Threatened Endemic Birds of Hispanola”. Great! I can add it to the environmental posters in my house and use it as a teaching tool. Day One of having the poster a muchacho came in to check it out. He named a few birds then shouted excitedly “I killed one of those the other day!” A few days later a few other kids were examining it – “Oo.. that one tastes really good.” “Fulano captured that birds and sold it for 100 pesos yesterday (USD$3)” Oye!
Hoyo Claro: So one arrives to this natural swimming pool. It’s beautiful and the water is cool. (The eastern part of the DR is covered in porous limestone rock. When it rains, the water is absorbed quickly, hence the lack of rivers in these parts. Instead, the water joins subterranean rivers which sometimes emerge into wonderful freshwater springs like Hoyo Claro).
The kids immediately strip down into their Dominican Man Panties.
There really is no better word for the underwear sported by your average Dominican male. They are tight, have no flap and come in a delightful rainbow of colors and designs. Little skinny boys to big fat hairy men all sport the same brand, though different colors and designs, of the Dominican Man Panty (DMP).
I tend to swim in shorts and a tank top, as Hoyo Claro has a general absence of women. Sometimes a family of ricos will show up in a jeepeta to make a sancocho for the afternoon and drink themselves silly with rum. In that case a woman or two will show, as will the fat hairy men. But the normal populace of Hoyo Claro tends to be the 10 year old muchachos I andar with and a group of 18-25 year old guys constructing elaborate dives from tree tops, showing off their DMPs. I usually swim until I get cold and then watch the muchachos catch crayfish, which they’ll eat raw with an orange that they will steal off of a tree on the way home. We play, eat the crackers we carried along, and then when we get hungry, head home.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Easter Day

Here's from an email I sent out on Easter:
So why didn't those lazy Caribbean bums call home for Easter?
We were helping to resurrect some new life. Save an endangered species. For real. We spent the day snorkelling and diving with an expert dude that lives in Fiji but works on coral reefs worldwide to help preserve the reef. He advocates no-take zones, not contaminating groundwater, etc... but also has his own cool project-- he does coralg ardening! So, we gardened on Easter. But in the water. The idea is that endangered corals are grown on these metal racks and when they grow big, we trim them and replant the "stems" onto new racks and over dead reef. Yeah, it's as cool as it sounds. We'll send some pictureswhen we can. This is the website:
Anywhoo, we just got in from the boat and were able to snag hot showers at Punta Cana before heading home to make egg salad with our eggs that we dyed yesterday. Before the egg salad though, we have toplay a new game that an American friend taught us that involves bashing the eggs into each other, trying to crack your opponents'. Fun.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

this is peace corps

Being a PCV is sitting at a colmado after a day of training on biosand water filters to create potable water for our communities while a little buzzed due to drinking a few Brahma beers because this colmado sells them for 3 for a RD$100, which is a fantastic deal and we’re all broke and talking about what we’ll do when we COS (Close of Service, ie leave the country after our 2 years are up).
The conversation I was having with a fellow PCV proceeded like this:
“Ya know, going to apply to International Development graduate programs and a few jobs in Africa, then we’ll see what happens.”
“Africa, wow, why Africa? You already speak Spanish and I thought you loved Latin American”
“I do, I love it here, but I’ve always thought if I am going to work in development work, I should work where I am most needed. Latin America’s got a chance. There are emerging markets here. These people have electricity, most of the time, rice to eat, some healthcare. Africa’s pretty desperate.”
“Ok, true, makes sense. Well awesome. Ya... we are working in poverty, but nothing like over there…”
“There are people dying of hunger in Africa. 5 year-olds dying of preventable…..
(Enter other PCV friend) “Colleen, ready to go get a chimi?!”
And so I dash off with my other friend to buy a delicious late-night Dominican street food called a chimi. About half way to the stand I realize that I just left a friend in mid-sentence, talking about starving, dying children in Africa so that I could go buy a greasy treat at midnight, even though I already had dinner. But, new conversations ensue, my chimi is served and I make my way back to my Africa friend while thoroughly enjoying the treat. .
A new merengue hit comes on the radio and we all sing along. Then there’s a discussion of the upcoming elections here and how politicians campaign by throwing salami logs out of the backs of trucks (or helicopters) to mobs of screaming, shoving people (and that PCVs have been known to push & shove for their own salami).
We eventually make our way back to our accommodations and en route, I apologize to Africa guy for brushing off the intense conversation. I admit that as I walked towards my chimi I felt guilty… He says, “No worries. This is Peace Corps.”

