Sunday, May 20, 2012

Llegó el fin

It’s seems like a dream when I realize that my time with Peace Corps Dominican Republic is over. I’ll be back in Pennsylvania for the summer on May 24. And who knew that leaving was going to be the hardest part?

We spent our last few months finishing up our latrine project. Here are a few photos. The school kids helped me paint a mural of Hispaniola. We played with our cats. We harvested a lot of lettuce and radishes from our garden. We hiked Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean. I spent a few days hiking through the national park Valle Nuevo that connects our province, San José de Ocoa, with Constanza, the high mountain valley to our north that produces such wonderful, but un-Caribbean produce like apples, strawberries, cabbage, and broccoli. And of course we spent a lot of time just trying to savor the last few weeks in our peaceful shack surrounded by wonderful neighbors, clever kitties, and verdant lush mountains. And now it’s over.

We also traveled to visit several other volunteers’ communities. The DR continues to astound me with its biodiversity. We visited a batey in the southwest. Batey’s are small communities where agricultural workers live in close proximity. They spring up around sugar-cane, coffee and cacao plantations. Some bateys only have inhabitants during harvest time, while others have become permanent communities. Traditionally bateys were filled with migrant Haitian workers. But in many cases a lot of those migrant Haitians just stayed so that several generations later these bateys have become small communities of mostly Spanish-speaking people of Haitian descent. This was the case for the batey that we visited. The people in the bateys still subsist off of working on large agricultural plantations, and in the south this consists mostly of working in the sugar-cane fields. The culture and cuisine of the bateys have distinct Haitian influences. The most important food influences, to me at least, are the Haitian bread called biskwi, and the (often spicy) peanut butter called mamba. While in the southwest we also visited the town of Los Rios beside Lago Enriquillo, a salt lake approximately the size of Manhattan. Unfortunately for the farmers surrounding the lake, the lake’s water level keeps rising at a substantial rate engulfing dozens of acres of farmland each year. Deforestation in the Sierra de Neyba plays a large part in the rising water level. Fewer trees mean that the soil cannot absorb as much rainwater thus much more runoff ends up in the rivers that feed Lago Enriquillo. We also visited Los Guineos in the northeast where a fellow volunteer is working on a kayak tourism project on Laguna Limon, a large freshwater lake that occasionally overflows into the Atlantic Ocean just outside of Samaná Bay. From there we took a boat north across Samaná Bay to Samaná Peninsula and visited a few of the most beautiful beaches that I’ve ever seen.

After completing my service I also spent a few days in Haiti. It was very interesting to see the other side of the island. Here are some photos. The DR and Haiti have much shared history and geography, and yet they’ve turned out, so far, very differently. About 27 percent of the DR remains forested while Haiti has only about 1 percent forest cover. This has huge ramifications on things as far-ranging as soil erosion, amount of rainfall, soil quality, and hydroelectricity potential. In terms of development, even when accounting for all the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake, Haiti is a long way behind the Dominican Republic. This is even harder to understand when you realize that at the end of the eighteenth century Haiti was the richest colony in the Americas. Today it’s one of the poorest countries in the entire Western Hemisphere. I have been fascinated with the question of why the two countries, they share the same island after all, have turned out so differently. My visit was partly a continuation of my quest to understand how two countries on one island can have such distinct outcomes.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up for Peace Corps. I knew that I’d be living in a foreign country for two years, and that was enough. But Peace Corps for me has been so much more than just 27 months on an exotic, unimaginably beautiful subtropical island. Like all unique experiences, it’s very difficult to put into words. If I had to pick one single most important thing that I’m taking away from Peace Corps, I would probably choose the perspective on life that it’s given me. Being part of a close-knit community for two years not only taught me about cross-cultural relations, but it also taught me a lot about how communities in general function. The world is big and very complex, much more so than most people believe. What makes perfect sense to you might make no sense at all to someone from a different culture, and like it or not, that’s just the way it is. Open-mindedness, patience, and adaptability are some of the most crucial skills in surviving and working in a foreign culture. Some cultural differences are fun, some are quaint and amusing, and some are just plain infuriating. But, for the most part, they are almost impossible to change. But it's amazing how much more sense all of the differences make when,through living their lifestyle, you try to see the world through the eyes of people from a foreign culture.

Peace Corps has taught me to value friendship more. It has taught me that individuals, as opposed to their environment, can often be the limiting factor in trying to achieve their dreams. I deal better with failure. I can relax more when things are out of my control.

As sad as I am to leave I will not miss LOUD music (I’m pretty sure that I’ve experienced hearing loss), the it-will-eventually-happen attitude which makes everything take 10 times as long as it should, blatant animal and child abuse, the culture of procrastination, and lack of waste management.

I will however miss neighbor kids who pop in to visit at any hour, the view from our kitchen window, the freedom to take siestas almost whenever I want, colmados, free lunch at any doña’s house when I visit over noontime, the culture of sharing, Peace Corps friends, public transport that can take you anywhere in the country, and just generally La Gran Libertad of this crazy island where pretty much everything goes.

