Sunday, May 13, 2012

¿Cuánto Tiempo?

2012 has not been good to my blog. I apologize to the 3 of you who regularly check in to see what is happening here in the DR. I didn’t fall off the face of the earth or the side of the island but I have been very busy in my third and final year as a PCV. To get us up to speed, I’m going to list and briefly explain the highlights of the past couple months.

International Women’s Day

March 8th marked International Women’s Day and to celebrate that day fellow Volunteer Phoebe arranged a sort of field trip for the volunteers living in the eastern region working with Chicas Brillantes girls groups.

10 Volunteers and teenaged girls from our communities boarded a bus early in the morning and headed north to Salcedo, the home of the Hermanas Mirabal. The Mirabal Sisters are cultural icons here in the DR. They acted as revolutionaries who stood up to and were eventually assassinated by Dictator Rafael Trujillo before his downfall.

We visited the museum their former home and learned about their lives. We watched a movie (a bad one starring Michelle Rodriguez) telling their story. And we were fortunate enough to hear from the one living Mirabal sister, Dede, who, at age 89, came out of her house, graced us with her presence, answered questions from our girls and inspired us all.

Our girls learned about strong, brave, inspiring Dominican female leaders and met a real life Mirabal sister and Dominican celebrity. A very empowering International Women’s Day.

Posing with Dede Mirabal outside her home in Salcedo
Deportes para la Vida

I’ve organized and facilitated a number of Deportes para la Vida events in the past year and after my final 5-day training in March, I’m just about ready to pass the baton for this initiative on to other volunteers.

The training, the fifth in which I’ve attended and third in which I’ve facilitated, was a success and we certified another 37 people to teach the DPV course in their communities. Since December 2010, 36 PCVs and 98 Dominican counterparts have been trained to teach the DPV curriculum. In just 18 months, well over 1,000 Dominican youth have learned to prevent, combat against and educate others about the spread of HIV/AIDS through this program.

It’s been very cool to see this program start just 1.5 years ago and expand rapidly into a highly successful Peace Corps initiative.

Newest group of Deportes para la Vida Trainers
Camp Superman

Speaking of last camps and baton passing, I organized, facilitated and attended my final Campamentos Superman. The Peace Corps boys’ gender empowerment initiative has also grown rapidly in my time here. What once was a summer camp is now a year-round initiative with a series of American-style camping trips and Volunteers working with boys groups in their communities.

These camps have provided many highlights throughout my service. Some of the highlights of these last two camps include seeing a number of Dominican boys experience the ocean for the first time in Las Galeras, Samaná, and watching boys overcome their fears to zipline through the trees at camp in San Cristóbal. Also in San Cristóbal, Volunteers and boys alike passed through an insanely fun, challenging and muddy obstacle course. The pictures are all kinds of epic.

Again, it’s been great to see this initiative grow in my time here and I’m excited to see how great it will become in the future.

My Superboys Alex, Raudy & Kikel on Playa Rincón
Sirve Con Fuerza

My second trip to Peace Corps’ annual girls volleyball tournament. 10 teams. 60 girls. 1 champion. We played lots of volleyball and learned valuable life lessons about gender, nutrition, proper condom use and more. I am proud to announce that the 6 girls from my community of Batey Cachena won the championship versus the favored-to-win team from Batey Las Pajas and went home as champions.


As I’ve been very busy above ground, I’ve been sure to reward myself with some weekends under the sea. A former Volunteer friend is interning at a SCUBA shop in the beach paradise of Las Galeras, Samaná. She has arranged a number of SCUBA ‘camps’ in which we PCVs have been able to get SCUBA certified for ridiculously low prices. In late February, I spent a 4-day weekend camping on the beach and learning SCUBA basics. In Las Galeras, we are able to suit up and walk right out to a coral reef – avoiding the costly boats and gasoline altogether.

Just last week I returned to seek my Advanced Certification. Now that we had the basics down, we could just dive. We returned to the reef. We dove at night. We dove to depths of 35 meters and explored a sunken cargo ship. It was an awesome weekend and I am now certified to dive anywhere on earth.

SCUBA certification – yet another perk of Peace Corps service on a tropical island.