fish poop & bomb dogs

Mural #5, check. Done. That’s right, this mural thing has taken off for me. Of the six public schools in the area, I have guided the painting of 5 and will begin the sixth next month. I have found mural painting to be an incredibly fulfilling activity for me as a PCV. Upon reflection of this fulfillment, I have realized that I like mural painting because at the end of the day, I can see a product. A concrete accomplishment. This “International Development Work” thing is hard. Seriously. Come in as a college-educated know-it-all American and try to motivate folks to change their behavior (whether it be fishing sustainably, not throwing trash on the ground, saving money, or attending a meeting) … and do it in a kinda-second language. But I try. I get up in the morning and paint trash cans with kids, remind people about meetings four times, and talk about the importance of parrotfish for cleaning corals and producing sand. Progress is slow. The educational system here is pretty bad, so many people don’t know how to learn. Mix that with mistrust of an extranjera (and a female at that!) and what you have is very tedious, often-without-noticeable-results type work. I do love it. I’m not complaining, just letting you know it is hard and that’s why I love mural painting. At the end of the day, there’s a product. If nothing else, I painted a mangrove today. Get it?
So back to murals and the title of this post. When I work with an area school, I ask the director to choose 15 eighth graders. I then meet with that group for 8 sessions. With each session I teach an environmental theme, then we paint related to that theme. (Re: this whole environmental education thing—the master plan is that by next year, the teachers will be trained in executing the lessons themselves and can use the mural as a teaching tool). Anyway, here are the lessons;
Session 1: Importance of water & where is it – Paint water
Session 2: Habitat, niche, ecosystem, food web—Paint sea grass & mangrove “ecosystems”
Session 3: Mangroves & Sea Grasses—Paint animals that live in mangroves & sea grasses
Session 4: Coral Reefs, coral polyps—Paint hard & soft corals, sponges, algae
Session 5: Wonders of the reef—Paint lobster, dolphin, grouper, etc.
Session 6: Wonders of the reef cont—Paint parrotfish, flamingo tongue, barracuda, turtle, etc.
Session 7: Living with the natural world (sustainable fishing, trash disposal, etc)—Paint fishermen & chosen phrase for mural
Session 8: Fieldtrip—We go to Punta Cana to snorkel at the beach to see sea grasses, then go on a boat ride to the reef, plus visit the mangroves to explore what’s living in them.
So last week we arrived at Session 8 and I took a group of kids on the fieldtrip. Before going to the beach we stop at the airport for a tour. Towards the end of the tour we saw some drug-sniffing K9’s. Our guide explained what they do and one of my students leaned over and said “So its NICHE is to sniff for drugs & bombs”. !!!!!!!!! Yes, kid, yes. You got it. I taught you the concept “niche” weeks ago and you remembered! Seriously, this was a huge moment for me. I know it seems so simple, but if you’ve ever struggled to teach, you’ll understand.
A few hours later we’d arrived at the beach and the kids were all splashing and playing in the water. A girl picked up a handful of sand and said, “Colleen, this is parrotfish poop, right?” !!!!!!!! Yes, kid, yes. You got it. Parrotfish help produce a lot of the sand on our beaches because when they eat the algae off the corals, they also chew up and ingest coral fragments, which they defecate as the sand….the sand that attracts the millions of tourists here.
So, poco a poco, kids are learning. But I think I am learning more.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

just a little weekend trip

Travis and I took off at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning for a little 3-day weekend. We did our best to pack very light (and did it successfully!), planned just a little, and took off expecting a chill weekend. Instead, we were constantly surprised, shocked and stimulated by amazing, ridiculous and hysterical things. This posting contains just the notables of our three-day weekend:

Day One:
6:20 a.m. (ish) we board a very full bus. I barely squeeze myself into a small uncomfortable space, sitting on the edge of some board. Travis finds nowhere to sit, so stands, hunched over because of his height, stuck with the backpack on his back.
6:50 a.m. (ish) our speedy-fast guagua comes to an abrupt stop. There is a traffic jam, which we find out several minutes later is due to an accident involving a bus and a very large half-dead cow. With hundreds of dilapidated buses stopped & running, the exhaust fumes overwhelm us. Our bus driver and cobrador (guy who collected our money) disappear to investigate the accident on foot. Eventually the driver returns and begins a game of inching forward, which becomes a bumping fight with another bus, ending in tons of screaming (the exciting part about this is that I can understand angry, screaming Spanish now!)
We arrive in Sabana de la Mar to meet up with volunteers and enjoy cold beer and fish at a local restaurant, swapping stories and planning an afternoon of activities.
An amazing boat tour of Los Haitises National Park ensues. The mangroves are overwhelmingly cool, the Taino pictographs in the caves amazing, and the rain just a drizzle. Our motor breaks. About 15 minutes later we can breathe again and get in safely.
The evening is spent drinking, playing games, swapping the kind of stories that can only develop in Peace Corps and nail painting (my friend Robyn has learned to paint “Dominican nails”).

Day Two:
Trav & I leave Sabana early to head to Miches. While I nap on the small guagua, Trav encounters some small towns and a few memory-makers:
-the 40km ride takes almost 2 hours, thanks to the bad road and the fact that the driver seemed to know everyone along the route, and so made many stops to chitchat about… the weather(?).
-men exercising their roosters for a cock fight. This includes being bent over, shoving the rooster from hand-to-hand, making it fast on its feet & spinning it in circles
-a murdered man on the side of the road, with a crowd of about 40 chattering about it. No a cop in site, but a freshly-dead body displayed for all to see.
We take another bus and then a long motorcycle ride to a beach that came highly recommended by volunteers. The beach is called Playa Esmeralda and it’s a deserted beach in a little cove. Our beach experience, though beautiful, was severely tainted by swarming, terrible no-see-ums (little teeny-tiny bugs that chew you to pieces and don’t respond to repellent). The only respite was the water, which though amazing, was chilly due to the rain clouds and drizzles. So, we swam, swatted, then packed up to head out. One problem: no transport. My friends had told us that it’s easy to get a bola (free ride) out, so we began the muddy walk in the mosquitoey wilderness, hoping to get picked up. An hour later, with blistered feet due to walking in sandy wet sandals, we got our bola and arrived back to Miches for a tranquilo evening of cooking & cribbage with our friend Kevin.

Day Three:
After a solid night’s sleep (at last!), we made our way towards home. The rain stayed with us, an off & on drizzle that resulted in our ride from Miches to El Seibo, which is quite hilly and green, to take place almost entirely in a cloud. We couldn’t enjoy the view of the hills, so held tight, praying the driver knew the windy pot-holed roads well. (he did and the mist was beautiful). We arrived into Higuey (the closest city to Veron) in order to experience the celebrations of the Dia de Altagracia. There’s a virgin statue in their impressive basilica that has some special powers on the 21st of January. For that reason, people migrate there from all over the country to wait in line to touch the virgin, leave her offerings, pray and light a candle. We’re talking Catholicism on steroids here people. Thousands and thousands of people came, including many whom were sick, deformed or injured, searching for either a miracle from the virgin or a handout from someone making promises to the virgin. We elbowed through the crowds dressed in their best, some fervently praying, other begging for handouts, a few camped out on the sidewalks for the night, and many just gawking like us. We felt comfortable taking pictures because so many other Dominicans were.
After the basilica, we strolled the streets which were filled with vendors peddling everything imaginable—empanadas, early-season mangoes, bras, shots of liquor, baseball caps, and some kind of salad-shooter type device (I’m not kidding!). We filled our bellies with fried street food, bought 8 mangoes, and made our way home for a normal evening of muchachos stopping by to say hi.