It has truly been an incredible life-changing adventure. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Echando pa' 'lante (Onward, ho)

I realized last week that it’s almost three months since I’ve updated my blog. The original point of this blog was to help share the excitement and exoticism of living in a foreign culture. So what do I say when the culture no longer seems so foreign or exotic? Increasingly it’s the American life that seems strange, not the Dominican. For example, last week Anna was reading a home decorating magazine that she had scavenged from a passing visitor. On page five there was a picture of a bright yellow door with the caption, “A front door says a lot about who lives inside. Is yours friendly? Low-key?” After my initial shock at the fact that some people get to choose what front door they have on their house, I wondered what it says when you just have a cracked door made of nailed-together wood scraps with the paint peeling off in chunks and strips of tin to cover the rotted holes. Low-key? Definitely. Friendly? Well it’s certainly unimposing. Then I noticed that the bronze door handle alone cost $278. About the price of a really nice functional latrine here, more than twice the average monthly salary of many of my neighbors.

There are of course those silly moments when I realize that I could only be in the highly-caffeinated culture of the Dominican Republic, and that’s what I tried to convey in the last blog. But increasingly there are less moments when I feel like an alien. This morning a neighbor boy hung around my house for about 15 minutes before he finally broached the reason for his visit. He had to make a trip to the city and had no money (since he hadn’t been paid for picking coffee because his employer hadn’t been paid for selling the coffee) so I loaned him 500 pesos (about $13). “No money” in the US means that you’re almost broke but probably have, at the very least, a few hundred dollars in the bank. And the ATM is a few-minute drive away. Here it means what it says. No money. Nada. Ni un peso. Most people don’t even have a bank account. So someone is always borrowing a few pesos from someone else until they get paid for their coffee or their beans. When I go to the colmado to buy food I occasionally don’t have enough money with me for everything I need, so I take it on credit until the following week when I have the cash to pay. A country where stores only allow you to buy what you can pay for in the moment, even though you need to buy the rice for lunch today and will have the money next week, seems cold and harsh. Although I guess that´s why Americans have so much credit card debt, they plan on paying tomorrow.

In the States I used to go to the supermarket or farmers’ market about once a week to stock up on food supplies. Here I buy most of what I need on a daily basis. The colmado is a two-minute walk down the road. If I start to make banana bread and find I’m short on sugar or eggs I’ll walk down to the colmado or yell for a neighbor boy to go. Imagining a life with unlimited electricity becomes increasingly more difficult. We’re at least fortunate enough to have a solar panel which provides for more than our electrical needs most of the year, except for the cloudy winter months. But most communities only have electricity a few hours a day, and over half of my neighbors have no solar panels which means they never have electricity. I was at a conference last week and beforehand I had made sure to ask if there would be electricity so that I could show a video. They replied that that particular town’s electricity usually lasted until seven or eight and as it was still only six o’clock I would be fine. I accepted the answer without pause, and only later began musing about how strange it would be to have electricity all the time and to live where neighbors never bring over their cellphones to be charged. I also no longer view having a private vehicle as the norm. If you have a personal car, no matter how beat-up, you’re somewhat well off. If you have a jipeta (SUV) you’re rolling in the money. Don’t be surprised if I ask you for food.

In January, I believe it was the 19th, we woke in the middle of the night to find the house shaking and rattling. As Anna succinctly put it, “It felt like we were inside a large box that an unruly giant was shaking as hard as possible.” As I came zooming up into consciousness from a deep REM sleep my first thought was that some cow was outside scratching its flanks against a house corner and thus rocking the house back and forth. I dove out from under the mosquito net and ran to the front door to scare away the cow. As my left hand opened the door and my right hand grabbed my machete from the wall the house stopped shaking and my dream-stained brain cleared. As I jumped out into the dark I realized without even looking that there was no cow. The next day everyone was talking about the (approximately) 5.3 tremor that had shuddered its way through the night. Naturally my neighbors wanted to know what the Americans did when they felt the earth quake. They mocked me when they found out I had thought that it was a cow scratching itself. But the simple truth remains, a large cow could give my tiny house a very dramatic and scary shaking. The DR had several tremors over the magnitude of 5.0 in the month of January. I only felt two, the one described above and other that made my plastic chair sway as I sat at an internet center in Ocoa. As I was working intently at the time I thought that someone had brushed my chair, and it was only about five minutes later as the room erupted into a roar as everyone found out about the tremor that I realized what had happened. As far as I know no one was seriously hurt in any of the tremors and property damage was mostly limited to cracked walls in a few houses.

Between riding out earthquakes and eating fresh lettuce and radishes from our garden we’ve been building latrines. I want to thank all of you that have donated to our projects. We’ll send you more specific information about the latrine projects when possible. We also hosted a fabulous bunch of friends over Christmas at our tiny hut. We went swimming in the river and ate cinnamon rolls and, on the cold rainy days, kept warm by drinking lots of hot rum toddies. We’ve also spent an unhealthy amount of time applying to graduate schools and travelling 90 bumpy minutes to get internet access. In addition we’ve also been doing a lot of translating and providing logistical assistance to a Canadian NGO that builds houses in our province. I took two boys to a mountains to sea conference in January as well, where we gave workshops on how rivers connect mountain ecosystems with the sea. In the beginning of February Peace Corps Dominican Republic celebrated its 50th anniversary. We spent a few days in Santo Domingo helping organize events, but the real reason we were there was to attend the celebratory parties and listen to the crazy stories of returned Peace Volunteers, especially those from the 60’s and 70’s.