The home base of SCUBA Camp. Life is rough.
That’s a quick rundown of the happenings here in the DR over the past 3 months. If I should disappear again anytime soon, please refer to my friend Dory’s blog, 27 Stories. She’s an incredible writer and does a brilliant job of capturing the emotional roller coaster of Peace Corps life. While my blog has devolved into little more than monthly recaps and stories of what I do, hers does a good job of explaining what we go through and how we feel. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

50 Years

The first week in February was hand-down one of the best in my PCV life. For an entire week we celebrated Peace Corps reaching the 50 year milestone working here in the Dominican Republic. Hundreds of RPCVs from the 60’s, 70’s and beyond came down to celebrate with the almost 200 volunteers currently living and working here on the island.

For a week we heard words of wisdom from a number of RPCVs, including International Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams and Senator Chris Dodd. It was incredibly inspiring meet so many accomplished people and to get a glimpse into the potential futures of many of us current Volunteers.

A host of current Volunteers spent nearly an entire year planning this reunion, complete with a conference full of presentations by current and former Volunteers. We were invited to a reception at the Ambassador’s home and other swanky events in Santo Domingo. We got to share our projects and the modern day Peace Corps Dominican Republic while learning about how things were here in Peace Corps’ infancy. It is incredible how much has changed over time and, at the exact same time, incredible how much has remained the same.

While 50 Years is a great milestone to hit, it also means there is much work to be done. The ultimate success of the Peace Corps in any one country would be to assist that country in reaching a level of development in which they would no longer need our services. So while celebrating 50 years and looking back at the great work that has been done is important, it is equally important that our work continue and improve to a level that ensures that no 100 year anniversary of Peace Corps in the DR be will necessary.

International Peace Corps Director and RPCV from the DR, Aaron Williams

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mi Futuro Brillante

A big part of my job as a Youth Volunteer and educator is preparing my youth for their future. Informing them of the options available (work, school, etc). Identifying their skills and abilities to best choose a future path. Empowering them to pursue their goals and aspirations and, lastly, helping to prepare them for the next steps. This work can at times be frustrating in its lack of tangibility. I am essentially planting seeds in hopes that one day, long after I’ve left the island, the seeds will grow and prosper. It’s important work but as I only live here for a finite amount of time, I selfishly want to see the results of my efforts and see my youth put the work we do in the community into practice. This past weekend, I got just that.

This year is the second in which Peace Corps DR has put on the Mi Futuro Brillante (My Bright Future) Conference. The conference is offered for those of us who work with girls empowerment groups in our communities and offers an unequaled opportunity for the girls from our bateys, campos and barrios. In this conference, volunteers each bring two girls from their community who are high school-aged and show potential for and have expressed interest in attending college in hopes of someday becoming a professional.

All of the girls descended upon a nice hotel in the Capital last Thursday for three days of future planning. First, the girls took personality tests, telling them their personality types and which types of careers generally work best with their personality type. They received a presentation of professionalism and preparation for the next morning when they would meet and job shadow a Dominican professional. Each of the girls was asked their career aspirations and matched to the best of our abilities with a Dominican woman working in that career field.

Nine professional Dominican women working in and near Santo Domingo agreed to participate in the conference. The women represented a wide variety of careers. There was a lawyer, a gynecologist, an orthodontist, two engineers, a psychologist, a nurse and two women who work for Peace Corps. Most of the women were young and served as ideal role models for our girls. All of the girls and professionals met for breakfast on Friday morning before departing to each of the professional’s office or workplace where the girls would get to interview and job shadow them.

Volunteers accompanied their girls on the visit and my girls, Marta and Caina, visited an Industrial Engineer. Caina hopes to study engineering and Danelis, an Industrial Engineer living and working in Santo Domingo, showed us the plastics factory where she works. Danelis is effectively in charge of all that happens on the plant floor and the management of each of the plant’s 70 employees. The factory makes plastic lids and bottles used for bottled water and other beverages (an environmentalist’s nightmare). We were able to see the machines that made the bottles and learn about the process. The girls were able to see a woman in charge of what is often considered (at least here) to be a “Man’s World”. The visit was very interesting and empowering for the girls.

Friday was the day when the girls saw what they can achieve in the professional lives. Saturday was the day in which they learned how to get there. In the morning we all hopped on Santo Domingo’s Metro and rode the few short stops to the UASD, the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. The UASD is the largest university in the DR and the oldest university in the Americas, founded in 1538. I had never visited the campus and was astonished to see how beautiful, modern and campus-y it was. The girls got to see a University campus, its buildings, its students and its energy.