Monday, December 24, 2007

oh holy night

(photo taken in Santo Domingo. Check out the bald angel!)

Happy Noche Buena to all. Noche Buena, good night, is the big thing here. The 24th of December. Leading up to today, many-a-pigs were fattened, houses painted and apples imported from America.

One of you (my loyal readers) lamented about the crazy American holiday season and remarked that you were sure that my experience here was much different and that the people (Dominicans) remember the REAL meaning of Christmas.


*in training, another PCV taught me that buuuuuuueno is a good word to use when you don't really want to say much more about the subject or something was said that is far from the truth.

So back to Noche Buena. Mom's in town, so we took her to the barrio for the afternoon. With a house full of the regulars-- muchachos & guys our age, different visitors stopped by, bringing gifts of food-- a fried hunk of pig, spaghetti, a special bread sold only at Christmas, a half an apple, a few grapes, a few gum drops, some chicken. I meanwhile made brownies in order to have something to share. An unknown treat here that, unlike most American foods I cook, people always love.

Sitting on the receiving end of gifts of food was quite special. (And in reality, I am almost always on the receiving end in this country!)

The Pig: Pig's the big thing to eat for Christmas. There's been quite a buzz the past few weeks as people have been fattenin' 'em up for the big day. I often heard that "eso es para el 24" (that one's for the 24th)!(un) Fortunately, we missed the mass killing, as we were busy enjoying the Punta Cana beach, kayaks, catamaran and pool.

The House Paint: Don't ask me, people just like to repaint the outside of their houses for Christmas. A woman I was visiting with told me she hates Christmas this year because she doesn't have the money to repaint her house.

Apples: In a world of locally grown pineapple, passionfruit, melon, oranges, mangos, papaya, bananas, and ton of other amazing tropical fruits you've never heard of, people get REALLY excited about red delicious apples imported from America, that have often sat in a cardbaord box or the sun for a day or two too long. They're more expensive than the other fruits, but coveted, especially this time of year. Fruit stands all over hang them decorativly by the stem and people by them for Noche Buena.

I share these tidbits of what I have seen of a Dominican Noche Buena with you with hopes that you realize that I am just pulling out what seems noteworthy & odd. I love this place, I love these people and I appreciate their traditions, but at the same time, I laugh too. Some things seem bizarre to me, and those are what I have highlighted here. I could have just as easily spent my words on how this entire month (and especially today & tomorrow) is about being with family, enjoying life, making things beautiful and eating good food. When it's put that way, we don't seem that different.

After several hours in our barrio, we moved onto visit Maria, the town mayor, whom I lived with for 3 months. She brought us into her formal living room and treated us like special guests. The party was hopping with about 30 people, complete with ear-blowing music, flowing alcohol, 2 pigs cooked on a spit and that oh-so-special Christmas bread. Maria's 80 year-old father begged me to eat a piece of pig, then gave us all a cheap, sweet red wine that most everyone seemed to be drunk on. Mom danced a few merengues, then we ate more pig (ok, I didn't. I don't eat pig here) & spaghetti and received gifts of apples.

Now we're back at Punta Cana with a pineapple that we've converted into a Christmas tree, carols over the internet and bathing suits drying in preparation for tomorrow.

Si, es una noche buena.