It’s hard to believe we’ll be leaving here in May, three short months away. In truth I can’t quite comprehend it. I’ll be spending as much time here in the mountains as I can before then, hiking, chatting with neighbors and friends over rice and beans, playing with our cats, and puttering in the garden. Here are some pictures from the past months.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Island Life

If you want to support our latrine projects now is the time to do so. Since we only have a few months left (it’s hard to believe I know) on this noisy little island we need to start working with the money that has been donated so far. You will be able to donate until approximately December 15. On that date, or shortly after, you will no longer be able to donate via the Peace Corps website, so please fill our Christmas stockings now.

You probably wonder what I´ve been doing the last few months. Here are some photos. In September I was Peace Corps busy with a stove project. The long and complicated story made short is that Peace Corps DR is trying to find a wood-burning cook stove model that works in this country. A new model has been developed. I’m involved in building some test stoves to see how the stoves perform so that we can improve the model for when it eventually becomes mass-produced.

In October I made the long-awaited trip to Nueva York. Pennsylvania in autumn is beautiful. I was busy drinking cider, eating cheese, and snapping pictures of fall foliage, combines, and rolling cornfields for my neighbors here to see. Chicago (all paid for because I am a twin celebrity, or because some genius doctor thought it would be fun to study the genetics of aggression) was, besides the cold, superb. Unfortunately I got sick in the middle of my trip and didn’t get to spend as much time with friends as I would have liked. I tested negative for dengue, so who knows what hit me. But now I’m back and feeling well. It was cloudy and rainy almost every day this past week, which is Dominican for I didn’t really leave my house very much. I sat and read and waited for the sun to shine.

I spend a lot of time waiting for things. I wait for buses, I wait for grant money, I wait for a work partner to do what they promised, I wait for people from the ministry of environment to return my emails and calls, I wait in my house for the rain to stop, I wait in my house until the sun goes down and it’s cool enough to go visit someone, I wait because sometimes all you need is more time, I wait for my cat Clunkers to come visit me. (Clunkers, the poor hungry kitty we found in the coffee field, has grown up, fallen in love with the neighbor´s charming calico cat, and only stops by once a day for ten minutes to fill his belly. I wonder, is this how parents feel when their testosterone-laden sons are out chasing girls and only come home to sleep and eat?) I wait for projects to get off the ground, I wait for my community to get organized, and I wait for seeds to sprout in my garden. While I wait I do things like read and play with our kitten Buster. (We gave Nymeria, Buster´s sister, away to another volunteer to save her from Clunkers’ machismo advances). I walk, visit neighbors, play with the neighbor kids, dig around in my garden, chop weeds with my machete, walk some more, and go to the colmado to see what I can buy with 10 pesos. It’s pretty difficult to make all that waiting seem interesting to you.

So I decided it would be informative to write about specific incidents that typify common Dominican habits or cultural aspects.

I may have said this before but Dominican culture, although obsessed with the US and lacking any indigenous influence, is one-of-a-kind. At first glance it’s bland Latin America, dusty concrete, tin roofs, lots of trash, loud music, too many horns blaring, tight blue jeans and imported t-shirts sporting names like American Eagle, Hollister, and Old Navy. But since the DR is a tiny island the country doesn’t interact as much with other cultures, and as a consequence some very interesting customs have evolved.


I had large plans that I would influence my neighbors to plant lovely vegetable gardens. They watched me spend a day sweating as I dug up my garden. They watched me make rows and carefully plant the tiny seeds at the proper spacing. They hung over my chicken-proof garden fence, which is actually my mosquito net cut into three-foot strips (thanks Peace Corps!), as I meticulously weeded around the tiny seedlings. Then they watched as the daily rains rotted my zucchini and infected my tomatoes with a brown rot. My sweet corn tasseled at two feet high (it looked like Munchkin corn) and my broccoli shot up into flowers, looking more like a wildflower than a vegetable. In case you think I am just one of those farmers unable to grow a garden I have had good crops of kale, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, and green beans. One day I noticed some miniature tomatoes sprouting in my yard. I asked my neighbor if they were safe to eat. She said, “Oh, they’re great! I have some growing outside my kitchen. Here let me show you.” Where her dishwater escapes the kitchen were about five of these tomato plants. She said, “These just sprout up here and I eat them when I want some. This is what I do when I want more tomatoes”. She grabbed a cherry-sized tomato and popped it between her thumb and forefinger. The tomato seeds shot across the bare ground. She said, “Now more tomatoes will grow here,” and she turned and walked back to her kitchen to finish washing dishes. Although I could barely restrain myself from grabbing a hoe and scratching some dirt across the seeds, I now understood Dominican gardening.


I sat on the concrete porch of a colmado soaking up the early morning sun as I waited on a bus. All the motorcycle taxi drivers had just arrived to wait for the day’s first passengers. They did normal motorcycle taxi things like bother a cat in the bushes, try to make the dog on the porch across the street bark, and talk about how chilly it was the night before. Then one tall old man, tanned and lean in his faded white pants and blue windbreaker whipped a razor (one of those disposable Gillett style things; in fact Dominicans only know this type of razor as a “Jeelet”) out of his jacket pocket and started, as he walked around chatting up the other taxi drivers, slowly shaving his grizzled jaw. After about ten minutes of this he sat down on the chipped concrete bench beside a teenage, who I remember was wearing bright yellow Crocs (of course they were knock-offs), and, from what I could see of his gestures, asked the kid to show him the missed spots. Mr. Yellow-Crocs then points to a spot on his cheek and Mr. Gillette shaves it. This continues for about five minutes. One man pointing and the other man, fully trusting his interactive mirror, shaving until Yellow-Crocs is satisfied that all is smooth. Mr. Gillette pockets the razor then stands up and stretches.