The conference served as an educational and empowering tool for the girls and a tangible success for us Volunteers. We tell our youth day in and day out that if they work hard and study hard, they can achieve their goals. Sometimes it can be difficult for them to firmly grasp what that hard work consists of and where exactly it can get them. At Mi Futuro Brillante, the girls were able to see and experience where studying can get you and what you can achieve through hard work. They got to meet young professional Dominicanas and visit the university they could someday attend and the office they could someday work in if they continue working hard and dreaming big.

The girls felt inspired. We Volunteers felt proud. Everybody wins.

Caina (left) and Marta (right) with Industrial Engineer Danelis

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Occupy Minivan

December is a tricky time in the DR. The weather cools to more bearable temperatures, school finishes up and life in general winds down before the holiday season. There is often not much work to be done in December and many PCVs go home for the holidays. Just another perk of being a PCV in the DR – flights to the US couldn’t be much easier.

I would attempt to tell you about how I am spending my time in the USA, but my friend Duncan is a bit more eloquent and much more humorous in doing so. A group of us traveled cross-country while Occupying a Minivan. Read more here:

Duncan Peabloggy

Friday, December 2, 2011

Kite Season

Easily one of my favorite Dominican Spanish words is chichigua, or kite. Every year around this time the chichiguas come out in full force. In fact, most fads here seem to be seasonal. Through the holiday season kites will be the rage only for the winds to die down in January when the games of cricket will take over the streets, then marbles, hula hoops and whatever else the kids can get their hands on.

While some of these fads come and go, kites are one that seem to happen each and every year. Hula Hoops, for example, might be a passing fad brought on by a group of missionaries bringing dozens of toys to my community. Kites, on the other hand, are made and not received.

Along with the increasing winds that pass through this time of year, the sugar cane also begins to flower. Children go into the cane, cut down this flower and use its stalk to make the base of their kite. They then rummage through their homes or the local garbage heap for plastic bags and some string and voila, a kite is born.

If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times that the ability of a Dominican child to create and invent with limited resources is truly remarkable. With the most basic of materials they are able to build complex vaina. Whether they are creating a kite from scratch or fixing a broken bicycle, they live the adage that says, “One man’s trash is another muchacho’s treasure”.

As a child, it would have never even occurred to me to make a kite. A kite is something you buy. But here even a 4 year old and scrounge up the necessary materials and creativity to make their very own chichigua. They might not have much but they have that, and that’s something.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Facts, Fun & Firsts

The Dominican Republic is a country well known for its beautiful white sand beaches. It is also a small country – ensuring that all Dominicans live within a relatively short distance from any number of the aforementioned beautiful white sand beaches. This would lead many to the assumption that all Dominicans have been to the beach. That assumption is, regrettably, incorrect.

Can you imagine living in Florida, Southern California or any of the Hawaiian Islands and having never been to the beach? I cannot. I can hardly imagine being from North Dakota and not having traveled to Florida, Southern California, Hawaii or elsewhere to visit a beach and catch a glimpse of an ocean. Lucky for some Dominicans who have been thus far in their lives deprived of swimming in the large bodies of water that surround their country, we Peace Corps Volunteers have Grant Money and we like the beach.

This past weekend myself and 5 other Youth Volunteers who live in bateys offered their girls volleyball teams a weekend of facts, fun and of firsts.

On Saturday, we 6 Volunteers and the 36 young voleibolistas met at a nearby retreat center for a day of learning. We Volunteers led charlas, games and activities dealing with Good Sportsmanship, HIV/AIDS, Teamwork and Dehydration. Lots of facts. At our last Volleyball tournament two girls fainted due to dehydration so we thought we’d drop some knowledge on the importance of pumping your body full of water.

On Sunday morning we all loaded onto buses and headed to nearby Guayacanes, located along the Eastern coast and home to a beautiful white sand beach. We strung up a net and played volleyball in the baking Caribbean sun all day long. Lots of fun.

For some of the girls, it was their first beach trip. That alone made the day worthwhile. I often feel as a Peace Corps Volunteer that what I really do here is offer opportunities. Opportunities for my community members to meet and know an American. Opportunities for my youth to learn about things they otherwise might never learn about. Or for them travel with me to Camps and Conferences in distant parts of their own country they otherwise would never go. Or to take someone to a beach they live less than 50 miles from but would never have seen had a strange white guy not been sent to live in their community for two years.