I met a Dominican lady in my community one day who told me that I look very much like a certain John that lives in her town. I immediately suspected that it was some Swiss coffee farmer but after extensive questioning I found out she lives in a town where some Mennonites (specifically Beachy Amish, for those of you in the know) have a clinic and school. Being an ex-Mennonite myself I got very interested and asked her what she thought about the work they were doing. She said, among other things, “They are strange people. They dress funny and they have funny ideas about music. They are very friendly and I must say that the clinic and the school are both marvelous contributions to the community. But you know what’s wrong with those Mennonites?” and she shook her heard disbelievingly, “ It’s that they don’t watch TV!”


I knew that interest rates are quite high here so I was surprised when a carpenter friend of mine said that he was only paying 3.8 percent on his truck loan. I was shocked. He said that it’s because he has good credit. Apparently if you have bad credit or don’t have proper documentation (as in the case of people like the Haitians mentioned below) you pay around 20 percent interest. Only after more specific questioning did it become clear that my friend was quoting monthly interest rates. He’s paying over 45 percent annual interest on a truck loan. If you have bad credit or don’t have a legal documentation (many people here don’t) you pay, if you can afford it, over 200 percent annual interest for a loan. And we Americans think we have it bad.


Last month Hurricane Irene washed out a bridge in my community. It had been in precarious shape for a while. Last fall after Tropical Storm Tomas damaged it farmers propped up parts of the bridge with the trunks of pine trees. Then Hurricane Irene knocked it flat. So the farmers made a bridge out of just pine trunks. They bridged the stream with first one layer of trunks and then above that layer they put another layer; one trunk nestled between the curves of the two trunks below it. The top part was covered with dirt. It looked and worked great during week one. During week two some of the lower trunks broke and so the upper ones sagged and the dirt fell through in places leaving unnerving holes. Daring people drove over; the cowards or the wise, who can tell?, didn’t cross with their vehicles. One morning I watched the driver of the public transport jeep get out and inspect the bridge. He studied it for five minutes and then, looking grim, got back behind the wheel and steered cautiously up to the pine-log bridge. To avoid failure he would have to align his driver’s side wheels directly across a 12 inch diameter log. He got his front wheels onto the piney contraption, and certain he was a macho bridge-crosser headed too rapidly towards the narrow log. Half of the community was out watching and just as his wheel was about to drop into empty space everyone shouted excitedly. The driver backed up, swearing, and tried again. This time his front wheels entered the bridge very slowly, and as all the joyful watchers shouted contrasting opinions as to which way the driver should be turning the steering wheel he shook his head in fearful frustration, ground the gears into reverse, and refused to cross. A few days later the log contraption collapsed completely. As far as I know no one was crossing it at the time.

Four weeks ago preparation for construction started on a new bridge. They (meaning self-important government officials) even put up a detailed and colorful sign about the wonderful new bridge across the river. Except of course it’s not actually a river; in fact it’s not even really a stream except in post-rain flashfloods, but the sign does look good. The river that’s mentioned on the sign has no bridge at all and probably never will. It’s the river where the road ends, the one I once crossed (sheepishly) in my underwear using a big stick to poke along the bottom and keep my balance. Back to the (missing) bridge. This week, as construction got underway, the engineer in charge suddenly announced that the budgeted funds would not actually suffice and so they would have to settle for a culvert . The community said, “We want a bridge or nothing.” So now all work is stopped until some agreement can be reached. The community suspects that this is all a ploy by someone who wants to pocket the bridge money saved by building a cheap culvert. They are probably right. But even if the funds are sufficient and a bridge gets built, who knows how long it will last. I think the last one lasted ten years. In the meantime it’s coffee harvest and the farmers are having a hard time getting their coffee out to market.


All along the road between my house and the province’s capital city huge orange billboards have been erected. Hurricane Irene’s rains smashed the road to smithereens and these billboards say things like, “Construction of a bridge approved by Leonel” (the current president), or “Construction of a culvert approved by Leonel,” except there is no construction in site, although it’s badly needed. I know by now that the DR’s government is clearly way better at building signs than, well, basically anything useful, but there are so many big orange signs that even I thought something might happen. I asked a friend. He said, “Oh, no worries, they will take down the orange signs after May’s presidential elections.” When I asked, “But what about the all bridges and the culverts?” he just laughed at me.


Anna was sitting in our house reading one day when a neighbor boy who lives up the hill stopped by to say hello. As usual he hung around trying to find the DR on the world map on our wall and then trying to find his community on the DR map. He bothered the cat and played with our hand crank-powered flashlight. When he was about to leave Anna asked him what he was up to. He said, “I couldn’t find any paper at my house so I’m on my way down to Guela’s (a neighbor farther downhill) to try to find a piece of paper.”


In many towns the green street signs that hang above stoplight intersections are about 12 inches high. On the top part, about 9 inches, the sign says things like, Chicho sigue trabajando. “Chicho (obviously the chummy nickname for the mayor) keeps on working”. Or they include other needless references to that particular town’s mayor. They tend to reflect the name of the mayor who put them up, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some mayors put up new signs with their own names. The bottom 3 inches has the street name. The result is that I know the names of quite a few mayors but I can’t give you good directions in their towns because when I was there I couldn’t make out the street names.


The other week, the DR’s leading newspaper proudly reported, the seventh-billionth person in the world was born in the Dominican Republic. This child was born to a single teenager who had to drop out of high school in order to care for the baby. What’s sad is that the government offers free birth control for women but understandably teenage girls are reluctant to go on regular birth control, and to make matters worse Dominican men, for some macho reason of their own, tend to be very reluctant to use condoms. Hopefully with so many Peace Corps volunteers giving sex-ed workshops human number 8 billion won’t be born to a single teenage high school dropout in the DR.


I was walking back to my house one hot summer sun’s day and yelled at a neighbor boy (he’s 21) carrying food to some cows, “Hey, how’s it going?” He shouted back, “Too much work and too little money.” After a moment’s hesitation he yelled over his shoulder, “Hey Leo, can’t you get me a visa so I can get to go over there? “Over there” is a common Dominican euphemism for the States. I just sweated on home.

The DR as a nation is obsessed with the United Sates. Most think it’s paradise, something dangerously close to the garden of Eden. I’m not exaggerating. There is a popular song from last year where a silly rapper raps, “I want an American, I want an American” over and over. Then another silly rapper replies, “Why? Why? Why?” over and over. The rappers’ answer, edited for your sake, essentially translates as, “To get me a visa! To get me a visa!” Of course this too is rapped over and over. Eight-year-old children used to walk by our house singing this song. Sometimes I or Anna (especially Anna because in the spirit of machismo the song is directed specifically at girls and mostly sung at girls) will get on a bus and someone will break out singing the song.

In one of the DR’s daily papers, stuck down in the left-hand corner on about page five, is a regular column where desperate Dominicans ask advice on things like how they can improve their chances of getting a visa to the US.

I have yet to meet a Dominican that doesn’t have friends or family or doesn’t know someone who has friends or family living in the US. Someone told me, quite reliably, that the DR has more attempted visa frauds than any other country. That basically means they want to make it to the States worse than anyone else. Despite this love of emigration, they mostly hate their own immigrants, specifically the crowds of Haitians that keep pouring into the country. My neighbor once told me that Haitians are good people. As I was mentally congratulating her for breaking through her culture’s stereotypes, she caught another breath and added, “But they are bad on the inside.”

In 2007 the Dominican Republic passed a resolution that basically revokes the validity of the documents of any Dominican of recent Haitian descent. I heard about an eighteen-year-old boy whose parents emigrated from Haiti forty years ago. The entire family has always had their legal documents but recently the government denied the teenager a copy of his birth certificate. Because he is a Dominican of Haitian descent he now has no legally recognized identification of any kind. Unless things change he will never be able to hold a formal job or attend university. And unlike Dominicans he can harbor zero hopes of making it the US, at least not legally, because he has no recognized papers.


I was with my neighbor on his motorcycle the other day when he stopped at a garage to replace a seal where the bike was leaking oil. The mechanic in charge was a pot-bellied man in a dirty white shirt. He was sitting along the shop’s side wall. He told my friend to park the bike in front of him. He did. The fat mechanic man then extended his arm straight out from the shoulder, screwdriver in hand. The screwdriver was about three inches short of the screw that need removing. So the mechanic hissed at my neighbor and, scowling, told him to park the bike closer. He did. The fat mechanic, with help from my neighbor, then managed to change the seal and accept payment all without leaving his seat. As we drove away he remained like a bored Buddha, leaning motionless against the greasy shop wall while a mechanic’s calendar flapped above his head, the bikini-clad motorcycle-hugging lady in the photo undulating with the breeze.

In the course of the day we stopped at five different mechanic shops. Each shop’s toolbox consisted of a plastic or metal box about a foot square. All wrenches and sockets and screwdrivers were thrown indiscriminately into that one box so that each time a different tool was needed the mechanic or his child helper had to dig, usually for a long time, through the clutter to find the correct tool.


My neighbors took in a little two-year-old boy some years ago. His mom didn’t want him and he arrived looking sickly with his belly swollen with parasites. They fed him, took care of him, and treated him pretty much like a son. In exchange he was their errand boy. That boy is seven now. He’s one of my best friends here. But a few months ago his birth mother showed up and decided that she wanted to have him spend some time with her in the city. She admitted that she was scared that he wouldn’t remember her when he got older and thus would neglect her in her old age. So she dragged him away kicking and screaming; she was a complete stranger to him. She returned him after a few weeks only to come back for him a few months later. This time, surprisingly, he was fine with going. She kept him for another few weeks. Apparently he decided that he liked the city better than the countryside, and since things hadn’t been going so well at home for the past few months before he’d left for the city he said that he didn’t want to go back to the country. But his birth mother had only wanted him with her for a few weeks and the man who’d raised him as a father got angry and called the little boy ungrateful for not wanting to return after all they’d done for him so they dumped him off with an elderly widow, a complete stranger to the boy. Now he’s her errand boy.


Many urban Dominicans love to try out their English whenever they meet Americans. Once as Anna waited at an office the watch guard on duty practiced phrases from his English class with her. One of the phrases his textbook wanted him to learn was, “Oh what a peeping tom he is!”

-Hasta la próxima

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cogiendolo suave

Irene has come and gone. In Santo Domingo the heavy sweat of summer has again huddled over the city. It sticks to everything. Just a walk to get a frozen yogurt leaves me complaining and uncomfortable. I do love the comforts that Santo Domingo offers: frozen yogurt, internet access, high quality cheese, a hot shower if I’m lucky, and, well you would think the list would be longer but it really isn’t. Apparently I’ve gone country.