The day was nearly perfect. The girls thoroughly enjoyed the surf and the sand. The Volunteers thoroughly sun burned themselves. I say nearly perfect because our beach day was on a Sunday – and Sunday is the day people here tend get drunk – and drunk men on the beach are attracted to 36 volleyball playing teenage girls and their 6 white friends like moths to a flame. We spent large amounts of time chasing away persistent drunk men with a Herman Cain-like tendency to sexually harass any female in sight.

It is incredible to me how comfortable I have become in the past two years at scolding people. From children straight on up to adults. I have no reservations telling someone to get lost or stop being such an ass. Two years ago I didn’t even know how to say such things in Spanish. Now not a day goes by without it. Sadly, being blunt and/or short with people is effective here. If you simply ask the drunk assholes on the beach to “Please, go away. We’re trying to hold an activity. Thank you.” they’re simply going to persist. But if you are to say “Seriously dude, go away! How many times do we have to tell you no?” they might just get the picture and go harass someone else.

As a male Volunteer, my life here is exponentially easier than that of a female Volunteer. Female Volunteers here, and I imagine in many (most?)) other countries, have to deal with copious amounts of sexual harassment each and every day. It’s gotta get exhausting. Not to mention ugly and degrading and gross. I knew it was tough to be a female here but after more than two years in this country, it took me one day at the beach for it to really hit home. Dominican men can be gross. Men can be gross. People can be gross. Why do people insist on being gross?

But side rant on the occasional ways of Dominican men and hardship of female PCVs aside, the event was a major success. Our girls learned, they played, they enjoyed themselves and some of them had a major life experience of seeing/swimming in the ocean for the very first time. That’s big. And it’s all because we offered them a simple little opportunity.

Our Beautiful Court

Lunch Break

Bumping, Setting and Spiking for the Tiguere Spectators

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Personal Development

October 28th marked the official end of my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Or it would have were I not extending my service and sticking around until June. While I and many others from my group have extended and, therefore, treated October 28th as any other day, a number of people did leave. Closing this chapter and moving on to a new, more American one.

I never expected that when November 2011 rolled around I would still find myself here in the DR. I didn’t expect to still be writing these blog posts by candlelight, awaiting the return of the electricity so I can type and upload it to the interwebs. For more than two years now the date, the numbers, 10/28/2011, have been so meaningful. They represented a goal. A milestone. And now it has come and gone with little fanfare.

This fall has been a strange one. September was undoubtedly my most busy and productive month as a PCV. It was followed by a major October slump. All peaks in Peace Corps seem to lead to an inevitable valley. And now November presents itself as another mountain to climb.

Aside from the return of numerous Peace Corps camps, conferences, trainings and more, I’m starting to finally start seriously looking towards my life post-Peace Corps. Attempting to do some personal development on top of the Grassroots development. This includes researching Grad School programs, filling out applications, writing personal statements and deciding where it is I want to live when my time in the Caribbean comes to a close.

America is big. It is home to many good schools. Lots of cool cities. How am I supposed to settle on just one place? Can’t people just commute from Denver to New York? Seattle and the Bay Area look close on a map. In the DR, mountains and cities and beaches and deserts are all just one uncomfortable bus ride away. I’m going from a country roughly the size of New Hampshire to a country in which New Hampshire is among the smallest of 50 fairly large states. America. It’s a daunting place.

An unfortunate accompaniment to applying to Graduate School is the GRE. Yet another godforsaken standardized test in the life of an American student which does nothing to reflect one’s true intelligence/abilities. It costs $200 and requires a fair amount of studying. Trying to study in what is easily one of the world’s loudest countries borders on tortuous. There is literally no where one can go to escape the noise.

I went to a large shopping center called Jumbo (think Latin American Target) last week to sit in the food court and take a GRE practice test. Jumbo is about 30 minutes away in the nearest city. It is glorious there. In the store I mean, not the city. The city, San Pedro de Macoris, is pretty awful. I sat amongst the bustle of people eating, shopping and getting wrapped up into the arms of commerce and even with all the noise and distraction, Jumbo provides a better learning environment than anywhere in my community. It's loud here. It's no wonder schoolchildren in the DR don't learn, they can't hear a god damn thing.

November 2011. Still here. Who woulda thunk it? This country certainly has a strange effect on people. They simply can't leave. And when the finally do, they suffer from chronic hearing loss. Seriously, it's really loud here.