We’re stuck here in this noisy, hot, polluted confusion of a city until roads get repaired. Flooding from Hurricane Irene washed out a large bridge leading up towards our community. To make matters worse a few miles past the bridge a large landslide completely buried the roadway so the towns in between these two points are inaccessible to vehicular traffic. This all happened this past Wednesday and supposedly on Friday heavy construction equipment started towards the disaster area to remove the landslides and start work on making the river passable again.

We live on top of a ridge so according to my neighbors our communities suffered very little damage compared to the neighboring areas in the lower valleys. Initial reports state that quite a few families lost their homes and a coffee nursery and many greenhouses were flooded. Many of the vegetables that weren’t flooded rotted because the roads were impassable for a few days.

The problem is not only that Hurricane Irene was rather forceful in this part of the Dominican Republic, but also that the government just invests so little in the infrastructure of the area. Granted it rained enough to flood a lot of houses and agricultural areas, but one of the main problems the province of San José de Ocoa is facing right now is that so many roads are closed due to landslides and damaged bridges.

I was scouring the internet for photographic evidence of Irene’s wrath when I came across a picture of a washed-out bridge identical to a photo that had appeared in Thursday’s newspaper. The only difference was the date – September 2008. After some more research it became clear that the same part of the bridge also disappeared under Hurricane Ike’s waters three years ago. reports at the time have almost identical wording to those from this past week. They report government officials promising to properly fix the bridge and to channel the river through a canal of sorts so as to avoid the erosion of the bridge’s approach areas when flood waters rise. Although I hope they actually carry through with their promises this time, you won’t see me crossing that bridge during any future hurricanes.

I called a neighbor of ours after the storm to see if the roads were passable. She assured me that they were, that trucks were fording the river, and that Anna’s project partner had made the trip the day after Irene passed through. It was only a few hours later when I finally reached Anna’s project partner on the phone that I realized just how bad the roads were. She had indeed traveled from San José de Ocoa up into the mountain communities, not by truck but by helicopter. She works for the mayor’s office and the government has supplied helicopters to fly food supplies to the stranded towns. It can be frustrating that as Peace Corps volunteers there is very little we can do in situations like this. We have no funds, no vehicles, no material resources of any kind. About the best thing we can do is just stay out of the way, even if it’s difficult not being there right now. It sounds like it will be at least a few days until the main road is passable. Traffic has started traveling on an alternative route across the Cordillera Central from the north. This route is often called a lucha (fight or struggle) by those who travel it because the road is in such awful condition. We plan to head home tomorrow.

Here’s a short summary of our August activities. We also got trapped in Santo Domingo for a few days during Tropical Storm Emily as we waited for the rains to pass. Thankfully there was very little flooding during that storm. And we finally finished painting the map mural we’ve been working on. The long-awaited avocado and passion fruit season is here. If you’ve never had fresh passion fruit (also known as maracuya or chinola) juice then find some, even if you have to fly to Latin America to find it. It’s worth it. Add a splash of Caribbean rum and you won’t know what hit you.

I go out with the neighbor kids and we spend an hour or so knocking down avocados and filling sacks. We often come home with about fifty pounds of tree-ripened avocado. Here are some ingredients for happiness: mash some fresh avocado, add some salt, some onion, some lime from the tree in our backyard, some fresh tomatoes from a neighbor’s field, and spread it all over campo corn-chips (deep-fried cornmeal mixed with water). Then pour a deep cup of rum and passion fruit juice, and enjoy the delectable flavors as you watch the last sunlight shimmer and edge down over the mountain as fireflies, furtive, flit out into the newly dark valley.

That was a big chunk of August. Here are some pictures.

Yes we worked some, but we are waiting on a lot of different things right now so most projects are in some sort of fermentation stage. At least I hope they’re fermenting and not staling. Only time will tell.

I will be in Pennsylvania in October. In return for my participation in the PA Twin Studies Program in which I have to spend a day as a lab rat in Chicago, I get a free trip to the States. I’m quite pleased with myself for being a twin. And of all the times in my life, now is the best time ever to get a free trip to the US. I’m looking forward to apple cider, Lapp Valley ice cream, bicycling, general gluttony, and of course seeing family and friends. Anna will also be there.

Speaking of twins, my twin came to visit me here in the DR last week. Whenever a fellow volunteer visits our site our neighbors always thinks they must be family. Even Anna and I often get asked by Dominicans who don’t know us if we are brother and sister. Of course all that just seems plain silly, but finally Dominicans had a good excuse for thinking that two Americanos look alike. Only moments after we arrived at our house together two neighbor boys showed up all excited. They had seen us all sailing by on motorcycle taxis. They said they saw Anna go by, and then I went by, and then I went by again a few seconds later, so they came running to see what was going on. (I assured them that the space-time fabric most certainly hadn’t torn and that calmed them somewhat.) Still they spent the next twenty minutes excitedly looking back and forth between the two of us as if they just couldn’t believe their eyes. Word soon got out among the kids. Anna and Leonard went walking down the road that evening as I finished washing the supper dishes. They both pretended that he was me and just let Anna do most of the talking. James, a neighbor of ours, had chatted with them a few minutes when some of the kids, who had already seen both of us, told him that this wasn’t really Leon, that Leon was actually still in the house.

I was rinsing off the last plates when I heard footsteps outside our door. I stuck my head out and James greeted me emphatically, saying, “I came down here to undeceive myself.” He looked thunderstruck. He said, “The kids told me that that wasn’t Leon up in the street but I didn’t believe them. And here you are. But you were just up there too!” He stayed for a few minutes, hands on his hips, swaying back and forth as if slightly tipsy, muttering about how this just couldn’t be. For the next few days people streamed by our house. A lot of these people had never even visited us before, but they came just to stick their head in the door for two minutes to see the two Leons, as they called us. This is so much funnier in Spanish since leon is the Spanish word for lion. The kids had a heyday.

Our neighbor boy Pilo, who’s a frequent visitor, came by because I’d called him to send him to the colmado for sugar and eggs. I tried to get him to go out under the mango tree where Leonard was reading and meet him. He refused. His seven-year-old logic was simple: “But I don’t have to go meet him because I’ve already met him. Every time that I’ve come to visit you I’ve visited him. I already know him because I know you and you two are clearly the same person.”

It was a hilarious time. I must confess that I was a bit confused at the level of pandemonium that we caused at first. After all it’s not like identical twins are unheard of here. One of our neighbor families has identical twin girls and no one seems too disturbed by the fact that they look so much alike. On a side note, it seems that a common Dominican tradition with identical twins is to give them identical names, except to reverse the order. For example if twin one is named Marie Anne then twin two is named Anne Marie. But eventually I think I figured out why it was perhaps such a shock for my community to see two of me. We live in a very rural area and I am one of the few foreigners anyone ever gets to know quite well. Peace Corps volunteers often joke about going into celebrity status withdrawal when moving back to the States because they will miss walking or riding through their communities and hearing people yell out their names. Our community members tend to see us as very unique, never for once imagining that there are more than 200 of us swarming busily over all corners of this tiny high-on-sugar island. The point is that their perception of a volunteer’s uniqueness is so artificially heightened that to see two is just barely comprehensible. I truly felt like a magician.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Summer is bounding by and I have been too busy (and too much of a procrastinator) to update my blog for a while. Here’s what we’ve been up to in the last two months. As far as work goes we’re still working on building a few more latrines, as well as waiting to see if we get more funds donated. I am also in the process of trying to organize a group of coffee farmers in my community to get together and start a large coffee nursery, but that project is still formulating so it makes for rather boring talk and even more boring photos.

In June we started painting a map mural on the wall of the local school. That has been great fun and the some of the neighborhood kids have really enjoyed practicing their drawing and painting skills. Check out the photos. The only real problem has been that the night watchman of the school leaves to work in his fields early in the morning. This in itself is not a problem because he can leave the keys at a neighbor’s house. And he sometimes does, but other times we’ll walk the 20 minutes to school only to find out that the watchman carried off the keys so we have no other choice but to walk back home. I have talked to him many times about this and in typical Dominican fashion he is very agreeable and promises to leave the keys the following morning. But as so many of us volunteers have learned, there is often a big difference here between what you say and what you do. People mean well, but they often have a mindset like the man who recently chided me when I was in a hurry, “Life is short, slow down and enjoy it.” This, I’ve recently realized, is one of the reasons the DR is such a wonderful place in which to play and travel. But when it comes to organizing work projects, expect your share of setbacks and headaches.

Early July was a rather difficult time as our wonderful cat Schnickelfritz died of apparent poisoning. I know that various neighbors put out rat poison and he must have found something contaminated. It was a sad day. On a brighter note, about a week before this a starved little kitty showed up at our house one morning and, after we gave it some food, moved in with us. We christened him Clunkers because the name seemed to suit his ratty condition. The neighbor kids called him ratoncito (little mouse) for a few days.

Over the fourth of July we went hiking in the Cordillera Central and then spent a day in the beautiful valley of Constanza. Enjoy the photos.

Also Anna’s parents came to visit the past two weeks. We had a wonderful time introducing them to our communities and then spent a few fabulous days at a beautiful beach. Just check out the pictures.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Walk In The Woods

I decided to document one of my days in pictures listing the time when the photo was taken so that you can get an idea what my day looked like. Of course I focused on the moments and colors that caught my eye, but the photo gallery gives you a good idea of life here. This particular day I went to visit various latrine beneficiaries to check up on how they are doing with their latrines. The community in which I work is located on the banks of a small river. The vehicular road ends at the river where you can cross a footbridge or wade across the river to other side where about half of my community lives. To get to their houses across the river people either walk or ride a horse or mule. There are quite a few families who live a 30-60 minute walk from the footbridge that crosses the river. Most of these photos are taken across the river where quite a few of the latrine beneficiaries live.

As you may remember I live a one hour walk, in the opposite direction of the river, from my community. The first public transport of the jeep of the day usually passes my house around 7:30. They’re used to my hitchhiking on the back by now. When I hear the jeep climbing up the hill before my house I grab my backpack, run up the steep hill by my house to the road, the jeep slows down, and I jump on. It’s usually at least a 20 minute ride to the river, which gives you an idea of how bad the road is when I can walk the same distance in 60 minutes.

Enjoy the photos.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chivos sin Ley

Dominicans have the expression Chivos sin Ley (Goats without Law) for good reason. This is one of the more noticeable aspects of Dominican culture and everyone who has spent any amount of time here can usually recount dozens of incidents to illustrate this. What does it mean to live like a chivo sin ley? Well imagine a frisky young goat that is smart enough to always get out of its pen and then it wanders about wherever its whims lead. A lot of Dominican public life is just that.

Imagine a life with no rules. If you are driving down the road and you get thirsty, stop. Walk into a colmado, pay no attention to whether there is a line or not, walk up to the counter and shout for a cold one and some chips. Don’t settle for a small beer; get a whole liter while you’re at it. Grab the beer and get back on the road. And now that you’re feeling so good with that ice-cold liter in your hand you might as well driver faster because that will just enhance the good feeling. You finished your bag of chips. Bag goes out the window and the wind cartwheels it smack against a no-littering sign. Forty minutes later that jug of beer left your bladder bloated. The next rest area must be five minutes away. Stop, no matter where you are, relieve yourself on the highway shoulder or on the sidewalk.

If you are in the city only stop at red lights if you’re on a four-lane road. If it’s a smaller road you might consider slowing down so that you can look left and right as you breeze through. If it’s a stop sign just speed up and lay on your horn to scare off any incoming traffic.

If you need a parking spot at your barber’s and none exist just drive to the closest bank, park right in front of the “Parking for Clients Only” sign, and walk jauntily away from your vehicle. When the bank guard (who’s holding a sawed-off shotgun) yells at you that this parking spot is for clients only, you menacingly reply, “But I am a client.”

Last month, in an attempt to clear some land for pasture, a neighbor of mine started a giant fire up in the mountain. It burned for days and piled smoke high into the sky. The green trees have been replaced by an ugly singed scar. It’s illegal to burn down forests, as you might well imagine. So on the fifth day some police arrived and demanded that the owner of the land appear at court in the provincial capital. A few days later I overheard someone ask the culprit’s nephew how much the fine was for burning down so many trees. The nephew inhaled deeply on his cigarette, leaned back against the painted palm-board house and spoke though the swirling smoke, “Nada, tuvo conexiones” (Nothing, he had connections).

I was standing at the hardware store one day ordering supplies when the guy behind the desk who had been helping me suddenly picked up his phone and as a look of consternation crossed his face he ran out into the street, jumped on a motorcycle, and roared away. Confused I asked another worker what just happened. He shrugged and mumbled something about someone taking their truck. Taken aback and curious I kept asking him until finally it was clear that a policeman had stolen their work truck. Yes, you read right. A policeman walking by jumped into their truck, apparently the keys were sticking, and drove off. After persistent questioning the story came clear. To get sand (for cement mixes) from the local river you are required to get a permit from the ministry of environment. The hardware store had just illegally picked up a load of sand at the river and brought it up to the store to sell, and that’s when the policeman walked by and took the truck. After completing my purchase I walked back to the motorcycle stop to catch a ride home. On the way as I went by the police station I saw the guilty truck weighed heavy with sand and the hardware store owner and the policeman were leaned lazily against the truck bed as if discussing the previous night’s baseball game. The following week when back at the store I asked the hardware man how much the fine was. He gave me a noncommittal shrug and said, “Nada, lo arreglamos” (Nothing, we got it straightened out).

I was on a public bus the other month and it was the first time I had gone on that route. The fare attendant told me the price was 300 pesos so I paid. A few minutes later a friend of mine who was a few seats back asked me how much I’d paid, and when I told him he replied that it was actually only 285 pesos. I jumped up and asked how many of the passengers had been overcharged. Most of them had. I then turned my attention on the attendant who by now was angry that his secret was out. After much protesting on my part he’d just reached into his pocket to get my change when apparently something I was saying really got his goat and he abruptly withdrew his hand from his pocket and sullenly slurred, “Now your trip really is going to be 300 pesos.” I admit I too got angry. I tried to get the other passengers (after all they’d all been robbed as well) together to do something but they pretty much ignored me.

As a side note, this really puzzled me at first because in my poor community, trying to overcharge one person 5 pesos is enough to set the entire bus in an uproar, but here the attendant had just overcharged pretty much everyone on the bus 15 pesos and no one bothered to say anything. I soon realized that most of the passengers were residents of Santo Domingo where apparently 15 pesos doesn’t matter as much as it does to a poor farmer.

Back to the point, no one would help me in arguing against the attendant so I heckled him every few minutes for the entire three-hour bus ride. Finally after everyone else had already left the bus we came to my stop but I wouldn’t get off the bus. I just stood in the door calling him a robber. The crafty attendant then yelled to the driver to accelerate and I had to jump of the bus as it sped away from the sidewalk. You win some you lose some. But the point here is that even if 15 pesos meant nothing to any of those other passengers they should have stuck together and demanded their money back just for the principle of it all. Dominicans love to talk politics and about how politicians and other leaders are ruining this country, and from what I see they’re quite right. But there is another factor ruining this county and it’s those chivos sin ley.

Interestingly enough, just two days previous to the very disagreeable bus ride just mentioned I had hitchhiked across a substantial portion of this tiny island. Among the many helpful Dominicans who gave me rides were two public transport vehicles. When I flagged them down I asked if they’d please just give me a ride, and they did. And they were not in the least resentful that I was riding for free. Imagine that happening in the states.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: not all Dominicans live like chivos sin ley. A lot of people are actively campaigning to try and change this mentality. The government has actually put up traffic signs up that say “We can’t live like goats without law; please obey posted traffic laws.” Now if only government leaders would take the message to heart as well. Many Dominicans, when questioned, will admit that the chivos sin ley method is not a good way to build a society. But they will also admit that they’d miss their freedom if they had enforced laws like the US does. Apparently when most of the other chivos are running around free outside the fence, it’s really hard to not get out there as well.